Seventy-three years ago today the “Mighty Hood” was sunk by the German Battleship Bismarck. It is an anniversary that I always mark. I first read about this battle in C.S Forrester’s little book Hunting the Bismarck which was used as the screenplay for the 1960 film Sink the Bismarck. This essay is in honor of the gallant HMS Hood and her crew. It is fitting although the HMS Hood and her killer, the German battleship Bismarck were American. Both were great ships manned by gallant crews and the loss of both ships was tragic, especially from the aspect of the great loss of human life. May we never forget the sacrifice of these men and all others who have gone down to the sea in great ships.
There are some warships and naval engagements which assume legendary proportions. The Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941 between the two largest battleships in commission at the time, the pride of the British Royal Navy the HMS Hood and the German behemoth Bismarck is legendary as are those two mighty ships. The battle came at a critical time as the Britain stood alone against the seemingly invincible German Blitzkrieg.
Britain had been driven from Western Europe and was being bombed regularly by Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe while a British expeditionary force that had been sent to Greece had been defeated and the Germans were assaulting Crete with airborne forces. In the Western Desert the Afrika Korps under Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had driven off a British counter-offensive on the Libyan-Egyptian frontier and were laying siege to Tobruk and in the Atlantic German U-Boats sank 66 Allied Merchant Ships of over 375,000 tons and the Royal Navy would lose 25 warships not including the Hood.
The Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy and was world famous due to her inter-war international presence and goodwill visits. Displacing 47,430 tons full load she was armed with eight 15” guns in four twin turrets. Designed as a battle cruiser she was less heavily armored than contemporary battleships and had very weak vertical protection from plunging shellfire. This was a fault which was known but never rectified between the wars and when the war came the Royal Navy could ill-afford to take her out of service for the necessary improvements to her protection system. She was fast with a designed speed of 31 knots which been reduced to 28 knots by 1939 as a result of modifications which increased her displacement. This was further reduced by the wear and tear on her propulsion plant to 26.5 knots by 1940.
Hood was designed before the battle of Jutland (May 1916) where the weaknesses in the armor protection of British Battlecruisers was exposed as three, the HMS Invincible, HMS Queen Mary and HMS Indefatigable were destroyed by plunging fire which exploded their magazines. Though her design was modified during construction she still was vulnerable to plunging fire. She was scheduled for a major refit which would have included significant improvement in armor protection in 1941 but the war prevented the Hood from receiving anything more than improvements to her anti-aircraft batteries.
During the war Hood was engaged in patrol and search operations against German raiders in the North Atlantic and in June 1940 joined Force “H” in the Mediterranean. As Flagship of Force “H” she took part in the sinking of French Fleet Units including the Battleship Bretagne at Mers-El-Kebir on 3 July 1940 following the French surrender to the Germans and remained in operation searching for the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Scheer and Heavy Cruiser Admiral Hipper until she was withdrawn for a brief refit in January 1941. Following another brief refit in mid-March, Hood was underway from mid-March searching for the German raiders Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and a false report of Bismarck breaking out into the Atlantic in April 1941. She returned to Scapa Flow on 6 May 1941.
When the British discovered that Bismarck had entered the Atlantic, Hood as the flagship of Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland was dispatched with the newly commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales to join the Heavy Cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk at the entrance to the Denmark Strait. When the cruisers discovered Bismarck along with her consort the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen the two British battleships steamed into naval history.
Bismarck was slightly larger than Hood and mounted the same main armament but that was about all the two ships had in common. If the battle was a battle between heavyweight prize fighters Hood was the valiant but crippled champion and Bismarck the young and overpowering challenger. Bismarck was slightly faster than the limping Hood and was one of the most well protected ships ever built. Her gunnery officers and the men that manned those deadly 15” guns were like previous generations of German sailors’ gunnery experts working some of the finest naval guns ever made.
The German ships shadowed at a distance by the Norfolk and Suffolk German task force under the command of Admiral Gunther Lütjens emerged from the strait and was sighted by the British at 0537. Knowing his ship’s weakness in regard to plunging fire Admiral Holland desired to steer a direct course at the German ships in order to close the range quickly. Events dictated otherwise and the British were forced to close the range much more slowly and exposing Hood and Prince of Wales to German plunging fire for a longer period of time. Holland turned to close faster with the result that his gunnery was degraded by wind and spray coming over the bows of his ships and the inability to fire his after turrets.
At 0553 Holland ordered his ships to open fire without the benefit of Suffolk and Norfolk being in position to engage the Prinz Eugen. The Hood initially concentrated her fire on Prinz Eugen assuming her to be the Bismarck while Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck. Prince of Wales drew first blood striking Bismarck three times. One which damaged her seaplane catapult, a second which did minor damage to machinery spaces and a third which passed through the bow near the waterline which severed fuel lines from her forward fuel tanks.
Both German ships opened fire at 0555 concentrating on the Hood. Prinz Eugen immediately hit Hood with at least one 8” shell which set a large fire among the ready to use 4”ammunition stored in lockers near the mainmast. The hit started a large fire which Hood’s damage control teams raced to contain. At 0600 Holland ordered his ships to turn to port in order to bring his rear turrets into the fight. As the squadron executed the turn Hood was straddled by a salvo from Bismarck and observers on Prince of Wales observed an explosion between “X” turret and the mainmast which consumed the Hood causing her bow to jut sharply out of the water before sinking beneath the waves in under 3 minutes time. Witnesses on both sides of the engagement were stunned by the sudden and violent end of the Hood and the Germans rapidly shifted fire to the Prince of Wales knocking her out of the action. Against the advice of Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann, Lütjens did not follow up his advantage to sink the crippled British ship.
Only three crewmen Petty Officer Ted Briggs, Seaman Bob Tilburn and Midshipman Bill Dundas survived the sinking of Hood out of a total of 1415 souls embarked. They were rescued 4 hours later nearly dead of hypothermia staying awake by sinking “Roll out the Barrel” by the destroyer HMS Electra.
Briggs who died in 2008 recounted the sinking:
“Then she started listing to starboard. She righted herself, and started going over to port. When she had gone over by about 40 degrees we realised she was not coming back…” Briggs was sucked under the water “I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle – I was ready to meet my God. My blissful acceptance of death ended in a sudden surge beneath me, which shot me to the surface like a decanted cork in a champagne bottle. I turned, and 50 yards away I could see the bows of the Hood vertical in the sea. It was the most frightening aspect of my ordeal, and a vision which was to recur terrifyingly in nightmares for the next 40 years.” (The Daily Telegraph 5 October 2008)
The Admiralty reported the loss of the Hood later in the day saying Hood “received an unlucky hit in a magazine and blew up.” The official report of the sinking released later in the year said:
“That the sinking of Hood was due to a hit from Bismarck’s 15-inch shell in or adjacent to Hood’s 4-inch or 15-inch magazines, causing them all to explode and wreck the after part of the ship. The probability is that the 4-inch magazines exploded first.”
The commission’s findings have been challenged by a number of naval historians and there are several theories of how the magazines might have exploded but all point to a massive magazine explosion but probably not due to a plunging round but from another hit which detonated the unprotected 4” magazines or a hit from Bismarck below Hood’s waterline which stuck a magazine. Hood’s wreckage was located in 2001 lying across two debris fields and the examination revealed that the after magazines had exploded. The site is designated as a War Grave by Britain and protected site under the Protection of Military Remains Act of 1986.
Bismarck and her crew did not long survive her victory being crippled by a lucky aerial torpedo hit from a Fairley Swordfish bomber flying from the HMS Ark Royal on 26 May and being scuttled by her crew after absorbing massive damage from the HMS King George V, HMS Rodney and several cruisers including HMS Dorsetshire the plucky and persistent Norfolk and several destroyers. When she went down she took with her all but 115 souls of her crew of over 2200 which included the Fleet Staff of Admiral Lütjens.
Prince of Wales would take Winston Churchill to Argentia Bay Newfoundland to meet with Franklin Roosevelt from 9-12 August 1941 where the Atlantic Charter was drafted. She reported to the Far East where she was sunk along with the Battlecruiser HMS Repulse on 9 December 1941 by a force of land based Japanese aircraft. The Prinz Eugen was the only heavy ship of the German Navy to survive the war and was taken by the US Navy at the end of the war. She was expended as a target during the Able and Baker nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll. Too radioactive to be repaired she was towed to Kwajalein Atoll where she capsized and sank on 22 December 1946. Her wreck is still visible.
The loss of the Hood traumatized the people of Britain and the Royal Navy; she had been the symbol of British Naval power for over 20 years and people around the world were likewise stunned at her demise. The sinking of the Hood and the loss of her crew was a tragedy which all sailors assigned to large and prestigious ships and the nations that they sail for need to keep in mind.
No matter how mighty any ship may be, every ship has an Achilles heel and no ship is unsinkable. Of the over 3600 officers and crew of the Hood and the Bismarck only 118 survived.
I will remember the Hood, her gallant crew especially my very distant relative Midshipman Bill Dundas who I never met. He left the Royal Navy about 1960 and was killed in a car wreck in 1965. According to the Hood Association website he was troubled by the sinking for the rest of his life. One can understand.