In the early years of World War II, the DKM Bismarck was the pride of the German fleet. The warship featured 40-centimeter guns capable of destroying an enemy vessel more than 20 kilometers away. But in May 1941, the British Navy assembled a massive armada and launched an attack against the Bismarck. The act was retaliation for the German vessel’s assault on the HMS Hood, an event that sent more than 1,000 men to their watery graves. The British Navy bombarded the Bismarck – Germany’s ‘unsinkable’ warship – into oblivion.
Wedged on the floor of the North Atlantic, the wreck of the Bismarck remained largely unexplored – until recently. In May, James Cameron, director of Hollywood blockbusters such as Titanic, The Terminator and Aliens, conducted the first external survey of the sunken ship. His findings are the subject of James Cameron’s Expedition: Bismarck, a two-hour special for Discovery Channel U.S. and Discovery Channels International (it will debut in the U.S. in December and in February internationally). The multi-million dollar undertaking was funded by Discovery Channel Quest, a new initiative that bankrolls projects spearheaded by scientists at the vanguard of their field.
‘Bismarck is another [project] that allows me to deal with a real human drama – an important event in 20th-century history,’ said Cameron, who spoke to journalists in Pasadena, U.S., via satellite phone, from a research vessel in the mid-Atlantic during the Television Critics Association Press Tour in July. Cameron, the special’s executive producer, previously launched an expedition to the Titanic in 2001 for the 3-D IMAX film Ghosts of the Abyss. ‘At the same time, I pursue my love of diving and engineering – so this project allows those elements to converge smoothly. I feel privileged to be at the bottom of the ocean,’ he continued.
To capture interior and exterior footage of the ship, Cameron and his crew employed remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) – high-tech equipment specifically designed to explore shipwrecks. The ROVs were created by Cameron’s brother, Mike Cameron, and his Santa Clarita, U.S.-based company Dark Matter.
‘The ROV looks like a little green box,’ explained Mike Cameron, also the program’s co-executive producer. ‘On the outside is syntactic foam – micro-spheres of glass are impregnated into a two-part epoxy-type resin, which allows us to have buoyancy at great depth.’ He continued: ‘They’re equipped with a camera, which transmits video images through light pulses. I sit at a command consul in a submersible and use a joystick to send commands [which are transmitted fiber optically] to the ROV. A pulse of light goes to the ROV and commands it to turn, climb or rotate. At the same time, the ROV, which is equipped with special sensors, transmits high resolution images back to the submersible. The images are then recorded.’
Aside from extensive underwater footage, the special features archival material about the Bismarck, historians’ commentary, and first-person interviews with survivors. ‘We persuaded survivors to return to the site of the Bismarck,’ said Mike Cameron. ‘They were in great spirits when they first agreed to be interviewed, and they maintained those strong spirits throughout the expedition. That added a level of humanity to my job.’ James Cameron noted that the survivors’ memoirs help the Bismarck‘s story unfold in a compelling and captivating manner. ‘The shell holes [in the hull] match accounts of those people who saw friends killed, knocked unconscious, and unable to escape from the ship,’ he explained. ‘Without this amazing oral history, we would simply be looking at a rusted steel tomb, so it’s pretty amazing to sit on the ship, sift through footage, retrieve comments and see these men face their own demons. It adds a very powerful dimension to the project.’