Future War and the Defence of Europe
John R. Allen, Ben Hodges and Julian Lindley-French
(Oxford: Oxford University Press)
0559 hours, Denmark Strait time, May 24, 2021
Eighty years ago to the minute in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, a fifteen inch (38cm) armour-piercing naval shell from the German fast battleship KM Bismarck crashed into the starboard side of the British battlecruiser HMS Hood between the main mast and one of her aft main gun turrets. The shell penetrated deep into the innards of Hood, pierced the armoured deck and then exploded in one of the shell rooms for the ship’s 4 inch guns, right next to where the shells for two of the Hood’s own main 15 inch batteries were secured. As Bismarck’s shell exploded the stored and ‘ready’ British shells joined together in an almighty chorus of cataclysmic death that sent a cathedral spire of flame towering over the doomed ship. As Hood exploded X turret, one of her two main aft gun batteries which weighed some 2500 tons, was seen soaring into the sky above the ship almost completely intact. Immediately, the entire forward section of the ship began to rear up as the Hood broke first into two sections, and then three, as the forward main magazines also ignited. Within three minutes of the initial explosion Hood had vanished below the surface of the frigid North Atlantic taking 1415 men down with her. Only three survived, Able Seaman Ted Briggs, Able Seaman Bill Dundas and Able Seaman Bob Tillmann.
Under the command of Captain R. Kerr CBE, and displacing some 47,000 tons, The Mighty Hood was the very symbol of British naval might during the interbellum. HMS Hood was joined in the action by the brand new, but effectively still incomplete battleship HMS Prince of Wales under the command of Captain J.C. (Jack) Leach DSO, MVO which was forced to undertake a drastic evasive manoeuvre to avoid hitting the rearing, burning, tortured wreck of the sinking Hood in front of him. Bismarck also struck Prince of Wales seven times during the action and Captain Leach was forced to make smoke to mask her range correctly broke off the action even though it afforded the Germans what appeared at first to be a major naval victory. However, HMS Prince of Wales had also scored three hits on the Bismarck, one of which was in the forward oil bunker of the German ship and which would in time prove fatal.
Some years ago filmwas unearthed. It is a unique record of the battle and includes the moment HMS Hood exploded. It was shot by a brave German officer on board the heavy-cruiser KM Prinz Eugen which was escorting the Bismarck. There is an enormous flash on the horizon as HMS Hood blows up suggesting that the explosion or explosions which blew the Hood apart may have had the force of a low yield atomic weapon. In July 2001 David Mearns and his team at Blue Water Recoveries discovered the wreck of HMS Hood lying in the silt plains of the Irminger Basin some 270 miles/400km west southwest of Reykjavik at a depth of 1497 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 from the rest of the debris field. Astonishingly, some 300 feet (or 100 metres) of the hull appears to have simply disintegrated, testament to the force of the explosions that destroyed her.
HMS Hood was soon avenged. Crucially, the salvo from HMS Prince of Wales that had struck Bismarck led to the loss a lot of fuel oil and she had also been flooded with over 2000 tons of sea water. Indeed, towards the end of the Prinz Eugen film it is clear that the German battleship is down by the head. She was also listing 9 degrees to port. The damage was such that the German fleet commander, Admiral Gunther Lutjens, was forced to abandon her planned commerce-raiding mission (Operation Rheinubung) and seek refuge in Brest on the French coast. Three days later, at 0800 hours on the morning of May 27th, 1941 the Hood’s assailant capsized and sank taking with her 1995 of her 2200 strong crew. During an exercise in British sea power the Bismarck had been remorselessly hunted down by the Royal Navy, crippled by British carrier-based aircraft from HMS Ark Royal, and in what rapidly became a massacre effectively destroyed by the heavy battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney under the command of Admiral J.C. Tovey, Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet. The coup de grace was delivered by three torpedoes from the heavy-cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, although German accounts claim Bismarck was also scuttled. The shattered wreck of the Bismarck now lies at a depth of 2619 fathoms or 4790 metres some 470 nautical miles west of Brest.
The British fleet commander was Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland CB and controversy remains to this day about the tactics he adopted during the action. 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. However, the Royal Navy’s battle orders of the time recommended such an approach to reduce the profile of ships to the enemy, albeit at high speed. Vice-Admiral Holland would also have been acutely aware of the vulnerability of HMS Hood to Bismarck’s plunging fire. HMS Hood was a battlecruiser not a battleship, a flawed concept from the Edwardian age that sacrificed armour for speed in the mistaken belief the latter would protect her when under fire from ‘heavy’ opponents. At the Battle of Jutland in May 1916 HMS Queen Mary, HMS Indefatigable, and the unfortunately named HMS Invincible, three forebears of HMS Hood, all exploded in very similar circumstances with great loss of life. Indeed, the then commander of the British Battlecruiser Fleet, Admiral D.R. Beatty GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO, PC famously remarked during the battle that, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”. There was, a failure of concept.
Holland was clearly trying to following battle orders and had already ordered by Hood and Prince of Wales to accelerate to flank speed or 28 knots, which explains why the wreck’s debris field extends over some 2 miles or 3 kilometres. However, Hood did not approach Bismarck and Prinz Eugen head on but on a converging course, which enabled the Germans to target the entire length of Hood from the start of the action. Holland had also begun to turn to port in an attempt to bring Hood’s aft main turrets into action, which at that speed should have taken no more than 30 seconds. As a ghostly reminder of those terrible events eighty years ago today the large single rudder on Hood’s wrecked upturned stern, which also reveals her vintage, is indeed locked in a 20 degree turn to port. Mistakes also seem to have been made on board Hood in identifying the main target as Holland’s flagship first engaged the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen leaving Bismarck to open fire unmolested until Prince of Wales got her range, although the Germans similarly failed to engage Leach’s ship for part of the action. A review of the Prinz Eugen film on YouTube also shows some British shells falling far from their target with little or no grouping of the shells as they splash harmlessly into the sea, whilst German gunnery was excellent throughout the action.
However, perhaps the greatest error made is germane to my new Oxford book Future War and the Defence of Europe co-written with my friends and colleagues General (Ret.) John R. Allen and Lieutenant-General (Ret.) Ben Hodges. HMS Hood was known as ‘good, old Hood’ in the Royal Navy and by much of the country. Her image almost gave her a political allure. Unfortunately, whilst the British tended to remember the ‘good’ they also tended to forget the ‘old’. Launched in August 1918 at the end of World War One, by the spring of 1941 Hood was in reality no match for the Bismarck. There had been plans in the 1930s to completely refit her as a fast battleship, but due to funding constraints in 1937 such ‘modernisation’ had been only partially completed. In other words, Hood’s destruction was sorry testament to what happens when poor concept and ageing technology is over-reached by strategy, budget constraints and hubris. It is not without some tragic irony that part of the funding that had been earmarked for the modernisation of HMS Hood was diverted to complete the then new ‘KGV’ class of five battleships, one of which was HMS Prince of Wales, and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.
So, why was an ageing battlecruiser and an as yet not fully worked-up battleship sent to tackle a state-of-the-art German battleship? The short answer is that the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet had nothing else of note to send. By May 1941 Churchill had become extremely worried about the menace posed by German U-boats to war-sustaining Atlantic convoys. Even though at the time the Royal Navy was still the world’s largest naval force it was spread thin across several theatres. For Churchill, the fate of the war hung in the balance and the thought of the Bismarck breaking out into the Atlantic and wreaking havoc on the convoys was a terrifying prospect. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that for all the cataclysmic pathos of the Battle of Denmark Strait on the morning of May 24th, 1941, HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales actually succeeded in their primary mission of blocking the KM Bismarck from entering the wider Atlantic.
Why does the tragedy of HMS Hood remain relevant? It is because her fate was sealed not simply by the guns of the Bismarck, but by peacetime defence policy which had failed to sufficiently align strategy, technology and capability with changing reality. In May 1941, the Bismarck was an ultra-modern battleship which combined speed, armour and firepower. Moreover, Bismarck’s own fate is equally relevant - technology, however good, cannot ever atone for bad strategy.
Future War and the Defence of Europe
Today, General (Ret.) John R. Allen, Lieut. Gen. (Ret.) Ben Hodges and I will take part in the first Washington launch event of our new Oxford book Future War and the Defence of Europe hosted by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). If you wish to attend (and you are most welcome) you can register viaRelevance? Without prudent defence policy in Europe there is no reason to believe something like the loss of Hood could not one day happen again.
As the forward section of HMS Hood slid beneath the waves with the bow pointing almost vertically into the air ‘A’ and ‘B’ turrets, her two forward most batteries, barked out a last angry salvo. It may well have been that the guns were loaded and the firing circuits closed as the ship sank. It was also quite possibly the last defiant act of a brave but doomed sailor or Royal Marine on board a dying ship. In August 2015, HMS Hood’s ship’s bell was raised from the devastated wreck almost exactly above where the main aft magazine had exploded on that terrible day back in 1941. It now sits proudly in the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, close to the berth of a new HMS Prince of Wales, a 70,000 ton aircraft carrier.
The 1941 HMS Prince of Wales? Her fate is also germane to the new book. She was sunk by Japanese air power three days after Pearl Harbor together with another ageing battlecruiser, HMS Repulse, on December 10th, 1941 off the coast of modern day Malaysia. Force Z lacked air cover because their accompanying aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable had previously run aground on her maiden voyage. Worse, poor co-ordination between Force Z and the Royal Air Force stationed in what was then British Malaya meant the force was insufficiently ‘joint’. The lack of vital air cover can also be attributed to closed minds on the part of some senior RN officers about the threat posed to capital ships by aircraft and rapidly improving torpedo technology.
Between May 24th and May 27th, 1941 some 3400 Europeans were killed-in-action at sea. My grandfather narrowly escaped the ghastly fate of being trapped in a sinking warship, and my great-uncle succumbed to it. Therefore, this heartfelt article is in tribute to all those who gave their lives on board HMS Hood and KM Bismarck, British and German alike. Once enemies, forever friends.
Requiescat in Pace. Rest in peace. Ruhet in Frieden. Venter Secundis.