Tag Archives: battle of mers-el-kebir

The Death of the Mighty Hood: The Battle of the Denmark Strait 24 May 1941

HMS Hood arrives in Malta

Seventy years ago today the “Mighty Hood” was sunk by the German Battleship Bismarck. This essay is in honor of that gallant ship and crew.  May we never forget the sacrifice of these men and all others who have gone down to the sea in 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 “Mighty Hood” at San Francisco in the 1920s

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 in September 1924

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.

The Killer the German Battleship Bismarck

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 withdrawn for a brief refit in January 1941. Following a 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.

Bismarck Firing at Hood

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.

The last photo of Hood taken from HMS Prince of Wales

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.

Hood Blows up, picture taken from Prinz Eugen

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 EugenHood 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.

The Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen. Mistaken for Bismarck bu Hood she scored the first hits on Hood

Both German ships opened fire at 0555 concentrating on 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.

Petty Officer Ted Briggs

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)

Seaman Tilburn


Artist rendition of Hood’s destruction

The Admiralty reported her loss 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.

Revenge: Bismarck being pounded into a wreck by British Battleships

Bismarck 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 HMS 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.

HMS Prince of Wales

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.

Midshipman William Dundas, one of three surivors

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 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 the ships all have an Achilles heel and none are 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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

About these ads

5 Comments

Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in europe

French Firepower Forward: The unrealized potential of the Dunkerque and Richelieu Class Battleships

Richelieu in the 1950s

This is the second in a series of five articles on the battleships built under the provision of the Washington and London Naval Treaty limitations in the 1930s. I am not including the ships which were completed in the immediate aftermath of the Washington Treaty limitations. This series looks at the modern battleships that the World War II combatants would produce in the 1930s which saw service in the war. Part one covered the Italian Vittorio Veneto class entitled The Pride of the Regina Marina: The Vittorio Veneto Class Battleships. This article covers the French Dunkerque class and Richelieu class Battleships. Part Three will deal with the British King George V Class and Part Four the American North Carolina and South Dakota Classes. I have already published the final part which covers the German Scharnhorst Class entitled Power and Beauty the Battle Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau . The German Bismarck, Japanese Yamato, British Vanguard and American Iowa Classes will be covered in a subsequent series.

Dunkerque 1937

In the late 1920s the French Navy having concentrated on cruiser construction following the war realized the need to develop a class of Fast Battleships to counter the German Deutschland class Pocket Battleships but was limited by the Washington Treaty to just 70,000 tons which meant that in order to have a number of battleships that they would have to be smaller but still mount a significant armament. The new class of ship which the French termed a Fast Battleship was more like a battle cruiser being less heavily armed or armored than current battleships and less so than the new classes of ships being developed by other navies in the mid-1930s.  The Dunkerque class had a designed displacement of 26,500 tons and a top speed of 31 knots the ships mounted 8 13” guns in two quadruple turrets both mounted forward. This allowed all guns to fire forward during engagements to present the smallest possible silhouette to the enemy.  They employed all or nothing armor protection ensuring the strongest protection over vital spaces with their armor designed to protect the ships against German 11” gunfire from the Pocket Battleships or the Scharnhorst Class Battlecruisers. They also mounted a powerful dual purpose armament recognizing the need for defense against aircraft as well as surface ships.

Dunkerque Class:


Dunkerque was laid down on 24 December 1932, launched on 2 October 1935 and commissioned on 1 May 1937. Her sister Strasbourg followed and was laid down in 1934 and launched on 12 December 1936 and commissioned in 1939. When war was declared the two ships spent their time operating with the Royal Navy searching for German raiders and to escort convoys.

Strasbourg

When the Germans overran France in June 1940 the ships took refuge at Mers-el-Kibir where with other French Fleet units they were the target of the Royal Navy to keep them from being taken over by the Germans on 3 July 1940. Dunkerque was heavily damaged in the attack and sank with the loss of 210 sailors after being hit by 4 15” shells from the Battlecruiser HMS Hood and Battleships HMS Resolution and HMS Valiant a testament to their light armor protection.  Strasbourg escaped to Toulon with 5 destroyers where she joined the bulk of the French Fleet in the so called “Free Zone” of Vichy France. She was joined by Dunkerque following the completion of temporary repairs in February 1942.

Dunkerque entered drydock for permanent repairs and was there when the Germans occupied Vichy. Under threat of capture the Fleet was scuttled. Dunkerque was destroyed in drydock and declared a total loss. Both the Germans and Italians attempted scrapping operations and the wreck was further damaged by Allied bomber attacks.

The Hulk of the Dunkerque in1944

What was left of the hulk was refloated and finally scrapped in 1958. Strasbourg was scuttled but refloated by the Italian Navy in July 1943 and after the Italian surrender taken over by the Germans. Sunk again in an American air attack in August 1944 she was refloated and used as a test bed for underwater explosions until she was condemned.  She was sold for scrapping in 1955.

Richelieu Class


The Richelieu class was derived from the Dunkerque class in response to the Italian Vittorio Veneto Class.  With a standard displacement of 35,000 tons and a full load displacement of 48,950 tons the ships were the largest build for the French Navy until the commissioning of the Nuclear Aircraft Carrier Charles DeGaulle.  The ships shared the layout of the Dunkerque Class with their main battery of 8 15” guns mounted in quadruple turrets forward which like the Dunkerque’s allowed them to present the smallest silhouette possible to an opposing ship while being able to employ their entire main battery.   Their speed, protection and design were state of the art and comparable to their contemporaries in other navies.  They were capable of 32 knots at full speed and had a cruising range of 7671 miles at 20 knots.  The main battery was spaced far enough apart to ensure that a single hit could not put both turrets out of action and each turret was internally subdivided to prevent a single hit from knocking out all four guns. The mounted 9 6” dual purpose guns in three triple turrets aft and 24 4” AA guns in 12 twin-mounts located amidships.  During the war Richelieu was repaired and refitted in the US receiving 56 40mm Bofors AA guns in quadruple mounts and 48 20mm Oerlikon AA guns in place of her original 37mm cannons and 13.2 inch machine guns.

Richelieu arrives in New York in 1943

Richelieu was laid down in October 1935, launched in January 1939 and began sea trials in January 1940. When the Germans broke through the French defenses and threatened Brest Richelieu put to sea to French North Africa and was commissioned in June at Dakar. She was damaged by an aerial torpedo launched by a Swordfish Torpedo bomber from the HMS Hermes and received emergency repairs in Dakar. On 24 September she fought an engagement against the Royal Navy at the Battle of Dakar and was damaged by two 15” shells fired by the HMS Barham and was further damaged by a misfire in one of her turrets. Following the French return to the Allied camp she was sailed to New York for major repairs and modernization from January to November of 1943. Following this she operated with the British Home Fleet until March of 1944 when she was sent to the India Ocean to serve with the British Far East Fleet in operations against the Japanese until the end of the war. Following the war she took part in the initial stages of the campaign in French Indochina. She was placed in reserve in 1956 and struck from the Navy list and scrapped in 1968.

The Damaged Jean Bart at Casablanca

Her sister Jean Bart was laid down in December 1936 and launched on 6 March 1940.  Only 75% complete with untested engines and only one of her main battery turrets and no secondary armament installed Jean Bart put to sea to escape the German advance and sailed to Casablanca.  The navy attempted to ship her second main battery turret on a freighter but that ship was sunk by a U-boat enroute to Casablanca. She was at Casablanca when the Allies invaded North Africa and was attacked by the U.S. Navy when the Vichy government refused to surrender on 8 November 1942.  She was engaged by the Battleship USS Massachusetts and aircraft from the carrier USS Ranger and was damaged by several bombs and shells from the 16” guns of Massachusetts. She engaged Massachusetts with her one working turret but scored no hits. On the 10th she opened fire on the USS Augusta and was attacked again by aircraft from the Ranger which damaged her so that she had to be run aground to prevent her from sinking.  She remained in Dakar for the duration of the war as it was not feasible to sail her to the United States for completion. Following the war it was suggested that she be converted to an aircraft carrier but that was rejected and she was completed as a battleship and commissioned in 1949.  She took part in the Suez crisis of 1956, was decommissioned in 1957 and finally sold for struck in 1969 and sold for scrap in 1970.

Jean Bart in the 1950s

Both the Dunkerque and Richelieu class were ships of unrealized potential due to the French surrender and the deep divisions between the Vichy and Free French governments.  Had circumstances been different they might have played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic or in the Mediterranean during the war. Once wonders how they might have done in open combat with their Italian contemporaries or even the German Bismarck and Tirpitz. Instead they and their brave crews had to battle the Axis powers as well as former allies in circumstances in which all the cards were against them. One of Richelieu’s 15” guns is mounted on the waterfront at Brest as a memorial to these brave ships and the men that sailed them.

8 Comments

Filed under History, Navy Ships, world war two in europe