Remembering The Fallen: On this day in 1941, the battlecruiser, HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, was sunk by the German battleship, Bismarck. Pictured are Admiral Lancelot Holland, Leading Torpedo Man Walter Treloar and Captain Ralph Kerr.
The Bismarck was a new battleship that had been ordered to sail out into the Atlantic, along with her consort, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. They were to attack the Allied convoys bringing war supplies from the United States and Canada to the UK. The two German ships would have needed to pass one of the routes in between Scotland, the Orkneys, the Shetland Islands, the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland. These were patrolled by cruisers of the Royal Navy and so had been placed on full alert to expect a breakout into the Atlantic by the two German ships. They had been photographed by British air reconnaissance in a Norwegian fjord.
On 21st May, 1941, British air reconnaissance saw no sign of either the Bismarck or Prinz Eugen. It was clear they had left Norwegian waters. The hunt was on. And the scene was set for one of the most dramatic sea chases of the Second World War.
On 23rd May, 1941, both the German ships were sighted in the Denmark Strait (the stretch of water in between Iceland and Greenland) by the cruiser HMS Suffolk. She immediately sent out an enemy report that was picked up by another cruiser in the area, HMS Norfolk, and relayed to the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow. The two cruisers were ordered to shadow the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen using radar, which at that time was new technology. The cruisers were to report every alteration in course or speed of the two German ships.
The Commander-in-Chief Fleet, Admiral Sir John Tovey, already knew that the cruisers could never match the Bismarck in a straight artillery duel. In anticipation he already ordered the battlecruiser HMS Hood and the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, both under the command of Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland, to set sail into the Atlantic to be ready for action once the Bismarck had been located. Admiral Tovey also had his own flagship, HMS King George V at his disposal as well as another battleship, HMS Rodney.
Vice-Admiral Holland set a course for the Denmark Strait to intercept the two German ships at dawn on 24th May, 1941. At 05:52, Hood and Prince of Wales opened fire on the Bismarck. Three minutes later, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen returned fire, both of them concentrating on the Hood. One round from the Prinz Eugen landed on Hood’s boat deck in between the funnels.
Due to her position, the Hood was only initially able to fire using both her forward guns at the Bismarck. Admiral Holland ordered the Hood to turn so her after guns could be brought into action. Just before 06:00 as the Hood executed a turn to port (nautical term meaning to the left) to do this, the Bismarck at a range of about 18,000 yards fired her fifth salvo at her. The Hood was straddled by several 15-inch shells. However, one of them landed on the Hood’s boat deck and penetrated below her decks where it detonated. The result was catastrophic. It caused a massive explosion which tore the ship clean in two. Both sections were almost vertical as they lifted out of the water before sinking. Horrified onlookers on the Bismarck, Prinz Eugen and Prince of Wales briefly stopped the fighting as they watched the Hood sink.
Out of a crew of 1,418, only three survived. The remaining 1,415 men, including Admiral Holland and the Commanding Officer, Captain Ralph Kerr, all perished, making this one of the UK’s worst single naval disasters. There was no question of a brand new battleship like the Prince of Wales taking on the Bismarck single-handed. Admiral Wake-Walker, on board HMS Norfolk as the senior surviving naval officer in the area following the death of Admiral Holland, ordered her to break off the action.
The loss of the Hood caused great shock at home. On hearing the dreadful news, the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, issued his famous order to the Royal Navy. It was simple – ‘Sink the Bismarck!’
The Bismarck was eventually cornered and sunk three days later by the British Home Fleet. But not before she unleashed her mighty firepower against the Hood. The Prinz Eugen, having separated from the Bismarck, reached the French port of Brest on 1st June. She would be captured at the end of the war.
HMS Hood, pennant number 51, or the ‘Mighty Hood’ as she was affectionately known, was laid down at Clydebank in 1916, launched in 1918 and commissioned in 1920. She was the epitome of Royal Navy sea power in the interwar years and often acted as British ambassador in most of the places she visited.
It should be remembered that by the time she encountered the Bismarck in 1941, she was already 21 years old. Even so, she could achieve a speed of 31 knots and fire an impressive weight of shell. Like the Bismarck, her main armament also comprised of eight 15-inch guns. Unfortunately though, these advantages had come at a cost. She was by Second World War standards inadequately armoured. She lacked the heavy horizontal deck armour that would have protected her against the long-range plunging shellfire that ultimately led to her destruction.
The use of radar also played its part on both sides. The British used it to track the Bismarck whilst the Bismarck herself used it for range-finding for her guns. This was one other reason as the Hood found out to her cost why the German gunners were so devastatingly accurate. It was not known to the British at the time the Germans used radar in this way.
In August, 2015, a salvage operation successfully recovered the ship’s bell from the seabed. As the wreck is officially a war grave, permission had to be sought to do this. For land battles for the most part at least, there are graves that can be visited. However, when a ship sinks at sea, there is no grave as such. It was felt the recovery of the bell and putting it on display would serve as a permanent memorial to both the ship and her crew. The bell will be on display at the Royal Navy’s museum in Portsmouth.
Today, we remember the crew of HMS Hood. The link here lists the names of all 1,415 men who lost their lives: http://www.hmshood.com/crew/memorial/roh_24may41.htm - Rest In Peace, lads, each and every one of you.
Her motto: Ventis Secundis, which translated into English means ‘With favourable winds.’
O ETERNAL Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, and rulest the raging of the sea; who hast compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end: Be pleased to receive into thy Almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us thy servants, and the Fleet in which we serve. Preserve us from the dangers of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy; that we may be a safeguard unto our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, and her Dominions, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions; that the inhabitants of our Island may in peace and quietness serve thee our God; and that we may return in safety to enjoy the blessings of the land, with the fruits of our labours; and with a thankful remembrance of thy mercies to praise and glorify thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.
Si vis pacem, para bellum.