0659 hours CET. 24 May, 2016. Seventy-five years ago to this moment a fifteen inch (38cm) shell from the German fast battleship KM Bismarck entered above the aft main magazine of the British battlecruiser HMS Hood. At some 47,000 tons and also armed with a main armament of eight fifteen inch guns ‘The Mighty Hood’ was the symbol of British naval might during the interbellum. Moments later Hood was a broken, sinking, flaming wreck.
HMS Hood was joined in the action by the brand new and effectively incomplete battleship HMS Prince of Wales under the command of Captain J.C. Leach. Having been hit seven times by Bismarck. HMS Prince of Wales was also damaged in the action and Captain Leach had to take evasive manoeuvres to avoid the rearing wreck of the Hood as she broke up and sank. The damaged Prince of Wales subsequently made smoke to mask her range and correctly broke off the action affording the Germans a major naval victory.
Recently film was unearthed taken from the German heavy-cruiser KM Prinz Eugen which shows the moment HMS Hood blew up. The flash suggests an explosion with the force of a low yield atomic weapon which broke the Hood apart. Within a minute 1418 men were lost, including the fleet commander Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland, as the Hood sank into the icy wastes of the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. Three of Hood’s sailors survived; Able Seamen Ted Briggs, Bill Dundas and Bob Tillmann.
In July 2001 the wreck of HMS Hood was discovered lying in some 1500 fathoms or 3000 metres. She rests in three sections with the bow on its port side some distance ahead of an upside down amidships section, whilst what remains of the stern rests a further distance away astern. Astonishingly, some 300 feet (or 100 metres) of the hull appears to have simply disintegrated, testament to the force of what actually may have been two blasts, with the explosion of the aft main magazine followed shortly thereafter by the forward main magazine as she sank.
HMS Hood was soon avenged. Crucially, during the action HMS Prince of Wales scored at least three hits on Bismarck one in the forward oil bunker which flooded the German ship with 2000 tons of sea water and forced her to abandon her commerce-raiding mission. Three days later at 0800 hours on 27 May the Hood’s assailant capsized and sank taking with her 1995 of her 2200 strong crew. In an exercise in sea power the Bismarck was hunted down by the Royal Navy, crippled by British carrier-based aircraft, and in what rapidly became a massacre Bismarck was effectively destroyed by the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney under the command of Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, Admiral J.C. Tovey. She was then sunk by three torpedoes from the heavy-cruiser HMS Dorsetshire (although German accounts claim Bismarck was scuttled). The shattered wreck of the Bismarck now lies at a depth of 4790 metres, 470 nautical miles west of Brest.
Lessons? Some questions must be asked about Admiral Holland’s tactics. The intercept course plotted by Holland enabled the two German ships to engage both the Hood and Prince of Wales with their full armament, whilst the British ships could only engage with their forward main armament during the early stages of the action. In a ghostly memory of events seventy-five years ago the rudders on Hood’s wreck are locked forever hard to port demonstrating clearly that as she blew up Admiral Holland was attempting to ‘open the arc’ of the Hood’s main aft turrets so they too could fire on Bismarck.
There also seems to have been mistakes made on board Hood in ship identification as the flagship first engaged the Prinz Eugen leaving Bismarck to open fire unmolested. A review of the Prinz Eugen film on YouTube also shows British shells falling far from their target with little or no grouping of the shells as they splash harmlessly into the sea.
HMS Hood was a part-modernised British battlecruiser-cum-fast battleship of 1919 vintage that was in reality no match for the Bismarck. Her destruction was sorry testament to what happens when technology is over-reached by strategy. The Bismarck was an ultra-modern 1941 battleship which combined speed, armour and firepower. However, the Bismarck’s own fate was sealed because technology alone cannot atone for bad strategy.
As the forward section of HMS Hood slipped beneath the waves her two forward turrets barked out one last defiant salvo. It may well have been that all the guns were loaded and the firing circuits closed as the ship sank. Quite possibly it was a last salute from a brave but doomed sailor or Royal Marine on board a dying ship.
Seventy years ago this week and within three days some 3400 Europeans were killed at sea. At this time of European foment it is perhaps appropriate to remember the sacrifice of all those who gave their lives - British and German alike.
Requiescat in Pace. Rest in peace. Rühe in Frieden.