Management lessons from the sinking of the Bismarck

Management lessons from the sinking of the Bismarck?

“Sink the Bismarck”

Quote attributed to British Prime Minster, Winston Churchill in 1941

Just over 80 years ago this month, the Bismarck was sunk.

What was the Bismarck?

The Bismarck was a World War II German battleship. With over 2000 sailors, it was the flagship of the German Navy and was the largest battleship then commissioned. In late May 1941, the recently launched Bismarck and another German warship, the Prinz Eugen evaded the British Navy and escaped from the Baltic Sea into the Atlantic Ocean. Their mission was to destroy as much Allied shipping as possible, and together with the U-boats, force the suspension of the supply convoys from the USA, vital for Britain’s survival.

The Bismarck was the most advanced battleship at the time. More modern, faster and more heavily armed than any ship in the British Navy. The Bismarck had a special anti-torpedo belt made of nickel-chrome steel. The Germans believed that no torpedo could penetrate the shield and were convinced that the Bismarck was almost unsinkable. Furthermore, the Bismarck had a sophisticated anti-aircraft fire control system to protect it from attacking aircraft.

The British Navy sent the flagship of the Home Fleet and their largest warship, the HMS Hood and another ship the Prince of Wales to hunt down the Bismarck. In the ensuing battle in the North Atlantic, the Hood was sunk within three minutes and over 1400 sailors lives were lost. Only three survived. The loss of the Hood was a significant blow to British morale. Although also hit, the Prince of Wales managed to damage the Bismarck before retreating from the battle. This forced the Bismarck to abandon its raiding plans.

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill then issued the order “Sink the Bismarck!” and the relentless pursuit of the two German warships by dozens of British Navy ships began.

The damaged Bismarck, leaking oil, limped towards Nazi occupied France where protective air cover and a destroyer escort were waiting. However, by a stroke of luck an RAF Catalonia flying boat sighted the Bismarck’s oil slick and reported her position. From then on, the British Navy used radar to track it and over a dozen warships followed the battleship.

One of the British ships shadowing the Bismarck was the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. On it were 16 obsolete open cockpit Swordfish bi-planes. With time running out, and with the Ark Royal being the closest ship to the Bismarck it was decided to attack the Bismarck from the air. In atrocious weather and in the fading light the slow-moving Swordfish attacked using torpedoes. Bismarck’s sophisticated anti-aircraft guns were too advanced to shoot down the slow-moving bi-planes. In the final attack, a single torpedo hit the Bismarck’s rudder and steering gear, and from then on it was unable to maneuver. It could only steam in a wide circle.

Unable to repair its rudder and steaming in a circle the Bismarck was doomed. The next morning the British Navy opened fire on the crippled battleship. With its large guns partially out of action, and unable to maneuver, the Bismarck was sunk within two hours, on its maiden voyage, with the loss of over 2,000 men.

What do you think are the management lessons from the sinking of the Bismarck?

Here are three lessons to consider.

1. Do not rely on technology.  The Germans considered the Bismarck as virtually unsinkable with superior firepower, advanced torpedo shields and sophisticated anti-aircraft guns. However, the low-level technology of the Swordfish bi-planes managed to cripple the Bismarck.

2. Technology is an enabler. It indirectly resulted in the sinking of the ship. The British used radar, which was a very new technology to track the Bismarck. Without it, the Bismarck would have escaped to the safety of Occupied France.

3. Persistence pays off. Despite the superiority and perceived danger of the Bismarck to Britain and its navy, a well-planned and persistent chase managed to find and sink the Bismarck. Furthermore, in the dying light in atrocious weather and against all odds, a single outdated Swordfish bi-plane managed to damage the Bismarck just when it looked like the Bismarck would escape the Royal Navy.

What other lessons can you find?

Remember: We can learn from history.  The use of well-known historic examples helps paint a more vivid picture and storytelling helps communication.

Management lessons from the Battle of the Somme

Management lessons from the Battle of the Somme

“Lions led by donkeys”

Eric Ludendorff – German World War I General

This quote is attributed to World War I General Eric Ludendorff. Although he didn’t actually say this, he was describing the British tactics in the Battle of the Somme in France. The battle lasted for over 4 months in 1916, and resulted in just under 624,000 casualties

146,431 British Commonwealth and French Allies deaths

164,907 German deaths

It became a potent symbol of the futility of war, where the ‘flower of British manhood’ was lost and a byword for incompetent leadership.

The plan in World War I was to the break the German trenches through a week long arterial bombardment. The aim was to destroy the German trench system including the barbed wire protecting the German trenches, its occupants and neutralise the German artillery. The Allied infantry would then advance in waves through ‘no man’s land’ with little or no resistance and take the German positions.

However, the plan failed in its main objectives.


The German troops were too well dug in and low-level cloud prevented aerial artillery spotting. It had also been confidently assumed that the shells would destroy the German barbed wire in front of their trenches. Unfortunately, it was only partially successful and left ‘no man’s land’ a tangle of barbed wire and craters that made it difficult for the advancing infantry to negotiate. After the bombardment the Germans emerged from there bunkers and met the advancing infantry with well-placed machine guns.

Were there other reasons?

Yes, more importantly many of the artillery rounds were duds. An estimated 30% failed to explode or were the wrong type of projectile. This lead to the barbed wire remaining largely intact. Furthermore, much of the bombardment had been of shrapnel, not high explosive, and it failed to make sufficient impact on blowing away the wire or damaging the deep enemy dugouts.

What caused the high level of dud artillery shells?

World War I was an industrial war. Massive amounts of materiel were required – shells, ammunition, ships, railways and aircraft as well as kitting out millions of combatants. In 1916, after 2 years of war Britain was running short of artillery shells. In order to meet the demand many companies who had no experience in manufacturing munitions began production. While manufacturing shells may not be difficult, it was a different story with fuses. Fuses were technically difficult to manufacture, and quality suffered. Quality controls in the expanded munitions industry were poor. It is also difficult to expand production capability rapidly without quality issues. This was exacerbated by worn gun barrels (1.5m shells were fired in the first week) which contributed to shells not landing fuse first and exploding. The majority of the faulty fuses were tracked to a single manufacturer. Remedial action was quickly taken, and progressively, after the Battle of Somme, the problem was resolved.

What were some of the other reasons?

Although technology was a major factor, it was further exacerbated by incompetent leadership and strict adherence to a flawed and untested strategy. General Haig, the British commander had never visited the front and saw the effects of the bombardment and later the massive loss of life.  A patrol into ‘no man’s land’ the night before the Allied infantry were to advance reported that the barbed wire had not been destroyed. This report was ignored.  Also, low-level cloud prevented aircraft from spotting this problem. Other patrols into ‘no man’s land’ reported hearing the Germans singing in their trenches, indicating the barrage had failed in its objectives, and were also ignored. Other factors were the inexperience and immature state of training of the officers and artillery gunners.

Should Haig and his staff have done something different, once they knew the bombardment had been only partially effective?

Could they have avoided the tens of thousands of casualties of the opening attack?

It is easy in retrospect to believe that they could have.

However, the Commonwealth forces faced an impossible situation. Their major ally the French, were pushing hard for the British to launch an attack to reduce the German forces pitted against them in the Battle of Verdun and prevent the destruction of the French Army. There had also been no opportunity for surprise and with the artillery barrage the Germans knew full well the attack was coming.

What could they have done?

Cancel or delay the attack?

Yes, this was possible.

Fire an even longer bombardment?

This was not practical due to shortage of shells, and dud or incorrect shells. The die was cast.

It is easy to be wise in hindsight.

So, what are the management lessons from the Battle of the Somme?

  1. Do NOT overly rely on technology – – technology is an enabler and not the answer
  2. Quality control and competent supervision is essential in organisations, as demonstrated by poor management in the factories
  3. Incompetent leadership severely impacts on organisations. Over 150,000 Allied deaths could have been prevented if the facts had not been ignored. This was further complicated by not having a Plan B, using an unproven strategy, not having enough equipment and not doing their homework

There are valuable lessons for managers in learning from military blunders.

Can you think of examples in your work life or in your organisation where the over reliance on technology, poor supervision and quality control severely impacted an organisation?



“Men have become the tools of their tools”
Henry David Thoreau

Today in business we are confronted with a mass of technological innovation that has become increasingly more sophisticated, expensive and difficult to keep up with; iPhones, iPads, tablets, GPS and so on. We often we become so intoxicated with new technology – its speed, power, gadgetry and the potential to solve our business problems that we neglect to solve problems in a simple and cost effective way.

Have you heard of the story about NASA in the 1960s when the space astronauts found pens would not work in space? NASA spent tens of thousands of dollars to develop a space pen while the Russian cosmonauts used a pencil! This is actually an ‘urban myth’, however it illustrates the need to try and solve problems in a simple, practical and cost effective way. In the first Gulf War, the fleeing Iraqi army set fire to hundreds of oil wells creating an environmental disaster. Red Adair the famous Texan oil fire expert was called in by the Kuwaiti government to ‘solve’ the problem. The solution was a complex technique of explosives to remove the oxygen from the flames thereby putting out the flames. It was complex, costly and dangerous and would take many years to complete the task. Instead, a team of Bulgarians were contracted. Their solution was simple, practical and cost effective. Using large bulldozers being driven by men in fire resistant suits they covered the burning oil well heads with sand in a fraction of the time and cost compared to the solution as advocated by Red Adair.

So next time you are confronted with a problem or the latest technology – stop and think. Can the problem be solved simply and cost effectively without technology that can often be unnecessarily complicated and expensive?