In Memoriam – HMS Hood

I just realised that today is a solemn anniversary which surprisingly hasn’t been marked in the media. On this day 70 years ago, i.e. 24th May 1941, the Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Hood was sunk by the German Battleship Bismarck in the Battle of the Denmark Strait. Of a ship’s complement of 1418 only three survived the sinking of HMS Hood; it was one of the greatest maritime disasters of the Second World War. I’m not one for dwelling excessively¬† on the past, but I think it’s a shame this event has not been remembered. We owe a lot to people like the 1415 who gave their lives that day, so I’m glad I remembered in time to pay my respects.

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23 Responses to “In Memoriam – HMS Hood”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    This was an anniversary I completely overlooked and being reminded of it was very appropriate.

    The loss of life on HMS Hood was tragic, as were the (much fewer) casualties on the Prince of Wales (which did not sink). And the sinking of the Bismarck was a very welcome outcome in the struggle for the survival of democracy and liberty in Europe, but one necessary event that resulted in further deaths, some of whom would not have been Nazis. That is the tragedy of war, and the tragedy of the very, very small number of wars that it is right and necessary to fight.

  2. Thank you very much for bringing this to my attention, I’m glad I was reminded in time to pay my respects!

    I’m lucky enough to have met Sub Lt. John Moffat, the Swordfish pilot credited with the torpedo that hit Bismarck’s rudder. Incredible chap. Managed to get him to sign a section of canvas from a Swordfish too! Now have it framed in my living room, with a background of a photocopy of his log book detailing the Bismarck attacks.

  3. Steve Warren Says:

    QI: The Dr Who actor Jon Pertwee served on HMS Hood, but was transferred off very shortly before her final voyage.

  4. One of my favorite Dr Whos missed being on the Hood that day after being transferred off.

    And the movie has the Bismarck shooting down some of the Swordfish, which they apparently didn’t (and they had trouble hitting as they flew so slow).

    • telescoper Says:

      The courage of the Swordfish pilots deserves the highest praise. Flying their antiquated biplanes very slowly (their top speed, sans torpedo, was about only 140 mph; and much slower when laden) in a straight line into heavy anti-artillery fire was virtually suicidal. They nevertheless managed to score two hits: one, by a Swordfish from HMS Victorious on the evening of 24th May, which caused little damage; and the other on 26th May by a Swordfish from HMS Ark Royal which struck the Bismarck’s rudder and left her helpless, unable to steer. In the second attack five Swordfish were damaged, one beyond repair, but none were shot down.

      It’s often said that they flew too slowly for the Bismarck’s fire control predictors, with the result that the shells exploded in well front of them without causing fatal damage. However, the books I read about it long ago suggested the main factor was that they flew so near the waves that most of Bismarck’s guns couldn’t depress to a sufficiently low elevation.

      Lessons were learned by the Germans for the “Channel Dash” in 1942 when an attack by six Swordfish was easily fought off despite the astonishing courage and determination of their crews. All six planes were shot down and their crews all killed. Several of these had taken part in the attack on the Bismarck, including Lt Cmdr Esmonde who led the attack. The German Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax recorded “… a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day”.

    • telescoper Says:

      PS. Another thing worth mentioning is that the daring and successful attack by Swordfish on the Italian fleet at Taranto was a direct inspiration behind the Japanese attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbour. The main difference being that Britain and Italy were actually at war at the time.

  5. ** JINX **

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Hood had a known vulnerability to plunging fire and Bismarck’s accurate gunnery soon did for her. The tale of the loss of these two great ships – and of the finding of their wrecks – is grimly compelling.

  7. telescoper Says:

    I always find myself torn, when thinking about things like this, between fascination with the action (the ships, tactics, and details of what happened) and a kind of shame that we humans put so much energy and imagination into creating more and more spectacular ways of killing other humans. Hood and Bismarck were remarkable ships – even, in their own way, beautiful – but in the end each just became a coffin for thousands of men. It’s all such a waste.

    • Daniel Mortlock Says:

      I have a similar internal conflict. To my eye many war machines (e.g., The Bismark or an F-16) are much more elegant/beautiful than their civilian counterparts (e.g., The QEII or a Lear Jet). Of course I’d much rather live in a world in which endless human resources were not devoted to the creation of such devices, but the aesthete in me would miss them.

  8. Matt Burleigh Says:

    Thanks for this Peter. A real shame the media have missed this. There is a very good exhibition on the battle in HMS Belfast in London (I think she took part also). Hood was the pride of the navy but lacked armour due to 1920s arms limitation treaties on weight/displacement. Strictly speaking she was a battlecruiser rather than battleship, reflecting this. But she was probably obsolete compared to the Bismarck. Look up the survivors stories. Thrown overboard by the explosion, sucked down with the ship and pushed back to the surface by air bubbles. Quite remarkable, and very frightening. Prince of Wales was brand new at the time of the battle but sunk a year later by Japanese bombers off Malaysia. Proving the battleship was obsolete, just like biplanes fatally wounding the Bismarck. I love naval history and wish we had preserved one of these ships (eg the Vanguard, scrapped in 1960.) At the same time, one wishes they never had to be built.

    • telescoper Says:

      Hood was actually ordered in 1916 and commissioned in 1920. The serious weaknesses in her armour and other limitations were really design problems rather than consequences of treaty limitations. With her graceful lines and heavy armament, she turned out to be great at flying the flag around the world between the wars, but inadequate armour meant she was ill-equipped for modern naval warfare.

    • Nick Cross Says:

      The weakness of the armour to plunging shells was demonstrated at the battle of Jutland, after she was ordered, before she was commissioned and 20 years before she was sunk.

    • telescoper Says:

      Quite. And that was the reason why the other members of Hood’s class were never built.

    • Interesting to note that the Battle of the Denmark strait was just a few days short of the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland when three British Battle cruisers were blown up by magazine explosions, each with very few survivors, the sad truth was that Battle cruisers were not designed to slug it out with Battleships although they had the same heavy armament, they did not have the same armour protection. Hood was paired with the much newer King George V battleship the Prince of Wales as they were both fast and the speed was needed to intercept the Bismark. The bulk of the UKs battleship fleet were veterans of WW1 (Warspite, Queen Elizabeth, Barnham etc and did not have the speed of the faster King George V class Battleships (hence the Prince of Wales was sent out to the far east with the Battlecruiser Repulse). In the Battle of the Denmark Strait, Admiral Holland was trying to rapidly close the range with the Bismark, this would have meant that he would not have been so vulnerable to long range plunging fire, as the incoming shells would have been on a flatter trajectory and would have to have defeated the much thicker side armour (this was proved when the wreck of the Hood was found and it could be seen that the rudder was hard over). 1941 was a particularly bad year for the Royal Navy, no less than 5 capital ships were lost (Hood, Ark Royal , Barnham, Prince of Wales and Repulse. Many of the survivors of the Prince of Wales and Repulse sinkings were kept at Singapore and ended up in Japanese POW camps where many died.

  9. ps – I have met a man who has been to the Bismarck wreck – I guess I thought the guns were secured to the ship, but as it turned over as it sank, he told me they just fell out and are no longer sitting in the ship (even though it is almost upright on the sea floor).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes indeed – explained in detail in the book written by robert Ballanrd, who found Bismarck’s wrec (and, earlier, Titanic’s).

  10. Alex Rogers Says:

    It’s especially sad, because the MoD was aware of the vulnerabilities of the top armour, and the Hood was scheduled for a refit, which included thickening of the upper armour. But due to time constraints (such is war) the job was never done. Kind of reminds us that today a lack of preparation, and poor equipment still leads to unneccisary deaths.

  11. Grumpy Old Woman Says:

    My uncle was in a boat that was sent out to row round and try and pick up survivors – according to what has been passed down by word of mouth in the family, there was very little wreckage and debris, just an oil slick and a few bits and pieces. And the 3 survivors were not picked up by the boat(s) but by scramble nets on the side fo their ship. [My uncle was subsequently killed on the North Atlantic convoys.)

    • Patricia Cade Says:

      My uncle Thomas Goodings was picked up presumed dead…. but because someone noticed him move & gave him Rum to drink which brought up the oil that he had ingested he survived, but he is not reported as a survivor on the HMS Hood ….Hopefully someone can shine some light on this please .

  12. Looking for cousin Peter Grainger from Cardiff I belive he died on HMS Hood

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