A Need is Identified
The story of battle cruiser Hood has its beginnings in 1915, roughly a year into the First World War. The British Admiralty had begun considering designing a "next generation" warship – a follow-on to the Queen Elizabeth class. So it was, that in the Autumn of 1915, they instructed the Director of Naval Construction (DNC), Sir Eustace Tennyson-d'Eyncourt, to prepare design proposals for a new experimental fast battleship.
The goal of Sir Eustace's designers was to envision something decidedly superior to the current generation of ships. A number of key wartime deficiencies and problems common to many warships had been observed. The most prevalent of these were the combination of low freeboard and high draught – Due to increased war time loads (extra provisions, personnel, fuel and ammunition), many vessels were operating at heavier weights than originally planned. The extra weight caused potentially serious problems: ships now sat so low in the water, that in rough seas, secondary armament batteries (usually mounted in rows "cut" into the hull sides) were frequently awash. This often made the guns unusable and significantly detracted from a vessel's firepower potential. It also contributed to poor sea keeping, as notable quantities of sea water would penetrate the hulls around the gun battery openings, resulting in even more weight to deal with. The resulting high draught seriously degraded some vessels' abilities to operate in shallow waters. Accordingly, the designers were told to ensure that the new vessels incorporated the necessary features of high freeboard, high-mounted secondary armament and shallow draught. Additionally, the ships had to make in excess of 30 knots and use the new 15" main gun system.
A Change of Plans
Between the fall of 1915 and early 1916, multiple battleship designs (differences/variations in length, beam, draught, armour, machinery and performance) were prepared. About this time, the requirement was changed at the behest of Admiral Jellicoe, from that of a fast battleship to a large battle cruiser. This change was influenced in part by recently confirmed reports of German plans to construct a new class of "super battle cruisers."
The vessels of the Mackensen class, if completed, would be impressive specimens: they would displace between 30,000 - 35,000 tons, be capable of speeds approaching 30 knots and would boast a powerful armament headed-up by 13.78" main guns. In typical German fashion, these vessels would also have very good armour protection. Simply put, the Mackensens would clearly out-match any of the British battle cruisers in service at that time. This was clearly unacceptable to the Royal Navy.
A Design is Chosen
In February/March 1916, the Admiralty narrowed the choice down to two very similar designs by designer E.L. Attwood. These were further developed and evaluated until April 1916, when the better of the two designs was chosen. The ship was to be large – 860 feet in length, with a displacement of @36,000 tons. The long graceful hull, coupled with light armour and small tube boilers would permit the vessel to reach speeds up to and possibly exceeding 32 knots. In short, the ship would be large, light, fast and pack a fearsome punch – the ultimate battle cruiser.
In April 1916, the Admiralty placed orders for three vessels of the so-called New Admiral class: Hood, to be built by John Brown & Company Ltd, at Clydebank, Howe, to be built by Cammell Laird & Company, Ltd and Rodney from Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company, Ltd. Sometime later, a fourth ship, Anson, was contracted from W.G. Armstrong, Whitworth & Company, Ltd.
Influence of Jutland
On 31 May 1916, the great naval battle at Jutland took place. Although the British achieved a strategic victory, they had paid a high price: three battle cruisers were lost with appalling loss of life- H.M.S. Invincible (the very first battle cruiser and the command ship of Admiral Sir Horace Lambert Alexander Hood descendant of the great naval Hoods), Queen Mary and Indefatigable were all destroyed by massive explosions- plunging German shells had easily penetrated their scant deck and turret armour and detonated their magazines.
Another battle cruiser, H.M.S. Lion, was nearly lost as well. Only quick thinking and excellent damage control (magazine flooding) saved her. After investigating these tragedies, it became abundantly clear that the key problems had been the lack of adequate armour protection, poor flash/fire proofing and unstable cordite. It also became clear that unless modified, the new Admiral class design would suffer from the same flaws as its predecessors.
The design was gradually altered to include what was felt to be the necessary improvements. In addition to increased armour/protective plating, there were also armament changes/upgrades (addition of above water torpedo tubes, changes to the main gun mounts, etc.). The increased weight spread along the slender hull would subject the vessel to great stress. As such, it became necessary to incorporate additional reinforcements for strengthening purposes. By August 1916, the "final" design had at long last been approved. Hood's box keel was finally laid on 01 September 1916.
Note: For in-depth information concerning the building of Hood, please read The Construction of Hood. This article is based directly on actual records from John Brown & Company shipyard.
Battle Cruiser or Fast Battleship?
The completed ship was quite impressive- very fast, very large and very beautiful. She was not without her problems however: Due to the many increases in her armour/protective plating, she was much heavier than originally planned. The extra weight forced her to sit substantially low in the water and increased her draught. As a result, in heavy seas, or even at high speed in relatively calm seas, her quarterdeck was frequently awash. Because of this, she had a well-deserved reputation as being one of the wettest ships in the Royal Navy. The situation only worsened over the years as Hood's displacement steadily increased.It was at its worse in her final years due to the significantly increased wartime loads she was forced to carry.
Due to her extreme size, superb speed, large calibre armament and somewhat "larger than life" legend, she is often referred to (by modern day historians amd enthusiasts) as being not necessarily the last British battle cruiser, but the world's first true modern "fast battleship." This view is understandable when one compares Hood's protective armour and weaponry to contemporary battleships such as the Queen Elizabeth class, Hood was indeed a better armed and better protected ship. Of course, when one compares her armour/protective arrangement to those of the true fast/modern battleships that appeared in her latter days, it is clear that she was not quite up to par. At best, she was just a "super battle cruiser." Indeed, she always held an official designation of battle cruiser- the Admiralty knew full-well of her potential armour deficiencies.
So why, if she wasn't really a battleship, did the Admiralty employ her as one during the Second World War? Largely because of a lack of big gun resources. Her reputation was also a key factor...due to her somewhat inflated legend, she was widely feared the world over. Of course, that very same legend may have impaired the Admiralty's judgment as well– she had been the "Mighty Hood" for so long that despite her known deficiencies, many may have actually thought her invincible. Sadly, she was "invincible", but not in definition or the true sense of the word. She, the final British battle cruiser, was "invincible" in that the manner of her loss was very similar to the loss of the first battle cruiser, H.M.S. Invincible.