Daily Archives: May 25, 2020

Decoration Day or Memorial Day 2020: Their Spirits Gather Round Me, as I Muse of Poppy’s, Dreaming of Home Oceans Away

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is, or should be the most solemn and reflective of holidays that we observe in the United States. It is the one day a year that we specifically put aside to remember those who died in the service of our country. It is not a day to thank a living veteran for their service, be they active military  personnel, veterans or retirees,, we have our own days, Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day. Likewise, and even worse, most Americans completely forget and turn it in to a day to kick off the summer holiday season. Not that has been harder to do this year in the midst of the Coronavirus 19 Pandemic, with its related shutdowns and travel restrictions, and since we will probably mark the 100,000th official death in this country later today, it should be a more reflective time.

But the holiday itself it is more interesting, because when it began it was called Decoration Day. It was a day where the families and friends of the soldiers, North and South who died in the war of the Southern Rebellion (the term that Union Veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic called it) or the War of Northern Aggression (as it was called by many Southerners) to the less divisive term the American Civil War. Personally, though most of my family fought for the Confederate side despite the fact that their counties of West Virginia had gone to the Union, because they were slave owners, I land pretty hard on calling it the War of the Southern Rebellion, because I am a historian.

Now as a kid I absorbed a lot of the revisionist views of the Southern historians who mythologized the cause, The Lost Cause, their honor and culture, The Noble South, and the hagiography surrounding their heroes like Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. However, when one looks at their writings, beliefs, and actions, it is far better to label them as rebels and traitors, and the cause that they fought for as evil, but I digress, because even then the truth is more complicated. There were Southerners who never renounced they Union, and close to 40% of Southern graduates of West Point and others that remained loyal to the Union. These included men like General Winfield Scott (Virginia),  George Thomas (Virginia) , General John Buford (Kentucky where his family supported the Confederate Cause) General John Gibbon (North Carolina), Admiral David Farragut (Tennessee) the Union’s master logistician, General Montgomery Meigs of Georgia. Meigs is known for his deep hatred Former U.S. Army officers who fought for the Confederacy, especially Robert E. Lee. He used his position to select Lee’s mansion and plantation property in Arlington, Virginia as the Union’s first, and premiere national cemetery.

But back to Decoration Day. It predates the end of the war in some towns in the south and north where families would go to play flowers on the graves of their relatives or friends who died during the war. In 1865 the newly freed Black population of Charleston, South Carolina dedicated a cemetery to the Union soldiers who had died in Confederate prisons there at the old racehorse track. In 1868, General John Logan, the head of the Union’s largest and most influential veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, called for it to become a National day of remembrance to be held on May 30th. Soon Michigan became the first state to make the day a holiday and they were rapidly followed but most other states. Logan and the G.A.R. headquarters issued the the Decoration Day Order:

GENERAL ORDERS No. 11

I. The 30th day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains in us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the nation’s gratitude—the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the commander in chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.

By Command of –
John A. Logan,
Commander in Chief

Over the years Decoration Day began to be know as Memorial Day, especially as the members of the G.A.R. became fewer, but the name was not officially changed until 1967. In 1968 Congress passed an act to move four holidays, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day (Formerly Armistice Day), and Washington’s Birthday (now President’s Day) to Monday’s to allow for three day weekends. There have been attempts by Veterans organizations to have Memorial Day moved back to a set date over the past two decades in order to bring emphasis to the solemnity that it should be observed. I would support that, but business leaders and lobbyists have ensured that Congress has take no action to make that change. Thus for most people the day is the kick off of the summer holiday season.

After the end of the American Civil War, the poet Walt Whitman reflected on the human cost of it. Whitman wrote,

“Ashes of soldiers South or North,

As I muse retrospective murmuring a chant in thought, The war resumes, again to my sense your shapes, And again the advance of the armies.

Noiseless as mists and vapors, From their graves in the trenches ascending, From cemeteries all through Virginia and Tennessee, From every point of the compass out of the countless graves,

In wafted clouds, in myriads large, or squads of twos or threes or single ones they come, And silently gather round me…”

Memorial Day is always an emotional time for me, especially since I returned from Iraq in 2008. It is a weekend that I always think about the men and women that I knew who died in action or died after they left the service, some at their own hand, unable to bear the burdens and trauma that they suffered while at war. I was reminded of them again at the memorial service that we conducted for all of our fallen at the Naval Shipyard where I serve.  In an age where less than one percent of Americans serve in the military, I think that it is important that we take the time to remember and reflect on the human cost of wars.

For me I think that is the lives lost that hit me hardest. They were friends who I knew, and also family members that I never met because they lost their lives before I was born.

I think of the battlefields that I have served on in Al Anbar Province, the one my father served on at An Loc, Vietnam, or the battlefields and the graveyards I have been to, Verdun, the Somme, Paschendaele, Waterloo, Arnhem, Normandy, Belleau Wood, Luxembourg, the Shuri Line, the Naktong River, Yorktown, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Stone’s River, Bentonville, Gettysburg, the wrecks of the USS Arizona and USS Utah at Pearl Harbor, and so many more, I think about the men and women who never returned. To me all of these places are hallowed ground, ground that none of us can hallow, the sacrifices of the men who gave their last full measure of devotion have done that better than we can ever do.

There are some songs that are haunting yet comfort me when I reflect on the terrible costs of war, even those wars that were truly just; and yes there are such wars, even if politicians and ideologues demanding revenge or vengeance manage to mangle the peace following them. Of course there are wars that are not just in any manner of speaking and in which the costs far outweigh any moral, legal, or ethical considerations, but I digress…

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg wrote something that talks about the importance and even the transcendence of the deeds of those who lost their lives in those wars fought and died to achieve.

In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

Elton John wrote and performed this song, Oceans Away on the centenary of the First World War. It speaks of the men that never came home, and he related it to those who continue to go off to war today.

I hung out with the old folks, In the hope that I’d get wise

I was trying to bridge the gap, Between the great divide

Hung on every recollection, In the theater of their eyes

Picking up on this and that, In the few that still survive

 

Call em up, Dust em off, Let em shine

The ones who hold onto the ones, they had to leave behind

Those that flew, those that fell, The ones that had to stay,

Beneath a little wooden cross, Oceans away

 

They bend like trees in winter, These shuffling old grey lions

Those snow-white stars still gather, Like the belt around Orion

Just to touch the faded lightning, Of their powerful design

Of a generation gathering, For maybe the last time, Oceans away

Where the green grass sways,And the cool wind blows

Across the shadow of their graves, Shoulder to shoulder back in the day

Sleeping bones to rest in earth, oceans away

Call em up, Dust em off, Let em shine

The ones who hold onto the ones, they had to leave behind

Those that flew, those that fell,, The ones that had to stay,

Beneath a little wooden cross, Oceans away

Elton John “Oceans Away”

Likewise I find myself thinking about all those times alone overseas, and realize that many did not come home. The song I’m Dreaming of Home or Hymne des Fraternisés from the film Joyeux Noel which was adapted by French composer Philippe Rombi from the poem by Lori Barth I think speaks for all of us that served so far away, both those who returned and those who still remain oceans away.

I hear the mountain birds, The sound of rivers singing

A song I’ve often heard, It flows through me now, So clear and so loud

I stand where I am, And forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

 

It’s carried in the air, The breeze of early morning

I see the land so fair, My heart opens wide, There’s sadness inside

I stand where I am, And forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

 

This is no foreign sky, I see no foreign light, But far away am I

From some peaceful land, I’m longing to stand, A hand in my hand

… forever I’m dreaming of home, I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home.

The Canadian physician, John McCrea, served in Flanders with the British Army. There he wrote his  immortal poem, In Flanders Fields: 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

The 20th Century was the bloodiest in human history. If we and our leaders are not careful, the peace and international institutions that guarded that peace will be destroyed in a cataclysm of Nationalism, Racism, and renewed wars over contested living space. In short, the 21st Century is setting up to be every bit as bloody as the 20th.

The Armistice Day Poppy which became an international symbol of remembrance for the dead of the First World War was introduced to Decoration Day in 1922. Its roots lie in McCrea’s prom, and that of an American woman volunteering with the YMCA to support the troops in France. In 1918 Moina Michael, a professor on sabbatical from the University of Georgia vowed to always wear a red poppy to remember those who died in the war. Her poem We Shall Keep the Faith expressed her feelings:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

Please take the time to remember those who whose spirits still linger around the battles fields of the Civil War, and those who beneath Crosses, Stars of David, and Islamic Crescent Moons, or plain headstones denoting no religion, who fought for the Allied cause in the First and Second World Wars, and all of the wars since, who still dream of home, oceans away.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, leadership, Military, Navy Ships, Political Commentary, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans, us army, US Army Air Corps, US Marine Corps, US Navy, Veterans and friends, vietnam, War on Terrorism, World War II at Sea, world war one, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

Operation Rheinübung and the Sinking of the Mighty Hood

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Artist rendition of the Loss of the HMS Hood

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am still working on my article on the Bismarck Class battleships which is the first of a series on the late Treaty and Post Treaty battleship. However, the research has been time consuming and Massive amounts of technical data on Bismarck and her contemporaries is making this a much more technologically wonk type of article than I expected. I am continuing to work on it, even though I had hoped to publish it before I went on to the history of Operation Rheinübung, the deployment of Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen against British convoys in the hopes that they would sink and destroy a lot of ships and return to home safely as the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had during Operation Berlin which sank 22 ships between February and March 1941, an operation commanded by Admiral Günther Lütjens who commander the Bismarck task force.

The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen set sail for Operation Rheinübung on 18 May 1941 over the protests of Lütjens’s protest to delay the operation until Scharnhorst could be repaired d Tirpitz was fully operational. However, this was not possible until early July, and Grand Admiral Erich Raeder had his own agenda. Of the participants in the operation, only he knew that Hitler had planned to attack the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. That invasion, Operation Barbarossa gave the Kriegsmarine just a small supporting role compared to the Heer, Luftwaffe, and even the SS. So Raeder ordered Lütjens into action in order to score a success that would enable him to continue to argue the need for more battleships and surface forces. Reader instructed Lütjens to not reveal the planned operation to anyone, including Hitler, which Lütjens obeyed when Hitler visited Bismarck on 5 May without Raeder being present. Concerning the operation itself Raeder’s orders to Lütjens stressed that “The primary target in this operation is the enemy’s merchant shipping; enemy warships will be engaged only when that objective makes it necessary and it can be done without excessive risk.”

On 20 May the German ships were sighted numerous Swedish and Norwegian fishing boats, and by a scout plane from the Swedish Cruiser Gotland which reported their position to the Swedish Admiralty. This information was leaked to the British Naval Attaché and relayed to the British Admiralty: “Kattegat, today 20 May. At 1500, two large warships, escorted by three destroyers, five ships and ten or twelve planes, passed Marstrand to the northeast. 2058/20.”

They were also sighted by a Norwegian agent who sent a report of their presence. On 21 May the two ships arrived in Grimstadfjiord near Bergen in order to allow Prinz Eugen to refuel, however Lütjens elected not to top off Bismarck’s fuel tanks, which would prove to be a fatal mistake.

May 21st was a day where the skies were perfectly clear, and alerted to their presence of the German Force, the Royal Air Force sent reconnaissance aircraft to confirm that they were really on the move. At 1315 hours a Spitfire equipped with onboard high altitude cameras spotted the German Force and returned to Scotland where their photos were sent to the Admiralty. As a result the Royal Navy ultimately mobilized six battleships, three battlecruisers, two aircraft carriers, sixteen cruisers, thirty-three destroyers and eight submarines to find and kill the German ships and to protect the 11 convoys currently at sea or preparing to sail. It was the largest deployment of the Royal Navy for a single operation to that point in the war.

Since the daylight prevented an unobserved departure, Admiral Lütjens decided to depart under cover of darkness for his breakout into the North Atlantic. Likewise, Admiral John Tovey, commander of the Home Fleet began his deployment to find and sink the Bismarck. Not knowing which route the Bismarck would use to break out, Tovey sent the pride of the Royal Navy, the “Mighty” HMS Hood and the brand new King George V Class battleship HMS Prince of Wales and four destroyers to join the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk under the command of Rear Admiral Frederick Wake Walker to Guard the Denmark Strait, which  Lütjens had used earlier in the year with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and sent the modern and powerful light cruisers Manchester and Birmingham to patrol the area southeast of Iceland. In addition he kept several light cruisers on station between the Faroe and Orkney Island Gap in case the Germans attempted a straight run through the British blockade.

Early on 22 May Tovey departed Scapa Flow with King George V, the new carrier HMS Victorious, and their escorts, which would soon be joined by the battlecruiser HMS Repulse. which was already at sea. The older battleships HMS Rodney, HMS Ramillies, and HMS Revenge were also at sea escorting convoys, from which they would be detached to seek out the Bismarck. Finally, Force H comprised of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, battlecruiser HMS Renown, the light cruiser HMS Sheffield and their escorting destroyers, under the command of Rear Admiral James Somerville, based at Gibraltar, were alerted for possible deployment to the North Atlantic, even though their primary mission was to counter the Italians in the Mediterranean.

The 22nd of May was uneventful as each side sailed into the reaches of the North Atlantic, as was most of the 23rd as Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were able to use foul weather conditions to avoid British patrol aircraft, but but about 2000 hours they were detected by the radar of HMS Suffolk. Bismarck sighted and engaged Suffolk and Norfolk which returned fire and ducked into a fog bank as Suffolk continued to shadow Bismarck using her radar and continuing to send reports to Admiral Holland on Hood. However during the exchange Bismarck’s forward radar was damaged by the concussion of her main battery and Lütjens had Prinz Eugen take the lead. For the remainder of the night the ships continued to move through the Denmark Strait. Knowing his Force had been detected and surprise had been lost Lütjens could have reversed course and returned to Norway to await the availability of Scharnhorst and Tirpitz and a more favorable time to break out, but he continued on to a destiny that would result in the loss of the world’s two largest battleships in one of the most dramatic naval campaigns in history.

The first of the great ships lost would be the “Mighty Hood”, which was sunk by the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen during a very short and shocking engagement on the morning of 24 May. The news was broken to most of the world by American journalist Edward R. Murrow who in his radio broadcast reported:

“This is London, Ed Murrow reporting. This island, which is no stranger to bad tiding, received news today that HMS Hood largest warship in the British fleet and pride of the British navy, has been sunk by the German battleship Bismarck. From the Hood’s compliment of 1500 men, there were three survivors.”

The news of the sinking of the great ship stunned the world, and it is a tragic anniversary is something that I always mark. I first read about this battle in C.S Forrester’s little book Hunting the Bismarck when I was in 4th grade. That book 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 for Memorial Day weekend although the HMS Hood and her killer, the German battleship Bismarck were not 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. I do hope and pray that we never forget the sacrifice of these men and all others who have gone down to the sea in great ships.

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HMS Hood at Malta

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.

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Hood in San Francisco on 1920s goodwill tour

Britain had been driven from Western Europe and Britain was being bombed regularly by Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe. In the Balkans a British expeditionary force that had been sent to Greece had been defeated and it’s survivors withdrawn as Germans assaulted and conquered Crete with airborne forces, albeit with such heavy losses that Hitler forbade any more large airborne operations. In the Western Desert of North Africa, 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.  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 to surface action or U-Boats in the Atlantic alone. But before Hood the British had lost the aircraft carriers Glorious and Courageous and the battleship Royal Oak. 

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The Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy and was world famous due to her inter-war international presence and goodwill visits. She displaced 47,430 tons full load and 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 weak vertical protection from plunging shellfire. Her armored upper deck and armored deck had a combined 83mm of armor. 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 Hood from receiving anything more than improvements to her anti-aircraft batteries.

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Hood (nearly hidden by falling shells) in action at Mers-El-Kebir

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 the 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 also false report of Bismarck breaking out into the Atlantic in April 1941. She returned to Scapa Flow on 6 May 1941.

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Bismarck

When the British discovered that Bismarck had entered the Atlantic, Hood the flagship of Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland, was dispatched to find and sink her with the newly commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales.  The battleships were 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.

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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 her deadly 15” guns were like previous generations of German sailors, gunnery experts, working with some of the finest naval guns ever made.

Schlachtschiff Bismarck, Seegefecht

Bismarck firing on Hood

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The German ships were shadowed at a distance by the Norfolk and Suffolk. The German task force under the command of Admiral Gunther Lütjens emerged from the strait and were sighted by the British at 0537.  Knowing his ships 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 in order to narrow the range and prevent being hit by the same kind of plunging fire that doomed the British battle cruisers at Jutland.

However, events dictated otherwise and the British were forced to close the range much more slowly than Admiral Holland desired, and exposed both Hood and Prince of Wales to German plunging fire for a longer period of time.  As such Holland then turned and tried to close the German ships faster. The result was that his gunnery was degraded by wind and spray coming over the bows of his ships compounded by his inability to bring his after turrets to bear on the German ships.

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Hood, photographed from Prince of Wales moments before being hit and sunk by Bismarck

At 0553 Holland ordered his ships to open fire. Unfortunately, he dis so without the benefit of Suffolk and Norfolk being in position to engage the Prinz Eugen.  Due to the similar appearance of the German ships Hood initially concentrated her fire on Prinz Eugen assuming her to be the Bismarck while Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck.

During the initial exchange of fire Prince of Wales drew first blood by hitting Bismarck three times with her 14″ guns. One hit damaged Bismarck’s seaplane catapult. A second did minor damage to machinery spaces, and a third which passed throughBismarck’s bow near the waterline and severed the fuel lines from her forward fuel tanks to her engines. The third hit would prove the might German Leviathan’s undoing.

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Prinz Eugen

Both German ships opened fire at 0555 and concentred their fires 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, Admiral Holland ordered his ships to turn to port in order to bring the rear turrets of his battleships 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 of Hood. The hit set off the 4″ magazine and the resultant explosion 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.

With Hood now destroyed the Germans rapidly shifted their fire to the Prince of Wales, crippling the battleship and knocking her out of the action.  Bismarck was now in a perfect position to finish off Prince of Wales but she did not do so. Against the advice of Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann, Admiral Lütjens refused to follow up his advantage to sink the crippled British battleship and instead broke off the action.

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Hood blows up. Drawing by the Captain of HMS Prince of Wales J.C. Leach

Only three crewmen for Hood, Petty Officer Ted Briggs, Seaman Bob Tilburn and Midshipman Bill Dundas survived the cataclysm out of a total of 1415 souls embarked. They were rescued 4 hours later nearly dead of hypothermia. They stayed awake by singing  “Roll out the Barrel” until they were rescued by the destroyer HMS Electra.

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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)

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Ted Briggs

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Bob Tilburn

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. However, all theories point to a massive magazine explosion which may not have be caused by a plunging round but from a hit which detonated the unprotected 4” magazines or a hit from Bismarck that struck below Hood’s waterline and exploded in a magazine.

For forty years the Hood’s wreckage lay undiscovered. Her wreck was located in 2001 lying across two debris fields. The post mortem examination revealed that Hood’s after magazines had exploded.  Hood’s resting place is designated as a War Grave by Britain and protected site under the Protection of Military Remains Act of 1986.

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Bismarck sinking

Bismarck and her crew did not long survive her victory.  When close to refuge in the French port of Brest on May 26th the great ship was crippled by a lucky aerial torpedo hit from a Fairley Swordfish bomber flying from the HMS Ark Royal. 

The hit damaged Bismarck’s rudders and forced her to steer a course towards the approaching British fleet. Throughout the night Bismarck fought off attacks by British and Polish destroyers on the morning of May 27th 1941, after absorbing massive damage from the HMS King George V, HMS Rodney and several cruisers including HMS Dorsetshire, he plucky and persistent Norfolk and several destroyers, Bismarck was scuttled by her crew. 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.

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HMS Prince of Wales

A few months later, Prince of Wales would take Winston Churchill to Argentia Bay Newfoundland to meet with Franklin Roosevelt. At the conference that took place in August 1941, the Atlantic Charter was drafted. With the increased threat of Japanese expansion Prince of Wales 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 as a prize by the US Navy when the war ended. She was used as a target during the Able and Baker nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, but did not sink. She was too radioactive to be repaired and her hulk 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, and human beings bear the brunt of such tragedies.  Of the over 3600 officers and crew of the Hood and the Bismarck only 118 survived.

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I will continue to remember the gallant Hood, her brave crew, especially my very distant relative Midshipman Bill Dundas who I never met.  He left the Royal Navy with the rank of Lieutenant Commander in 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.  I think that I could understand as I am still troubled by my far less traumatic experience of war in Iraq.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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