Friday, May 20, 2011

Bismarck saga -- spotted

The Swedish warship Gotland as depicted in the Axis & Allies War at Sea naval miniatures game

Around 1 p.m. the Bismarck was spotted by the Swedish warship Gotland in the Kattegat, the sea region between Norway, Sweden and Denmark. As Sweden was a neutral power there was nothing the Bismarck could do about it and the Germans assumed that the British would learn about the Bismarck sortie from the Swedes. And, in fact, they did, although it's easy to overstate the impact of the Gotland's sighting report because it was just one of three, independent, sources that reported that the Bismarck was at sea. The British also learned about the sailing from an agent in Gotenhafen and from a spotting report from the Norwegian resistance.

The Gotland was an interesting and unique ship. Since the invention of flight there have been various attempts to combine the advantages of an aviation ship with the conventional capabilities of a surface warship. Some famous examples include the Japanese scout cruiser Chikuma, the Japanese hybrid battleship Hyuga, the French helicopter cruiser Jean Bart and the Russian ships Moskva and Kiev. Generally these experiments have come up short, with a vessel that's not robust enough for it surface role and yet inadequate in the aviation role compared to a dedicated ship.

The Gotland was on the small end for such hybrids at 4,600 tons, and was never tested in actual combat in its role of providing spotting aircraft for the nation's fleet of coastal battleships. It carried an air group of six recon float planes and a main battery of 6 6-inch guns. Yet in spotting the Bismarck the odd little cruiser arguable played a bigger wartime role than most other hybrids. While the British had reports from several sources that the Bismarck sailed, a spotting by a regular professional naval unit had to be considered definitive.

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