The Battlecruiser HMS Hood

Posted on Wednesday 23rd May 2012

HMS Hood was the last battlecruiser ever built for the Royal Navy. With the British Empire drained economically by the war, and the Grand Fleet destined mostly for the scrap yard, Hood and two other relatively new battlecruisers were retained in service. Hood was a heavyweight boxer with a glass jaw. Lacking essential full modernization, but benefiting from an exaggerated reputation as the world's most beautiful and powerful warship, in 1941 the so-called 'Mighty Hood' was ill-prepared to fight the latest capital ships. On a good day she was capable of destroyer speeds – shifting her nearly 50,000 tons and eight 15-inch guns through the water at 30 plus knots. As a new naval arms race gathered pace in the 1930s, Hood remained busy flying the flag – maintaining the impression of the Royal Navy as a ruler of the seven seas – but newer, even more heavily-armed and faster ships were taking shape. They had the sort of protection needed to survive a slugging match that Hood so sorely lacked.

HMS 'Mighty' Hood.
Shortly after midnight on 24 May, Vice Admiral Holland ordered the Hood's immense battle ensign hoisted. By 04.30 visibility had improved and dozens of pairs of eyes were scanning the north-western horizon where, 30 miles off, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were steaming towards their unexpected encounter.
At 05.52 Hood fired her opening salvo against Prinz Eugen at a range of 25,000 yards. Prince of Wales followed against Bismarck a few seconds later.
It seems likely that Hood redirected her fire from Prinz Eugen to the Bismarck. None of her shells registered on their targets. Her firepower had been reduced by half by her angle of approach and the turret rangefinders were being drenched in spray as she thundered into a head sea at 29 knots.
No such problems faced the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen and the Battle of Denmark Strait would provide a further demonstration of the lethal accuracy of German gunnery. After a brief delay the German squadron took Hood under fire against the morning horizon. Soon their shells were screaming in 'like an express train going through a tunnel'. Bismarck's first salvo, unleashed at 05.55, fell just wide. Her second straddled, the Hood pressing on between towering geysers of water. But it was Prinz Eugen which drew first blood. A shell from her second salvo struck Hood on the boat deck, the Rev. Stewart calmly informing the crew that 'That sound you heard was Hood being hit at the base of the main mast.'
Hood's agony had begun. Prinz Eugen's shell had started an uncontrollable fire among dozens of ready-use lockers for 4in and UP ammunition which soon began to take a terrible toll of the boat-deck personnel. Orders had been passed for the gun crews to take cover in the lobby beneath the bridge structure when action commenced. Crew members from the Prince of Wales were spotted making futile efforts to control the blaze with deck hoses. The ammunition went off like fire crackers. But much worse was to come. A shell landed inside by the bridge structure making a terrible execution of the 200 men sheltering there.
At approximately 06.00 – just seven or eight minutes after she had opened fire – Holland ordered his second 20-degree turn to port. Even as the Hood began to execute her turn a shell from Bismarck's fifth salvo was hurtling in from about 16,000 yards. With it came the mortal hit.
Realizing the ship was finished, those on the compass platform began to file noiselessly out of the starboard door. Only Holland and Kerr remained, the Admiral broken in his chair and beside him his flag captain, struggling to keep his footing as the Hood capsized. Neither made the slightest effort to escape. The first waves lapped onto the deck as the Hood began to heel over. There were only three survivors; Tilburn, Briggs and Dundas, all were propelled to the surface by air releasing from collapsing boilers and bulkheads. But for this phenomenon the Hood might have been lost with all hands.
Hood explodes at 0600 on 24 May 1941.

So it was that, a little after 0600 on the morning of 24 May, the pitiful remnants of the Hood's crew found themselves adrift among the sparse wreckage of their ship in a 15–20 foot swell. The battle raged on under leaden skies. Beneath them the pride of the Royal Navy and 1,415 of her crew were sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic.
'If ever a ship died in action, the Hood did.'

HMS Hood's badge. The motto Ventis Secundis meaning 'with favourable winds'.

Traditionally reckoned to be the last image of Hood as an effective unit, taken from Prince of Wales during the voyage to the Denmark Strait on the afternoon or evening of 23 May.
Ted Briggs, survivor: 'I was flung off my feet. My ears were ringing as if I had been in the striking chamber of Big Ben. I picked myself up, thinking I had made a complete fool of myself, but everyone else on the compass platform was also scrambling to his feet. [Cdr (G) E H G] "Tiny" Gregson walked almost sedately out to the starboard wing of the platform to find out what had happened.'

The sinking of HMS Hood by the Bismarck.

Bob Tilburn (survivor) and his companions were face down in the lee of the port forward UP launcher when Hood received her death blow: 'The next shell came aft and the ship shook like mad. I was next to the gun shield, so I was protected from the blast, but one of my mates was killed and the other had his side cut open by a splinter. It opened him up like a butcher and all his innards were coming out.'

Further Reading

The Battlecruiser HMS Hood
(Hardback - 272 pages)
ISBN: 9781848320000

by Bruce Taylor
Only £28.00 RRP £35.00

The battlecruiser HMS Hood is one of the great warships of history. Unmatched for beauty and charisma, unequalled for size, for 20 years the she was the glory ship of the Royal Navy, flying the flag across the world in the twilight years of the British Empire. Here, in words, photos and colour artwork, is the story of her life, her work and her people, from the laying of her keel on the Clyde in 1916 to her awful destruction at the hands of the Bismarck in 1941.

Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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