What was the deal with the Bismarck and the Hood?

On 19 May 1941 the German battleship Bismarck (below left), then the largest and most powerful battleship in the world, put to sea on a commerce raiding cruise accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (below right). The movement of the two ships was quickly discovered by the British and on 20 May 1941 an RAF Spitfire reconnaissance aircraft spotted the two ships in a fjord in Norway.

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The battlecruiser HMS Hood (below left) was ordered to sea to intercept the Bismarck. She was accompanied by the battleship HMS Prince of Wales (below right). There is critical importance here in the nomenclature of “battlecruiser” vs “battleship.”

HMS Hood was based on a design for a “battlecruiser” created before the First World War. This turned out not to work well in practice. The major naval clash in World War One was between the British Royal Naval and the Imperial German Navy. The British refer to this contest as the ‘Battle of Jutland’,  named after the nearby Jutland Peninsular of Denmark and the Germans refer to it as the ‘Battle of the Skagerrak’ named after the body of water in which most of the battle was fought.

This is a massively complex naval engagement but suffice it to say that Admiral David Beatty, commanding the Royal Navy battlecruiser squadron, came upon the German line of battle before the Royal Navy battleships were in a position to support him. Beatty’s flagship, HMS Lion, was hit repeatedly.

Three other of Beatty’s battlecruisers were hit hard by the Germans and those three ships exploded (due to a faulty magazine design) leaving Beatty to utter his famous quote, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today…”

A battlecruiser had the armament of a battleship but not the heavy armor. Therefore, a battlecruiser was faster than a battleship of that era. The theory was they could outfight any ship they could sink and out run any ship that could sink them. Hence, battlecruisers were not designed to engage battleships of that era.

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Hood wasn’t actually commissioned until 1919 when World War One was over. Although her design was changed as she was being built, she had two major defects which the Royal Navy knew about even before she was  launched: her deck armor over her main magazines was totally inadequate – less than three inches vs more than five inches on the battleship Prince of Wales.

Second, HMS Hood‘s main powder rooms were badly designed and susceptible to flashbacks – that is if the ship was hit in a certain place, the explosion would follow the path of the powder hoist, hit the powder magazine, and the entire ship would explode. This is exactly what happened to the HMS Hood when she encountered the Bismarck and was hit by Bismarck‘s highly accurate gunnery.

The Battle of the Denmark Strait, which is what is described below, is one of the few duels between capital ships in history. Also, no aircraft were involved.

So desperate were the British to sink the Bismarck that the Prince of Wales was ordered to sea before she was fully worked up and before the defects noted during her work up were repaired. Captain Leach put to sea with more than forty civilian workers from the Vickers-Armstrong Company aboard the ship (they volunteered to stay aboard) working on serious teething problems being experienced by the main batteries. The flotilla was commanded by Admiral Lancelot Holland.

0545 24 May 1941 – Bismarck and Prinz Eugen encounter the battlecruiser HMS Hood and the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the Battle of the Denmark Strait begins. At 0552, HMS Hood fires the first shots of the battle. Prinz Eugen and Bismarck respond in kind. Eight minutes later, at 0600, a shell from the Bismarck hits HMS Hood in her aft powder magazine.

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The Germans see a brilliant flash then watch open-mouthed as HMS Hood literally detonates before their eyes. The huge ship vanishes in less than two minutes leaving three survivors from her crew of fourteen hundred. What Royal Navy experts had feared could happen to the Hood had happened. Prior to the Bismarck being launched, the HMS Hood was the largest warship in the world and the symbol of British Imperial power. Plans had been made many times to take her out of service for a number of months and fix the glaring problems of the ship. This never happened.

The Germans then pounded the Prince of Wales which sustained seven hits. At the same time, the four three turrets holding the ten fourteen inch guns of the main battery began to malfunction one by one.

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Prince of Wales made smoke and turned away. Shortly afterwards all four three of her main battery turrets stopped functioning and the guns would not traverse. Prince of Wales was able to escape.

The German squadron was commanded by Admiral Lutjens. Why he did not pursue and sink the Prince of Wales, which he certainly could have done, remains a mystery.

Japanese aircraft sank the Prince of Wales on 10 December 1941 while she was patrolling off Singapore.

The last of HMS Hood‘s survivors died in 2008.

The Daily Telegraph
October 5th, 2008As an 18-year-old Flag-Lieutenant’s messenger, Briggs was on Hood‘s compass platform when a shell from Bismarck hit the ship between centre and stern, penetrated the deck, exploded and touched off the ammunition in the four-inch and 15-inch magazines. According to one witness, the column of flame generated was “four times the height of the mainmast”.

Ted Briggs himself recalled that he was lifted off his feet and dumped headfirst on the deck: “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.” There was no time, or need, for an order to abandon ship. Hood sank within three minutes…

…Briggs was sucked down beneath the sea. He later wrote: “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.”

Briggs swam clear of the stricken ship and, when he looked back, she had gone.
Only two other men – Midshipman William Dundas and Able-Seaman Bob Tilburn – survived. All three clung to small rafts for nearly four hours, singing Roll Out the Barrel to stay awake; even so, they were close to death from hypothermia when they were picked up by the destroyer Electra. Their rescuers could not believe that there was no sign of anyone else from Hood, alive or dead…

Johnny Horton wrote a ballad about the clash between the Bismarck and the Hood in 1960.

[UPDATEHT to the reader who saw the story cross-posted in the Military History Digest for identifying the turrets slip.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

One thought on “What was the deal with the Bismarck and the Hood?”

  1. This article reminds me of a story, probably apocryphal, common in my family when I was a child. My father’s sister married a young man who was an aircrewman in the RN Fleet Air Arm. The legend has it he was in the crew of the Catalina that spotted Bismark after she disappeared following the above encounter with Hood. Not content to leave it that, the legend further states Uncle “Wicked” actually cried over the radio, “There’s the Bismark!”, breaking radio silence and earning himself a stay in the brig for that sin. My father, a teller of great and wonderful tales, told me this story many times, and Uncle “Wicked” didn’t dissuaded him from doing so. I’ve never been able to prove or disprove the story in spite of reading a fair bit on the the hunt for Bismark. It almost certainly belongs in the Family Legend category, but it’s an interesting example of the little details that get added to legendary events.

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