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80th anniversary of the loss of the 'mighty Hood'

HMS Hood at Scapa Flow
24 May 2021
There was no greater shock reverberating through the Royal Navy in World War 2 than what happened on this day 80 years ago in the bleak, icy waters of the Denmark Strait.

Shortly after 6am on Saturday May 24 1941, two words in a terse signal brought grown men to tears and were met with disbelief across the Senior Service: Hood sunk.

In every generation one warship comes to embody the Royal Navy. Between the two world wars, that ship was the battle-cruiser HMS Hood, one of a kind, an ambassador for the Navy and Empire.

The ‘mighty Hood’ – 860ft long, 47,000 tonnes, home to and workplace of more than 1,400 souls, eight 15in guns in four twin turrets, capable of moving through the oceans at 30kts – had flown the flag repeatedly since her commissioning in 1920, but seen relatively little action, beyond attacking the French fleet at Oran the previous summer.

In the spring of 1941, she was old, tired – a refit planned in 1939 had been postponed by the outbreak of war – and being superseded by a new generation of warships such as Germany’s Bismarck and Britain’s King George V class.

The latest of the latter, HMS Prince of Wales, was brand new but prone to breakdowns – such that technicians from Vickers Armstrong were aboard to help resolve them.

And it was to the veteran Hood and untested Prince of Wales that the Home Fleet turned when news of the maiden sortie by Bismarck and her accompanying heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen became known. 

The two capital ships were dispatched with escorting destroyers to intercept the pride of Hitler’s Fleet.

The two forces met around 300 miles west of Iceland a little after 5.30am on May 24 and closed until the Germans opened fire at 5.55am at a range of 25,000 yards – over 14 miles.

Within two minutes the heavy cruiser had Hood’s range and with her second salvo straddled the battle-cruiser and hit fuel stored near her after mast.

The British ship in reply had Bismarck in her sights and was getting the range when at 6.01am a salvo from Bismarck plunged through Hood’s deck armour and exploded in the battlecruiser’s after turret magazine, detonating 100 tons of cordite.

I made out the bow of the battle-cruiser projecting upwards at an angle, a sure sign that she had broken in two…Huge fragments, one of which looked like a main turret, whirled through the air like toys

Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg, gunnery officer Bismarck

Aboard Bismarck there was a cry: “She’s blowing up!” as gunnery officer Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg looked through his director to find Hood had disappeared:

“In her place was a colossal pillar of black smoke reaching into the sky. Gradually, at the foot of the pillar, I made out the bow of the battle-cruiser projecting upwards at an angle, a sure sign that she had broken in two…Huge fragments, one of which looked like a main turret, whirled through the air like toys. Wreckage of every description littered the water around the Hood.”

From the Prinz Eugen, crew saw the forward part of the ship angled at 45 degrees out of the water. “The turrets, the mast, including the bridge and funnels, were still standing,” the log recorded. There Hood hung for a couple of minutes before disappearing beneath the waves, taking Vice Admiral Holland and more than 1,400 crew with her; only three men survived: Ordinary Signalman Ted Briggs, Able Seaman Robert Tilburn and Midshipman William Dundas. They spent around three hours in the water before being rescued by destroyer HMS Electra.

The Germans now turned their attention to Prince of Wales, which had closed to within 15,000 yards of the two German vessels.

Under the weight of the combined fire of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, she heeled to port, battered by seven hits which wiped out her bridge and caused her to ship 600 tons of water.

Bismarck could – and probably would – have finished off the stricken battleship, but that was not its orders; the primary mission was to sink merchant shipping.

The Battle of the Denmark Strait lasted barely 16 minutes. One Royal Navy capital ship was sunk, another limping back to base.

But the damage Prince of Wales inflicted on her foe ensured she would never sink another vessel. Rather than strike out into the Atlantic, Bismarck was forced to make for St Nazaire in France.

Titanic efforts by the Royal Navy would deny her that escape. 

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