Chapter 13- A Boy Goes to War | Chapter 14- Look What Just Missed Me | Chapter 15- Force H For Hood | Chapter 16- Shooting Fish in a Barrel
Chapter 17- The Pursuit of Unhappiness | Chapter 18- Testing the Italians | Chapter 19- The Admirals Cry Wolf | Chapter 20- Perhaps this is the Big One
Chapter 21- Now I Lay Me Down... | Chapter 22- Just the Three of Us Left | Chapter 23- A Naval Curio in Demand | Chapter 24- The Outdated Heavyweight | References
Chapter 13- A Boy Goes to War
There she lay - the 'Mighty 'ood', as sailors called her, the world's most famous and powerful warship, which had been the impetus of my ambition to join the Royal Navy. It was 29 July 1939, early, bright and sunny. The Hood was to be my home for the next two years, and the war, which was to bring her disastrous demise, was just thirty-six days away.
I had signed on as a signal boy just a week after my fifteenth birthday, on 7 March 1938. During sixteen months in the whitened sepulchre of HMS Ganges, the boys' training ship at Shotley Gate, Ipswich, I had hardly dared to hope that I would be sent to the ship of my dreams at the end of my 'apprenticeship ashore'. Then came the joyous listing of my name with twelve other boys from Ganges as a draft to the Hood.
We were packed off to Portsmouth, where disappointment awaited us. The Hood had just completed a six-month refit and apparently could not accommodate in her bulk thirteen eager, bumbling amateurs. Instead we were dumped on board the old battleship Iron Duke, which was acting as a depot ship. For a fortnight we were cooped up in this veteran of the First World War, and with each day our enthusiasm drained away. But then, at 8 a.m. on 29 July, we were decanted, like immature, tangy wine, into a three-ton lorry, which was to take us to the South Railway Jetty - known to sailors as 'Farewell Jetty' because it was usually the last berth of a capital ship before leaving for a foreign commission of 2½ years. As the lorry dawdled along the wharves, cruisers and destroyers came into view, and we chanted out each name as we passed them. Then ahead there loomed a long forecastle with three gigantic gun turrets at the end. 'There she is,' cried my closest friend, Signal Boy Don Proctor. Ship identification had not been of paramount importance in our training: this was HMS Nelson. We cheered as we went by her.
The excitement was making me queasy; my stomach seemed empty, although I had just breakfasted, and my lips were dry where I had been biting them in expectation. And then we saw her. This time there was no mistaking her. That enormous forecastle could belong to no other ship. She was awe-inspiring. She dwarfed everything around her. I had never felt so small and insignificant, yet at the same time there was an immense surge of pride and patriotism through me. I truly believed that at sixteen I had achieved my lifetime ambition. I was staring at my destiny, obviously unaware of the part that this grey, gargantuan creature of beauty, grace and immaculate power was to play in my life. 'Beauty' and 'grace' may seem ludicrous to describe a vessel whose primary function was destruction, but to me there was no menace in the huge A and B turrets from which one shell could blast a destroyer out of the sea. She epitomized pride - pride of the Royal Navy, of King and country and Empire, to a boy who had yet to have his ideals blown away in two devastating minutes.
The rough reality of Navy life was bawled back at us as we were ordered to jump down from the lorry and 'fall in' on the jetty with our kitbags and hammocks. Then we were marched up the long gangway to be swallowed by this whirring monster. Everything seemed twice as big as normal. The mess decks were colossal; a series of scrubbed wooden mess-tables reached out at me like massive conjuror's fingers; mess-kids gleamed in imitation of sterling silver; even the overhead hammock bars glinted, while the faint whiff of fuel oil and the constant humming of the air vents engulfed me. This sense of space and clean-cut lines did not diminish in the boys' mess deck, where we were deposited to make ourselves at home.
One of the first tasks of a newcomer to the Hood was to find his way about the thousand-plus compartments, although to my knowledge no one had ever seen all of them! There were horrendous stories on the mess decks about lost boys, particularly of a youngster who became seasick and crawled into a funnel casing on the upper deck. He was found dead several days later by a stokers' repair party after he had been reported lost overboard to the captain. My only official tour around the ship was conducted by one of the petty officer instructors. Again, I was too overawed to take it all in.
Yet we soon slipped into the routine, which included long sessions in the schoolroom, studying for educational tests, washing down the long passages of cortecene and sprucing up the paintwork and brass. In addition we were required to keep watch with the rest of the communications branch, which included the yeoman, leading signalman, two signalmen and two boys, or ordinary signalmen. To me it was all a delight in these early days, because the Hood always had a friendly family atmosphere about her, something which was unusual for a capital ship and normally found only in destroyers and smaller craft.
Most of the senior ratings were kindly, yet firm, to us boys. On our initial visit to the flag deck my first non-commissioned boss, Yeoman 'Shiner' Wright, assembled us to ask our names. One of my pals who, like the rest of us, was used to addressing everyone as 'sir' above leading seaman at Ganges, replied: 'Bell, sir.' He was told immediately: 'Don't call me, "sir". I'm not a commissioned officer, and you are not under training now. You're all sailors.' It was a wonderful way of making a youngster suddenly feel ten feet tall. We had confidence in the ship - albeit, on hindsight, false confidence - and now it was beginning to grow in ourselves.
The refit which the Hood had just completed was mainly to improve her armament, particularly the aircraft defence. In our eyes there was not a chink in her armour. Not so in Admiralty eyes. Nine years earlier Admiral Sir Frederic Dreyer, who had flown his flag in the battle cruiser and was then Director of the Gunnery Division, had stated: 'It has become quite obvious to all of us that the improved type of armour-piercing shell with which we had equipped the Grand Fleet in 1918 could easily penetrate and detonate in the Hood's main magazine.' I wish he had told us, for I am certain that few officers aboard were aware of the fact that plans for extra armour for the main deck and over the magazines and machine spaces had been cancelled.
August 1939 brought the beginning of the Polish crisis, as Hitler, backed by a German Press campaign, called for the annexation of the Danzig corridor. For the Hood it was a month of hustled preparation and many days at sea on manoeuvres, training a green crew. We exercised with the carrier Courageous and the destroyer Sturdy, and for my colleagues it was 'darken ship' and 'light up ship', interspersed with full-calibre shoots. But I missed most of this for I contracted impetigo through a rusty razor blade and was sent to isolation in the sick-bay, which was under A turret. My purple, blistered face prevented my applying a razor to a fuzz of brownish hair, and I was reputed to be the only bearded sixteen-year-old in the Navy at that time. The quarters resembled a cottage hospital and included a main ward, composed of twenty bunks, an operating theatre, treatment room and consulting spaces. I lazed in luxury, for the bunks could be unclipped to swing freely if the ship rolled prodigiously.
I was joined in the sickbay by my old classmate Don Proctor, who had appendicitis. Medicine did not improve his condition, and he was operated on at sea by a surgeon commander. After rapid preparations, the sickbay suddenly became quiet. Don had died. With other patients in the ward I was ordered to assemble in the treatment room. While we were there, unknown to us, his body was carried through the ward into a nearby cabin. When we returned, I was told by the sickbay petty officer to wash the floor of the operating theatre. I froze in the doorway. The petty officer realized then that I had been Don's pal. He took me by the arm, led me to the other end of the sickbay, sat me down and said sympathetically: 'You should have told me, lad, that you were his mate. After you went as white as a sheet and your eyes were like saucers, I knew he was a friend of yours.' He spent the next five minutes placating me. Again it was a timely example of the family spirit in the Hood . This was the first experience I had had of death at close hand. The date was 21 August, the very day that Germany and Russia were signing a non-aggression pact as the Wehrmacht prepared for the invasion of Poland.
Yet there seemed no crisis in the Hood for me. My most anxious moments were going to the lavatory - the 'heads'. I found it embarrassing to sit on the throne with only my genitals covered by the tiny cubicle doors and being able to see over the top the straining faces of my shipmates, squatting in long rows like roosting birds. I was too shy to have discussion with other matelots, which was the general practice, and in heavy weather tried to contain my motions, otherwise one risked a sudden dowsing of urine from a neighbouring lavatory as the ship rolled. The bathroom could be equally as wet and a trial to my modesty at peak hours. The drains and scuppers could seldom cope with the ablutions and laundering of scores of naked matelots, and the result was a constant flood of four inches of murky water on the floor. Hence the old expression: 'For you I swim the stokers' bathroom in full flood backwards.'
Gradually we boys began to settle down to our duties and to show we could play our part in the running of a fighting ship, which was just as well, for Rear-Admiral Sir William Whitworth had just hoisted his flag in the Hood , as second in command of the Home Fleet. Nevertheless, we blundered on, sometimes the faults being our own and at others those of our superiors. One of my jobs was being 'boat boy'. This meant keeping the officer of the watch informed of approaching craft when in harbour, so that the appropriate courtesies of piping or sounding bugles could be performed. We were given binoculars and a pendant list and stationed on the quarterdeck. I was so obsessed with my importance the first time I did the duty that I ignored a destroyer which was under way and about to pass the quarterdeck. At that moment, Captain Irvine Glennie appeared on deck and yelled: 'Boy! What's the name of that ship?' The four gold rings under my nose and the sight of the captain's authoritative figure brought complete panic. 'H47, sir,' I stammered, forgetting the pendant list which had been given me to spell out the destroyer's name. 'I can see that, you young fool,' barked the captain. 'What's her name?' A few minutes later a relief arrived on the quarterdeck and I, thoroughly demoralized, was back washing paintwork.
Another of my special duties I performed more adequately. As 'cable flags' I had to set myself up on the forecastle whenever we moored or weighed anchor and signal by flags to the chief yeoman on the bridge the number of shackles of cable on deck or whether the anchor was down, away, clear or foul. To be such an important linchpin in the communications system did my ego the world of good, even though the very information which I was signalling was also being sent to the bridge by voice-pipe and telephone!
I have always had a head for heights and enjoyed climbing the ninety-two-foot main mast. Because of this it was I whom the bridge normally detailed to strike the foretop mast whenever the Hood passed under the Forth Bridge at Rosyth. I was also sent aloft when a halyard was 'lost' accidentally by one of my fellow 'bunts'. The masts were not difficult to scale, and only the last six feet of the main one, which was a sheer pole, had to be shinned up. One day when a halyard had been blown away on the starboard forward upper yardarm, I was ordered to go up for it. I had inched my way to the end of the yardarm to retain the Inglefield clip when the safety valves in the engine-room were blown. A large cloud of steam swirled up towards me. I clung on grimly but decided that, if the white mist spiralling upwards was hot, I would let go and drop into the sea. I preferred drowning to being boiled alive. But by the time it immersed me the steam had turned into a cold shower.
All the boys, whether they were to become stokers, seamen or signalmen, were subjected to the normal apprentice-type jokes, like getting green oil for the starboard lamps, but I was not expecting to be the target of a hoax on 31 August, the day the fleet mobilized. The Hood was entering Scapa Flow to join the Repulse and Renown as the Battle Cruiser Squadron. It was a serious - and for me emotive - occasion, until I noticed Yeoman Wright and Ivor Holding, a Royal Marine signalman, directing their binoculars towards the shore. 'Quick, there's one over there,' shouted Wright. 'What is it, yeo?' I asked. He handed me a telescope, put the binoculars to his eyes again and replied: 'Just look at them - they're wild haggis. They have webbed feet, a duck's bill and are covered in brown fur.' I scanned the shoreline for several minutes before the guffaws of the two men forced me to realize that I was 'being had'.
During the next twenty-four hours frivolity turned into fervour when we prepared for war, as unit by unit the biggest fleet I have ever seen gathered at Scapa. Battleships, cruisers, carriers, destroyers came and went until it was time for the Hood to go. We weighed anchor at 0400 on 1 September and immediately went to action stations. For the next nervous forty-eight hours we were standing down constantly and then being called back again. No longer were there great, wide open spaces below decks: the full wartime complement of just over fourteen hundred men were embarked. At night hammocks were slung in every passageway, in every nook and cranny. Sleeping space was guarded jealously, and once a claim had been staked, it was rarely relaxed. At first I slung my hammock in one of the boys' locker spaces. Later I acquired the 'luxury' of hooking up in the warrant officers' cabin flat aft. Black-out curtains were rigged, and 'darken ship' was piped at sunset. Polishing was down to the minimum, and apart from the working parts of the guns, equipment that sparkled was dulled by gallons of grey paint. The once white decks began to take on a greyish tint, and most of the other woodwork was toned down. All the hangings and 'niceties' - including the many mess pianos - were landed. The Hood was never to know peace again.
At 11 a.m. on 3 September, in company with the Renown and a group of the fleet, we were on watch with the intention of shadowing German surface raiders which might slip through the Iceland-Faroe Island Channel into the Atlantic. I was on the point of making my first signal in a warship. The flag 'E' was hoisted as a preliminary for a general semaphore message, and Chief Yeoman George Thomas ordered: 'Briggs, get a pair of hand-flags and get up to the fifteen-inch director and show up 46.' It was with a strange sort of pride and yet a sinking feeling in my belly that I spelt out to the fleet: 'Commence hostilities against Germany.' Over the tannoy to all parts of the ship came Prime Minister Chamberlain's almost somnolent, low-key announcement that Britain's ultimatum to Germany to withdraw from the invasion of Poland had expired. It seemed an anticlimax that soon after the Hood was ordered to return to Scapa. Our patrol to bottle up the German pocket battleships was in vain, for the Graf Spee and Deutschland had slipped out into the Atlantic before the end of August. We had been hunting phantoms.
After three days refuelling and revictualling at Scapa, the Hood was detailed for her first fully wartime errand. With the Renown, the cruisers Belfast and Edinburgh and four destroyers, we left at dawn for a sweep to the Faroes and Iceland. Our orders were to intercept blockade-running German cargo ships, but fog hampered the mission. On 8 September, the first day at sea, the destroyer Fury was despatched by Admiral Whitworth to investigate a false Asdic contact. Two days later the Fearless halted a Swedish oiler, which was allowed to proceed, while on the last day of the trip the Fearless was sent to search for lifeboats of SS Kirby, which had been torpedoed by a U-boat off the Faroes. By 12 September we were back at Scapa to refuel from the tanker Wardware. It had been an unspectacular, though tremulous start to the war for me.
From now on the Hood seemed to be operating a shuttle patrol out of Scapa. On 14 September we were en route to Loch Ewe, on the north-west coast of Scotland, only to return immediately to Scapa, where we rested for a week. The first real piece of excitement, as far as I was concerned, came on 22 September, when we were on patrol in the North Sea. The Fortune made contact with a U-boat at 1320. This was confirmed by Firedrake, and the bells for action stations awoke the Hood from her after-rum slumbers. We zigzagged at twenty-two knots for an hour and then returned to normal conditions. The next day the Express sighted a mine off the Hood's port bow and exploded it with rifle fire.
In the boys' mess deck we prattled on about war being a bore, but despite the bravado, most of us were glad to be back at Scapa for divisions on Sunday 24 September, when Admiral Whitworth cleared the lower deck and proceeded to keep the ship's company on their guard by speaking of the necessity for the humdrum patrol work which would be in front of us. Two days later the Hood was to smell the enemy s powder.
Chapter 14- Look What Just Missed Me
Our bombing baptism came on 26 September during a curious, swashbuckling foray into the North Sea by the Home Fleet. The previous day Admiral Forbes, the commander-in-chief, had learned that the submarine Spearfish had been depth-charged off the Horns Reef, the shoal shaped like a hand which points out from Denmark towards the Dogger. She was unable to dive and began to head for home on the surface. Forbes ordered out the Second Cruiser Squadron with an escort of destroyers to assist her. We and the Repulse sailed in company with the Eighteenth Cruiser Squadron to give heavy cover, in case the German capital ships were enticed out. Throughout my time in the Hood the captain and commanders believed in keeping the ship's company informed of what action might be ahead of them and what was expected of them. On this occasion we were well briefed on the situation over the tannoy from the moment of leaving harbour.
For most of that day we were at standing action stations also known as 'second degree of readiness' - but the full call to arms did not come. The force penetrated deep into the North Sea to contact the Spearfish, and then we turned about and headed for Scapa. The way home was led by the Nelson , the Home Fleet's flagship, and the Rodney in the northern column, with the famed aircraft-carrier Ark Royal in the centre and the Hood and Repulse to the south. In the forenoon our group were spotted by a Dornier flying-boat, but at this stage of the war the Navy lost little sleep over the Luftwaffe, and the Dornier headed for base without a parting shot from the fleet.
Fortunately for us, only thirteen bombers from Westerland, Sylt, could be got into the air, and four of them - Goering's 'wonder aircraft', the Junkers 88 - were aimed at the Hood's section of the fleet. They arrived in eight-tenths cloud at nine thousand feet. The attacks were uncoordinated, and the first I saw of them was from the flag deck when the Ark Royal disappeared behind high walls of bomb burst spray. It was while I was 'goofing', like everyone else, at this explosive display of cascades that I heard someone yell, 'Look at that bastard.' I did - and was transfixed by the sight of a JU 88 almost overhead at about five hundred feet. A massive, black object, which seemed to be as big as a London bus, tumbled gently from it and almost in slow motion fell towards the Hood's quarterdeck. A great flash, a crump and a cold clamminess unfroze me, and I found myself blown to the deck. I got to my feet, and below and abaft the flag deck I could see the crew of the pom-pom shaking from their clothes the black, dirty water spewed up by the explosion. They had not fired a shot at the bomber, which had been piloted bravely by Leutnant Storp of the Adler Geschwader (KG 30), who cost me a clean pair of underpants. In fact, not one of the Hood's guns had opened up. The bomb caught us a glancing blow on the port quarter, bounced off and exploded harmlessly in the sea. Rivets were sprung in the torpedo bulge, there were minor breakages in the stokers' bathroom, and the port gash chute and boom were peppered with shrapnel. If the Hood had been a few yards further ahead, it was likely the bomb would have penetrated the quarterdeck. We were lucky to escape so lightly in this first encounter of the war between bomber and battleship.
It served as a warning to the ship's company to be on the alert for air attack and prepared us for stormier days ahead in the Mediterranean. The immediate effect was for Admiral Forbes, in the Nelson, to make a general signal of 'Negative DC', which meant 'Manoeuvre badly executed'. Later all ships were told to 'buck up' while in his official despatch he stated that the control personnel were unprepared obviously for such high-performance dive-bombing. In fact, all of our gunners had been waiting for permission from the bridge to open fire.
The next day in harbour we boys were digging out with jack-knives the bomb splinters in the lower boom. My piece of metal found its way home to my mother with the note: 'Look what just missed me.' She probably needed the assurance, for already Lord Haw-Haw was proclaiming on Hamburg Radio that the Ark Royal had been sunk and that the Hood was badly damaged. So much credence was given to later German claims of the Hood's being repaired in dry dock that Prime Minister Chamberlain had to reassure Clement Attlee in the House of Commons: 'It is not true and I must repeat it once again - though by now the news grows stale through repetition - that neither the Hood nor the Repulse , nor any other capital ship has suffered the least damage.' Reports of this in most of the popular newspapers of 19 October stated that Chamberlain's reply was followed by laughter and cheers - and that in turn was echoed in the Hood's mess decks.
It was in October that Winston Churchill, then the First Lord at the Admiralty, paid his first visit to us. I was on the flag deck and only saw him leave the ship in the admiral's barge, giving one of the first of his famous victory signs.
For the next six months the Hood's routine became long days and piercingly cold nights at sea, punctuated with unsuccessful sorties and unfulfilled scares. We boys were being honed not only to razor sharpness but also to a keen sense of survival. When we went to our stations during the Atlantic patrols, there was a scramble for the lee side of the flag deck. It was usually very unwise to be on the weather edge for more than an hour at a time because it took a further two hours to thaw out. One unofficial punishment if we did anything wrong was to be sent to the side which caught the worst of the weather. 'Telescope soup' was also dished out as a penalty. This meant receiving a sharp blow with the leading signalman's telescope on the elbow or funny bone. The consequence was that we were guilty of few misdemeanours.
It was in the schoolroom that we did not care. Although we had instructor officers aboard, Able Seaman 'Tommo' Thompson taught us most of the elementary subjects which would push us through ET1 (Educational Test One). He was a three-badge man and one of the longest serving of the ship's company. He was highly intelligent and should have been commissioned, but strangely he preferred to remain an able seaman. Yet when my attention wandered, he would tell me: 'Look at me, son. If I had not been like you and paid attention at school, I would be a warrant schoolmaster by now.' It was these words of wisdom which gave me an education and which eventually led me to a commission. I never forgot old 'Tommo'.
The Hood was always held in readiness to thwart a break-out by an enemy surface raider, and on 8 October we were despatched at high speed, with the Repulse and the cruisers Sheffield and Aurora, to cover the Northern Approaches a hundred miles off Bergen, Norway. Over the tannoy Captain Glennie explained that a Coastal Command aircraft had spotted the battle cruiser Gneisenau, with the heavy cruiser Köln and nine destroyers, steaming north out of the Skagerrak. Admiral Whitworth's orders were to prevent any outflanking movements by the Germans.
For two days we swore and grumbled about the cold on the flag deck, while Whitworth waited for more intelligence reports. When no news of the enemy was received, he headed the Hood for the Butt of Lewis. In the afternoon of 10 October a signal reached us that the Gneisenau and escorts had retreated two days earlier and had entered the Skagerrak again. There was no quarry to chase. Later we learned that it was a ruse by Admiral Raeder to draw out the Home Fleet as targets for Goering's bombers again. Normally we would have returned to Scapa Flow, but this time with the Rodney and six destroyers we entered Loch Ewe, another barren naval outpost on the west coast of Scotland, facing the Outer Hebrides.
The Hood wasted little time at Loch Ewe. After twenty-four hours we were raising steam again to join the Nelson, Rodney, Furious, Aurora, Belfast and nine destroyers to help the Northern patrol intercept German merchantmen on their way back to their homeland through the Denmark Strait. The very name still chills me like the winds which knifed this barren edge of the Arctic Circle. To keep the hunt going, we refuelled the destroyers at sea and learned to curse the cold and the enemy but we had no regrets that we searched in vain. Elsewhere the Germans were hunting for us, for in an air raid on Scapa the Iron Duke had been damaged by three near-misses and forced to beach. Scapa was deemed to be unsafe for us, so we returned to Loch Ewe.
As Hitler's U-boat packs swarmed out of the Jade, the waters around the Orkneys were becoming more hazardous for the Hood , although I did not know of one particularly close call until after the war. On 30 October we set out with the Rodney and Nelson , who were 'our chummies', as part of a covering force for a convoy carrying iron ore from Narvik to the Firth of Forth. Apparently at 10 a.m., when west of the Orkneys, Leutnant Wilhelm Zahn, the skipper of U56, found he had penetrated accidentally our zigzagging destroyer screen. Through his periscope he was horrified to see the Hood , Nelson and Rodney heading towards him. Suddenly we turned through an angle of nearly thirty degrees, which put the 1156 in perfect firing position. The Rodney , which was the leading ship, passed out of the field of fire, and this made the primary target, the Nelson , which was close to the Hood . From nine hundred yards Zahn aimed three torpedoes at her. The first two clanged against the Nelson 's side but failed to explode. The third missed.
Blissfully ignorant of this escape, our force bucketed in a heavy swell towards the Lofoten Islands, Norway. Tons of water thrashed over the Hood's forecastle and then boomed on to the quarterdeck. At times it seemed that the stern would never reappear again. On the flag deck the scathing wind and spray turned cheeks numb in minutes, while in the fug below decks the groaning of her frames, plating and superstructure gave notice of the Hood's age. Twenty-four hours in these seas were enough for man, boy and ship, and thankfully we put in at Greenock.
During this period of the incongruously named phoney war - at least for the Navy - the Admiralty became increasingly concerned of the danger of a breakout into the Atlantic by the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, currently trapped in Wilhelmshaven. For this reason the Hood was sent to Plymouth during November. It was a welcome change from the icy blasts of the Shetlands and enabled us to enjoy the doubtful delights of Devonport and Union Street. We even began to hope that there would be Christmas leave. Then, on 21 November, the Admiralty's fears became reality. The Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst, with the cruisers Köln and Leipzig and a strong destroyer escort, swept into the Skagerrak. Without being detected, the two bigger warships penetrated the Shetland-Norway passage. Two days later the merchant cruiser Rawalpindi, a former P & 0 liner, armed with eight old six-inch guns, engaged them in her famous suicidal fourteen-minute battle, which ended in her obliteration. With the cruisers Newcastle and Delhi approaching, the German pair sped off.
The alarm bells were ringing now in most of the ships of the Home Fleet - and that included the Hood at Plymouth. Admiral Forbes wanted every available vessel at sea immediately.
As the Hood scythed out of Plymouth in heavy weather, we on the flag deck heard that for the first and only time Britain's mightiest ship was to come under the command of a French admiral, based in Brest. In mid-Channel we rendezvoused with the French battle cruiser Dunkerque, in which Vice-Admiral Gensoul was flying his flag, and the cruisers Montcalm and Georges Leygues, soon known to our ship's company as 'Gorgeous Legs'. Both forces had their own destroyer escorts. From the flag deck I managed to get glimpses of the Dunkerque, which, although smaller than the Hood , had a Continental rakishness about her that I admired. My fellow signalmen were scornful of the fact that she possessed only thirteen-inch guns. Even if we had been warned that in eight months time she would be an enemy and that we would be firing at her, instead of signalling friendly courtesies, none of us would have heeded. This was the first combined Franco-British naval operation of the war, and everyone was determined that it would be a success. The ship's company were fully aware that in the next two days they might be in action against the German hit-and-runners, as we ploughed through tremendous, troughing seas towards a position sixty degrees north, twenty degrees west.
In this area, just south of Iceland, was a shoal known as 'Bill Bailey's Bank', and it was here that we were to wait for an 'interpose' between a convoy and the German raiders. We were supposed to be in unison as the combined force pitched off the west coast of Ireland, but so high was the sea running that it appeared from the Hood that we were alone as the other vessels became shrouded in grey spray. For two days the battering continued, and then came the blessed relief of a recall. The Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were safely tied up in Wilhelmshaven. As the weather deteriorated, they had doubled back on their course, evaded the cruiser patrols and slipped far to the south before Forbes' storm-hindered battleships could arrive.
Back in Plymouth we appreciated the snugness of the haven even more. Christmas in Plymouth? We were too optimistic, for by 3 December the Hood had returned to Loch Ewe for refuelling in readiness for convoy protection work. I hated the place. Scapa, which was desolate enough, was a beauty spot in comparison. Few of us bothered to go ashore. The loch was being used as the Home Fleet's main base because the defences of Scapa were being improved after the torpedoing of the Royal Oak there two months earlier. Strangely, this switching of bases brought Admiral Forbes more trouble, and on the day after our arrival the Nelson was damaged by a magnetic mine as she was entering the loch. With the Rodney incapacitated because of serious defects, it meant that the Hood was the only capital ship available to the Home Fleet.
We, too, were in dire need of a refit. The maximum speed was down to twenty-five knots, rust, that creeping brown peril, was fingering up the sides, and our superstructure was caked with salt. We were putting in more sea time than any other ship in the world, and we could not, and would not, be spared.
While we were at Loch Ewe there came the 'buzz' that something big was on. Indeed, there was. Five liners carrying 7,450 men were in mid-Atlantic. This was the first Canadian troop convoy of the war from Halifax, in the care of the Furious, Repulse , Emerald, Hunter and Hyperion. The Hood and her destroyer escort were to provide extra cover. Our orders were to steam to the Clyde and leave there on 13 December, but twenty-four hours earlier we were heading north to lock up another suspected Atlantic breakout This time the light cruisers Leipzig, Nürnberg and Köln, accompanied by five destroyers, had been sighted by Coastal Command aircraft and the submarine Salmon in the central North Sea. Admiral Forbes misinterpreted the intention of this foray, however. It was a minelaying sortie towards the west, and as soon as this was revealed, the Hood was ordered back to the Clyde and then out to the Atlantic with the Warspite, Barham and six destroyers to meet the Canadians. The only piece of excitement after our rendezvous came from an allied ship, when the SS Samaria, which was steaming in the opposite direction, steered into the convoy and collided with the Furious and the liner Aquitania. The Hood stood by, but we were not needed and returned to port two days afterwards.
We were now spending more time at sea than in harbour, with most of our duties involving the Northern Patrol. It was a lonely existence, for rarely did we come into close contact with convoys, but we were strategically placed to intervene if surface raiders threatened. The grey days stretched interminably before us on the flag deck. Christmas Day and New Year's Eve were almost indistinguishable from the rest. For most of February we worked from Greenock, with Clydeside a reassuring respite to Loch Ewe, to which the Hood was never to return.
By now I was messenger to the flag lieutenant, a plum job for a signal boy. I had to follow Lieutenant-Commander J.M. Villiers at a discreet distance, run his errands and supply him with copies of signals throughout the day. I was given the grand title of 'staff signalman' and felt extremely smug about my position - until one night on Atlantic patrol. During the first watch, at around 2230, I was given a message by the flag lieutenant to take to Commander Davies, who was in his cabin aft. I dashed down the ladder from the compass platform to the admiral's bridge and was trotting across to the ladder to the flag deck when I bumped into a soft body. There was a crash, a strangled grunt and the shout 'Yeoman!' On the deck I could just make out the stretched-out figure of Admiral Whitworth. I was escorted away from the scene by 'Shiner' Wright, who promptly blasted me for being so careless. Within the next hour I was given a 'rocket' by everyone on the bridge from Captain Glennie downwards. The admiral was about to leave the Hood , and I thought that this faux pas would be removed from my record the day he went, for rarely does an admiral remember a boy, but Whitworth, who was something of a martinet, was kind enough to remember me more than a year later when we met again in more emotional circumstances.
In March 1940, with signs of a German build-up for the invasion of Norway, the Hood's operational zone was based on the east coast again, and we alternated between Scapa and the Firth of Forth. The first mission was on 2 March with the battleship Valiant and six destroyers. We provided assistance for a convoy from Norway. It was an uneventful five-day stint, and we returned to Scapa yawning from lack of sleep and boredom. But within twenty-four hours we had to be on the top line for another visit by Churchill. The old warrior was aboard the Rodney , which was prevented from entering harbour because two magnetic mines had been dropped by a German plane the previous night. I understand that Churchill was never informed that it was the Hood's fault he had to transfer by admiral's barge. We had been the anti-aircraft guard ship on the night of the raid and had allowed in a 'Jerry', who circled the Flow and then let loose the mines. A week later fourteen Heinkel 111s attacked the Flow. No bombs fell near us, but the commander of the Nazi squadron claimed direct hits on the Hood, Repulse and Renown.
When Admiral Whitworth struck his flag on 11 March and transferred to the Renown, it was obvious to everyone on board that at last the Hood was to have that long overdue refit. Our lovely old girl was beginning to show signs of engine strain, and many times A and Y turrets had to be drained by deck tackle because the argoline oil and distilled water hydraulics systems had filled with salt water. Air raids had also proved that the antiaircraft defences were still not sufficient. Our last trip north was around the Shetlands and down to Greenock, where we stayed for several days.
As one Hood moved out of Clydeside on 30 March, so another moved in. The newcomer was one of Churchill's decoys. On his third day back at the Admiralty he had revived the First World War idea of constructing dummy capital ships to fool enemy reconnaissance planes. With the approval of Admiral Pound, he had ordered six decoy frames to be set up on merchant ships, but only three were built. We considered ourselves fortunate that we had a 'double', and indeed it served its purpose because I understand it took the people of Greenock several days to tumble to it that the real Hood had gone. My older 'oppo' on the flag deck, Marine Holding, was in trouble with his girl friend ashore because of the dummy. She, too, believed that the Hood was in port and thought that, because she was not seeing him, he had ditched her!
Chapter 15- Force H For Hood
Leave, which was long overdue, was given to half of the crew after we had been dry-docked at Devonport at the end of March, but 250 of those unfortunate enough to have been left on board were to be involved in a disastrous adventure, for which they were not trained.
We in the signals branch knew something was 'on' during the forenoon of 12 April when secret orders code-named 'Primrose' began to arrive in the ship. Our howitzer was swung over the side on to the quay soon after. Then came the news that 250 marines and matelots were to pack their kit immediately and prepare to go ashore that night. Three days earlier Germany had invaded Norway and Denmark, and the mess buzz kings did not take long to deduce that this sudden collecting of manpower had something to do with a mission to Scandinavia. Several boys wanted to volunteer to go - although I can't say that I was particularly keen to join them - but it was decided that only marines and senior ratings should be picked. After a day of feverish preparation the contingent boarded a special train at midnight. Some were to return a month later; others, such as Able Seamen Kelly, Harris, Thorpe and Walker, were wounded; some, like Lieutenant-Commander C.A. Awdry, Lieutenant E.D. Strand, Sub-Lieutenant Goodale, Sub-Lieutenant D.C. Salter, Sergeant J.P. Lees and Marines McPherson, Lashmar and Welch, fought on until the evacuation. Many did not leave Norway alive. One who did was my shipmate Marine Holding, and the messes heard of his and others' adventures when the Hood re-entered the war at 9.30 p.m. on Monday 27 May 1940.
It was at this time that the Hood was towed out of the T amar into Plymouth Sound after two months of hammering and riveting at Devonport. And in those fifty-seven days Norway, Denmark and Holland had been overrun by the Nazi Blitzkrieg. Belgium was on the eve of capitulation, and the French Channel ports were under siege. Britain was just a week from Dunkirk.
As we slipped the towing wires of the tug and regretfully left the leisurely life of the West Country, we were cheerfully confident that the battle cruiser was in fighting fettle again. The ack-ack defences had been bolstered and a set of five UP (unrotating projectile) rocket-launchers had been fitted, in addition to other minor improvements. What we did not know was that there was another list of comprehensive modifications, which it was not intended to do. These included new machinery, the removal of both the conning tower and the above-water torpedo tubes, the fitting of an aircraft catapult and crane and, most important of all, extra horizontal and vertical armour, which the Admiralty were doubtful about now because of the extra weight of the ship.
That morning we steamed northwards, escorted by three destroyers. We were retreating from the threatened southern coast of England to Liverpool's Gladstone Dock for a fortnight of underwater repairs and painting. It was inconvenient, to say the least, that the Hood dry-docked alongside and the ship's company were required to use the lavatories ashore as the main heads onboard were closed. Diarrhoea swept through the mess decks, and there was an incessant stream of 'bodies' going back and forth down the gangway through the day and at night. Hardly a man was not affected by it during a forty-eight-hour spell. When the bug had run its full course, Paymaster Commander DC Roe, who was responsible for victualling the ship, found a heap of bad meat chained down outside his cabin the next morning. The culprits were never discovered, but the butcher was glad to be rid of the stuff.
While Britain listened for church bells which would warn of enemy invasion, our sentries were becoming jumpy about rumours of fifth columnists and spies. This led to the shooting of an innocent dockyard matey by a Royal Marine sentry. The workman was seen to approach the side of the ship and throw something into the dock. He was challenged immediately by the guard but did not reply. The marine challenged him again and this time shattered the silence by firing his .303. The workman was nicked by a bullet in the side of the neck. After he was arrested, he explained that he had merely thrown away the remains of his sandwich lunch and had not heard the sentry because he was deaf.
The possibility of more serious shooting was ahead when on 12 June the Hood left Gladstone Dock to rendezvous with one of the most important convoys of the war. Our escort included the Canadian destroyers Skeena, Restigouch and St Laurent, and we were to meet the convoy three hundred miles west of Cape Finisterre. Two days later there lumbered into view the aircraft-carrier Argus and then on the horizon the rest of the brood gradually appeared - first the Queen Mary, then the Empress of Britain, the Mauretania, Aquitania, Andes and Empress of Canada. It was the finest array of liners I have ever seen together at one time. On board were Anzac troops, too late for the Battle of Europe but on hand for the Battle of Britain and then North Africa. Everyone expected that this treasury of ships would bring hordes of aircraft and U-boats: instead there were just two submarine scares, and on 14 June we entered the Firth of Clyde and anchored off Greenock. Why had there been no attack, we wondered ? The answer came the next day. The Germans had been too busy in France, for Marshal Pétain was asking for his 'honourable peace'.
As libertymen began to return that night, it was obvious that the ship was on the verge of another 'special mission', and just before turning in we were alerted to stand by for a broadcast by Captain Glennie. In contrast to other briefings, he did not give any indication of where we were bound. All we were told was that we were to prepare for sea and raise steam for twenty knots.
At 0230 special sea duty men were ordered to their stations. Two and a half hours later we had whisked through the submarine boom from the Cloch Lighthouse to Dunoon. From the southerly course which was set, it seemed apparent to me that the Hood was heading for the South-Western Approaches, and that meant we should be involved in the defence of southern England. How wrong I was! During the next afternoon -a bright and sunny one, which belied the normal storminess of the Bay of Biscay -we crossed the path of our old chummy the Ark Royal. It was then that Captain Glennie announced to a ship's company befuddled by rumour and counter-rumour that with the great carrier and her destroyer screen we were to make for Gibraltar, where we were to form a section of Force H for operations in the Mediterranean - just like that, for there had been no preparation: none of us had been kitted out with 'whites', and we had been issued only balaclavas and woollies!
On 23 June the Hood arrived at Gibraltar and berthed alongside the harbour mole. Astern lay the battleship Resolution, which had been waiting for us thirteen days. Soon after, the Ark Royal put in at the jetty on our port side.
By now we assumed that the Hood was to be based at the gates of the Mediterranean, just as she had been in the 1930s, to put the 'frighteners' on Italy, who had declared war on the Allies thirteen days earlier. Churchill was determined that the Mediterranean was not to become an Italian lake. That was the way it appeared to the lower deck. Again we were wrong. Our allies were about to become our enemies.
The main concern of the War Cabinet was the destiny of the French fleet, and the day after, 25 June, when Pétain signed an armistice with Germany, we were ordered to sail with the Ark Royal on another panic mission. The French battleship Richelieu, based at Dakar, had put to sea and was thought to be heading for Toulon, where she would be neutralized. We were supposed to escort her to Gibraltar, but no one seemed to have the slightest idea of what action to take if her captain refused. The policy of dealing with the defecting French had yet to be decided, and at this stage we were unaware of just how ruthless it was to be. But the Hood and the Ark were not needed in this instance. The Richelieu was intercepted by the cruiser Dorsetshire off the West African coast, and her captain was persuaded to return to Dakar. At 2200 we turned about and went back to Gibraltar. By now, after ten months of war, the ship's company were thoroughly used to these false alarms. Another followed on 28 June when the Richelieu was again reported to be about to make a run for it. Again we put to sea. For sixteen hours we rushed towards Dakar; then the emergency fizzled out to its normal frustrating end with a recall to the Rock.
But in London twenty-four hours earlier there had been held an emergency meeting of the War Cabinet to give the Hood her most murderous mission, with which few of us would be proud to be associated.
Chapter 16- Shooting Fish in a Barrel
During the next few days we watched the build-up of Force H. First came the cruiser Enterprise, then four older destroyers of the Thirteenth Flotilla and finally the Valiant, a veteran of Jutland. Our main signal office was alive with messages during this period, and the messes were hives of rumour, until after divisions on Sunday 30 June, when Captain Glennie announced mistakenly that 'within a few days' Vice-Admiral Sir James Somerville would be hoisting his flag in the Hood.
When a new admiral is expected, it does not take long for a ship's company to form a mental picture of him through the wardroom and gunroom telegraphs. We soon knew that he was a showy admiral, with a blue sense of humour, an alert brain, a penchant for keeping his men on their toes and an impatient streak which drove his flag staff to distraction. The general opinion of the veterans of the lower deck, who had served with him when he was Rear-Admiral Destroyers in the Mediterranean from 1936 to 1938, was that he was kindly to the matelot, and since Invergordon this trait in him had helped to restore confidence in the officer class. Above all - and this was like possessing a rabbit's foot - he had a link with our ship, even if in name only, for his great-great-grandfather was Lord Hood, an admiral of the fleet. To crystallize: he was a popular admiral.
Certainly he was a hustler, as we found out when the cruiser Arethusa berthed nearby at 1745 that day, and not 'within a few days' as the captain had stated. I watched from the flag deck as the dazzling array of gold braid arrived. At this moment they were nameless to me, but in the forty-six days we were associated with them they all showed their little idiosyncrasies to the crew. In order of seniority they were: Captain E.G. Jeffery, the chief of staff, who had been snapped up from the Imperial Defence College; Commander Anthony Buzzard, rakish, sandy-haired and Navy tennis champion, who two months earlier had survived the sinking of the destroyer Gurkha - his first seagoing command - during the Norwegian campaign, for which he received the DSO; Commander Keith Walter, flag lieutenant and signal officer, Paymaster Lieutenant-Commander Bill Farrell, the admiral's secretary, who had never had this type of job before and who two weeks earlier was running Jersey Airport, and Paymaster-Lieutenant John Rennie. All looked weary from hours at sea, which had been not a cruise but a gruelling spell of thrashing out a 'rough and ready' organization to administer the new fleet. Jeffery, in particular, was showing the strain of a man who lived on his nerves - a strain that was to end tragically when he hanged himself in the Renown several months later.
Although it was now twilight into the Sabbath, Somerville refused to relax, and as soon as the hardware of his command had been taken inboard, he cleared the lower deck. In no uncertain terms he informed us that the objective of Force H was to hit the German and Italian fleets in the Mediterranean as hard as we could to relieve the beleaguered garrison in Malta. We believed him because there was no mention of the French fleet. Oran was still a place on the map to us, but it was a name to become linked with treachery.
For the next two days there was a succession of comings and goings up and down the gangways of the Hood. Never had I - a decimal in a vast permutation of naval figures - seen so much 'scrambled egg' assembled in one spot. Within hours of arriving, somerville left the Hood for 'The Mount', the eighteenth-century residence halfway up the Rock, to converse with his old friend Admiral Sir Dudley North, who in effect was in command of the area but who had been superseded unofficially by his junior.
This informal get-together heralded a further 'top brass' conference in the Hood that evening. Our quartermasters were on the top line for vigilance as a bevy of braid arrived, until congregated in the admiral's day cabin were North, Vice-Admiral 'Nutty' Wells, commanding aircraft-carriers, who felt spumed because he was not in charge of Force H, Captain Cedric 'Hooky' Holland, commanding officer of the Ark Royal, the captains of the Resolution, Valiant, Arethusa and Enterprise, and the commanding officers of the Eighth and Thirteenth Destroyer Flotillas. It was a top-secret conference, and not a word of it leaked out to the ship's company. Only thirty years later, on examining official records, did I know of the full import of the briefing by somerville, who held centre stage. In a grim atmosphere and one which lacked even the odd flashes of impromptu quasi-heroic humour, he informed his command that under the terms of the armistice France was required to deliver her fleet for demilitarization under German or Italian control. The British Government, however, were demanding that the French Navy should consider four alternatives - sail all warships to British harbours and fight on, put in to British or West Indian ports, so that crews could be repatriated, demilitarize their vessels immediately or scuttle. Somerville added menacingly, but not really meaning it: 'Should the French be unwilling to adopt any of the above measures it will then be necessary to show that we are in earnest by offensive action without endangering the French ships by our own action..
In revealing the plans for Catapult, scheduled for 3 July, he said that Holland would embark in the destroyer Foxhound for Oran to negotiate with the French. If they did not acquiesce, he proposed that the Hood should 'fire a few rounds, or the Ark Royal aircraft drop bombs close to, but not actually hitting the French ships'. Should these tactics not work, he gave specific instructions that the priority targets for the guns of Force H should be the Dunkerque, the 'ami' of the Hood, with whom we had operated the previous year, and the 26,500-ton new battle cruiser, Strasbourg. The secondary targets were to be the older 22,000-ton battleships Bretagne and Provence, designed in 1912, and then other warships in order of size.
'If the French offer organised any spirited resistance we may need to develop a full offensive on their ships and shore batteries, with all the means at our disposal,' he warned. 'In this case the code word Anvil will be signalled to all our forces. Senior officers are then to take all necessary action to crush the resistance, ceasing fire as soon as it is apparent that the French are no longer resisting..
The next day, Somerville conferred again with Holland and Lieutenant-Commanders A. Y. Spearman and G.P.S. Davies, all of whom had been liaison officers with the French Navy.
But events were rapidly overhauling the sympathetic attitude of Somerville and his entourage. At 1425 that day an Admiralty message alerted him to ready Catapult for launching on 3 July. It also prescribed these four alternatives to be put to the French:
1. Sail your ships to British harbours and fight with us.
2. Steam to Britain and hand over your vessels.
3. De- militarize your ships to our satisfaction.
4. Sink your ships where they are.
Somerville was more impressed by the opinions of the former liaison officers and tried to temper the Admiralty's firmness by signalling that force should be avoided' at all costs'. As a compromise he suggested that, if the French rejected the Admiralty's first alternative, they should be invited to sail with a skeleton steaming party and allow themselves to be captured by Force H, with the proviso that at the end of the war their ships would be returned. He also wanted the third and fourth alternatives to be an invitation and not ultimatums.
The signal and cypher offices in the Hood were at their busiest of the war as detailed instructions went back and forth, but that evening in a long message somerville was rebuked by the Admiralty and icily told -if the airways could be that cold -that his proposals were unacceptable. He was informed weightily: 'It is the firm intention of HMG that if the French will not accept any alternatives, which are being sent you, their ships must be destroyed. ' This did signify that new instructions were being despatched, and sure enough they arrived in the early hours of 2 July in four 'Most Secret' messages, which superseded any other orders. On the face of it, the four alternatives had barely altered. The third one had been changed to' sail their ships with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies, such as Martinique' for demilitarization under British or United States jurisdiction. A concession had been written in, however, that if it were suggested the French should disarm at their berths in Oran within six hours, this should be accepted.
Telegraphists in the wireless office did not sleep that night. A full version of the terms to be sent to Oran was transmitted, and then at 0113 came a third, longer message which outlined some of the arguments which could be put to the French. The Admiralty insisted that, although no time limit was being set for acceptance, it was imperative that Catapult should be completed during daylight of 3 July.
The next morning, 2 July, there was another parade of senior officers to the Hood when the final phases of the operation were thrashed out, although most were under the misapprehension still that Catapult would not become Anvil, when Force H would be expected to belch out a devastating denunciation of their reneging ally.
Even as a signal boy I had a better knowledge, although limited, of what was going on than men in other branches. We were constantly being quizzed by others with 'What's buzzing, cousin?' or 'What hunts, bunts?' It was more than we dare do to reveal classified information, and at times we smugly adopted an attitude of '1 know more than you do, mate.' But on this occasion we were all in the dark as all signals from London were in code. With the amount of fuel and ammunition that the Hood had taken on board during the last forty-eight hours, no one could deny that a 'stunt' was on. I genuinely believed that we were about to seek out and destroy the Italian fleet.
It seemed certain that we would leave that night, for our boilers were fully fired and around us curled smoke from the sixteen other ships of Force H. It was a surprise when the pipe came for sea duty men to fall in at 1600. Most of us expected to sail under cover of darkness, but it was a bright evening, with exceptional visibility for the many pro-Axis observers at Algeciras just across the Spanish border.
In company with the Ark Royal, Valiant, Resolution, Arethusa, Enterprise and screen of eleven destroyers, we cleared the Rock at 1700, worked up to seventeen knots and zigzagged. Soon after, Captain Glennie cleared the mess-deck smokescreen of speculation by broadcasting to the ship's company that we were bound for Oran - or, to put it correctly, to nearby Mers-el-Kebir - to try to persuade the French fleet to join us. He gave full details of the ultimatum and also informed us that negotiators would be conferring with our' old friend' the stocky, fifty-nine-year-old Vice-Admiral Gensoul, under whose orders the Hood had been during the Gneisenau panic in 1939 and who was known to be' a hundred per cent pro British'.
This announcement caused mixed feelings on the mess decks that night. The general opinion was that it would not come to the point when we would be firing on allies. For me it was a sickening idea, and I honestly thought it would never happen. Similar broadcasts were being made in other ships of the force as Somerville made a general signal explaining the mission. We had 195 nautical miles to go to Oran, and for most of that night Somerville was awake studying the signals that kept the cypher office at full stretch. Just before midnight the distastefulness of the operation was underlined in a message from First Lord A. V. Alexander. He wirelessed: 'You are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete confidence in you and rely on you to carry it out relentlessly.' The midnight oil was also being burnt at the Admiralty, for at 0135 Somerville was instructed that, although a time limit had not been set for French acceptance, it was still imperative Catapult be completed during daylight hours on 3 July.
In between these signals there was a more immediate emergency. A torpedo exploded ahead of the destroyer Vortigern. With her sister Vidette she was detached to hunt for a U-boat. For more than an hour they 'pinged' their Asdics, but they failed to get an echo and returned to the escort screen. This was the only scare on the passage to Mers-el-Kebir, where we arrived at 0810. Five hours earlier the destroyer Foxhound, with negotiators Captain Holland and Lieutenant-Commanders Spearman and Davies on board, had been detached from Force H with orders to push on to Oran at full speed. Foxhound beat the Hood by an hour to the harbour but had to wait for another hour before being given permission to enter .
It was a shimmering hot morning, and we were at action stations already. I was 'closed up' on the flag deck and consequently had a grandstand view of the historic events being played out before me. There were few flag signals to be executed at this stage, and it was just a question of standing and watching and trying to keep out of the stultifying sun as it turned my action rig into a cloying sack of sweat. Looking towards the dun-coloured hills cloaking Oran, the scene was tranquil enough. Three miles to the west of Oran harbour I could see a forest of masts. This then was the French fleet moored at Mers-el-Kebir. In addition to the two battle cruisers and two veteran battleships, it also included the seaplane-carrier, Commandant Teste and six large destroyers. An antisubmarine net boom screened the harbour entrance. The ships themselves had a further protection in the form of a thirty-foot high mole which ran half a mile from the shore; another half a mile was still being built, but this had a stretch of anti-submarine nets on either side, with access through a six-hundred-foot wide gate. At Santon, the highest hill at a thousand feet, was a battery of four 7.5-inch guns, of which I was soon to know more.
The peace was soon broken by the buzzing of patrols from the Ark Royal, which could put into the air thirty torpedo-spotter reconnaissance planes and twenty-four fighters. Our entire force steamed backwards and forwards menacingly in line ahead parallel to the coast, our smoke blackening the azure sky in portent of the power we had at our disposal. The Hood led the formation, followed by the Resolution and Valiant; Arethusa was on the starboard bow and Enterprise on the port bow, with the screen of destroyers outside them. To seaward, just in sight from the Hood, was the Ark and her destroyers. Occasionally I glimpsed Somerville on his bridge. He looked pallid, drawn and haggard after a night without sleep, but I heard from the messengers that he was maintaining his usual crackling banter, although the familiar crossword puzzle he kept by his chair for solving during long spells of waiting was missing. Every now and then he would come out on to the wings of the bridge and clamp his binoculars to his eyes, as an Aldis lamp winked from the Foxhound. He dare not let his attention wander, for on the one hand signals were made before him and on the other was a stream of instructions from the Admiralty. As soon as a coded message came in from London, he would be informed by telephone by the WT department. He would let a few minutes elapse and then ring his secretary, Lieutenant-Commander Farrell, and Paymaster-Lieutenant Rennie, secretary to the chief of staff, for a decoded version long before one could be reasonably expected.
As the Hood traversed across the harbour mouth, our rangefinders twirled, while all the fifteen-inch turrets were trained and readjusted at the end of each turnabout. Until the force repeated these long sweeps, like impatient caged lions, the French genuinely believed that we were on our way to tackle the Italian fleet. Through a telescope I could see the comings and goings in the harbour, although I was obviously unaware at this stage of what was actually happening. First the admiral's barge from the Dunkerque arrived alongside the Foxhound; then the destroyer weighed anchor, leaving her motor-boat, in which were Holland, Spearman and Davies, heading for the Dunkerque. Halfway between the inner boom and the mole they were met by the admiral's barge again and stopped. The French boat scuttled back to its parent ship, returned again to the negotiators' craft and then went to the Dunkerque yet again. This little charade was played out for two hours until just before 1130, when Holland and his party climbed onboard the Foxhound. Reports of proceedings and eye-witness accounts have revealed since that Admiral Gensoul refused to see the British officers but considered the ultimatum which was handed over. He adamantly rejected it but assured somerville that he would not allow his ships to become German possessions and finally resolved to' defend himself by every means at his disposal'.
The Hood was using her twenty-inch signal projector to keep in touch with the Foxhound by light, and somerville had transmitted the intention that he would not allow the French ships to leave harbour unless the terms were accepted and that the ultimatum would expire at 1430. Again we saw the Foxhound's motor-boat go in the direction of the Dunkerque, and then the destroyer take up a position outside the boom. Soon the motor-boat chugged back. For nearly an hour around noon there was an uneasy calm. By now the heat below and above decks in the Hood was of bludgeoning intensity. Although I was in one of the airiest parts of the ship, the hot deck drew my feet through the soles of thick shoes. To touch a handrail was like putting one's fingers on the handle of a poker which had been left in a fire for hours.
Captain Glennie took advantage of this lull to pipe 'Cooks to the galley'. It relieved the waiting, if little else. One rating from each position was detailed to collect action rations from the main galley on the starboard side above the boys' mess deck. Whoever devised the menu that day had little idea of the sweltering conditions we would face, for up to us came hot soup, followed by the usual great door-stepped bully beef sandwiches, or' corned dog' as we called it. Rum had been issued, but I was not yet eighteen and 'not entitled', so I sipped the 'limers' normally served to all ratings in hot climates, which by the time it reached me was warm. The officers were barely better off. Hot stew, with rock cakes as a dessert, was their fare. While we were eating, more serious developments had been taking place in the harbour. The wisps of smoke coming from the French fleet suddenly turned into spiralling plumes; bugles sounded, awnings were furled. Lights blinked back and forth from the Foxhound to the Hood, and the number of aircraft keeping surveillance over the town increased to twenty. A sudden flurry of reports to Somerville indicated that Gensoul planned to sail his fleet.
At 1236 our twenty-inch projector flashed this message from Somerville to Holland in the Foxhound: 'Presume there is no alternative to Anvil.' After a few minutes the reply came: ' Am afraid not. Am waiting in V IS touch in case acceptance before expiration time.' After this Somerville's staff hurried up to the admiral's bridge. At this snap conference it was revealed that Gensoul had ordered the opening of the harbour boom to admit three tugs. It was also reported that four submarines were on the move. Somerville's response was to signal Ark Royal's aircraft to mine the entrance. His order was soon obeyed and we could see the splashes as four mines were dropped.
The ultimatum was due to expire at 1330 local time, and fifteen minutes before this Somerville kept his options open by making this light signal to Holland: 'Does anything you have said prevent me opening fire?' A heavy-hearted Holland, who genuinely liked the French officers with whom he was negotiating, answered: 'Nothing I have said, since terms were not discussed, only handed in and reply received. I would suggest there might be a chance of avoiding Anvil if Foxhound went in to V /S touch and asked if there was further message before force employed.'
Several minutes later - after the Foxhound had moved in closer to the harbour - Somerville tried again. 'Pass to Gensoul,' he signalled. 'If you accept the terms, hoist a large square flag at the masthead, otherwise I must open fire at 1500. Your harbour is mined.'
The ship's company were being informed intermittently by broadcasts of the situation. Two loudspeakers on the flag deck kept us up to date, but most of the signalmen were reading the light messages which were being flashed to and fro. However, when Foxhound relayed Somerville's last demand to the Dunkerque, few of us could understand. To avoid mistakes, Holland had passed it in French.
The aerial mining was regarded by Gensoul as the initial belligerent act, and by now it seemed that he would open fire first, for observers in the patrolling Swordfish aircraft reported that the turrets of the Dunkerque, Strasbourg and Bretagne were trained on the Hood and that tugs were pushing them from their moorings. Most of us watching the painfully slow proceedings were realizing now that Gensoul was playing for time. From the pacing up and down of Somerville on the bridge, we could tell that his patience was ebbing. At 1415 the Foxhound's projector was active again, transferring a message from Gensoul. It read: 'I have no intention of sailing. I have telegraphed my government and am awaiting their reply. Take no irrevocable step.'
This duel of light on the nerves seemed to have been resolved without injury to either force when fifteen minutes later Holland indicated by the Foxhound's projector that Gensoul was ready to meet him in the Dunkerque for 'honourable discussion'. Unfortunately this clashed with Somerville's peremptory warning: ' Accept our terms or abandon your ships as I must destroy them at 1530.' Holland did not think it necessary to repeat this last message to Gensoul. At 1500 I watched the Foxhound's motor-boat cast off again. It was more than seven miles - or thirty minutes by boat - from the French flagship, and a strange, foreboding calm seemed to settle over Force H as the patrol was continued in line ahead.
For 2¼ hours the sun blazed down, and it was difficult not to lower one's eyelids against the glare and nod off. Boredom began to settle in for us, but Somerville was being prodded into action by Churchill. Four hours earlier Gensoul had wirelessed the French Admiralty that he was being threatened by a massive British force, and this had led Admiral Darlan to direct all ships in the western Mediterranean - especially the Third Squadron and Algiers Squadron - to steam immediately for Oran to 'meet force with force'. This signal had been picked up by British Intelligence and brought this timely reminder from Churchill to Somerville at 1646: 'Settle matters quickly or you will have reinforcements to deal with.'
Of course, the average rating, like myself, was unaware of this explosive order from Churchill. During the last six hours the dilemma of opening fire had been the continual subject of an escalating debate. I gathered that most of our officers hoped that it would not be necessary. The lower deck were not so compassionate now, and the attitude of many was: 'They've chucked it in, so we've every right to sink 'em.'
With the pressure from Whitehall building, and not wishing to attack in darkness, Somerville made up his mind. Just before 1700 I saw his messenger, Leading Signalman Lewington, who spoke fluent French, scuttle to the projector, which soon blinked out: 'If one of British proposals is not accepted by 1730 BSM I must sink your ships.' The reply was sent in English from the Dunkerque. Eagerly we all spelt it out on the flag deck. It read: 'Do not create the irreparable.'
The flag deck was coming to life again now, and a few minutes later Chief Yeoman Thomas called down the voice-pipe to us. Leading Signalman Ned Johns answered and then turned to Marine Holding, my friend Signal Boy Bell and myself to tell us to string together and hoist the series of flags ZTH I - readiness for instant action. As they fluttered to the starboard masthead, I still could not believe that for the first time in the war our fifteen-inch guns would be hurling tons of high explosives - and on helpless friends at that!
As we turned our telescopes towards the harbour again, there was a burst of searchlight activity from the Dunkerque, then from the Foxhound to the Hood. It was Holland's final communication, the basis of which was that he had managed to squeeze a compromise from the French. ' Admiral Gensoul says crews being reduced,' it ran, ' and if threatened by enemy would go to Martinique, or USA, but this not quite our proposition. Can get no nearer.' This last signal did not reach Somerville until one minute before the deadline. Still the dreaded moment of opening fire was delayed. For nearly half an hour, as the sun dipped, I clutched the cooling rail on the flag deck, watching for any sign that would mean a reprieve for both sides. Somerville came out on the wings of the bridge. Outwardly he seemed cool but then I thought that was the difference between myself and anyone who wore such heavy gold braid !
In Mers-el-Kebir tugs began bustling around the wharves; there appeared to be movement among the cram of ships; darker, thicker smoke swept skywards. Over the town, strike aircraft circled like bull-nosed vultures, waiting for the moment to descend and tear asunder. In the Hood all guns were cleared as Force H inclined more towards the coast. In the spotting-top there was a grotesque array of steel helmets with binoculars sprouting from beneath the brims. Somerville was no longer on the wings of the bridge. The Foxhound's motor-boat emerged from the harbour.
The voice-pipe squealed. Leading Signalman Johns answered it, listened, rapped out 'Yes, sir,' looked at Holding, Bell and myself and shouted: 'Flag 5 - Hoist.' The three of us took up the white and red horizontal halved piece of bunting that signified 'Open fire - may be obeyed as soon as seen.' My fingers trembled as I performed my task of putting an Inglefield clip on the flag's head. Bell was working on the bottom of it, while Holding hoisted as soon as we had clipped on. The bunting slid easily up the halyards to the starboard masthead.
The response was immediate. Just as I turned round to watch, the guns of the Resolution and Valiant roared in murderous hair-trigger reaction. Then came the ting-ting of our firing bell. Seconds later my ears felt as if they had been sandwiched between two manhole covers. The concussion of the Hood's eight fifteen-inch guns, screaming in horrendous harmony, shook the flag deck violently. In line with Somerville's original plan, the first salvoes were not intended to land in the harbour. I found myself counting off the seconds. First the shells from the older battleships erupted the sea north of the harbour, and then twenty seconds later the Hood's salvoes sent up high, cascading water-spouts. It seemed as if after all we were not to be involved in a full-scale battle, for these shots were frighteners.
Then to my horror the thunder continued and the next salvoes enfiladed the masts alongside the mole. The French were trapped in the close confines of the harbour, and for the next ten minutes the old cliche of shooting fish in a barrel kept going through my mind, as from a range of fifteen thousand yards Mers-el-Kebir was pulverized. We were using GIC (Gunnery Information Centre) concentration, with Ark's aircraft spotting our fall of shot. With the line of firing from the north-west and Force H on a steady, easterly course, it meant that Gensoul's vessels on our starboard quarter could not bring all their guns to bear because of being masked by Fort Santon.
It was an awesome sight as shells continued to plunge into the harbour area. A massive cloak of smoke hung over the town and this would change colour as great orange flashes sent wreckage up to four hundred feet. Intermingled with this were sheets of water and oil. The smell of burning fuel and cordite soured the air, even at this range. Suddenly pinpoints of amber light punctuated the blackness. Above the roar of our guns came the high-pitched, blood-curdling, crescendoing, low whine of being under fire ourselves by warships for the first time. There were vivid red flashes as a salvo fell just short of the starboard side. Within seconds came a series of blue flashes. Later I learnt that each French ship's salvoes exploded in a different colour to make it easier to judge their fall of shot. The Dunkerque's were red and the Strasbourg's green.
These first ranging shots seemed so ineffective that my terror subsided and I watched for more. This time I could actually see some approaching, surprisingly lazily, end for end and visible throughout the whole of their trajectory. I was told afterwards that one of the French capital ships must have had defective driving bands and this was causing the slow motion and tumbling phenomenon.
In the distance I spotted Holland's motor-boat clearing the harbour and running into a barrage of gunfire as it approached the Foxhound. Then the destroyer put down a smokescreen, and they were lost to view. It was also becoming hazardous for the Hood by now. Suddenly we were straddled by one salvo. Splinters thudded into one funnel and along our starboard side. But our only casualties were a lieutenant and a rating on the boat deck, who were slightly wounded. The sea around was foaming continually now as the French bombardment heightened. This further menace came from the shore battery at Fort Santon, which the Arethusa and Enterprise were not engaging too successfully, mainly because they were out of range. There were no coloured shell bursts now, and the impenetrable pall of smoke, which the evening breeze could not disperse, marked the end of the French navy's resistance. But the shore batteries continued to bedevil the Hood, and our guns were turned on them just before 1810. By now 13.4-inch shells from Forts Santon, Canastel, Gambetta and Espagnole were peppering not only the line of heavy ships but also the flanking destroyers. The bombardment was becoming more accurate, and several ships were straddled without being damaged.
I was brought back to my duties by Somerville's peremptory order of a change of course to 180 degrees port. With Bell and Holding I ran up 18 Blue. At the same time every ship was ordered to 'make smoke' to obscure us from the explosive torment coming from the shore. As we turned to seaward, I looked back on the pulsating ball of fire which was once Mers-el-Kebir.
At 1812 the voice-pipe came alive again. 'Flag six ... hoist,' yelled Johns, during a gap in the cacophony of gunfire and the screaming aircraft. We grabbed the yellow and blue vertically halved flag, and it shot to the masthead. Thankfully, it was the cease-fire. Somerville had made this decision because of repeated signals by wireless from Gensoul to halt the slaughter so that the wounded could be taken ashore. The Hood had unleashed fifty-six rounds of fifteen-inch shells and 120 four-inchers, or more than sixty tons of high explosive. A total of two hundred tons had rained on the French ships.
For the next twenty minutes an uneasy silence surrounded the Hood amid the smoke she made. Then at 1835 somerville signalled Gensoul: 'Unless I see your ships sinking I shall open fire again.' He was to admit later: 'My appreciation of the situation at this time was that resistance from the French ships had ceased and that by ceasing fire I should give them an opportunity to abandon their ships and thus avoid further loss of life. Since the French knew the entrance to the harbour had been mined, I felt positive that no attempt would be made by them to put to sea.'
Admirals are mere mortals, too. In the confusion of the smoke Somerville had confused himself.
Chapter 17- The Pursuit of Unhappiness
Throughout the operation, Admiral Gensoul had played for time, and in the immediate moment after more than a thousand of his men had died, he still bartered minutes and seconds to save a section of his fleet. Earlier he had visualized an escape route past Oran and clear of the aircraft-sown mines. He achieved this by ordering his marines to machine-gun the buoys mooring the anti-submarine nets. When they had sunk, a channel of more than three cables in width was created. Half an hour before the one-sided battle began, he had received the signal from Admiral Darlan that all French forces in the western Mediterranean had been ordered to rush to his aid. 'You will then take these forces under your command,' he was told. With this intention Gensoul had instructed all his ships to make for the gap in the submarine screens.
Behind the chaos created by British guns, the admiral attempted to salvage apart of his fleet. The super destroyers Volta, Terrible, Lynx, Tigre and Kersaint were first into the open sea, and the battle cruiser Strasbourg, which had not suffered a single direct hit, followed them.
In his self-imposed smokescreen somerville relaxed for a fateful twelve minutes. At 1818 he discounted a carrier pilot's report that a ship of the Dunkerque class was escaping and heading eastwards. Then at 1830 another sighting from the air put the Strasbourg and the five destroyers steaming to the east and opposite Canastel. It was only at this point that we on the flag deck realized that something was amiss. Staff officers began to rush in a hive of activity to and from the admiral's bridge and the compass platform. somerville had made the tactical blunder of keeping to the west, instead of maintaining a watch to the north-east of Oran to cut off a break-out towards Toulon in southern France. He had also relied too heavily on the barrier of mines. There was nothing to do now but to give chase, so at 1838 the Hood was ordered to turn about to try to catch the Strasbourg, which was ten miles to the north-west, working up to twenty-eight knots and obscured by smoke. Five minutes later the Arethusa, the Enterprise and the destroyer screen shot ahead of us into the vanguard as a precaution, in case we and the Valiant and Resolution had to deal with the Dunkerque, which might also have slipped by the nets. It soon became obvious that the Strasbourg, now joined by six more destroyers from Oran, was the only big fish to have eluded the trap, and the Hood parted company from the two older battleships and surged ahead of Force H in pursuit.
As we emerged from the smoke and just before hitting top speed of thirty-two knots, our look-outs sighted a small craft flying the strange combination of a white flag and a white ensign. It was Holland's motor-boat, which had run out of petrol after dodging the bombardment for fifteen miles. Everyone on our upper deck cheered as we swept past.
I had been at my station on the flag deck for nearly twelve hours now, and we were still to have more action, this time the bravest I have ever seen. Where there had been six destroyers in our screen on the starboard wing, there was unaccountably a seventh, and this interloper was heading straight for the Hood at full speed. It was the French light cruiser Rigault de Genouilly, which had attempted to join the Strasbourg from Oran, had failed to keep up and had turned back again. She was close to the shore and making a torpedo run on the Hood. From twelve thousand yards the Arethusa opened fire; from eighteen thousand yards the Enterprise joined in; the Hood's guns roared again, too, at this mosquito which might have a deadly sting. Three hits were observed on the lone raider, but before she veered away the Hood had to veer, too. The Rigault de Genouilly managed to unloose two torpedoes, and we swung 180 degrees off course to port to avoid them. I looked back and saw the bubbles boil by well astern of us.
It seemed poetic justice to me that this futile but gallant attempt against immense odds should end in survival as the Frenchman eluded us -but only for a day. The Rigault de Genouilly regained the shambled safety of Oran only to be sunk by the British submarine Pandora when on the way to Algiers.
By now we were told that it was hoped to halt, or at least slow, the speeding Strasbourg by an air strike from the Ark Royal. Six Swordfish and three Skuas, carrying between them four 250-pound semi-armour piercing bombs and eight twenty-pounders, found it easy to track her down by following the involuntary smokescreen she was emitting through a shell splinter hole in a funnel. But that was the limit of their success. The French anti-aircraft barrage was of such intensity that three planes were shot down. The closest they got to the Strasbourg was a bomb thirty yards off her stern. But a misleading report claimed that there had been one hit, and this prompted Somerville to continue the pursuit.
We, the attackers, were also the target for the French Air Force. From 1930 French reconnaissance planes, followed by bombers, tailed us. High-angle anti-aircraft fire warded off their half-hearted attempts to bomb. A stick of four exploded fifty yards from the Wrestler, and surprisingly the Hood was not the main target.
Meanwhile the Strasbourg and destroyers were drawing further ahead. Just after 2000 they were plotted as being twenty-five miles in front, with the distance increasing every minute. In the gloaming I could see another exodus of officers to the admiral's bridge. Then at 2020, a quarter of an hour before sunset, came the order from Somerville to return to Oran. Somerville was sick of the whole nasty business and did not relish putting any of his ships at risk just to stop the French warships falling into German or Italian hands.
Our course was altered to the west, and the Admiralty were informed that Force H would stay in the vicinity of Oran during the night to make air attacks on ships in harbour at dawn. From this message it is apparent that Somerville had no stomach for turning his fleet's firepower on the French survivors again. He did order, however, another aircraft strike on the Strasbourg. It was made by six Swordfish in the dark, and although one torpedo seemed to explode under the battle cruiser's stern and another amidships, there was no sign of her slowing. The Admiralty were confused about Somerville's intentions, for as late as 2200, when I at last left the flag deck, they signalled him to race after the Strasbourg again, if the Swordfish had been successful, but by this time the Hood was off to Oran again.
It was eerily quiet as we approached the battered French harbour. Columns of smoke were "still spuming up as the ship's company prepared for a night of vigilance, although at 2130 the devious Gensoul had signalled Somerville: 'Warships at Mers-el-Kebir hors de combat. Am evacuating personnel from ships.' Nevertheless, Somerville insisted that the Ark Royal must prepare for another strike on the stricken Dunkerque, now aground on a sandbank. Around midnight our force became shrouded in fog, and we thought that this mercy would allow us some sleep. At 0330 it began to lift, and through the gloom we sighted the Ark. But this was only a momentary clearance. By 0420 it was thicker than before. Somerville abandoned the strike, and the entire force set course for Gibraltar.
We arrived at the Rock at 1900 on 4 July. Coincidentally the Strasbourg reached Toulon about the same time to what was described later as a 'wild acclamation, not only from every ship in Toulon, but most of the population'. When I finally got below at 2200 the messdecks were quiet. Everyone was dog tired, and off-duty watches were collapsed allover the ship. Many, like myself, were too exhausted to sling their hammocks. I joined a bunch of friends dozing on top of the hammock stowage. They were still fully dressed, with anti-flash gear on.
More dirty work was being shaped for us, however. All that night we refuelled and ammunitioned ship, for Somerville had been ordered to take Force H to sea at dawn and head for Dakar, where the Richelieu was to be given the Oran treatment. Signals were already streaming backwards and forwards from London. In Tangier the British consul general sent this 'Most Immediate' message to the War Cabinet: 'French military attache has just told me French Air Force, based at Port Lyautey, immediate objective is Hood.'' It was relayed on to the Hood, and sure enough it was correct. An hour after midnight unidentified aircraft were over Gibraltar. Their efforts surprised the Hood, but their bombs fell in the sea.
During the hours of darkness Somerville had been communicating with the Admiralty about the state of the Dunkerque at Mers-el-Kebir. Reconnaissance flights over the French battle cruiser could not assess accurately her injuries. A message from the French, which had been intercepted, also stated: 'The damage to the Dunkerque is minimal and the ship will soon be repaired.' In view of this the Admiralty cancelled the dawn sailing for Dakar and insisted that Somerville should formulate new plans for attacking again, unless he was' certain that the Dunkerque could not be refloated and repaired in less than a year'. The deadline given was Saturday, 6 J uly.
All the next morning Somerville's flag staff and the commanding officers of Force H sat down around the big blue-baize table in his cabin to work out Operation Lever. I heard through the grapevine that the Hood was to open the firing, and indeed this was communicated to the Admiralty in a signal made just before the meeting broke off for lunch. Whether Somerville and his advisers ate and drank themselves into a more benevolent mood, I did not know, but during the afternoon session there was a change of opinion because it was thought that renewal of the bombardment would bring further loss of French lives ashore. At 1800 that evening Somerville wirelessed the Admiralty seeking a compromise which would not embitter France to take more active measures against British warships. Oblivious to the fact that we had been under air attack already from our ex-allies, the Admiralty's alternative was that Somerville should warn the French or get them to agree to our sending a demolition party to the Dunkerque. The Hood was only two hours from sailing, and still the method of destruction had not been approved.
At 2000 we put to sea, with Captain Glennie making the ominous announcement that the force were returning to Oran; what for, we were not told. Somerville was becoming more devious now, and the fifteen ships - the Resolution and a destroyer were left in Gibraltar - steered a feint course into the Atlantic and then at nightfall cruised back into the Mediterranean and increased speed to twenty-three knots.
In the early hours of that night, as the off-duty watches slept in the Hood, Somerville was negotiating with his superiors about the form of attack. As the Dunkerque was aground close to the village of St Andre, and he feared a slaughter of civilians if the guns of the Hood and the Valiant were employed, he suggested that the Ark Royal's torpedo bombers should be used. At 0250, just six hours before the bombardment was due to open, the Admiralty agreed to cancel it. Instead Somerville was ordered to set up continuous attacks by aircraft until the Dunkerque was 'thoroughly damaged'. Through the early hours of the morning the flag staff were sending out counter-orders for Operation Lever to the commanding officers of the force. In the Ark there were feverish preparations to ensure that the first aircraft took off just after 0500.
I awoke at six that morning - 6 July - to hear that the Hood was to stay on station with the Ark and her screen of destroyers ninety miles from Oran. We spent the next half hour or so watching the carrier's Swordfish take off in three waves. All twelve of the old' string-bags' returned after letting loose eleven torpedoes. They left the Dunkerque wreathed in smoke, although it is doubtful whether the five projectiles which skewered into her exploded. I learned later that the biggest explosion was caused by the torpedoing of the patrol boat Terre Neuve nearby. This triggered a tremendous blast through forty-four depth charges, which breached the Dunkerque's hull.
After briefings had been studied, Somerville was doubtful whether the Dunkerque had been destroyed. Nevertheless, after three hours he ordered our return to Gibraltar. We got there at 1830 on a beerless Saturday evening (a convoy had failed to arrive). I stayed on board to write home to my mother in censor's approved style that we had seen action at Oran, but we were not allowed to name ships.
In a letter to his wife, Somerville stated: 'It doesn't seem to worry the sailors at all, as they never "had no use for the French bastards," but to all of us senior officers it's simply incredible and revolting.' Somerville did not know his men. Revolting it is still to me, for the carnage of shooting into that barrel of fish which was Mers-el-Kebir was brought home to me years later when the French version of the devastation was released in Britain.
The revulsion of the French at the time was typified by a note which was sent to the Hood from surviving officers living in a villa at Oran. It said: 'The captain and officers of the Dunkerque inform you of the death for the honour of their flags on 3rd and 6th July, 1940 of nine officers and 200 men of their ship. They return to you herewith the souvenirs they had of their comrades in arms of the Royal Navy, in whom they had placed all their trust. And they express to you on this occasion all their bitter sadness and their disgust at seeing these comrades having no hesitation in soiling the glorious flag of St George with an ineffaceable stain - that of an assassin..
With the note were mementoes - cap ribbons, the ship's crest and badges - which the Hood's crew had sent to the Dunkerque after serving under the French flag the previous year. Nearly 1,300 officers and men had died; four warships, totalling around 75,000 tons had been destroyed or put out of action; the remainder of the French fleet reached Toulon but was never used by Germany. Was it worth it? I believe that, even today, the bitter memories of Oran still linger on for the French and are responsible for the hostility and recrimination against Britain which exist in the European Common Market.
Chapter 18- Testing the Italians
The buzz was that for the next few weeks Force H would be involved in a training programme off Gibraltar. At least this was the plan of Somerville, whp during the momentous happenings of the last week considered that this' scratch fleet' was just that. He sought time to develop a team spirit among the crews and to mould his commanding officers into a group who acted as one -and that meant anticipating his thoughts and obeying his orders implicitly.
The Admiralty had different ideas, and from the moment we returned from Operation Lever, Somerville was inundated with signals urging him to mount a raid into the central Mediterranean to test the power of the Italian fleet. It was to be a diversionary action to shield two convoys from Malta to Alexandria and was to involve a strike from the east by Admiral Cunningham's fleet, based at Alexandria.
In the eight days we had been under his command it had become obvious even to the lower deck that thankfully our new admiral was a cautious type who did not believe in wasting ships and men on hopeless causes. Somerville bore out our opinion by telling the Admiralty in forthright terms that their strategy was conceived wrongly. It meant taking crews who were 'green' to air attacks into the Tyrrhenian Sea, which was ringed by enemy bases, once the force had penetrated the narrows between Sardinia and Africa. Instead he proposed that Force H should infiltrate as far as the waters south of Sardinia, where the Ark's aircraft would strike at Cagliari air base. This did not satisfy the Admiralty planners. They pressed for a bombardment by the Hood and the two old battleships. At the risk of being accused of having' cold feet' , Somerville again protested because the force would be hazarded by mines, coastal batteries, submarines and air attack if we were required to close to a range of around fourteen miles.
The wrangle by wireless went on inexplicably through the nights of 6 and 7 July. The stupidity of some of the Admiralty signals caused Somerville to complain that many were initiated in the small hours and this explained their lack of clear thinking in Whitehall. Finally, as time was running out, he got his way. It was to be Cagliari and no farther, with only the A rk' s aircraft involved.
All this was outlined to the Hood's crew on the morning of 8 July, as we left Gibraltar, after only one full day there, in company with the Valiant, Resolution, Arethusa and Enterprise, the destroyers Faulkner, Foresight, Fearless, Foxhound and Escort of the Eighth Flotilla, Keppel, Douglas, Vortigern, Wishart and Watchman of the Thirteenth Flotilla, the cruiser Delhi, which had just joined the group -and, of course, the Ark. There was no , dummying' into the Atlantic this time. We were decoys, and subterfuge was not necessary. Over the broadcasting system we were warned by Captain Glennie that air attacks could be expected. At the same time Somerville signalled all ships in what was to become a laughable under-statement: 'Object of practice is to test the quality and price of ice cream.' The ice cream? This was the admiral's way of referring to the Italians. The 'practice' meant that we went immediately to relaxed action stations, and this state did not alter all that day or through the night of high humidity, when we ploughed on towards an area south-east of Majorca, where the Ark's aircraft were to fly off .
The weather was superb on Tuesday 9 July as I leaned on the flag-deck rail to watch the destroyers zigzagging on both our flanks. Was there really a war on ? Only the battle bowler-hatted brigades on the upper deck prevented this from looking a typical peacetime scene, one in which the Hood had been involved for the last twenty years. The day passed pleasantly enough, with the searing sun tempered by a light breeze, as we more or less lazed and sunbathed away the hours. We were roused in the early afternoon by the alarm to arms -three high-pitched bugle bars, dubbed by the matelots as 'There's a bomber overhead.' From the flag deck I could see a dot in the sky, circling the fleet. It was identified as an Italian Cant flying-boat and was too high to be dealt with by our anti-aircraft guns. After a minute or so this spy disappeared. We knew that this was possibly a messenger of doom who would sound the tally-ho for the hunting packs, and the opportunity of a few minutes respite was taken to detail us off for tea. I never finished mine.
It was just before 1600 when another alarm to arms stopped me in mid-sip of my mug of tea and in a mouthful of jam. I grabbed my steel helmet and dashed up the ladders to my action station. As I made for the flag deck, our anti-aircraft guns opened up. I was just clambering to the top of the flag-deck ladder when a great roar engulfed the ship. An unseen hand seemed to pummel me in the chest, and I was hurled backwards down the iron rungs. I got up off the deck and felt a trickle of blood coming from my nose. Within seconds it had become a torrent and rushed down into my mouth. Chief Yeoman George Thomas poked his head over the top of the ladder and seeing all the blood inquired gently: ' Are you hurt, lad? What are you doing down there, anyway?' I replied plaintively: '1 don't want to play any more, Chief.' The 'plaything' which had just missed the Hood was a stick of bombs from six aircraft of Italy's Regia Aeronautica, now over us at high altitude. Gingerly I climbed the ladder. I wiped the blood away from my face with a handkerchief. My nose was duly inspected by the chief yeoman, who "decided it was 'just a scratch'. This was no time to worry about it, anyway. The racket from our pom-poms and four-inch anti-aircraft weapons cancelled out my fear of the bombs which were tumbling down from the planes above. The azure sky was pockmarked with grey smudges of bursting shells as the fleet maintained a tremendous barrage. The multiple machine-guns were crackling away, although it seemed perfectly obvious, even to someone as young and inexperienced as myself, that the raiders were hopelessly out of range. The Hood maintained top speed, but even so bomb bursts alongside sent shrapnel rattling against our sides.
Approximately five miles off I could see the Ark Royal, which was the main target. At times she disappeared behind huge columns of erupting sea as bombs plummeted around her. More than once I thought: 'She's had it this time.' But then the 'unsinkable Ark' would appear again from out of the Italian-made mist, like a fiery whale, with all her ack-ack guns spuming defiance. Suddenly, it was all over; the planes had gone; the cease-fire came. Our toiling gunners, stripped to the waist, were able to relax for a smoke, but only for thirty minutes. At 1750 the Italians were back in a tight formation of eighteen planes and using altitude again.
Somerville had a healthy respect for the accuracy of the raiders by now and ordered the fleet to 'stagger the line'. Up went a general shout of 'Here they come again.' I felt helpless on the flag deck as this second attack looked more concentrated. Sticks of bombs were screaming in closer, and tons of water were cascading on our deck. The Ark had managed to fly off her fighters, but the Italians had height in their favour. Smoke suddenly spouted from a plane heading for home, but it flew on. Then came another lull.
But the raiders returned. The pattern continued like this with two more waves of twenty-two bombers until 1840, when we were able to discard our steel helmets for the first time in nearly three hours, as darkness began to close in. Somerville was realizing that the cost of his ice cream was going to be very high if he continued to press on towards Cagliari. All that had been achieved was the certain destruction of one Italian plane by fighters and a claim, later refused, that the H ood had shot down a second. While we were at supper, Somerville signalled Vice-Admiral Wells in the Ark Royal: 'In view of the heavy scale bombing and the nature of our objective, do you think continuance of operations justified?' Wells had no doubts. 'Definitely not,' he replied by light from the ten-inch signal projector. The next thing we knew was a sudden divergence in course to 246 degrees and the reassuring voice of Captain Glennie telling us that the force were returning to Gibraltar . Somerville was disappointed at what he described as' an unsatisfactory outing'l and his frustration increased just when it seemed the fleet would enter Gibraltar without casualties. Off the Rock early on 11 July the lurking Italian submarine Marconi torpedoed the destroyer Escort and scuttled away. A tug managed to get the damaged ship in tow but had to abandon her and she sank.
Despite Somerville's dejection, the diversionary sortie had worked. The two British convoys arrived unmolested at Alexandria, while Cunningham's fleet, unhindered by the attentions of the Regia Aeronautica, had put to flight the Italian battle fleet off Calabria on 9 July. A direct hit had been scored on the flagship of Admiral Riccardi, who coincidentally had been dined in the Hood by Cunningham two years earlier.
During the next nineteen days we were given a rest, but somerville was also able to initiate his somewhat rough training period. There were daytime visits by Italian reconnaissance aircraft and one night raid. But our morale was high, as in watches we were able to visit Sandy Bay and tan ourselves on the beach. Laughable Italian claims also established a team spirit in the force. One of their official communiques proclaimed: 'Positive information has been obtained that in the course of the action in the zone of the Balearic Islands, Italian aeroplanes inflicted heavy damage on, and set fire to, the Hood. The aircraft-carrier Ark Royal was squarely hit on its deck by two large bombs. This has been ascertained by photographs taken after the action.'2 Neither did the claims end there. The Corriere della Sera reported that the Hood had been so badly knocked about that she was being sent to dock in Britain. And on 13 and 14 July an Italian broadcast insisted that both the Hood and the Ark had been bombed out of action. We were said to have suffered hits on a turret and the main gun control position, which would need twenty days to repair. The broadcasts continued for the next week, and the final'hoot' for the crew was the allegation that men were 'still working on the Hood day and night'. They always did.
All this publicity and the fact that we were seeing action made many of the Hood's boys over cocky. We were inclined to swagger about and act like old salts, not only in our walk but also in our talk. Our language was as blue as our winter number one rig -until the chaplain, the Reverend Harold Beardmore, decided to have words with us. One day when we were in Gibraltar we were surprised to hear piped: ' All boys clear lower deck. Muster in the chapel..
The tiny church in the superstructure under the flag deck was a delightful place, an oasis of serenity in a throbbing, floating iron and steel township, and we wondered why fifty of us had been assembled there. Beardmore strode in and ripped into us with four-letter words about our arrogance, the smoking, the drinking, the cursing. He used every swear word I had heard on board the Hood. We shuffled uncomfortably. 'You don't like it do you?' he said. 'It seems wrong coming from a "sky bosun" in this little church, doesn't it?' To our amazement he then rattled off two diabolically dirty jokes. A few tittered self-consciously, but most of us were silent and embarrassed. Then he said: 'You would not go home and say to your mum "Pass the fucking jam" would you? So why do it here?' No other words were exchanged, and he walked out. It all seemed so obscene in the quietness of the chapel, but most of us learned from his lesson. Everyone regarded him as a first-class padre. The next time I came into close contact with him was towards the end of 1941, when I was being presented with a picture of the Hood at an RNVR and RND dinner. He was beyond words this time. He just grabbed my hand and shook it. He was not ashamed of the tears on his cheeks, for I was the lone survivor of the boys he had lectured.
During this spell of relaxation Gibraltar also had uneasy memories for me of the controversial multiple rocket- launcher which had been installed in our last refit. It was the brainchild of Churchill and had been developed by Professor Frederick Lindemann's secret weapons department for combating low-flying aircraft. Lindemann, the brilliant Oxford physicist and mathematician who had been a crony of the premier since the 1930s, believed that rockets would be more successful than anti-aircraft guns in shooting down raiders which were close to the sea. Each launcher, which looked like an umbrella stand, carried twenty three-inch rockets, known as unrifled projectiles. These shot out seven-inch containers, each holding two thousand feet of wire. Attached to every wire was a small parachute and a two-pound Mills bomb, which was ejected at about four thousand feet. The wires were supposed to entangle a plane and pull down the grenade, which would detonate. The Director of Naval Ordnance and his team had no faith in this device. The Training and Staff Duties Department concurred with them. "It's plumb crazy " they opined. But Churchill, although not plumb crazy, was certainly gadget crazy, and he was instrumental in having them installed in nearly thirty capital ships. I don't think that a single rocket claimed a single victim.
In the Hood there were five on B turret either side of the boat deck, under the flag deck and abaft the after funnel - and ten tons of ammunition were stowed in fragile steel lockers on the boat decks, although this unprotected storage contravened Admiralty instruction. No one fancied the idea of having ten tons of explosives so exposed, and our fears were realized when one morning in Gibraltar a launcher accidentally went off with a great whoosh and a sheet of flame. I was on the flag deck and could see twenty Mills bombs flying around the area of tile mole, but most exploded in the sea and there was no damage. Three sailors were badly burned, however. This scene has always been burnished on my memory because of its relevance to the demise of the Hood.
Our rest at the Rock was not to last much longer. I awoke on 30 July surprised to see the old carrier Argus moored ahead of the Ark Royal. This addition to Force H presaged another operation, which this time was Somerville's idea. Twelve Hurricanes destined for Malta had been shipped to Gibraltar, and the problem was how to deliver them to the island. The admiral knew that if this valuable cargo were part of a convoy it stood little chance of surviving the hazardous run to Malta. Instead, he suggested that the fighters should be assembled and tested in Gibraltar and put on the Ark Royal, which would sail to within flying-off distance of Malta. The Admiralty accepted his advice but preferred to use the Argus. They also incorporated into the operational plan an air strike from the Ark on Cagliari, with a section of Cunningham's fleet setting up another diversion in the eastern Mediterranean. The name of this game was 'Operation Hurry'.
At 0630 on 31 July the Hood left Gibraltar with the Valiant, Resolution, Enterprise, Argus, Ark Royal and nine destroyers. Despite the earliness of the hour, Captain Glennie announced to the crew that we were to sail in company for nearly twenty-four hours and then would part. The Argus would be escorted to Cape Bon to fly off the Hurricanes to Malta, while the Hood with the Enterprise, the Ark and four destroyers would be positioned for the raid on Cagliari.
For the next twenty-four hours we all steamed steadily eastwards in perfect conditions. Everyone was at second degree of anti-aircraft readiness, but there were no spies in the sky. Then at 1750 they arrived high -but not to spy. As the alarm to arms was shrilled, I spotted them at twenty thousand feet. 'Italian Savoia bombers', came the recogni- tion call. Our anti-aircraft defences opened up in their now familiar startling, yet settling to my stomach, chorus of cracks, whoofs, crumps, boomp-a-boomp-a-boomps. The raiders made no attempt to home in closer but let go their loads at full distance. The scream of bombs punctuated our barrage, and a stick fell harmlessly off the Hood's port quarter. Within a few minutes, and after we had fired close to a hundred rounds of HA ammunition, the raiders droned off. Everyone expected the known pattern to develop of a series of strikes before sunset. But we were wrong, and just before 1900 we were stood down.
Later that clear and starlit night the force split, and soon the comparative silence on the flag deck was broken by the warming up of the Swordfish on the Ark. For the rest of the night we watched the blurred fire of their engines at take-off and waited for their return from the attack on Cagliari. Next day we were told that every Hurricane had made it safely to Malta. Somerville signalled his satisfaction: 'Missions accomplished. Group One [the Hood's section] is awarded a bun. Group Two is awarded two buns.' He had proved that 'flying off' was the best method to reinforce Malta's flagging air defenders, and this tactic was used many times until the end of the North African campaign.
There were no pursuers as we swept westerly towards Gibraltar, and the chance was taken to make a fifteen-inch full charge practice shoot, which revealed that the rifling of two guns was defective. Just after noon on 3 August the reassuring vista of the Sierra Nevada, those Spanish mountains which pointed to a haven ahead in Gibraltar, was sighted. We moored alongside the South Mole the next day, not realizing that this was to be the last combined operation by the heavy ships of Force H.
I was expecting letters from my mother to be in the Fleet Mail Office, but there was not one bag of correspondence for the Hood. A line from home meant everything on the mess decks, and most of us were disgruntled. This was offset by the announcement of shore leave until 1700 and with it the old buzz that the Hood was to be withdrawn soon from the Mediterranean. It was to be sooner than later. Again we were somewhat peeved when just before 1800 that night we slipped our wires, steamed out of the harbour and headed east with the Valiant and the Ark. For four hours the Hood stayed on this course; then, after suddenly turning about and being detached from the rest of the force, we were convinced that the Admiralty had picked us for another 'stunt'. During darkness the ship remained on a course of 260 degrees towards the Atlantic. The next morning the mess decks were seething with rumour until Captain Glennie broadcast that the Hood had been ordered back to Britain. Cheers echoed around the ship, despite the fact that we were bound for inhospitable Scapa Flow.
The five-day voyage was uneventful. Just after midnight on 10 August Cape Wrath was sighted, and nearly six hours later we passed Hoxa Boom and entered Scapa, for a new phase of operations and a new boss. Within three hours Somerville had left the Hood for good and flown to London. His flag was not struck until six o'clock that evening, with the insignia of BC1 (Second in Command Home Fleet) being hoisted in its place. An hour later another gaggle of gold braid settled in the Hood -Vice-Admiral Whitworth and his staff were back with us.
Chapter 19- The Admirals Cry Wolf
The summer of 1940 blazed by me in a blur of bewildering figures in the headlines. The Battle of Britain was being decided in the skies of southern England, and it seemed strange and frustrating that the Hood with her enormous ack-ack fire power should be cloistered in the dubious cosiness of Scapa Flow. In fact we were being kept out of the firing-line of the Luftwaffe in case we were later needed to combat Hitler's surface invasion forces in Operation Sealion, which was expected during September.
Each day the headlines of the Daily Express and Daily Mirror kept up the morale of the boys' mess. deck with astounding claims of the destruction of German aircraft by the RAF. On 11 August, the day we arrived at Scapa, sixty 'bandits' were shot down over the Channel; two days later the score was seventy-eight, and on 15 August it had zoomed up to 180. The next day we were at sea, hammering south, convinced that the Hood was going into the battle zone, until it was announced that our destination was Rosyth, where the left fifteen-inch gun of A turret was to be replaced. So we were still out of the fight as the Battle of Britain roared on with seemingly hundreds of Nazi planes being downed. The eight .days the Hood stayed at Rosyth enabled many to return to the reality of' civilized' runs ashore, but then we retreated to the haven of Scapa again on 25 August, the night that London had its first taste of full-scale bombing.
On 13 September, with the invasion scare at its zenith, the Admiralty decided to use the Hood. We left Scapa in company with the Nelson and Rodney, the cruisers Bonaventure, Naiad and Cairo and a screen of seven destroyers, and 'to meet any possible threat' steamed south - but only two hundred miles, to Rosyth again. Within two days -although unknown to us -the German High Cpmmand had cancelled Operation Sealion almost at the lame time as newspapers were trumpeting that in one record day the enemy had lost 185 aircraft. Churchill's chiefs of staff were not so sure that the danger had passed, and the consequence was that the Hood was kept in a state of constant readiness.
It seemed rather odd to us, to say the least, that the Admiralty drafted to us three Free French sailors -after all it was our guns which had killed more than a thousand of their countrymen at Oran. We 'got on' with them all right, but the subject of Oran was strictly taboo. One of them was Leading Signalman Roger Loiseaux, who signed on under the nom-de-guerre of Dempsey. It transpired that he had not been sent to the Hood against his will. In later years he told me: 'I picked the Hood myself and did not regret it. I have unforgettable memories of the friends I made among the officers and men.
For the next eight months we were to be involved in a succession of false alarms and fatuous emergency sailings. The first came on 28 September, when a German cruiser was escorting a convoy more than a hundred miles off Stavanger, Norway. We were soon troughing through the North Sea. The next day the flap was over; the operation was called off, and to the disappointment of the crew we were detoured to inhospitable Scapa again.
On 15 October the Hood was called on again to cover the return of the cruisers Berwrck and Norfolk and carrier Furious, whose aircraft were to attack Tromso, Norway. Screened by the destroyers Somali, Eskimo and Mashona, we steamed towards the rendezvous, only to run into a fog which was so impenetrable that from the flag deck I could not see our escort. It worsened at dusk, and speed was reduced to fourteen knots. Our siren bellowed out constantly, and the destroyers' searchlights were switched on spasmodically. The fog blanket did not lift the next day, and most of us realized that with a sudden change of course to 180 degrees there would be a sudden change of plans. There was, for at 0925 on 18 October- the day the air attack was scheduled -we sighted Dunnet Head, the northernmost tip of land on the Pentland Firth, which marks the turn to starboard towards Scapa. We were to be closeted in the Flow almost until the end of October, but with the 'buzz' in the air that leave was to be given soon, our sojourn became bearable.
Most of us prayed that there would be no more flaps, but on 28 October the Hood was summoned out again with the Furious and destroyer screen for another sea-game of blind man's bluff. The objective was an 'eight-inch German cruiser' and supply ships in the area between Iceland and the Faroes. But the enemy became secondary. A Force 8 gale buffeted the Hood, and she was awash for long periods. Hands were not allowed in the batteries -the positions where the 5.5-inch guns had been -and all upper-deck hatches on the weather side remained closed. Yet we could see men walking round the decks of the escorts. Throughout the first night waves crested over the boat deck, flooding the wardroom and mess decks. The Hood had always been a wet ship, and the massive increase in her top-weight tonnage since 1939 had worsened conditions. On 30 October there was not a man on board who did not welcome the cancellation of the operation and the return to Scapa. But there was no let-up for us. The Hood was anti-aircraft guardship for the fleet, and our gunners complained that they were required to man the four-inch armament for two hours at dusk and for another two at dawn. For the next two days there were also exercises for the HA armament crews and torpedomen.
At the beginning of November I was one of the lucky ones given leave. To facilitate our rest, the Hood sailed south to Greenock. But only for three days was I allowed to relish my mother's home comforts in Derby. On the fourth day I received a telegram from the ship which beckoned baldly: 'Return forthwith.' I did as I was bid, but such were the vagaries of the telegram service and the London and North Eastern Railway that when the train pulled in to Greenock the Hood had gone. Two hundred of the ship's company also missed the boat, but a bonus came for all of us. We were sent to Glasgow, where we were billeted in a church hall and allowed free use of the transport systems and the cinemas.
A week later, when we rejoined the Hood, I learned that the recall had been another waste of time. On 27 October the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer had slipped out of Brunsbtittel and edged north passed Bokna Fjord and Bergen into the Norwegian Sea. Undetected she crossed the Arctic Circle and turned west for the Denmark Strait, which she passed on 31 October. Not until 5 November did the Admiralty realize that a lethal surface raider was abroad. On this day the Scheer ripped into a convoy from Halifax, whose only shield was the fourteen-thousand-ton armed merchant cruiser ]ervis Bay. In a similar way to the sacrifice of the Rawalpindi twelve months earlier, Captain E.S.F. Fegen turned his ship to confront the Scheer, although knowing that his six-inch guns .were no match. The ]ervis Bay was sunk within twenty minutes, but Fegen's heroic action, which won a posthumous VC, enabled all but five of the thirty-seven vessel convoy to escape.
It was on receiving the ]ervis Bay's radioed message that Admiral Tovey, the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet, despatched the Hood and Repulse, three ships of the Fifteenth Cruiser Squadron and six destroyers to cover the approaches to Brest and Lorient to ensure that the Scheer could not return. Again it was a fruitless operation, for the raider turned into the South Atlantic to bedevil a series of convoys. For five days the Hood and her companions chased shadows, finally returning to Scapa, where I rejoined her on 11 November in time for the Armistice Day ceremony.
As the mists of autumn set in, the crew became resigned to a winter at Scapa, alternating between exercises in the Flow and hurried despatches into the North Sea. On 23 November the Hood was required to screen a big minelaying force north of the Denmark Strait. At dawn the next morning we were called to action stations just as the leading vessels of the Ist Minelaying Squadron, shepherded by the cruiser Aurora, came into view. Visibility was perfect, and from the flag deck I could see the mountains of Iceland as we hurried north. During the afternoon of the 26th in fatherly fashion Commander W.K.R. Cross broadcast to the crew a short lecture about the great ice flow which we were nearing. The chunky, dark-coloured pack ice could be seen to the north of the Denmark Strait, and during the next few hours I spotted many icebergs. But conditions were not as idyllic as the views. Spray froze immediately as it was whipped up on to the forecastle. It was our first geography lesson of the Strait, and soon we were glad to alter course and track back to Scapa.
At about 1400 on Christmas Eve at Scapa, just as the messes were preparing for the parties of the next day, special sea duty men were piped to their stations. From the flag deck I could see that five other ships -the cruiser Edinburgh and the destroyers Cossack, Echo, Electra and Escapade -had already weighed anchor and were thrusting out of the Flow. The Hood followed, and soon came the announcement over the broadcast system that our Christmas would be spent patrolling the Iceland-Faroes passage for the purpose of trying to intercept the cruiser Hipper, which was being chased by the Berwick.
It was my second Christmas of the war at sea, but we were all in the same boat and the greyness and knifing coldness of the fringe of the Arctic Circle melted below decks as carols echoed through the messes and as 'sippers' from tots were freely exchanged before the arrival of the turkey and plum pudding. Mess decks were decorated with flags and bunting cadged from the flag deck; the captain carried out a parody of 'rounds', preceded by a boy seaman dressed in a master-at-arms uniform. As far as possible discipline was relaxed below deck, but for those on watch it was 'business as usual'.
Our real Christmas present came on Boxing Day with the news that we were to exchange the howling winds of the Faroes for the lighter zephyrs of Scapa. The Hipper had eluded the net, and yet again the Hood set course for Scapa without satisfactorily completing her mission.
The Admiralty did allow us the privilege of celebrating New Year in harbour, but the following day another escort for a minelaying operation was lined up for the Hood. Apart from the catalytic cold it was an uneventful four days as we patrolled north of the Faroes and then to the south. The scare came just before returning to Scapa. Off Dunnet Head Light the port paravane snarled a mine mooring. It was swift!y cut and a destroyer was diverted from the screen to blow up the drifting mine with rifle fire.
The buzz had been going around the ship for several days now that we were to have an' extensive refit' at Rosyth and that a long leave would be granted to everyone. It was confirmed on 10 January when the boatswain's party struck the pole-masts on both the fore and main masts. This meant that the Hood was about to pass under the Forth Bridge on the way to Rosyth. Sure enough we sailed from Scapa that afternoon and on 13 January secured to our buoy in the Forth.
For the last twenty years the Hood had been in service, and it was beginning to show. She needed repairs to machinery, and at the same time the chance was taken to install gunnery radar -type 284 -which was to be mounted on the armoured hood over the gun director on the spotting top, where the fifteen-foot rangefinder had been dismantled during the previous refit. This sounded simple enough, but there was a snag. The radar transmitting and receiving aerials were unable to revolve smoothly so the foretop mast was removed and the yard, originally mounted on this mast, had to be fitted to a special support bracket abaft the spotting top. All this increased the burden of topweight, and it was necessary to reduce it by taking down the HF/DF equipment and the enclosed section of the torpedo look-out platform from the foremast. To the relief of the coxswains, the antique steam picket boats, which had been carried since her launching, were replaced by two thirty-five-foot motor launches.
I returned from leave in the middle of these alterations to find that on promotion to rear-admiral Captain Glennie was leaving the ship on 15 February, when Captain Ralph Kerr would take over. Glennie was a typical dour Scot and a four-ringed captain who wanted everyone to know it. The scar-faced Kerr was quieter, less prepossessing, and did not want everyone to get out of his way just because he was captain of the Hood. Eleven days after our new 'boss' arrived, the starboard watch reported back from leave and the count-down for rejoining the fleet began with cleaning the ship, scraping off the rust and painting.
A personal milestone was reached on 1 March, my eighteenth birthday, when I had to go through the ritual of requesting that I be advanced to ordinary signalman. The process seemed an unnecessary waste of time. I had to put in a request to see my divisional officer, who heard my request. Then I was required to request to see the commander. He duly heard my request, and then I was allowed to request to see the captain. The final request 'interview' was a mere formality. The master-at-arms, A.J. Chandler, read out my request to become an ordinary rating; Captain Kerr looked at it cursorily and immediately granted it. With 'man's rating' my pay went up from 8s. 9d. to 14 shillings a week, but I still had to wait another three years before I could draw my tot of rum, although I was able to drink as much as I liked ashore .
During this first week of March the ship's company were driven into a frenzy of swift painting, which puzzled us until it was announced that the King and then Churchill were to visit the Hood. On the day the spit and polish were switched from the ship's metalwork to our number ones as George VI was to inspect full-scale divisions. On completion we were mustered aft on the quarterdeck to be addressed by the King. As a full-blown ordinary signalman, I was on the top line for smartness, although as I came face to face with the monarch I could not help but wonder why he appeared to be wearing make-up.
On the completion of a thorough examination of the Hood's propellers, rudder and underwater hull, we were shifted to the dockyard basin to round off the refit. Our 'holiday' came to an end on 17 March when the Hood was towed out and anchored in the midstream above the Forth Bridge. We were back under fleet orders and at 1600 the next day sailed under the bridge, through the first boom and down channel past the West Inchkeith Gate into the North Sea.
Our destination was scapa again, and on the way we were to put the Hood through a series of trials, but another 'flap' changed all this. At dawn the following day action stations was sounded by bugle. ' Another exercise,' I thought, but no. Captain Kerr was soon telling us that this could be the real thing.
Although still officially an 'inefficient ship', the Hood was to rendezvous with the Queen Elizabeth, also still working up, and join Admiral Tovey in the Nelson, on patrol off the south of Iceland, where in company we were to steer south at full speed. And the quarry? The battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
Admiral Gunther Lutjens was in command of this powerful German raiding force, which for the first time had broken through the British blockade into the North Atlantic during January. They had been attacking the Halifax convoy route and sunk 116,000 tons of allied shipping. Now Lutjens had been commanded to leave the North Atlantic by 17 March and break back to Brest. Not until 20 March were the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau spotted by aircraft from the Hood's old companion, the Ark Royal, still with Force H, which had been hurriedly despatched north from Gibraltar. Lutjens' position was given as six hundred miles west-north- west of Cape Finisterre, and Admiral Tovey believed he had a reasonable chance of bringing the raiders to battle.
As we tore south through the seas to the west of Ireland, the commander announced that an interception was expected at 1500. Excitement and anticipation began to build up. We thought that perhaps after all the false alarms this could be the first really big surface action of the war. Yet deep down there was the feeling of 'I'll believe it when it actually happens'. Were the admirals crying 'wolf' yet again ? Zero hour came and went. On the flag deck everyone was fidgety. I could imagine how pent up the top brass must have been on the admiral's bridge.
There was no sign of the Germans. Lutjens' force had slipped through. W~en tracked by the Ark's aircraft, they had turned from a north-easterly course to one of due north. As soon as the shadowing plane had disappeared, Lutjens switched back to his original track and entered Brest unmolested on the morning of 22 March. Not until six days later did a reconnaissance foray by Coastal Command discover the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau safely tucked up in the French port. Another failure to contact the enemy for the Hood; another return to Scapa, where we arrived on Sunday 23 March.
There were still full power trials to be worked, despite the fact that the Hood had turned it all on in vain during the long surge to the south in pursuit of the German raiders. Just one night was spent at the anchorage and we were off again for a measured run, during which a speed of 28.8 knots was reached with paravanes streamed. Ahead lay three onerous weeks at sea with the occasional return to Scapa for refuelling. Admiral Whitworth, now earmarked to be Second Sea Lord, made a general signal during the forenoon of 28 March that units of the Home Fleet would maintain a patrol 350 miles to the west to ensure that the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau did not creep out from Brest into the shipping lanes again. 'Units of the Home Fleet' meant that the burden of the main responsibility would fall on the Hood and there was no relaxation from now on. When on patrol a three-watch system of night vigilance was scheduled for one on and two off. At dusk and dawn -the times most likely for attack- it was routine to go to action stations, so those men on the middle watch had only a few hours of unbroken sleep.
Examinations for midshipmen, who were about to be promoted to sub-Iieutenant, continued at sea during this period of patrolling. They began on a Sunday and occupied four days. I remember this particular session because after it was over there was a riotous party in the midshipmen's gunroom, of which the ship's company got to hear. After the gin, beer and 'el torpedo' and 'depth charge' cocktails had flowed, bottles began to fly -and trousers, too. One lieutenant was cut by apiece of shattered glass, before all the popular officers were debagged by the 'mids'. The next morning in Scapa, before the new sub-Iieutenants departed, a more decorous cocktail party was held in the wardroom by Captain Kerr, at which Admiral Whitworth forecast that the war would last for seventeen years. After those long hours of patrolling I felt I could have slept away the rest of his predicted war .
It was on 18 April, after the Hood had refuelled at Scapa, that I first heard of the Bismarck. Until then to me the name had associations with a German chancellor of the misty past. We had been briefed that our next tour of duty was to be in the Bay of Biscay, but during the middle watch these orders were cancelled and new plans were drawn which necessitated a sudden alteration of course to 060 degrees. This was brought about by a signal which stated that the new Bismarck, a battleship, accompanied by two Leipzig- class cruisers and escorted by three destroyers, had slipped out of Kiel in a north-westerly direction. The next day Whitworth revealed to the crew that the Hood, the cruiser Kenya and a destroyer screen were to protect the northern waters, with a smaller force patrolling the Bay of Biscay. The searchers for the Bismarck were to be the Kenya and three destroyers. If they contacted her, the plan was for the Hood to close at full speed. Whitworth stressed: 'If possible we will make an end-on approach, so as to present the minimum target.' It was the first time that many officers had realized the vulnerability of the Hood to the vertical trajectory of a shell at extreme range, because of her weak deck armour. At closer range and a flatter trajectory the twelve-inch side armour was capable of holding out to severe punishment.
No one told the lower deck about this type of Achilles heel, as we maintained the surveillance patrol during 20 April. The next day the familiar pattern evolved; the operation was abandoned and the force put into Hvalfjord, Iceland -known to us as shovelford -which if there had been a naval league table for runs ashore would have been in the relegation zone. For eight days the Hood lurked here until the arrival of the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, who were to be linked with our destiny. At nightfall, in company with our new' chummies' , we sailed to cover two convoys against the alleged threat of the Bismarck. On 1 May, after three days of bone-chilling vigilance in this arid area of frost-smoke and water-Iaden skies, the force returned to the doubtful benefits of Hvalfjord. Within three days the erroneous menace o'f the Bismarck had subsided. She was found holed up in Gydnia, Poland, or Gotenhafen, as the Germans had renamed it, so it was time for the Hood to return to scapa, where we arrived on 5 May.
It was also time to say farewell to Admiral Whitworth, whose new job was awaiting him in Whitehall. At 13.40 on 8 May the lower deck was cleared and the ship's company waved goodbye to him from the quarterdeck as he was rowed ashore in a whaler by senior officers. Although there was to be a four-day time lag before Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland took on the role of commander of the Battle Cruiser Squadron and second in command of the Home Fleet, there was no respite for the Hood. In the Pentland Firth a practice of the four-inch guns and the main armament was carried out. The four-inch crews achieved several hits on a sleeve target, towed by a Blackburn Roc, while the fifteen-inch gunners straddled a seaborne target, towed by a drifter. We were confident that our aim would be steady if our path crossed that of the Bismarck.
Chapter 20- Perhaps this is the Big One
It was my job to collect messages for the flag lieutenant and take them to his cabin after members of the wardroom had dined. At 8 p.m. on 21 May I looked at a signal addressed to Admiral Holland from Admiral Sir John Tovey, the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet. It seemed routine and read: 'Flying your flag in Hood and taking Prince of Wales, Acates, Antelope, Anthony, Echo, lcarus and Electra under your orders sail at 0001 on May 22 and proceed with moderate despatch to Hvalfjord.' I knew that it was only a confirmatory message and placed little importance on it. We had received dozens of similar signals in the last year, and generally they led to freezing watches at sea in northerly waters. 'Oh God, another cold, late night,' I thought.
The Hood was at scapa Flow, and it was obvious to harbour-watchers that soon we would not be there. In the early evening there had been an abnormal amount of comings and goings between the Hood and the King George V, Tovey's flagship. Soon after, ominous, blacker streams of smoke began to emerge from the funnels of the fleet, signifying the usual controlled urgency of wartime preparation for sea. Later that evening I was hurrying to Lieutenant-Commander Wyldbore-smith's cabin again with a confidential signal from the C-in-C. This urged: 'Raise steam with all despatch and be prepared to leave harbour 0001 on May 22..
As special sea duty men fell in this Thursday night, light rain and a thin mist turned the flow into a lacy veil. My station on the compass platform with the admiral's staff allowed me a commentary-box view of the fleet, and a little before midnight our destroyer escort slipped their moorings in Gutter Sound, formed a line ahead and paraded through the Switha Gate to wait for us on the edge of the Pentland Firth. When the procession had ended, the Hood was swung around on her engines and headed southwards to the Hoxa Gate. In our wake came the newly constructed Prince of Wales, still with dockyard civilians on board. At the gate the massive underwater mesh of anti-submarine netting was hauled aside by the crew of the boom vessel, and we glided through with the destroyers taking station ahead.
The wind was scything into us from the north already, and although it was a May night the cold soon began to penetrate into anyone not below decks. It was atypical, boring six-hours spell at sea, one which in two days time I was to yearn for. The next day, while I was breakfasting on the mess deck, Commander Cross's calm and carefully controlled voice briefed us over the broadcasting system. He revealed that the Bismarck and a Hipper-class cruiser -at this stage no one knew she was the Prinz Eugen -were expected to leave Bergen, and that our squadron were proceeding to Hvalfjord to cover an area to the north and close to Iceland, while Tovey in King George V and the rest of the Home Fleet guarded a section further south. Aircraft and a line of cruisers were patrolling the area affected, and we were assured there would be a definite warning of the approach of the Nazi raiders. The announcement did not cause a stir. We had heard it all before and nothing had happened. We were fairly confident it would not happen this time, and if it did, the Hood was capable of handling any 'jumped-up German pocket battleship'. What in fact we did not know was that the Bismarck, far from being a mini-battle cruiser was superior in every way to the Hood and also to the Prince of Wales, which had just left the dockyard, had not completed gunnery trials and was still having trouble with her turrets, on which civilian experts were working even at this moment.
It is necessary here to fill in the vacuum of misinformation which lay between the lower deck and the wardroom. Although listed as 35,000 tons to comply with the London Naval Treaty, the Bismarck was in reality 42,000 tons in standard displacement and 52,700 tons when loaded with fuel, stores and crew, which meant she was 4,700 tons heavier than the Hood. She had been launched on St Valentine's Day 1939 at the Blohm & Voss Yard in Hamburg and was intended by the Nazis to be as unsinkable as a ship could be. She was nearly 300 yards long and at her widest was 118 feet, seven feet more than us. Unlike the Hood, she was built to withstand the fiercest of bombardments. A 12f-inch armour belt of Krupps steel girthed her, and this was backed by an ingenious double system of armoured decks of four inches and two inches. Similar to the hardest-hitting ships of the Royal Navy, her main armament was eight fifteen-inch guns. This 'unsinkable gun platform' held in Germany a similar naval prestige as the Hood had in 1921. She was not as comfortable for the crew, yet this gave her more protection. Because of its disadvantage in numbers of ships compared with Britain's, the German Navy operated on a wartime system of short, limited raids, and when vessels returned to their home bases, the crews lived ashore. We in the Hood stayed onboard, and therefore our quarters were broadside mess decks, which meant that in action the ship could not withstand as much punishment as the Bismarck, which was honeycombed with tiny compartments, easily shut off if holed. It had taken fifteen months to fit her out, and she was handed over to the German Navy on 24 August 1940, but not destined to be rushed into action, although Grand Admiral Eric Raeder was short of ships. To keep her away from the eyes and talons of the RAF, the Bismarck was sent to the Bay of Danzig and based at Gydnia, while the crew trained. Within a few days she was joined by another new ship, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. Although she was more than thirty thousand tons lighter than the Bismarck, her outline was similar to her bigger fleet sister, and at a distance it was difficult to distinguish one from the other. This piece of German cunning was tortuously to change the course of my entire life.
The two ships were planned to form a squadron and also a partnership with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, currently being refitted at Brest. Raeder had evolved Operation Rheinubung (Rhine Exercise), which was designed to slaughter the Atlantic convoys supplying besieged Britain. The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were intended to break out from Germany by using the northerly route through the Denmark Strait and rendezvous in mid Atlantic with the
Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Five oil-tankers, two supply ships and spying U-boats were also involved. The orders for fifty-one-year-old Admiral Gunther Lutjens, who was to be in charge of the operation in the Bismarck, after his exploits with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the Atlantic raid four months earlier, were to avoid contact with British warships during the break-out but once out into the Atlantic to concentrate firepower on lone battleships protecting convoys, while the other three ships massacred the smaller escorts and merchantmen carrying the lease-Iend supplies and armaments promised to Britain by Roosevelt. Raeder also anticipated that, to ferret out the most formidable German force to be at sea since Jutland, the Royal Navy would have to withdraw units from the Mediterranean, where the Italian Navy could reasonably be expected to take the initiative.
It was a bold plan, coming on the heels of the highest monthly toll of British losses during the April, when 687,901 tons of shipping were destroyed. Fortunately for Britain, Bomber Command knocked the Gneisenau out of action in Brest, and the Scharnhorst, which had machinery defects, was contained in port by a curtain of three hundred mines , drawn' by the minelayer H.M.S. Abdiel.
Hitler was loath to gamble his 'unsinkable' super-ship Bismarck in this heady operation, but on 18 May it was triggered when in company with the Prinz Eugen she sailed from Gydnia. The first inkling that a break-out might be attempted came when the Swedish cruiser Gotland sighted them in the Skagerrak, and this information filtered through to the Admiralty in London. There had already been a false alarm on 19 April, when it was rumoured that the Bismarck was heading north, so Admiral Tovey was prepared now for the reality of the operation and set up cruiser patrols in the possible break-out channels. The eight-inch gunned cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk were assigned to the Denmark Strait, the six-inch armed cruisers Birmingham and Manchester to the Iceland-Faroes gap, and four more smaller cruisers joined him at Scapa.
On 21 May Coastal Command reconnaissance planes spotted the German ships in Korsfjord and Kalvanes Bay, near Bergen, where they were refuelling, but they were described as' Hipper-class cruisers'. This was discounted when film was developed and revealed that the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen were the' Hippers'. It was this information which sent the Hood scurrying north.
While we slept that night, thirty aircraft attempted to bomb the embryonic raiders in two strikes, but failed abysmally to find the targets. By dawn the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were racing on past Trondheim with Lutjens despatching his escort of three destroyers back to the safety of home waters.
So, unknown to us, the Germans were lost. Oblivious to the situation, we steamed on until 2230 on 22 May, when we were about to enter the approaches to Hvalfjord. Then I carried this signal from Tovey to the compass platform:
, Bismarck and consort sailed. Proceed to cover area south-west of Iceland.' Half an hour earlier the 'lost' ships were reported no longer at their anchorage by an observer in a Maryland of Coastal Command, which sparked Tovey, still biding his time in Scapa, to sail in the King George V, with the carrier Victorious, the cruisers Galatea, Hermione, Kenya and Aurora and seven destroyers, to take up covering positions to the north-west.
As soon as the Hood had altered course in accordance with the 2230 signal of the C-in-C, Commander Cross updated the ship's company.of the situation, and for the first time the nervous feeling of an approach to battle began to build up. 'Perhaps this is it.' I wondered. 'Perhaps this is the big one.' The feeling that I was hungry, yet did not want to eat, nagged at my stomach. Looking around me, I could see my mates yawning nervously and trying to appear unconcerned. We all knew it was an act, yet we did not discuss the possibilities of action seriously.
I slept undisturbed that night, surprised to awake in the morning to find that there had been no alarms. The nervous tension of the night before had vanished. It was, after all, another unnecessary foray, another false alarm. We were all wasting our time here on the fringes of the frozen north. Routine was back to normal until 7.30 that evening, when I was playing a quiet game of solo with Frank Tuxworth, Ron Bell and Jimmy Green on the mess deck. The broadcasting system spluttered into life and ordered: 'Flag lieutenant's messenger report to the SDO at the double!' I did as I was piped and dashed to the signals distribution office, where I was told to rush a message to Lieutenant-Commander Wyldbore-smith in his cabin. It always seemed laughable to me that I had to rush paper missives, even though the recipient had already been told by telephone of their contents. This particular signal was at least dramatic and deserved the classification 'rush' for it stated: 'From Suffolk -enemy in sight. .
The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, which had reduced from twenty-seven knots to twenty-four when entering the mush ice pack, had been blessed with mist to obscure their movements, but in the late afternoon it lifted. Able Seaman Newell, Suffolk's starboard after look-out, had sighted the two at a distance of seven miles. The time was 1922, but Suffolk's signal did not reach her co-searcher, the Norfolk, because of icing on her aerials. From that moment the shadowers of the Bismarck continued to send in a stream of amplifying coded reports. 'OCAs 240-25', for example, meant 'Enemy course 240 degrees and speed twenty-five knots.' 'OST A4 ' indicated that the enemy were altering course to forty degrees starboard.
By now Admiral Holland had decided to abandon his normal occupancy of the admiral's bridge and to conduct the operation from the compass platform in company with Flag Captain Kerr. As the dogs body messenger I was required to be close to Wyldbore-smith's elbow. The 1922 report from the Suffolk, which was plotted in the Hood, put the enemy due north of us and around three hundred miles away. This prompted Holland, who was at the chart table, to order at 1945 an increase of speed to twenty-seven knots and a course alteration of 295 degrees for the interception.
With this sudden diversion the ship's company were alive again to the realization that deadly action could be just ten hours away. The back of my neck began to prickle with excitement, and I found myself stuttering slightly, a nervous habit which until then I had managed to conquer since the age of ten. Although we had still to be called to action stations, most departments were preparing for the thunder of guns. The tension was heightened by Norfolk's report at 2032: 'One battleship, one cruiser in sight.' This was the first signal to reach Tovey of the position of the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait, because Suffolk's radio was still on the blink. The Norfolk, whose radar was inferior to the Suffolk's, had run straight into the enemy but had turned about at a range of six miles, had made smoke and, despite being straddled by the Bismarck's fifteen-inch guns, had managed to retreat into the murk to continue shadowing with the Suffolk.
By now the weather was roughening. We were bumping around a great deal as snow flurries began to whip into us, and I could see the destroyer escort disappearing in great troughs and then ploughing out of them like wounded porpoise. Their plight became apparent when the senior officer of the screen signalled: 'Do not consider destroyers can maintain present speed without danger.' At 2055 Holland replied: 'If you are unable to maintain this speed I will have to go on without you. You should follow at your best speed.' But the tenacity of the tiny vessels was tremendous; for the next half hour their skippers attempted to keep with us, and then gradually they were forced to accept the inevitable, reduce speed and drop astern.
The hubbub of activity between the compass platform and the bridge wireless office continued into the night, and at one stage I could not contain my nervousness and took the unprecedented step. for an ordinary signalman, of asking Wyldbore-Smith: 'What's happening, sir?' He should have admonished me; instead he took pity on my callowness and replied: 'It looks like definite action within the next few hours, Briggs.' His prediction became known to the rest of the ship's company around 2200 when Commander Cross confirmed in a broadcast that the Bismarck and a 'Hipper-class cruiser' had been contacted and were being shadowed by the Norfolk and Suffolk. 'We are expected to intercept at 0200 tomorrow morning,' he confided. 'We will go to action stations at midnight. In the meantime prepare yourselves and above all change into clean underwear.' This last sentence galvanized the mess deck, where I had returned to collect a cup of 'kiy' (cocoa). The only other time we had been warned to put on clean vests, pants and socks, in case dirty garments infected a wound, was at Oran, where we had fired our guns in anger, although reluctantly. Apprehension was heavy in the air. I think that most of my mates, like myself, were fearing not instant oblivion but the horror of being fearfully wounded or mutilated and screaming out in painful insanity. I had the depressing dread of being afraid of fear and showing it. Yet I was not feeling afraid -just wound up. I wanted the action to be hurried on, and yet at the same time I did not want it to happen. Wouldn't I wake up tomorrow in my hammock and find it was all a mistake? I could sense the feeling around me of quiet confidence in the ship's ability, but a bravado about one's own capability.
Just before midnight I changed into clean underwear and socks, put on my number three suit, tied up my lifebelt, or Mae West, over it, buttoned up my Burberry on top of this bulk and then completed the ensemble by donning anti-flash gear, with my gas-mask slung in front on my chest and a 'battle bowler' on my head. It was not yet time to report, but I did not want to miss anything. I picked up signals from the SDO and was on my way up the ladder to the compass platform when Tuxworth, one of my best chums, stopped me for a quick chat and a joke, which was to become indelible on my memory. 'Do you remember, Briggo,' he said, ' that when the Exeter went into action with the Graf Spee there was only one signalman saved ?' I laughed and cracked back: 'If that happens to us, it'll be me who's saved, Tux.' We were interrupted by the shrill bugle call summoning us to action stations right on midnight.
I clattered up the ladder to the glass-screened compass platform and squeezed in through the door. In the dimness of the binnacle and chart-table lights I could make out a stage-Iike setting. On the starboard, facing forward, stood the robust figure of Commander E.H.G. 'Tiny' Gregson, the squadron gunnery officer, and Lieutenant-Commander G.E.M. Owens, the admiral's secretary. Alongside, centre of stage, in the captain's chair was Admiral Holland, with Captain Kerr on his right. Then on the port side were Wyldbore-Smith, Commander S.J.P. Warrand, the squadron navigating officer, eighteen-year-old Bill Dundas, action midshipman of the watch, Chief Yeoman Carne, who was attending the captain, Yeoman Wright, who looked after the demands of the officer of the watch at the binnacle, and myself, who was required to attend the flag lieutenant and answer voice-pipes. All the officers, except Holland and Kerr, were huddled in duffle coats, over which was anti-flash gear, topped off by steel helmets. Some had their gas-masks slung on their chests. It seemed incongruous to me that I, the most junior of all, should be wearing shoes and they sea-boots. The short, slim admiral preferred to emphasize his rank by wearing his 'bum-freezer' type of greatcoat. He sat bolt upright, with his binoculars' strap around his neck, his fingers somewhat nervously tapping the glasses themselves.
Holland, with whom I had not come into close contact before, activated my curiosity. He was smaller and milder-tempered than Admiral Whitworth, his predecessor, and rarely raised his voice. Whitworth had filled me with awe every time he approached, but the quieter attitude of Holland made me want to discover what made him tick and to find the key to his advancement in the navy. I had ambitions, too! Although he was only fifty-four, his hair was almost white. He appeared to be extremely shy and withdrawn, but officers put this down to the fact that his only son, an eighteen-year-old, who seemed to have a brilliant future as both poet and painter, had died of polio five years earlier. The tragedy had left its mark on both the admiral and his wife. Holland was a gunnery special.ist and had invented gadgets to improve anti-aircraft control in warships. He was commodore of Portsmouth Barracks in 1935 and two years later became Assistant Chief of Naval Staff. At the outbreak of war he was put in command of the Second Battle Squadron. His only battle experience had been seven months earlier, when he had led five cruisers against the Italian fleet off Cape spartivento. The Italians had not waited to give full battle, however, and fled before the British could get at them.
Holland had already signalled his plan for action to Captain John Leach in the Prince of Wales. With the Hood leading the way, both ships were to concentrate their fire on the Bismarck, with the Suffolk and Norfolk taking on the Prinz Eugen. Because we were maintaining radio silence, however, the cruisers did not receive these orders. Radar was banned unless action was imminent, in case the Bismarck picked up transmissions and changed direction. At midnight the enemy were believed to be a hundred miles away, and
Holland deduced that if both squadrons continued on their courses at similar speeds the Hood would cross their intended track sixty miles ahead, at about 0230, or approximately forty minutes after sunrise in these days of long light.
After I had been on the compass platform about fifteen minutes, Holland stirred himself, as if he had forgotten an important factor. Then he commanded: 'Hoist battle ensigns.' The order was repeated and then passed on to the flag deck. The great flag rustled to the yardarm. At twenty-four feet long and twelve wide it was one of the largest in the Navy and whistled towards the stern to increase the anticipation of everyone who saw it. But it was anticlimax, for almost simultaneously the signal came from Suffolk: 'Enemy hidden in snowstorm.' Then silence. The news that contact had been lost was broadcast through the ship, and the crew were allowed to assume 'relaxed action stations'. Holland got to his feet and conferred with his flag staff around the plot. The product of this short conference was a reduction of speed to twenty-five knots and a change of direction to due north.
As I had been successful in questioning Wyldbore-Smith about the situation the previous day, I tried again, and during the next two hours my queries turned into a bombardment for information. He was extremely con- siderate and patiently gave me more details than it was necessary to disclose to a very junior rating. He explained that the admiral was in a quandary because of the cessation of reports from the shadowing cruisers and had to guess the movements of the enemy. Because Lutjens -of course no one knew he was the admiral in command -was aware his ships were being tracked, it was expected he would make a big divergence in course to shake off the pursuers. But a major switch towards the west was impossible because the edge of the Greenland ice pack was on the Bismarck's starboard side. Holland, therefore, had concluded that Lutjens would alter to a southerly course, or just to the east of it. The consequence of this tactical guess was a reduction in the speed of the Hood and the Prince of Wales and the alteration to due north. Now Holland intended to keep to this course until 0210, when we would turn about.
The strain of this game of hide-and-seek began to show on the face of the little admiral as he turned restlessly in his swivel chair. We thundered on through snow flurries, with spray coming over the forecastle, oblivious to the knowledge that we had no definite destination. Just after two o'clock Holland ended his dilemma by first ordering a turn to the south and then another to the south-east. Again Wyldbore- Smith interpreted this manoeuvre to me. If the Bismarck had successfully side-tracked the Norfolk and Suffolk by altering to the south, Holland wanted to consolidate his position on the enemy's bows. If the Hood and Prince of Wales had persisted towards the north, Holland's intercep- tion course would have put us too far ahead, and a great deal of the squadron's gun-bearing advantage would have been given away on the enemy pair racing south. To ensure that there was a British force searching to the north still, Holland spread the destroyer escort to this area.
Apart from the muttered comments of officers around me, the compass platform became a strangely somnolent citadel. The cold fingers of the Arctic draughts were whistling through the platform, and I was sent down to the galley to bring off a dixie of 'kiy' for the ratings, while Midshipman Dundas was ordered on a similar mission to the wardroom kitchen for the officers.
But at 0247 came another stimulant. The Suffolk, veering south at thirty knots, reported she was in touch with the Bismarck and her consort again. On our plot this put the Germans thirty-five miles to the north-west, with the Hood and Prince of Wales a few miles ahead. Unknown to foe and friend alike, the four ships had been on slightly divergent courses. We were on 200 degrees, and Lutjens' squadron were on 220 degrees. The difference was that we knew they were there now, but they were still unaware that two British capital ships were stalking them. As the Hood, still ahead of the Prince of Wales, swung back to the north again, the news was broadcast to rouse the sagging figures below from their attempted slumber. The Hood began to shudder more as speed was raised to 28! knots, the maximum she could attain from her engines after months of over-use. From the billows of blackish, purple smoke emitted from the stacks, there was no doubt that the' chief stoker was sitting on the safety valves'. She was at her fastest, and not another decimal of a knot could be coaxed from the ageing engines.
The next hour was to be the edgiest of my life, as the Hood screamed into battle. There was little for me to do in the build-up to action, and I became a somewhat frightened observer. Dawn had been at 0200, and now I could see great patches of cloud that threatened rain, if not more snow and sleet. There was a heavy swell from the north-east, which slapped the great ship and produced a haze of water that showered over the bows on to the long forecastle and beat against the side of A and B turrets. Under a grey sky on a grey sea we charged towards an enemy who threatened the lifelines to Britain. Even a technicolor film of this morning would not have brought out a brighter hue.
Momentarily I was snatched from my reverie by the message that the Bismarck had been picked up by our radar 'bods' and was twenty miles off to our north-east. This was no false errand now. If there were any doubts that a full-scale naval action was about to be fought, they were dispelled at once. In an hour we would be upon the enemy.
I could visualize how the mates I knew in other departments would be preparing. Ron Bell was on the flag deck at the other end of the voice-pipe I was manning. His voice did not betray any signs of funk, as I was sure mine did. Near him would be Tuxworth, helping to handle the halyards and still joking, no doubt. Alongside in charge of the flags I guessed that Yeoman Bill Nevett would be as outwardly calm as ever, despite the pallor of his face.
On the boat deck I knew another mate, Petty Officer Stan Boardman, would be readying the crew of Sally, the starboard multiple pom-pom. Would he be thinking of his adored wife and his newly born baby or would he be questioning what on earth he could do with his anti-aircraft guns against the Bismarck's fifteen-inchers? And what of the sick-bay, where I had spent the first few days of my life in the ship? There the 'tiffies' under Surgeon Commander Hurst and sick-Bay Petty Officer stannard would be sterilizing operating instruments, laying out blankets, making sure bandages were handy -God, don't let me be wounded. I guessed a lot of blood would be flowing there today, and it made my own feel colder .
Other shipmates would be under cover and unable to see - and some unable to hear -the impending action and relying on the chaplain, the Reverend R.].P. Stewart, who had now taken over from Commander Cross as broadcast 'com- mentator', to keep them briefed, and still uncertain of each movement of the ship. At least I had a grandstand view and would not die unknowingly in darkness. Death? I'm not, and never have been, a religious zealot, nor a churchman, but my last thoughts in these moments of inaction were of the peaceful little chapel under the flag deck. It reminded me of Nelsons own prayer, 'May the great God, whom I worship ...' and I offered up a pitiful silent prayer of my own for personal courage and stamina and for a British victory. I suppose it was rather like keeping your fingers crossed!
Dead on 0500 the imminence of a high-explosive fight sent a shudder of fear through me. 'Prepare for instant action,' Holland warned, although not a man in the Hood and the Prince of Wales could not have been ready by now. There was no friendly conversation on the compass platform. Everyone was staring into the steely blend of sky and sea towards the northern horizon. At 0535 the enemy were spotted from the Hood. The sighting was reported by voice-pipe from the spotting-top as' Alarm starboard green 40.' I did not have any binoculars, so I could not see the top-masts, which everyone else was focusing on, but the maximum visibility from our perch was seventeen miles at this time. Almost in a whisper Captain Kerr commanded: 'Pilot, make the enemy report.' Lieutenant-Commander A.R.]. Batley called Chief Yeoman Came to his side at the binnacle and dictated: 'Emergency to Admiralty and C-in-C., Home Fleet. From BC1 -one battleship and one heavy cruiser, bearing 330, distance 17 miles. My position 63-20 north, 31-50 west. My course 240. Speed 28 knots.' Came copied it on to his signal pad as: 'Y -2 -Admiralty, C-in-C. H.F., V.B. Cone, IBS ICH 330-17-632°N, 315°W, 24-28.' This message was repeated by Carne through the voice-pipe to the bridge wireless office. A few minutes later came the confirmation through the voice-pipe in my hand that the message had been sent.
Then the order went from Holland to the flag deck to hoist 'Blue 4'. This meant making a turn of forty degrees together to starboard and with it the knowledge that the after batteries of the Hood and Prince of Wales would be unable to bear on the Bismarck or the Prinz Eugen. Holland was concentrating on closing the range as rapidly as possible to make the trajectory of the enemy shells flatter and to reduce the chances of the Hood's being penetrated by plummeting shells where the armour was weakest.
All that could be heard now of human activity was the steering orders of the officer of the watch and the piped repetition from the quartermaster in the barbette under the foremost director. I whispered to Yeoman Wright: 'How long do you think this is going to last, Yeo ?' He answered this silly question with an equally vacuous answer: 'I think it'll all be over within the next couple of hours, Ted.'
Chapter 21- Now I Lay Me Down...
Ting-ting, ting-ting, ting-ting -the weak chinking, yet shrilly insistent urgency of the fire gong came through the loudspeaker at the back of the bridge. Holland had already ordered the preparatory signal to the Prince of Wales to open fire, and flag 5 was bent on the halyards ready for hoisting. Normally flag signals are not executed until they are hauled down, but flag 5 gave captains of ships the right to fire immediately it was at the mast-head. I could see our A and B forward turrets' guns lift slightly. When the range was down to thirteen miles, Holland said in a quietly modulated and polite voice: 'Open fire.' Chief Yeoman Came shouted more peremptorily to the flag deck: 'Flag 5, hoist.' A minute earlier the gunnery officers of both the Hood and Prince of Wales had been ordered by the admiral to concentrate their fire on the Bismarck, which, he told them, was the left-hand ship of the fast-approaching enemy. In the background I could hear the helmsman repeating his orders, and the closing ranges from the gunnery control position above us being sung out. Captain Kerr then ordered: 'Open fire.' From the control tower the gunnery officer bellowed: 'Shoot.' And the warning gong replied before the Hood's first salvo belched out in an ear-pulsating roar, leaving behind a cloud of brown cordite smoke, which swept by the compass platform. Seconds later a duller boom came from our starboard quarter as the Prince of Wales unleashed her first fourteen-inch salvo.
The menacing thunder of our guns snapped the tension. All my traces of anxiety and fright left me momentarily. I was riveted with fascination as I counted off the seconds for our shells to land -20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25...then tiny spouts of water, two extremely close to the pinpoints on the horizon. Suddenly a report from the spotting-top made Holland realize he had blundered. 'We're shooting at the wrong ship. The Bismarck's on the right, not the left.' Our shells had been falling near the Prinz Eugen, which many hours earlier had begun to lead the German raiding force when the Bismarck's forward radar failed. Holland seemed hardly perturbed and in the same monotonous voice said: 'Shift target to the right.'
Within the next two minutes the Hood's foremost turrets managed to ram in six salvoes each at the Bismarck. I counted each time, expecting to see a hit registered. The first salvo pockmarked the sea around her, and the third appeared to spark off a dull glow. I thought we had got in the first blow, but I was wrong. Suddenly it intrigued me to see four star-like golden flashes, with red centres, spangle along the side of the Bismarck. But I had no time to admire them. Those first pretty pyrotechnics were four fifteen-inch shells coming our way, and deep, clammy, numbing fear returned. That express train, which I had last heard when the French fired on us at Oran, was increasing in crescendo. It passed overhead. Where it landed I was not sure. My eyes were on the two ships rapidly becoming more visible on the starboard bow. They were still winking at us threateningly. But the next salvo was not just a threat. Not far from our starboard beam there were two, no three, no four high splashes of foam, tinted with an erupting dirty brown fringe. Then 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. 'Tiny' Gregson walked almost sedately out to the starboard wing of the platform to find out what had happened. 'We've been hit at the base of the mainmast, sir, and we're on fire,' he reported, almost as if we were on manoeuvres.
Then came a crazy cacophony of wild cries of 'Fire' through the voice-pipes and telephones. On the amidships boat deck a fierce blaze flared. This was punctuated by loud explosions. The torpedo officer reported by phone: 'The four-inch ready-use ammunition is exploding.' I could hear the UP rockets going up, just as they had roared off accidentally in Gibraltar a year earlier. Fear gripped my intestines again as agonized screams of the wounded and dying emitted from the voice-pipes. The screeching turned my blood almost to ice. Yet strangely I also began to feel anger at the enemy for the first time. 'Who the hell do they think they are, hitting our super ship?' I thought ridiculously.'
As the AA shells continued to rocket around, Captain Kerr ordered the four-inch gun crews to take shelter and the fire and damage control parties to keep away from the area until all the ready-use ammunition had been expended. But the bursting projectiles were making a charnel-house of positions above the upper deck. The screams of the maimed kept up a strident chorus through the voice-pipes and from the flag deck. I was certain I heard my' oppo' Ron Bell shouting for help. These agonizing moments did not appear to trouble Holland, Kerr or Gregson. Their binoculars were still focused on the enemy. I wondered how they could be so detached, with chaos and havoc around them. This, I supposed, was the calmness of command, and some of it transferred to me like a form of mental telepathy.
By this time the range had been cut down to approximately 8t miles. We had been under fire for just two minutes, which already had taken on the time-scale of two hours. It was the moment for Holland to try to bring our aft turrets, X and Y, to bear, because we were being hopelessly outgunned. 'Turn twenty degrees to port together,' he commanded. Chief Yeoman Came passed the word on to the flag deck, where surprisingly someone still seemed to be capable of obeying orders. Two blue -flag 2, a blue pendant -went up the yard-arm. I remember musing: 'Not everyone on the flag deck is dead then.' As the Hood turned, X turret roared in approval, but its Y twin stayed silent. And then a blinding flash swept around the outside of the compass platform. Again I found myself being lifted off my feet and dumped head first on the deck. This time, when I got up with the others, the scene was different. Everything was cold and unreal. The ship which had been a haven for me for the last two years was suddenly hostile. After the initial jarring she listed slowly, almost hesitatingly, to starboard. She stopped after about ten degrees, when I heard the helmsman's voice shouting up the voice-pipe to the officer of the watch: 'Steering's gone, sir.' The reply of 'Very good' showed no signs of animation or agitation. Immediately Kerr ordered: 'Change over to emergency steering.'
Although the Hood had angled to starboard, there was still no concern on the compass platform. Holland was back in his chair. He looked aft towards the Prince of Wales and then re-trained his binoculars on the Bismarck. Slowly the Hood righted herself. 'Thank heaven for that,' I murmured to myself, only to be terrorized by her sudden, horrifying cant to port. On and on she rolled, until she reached an angle of forty-five degrees. When everyone realized that she would not swing back to the perpendicular, we all began to make our way out in single file towards the starboard door at first. Then some turned towards the port door and attempted to break panes of reinforced glass in the foreport of the platform. But it was all done as if in drill. There was no order to abandon ship; nor was a word uttered. It just was not required. The Hood was finished, and no one needed to be told that.
I was surprised by my cold yet uncontrolled detachment, as I made my way to the door. 'Tiny' Gregson was in front of me with the squadron navigation officer. As I reached the steel-hinged door, Commander Warrand stood aside for me and let me go out first. I looked back over my left shoulder and saw Holland slumped on his chair in total dejection. Beside him the captain tried to keep to his feet as the Hood's deck turned into a slide. I began picking my way down the ladder from the compass platform to the admiral's bridge. Then the sea swirled around my legs and I was walking on the side of the bridge, instead of the ladder. I threw away my tin hat and gas-mask and managed to slip off my anti-flash gear, but my lifebelt was under my Burberry and I could not get at it to inflate it. There was no one else in sight, although I knew that at least two officers were nearby, as the water engulfed me with a roar.
Panic had gone. This was it, I realized. But I wasn't going to give in easily. I knew that the deckhead of the compass platform was above me and that I must try to swim away from it. I managed to avoid being knocked out by the steel stanchions, but I was not making any progress. The suction was dragging me down. The pressure on my ears was increasing each second, and panic returned in its worse intensity. I was going to die. I struggled madly to try to heave myself up to the surface. I got nowhere. Although it seemed an eternity, I was under water for barely a minute. My lungs were bursting. I knew that I just had to breathe. I opened my lips and gulped in a mouthful of water. My tongue was forced to the back of my throat. I was not going to reach the surface. I was going to die. I was going to die. As I weakened, my resolve left me. What was the use of struggling? Panic subsided. I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle. I was being rocked off to sleep. There was nothing I could do about it -goodnight, mum. Now I lay me down ...I was ready to meet 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 wasn't going to die. I wasn't going to die. I trod water as I panted in great gulps of air. I was alive. I was alive.
Although my ears were singing from the pressure under water, I could hear the hissing of a hundred serpents. I turned and fifty 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 forty years. Both gun barrels of B turret were slumped hard over to port and disappearing fast beneath the waves. My experience of suction seconds before forced me to turn in sheer terror and swim as fast and as far as I could away from the last sight of the ship that had formulated my early years.
I did not look back. There was a morass of debris around me as I pushed through the sea, which had a four-inch coating of oil on it. Fortunately before we had left Scapa the ship had been equipped with three-foot-square rafts, which replaced the older and larger Carley floats. There were dozens of these around in the sea and I managed to lug myself half on to one. I held on face downwards and then levered myself to look round to where the H ood had been. A small patch of oil blazed where she was cremated. Several yards away I could see the stern of the Prince of Wales as she pressed on with her guns firing. She was being straddled by shells from the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, and I did not give much of a chance to her survival. As I watched her veer away, I began to wonder about my chances of survival, too. I knew, of course, that a ship in action could not stop to pick up survivors, but this did not prevent a feeling of deep and helpless frustration.
The oil fire, which was still burning, instilled a spirit of self-preservation in me. I feared that larger patches of fuel, in which my raft was swilling, might be ignited, and with both hands I paddled out of the brown, sickening coating. Although I still had on my Burberry, number three suit, lifebelt, shoes and socks and had been in the water only some three minutes, the cold was beginning to numb my arms, fingers, legs and toes. My frantic efforts to propel the raft away from the fire helped to circulate my blood, but soon I was out of breath. I looked back and saw that the fire was out. On the horizon I could just make out the smoke from the Norfolk and Suffolk. About fifty yards away I suddenly saw life from another raft. A figure on it began to wave at me. Parallel to this was another raft with a man flapping his arms. I tried to find other signs of life. There was none -just us. We all began to paddle towards each other. The two linked up first, and then I puffed towards them. On one raft was Able Seaman Bob Tilburn and on the other was Midshipman Dundas, who had been on the compass platform with me.
Dundas had managed to sit up on his raft. For some odd reason it infuriated me that he was perched comfortably and perfectly balanced. As I neared the other two, I was crazily determined that I would 'enter their water' sitting up on my raft, too. I hauled myself into a central position, knelt up and then toppled back into the sea. I tried again and the raft capsized. I clambered back and was bucked off for a third time. I was crying with frustration when six-foot Tilburn, who was now alongside, helped me back on and said: 'Come on now; you're all right, son.' I realized I was making a fool of myself and finally gave up. I stayed sprawled out after this as we clutched the ratlings of each other's raft to bind us together.
Dundas took command not because he was an officer - the most junior one at that - but through his cheerfulness. He kept us singing 'Roll Out the Barrel' to ensure that we stayed awake. After an hour my mind was as numb as my body. I was overcome with a great drowsiness and the feeling again of 'What will be, will be.' All I wanted to do was to sleep my way to death, but I was roused by Tilburn shouting: 'There's a plane.' I looked up and saw a Sunderland flying-boat in the distance. The three of us yelled 'Help, help, help' and splashed the sea with our hands, although it was obviously a futile attempt to attract attention. The Sunderland flew on. Later I learned it was piloted by Flying Officer Vaughan, who, although having a grandstand view of the battle, understandably missed us in the debris. At least his plane had awakened me from my sleep of exposure, and now I was aware of the perishing cold that set my teeth chattering again. Dundas was determined that we should not drop into a coma, and to prevent this he suggested we tell our stories of how we got out of the Hood. The escape of twenty-year-old Tilburn, who had been in the Navy for four years to this very day, was the most dramatic, and he related it something like this.
'I was manning one of the four-inch AA guns on the port side, but when the shooting began, we were ordered to take cover on the boat deck. Some of the men took cover in the aircraft hangar. The first hit was a small one, right near the anti-aircraft rockets. It must have been a small one, because a bigger shell would have gone through the deck. There was a tremendous fire, all pinkish with not much smoke. It seemed as if the UP ammo had exploded, but it might have been the four-inch ammo lockers. Petty Officer Bishop, who was in charge of the four-inch guns, told us to put out the fire, but then the bridge ordered us to take shelter again until all the ammo had gone off. So we all lay face down flat on the deck as everything began going off like Chinese crackers. Just after we had turned to port, the whole ship shook like mad. Bits of steel showered down on us, and bodies started f aIling from above allover the deck. Apart of a man fell from aloft and hit me on the legs. Bodies without arms and legs were falling all around. One of my "oppos" was killed; another was blown away, and a third had a splinter in his side and his guts ripped out. I felt violently sick and rushed to the side to spew up. Then the ship began to vibrate even worse, and she seemed to stop. I first noticed that she was going down by the stern after listing to port. She began to tilt at such an alarming angle that I got up and jumped on to the forecastle, which was nearly under water. I ripped off my gas-mask, coat and helmet, and the sea washed me over the side. Just before I went in, there was a flash of flame between the control tower and B turret. As I was swimming, I looked back and saw her coming over on top of me. Some part of the mast hit me on the legs, and I was partly pulled down by a tangle of wires around one of my sea-boots. Luckily I still had my knife on a lanyard, and I slashed at my boot until it was loose and I could kick it off. When I came to the top, the Hood's bows were stuck out of the water, practically upright - and then she slid underneath.
Dundas, who was only a few feet away from me on the compass platform, was a keener observer than I, for this is what he told us.
'I reckon that the Bismarck's first salvo fell off the starboard side and the second off the port bow. It was after the third that the cordite fire began on the starboard side of the boat deck. The fourth salvo seemed to go through the spotting-top without exploding, although bodies began to fall from it. It was the fifth salvo that really did for us. Wreckage began raining down again, and I saw a mass of brown smoke drifting to leeward on the port side. As we began listing heavily to port, I found I could not get to the door, where you and the others got out, Briggs. I scrambled uphill and kept kicking at the window on the starboard side until I made a big enough hole to squeeze through. When I was halfway through, the water came underneath me, and I was dragged down quite a bit. The next thing I knew was that I shot to the top, and I was swimming on the surface.'
We were all still dazed by the sudden demise of the Hood, especially as none of us could recall hearing any loud or catastrophic explosion before she sank. I was the only one who had escaped without a scratch. Tilburn had wounded himself on the knee, where he had cut away his sea-boot, while Dundas had sprained an ankle when he kicked in the armoured glass window in desperation. What intrigued me was that Dundas and I had gone into the sea from the starboard side, yet I was the one who had emerged on the port side. I must have gone right under the ship.
All this talking had tired us, and our stiffened fingers involuntarily lost their grasp on the ratlings and we drifted apart, to four hundred and eight hundred yards. Through the sleepy mist that was snarling my eyes and brain I could hear the distant voice of Dundas, who had started up another chorus of 'RollOut the Barrel'. My mind urged me to listen, but then I thought: 'Oh why don't you shut up, man, so I can get some sleep.' Later Tilburn revealed that he believed he was about to die and remembered that the best way to go in extreme cold was to close your eyes and sleep the deepest sleep of all. Fortunately for him he stayed awake. Suddenly Dundas stopped his raucous singing and began to cry: 'There's a destroyer coming along. She's seen us.' I looked up wearily in disbelief, but Dundas was right. She was heading towards the rafts. I recognized the pendant number- H27. 'It's the Electra,' I screamed. Then I began to bawl crazily. ' Electra ! Electra! Electra !' The other two joined in, and we waved our arms desperately. She had certainly seen us. She cut her engines and began to steer in towards us. Men with hand-lines were stationed around her sides. Scrambling-nets were already rigged, so we had obviously been spotted before we had noticed her. In jubilation Dundas sang: 'Roll out the barrel, let's have a barrel of fun. ..' and began conducting an imaginary orchestra. As low in spirit as I was, I could not but admire his bravado.
Slowly the Electra approached my raft, on which I was prostrate. Then a rope sailed into the air in my direction. Although I could not feel my fingers, somehow I managed to cling on to it. A man yelled unnecessarily at me from the scrambling net: 'Don't let go of it.' I even had the heart to retort: 'You bet your bloody life I won't.' Yet I was too exhausted to haul myself in and climb the net. After nearly four hours in the sea my emotions were a mess. Tears of frustration rolled down my oil-caked cheeks again, for rescue was so close and I could not help myself. I need not have worried. Several seamen dropped into the water, and with one hand on the nets they got me alongside and manhandled me up to the bent guard-rail, which had been battered by the storm, and into the waist of the Electra.
The sheer thankfulness of being saved acted as a tranquillizer on me. I was laid out on deck, and gentle hands cut and eased away the frozen clothes from my body. I remember thinking: 'There goes my Burberry and number three suit.' Then someone forced a cup between my lips and said: 'Here, drink this.' I did, and although I had been in the Navy for three years, this was my first taste of rum. I vomited it up immediately. My idiotic attempts to sit up on the raft, which had led to my swallowing a mixture of brine and oil, made it impossible for me to keep anything down for the next few hours. Swathed in blankets and with the ship's doctor, Lieutenant W.R.D. Seymour, massaging my hands and then my feet, I was soon joined by Tilburn and Dundas, whom I heard say to the No.1 after he was hauled up to the main deck: 'Sorry I can't salute, sir. I'm afraid I've lost my cap.' It was his last show of cheeky cheerfulness. He immediately collapsed into a heap. He, too, was massaged and then bundled off protestingly to the wardroom. Tilburn and I were carried bodily to the sick-bay. I was helped into a bunk, and then a sick-berth attendant gave me a blanket bath. But sleep did not come easily after this, because as my circulation returned I was seized with a series of cramps, which made my body rigid again. The SBA tried to massage me back to suppleness, but even this did not ease my pain. Finally I fell asleep.
Chapter 22- Just the Three of Us Left
When I woke up, about four hours later, the cramps had subsided, although I was still stiff. The first lieutenant, whom I later discovered to be Lieutenant Richard Jenner-Fust, was called and he told us that we were being landed at Reykjavik in Iceland. This officer also related that, when the simple signal' Hood sunk' was received at around 6 a.m. from the Prince of Wales, no one on the Electra's bridge believed it. The yeoman who brought the news was in tears, however. The destroyer and the rest of the escort had been spread at fifteen-mile intervals to search towards the north, as ordered by Holland. Wake-Walker in the Norfolk, who had taken over as senior officer, signalled them to turn south and hunt for survivors around the Hood's last reported position, which was sixty miles away. Commander S.A. Buss, skipper of the Electra, obeyed instantly. He knew that survivors could not last for more than a couple of hours in the refrigerator that was the sea and asked the engine-room to 'give him everything they had got'. During the previous night the heavy weather had stoved in the ship's motor-boat and whaler. Only one other whaler was serviceable, and on the way to the rescue ]enner-Fust and the chief buffer had to work out ways of picking up the hundreds of survivors who were expected. The doctor recruited a work party to turn the tiny mess decks into hospitals, and stewards were instructed to have the officers' bunks ready for the overflow. The cooks prepared hot soup and tea, while a special supply of rum was indented for from stores. The Electra managed to race to the scene of the disaster fifteen minutes ahead of her estimated arrival time, mainly because of a plot given by Flying Officer Pinhorn, the pilot of a Hudson of Coastal Command, who had also watched the battle. A sliver of smoke was seen by a look-out, which raised hopes of finding the Hood still afloat, but this turned out to be a solitary merchantman who had straggled away from a convoy and was scurrying home.
With the sea seemingly empty, Lieutenant-Commander Buss had begun to think that the Electra was off course, but large patches of oil and tangled unrecognizable masses of wreckage were sighted. Then they spotted us. The seaboat was launched, and what they believed was to be a big rescue operation got into full swing. Soon the lcarus and Anthony joined in the search. No one could believe it; there was not another sign of a man, dead or alive. Only then, when Jenner-Fust told us the story, did we realize that the three of us were the luckiest men to be alive. But this did not buoy me up.
Depression held me in its grip for the next few days. Poor old 'Dingle' Bell; poor old 'Tux'; poor old Stan. Old? Far from it. Bell and Tuxworth were my own age, and Stan Boardman, at twenty-one, had just received his first good-conduct badge. But I was not the only one who was hard hit by the realization of the death of more than fourteen hundred shipmates. The crew of the Electra were also in low spirits as the search was abandoned because her fuel was running low and the ship headed for Iceland.
On the passage to Reykjavik the ship's company did their best to cheer up Tilburn and me. We were invited to the seamen's mess, and there we had sipper after sipper of rum to make us forget. If we had drunk everything which was offered, it would have been more lethal than the sea that nearly claimed us. Both of us were also kitted out with odds and ends of clothing donated by the crew. I ended up with a blue jersey, the bottom half of someone's old number one suit, a watch-coat, thick sea-boot socks and a pair of battered boots.
Not until the Electra berthed alongside at Reykjavik during the dogwatch of 24 May did we begin to realize that suddenly we were VIPs. There was an ambulance waiting on the quay, and as soon as the gangway was in place, we were helped ashore. In the last few hours I had been in a dreamland of uncertainty and incredulity that this was really happening to me. Once ashore the enormity of what we had gone through dawned on me, mainly because of the hustle that was generated around us. We were hurried into the ambulance and driven at speed to the nearby military hospital. There we were met by a padre, who took our names and addresses and those of our next of kin so that telegrams saying we were safe could be sent. It was a kindness that was to save hours of anguish, for I later learned that my mother in Derby received the telegram just sixty minutes after the delayed official announcement on the radio that the Hood had been sunk with very little hope of survivors being picked up.
The three of us were told next that we were to bath and get to bed. As I lazed in the balm of just Lifebuoy soap and hot water, a young nursing sister entered the bathroom to help me. Still young and innocent, I insisted that she turn her back before I got out. She did as I asked, but as I stood up I slipped dizzily back into the bath and blacked out. I came round sitting on the side, with my head on the sister's shoulder. As I opened my eyes, she assured me: 'Don't worry, laddie, I'll look after you.' Indeed she did. She helped me to dry and then was my crutch as I staggered back to bed to sleep the sleep of the vanquished.
Next morning we were informed by an army doctor that we were being sent back to the UK in the Royal Ulsterman, a trooper operating between Iceland and Greenock. After a lazy day confined to the hospital we duly joined the ship and were placed immediately in a benevolent kind of 'solitary'. Unlike the hundreds of other ordinary bods on board, Tilburn and I were given a cabin to ourselves. Dundas, being a midshipman, had one to himself. We were warned by the first mate that we must not reveal our identities while we were on board and must not discuss with anyone the battle with the Bismarck, our rescue or, indeed, any part of the operation. But we did discuss it among ourselves during the four-day passage to Greenock.
It was still difficult to believe that we were the three men 'chosen' to escape from the Hood. Why did no more of our shipmates survive? My own theory was -and still is -that the fire and exploding ammunition accounted for many lives and that the final blast killed a large number in the open on and above the upper deck. And of the hundreds below decks, the concussion would have knocked most senseless, while the sudden capsize would not have allowed those who had survived to clamber up crazily elevated ladders and out of oddly contorted hatches. I had to chase from my mind grim thoughts of how they died. Anyone else who managed to get into the sea in the three minutes it took the Hood to sink would have been encumbered, as I was, by heavy clothing and the difficulty in inflating lifejackets, which were worn ridiculously under Burberries or oilskins.
The Royal Ulsterman's officers and stewards treated us like conquering heroes, instead of abject, deflated survivors. Our depression became almost suicidal when it was announced on the radio that the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had managed to elude Tovey's massive hunting force. Had our comrades in the Hood been sacrificed in vain? Were the enemy raiders even now committing mayhem among the convoys from the United States? But revenge came on Tuesday 27 May when we heard that the Bismarck had been found again -strangely by a namesake, Flying Officer Briggs -and destroyed by the most fearsome massing of units of the Royal Navy in search of a lone prey. Wounded by a torpedo dropped by one of the Ark Royal's Swordfish aircraft, brought to action by the King George V and Rodney, battered to a helpless hulk and finally put out of her misery by torpedoes from the Dorsetshire, the defiance of her admiral, captain and crew filled us with grudging admiration for a truly great fighting ship. She had taken on the full weight of the British Home Fleet, plus emergency help from the Mediterranean Fleet, and had nearly got away with it.
When the Royal Ulsterman arrived at Greenock on 29 May, we were still unaware of the dramatic stir that the sinking of the Hood and our survival had caused. A Royal Navy car was waiting on the dock to pick us up. We landed first, like admirals, and were whisked off to the headquarters of the Naval Officer in Charge, where we were all kit ted out in correct uniform again. Railway warrants were handed to us, and Dundas was briefed that we were to travel by overnight train to London and report to the Admiralty on arrival.
The VIP treatment continued. That night an officer escorted us to the train, where a special compartment had been reserved for us. Before distributing cigarettes, sweets, soft drinks, newspapers and magazines, he insisted: 'Keep your mouths shut.' Could careless talk cost any more lives? I wondered. On the long journey south I took the time to catch up on the news and found the papers still full of the Hood disaster and the triumph of the pulverizing of the Bismarck. The loss of our old battle cruiser was a morale-shattering blow, not only to the Navy but to most Britons. She symbolized the sheer supremacy of British naval power, even though she had outlived her day. Civilians could be excused for thinking that she was unsinkable, but naval officers who should have known better were horrified when the unthink- able news was announced. This is how the Admiralty communique phrased it on the 9 p.m. news on 24 May.
'British naval forces intercepted early this morning off the coast of Greenland German naval forces including the battle- ship Bismarck. The enemy were attacked and during the ensuing action H.M.S. Hood (Captain R. Kerr, CBE., R.N.) wearing the flag of Vice-Admiral L.E. Holland, CB, received an unlucky hit in the magazine and blew up. The Bismarck has received damage and the pursuit of the enemy continues. It is feared there will be few survivors from H.M.S. Hood.'
The loss of not only a great ship but 94 officers and 1,324 ratings caused many a sailor to break down and cry that day.
In Britain the seeds of controversy were being sown already - and by none other than Admiral of the Fleet Lord Chatfield, who, although living in retirement at Winchester, Hampshire, wrote this letter to The Times on the day that we arrived back in Britain.
In your leading article of today on the destruction of the Hood you write that she was the largest and most powerful warship afloat; that she was blown up by a lucky hit, although she had been specially designed to be invulnerable to that kind of danger . You conclude that this raises the technical question whether a miscalculation was made in her design. As great concern has resulted from this misfortune it is important that the nation should realise the reason of it.
1. The Hood was not the most powerful warship afloat. True she was the largest, but she was constructed 22 years before the Bismarck. In those 22 years engineering science and the power weight ratio have changed beyond imagination.
2. It cannot be quite truly said 'she was destroyed by a lucky hit'. There are numerous magazines in a capital ship, in addition to the four largest ones, which lie beneath the main turrets. If, therefore, a heavy shell penetrates the armour at the angle of descent given by long ranges, the chance of one of the magazines being ignited is quite considerable.
3. The Hood was the most powerful ship of her speed that could be constructed in those days. But after the war the sailor made up his mind, after much experiment, that a very fast ship cannot afford to sacrifice armour to get that speed.
4. So in the Nelson class speed was sacrificed to ensure protection against sudden annihilation by shell, torpedo or bomb.
5. Since the Nelson was built, modern engineering has closed the gap between the two factors.
The Hood was destroyed because she had to fight a ship 22 years more modern than herself. This was not the fault of the British seamen. It was the direct responsibility of those who opposed the rebuilding of the British Battle Fleet until 1937 , two years before the Second Great War started. It is fair to her gallant crew that this should be written.
Thousands of words have been set in type, and millions more have flowed in verbal argument about the demise of the Hood, but in the last thirty years I have never seen nor heard a more crystallized or sensible theory than this surprisingly uncensored criticism by Admiral Chatfield, who had visited the ship on many occasions in peacetime.
Chapter 23- A Naval Curio in Demand
The three of us were unlikely companions -Tilburn, tall, muscular, confident and able to assert himself; Dundas, approximately the same age as 1, did not seem to want to communicate, which was surprising after his extrovert behaviour in the sea -and myself, still a shrinking lad but liable to blurt out an impertinence. Nevertheless, the fact we had survived was enough to bind us, albeit loosely, for the next twenty years.
When the train drew into King's Cross at 6 a.m. on a drizzling, chilly May morning, Dundas told us: 'We've been ordered to stay in this compartment until we are met by some top brass from the Admiralty.'
We waited until an officer peered through the window, realized we were his contacts and entered the carriage to introduce himself. 'I've orders to take you to the old Admiralty building,' he said. I for one did not expect this, but we were soon on the move again in another special RN car, which was alongside the platform. We were deposited at the office of the duty captain, who was the most affable four-ringer I have met. He shook hands and said: 'The Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral Whitworth, wishes to see you.' I gulped back my anguish. Whitworth was the admiral I had sent sprawling on the Hood's bridge a year earlier. 'Not to worry,' I reassured myself. 'He won't recognize a mere OD like you.'
The agreeable captain asked us whether we had breakfasted. When he heard we had not eaten since the previous night, he sent away his secretary to organize eggs, bacon, sausages, toast, marmalade and coffee. As we waited, he set a kettle on a gas-ring, waited for it to boil and made us a pot of tea. When he poured out three cups, Dundas, Tilburn and I sniggered at each other and then burst out laughing. The captain looked surprised, until Dundas explained: 'It seems very funny to us three very junior bods to have tea poured for us in the navy's holy of holies by no less a person than you, sir, a four-striped captain.'
And why not, after what you lads have been through ?' was the jovial reply.
After we had gobbled down breakfast we were ushered into the inner sanctum of the Second Sea Lord's office and presented to Admiral Whitworth. We were introduced in order of seniority, which meant I was last to be grasped by the hand. Whitworth stared at me with a forbidding frown on his furrowed, straggling eyebrows. His eyes held mine and then he growled: '1 know you, don't I?'
I stammered: 'Yes, sir. I was the flag lieutenant's messenger when you were in the Hood.'
His memory did not need jogging; a smile eased the straightness of his lips, and a softness came into his eyes. 'Oh yes, I remember. Nice to see you, son,' he nodded. 'You'll be all right - after a haircut!'
He sat down and began to probe us about the battle, the Hood's destruction and our survival. For an hour he rifled in questions and listened attentively. At the end he said: 'I must impress on you not to say anything to any outsiders until we have held a court of inquiry .'
Before dismissing us, he wanted to know what orders we had been given. Dundas said we had been instructed to report to our respective depots. Whitworth turned to his secretary. 'Oh no, you're not. Send these boys on leave.'
I had enough temerity to ask: 'For how long, sir?' Again that softness of eye melted his stern face and he replied: 'Indefinitely. We'll send for you when the court of inquiry comes up.'
The secretary bustled us into the outer office, where railway warrants, ration cards and cash were given us. We practically gambolled down the steps of the building and shared a taxi to King's Cross Station, where we parted. It was when I was alone on the train from St Pancras home to Derby that the nerve-shattering experiences of the last week began to affect me. Until then I had been a staunch brother in arms, a rollicking musketeer of the sea, who had cut a certain dash. Now by myself and left to my thoughts I became a jangling mass of nerve-ends and confused emotions. Why me ? Why should I have survived when 1,418 died? Was I really here? Perhaps it was all an illusion.
I had managed to send a telegram of my arrival time to my mother, and she was at the station with a taxi to meet me. Without a word, she hugged me tightly. On the way home very little was said, apart from banalities like: 'It's not a very nice day;' 'How long are you home for?' 'Were you hurt?' 'Are you hungry?' As she opened the front door of our house at 108 Nuns' Street, the last barricade of self-control disintegrated. I became a gibbering, quivering young lad from the war returning.
For the next ten days this nervous wreck from the wreck of the Hood was cosseted back to a reasonable frame of mind by his mother. The normal survivor's leave -although I still felt abnormal -was at least fourteen days, and on Whitworth's word I expected more, but on the tenth day I received a letter from the commanding officer of the RN Signal School, at Portsmouth Barracks, ordering me to report there when a fortnight's leave had expired. I might have been a war veteran at eighteen, but I was still green, for I duly reported to barracks at the correct time. Not until I met Tilburn again nearly three months later did I learn that he and Dundas had received similar orders but replied that they had been given indefinite leave until the inquiry. Their leave continued; mine was at an end.
It was when I went to the joining office at the signal school that I realized I was a naval curio. The usual officious master-at-arms looked at me imperiously through the glass hatch, booked me in and took down my details. 'Name? Briggs, Albert Edward. Official number? PJX 157404. Rating? Ordinary Signalman. Last ship? The Hood.' He threw down his pen, glared and barked: 'What's that? You'd better not be pulling my pisser, lad.'
I assured him I was not joking. His whole attitude changed. 'Come round here and let me shake your hand.' I went into the office; he grabbed me by the hand, clapped me on the back and bawled to the rest of the regulating staff: 'This lad got out of the Hood.'
My fame spread. I was marched into the first lieutenant's office, who got me to tell my story. From there I was taken to the signal school's captain to repeat it. The ritual did not end there. My final call was on the commodore, who wanted to hear it all first hand. By the time my serializations were finished, they had decided what to do with me. The first lieutenant said that the school - to be known as HMS Mercury - was on the threshold of moving to East Meon, near Petersfield, Hampshire. I was to go there until the inquiry. It was expected any day, but the weeks rolled on until I finally was ordered to be at Dorland House, Regent Street, London, on 27 August.
I arrived at the appointed 10 a.m. and was shown into a small ante-room with three chairs in it. Soon after, Tilburn entered. We expected Dundas to join us, but he did not turn up. Tilburn was called first, and then at 11.30 it was my turn to face a galaxy of gold braid, including Rear-Admiral H. T. 'Hooky' Walker, the Hood's last pre-war captain, who was the board's president, Captain R.J. Duke and Captain L.D. Mackintosh. They were assisted by Mr D.E.J. Offord, chief, constructor of the Naval Construction Department and Captain J.F.B. Carslake, of the Torpedoes and Mining Department. I was apprehensive, and my nervous stammer seemed about to explode, but Walker put me at ease by saying: 'Just sit down quietly and answer our questions to the best of your ability. Don't be nervous; try to be natural.'
I told my story yet again, but behind the inquiry itself was another story. Years later I discovered that this was the second board of inquiry. The first was nearly three months earlier, when a different board had reported on 2 June, while I was on leave. Dundas gave evidence, but neither Tilburn nor I was wanted: neither were many others who saw the Hood blow up. Apparently the first board, headed by Vice-Admiral Sir Geoffrey Blake, who had been carried off the Hood with a heart attack and then invalided out of the Navy for a spell in 1938, had bungled. Whoever had convened the inquiry into Britain's most devastating naval loss of face so far in the war forgot to make sure a shorthand writer was present. Blake let the inquiry go on, so there was no formal reporting, apart from a summary composed of the rough notes of the members. Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, primed by his Vice-Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, was outraged by this slip-up. Two other factors forced him to reconvene a second inquiry. The first was the failure to call every possible witness -such as Tilburn and me -and the second was a theory that the Hood had been destroyed by her own torpedoes.
Sir Stanley Goodall, the Director of Naval Construction, pleaded with the Sea Lords not to accept the findings until evidence was heard from more eye-witnesses, including survivors from the Bismarck. The subject was rightly too big an issue to discuss lightly, and that was how I came to be called to Dorland House.
The board seemed interested in my evidence about the exploding ammunition, the loss of steering, the absence of a loud explosion and the fact that I, like Dundas and Tilburn, was dragged down into the sea and then shot to the top. Although they seemed puzzled that only three of us had reached the surface, it was explained to me that we probably owed our lives to the underwater explosion of a boiler, from which we were capsulated in air bubbles and propelled to the top. I could only wonder why others had not survived this way.
As every witness gave evidence in camera, I did not know, of course, what else was said, but when the official documents of the inquiry were released thirty years afterwards, they made interesting reading. I did not realize until then that the average sailor could be a purple-patched poet. Stories had changed from those roughly documented at the first board, and this forced the second inquiry to note the difference in evidence. But against Tilburn's deposition was the comment: ' A very clear-headed and intelligent man, though inexperienced and still obviously shaken by his ordeal.' I was tagged: ' Another quite intelligent witness ...in a position to overhear the talk of some officers.' There were derisory descriptions of other witnesses, however, because they had either over-elaborated or romanticized.
When they reported on 12 September, the board left the argument virtually open for generations to come. The passage headed 'Cause of the ship's destruction' warned that, because a great deal of the evidence was' contradictory and inconclusive, many points in connection with the loss of the Hood can never be proved definitely.'
They scuttled the theory that the explosion was caused by the Hood's torpedoes by stating that they were not convinced the warheads would have caused her to sink so fast and that damage to the after part was considerably greater than would have been possible if two torpedoes had detonated. Nevertheless, they left the controversy half open by stressing: 'We have therefore come to the conclusion that although the explosion or detonation of two warheads cannot be entirely excluded, this was not the direct cause of the sinking of the ship.'
Unfortunately, the second board of inquiry accepted the findings of the first board that the third salvo from the Bismarck had turned the boat deck into a charnel-house. In fact, they denied the full credit of brilliant marksmanship to the gunnery officer of the Prinz Eugen, which was loosing off accurate rounds every twenty seconds. Instead, the board took heed of Kapitän Leutnant Burkard von Mullenheim Rechberg, who was interrogated on the Dorsetshire after he had been picked up from the sunken Bismarck. If they had examined him more closely, they would have not placed such credence on his evidence. He said that the Hood 'made smoke', which helped the Bismarck's gunners find the range. He could have meant that there was a great volume pouring from the funnels -which it always did when the Hood was at full speed -but if he intended to indicate that a smokescreen was put down, he deposed wrongly, for at no part of the action did either Holland or Kerr order this. He claimed that his ship's second and third salvoes crumped into the Hood and that a 'very vivid bright, white flame was seen, but no smoke'. This absence of smoke and whiteness forced the Bismarck's officers to believe that petrol storage tanks for the aircraft were hit. But there were only two gallons of petrol nearby, and this would have been unlikely to have started a big fire. He also told the inquiry that the fourth and fifth salvoes landed on the Hood. If this were the case, it meant that the Bismarck was off target only with the first salvo. Most of this so-called evidence should have been struck out.
Rechberg was later to write:
Having been ordered to keep our old fellow travellers, the Norfolk and Suffolk under continuous observation, in case they launched torpedoes at us, I could no longer watch what was going on off our port beam. I had to depend on what I could hear over the fire control telephone. ..I heard schneider order the first salvo and heard his observation on the fall of shot, 'short.' He corrected the range and deflection, then ordered a 400-metre bracket. The long salvo he described as 'over', the base salvo as 'straddling' and immediately ordered, 'Full salvos good rapid.' He had thus laid his battery squarely on target at the very outset of the engagement. I had to concentrate on watching the Suffolk and Norfolk, but I must say I found it very difficult to deny myself glimpses of the morning's main event. ..I continued to hear schneider's calm voice making gunnery corrections and observations. 'The enemy is burning,' he said once, and then 'Full salvoes good rapid.' The forward gunnery computer room was telling him at regular intervals, , Attention, fall.' ...Convinced that the Suffolk and Norfolk would leave us in peace for at least a few minutes, I entrusted the temporary surveillance of the horizon astern through the starboard director to my petty officers and went to the port director. While I was turning it toward the Hood, I heard a shout, 'She's blowing up.' 'She' -that could only be the Hood! The sight I then saw is a thing I shall never forget. At first the Hood was nowhere to be seen; in her place was a colossal pillar of black smoke reaching into the sky. Gradually, at the foot of the pillar, I made out the bow of the battle cruiser projecting upwards at an angle, a sure sign that she had broken in two. Then I saw something I could hardly believe: a spurt of orange coming from her forward guns! Although her fighting had ended, the Hood was firing a last salvo. I felt great respect for those men over there.
Rechberg did attempt to straighten the record forty years later when he wrote: ' At 0557 one of our observers had spotted a quick-spreading fire forward of the Hood's after mast: the second salvo from the Prinz Eugen had set fire to ready ammunition.' This vindicated Tilburn, the only on-the-spot witness alive, who always insisted that the first hit was an eight-inch (20.3 centimetres German size) and that a 15-inch shell from the Bismarck at a range of 26,500 yards would have penetrated the deck and probably have killed him. Another German prisoner confirmed that all the Bismarck's secondary armament shells fell short of the Hood. It was surprising, therefore, that most experts had forgotten the role the Prinz Eugen had played in this German victory, bearing in mind that because she was the leading ship she had been mistaken for the Bismarck originally. But the board did admit: 'There is no very definite evidence of the fall of shot from Prinz Eugen, though one salvo was described as falling astern of the Hood.'
The fierceness of the fire which the Prinz Eugen caused also made no impression on the board, who intended to concentrate on the final blast. Actor Esmond Knight, a lieutenant in the Prince of Wales who lost his sight in the action, said:
The fire was on the forward part of the boat deck and spread immediately afterwards. It was a most enormous fire; it seemed to burst into flames so rapidly. High, licking red flames and dense, pitch black smoke. I remember thinking that they would have a very hard job to put it out. It was so complete that it seemed to involve the after part of the ship almost. It appeared to me as if some ready-use cordite had probably caught fire and was burning. At the same time I think the Prinz Eugen was firing some HE, which was bursting into the air, bits of which were spraying into the water all around. I did not understand that at all as I could not understand how they could be using their LA guns to explode these shells on a time fuse at such great range. They were going off with a crash just astern of the Hood.
It is likely that the shell bursts in the air which Knight saw were either the UP missiles, which most of us in the Hood hated, or four-inch ammunition. The 'rockets-on-a-string' have constantly fuelled arguments that they were respon- sible for the last dramatic explosion. Captain J. Leach and Commander H.F. Lawson, of the Prince of Wales, were not asked by the board to give an opinion whether this was possible, neither did they venture one, yet they are alleged to have given their views to Captain G.H. Oswald immediately after the battle, when interviewed at Scapa. Both claimed: 'The rocket weapons and the unsafely stowed ammunition were the direct cause of the loss of the ship, probably through the explosion of the ready-use cordite penetrating the flash proofing of X turret.' Captain Leach was unlikely to have given this opinion lightly. He had been Director of Naval Ordnance from 1939 until taking command of the Prince of Wales and obviously knew what he was talking about. I saw the damage the rockets could do when they were detonated accidentally at Gibraltar a year earlier. With ready-use ammunition exposed nearby -as it was when the Hood went into action in the Denmark Strait - the detonation would have been shattering. The actual stowage of the 9½ tons of refill rockets was a dangerous one because it was immediately below the launchers in splinter-proof lockers and above the armour. Most of the Navy's top brass thought the weapons were useless. Rear-Admiral A.D. Nicholl has revealed that everyone - apart from Professor Lindemann and Churchill - thought the rockets ludicrous, but the chiefs of staff in the War Cabinet were not prepared to invoke the anger of the Prime Minister by speaking out against them. This controversy over one apparently useless weapon might have blurred the judgement of Leach after the loss of the Hood, but it seems certain that the board of inquiry were not prepared to cross words with Churchill over one of his pet contraptions, and consequently not one of the explosive experts was asked whether the UPs could have been the primary cause of the final blast.
The mis-directed inquiry - I call it this because to me its findings are very much open to question - ended with this conclusion: 'The sinking of the Hood was due to a hit from Bismarck's 15-inch shell in, or adjacent to, the four-inch or 15-inch magazines, causing them all to explode and wreck the after part of the ship. The probability is that the four-inch magazines exploded first.' In fact, the findings of this second board, although longer, were virtually a carbon copy of the first inquiry.
There were immediate repercussions after the report had been circulated. Although no blame had been attached to the UP apparatus, it was removed from every ship which had the misfortune to be fitted with it. In the Renown a section of the upper deck foward torpedo armament, similar to that in the Hood, was dismantled. The lesson of sending battleships - which the Hood was not, of course - into action with insufficient armour was also learned. Protection was increased in the Nelson, Rodney, Queen Elizabeth, Warspite, Duke of York, Anson, Howe and King George V.
Chapter 24- The Outdated Heavyweight
In what to many seemed deference to the dead, the strategy of Admiral Holland was not questioned by either board of inquiry. The 'lucky hit' announcement when the Hood was sunk was the line that the Admiralty expected the public to swallow. Admiral Pound, the First Sea Lord, certainly did not want to bring Holland's name, or that of any officer, into disrepute. In a memorandum which virtually concluded the affair he signified: 'No blame attaches to the vice admiral commanding the squadron, the captain or anyone else.'1
But as the years healed the wounds and eased the sorrow of the mourners, Holland's whole approach to the battle has been re-examined time and again, and some critics have made the admiral, and not the ship, the scapegoat for one of the most debasing days in British naval history. I must admit that on hindsight it does seem to me that in his last breathing minutes Holland must have realized that his tactics had failed abysmally. As I left the compass platform, he did not seem paralysed with fear as he sat in his chair. He had more the look of a man who preferred to die with his ship, instead of fighting for a chance of survival and possible ignominy. Why did no one issue an order? Why did no one shout or cry out? Why was there no rush for the exit? All these questions are unanswerable, as also are those which have been posed in several books written by both experts and the unknowledgeable. To analyse them it is preferable to take the incidents in chronological order.
Holland's decision to turn north just after midnight has been interpreted in two ways. In his first volume of War at Sea, Captain S. W. Roskill accepts the normal theory that Holland made this deviation after the suffolk and Norfolk had lost contact with the Bismarck in the snowstorm. But Ludovic Kennedy in Pursuit argues that the Suffolk's signal nine minutes after midnight reported 'Enemy hidden in snowstorm' and that the admiral had no more reason to suppose that the Suffolk had lost radar contact than when earlier that night for nearly an hour she was reporting that the enemy was hidden in fog. Kennedy gives the time of despatch of the signal at 0020, although the Norfolk is supposed to have received it four minutes earlier. Because Holland decided to turn from 285 degrees to 340 degrees at twelve minutes after midnight, Kennedy aligned himself with the opinion of another expert, Commander Pitcairn Jones, that Holland altered to the north, not to search for the Bismarck but to bring on the action. It is suggested that five minutes later -probably on decoding the Suffolk's signal that the Bismarck was hidden in a snowstorm -Holland ordered another fifteen-degree turn to due north to allow for the chance of the Bismarck's having altered to the south. This is possible, but as I remember it, although the Suffolk had not said it in so many words, it was broadcast around the Hood that the shadowing cruisers had lost contact and the men were allowed to go to relaxed action stations. If it was Holland's intention to 'bring on the action', we certainly would not have been allowed to relax.
The most contentious debate has centred around the approach to the enemy which Holland embarked on. The sharp-angled run-in of the Hood and Prince of Wales meant that the A arcs -the after turrets of both ships -could not be brought into action until Holland ordered a turn. The alterations during the night led to a loss of bearing, and the switch to forty degrees to starboard at 0538 brought the squadron to a true course of 280 degrees, and when the , open fire' was ordered they were steering 300 degrees. Consequently, instead of bearing the Hood's full destructive power of eight fifteen-inch guns and the Prince of Wales's ten fourteen-inch armament against the Bismarck's eight fifteen-inch guns and the Prinz Eugen's eight eight-inchers, the British advantage was eroded. It became sixteen to nine to Lutjens, although in big guns it was still nine to eight in Holland's favour.
The admiral was forced to take this risk because he knew of the thinness of the Hood's upper deck armour, and by steering as close to head-on as he could get, he was presenting a target of only a hundred feet -the Hood's beam -as against a target of nearly 860 feet, her length broadside on. The end-on approach was not just a phobia of Holland's; in fact it was the favourite tactic of Admiral Tovey, the commander-in-chief, who habitually recommended it to every flag officer and commanding officer in the Home Fleet. This was based on the idea that, if A arcs had to be sacrificed in an effort to close the range rapidly, the least dangerous method was to steer straight for the enemy and disregard the loss of bearing. It was claimed that the end-on run-in shortened the time when A arcs were closed and also reduced the target for the enemy. But it was essential that the approach be as straight as possible, and Tovey suggested only a ten-degree deviation. The Hood's course was thirty degrees off a straight line. So Holland had put his ships in the worst possible position, and Captain Russell Grenfell in The Bismarck Episode - which I regard as a trifling title - wondered whether the admiral had Tovey's end-on theory in mind at all. Certainly Tovey must have been doubtful, because when he discussed the tactic with the First Sea Lord, who criticized the approach, the commander-in-chief replied that he wished Holland 'had been steering in more still'. Pound called it' going into battle with one hand, when you have two'. 2 Tovey was on the point of signalling the tactics to be employed to Holland but decided that the admiral on the spot should be allowed to devise these.
Lieutenant R.G. Robertson, who was taken off the Hood because of a perforated duodenal ulcer just before she sailed to her death, recalls: 'On 20th April the admiral [Tovey] again made known his intentions if an "enemy in sight" report was received we would close the enemy at speed and, so far as possible, our approach would be "bow on". The fact that in the initial stages of any action our after 15-inch guns would not be able to bear was outweighed by the necessity of presenting the minimum target to the enemy. It was imperative that any action be fought at as close a range as possible when the trajectory of the enemy shells would be flatter and so less likely to penetrate our weak deck armour.' 3
Grenfell posed the other possibility that Holland based his tactics on the Admiralty's printed fighting instructions, which had been handed down from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, revised in 1918, but were still in use from the outbreak of the Second World War. This was later to bring the comment from Roskill: 'Grenfell was never a man to pull his punches when he considered criticism to be justifiable and he is highly critical of the manner in which Holland took his battle cruiser into action. I will only say that had Grenfell seen a copy of the Fighting Instructions then in force in the Royal Navy, he might, I think, have strengthened his criticisms of the rigidity of such instructions, but modified his strictures on the vice-admiral. For Holland actually took the ships into battle in the manner recommended in the current Fighting Instructions. ' 4
Be that as it may, this still does not absolve Holland from the blame of the formation of his two-ship squadron. It would have been reasonable to suppose that he should have led the attack in the Hood, and yet Tovey had been on the threshold of signalling him to put the infinitely heavier armoured Prince of Wales in the van. Captain Leach also considered this the best plan, but he too did not inform Holland. The vice-admiral probably preferred to place the Hood first because the Prince of Wales had still to be worked up properly; her guns were suspect -indeed one fired just a single round before jamming -and while the gunnery of the Hood was known to him, that of his consort was not. Nevertheless, there was no reason why he should have insisted on the Prince of Wales keeping close order -a distance of a thousand yards, the standard between two capital ships -during a fast approach. If Leach had been allowed to playa solo part, his ship could have stood off, employing all her guns in broadsides, while the Hood raced in to minimize the danger of a plunging shell on her thin armour and then to open A arcs. Instead the Prince of Wales was required to work in unison with the result that when the Hood was destroyed it was relatively simple for the Bismarck to switch to the new target -and hit her immediately, seven or eight times.
Grenfell questioned this order of approach thus:
Why was it necessary for the range to be shortened so quickly that A arcs had to be closed? It would surely seem that if the Bismarck was capable of decisive gunfire at 25,000 yards, the British big ships should have been equally able to fight at that range. Indeed, they almost certainly were. The Bismarck was well within their gun range and since they were firing at her with half their guns they could obviously have fired at her with all. The use of their full broadsides was not incompatible with a closing range; the only condition was that closing with A arcs open meant closing a little more slowly. But it was early morning and the British ships had plenty of time. Why then the hurry to get in? The answer is not very obvious. 5
Indeed, the answer is far from obvious, but Grenfell also missed another point, which had been to Holland's advantage. Surprise was in his favour. Not until the Hood opened fire was Lutjens aware that British capital ships were in the vicinity. At first it was believed that the approaching vessels were light cruisers. If the German admiral had known earlier that he was about to confront the Hood and the Prince of Wales, it is doubtful whether there would have been a battle, for his orders were to avoid conflict with any force superior to his own.
Holland's major mistake has also obscured partially two other regrettable omissions, which might have saved the Hood. It was his intention for the Suffolk and Norfolk to attack the Prinz Eugen from the rear and so reduce the enemy's fire power. Although this battle plan was signalled by light to Leach in the Prince of Wales, because of the insistence on radio silence from the Hood it was not communicated to those who mattered -Admiral Wake- Walker and the captains of the Suffolk and Norfolk. In the event, only the Suffolk loosed off a few desultory rounds, which were hopelessly short of the Prinz Eugen.
Holland either forgot to recall the destroyer screen, still searching to the north, or considered it best to have them hunting there in case he did not intercept the enemy -and that showed a remarkable lack of confidence in himself and his staff. The destroyers' torpedoes could have caused the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to have taken avoiding action and so upset the accuracy of their gunnery. Instead, the escort took no part in the battle and were only recalled by Wake- Walker to pick up survivors after the Hood had been obliterated. If the smaller of the enemy had been properly engaged, it would have been unlikely for her to have hit the Hood and caused the distracting, to say the least, fire on the boat deck.
It is possible that Holland feared that the Bismarck would make a dramatic and drastic turn to port as the British were sighted, and that might have meant business for the destroyers. It was an unlucky ploy and indicated that, despite his somewhat reckless race towards the Germans, he was cautious enough to try to cover all eventualities.
Throughout the search, the chase and the subsequent confrontation with the enemy, Holland had clamped down on the use of radar, still in its infancy and not trusted by the Royal Navy. This at least did obtain a degree of surprise in the early stages and, together with his signal that radar should not be used until action was imminent, was a wise enough precaution. But several of his critics contended that when the squadron were steaming 'blindly' without the eyes of the cruisers, he should have relied on radar. Most missed the point that radar at this stage of the war was not fully effective beyond twenty miles. However, as the distance narrowed between the two squadrons, there was no valid reason why the guns of the Hood at least -the Prince of Wales' set, like most of her gadgetry, was not functioning correctly- should not have been ranged by radar. The result was that fire was opened relying on optical rangefinders, a difficult operation when spray was cascading on to both ships and misting the lens. Radar sets should have been tuned ready for the meeting, especially when the plot put the enemy at around twenty miles distant. Lutjens already knew just after 5 a.m., twenty minutes before the battle commenced, that two fast-oving vessels - he had no idea they were capital ships - were approaching on the port bow. The sound of the screws of the British squadron had been picked up by the Germans' long-range underwater sensitive listening device, which they called GHG. Sixty of these were fitted in the Prinz Eugen. Although a check was made on radar, there were no blips on the screens, and not until the third gunnery officer, from a rangefinder in the foretop position, spotted smoke far away to the south-east was the GHG report definitely confirmed. So the Hood's radar could have been used to range and allied to the element of surprise would have improved the efficiency of the gunnery. Nevertheless, the fore turrets were aimed by mistake at the Prinz Eugen, and Holland's detractors wondered whether his subsequent order to shift the target to the Bismarck ever became known to our main armament control. I can confirm that it was and that fire was opened eventually on the , correct' ship.
As a 'naval curio' I have been asked scores of times to give an opinion on Holland's handling of the squadron. In the years immediately following my survival I had no definite views, apart from the 'lucky hit' theory. But this was because I was still a young and novice sailor, of course. In my more mature years after the war and into the 1970s, when more 'secret' facts became available to the public and I became an officer, I formed the opinion that, although Holland was at fault in many of his decisions, the blame for his being placed in a position where he would falter was primarily that of Admiral Tovey. To send a suspect battle cruiser and a battleship which was along way short of being an efficient fighting unit and still had dockyard men on board, to take on the world's most up-to-date battleship was not the best of decisions. Even allowing that Tovey had no other capital ship available, apart from his flagship King George V, I question whether it would not have been beyond the realms of his command to have put to sea himself in the King George V in company with the Hood. This would have given the Prince of Wales a vital twenty hours to have rectified the gunnery faults at scapa. Whether it was feasible to expect Tovey to conduct the search for the Bismarck from afar at sea and without a flag admiral in command of the bulk of the Home Fleet left behind at scapa is debatable, but bold moves were necessary, and a more positive approach might have saved the Hood.
Perhaps it is loyalty which repels me from inculpating Holland entirely. Instead I still point to the lack of foresight of the Governments in the 1920s and 1930s, who clung to the false image of their show-ship being the world's greatest example of naval power. Our heavyweight champion had a knock-out punch but a glass chin and a paunch which was too heavy for her. She was carrying more than four thousand tons of extra weight with all her wartime trappings, and yet the additional armour prescribed for her was missing. Even in her design days there was the problem of stopping the 'bending' movement expected in her hull because of her great length and tonnage. As we have seen, she was always wet aft, but with supplementary equipment the quarterdeck became virtually an island in heavy seas, with waves constantly pounding it. I believe that this seriously weakened her frame, and when the ultimate explosion came she split in half. When I saw her raddled bows vertical in the sea, they seemed -and must have been - completely separated from the rest of her. No explosion alone could have achieved this.
The irony of it was that, if she had been put out of commission in 1939, more depth could have been given to her wafer-thin 1 f inches of armour on the forecastle deck, her tawdry two inches on the lower deck and, above all, those grossly inadequate three inches on the upper deck. It was planned to offset this additional weight by dispensing with those always unnecessary above-water torpedo tubes and the massive conning tower. Our heavyweight would have been slimmed by shedding nearly four thousand tons. Instead the Hood slogged on through the war, lending her apparent power and prestige to operations which could have proceeded without her. Would she have been missed on those long, forlorn searches towards the Arctic Circle ? Would she have been missed at Oran? Would she have been missed in the Mediterranean sorties? I doubt it. In a similar way to pre-war crises, she was used as a frightener, and if someone had realized at the Admiralty that the frightener needed protecting immediately, the Hood disaster would have been averted.
No one in the top echelon of the Royal Navy was prepared to admit that she was no longer a super ship, and her epitaph was written by Admiral Lord Chatfield soon after her name became synonymous with the extinction of the battle cruiser: 'The Hood was destroyed because she had to fight a ship 22 years more modern than herself.'
I Smith, Great Ships Pass, p.22
I Warren Tute, The Deadly Stroke (Collins, 1973) pp.21-8
3 Marder, From the Dardanelles to Oran, p.233
4 Unattributed quotations come from Lt. Briggs' own knowledge as a boy signalman during this period.
5 Tute, pp. 89-92
6 Ibid. p.135 7 Ibid. p.14.
1 Marder, From the Dardanelles to Oran, p.241
2 Tute, pp.171-2
3 Ibid. p.187
5 Ibid. p.191
6 Marder, p.26.
1 Captain Donald McIntyre, Fighting Admiral (Evan Bros, 1961), p.75
2 Unattributed quotations from Lt. Briggs
1. The Times, 28 May 194.
1 ADM 116/4351, p.103
3 Baron Burkard von Mullenheim Rechberg, Battleship Bismarck (Bodley Head, 1980), pp.107-10
4 ADM 116/4351, p.19
6 Marder, From the Dardanelles to Oran, pp. 116-17
7 ADM 116/4351, p.10.
1 ADM 116/4351, p.76
2 Captain Russell Grenfell, The Bismarck Episode (Faber & Faber, 1957), p.63
3 Ships Monthly, June 1975, Lieutenant R.G. Robertson
4 Roskill Papers
5 Grenfell, pp. 64-5
Chapter 13- A Boy Goes to War | Chapter 14- Look What Just Missed Me | Chapter 15- Force H For Hood | Chapter 16- Shooting Fish in a Barrel
Chapter 17- The Pursuit of Unhappiness | Chapter 18- Testing the Italians | Chapter 19- The Admirals Cry Wolf | Chapter 20- Perhaps this is the Big One
Chapter 21- Now I Lay Me Down... | Chapter 22- Just the Three of Us Left | Chapter 23- A Naval Curio in Demand | Chapter 24- The Outdated Heavyweight | References