Space combat is a hallmark of the Star Wars saga. In Star Wars: The Clone Wars, fans were introduced to one of the biggest, most menacing weapons in the galaxy: the Separatist battleship Malevolence. “We wanted to have a Bismarck style battleship,” says supervising director Dave Filoni, explaining the inspiration for the story. Filoni recalls, “We wanted this massive weapon that the Republic wasn’t aware of and it was like a mystery and it was wiping out people — no one knew what it was because there were no survivors. That’s always a good way to start out.” But what was the Bismarck and what similarities did it have with The Clone Wars story of the Malevolence?
The story of the Malevolence plays out in Season One of The Clone Wars. In this three episode story arc, Republic forces are falling prey to an unknown but incredibly powerful battleship. Its massive ion cannons are able to disable multiple Republic craft at once, leaving their crews easy prey to the Separatists. After destroying multiple Republic cruisers, Jedi Anakin Skywalker, Plo Koon, and Ahsoka Tano try a new attack; not with heavy battle cruisers, but with small and agile Y-wing bombers. These small bombers are able to get close enough to the Malevolence to use proton torpedoes for a precision strike, disabling the cruiser and leaving it to limp away from the battle. Thanks to the Y-wing torpedo attack, the Malevolence is finally destroyed at the hands of the Jedi.
The story of the Malevolence shares many similarities to the saga of the World War II German battleship Bismarck. The first of its class, the Bismarck was completed in the spring of 1941 and set out for operations alongside German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. The massive Bismarck was more powerful than any battleship in the opposing British Navy, but the German strategy was not to attack combat ships in open battle; instead, Germany hoped to use the Bismarck in surface raids against British shipping. If the Bismarck could make it to the vast open oceans in the Atlantic, it would be a powerful force to cripple Britain’s shipping lifeline to North America. The British were aware of the threat the Bismarck posed if allowed to move freely in the vast Atlantic and began to hunt the massive battleship from the time it left the safety of its harbor in the North Sea.
The Bismarck, like the Malevolence, proved to be too much for opposing ships sent to destroy it. In May of 1941 at the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the British ships Prince of Wales and HMS Hood faced Bismarck head on. In a burst of flames, Bismarck sank the Hood in less than 10 minutes, leaving only three sailors of a crew of 1,400 alive and sent the crippled Prince of Wales to flee for safety.
Considered the finest ship in the proud Royal Navy, the loss of the Hood was shocking to the British. In his memoirs, Star Wars actor and World War II veteran Alec Guinness recalled, “Tears were shed by many, including myself, at the loss of great battleships such as HMS Hood.” Now more than ever, the British knew they must sink the Bismarck before it could return to open seas.
In a last ditch effort before the Bismarck could return to safety on the coast of occupied France, the British carrier Arc Royal launched a flight of small Swordfish torpedo bombers to strike the Bismarck. The Swordfish was a biplane aircraft, already considered obsolete at the outbreak of the war. But similar to the Y-wing in the story of the Malevolence, these humble craft carried a great equalizer of World War II: The torpedo.
For all of its size, armament, and superiority, the German battleship Bismarck was unable to avoid a precision strike from these tiny planes. Two torpedoes struck the battleship’s rudder, permanently locking the rudder in place, leaving the ship permanently stuck in a turn. Disabled and left circling in the water, the Bismarck became easy prey for two British battleships who hit the Bismarck with 714 shells. On May 27, 1941 the saga of the Bismarck came to an end less than a month after it started. The fall of the Bismarck not only struck a blow to the German navy, but it also signaled a major change in naval warfare. If it wasn’t clear already, the world now knew that the age of the battleship was over and the age of naval aviation had begun.
Cole Horton is an R2 builder, historian, and creator of From World War to Star Wars, an ongoing series of lectures at Star Wars Celebrations. He has also worked as World War II historian for Marvel Comics Augmented Reality app. You can find him on Twitter @ColeHorton.