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The Admiral's Fictional Fate
By David H. Lippman
April 2013

A while back, I caught the best part of a two-part documentary about the famous duel between HMS Hood and KM Bismarck. An American research group was trying to locate the remains of both battleships, to settle the account of how and why they were sunk. The first half of the program covered Hood, and she was lying in several pieces at the bottom of the Denmark Strait, pretty much as contemporary accounts and later historians advertised.

In the second half, the undersea explorers located Bismarck — not as hard, because Robert Ballard had already found her years ago — and determined she had been sunk by British torpedoes before the scuttling charges went off.

Admiral Lutjens
Gunther Lutjens.


As part of the documentary, Gerhardt Lutjens, the son of German Admiral Gunther Lutjens, was interviewed at some length. He was a cheery elderly German, displaying great loyalty and admiration for his father. Nothing surprising there.

But the real shock came when the documentary revealed that Gunther Lutjens was one-fourth Jewish. A Jewish grandmother, to be precise. They didn’t say which one it was, paternal or maternal, but if it was maternal, he would have been Jewish under Jewish law.

That was a thunderclap for me, for obvious reasons — a Jewish German admiral sank HMS Hood? You bet, wow.

But it actually made some sense. I knew that Lutjens didn’t think much of Hitler and his strutting Nazis, and privately despaired when Germany went to war. In the documentary, Gerhardt quoted his father as saying Germany had no chance in the war, because of her oil shortages. In 1938, he and other German naval officers of Jewish ancestry fired off angry telegrams to Hitler, protesting Kristallnacht. I don’t know how Hitler responded, but I can’t imagine it was positive. A move like that from a serving flag officer took a lot of guts. But Lutjens was not punished.

Instead, he took command of the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, leading them on a fairly successful raiding cruise in the Atlantic in February and March 1941. Under cautious handling, the two dreadnoughts sank 22 Allied merchant ships for a total of 115,600 tons, effectively disrupting the British convoy cycles for a time. Lutjens could not attack well-defended convoys with his ships, knowing that a minor hit on one of his battle-cruisers would be enough to put them out of action, far from a friendly dockyard. So when his ships ran into convoys with battleship escort, he withdrew.

After their cruise, Lutjens’ two big ships found precarious refuge at Brest in occupied France, where they spent most of the next year in dockworkers’ hands and under British air attack.

Lutjens wasn’t there to see the welding and bombing. He was summoned back to Berlin in April 1941 to take command of a task force of two ships, the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, fitting out at Gotenhafen, known also as Gdynia, or Gdansk.

The grandiose German plan was to have the two new ships sail from Germany in May 1941 and break into the Atlantic, and the two battle-cruisers at Brest sortie at the same time, cutting loose the full punch of the German surface fleet on the British convoy routes. However, the plan began to disintegrate from the start. Scharnhorst needed her boilers overhauled. British bombs took Gneisenau out of the game. The Prinz Eugen hit a mine, making her a dockyard case for three weeks. The Germans were running out of reasonably long nights to break into the Atlantic (and if they chose to go through the Denmark Strait, nights at all). Lutjens wanted to wait until the ships at Brest were ready. He was overruled by his bosses. Hitler was getting ready to invade Russia, and once the Wehrmacht’s tanks plunged into the Soviet Union, there would be no fuel for large-scale naval operations. And with the Germans attacking in the Mediterranean, the pressure was on to put a strain on the Royal Navy wherever possible.

‘Win Through or Die’

Lutjens took Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to sea on May 18, 1941, with great misgivings, and showed a distinct lack of aggression in the cruise.

When Bismarck met up with Hood on May 23, Lutjens wanted to avoid battle and sail away. The Bismarck’s captain, Karl Ernst Lindemann, was tougher material. He reputedly told his boss, “I’m not going to stand here and let them kick my ship in the backside. If you don’t want to fight, I will!”

After Bismarck disposed of Hood, Lutjens learned his ship had taken a hit forward that damaged her oil tanks. He would have to turn aside or back. Lutjens wanted to go home to Germany. Lindemann convinced Lutjens to go forward, and head into a French port, maybe knocking off a convoy en route. Lutjens agreed and sailed on, heading for France. He cut loose the Prinz Eugen for independent raiding, but she proved a washout, due to damaged propellers.

Bismarck at sea.

Then, on his 51st birthday, Lutjens addressed the battleship’s crew. After thanking them for presumed good birthday wishes, he told Bismarck’s sailors the whole Royal Navy was coming for them, and it was “win through or die.”

The gloomy speech depressed the sailors, wrecking morale. Lutjens was just trying to correct an air of overconfidence, but the speech also reflected his own depression and sense of advancing age. He apparently told his son that he did not expect to survive the Bismarck cruise, let alone the war. Two days later, Bismarck was caught by British torpedo-bombers from HMS Ark Royal, which crippled the battleship with a dramatic and well-placed torpedo to the rudders, which jammed them.

Unable to maneuver in a heavy sea, she drifted helplessly north and west straight into the guns of the Royal Navy’s battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, and those two British battleships and their escorts sent Bismarck to the bottom.

During the long night between the torpedo hit and the final battle, Lutjens and Lindemann stayed on the bridge, struggling to free their jammed rudder, heartsick and sore. Nobody knows how the pair met their end — one of the first British hits smashed the flag bridge and set it ablaze. Admiral Gunther Lutjens died in battle, his torn flag still flying from the Bismarck’s shredded mainmast. So did more than 2,000 members of the Bismarck’s crew. Only 110 were pulled out of the freezing Atlantic Ocean.

It was a cruel fate for any seaman, and the fact that Lutjens was one-fourth Jewish made it worse. Under Nazi law, he was supposed to die anyway. Only his uniform kept Lutjens alive.

During the war, the German Navy did a fair job of protecting officers with Jewish blood. That included Bernhard Rogge, who commanded the highly successful merchant raider Atlantis, which sank 22 ships before being caught and sunk by the cruiser HMS Devonshire.

However, the top German seadogs, Grand Admirals Erich Raeder and Karl Doenitz, were themselves fairly anti-Semitic, Doenitz more so than Raeder. Both drew verbal fire at Nuremberg for their wartime statements to the fleet, in which both urged the new German Navy to purge itself of the Jewish influence.

Apparently those remarks fell on some deaf ears, because Lutjens and Rogge only faced death at the hands of their enemies, not their countrymen.

Still, I had to believe that if Lutjens had escaped death in the Bismarck fiasco, he certainly would have been blamed for the mess, and his Jewish ancestry would have been used against him. He could very well have joined millions of victims with greater Jewish pedigree — albeit fewer medals — in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.

The Other Lutjens

Lutjens met the better of two fates: dying in battle as a hero instead of being gassed in a concentration camp as a helpless victim. Today the German Navy has a destroyer named for Gunther Lutjens, and one of the better-known and true e-mails floating around cyberspace is how the new Lutjens’ crew manned their ship’s rail on September 11, 2001, and held up a sign saying “We will stand by you” to an alongside American warship. Gunther would probably have approved.

He would have been less happy about the other and better-known public use of his name: the movie Sink the Bismarck. It’s one of my favorites, for obvious reasons.

Karel Stepanek, a veteran Czech actor, played the admiral. Born in 1899, Stepanek apparently was a rising star in the Czech film industry until Hitler showed up. His list of credits on the Internet Movie Database, reports that he fled to America in 1938, got work as Germans and Eastern Europeans in movies like The Heroes of Telemark and Robin Hood, retired in 1971, and passed away on Christmas Day, 1980, in London. It’s interesting that the guy who plays the Nazi admiral was himself a refugee from Nazism.

Stepanek as Lutjens
Karel Stepanek as Gunther Lutjens.

Stepanek has the craggy face for his role and makes Lutjens commanding and determined, but sadly, the screenwriter (who based it on C.S. Forester’s novel) wrote the cinematic Lutjens all wrong. The result is that Stepanek gets it all wrong.

As portrayed, Lutjens in the movie is a loyal and fanatical Nazi. The filmic Lutjens talks about how he had his career ruined by the Treaty of Versailles, so he joined up with Hitler and rode to power on Nazi coattails. Now he seeks glory for Nazi Germany by destroying the British fleet. Lindemann is portrayed as a more reasonable and realistic officer, concerned with his ship’s crew and its survival.

In the film, Lutjens repeatedly orders Lindemann to be aggressive when caution is clearly needed. All the way through, Lutjens believes Hitler’s promises that the Luftwaffe will come to save Bismarck, and is stunned when the Fuhrer’s guarantees guarantee nothing. He dies a stunned, slightly repentant Nazi.

I suspect that Stepanek played this role deliberately, to remind forgetful audiences 15 years after V-E Day that while the German Navy fought a hard and tough but clean and chivalrous war, they were serving one of the most evil ideologies in history. Stepanek would have seen that ideology in action for himself, losing his country, friends, and family to the Gestapo and Nazi terror, and thus had a vested interest in reminding film audiences of that point.

He’s right, but he did it with the wrong guy.

It’s actually very sad to see this depiction of Lutjens. The 1960 screenwriters did a decent job with the film. The research on the operations and ships involved is accurate, there’s a good mix of stock footage and exploding warship models, Kenneth More and Lawrence Naismith provide the requisite Royal Navy “let’s win this battle, chaps” determination, Dana Wynter provides visual relief, and Edward R. Murrow brings gravitas by playing himself in his wartime role as CBS radio news commentator from London.

But the war had been over for 15 years, and they could have made the effort to dig a little bit into Lutjens and his family. The German side of the story was a little more open by then.

It would have made for a better story — the conflicted admiral, battling the competing concepts of national loyalty and family loyalty. He knew what the Nazis were doing, and he knew they were wrong. He knew the war was lost from the beginning, and his family was, by definition, an enemy of the state. Yet he still went out and did his best to bring Hitler victory, and died on his bridge, as defiant as his crippled battleship.

Heck, it’s a better story than Erwin Rommel, whose connections to the plot to kill Hitler are spotty at best. Rommel admired Hitler until things went wrong, and his actual role in the Bomb Plot of July 20th is still argued over by scholars. Either way, Hitler made him a scapegoat for the plot and the continuing string of military defeats.

Choices Never Made

Lutjens deserves better, from both filmmakers and history. He was a conflicted and depressed man, shoehorned by upbringing and tradition into a situation he dreaded but could not avoid. As a high-ranking officer in the German Navy, steeped in tradition, he could not turn against his government, or flee to safety, either before the war, or on the bridge of his battleship. He faced the conflicting demands and resigned himself to doing his duty and dying honorably. I can imagine him pacing the bridges of his flagships, alternately struggling with plotting his ships’ next move while pondering the insanity of his situation — leading the most powerful battleships in his nation’s Navy in an effort to achieve the destruction of his own people. He must have struggled with long thoughts of fuel supplies and honor, reconnaissance information and loyalty. No wonder he was so depressed on Bismarck’s cruise. No wonder he didn’t want to fight.

I’ve often wondered what Lutjens thought when he stood on his flag bridge that last morning, peering through his Zeiss binoculars, seeing the immense gray bulks of HMS King George V and HMS Rodney steaming towards him. At that moment, Lutjens was commanding a nearly immobile battleship, locked on a slow and predictable course, short of fuel and anti-aircraft ammunition, her very young crew exhausted from six days of steaming at action stations and demoralized by the crippling damage she had suffered. Lutjens had two options at that moment: fight and likely condemn most of his crew to horrible deaths or strike his flag (perhaps after a short action) to save their lives.

The first course would gratify Hitler’s desire to see the whole world destroyed in true Wagnerian fashion and turn Bismarck’s crew and himself into martyred Nazi demi-gods, an ironic fate for the part-Jew Lutjens.

Lutjens and Hitler aboard Bismarck
Gunther Lutjens, on Hitler's right, escorts the Führer on an inspection of Bismarck. Karl Ernst Lindemann is second from left.

However, such a gesture, while probably pleasing to Hitler and preserving honor, would not preserve young lives. Nor was there any point to such a battle: Bismarck was outgunned, outnumbered, and outmaneuvered. Her sacrifice would gain the Reich nothing, and indeed, reveal its incapacity and weakness in battle. Martyrdom would not win a war, and only send promising young German sailors to vile and useless deaths. Perhaps Lutjens’ real duty at that moment was no longer to his Fuhrer or the Nazi system, but to the young men in his charge, and to preserve their lives. He could strike his flag, transfer his men in orderly fashion to the British ships, scuttle his own vessel, and be remembered as a leader who stood for humanity amid world’s most terrible war.

On the other hand, the German High Seas Fleet’s chief accomplishment to date had been to scuttle itself in Scapa Flow in 1919, as the result of an erroneous four-day-old report in a British newspaper, and that debacle still cast a shadow over the German Navy. If Lutjens did strike his flag, it would also be seen as a dishonorable move, an act of high treason, and defile and humiliate the entire German Navy’s officer corps. An Admiral could not just “strike his flag.”

And looming over these two choices had to have been Lutjens’ thoughts about Germany, Nazism, Hitler, and the fate of Europe’s Jews — and his relatives.

We will never know what epiphany Lutjens had, if any, on that flag bridge, because the first shells to hit Bismarck killed him, but he may have taken the middle course: put up a fight long enough to save honor, then surrender when the battle was clearly lost. Maybe.

Is Hollywood Listening?

I suppose that some day there will be a movie about Gunther Lutjens and the Bismarck again. Now that James Cameron and his Hollywood colleagues have replaced writing and acting in movies with special effects, they’ll do to the Bismarck what Titanic did to . . . well, the Titanic.

In the new movie, Kate Winslet will probably be the Jewish girl who escapes from a train to Auschwitz, and then slips aboard the Bismarck. Lutjens, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, will hide Winslet on the battleship from the Gestapo. But her life will ultimately be saved by Leonardo Di Caprio, who will play the sailor actually assigned to watch over her.

Naturally, Bismarck will not be sunk by the Royal Navy (whoever heard of the British doing anything right in a modern war movie?), but by a crack American team of commandos led by Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, and Jennifer Lopez (who will also sing the theme song). Alan Rickman or David Warner will play a high-ranking British officer of the aristocratic and overbearing type, who is actually a traitor, in league with the Germans. The ships hunting for Bismarck will be modern American vessels, except for some token British cockneys and Scots, who will offer comic relief.

In the film’s climax, Di Caprio himself (and an army of stuntmen) will fight a massive barefist brawl with Schwarzenegger to save Winslet, while Gibson and Snipes fly their F-15 fighter jet between the battleship’s funnels to sink the dreadnought, pursued by Rickman in a TIE fighter. Di Caprio, of course, will die just as he puts Winslet in the life raft with Gibson and Snipes.

Film critics will hail the movie for its special effects wizardry, the tragic love story, and its historic accuracy. TV political pundits will complain that today’s American and British youth are nowhere near as tough as the heroes who “sank the Bismarck,” and actual veterans who fought the battle will complain bitterly about the filmic treatment in letters-to-the-editor of their local newspapers, which will be ignored.

I think that will be a worse disaster than the real sea battle.

How would the battle unfold with you in command?
Order Second World War at Sea: Bismarck now and find out.