With the approval of the Secretary of State for Defence, and through the wonderful philanthropic generosity of Paul Allen who is making his vessel OCTOPUS available, the HMS HOOD Association and the National Museum of the Royal Navy are sponsoring an expedition in late August, led by David Mearns from Blue Water Recoveries, to try and recover a bell from the remains of HMS HOOD for it to be returned to the Royal Navy, to be conserved and then gifted to the Museum in Portsmouth to commemorate the 1,415 members of HOOD’s ship’s company lost in action against the Bismarck on 24 May 1941.
Ever since the bell was spotted amongst HOOD’s debris field, the HOOD Association (including at the time the last living survivor, Lieutenant Ted Briggs MBE Royal Navy) has believed it would be a fitting and appropriate memorial to those who gave their lives on that day in the service of their country. Despite HOOD’s history as the largest ship in the RN ever lost in action, the largest loss of RN life in a single action ever and with a global and national iconic aura sustained over 20 years of epitomizing all that is best about the Royal Navy, there is no dedicated memorial to her and the officers and men who served in her.
The Association believes strongly that if the bell can be successfully recovered, it should be seen by both those serving in the Royal Navy and the wider public in a display that affords HMS HOOD the highest respect possible and to remind people of her special place in the 20thC history of the RN. This view is endorsed firmly by the National Museum of the Royal Navy who also believe the bell will be a major and important feature for their galleries, which are currently undergoing a major refurbishment to be opened in 2014. HMS HOOD’s bell would be displayed in a place of honour in a new wing dedicated to the Royal Navy in the 20th Century. The bell would provide a fitting memorial to the courage, fortitude and bravery of those who fought and died in that action on 24 May in the service of their country. In addition to the bell, the Museum display would include a major painting and a large model of HOOD as well as making available to the public duplicates of the considerable amount of personal data that has been accumulated by the HMS HOOD Association over the years. There would also be public access to the underwater video footage taken on both this and the previous expeditions to the site so that future generations can understand the cataclysmic nature of HOOD’s demise.
Both the current President of the Association, Rear Admiral Philip Wilcocks CB DSC, whose uncle was lost in HOOD when she sank, and his predecessor Ted Briggs MBE – feel strongly that an attempt should be made to recover the bell. To quote Rear Admiral Wilcocks: "There is no headstone among the flowers for those who perish at sea. For the 1,415 officers and men of HMS HOOD who lost their lives so violently in battle on 24 May 1941, the recovery of her bell and its subsequent place of honour in the National Museum of the Royal Navy will mean that there will be a place where future generations will be able to gaze upon it and remember with gratitude and thanks, the heroism, courage and personal sacrifice of HOOD’s Ship’s Company who died in the service of their country ~ well after the remains of HOOD have long gone."
Indeed this is also the strong opinion of many people closely connected with HMS HOOD; from veterans who served in the ship before she was lost and from direct descendants of those who were not as lucky as the 3 survivors. A large numbers of letters of support have been received demonstrating their wholehearted agreement with this project and for the subsequent display of the bell in the Museum.
David Mearns’ connection with HMS HOOD and the Association dates back to 1995 when he sought their support to locate and film the wreck. It took 6 years of research and planning but ultimately he was able to convince Channel 4 Television to sponsor an expedition that took place in 2001 on the 60th anniversary of HOOD’s famous battle with the Bismarck. Finding the wreck of the ship was an enormously proud moment in his career, but it paled in significance when compared with the chance to give Ted Briggs the opportunity to see his ship one last time and to allow him the honour of laying a plaque in memory of his shipmates by the side of the her remains.
The other important sponsor of the project is Vulcan Incorporated, which represents the business and philanthropic interests of Paul G. Allen. As he did with the filming of the wreck of HMS ARK ROYAL in 2002 for a BBC documentary, Paul Allen is prepared to donate the use of his private yacht Octopus for this project at no cost to HM Government. Octopus will crossing the Atlantic in late August after the Olympics so this is a rare opportunity to take advantage of having such a well-equipped expedition ship available in the region for this project.
Whilst the attempt to recovery of the bell is the main focus of the expedition, the Museum and the Association have an equally important scientific objective for revisiting the site. In the 11 years that have passed since the wreck was first filmed, underwater video and lighting technology has advanced greatly and with Octopus and her state-of-the-art Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) there is now the opportunity to film the wreck in stunningly clear high-definition.
Furthermore, there has always been considerable academic and professional debate both before and after the 2001 expedition about what caused HMS HOOD to be so utterly destroyed and her wreckage to be spread over such an enormous distance on the seabed – far greater than has ever seen compared with dozens of other deep-water shipwrecks. While the destruction of HOOD’s stern was expected, the similar level of damage to her bow section was not. The expedition hopes to provide additional, non-invasive evidence to determine whether a secondary explosion caused this, or implosion of the forward section of the ship as it rapidly sank.
HMS HOOD’s wreck lies in a remote location to the west of Iceland in very deep water, so while the risk of an unauthorized recovery of her bell (now that its location is known) is very low, it cannot be eliminated completely given the rapid advances that are being made in underwater technology and exploration. One just has to look at what has happened to the remains of RMS TITANIC for example.
This bell (one of 2 that HOOD carried) sits in an open mound of wreckage that allows easy access for the ROV with no penetration of the wreck required. The highest priority while attempting the recovery, will be to minimize actual disturbance of the wreck. It was during the 2001 expedition to HOOD that the policy of "look but don’t touch" was coined.
HOOD was an iconic figure to the Royal Navy and to the British public through the inter-war years and during the first phase of WWII, and her loss and that of so many brave men meant a great deal during a most critical period of the war. However, one of the testaments to the timeless nature of HOOD’s story of service and sacrifice is the continuing stream of books that come out every year about her remarkable life and dramatic death.
Photos and Information from the Expedition
The following links feature photos and information from the expedition team.
Official MoD Press Releases
Additional information about the expedition can be accessed by clicking on one of the links below.