CMSS profs document Bismarck

By Kevin Rothbauer

In the spring of 1941, the German Navy’s Bismarck was the largest and fastest battleship in the world, state-of-the-art in every aspect. On its first voyage, in May of that year, it sunk the HMS Hood, the pride of the British Navy, in a brief and one-sided battle. Three days later, two British ships, the Rodney and the

King George V, teamed up to send the Bismarck to the bottom of the Atlantic. Sixty years later, James Cameron (of Titanic fame) decided to make a documentary about the wreck of the Bismarck. Naturally, he turned to the University of Calgary for


“James Cameron called us two years ago, looking for consulting historians,” explained Dr. Holger Herwig, one of two U of C professors consulted by Cameron. “In May 2001, I joined him in Hamburg, Germany and we interviewed survivors of the Bismarck on the sixtieth anniversary [of the sinking].”

Cameron had read The Destruction of the Bismarck by Dr. Herwig and Dr. David Bercuson and hoped to recruit the two professors to help with his documentary.

“It was incredible [when Cameron called],” remembered Dr. Herwig. “We said ‘when do you want us?’ He asked if we could get a plane the next night.”

The professors were supposed to join Cameron in St. John’s on Sept. 12, 2001, then travel to the wreck from there, but on Sept. 12, no one was leaving Calgary. The trip was rescheduled for May and June 2002. In fact, Cameron’s boat arrived at the site of the battle exactly 61 years after the sinking, to the hour.

Dr. Herwig was all but dragged by Cameron into the three-man minisub for a 13-hour

dive to the wreckage of the Bismarck, 4,850 metres below the Atlantic’s surface. When the minisub was placed into the water by a crane mounted on the ship, a grim realization set in.

“When you start going down, and you look around this thing the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, you think ‘this is going to be my home for the next 13 hours.’”

The minisub is equipped with seven-inch thick portholes to resist the intense pressure at the bottom of the ocean–7,000 pounds per square inch, compared to 14.7 psi on the surface. The images that Dr. Herwig observed through the portholes were remarkable.

“What struck me was the almost surreal world. My mind was absolutely boggled that in total darkness, at zero degrees, there is life down there. We’ve always assumed that

without light there is no life.

“The second thing that rocks you back to life, that reminds you you’re not looking at a model, is the shoes and belts. Two thousand 18 and 19-year-old kids went down there. Without the boots and belts and personal belongings, it’s like looking at an underwater aquarium.”

James Cameron has a natural love for shipwrecks, and he worked with his brothers to design the minisub and much of the rest of the equipment used in the voyage.

“He told us that he has two loves in life; technology and history,” said Dr. Herwig. “Studying shipwrecks like the Bismarck and the Titanic combines those two loves.”

Dr. Herwig has been interested in naval history for much of his life as well.

“It started a long time ago. I did my doctoral dissertation on the German Imperial

Navy. I hooked up with David Bercuson, who does things from the British and Canadian perspective. We tell the story from both sides of the hill, which we think is


Cameron liked Herwig and Bercuson’s book enough to buy a copy for each member of the project’s 36-person crew.

“His producer referred to it as the ‘bible of the project,’” said Dr. Herwig.

Cameron’s documentary is scheduled to air on the Discovery Channel on Dec. 8, 2002.

Leave a comment