HMS Hood was revered as the world’s most powerful warship for more than 20 years – earning its nickname ‘The Mighty Hood’. Yet in May 1941, during the battle of the Denmark Strait in the North Atlantic, it was struck near its ammunition magazines by shells from the German battleship Bismarck. These subsequently exploded, sinking the Royal Navy’s largest vessel in just 3 minutes, with the loss of all but three of its 1,418 crew.
This catastrophic event was not only a propaganda coup for Germany, but subsequently sparked a famous pursuit of the Bismarck. Why had it been so important for HMS Hood to hunt down the Bismarck specifically, and just how was this jewel in the Royal Navy’s crown destroyed so quickly?
‘The Mighty Hood’
HMS Hood was launched at John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank on 22 August 1918 – the final battlecruiser built for the Royal Navy, and its largest to date. By World War Two’s start, Hood was the most famous warship in the world, a floating embodiment of British sea power.
I’d never seen anything quite so powerful and beautiful. Beautiful for a battleships sounds an awful word, but there was no other way to describe her. – Testimony of Ted Briggs, HMS Hood
Hood was a battlecruiser – designed to scour the oceans seeking ships aiming to raid commerce boats. At 262 metres in length and 30 metres in the beam, Hood’s long, thin hull was designed for high speed, but although she had once managed 31-32 knots, by 1941 her engines were ageing.
Whilst Hood had eight 15 inch guns (two twin turrets at the front and two at the stern) and her armour was fairly similar to Bismarck’s, her protection was dated – designed before the effects of long-range plunging fire were fully understood. Hood thus went into battle inadequately protected for the demands of modern naval warfare.
The Bismarck was 251 metres in length and 30 metres in the beam. Whilst Bismarck’s design still contained elements of the old German Baden class World War One battleships, other aspects were very modern, including her efficient hull design and power (29 knots in all weathers).
Bismarck had the same armaments as HMS Hood, yet superior armour. Her internal subdivision made her hard to flood and therefore sink. Bismarck could absorb more damage while firing faster and more accurately than Hood – and was thus extremely dangerous.
Britain’s situation in early 1941
The Royal Navy had become stretched after losing France as a combat partner in 1940. This left the UK alone against the German and Italian Navy. The German Navy in World War Two was fairly small, designed to focus on sea denial – limiting the enemy’s fleet, pinning it in place and attacking their sea lanes.
By 1941, Britain had won the Battle of Britain but was still vulnerable, being on the fringe of Europe. Britain now relied on fragile cargo routes crossing the Atlantic Ocean to obtain food and other vital supplies. Merchant ships were often grouped into a convoy with lots of small warships and anti-submarine ships for protection.
While German U-boats and submarines inflicted the most damage, the deployment of large captial ships made their ‘commerce raiding’ more effective – when battleships like the Bismarck were utilised, the only thing a convoy could do was to scatter, leaving the merchant ships vulnerable to submarine attack.
If left unchecked, Bismarck threatened to dominate the Atlantic and starve Britain of the vital food and military supplies arriving from the rest of the world. The Admiralty therefore had no choice but to hunt down and stop the Bismarck.
In spring 1940, the Germans captured the French Atlantic ports, enabling them to service U-Boat fleets and provide a base for battleships and heavy cruisers. Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Head of the German navy, was quick to take advantage, basing U-Boat Wolfpack’s there and sending them out into the Atlantic to pray on British supply lines.
Raeder was inspired to repeat the success of Operation Berlin (in January 1941, where two fast, powerful battleships, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst swept through the Atlantic from Greenland to the Azores into Britain’s fragile shipping lanes) with the Bismarck. On 19 May 1941, Bismarck set off from the Baltic coast (escorted by Prinz Eugen), aiming to avoid contact with the Royal Navy and get out into the open Atlantic to start raiding convoys.
On 21 May, Flying Officer Michael Suckling photographed the Bismarck whilst he was flying over a fjord near Bergen. This put the Royal Navy on high alert and the British home fleet left their base in Scotland for the biggest single naval operation of the Second World War thus far. These convoys were stripped of their escorts, and all non-essential missions were cancelled.
At the heart of the fleet was HMS Hood, accompanied by brand new battleship, HMS Prince of Wales. The pair were ordered to cruise to the south of Iceland, using their speed to intercept Bismarck whichever route she took. Heavy cruisers also took up positions between the Shetland and Faroe Islands, in the Iceland-Faroe Gap and in the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland – meaning German ships would have to pass through a British net to get to the Atlantic.
On 22 May, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen tried to break out into the Atlantic through the Denmark Straits. Stationed here were HMS Norfolk and Suffolk, who identified the Bismarck. Whilst not powerful enough to engage with Bismarck, thanks to the British advantage of radar, they were able to report their presence and shadow them, avoiding periodic fire from Bismarck whilst summoning heavier forces – the nearest of which was HMS Hood, together with the Prince of Wales.
Although powerful, the Prince of Wales’s crew were unfamiliar with her. Many were inexperienced and civilian contractors were still aboard as she’d been rushed into service so quickly, with no time to iron out any kinks.
Britain went into action shortly after midnight on 24 May. Like the Prince of Wales, Bismarck was also new, untried and on her first deployment – neither had fought a battle. Despite the Germans also having Prinz Eugen, realistically they were outmatched.
The two sides spotted each other at dawn.
We were alright on the Hood, I mean it was the best, it was the finest ship in the world and we were safe, no bother. There was a certain amount of tension yes. I wouldn’t say we thought it was going to be historic. But we thought that Hood was the best. And we would beat the enemy…
There were going to be casualties, you don’t go into any action like that without expecting casualties but once again, it’s going to happen to someone else. It’s not going to happen to me. – Testimony of Bob Tilburn, HMS Hood
Hood was in danger from the outset, with the German ships’ full broadsides available to fire on the British ships. Britain could thus either turn to match the Germans (rendering her at a serious disadvantage in terms of her protection), or attempt to close the range (leaving only the forward turrets able to fire).
Holland chose to close-in, accepting he’d be out-gunned for a while. He hoped this meant Hood could get avoid the ‘plunge range’ quickly (where shells fired up into the air then plunged down, permeating the weaker deck armour) – a particular problem for Hood as her armour had already been slightly sacrificed for greater speed.
At 0553 Hood’s guns opened fire but made a terrible mistake. They were firing on the leading German ship, believing it to be Bismarck, yet during the night Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had changed position. For several crucial minutes, Hood was firing at the wrong target, giving Bismarck a free shoot. Although HMS Prince of Wales scored the first hit, Bismarck absorbed the blows.
As I was looking at the Bismarck, I saw all these little winking lights and I thought, oh, isn’t that pretty then all of a sudden I realised that what I thought was pretty was death and destruction in the form of about 8 tons of metal coming my way. – Testimony of John Gaynor, HMS POW
Holland had ordered Prince of Wales and Hood to stay close together to better coordinate their fire, yet this made them an easier target, especially due to Bismarck’s state-of-the-art Zeiss stereoscopic rangefinders. Although Holland soon re-targeted his guns to the Bismarck, valuable time was lost.
At 6am, Holland decided to turn Hood around to bring all of its guns to bear. Bismarck unleashed more shells until eventually scoring a direct hit.
HMS Hood sinks
HMS Hood was struck by several German shells near its ammunition magazines which subsequently exploded, causing the ship to sink. One theory is that the shell plunged through the decks, another suggests the blow was delivered by ‘a short’ where the shell landed in the water, travelled beneath the level of the side armour and penetrated the hull below. Ammunition magazines were stored in the bottom of the ship, so any shell that got through would have caused serious problems.
I personally didn’t hear any explosion at all. Again the ship shuddered and we were all thrown off our feet. And all I saw was a gigantic sheet of flame which shot round the front of the compass platform. After the hit you heard the screams and the noise of the carnage that was going on. There was no order to abandon ship. It wasn’t necessary – Testimony of Ted Briggs, HMS Hood
In the corner of my binoculars, you could see we were so close, I could see the Hood. All of a sudden there was a huge great orange flash and then when I looked out from my binoculars to where the Hood was. There was no Hood – Testimony of John Gaynor, HMS POW
Hood was ripped in half – its stern sank within seconds and bow rose vertically up into the air, its guns firing one last round. Within 3 minutes ‘The Mighty Hood’ sank. Of 1,415 men on board, only 3 survived.
The Prince of Wales was now alone, facing two German ships. In the next 4 minutes, 7 shells smashed into it.
We’d had a 15in shell go through the bridge and exploded as it was going out and killed an awful lot up there. And, a boy of 16 thinks that being wounded is a knick in the shoulder. But I, in my keenness. I was very, very keen in those days, went to do what I was supposed to do and start tidying up the bridge. And I went in, expecting to see people, and the first thing I saw as I went in, the wood panelling was little bits of flesh, splattered all around. And that was a very very big shock to me. I don’t think I ever got over that. – Testimony of Richard Osbourne, HMS POW
Less than 10 minutes after Hood sank, Captain John Leach of the Prince of Wales decided the odds were stacked too highly against them and ordered the ships’ withdrawal.
German propaganda coup
When word was radioed back to Germany, Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels immediately broadcast this huge coup to the nation. Germany now had a huge maritime victory alongside its run of conquests on the European continent. Bismarck had beaten the pride of the British fleet – there was no stopping Germany, who could now break out in the Atlantic and destroy Allied convoy routes.
Sink the Bismarck
British concerns regarding Bismarck’s capability of attacks on Allied supply routes across the Atlantic were now realised. Losing such a prestigious warship was a major blow to British pride and its sense of naval superiority, and fears grew re what Bismarck would do next.
Yet instead of breeding despondency, the Admiralty were now gripped with determination for this loss to be publicly avenged, to restore their dominance at sea. Now every ship was redirected with one purpose – to sink the Bismarck.