-History of H.M.S. Hood-
The Pursuit of Bismarck & the Sinking of H.M.S. Hood, Part 2
Written by Frank Allen & Paul Bevand
Updated 25-Jan-2012

This article examines the role that H.M.S. Hood played in the British pursuit of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941. It is not an in-depth review of the entire operation to sink Bismarck, but is primarily focused on Hood’s involvement. This article is based on official British and German record as well as anecdotal inputs from battle participants. A detailed list of sources consulted is at the end of this article.

Chainbar divider

Hood Leads the Chase
By 2000 hours, Hood’s force was at 63º20N' 27º00'W. Shortly before this, at 1939 hours, Vice-Admiral Holland ordered his vessels to raise steam for full speed and to change course to 295º. Shortly thereafter, at 2004 hours, he had the news he had been waiting for: Suffolk had positively sighted Bismarck and its consort in the Denmark Strait. This was followed-up by a report from Norfolk at 2040 hours. Plots put the Germans approximately 300 miles to the north of Holland’s force.

Holland’s battle plan at this point appears to have been for Hood and Prince of Wales to engage Bismarck in one of two fashions:

a. The first option was to cross the Germans’ "T" - i.e., cut across their bows on a westward course whilst they headed south. This would allow all the British guns to bear on the German ships whilst the enemy would only be able to fire at the British squadron with their forward guns. Of course, such a move could be easily countered.

b. The second choice was for Holland’s ships to cross the German squadron’s path well ahead, then swing around and approach from the west. This would would silhouette the Germans against the morning sky and considerably ease range finding for the British. It is evident that VADM Holland was hoping that Norfolk and Suffolk would engage Prinz Eugen whilst the two British capital ships fired on Bismarck, though this was evidently never communicated to them.

By 2054 hours, Hood’s force was proceeding at 27 knots on a heading of 295º. As the speed increased, the destroyers struggled to maintain station in the heavy seas. VADM Holland signalled to the destroyers "If you are unable to maintain this speed, I will have to go on without you. You should follow at your best speed". The four tiny destroyers did their best to keep up with the old battle cruiser fairly but took a horrendous buffeting in doing so.

At 2200 hours, the crews of Hood, Prince of Wales and their accompanying destroyers were officially notified of the Germans presence in the Denmark Strait. Interception and action was expected to take place between 0140 and 0200 hours that morning. All hands were ordered to be prepared to change into clean undergarments (to help prevent infection should they be wounded) and to don battle gear (life vests, flash gear, gas masks, helmets and, where necessary, cold weather gear). At 2230 hours, 'darken ship' was ordered. By 0015 hours, 24 May, crews aboard both ships had been called to action stations and battle ensigns raised (note- Hood raised one battle ensign only). They were then an estimated 120 miles / 222 km south of the German ships.

Bismarck- Lost and Found on the High Seas
Very late that evening, Suffolk lost contact with Bismarck: At one point it appeared to Suffolk that Bismarck had reversed course and was heading towards her. This being the case, Captain Ellis ordered an immediate alteration of Suffolk’s own course. By the time they had realised that Bismarck had not reversed course towards them and returned to their original bearing, the German vessels had disappeared into the snowstorm. Suffolk attempted to keep contact with her radar it proved impossible in the circumstances.

So it was that shortly after midnight, Suffolk reported that she had lost radar contact with the German vessels. Aboard Hood, VADM Holland, in his usual reserved fashion, calmly received the news. With no definite position or bearing for the German warships, he ordered that the crews to go to relaxed action stations (permission to sleep or at least relax at action stations) and a reduction in the ships’ speed to 25 knots. The heading changed to the north (340º) in order to cover any possible reversal of course by the Germans.

At this stage it was a guessing game for the British forces. It is often forgotten in articles on the loss of Hood that the relative positions of the ships at the time of the engagement was not entirely for VADM Holland to decide for himself. Loss of contact by Suffolk was a blow and suggested that the German squadron may well have altered course. This being the case, he had to decide what that course alteration might be. They may have decided that having been tracked it was likely that British forces would be concentrated to intercept them, and that it would be better to reverse course and disappear into the Arctic Ocean. Alternatively, they may have altered course to the south-east or the south-west. In any case, it seemed to Holland that the best course of action was to close the distance between his ships and the last known position of the German squadron as quickly as possible at this point.

Holland must have known that the worst possible scenario was for Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to slip by and out into the Atlantic to the east or west of his squadron as he hurried north. He therefore signalled to his force at 0030 hours that "If enemy is not in sight by 0210, I will probably alter course 180º until cruisers regain touch". He then once again signalled his battle plan: "Intend both ships to engage Bismarck and to leave [Prinz Eugen] to Norfolk and Suffolk". Of course, due to the ban on radio usage, this message was not transmitted to either Suffolk or Norfolk. At about this time, Prince of Wales intended to send up her Walrus seaplane for reconnaissance purposes. Unfortunately, the weather quickly deteriorated, forcing the flight to be cancelled. The Walrus was de-fuelled and put back in its hangar.

At 0147 hours, Holland signalled "If battlecruisers turn 200º at 0205 destroyers continue to search to the northward". Due to the poor weather and restricted visibility, it is not known if all four destroyers received the order. This order gives an indication of the extent to which, just a few hours before the engagement took place the British forces were 'searching in the dark'. At 0203 hours, just after dawn (approximately 0200 hours in those latitudes at that time of year), Hood and Prince of Wales assumed a more southerly course of 200º at a speed of 25 knots. The destroyers then parted with the large ships to screen at 15 mile intervals to the north. This was to better the chances of locating the Germans should they successfully elude the Suffolk and Norfolk. Holland also ordered Prince of Wales to use her Type 284 gunnery radar to search 020 - 140º. Unfortunately, Prince of Wales’s Type 284 radar was experiencing troubles which rendered it more or less defective. Captain Leach therefore requested permission to use the somewhat more powerful Type 281 radar, but his request was refused, as the transmissions/emissions would have caused great interference to Hood’s own Type 284 radar.

At 0247 hours, Suffolk fortunately regained radar contact with the fleeing German vessels. Her reports placed the Germans approximately 35 miles/64.8 km north-west of Hood and Prince of Wales. Holland ordered another heading change, this time to 220º. Speed was gradually increased to 28 knots (as high as 28.8 knots per Prince of Wales’s log for 24 May 1941)..

Once More into the Breach
By 0341 hours, both vessels were on a course of 240º. At 0450 hours, Prince of Wales took over guide of the fleet (i.e. positioned herself ahead of Hood). Why this temporary switching of position took place is not clear. It is recorded in Prince of Wales’s log as well as in the narrative of the operation written afterwards by Captain Leach but neither document explains the reason behind the move.  Hood resumed guide at 0505 hours. Between 0500 and 0510 hours, Holland quietly ordered, "Prepare for instant action". The crews then went to the first level of readiness. The command crew trained their binoculars and strained their eyes to the north, as they silently waited for contact to be made. Over the past few hours the sky had grown lighter and visibility gradually increased, so that at roughly 0535-0536 hours, lookouts in Prince of Wales visually sighted smoke and mast tops of the enemy vessels at a range of at least 38,000 yards (18.75 nm / 34.7 km) .

By 0537 hours enough of the ships could be seen to confirm they were the Germans. Prince of Wales transmitted an enemy report at 0537 hours. Translated from code, it read: "Emergency to Admiralty and C in C Home Fleet. One battleship and one heavy cruiser, bearing 335, distance 17 miles. My position 63-20 North, 31-50 West. My course 240. Speed 28 knots". Hood sighted the Germans shortly thereafter, but did not transmit her enemy report until 0543 hours.

Face-to-Face with a Legend
The Germans were well aware of the approach of the British warships: hydrophones (underwater sound detection devices) aboard Prinz Eugen had detected the sounds of fast moving turbine-driven vessels some time earlier in the hour. The initial German assumption was that they were probably cruisers. Knowing roughly where to look, spotters in Prinz Eugen and Bismarck first sighted the smoke plumes of the approaching British vessels around 0535 hours. At 0537 hours, they intercepted Prince of Wales’s enemy report. Despite this, they apparently were not yet aware that they were being intercepted by major warships. An intercept of any kind was not apparent until 0543, when Hood was sighted and her enemy report intercepted. Though the foes were still thought to be cruisers, the alarm was finally ordered in both German ships.

After the alarm at 0545, the German crews - like their British counterparts - prepared themselves and anxiously awaited orders. These, however, were not soon to come: Admiral Lütjens was in somewhat of a quandary, as he had strict orders not to engage enemy warships unless absolutely necessary. His main priority was to get out into the Atlantic unscathed. If he took the time to engage the approaching vessels, it may delay him sufficiently to allow other British warships to join the fray. Worse, he could sustain damage or lose one or even both of his ships. He took no apparent action other than to order a possible increase in speed by Bismarck.

The Battle of the Denmark Strait
At 0537 hours, VADM Holland had ordered his vessels to turn 40º to starboard together. This put the vessels on a heading of 280º, and placed the enemy fine off their starboard bows. The British ships were steaming at nearly 29 knots, with Prince of Wales roughly 800 yards/ 731.5 m off Hood’s starboard quarter. Unfortunately, rather than come out ahead of the Germans, Holland’s force had actually been on a diverging course. This was a result of the northern diversion the evening before as well as positional error in the regular reports from the British cruisers shadowing the Germans.

Now that his original intentions were no longer possible, Holland’s plan was to close the range as quickly as possible, then turn at short range to bring his full guns to bear. He would also keep his ships in close formation for gunnery concentration purposes. This meant both ships had to approach at an acute angle which masked their rear turrets. As a result, Holland would be going into battle with roughly half of his main armament. Heavy sea spray would pose a problem for his optical directors. The enemy vessels on the other hand, would be able to utilise their full compliment of main guns. Their optical equipment (already superior to the British types) would also suffer less from the effects of the wind and sea spray, as the wind would be on their disengaged sides.

Blunderer or Blighted by Fate?
Click here to read Sean
Waddingham's review and click here to
read Tim Woodward's dissertation
of VADM Holland's actions
in the Denmark Strait

This approach has been the subject of much debate and criticism over the years. Most critics have benefitted from hindsight and inadequately considered what was and was not known to Holland at that time. Holland, an experienced gunnery and command officer, must have considered all of these negative factors that morning. He had hard choices to make, and he knew that for every action there was a calculated risk. In this case, he had a chance to stop a potentially serious threat to British convoys. He absolutely had to seize the initiative and press the attack with the assets immediately available to him. He could not allow these ships to get loose and wreck havoc as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau did earlier in the year.

The sharp approach was dictated by the known deficiencies in Hood's armour and protection scheme. Holland would have been well aware of British armour efficiency studies that indicated Hood had virtually no immunity zone against 15" guns. Of course, the liklihood of a side penetrating hit could be lessened somewhat if Hood were at sharper angles in relation to the enemy. It was therefore critical that Hood close the range as quickly as possible but without allowing the Germans to slip ahead of his ships. In doing this, he would have tried to present as small a target as possible. Once the range had been closed, Hood would still be susceptible to enemy fire, but at such ranges the fire would come at flatter trajectories. If a somewhat oblique course were maintained, the side armour should stand up better to enemy gunfire. Presumably Hood's own gunnery would be more accurate at shorter ranges as well.


Above- Comparison of Ships Directly Involved in the Battle of the Denmark Strait, 24 May 1941

By 0552 hours, the range had decreased to roughly 25,000 yards / 12.3 nm / 22.8 km. The British vessels were now on a heading of 300º, a further turn of 20º towards the enemy having been executed at 0549. At 0550, Holland gave the order 'G.S.B. 337 L1' directing Hood and Prince of Wales to both engage the left hand German ship bearing 337º, which was presumed to be Bismarck. In reality, it was Prinz Eugen. Aboard Prince of Wales the mistake was realised fairly quickly. Gunnery Officer, Lieutenant Commander Colin McMullen, correctly identified the right-hand ship as Bismarck and ordered her to be targeted.  Despite this correct identification, he had a difficult time in obtaining accurate ranges until just prior to the time fire was opened.

The reasons for the initial misidentification are quite understandable: First of all, it was assumed that the command vessel, Bismarck, would be leading the formation. They had no idea that the German vessels had switched position the previous day: Bismarck’s radar had been put out of action by the concussion of her main armament as she fired at the Norfolk on the the previous day. This being the case, Prinz Eugen was sent ahead in order that she could use her radar to search for any British vessels approaching from a forward bearing. Given the extreme ranges and angles at which they were first sighted, the German ships were virtually indistinguishable due to their similar silhouettes. This was further compounded by the distance at which Bismarck was trailing Prinz Eugen (roughly between 1.5 to 2.5 km). This made the smaller ship look larger.

As the ships grew closer, the spotters in Hood realised their mistake. VADM Holland was informed and only moments before opening fire, he ordered 'GOB1' directing that fire be switched to the right hand German ship, Bismarck. This order was definitely communicated to Prince of Wales. It is also believed to have been meant for his own ship as well. Despite this, Hood's target remained the left hand ship, Prinz Eugen. The reason for this failure to switch targets is not exactly known. It may not have been possible to switch over quickly enough or there may have been communications problems.

Note: The timing of the order to switch targets is in some doubt. Hood survivors were sure that Hood shot at least two salvoes before VADM Holland ordered the target switch. On the other hand, Capt Leach of Prince of Wales insisted it came before fire was opened.

Hood opens fire
Hood Opens Fire. Drawing by Ian Johnston

Action commenced at 0552 1/2 hours, as Hood’s two forward turrets fired the first salvoes. Half a minute later, Prince of Wales’s forward turrets followed suit. Though it was at its extreme range, it is possible that Hood was attempting to use her Type 284 gunnery radar to direct her bombardment (this is subject to debate though). Prince of Wales, her Type 284 malfunctioning (attempts were made to use it, but it was believed to be defective) and unable to use an alternate radar such as Type 281 (VADM Holland denied permission for its use), was forced to shoot optically. Interestingly, Prince of Wales is believed to have attempted to use Type 284 or Type 281 later in the battle, but with poor results (this too is subject to debate).

Hood’s first salvo fell near Prinz Eugen but did not actually hit. Prince of Wales’s opening salvo was observed to be at least 1,500 yards over and to the right/aft of Bismarck. This was due to to incorrect estimates of the initial sighting range, course and bearing of Bismarck. The Germans, having seen the salvos, were shocked to learn that the approaching vessels were not cruisers, but were major combatants – a King George V class battleship (which they assumed was KGV herself, as Prince of Wales was thought to still be working up) and even worse, the famed and feared battle cruiser H.M.S. Hood (apparently the men aboard Bismarck knew it was Hood before the crew of Prinz Eugen). Her legend and reputation were great and she was well respected in the Kriegsmarine. This is backed-up by the statements of Bismarck crew who were later quoted as saying that Hood, in particular, was the 'terror of their war games'.

Hood continued to fire on Prinz Eugen. Prince of Wales continued to engage Bismarck. According to Hood survivors, Hood switched targets to Bismarck after 2 or 3 salvoes. A German witness aboard Prinz Eugen thought otherwise and recounted that Hood shot only at Prinz Eugen. This is far different from the recollections of Bismarck survivors - they were sure Hood had engaged them accurately all along. Most of these men, however, were not in a position to actually see what Hood was shooting at and more than likely were accounting for the fire of Prince of Wales. With little to no fall of shot information availalbe, it points to the strong possibility that Hood shot most of her salvoes between the two German ships, never striking either one.


0555 hours- Bismarck opens fire

Aboard Bismarck, Admiral Lütjens' hesitance had started to place his ships in potential danger - though his gun crews were ready and requesting permission to open fire, Lütjens still would not act. At 0555 hours, after two minutes of British shelling, Captain Lindemann had finally had enough. He was rumoured to have said 'I will not let my ship get shot out from under my arse!' then give permission to open fire. Prinz Eugen shot first (see photo at right), followed shortly by Bismarck. Both vessels concentrated their fire on the lead British vessel, Hood.

Bismarck’s first salvo (4 guns) fell in front and slightly to starboard of Hood. Its second, fell directly between Hood and Prince of Wales. Its third salvo appeared to straddle Hood. Meanwhile, Prinz Eugen had loosed between 2 and 3 salvoes herself. One of these salvoes straddled Hood at roughly the same time that Bismarck’s third salvo fell. It is believed that either one 15inch shell from Bismarck or one or more 8inch high explosive (not armour piercing) shells from Prinz Eugen struck Hood near the base of the main mast on the port side of the shelter deck. It is widely believed that the hit was from Prinz Eugen rather than Bismarck. This conclusion is based on both eye witness testimony as well as the fact that a hit by Bismarck’s 15inch shells would likely have caused considerably more damage.


Hood as seen from Prince of Wales

The hit on Hood started a bright fire that proceeded to spread across a portion of the shelter deck to port of the main mast and aft superstructure. Though it apparently did not reach the motor launches/boats, it did reach various ready-use ammunition lockers and began ’cooking off’ the munitions inside. The shelter deck soon became hellish as 4inch shells and 7inch Unrotated Projectile (UP) rocket mines began sporadically detonating. The detonations occurred both on the ship as well as in the air. Those who could not take cover in time were killed or wounded in the storm of fire and shrapnel.

On the Compass Platform, Squadron Gunnery Officer Commander Gregson stepped outside to examine the situation. He reported to VADM Holland and Captain Kerr that Hood had been hit on the boat deck (shelter deck) near the main mast and that there was a fire in the Ready Use lockers. Simultaneously with this, emergency calls began to flood the bridge. Realising the danger the fire and exploding ammunition posed to damage control parties on the shelter deck, Holland ordered the fire left alone until the ammunition had been fully expended. Accordingly, all personnel with exposed action stations were ordered to take cover. Most huddled in the large open area at the rear of the main superstructure’s base. The fire raged on for another minute or two before it finally started to die down.  It should be noted that amongst the flood of damage reports coming in, there was nothing from the torpedo areas or the engine rooms. These areas were very likely unaffected by the fire.

Captain Kerr tried to contact the observers in the spotting top but was unable to get through. Quite possibly, there was no one there to talk to – Midshipman William Dundas later commented that he saw bodies falling from the spotting top at about that time. It is possible that a shell from Bismarck had passed through without detonating. This would have had a devastating effect on the observers and possibly her radar operators. This could have severely hampered targeting/sighting efforts by forcing Hood to rely upon her single main optical rangefinder, or worse, her drenched turret rangefinders.

Bismarck trained her 5.9" / 15cm secondary armament to Prince of Wales, but kept her main guns fixed on Hood. Prinz Eugen switched fire totally to Prince of Wales after her 6th salvo. Prince of Wales fired her 14" and 5.25" armament at Bismarck. Hood continued to shoot somewhere between the two German ships.


Above- Map of the battle. Click to enlarge.
Note: To view a more detailed version of the battlemap, please see Antonio Bonomi's Denmark Strait battle reconstruction.

The Loss of Hood
VADM Holland must have realised that the situation was getting desperate: The Germans had already found the range and Hood was taking hits. He was also suffering casualties on the burning shelter deck. Worst of all, neither of his own ships appeared to be scoring any decisive hits on the enemy. Hood, having made the error of initially opening fire against the wrong ship was only now getting the correct range for Bismarck. Things were going horribly wrong – he needed to improve his odds.

At 0555 hours, believing that he was likely out of the danger zone for plunging fire (or believing he was within acceptable gunnery range), VADM Holland ordered the flag signal 'Blue 2' (20° turn to port) to be hoisted. The ships turned to port in an attempt to 'open A arcs' (i.e. allow the rear turrets to be brought into action). This turn opened Prince of Wales’s A arcs at her 9th salvo. It apparently also opened Hood’s A arcs as one or more of her aft turrets was seen to fire sometime after the completion of the turn. Once the range was down to approximately 14,500 yards/ 7.2 nm / 13.3 km, VADM Holland ordered another 20° turn to port.

This turn was executed sometime between 0559-0600. Sometime during the first moments of the execution of this turn, Hood was dealt her death blow- Bismarck’s 5th salvo had straddled, with one or two shells likely striking Hood somewhere around the main mast, or possibly through a narrow weak zone in her side (possibly even underwater). Aboard Prince of Wales, Captain Leach happened to be looking at Hood: "...at the moment when a salvo arrived and it appeared to be across the ship somewhere about the mainmast. In that salvo there were, I think, two shots short and one over, but it may have been the other way round. But I formed the impression at the time that something had arrived on board Hood in a position just before the mainmast and slightly starboard. It was not a very definite impression that I had, but it was sufficiently definite to make me look at Hood for a further period. In fact I wondered what the result was going to be, and between one and two seconds after I formed that impression, an explosion took place in the Hood, which appeared to me to come from very much the same position in the ship. There was a very fierce upward rush of flame the shape of a funnel, rather a thin funnel, and almost instantaneously the ship was enveloped in smoke from one end to the other."

Hood blows up
Hood explodes. Drawing by Ian Johnston

Although there was naturally some variation in the reports that witnesses gave, most agree that a tall, slim geyser of flame, similar in appearance to a welding torch, shot up from the area around the main mast (possibly venting flame/gas shooting up from the engine room vents). At the same time, a gigantic, strangely quiet, explosion or conflagration wracked the entire aft end of the ship. Large pieces of debris were observed in the air. As the flames turned into a mushroom cloud, the entire ship became wreathed in heavy smoke. She slowed to a stop and heeled heavily to starboard.

On Hood’s Compass Platform, a bright flash was seen to sweep round outside and everyone was thrown to the floor. As they regained their footing, the Officer of the Watch notified VADM Holland and Captain Kerr that the compass had gone. Kerr ordered that control be switched over to emergency steering. No sooner than that was said, the ship momentarily righted itself, then began an alarming roll to port – a roll from which she never recovered. As she rolled to port, she began to go down by the stern. The bow began to swing sharply upwards – Hood was going down and doing so quickly. In his book Flagship Hood, survivor Ted Briggs records that VADM Holland, sat dejectedly in his seat, with Captain Kerr attempting to stand at his side, and that no order was given to abandon ship – it really was not necessary. Everyone seemed to realise what was happening. Those that could do so, very calmly left their stations in an attempt to clear the foundering ship.

Hood sinking, as seen from Prinz Eugen
Hood sinking, as seen from Prinz Eugen

Those able to see the action on Prince of Wales, Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as their German adversaries, could not believe their eyes: The 'Mighty Hood', most famous of all warships, had just been devastated by a massive explosion. It truly was unfathomable if not nightmarish to all who watched. This spectacle resulted in a momentary lull in the battle. The section of the ship from just before the main mast aft to "Y" turret was laid waste – a mass of largely unrecognisable steel and twisted framework. They watched in horror as the remains of the stern, twisted, swung vertical and quickly sank.

Who Sank the Hood and How?
For a detailed look at the likely
cause of Hood’s sinking, see Bill Jurens'
article "Loss of H.M.S. Hood".
Also see SNAME's
A Marine Forensic Analysis of
HMS Hood and DKM Bismarck

The forepart swung high into the air at an angle between 45º and vertical and began to pivot about as it rapidly sank.  According to the Germans, as the bow rose into the air, Hood’s forward turrets were seen to fire one last salvo. If this is true, it is likely due to a short or a mechanical failure. Another possibility is that they were venting flames from an internal fire or smaller scale explosion.

 

The Retreat of Prince of Wales
Prince of Wales meanwhile, had continued to execute the turn and now found the sinking Hood directly in her path. The ship had to take immediate evasive action to starboard in order to avoid the wreckage. In her aft gunnery director tower, Lieutenant Commander Brooke recalled the ship (Prince of Wales) heeling over to starboard on execution of the Blue 2 (20º to port) signal, then violently heeling in the opposite direction. The starboard turn was so severe that it seemed to some as if Prince of Wales would roll completely over. Fortunately, she soon steadied herself. A momentary lull ensued as the Prince of Wales’s own guns were silenced by the loss of aim that these movements caused the gun directors. The emergency turn to starboard also, unfortunately, placed Prince of Wales immediately between Hood and the German vessels – in short, she was directly in their sights. The close formation that the British ships had taken up now meant that Bismarck's gunners quickly and accurately switched fire to Prince of Wales.

Bismarck engages Prince of Wales as Hood sinks
Prince of Wales passes Hood

Within moments, Bismarck, her elated crew now focused on the battle once more, was scoring hits on the new battleship: The first 15inch shell to find its mark went struck the lightly armoured compass platform, killing or mortally wounding all personnel except Captain Leach, the Chief Yeoman of signals, and the Navigating Officer. All three were understandably dazed. Although severe in its effects, this hit was mitigated by the fact that the shell passed completely through without detonating. It was not a dud, as is often claimed, it had merely not encountered enough of a mass to trip its fuse. Control of the ship was passed to the upper conning tower immediately below the compass platform. Further hits followed in rapid succession: Four more 8inch and two more 15inch. These included a 15inch hit below the waterline beneath the armoured belt. This shell, which was potentially fatal to the ship, did not explode and was not discovered until the ship docked at Rosyth after the operation had concluded.

At this point in time, the Germans were also preparing to use another weapon against Prince of Wales: long range torpedoes from Prinz Eugen. Captain Brinkmann of Prinz Eugen ordered that torpedoes be fired as soon as the range was reached. Bismarck remaining astern of Prinz Eugen to avoid masking the target. The torpedoes were never launched, however, due to the inexperience of the torpedo officer and the next actions of Prince of Wales.

Bismarck engages Prince of Wales as Hood sinks
Bismarck engages Prince of Wales

Despite the numerous hits sustained and the ever increasing problems with her own guns Prince of Wales is believed to have scored three straddles containing hits on Bismarck – one of which was to effectively end Bismarck’s participation in 'Operation Rheinübung'. Some experts attribute Prince of Wales’s success to the use of Type 281 radar (which she had switched to after Hood’s demise), although Captain Leach himself later reported this was found to be malfunctioning at that time (again, radar use is subject to debate). Regardless, she was soon in dire straits, and sometime between 0602 and 0603, following her 18th salvo, Captain Leach (or the Officer in Charge of the ship in the moments immediately following the hit on the Compass Platform) made the wise decision to lay down a smoke screen and break off the engagement. In the midst of this turn away, the aft turret ("Y" turret) managed three more salvoes (a total of 4 rounds) under local control. All are believed to have fallen short. After turning away and circling to port, Prince of Wales later joined up with Norfolk in the shadowing of the Germans.

Why did Prince of Wales retreat? As we review these events some 60-plus years after they took place, it will seem to most readers that Captain Leach was entirely justified to have broken off the action. Unfortunately, in 1941, he came under very close scrutiny by no less than Winston Churchill for doing so. Fortunately he was backed up both by Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker (who himself came under similar scrutiny) as well as Home Fleet Commander in Chief, Admiral Tovey. Leach based his decision upon several factors: the ship was clearly not in fighting condition due to her mechanical problems and shell damage. The crew was still a bit "green" and needed more time to get used to the ship and each other. She had also lost 13 men (14 men by the following day) in her Compass Platform, Air Defense Platform and aft radar office, plus numerous other casualties. He felt it was wiser to regroup and live to fight another day. There would be time to effect a more decisive concentration of British forces against Bismarck later. He was correct. Continuing the battle would have been a senseless waste of lives and of a potentially valuable asset.

Why was Hood's Gunnery Poor?
Click he an excellent look at Hood’s
antiquated fire control systems,
see the article "Hood’s Fire
Control System- An Overview"

by William Schleihauf.

Meanwhile, the German vessels had other issues to contend with: Around 0603 and again at 0607 and 0609 hours, underwater sound detection devices aboard Prinz Eugen picked up approaching sounds. The noises were assessed to be incoming torpedoes. Although the range was still extreme, the belief appears to have been that Hood may have fired torpedoes before sinking. Due to the angle of approach as well as the range involved, the German ships first turned away. They then settled back on their approximate previous course. Minutes later, at 0607 and 0609 hours, additional "torpedo" noises were detected and also responded to with evasive maneuvers. Although it is certain that Prinz Eugen executed these evasive turns, it is also highly likely that Bismarck did likewise as there was a potential threat and it would be dangerous to steam by a cruiser maneuvering so close at hand.

"Schmalenbach" Battle Film
To view the actual German film of
Operation Rheinübung, to include
the famous footage of the battle
with Hood and Prince of Wales,
please click here.

Both ships continued firing their guns at the fleeing Prince of Wales in the process. During the course of these manoeuvers, Bismarck approached fairly close to Prinz Eugen (astern and to starboard). She later crossed Prinz Eugen’s wake towards the port side. The sweeping torpedo avoidance maneuvers executed that morning account for the fact that photos/film of the event show her to both sides of Prinz Eugen.

It should be noted that the British hadn't really fired torpedoes: Of the British combatants directly involved, only Hood had such a capability. It is highly unlikely that she would have launched from such an extreme range. Even more unlikely that they would actually come close to the German ships. It should also be noted that British witnesses do not recall any orders being given to launch torpedoes. It could not have been the nearby British aircraft either as they were no so-equipped. There were also no known British submarines in the area. Prinz Eugen most likely detected the sound of collapsing bulkheads and wrenching steel coming from the sinking Hood...at this point she was well on her way down to the ocean floor and was being torn apart.

During this timeframe, there was also an aircraft alarm, due to the appearance of a Sunderland flying boat (Z201 of 201 Squadron, piloted by Flt Lt. Vaughn). Following the completion of the third anti-torpedo manoeuvre, Bismarck, now off Prinz Eugen's port quarter, advanced forward. She came between Prinz Eugen and the retreating Prince of Wales. She was in this position when the surface battle ended at 0609. In order to resume her leading position (Bismarck still had no forward radar and the known threats were now all to the rear), Prinz Eugen had to increase speed to maximum. By the time the antiaircraft barrages ceased at 0620, Prinz Eugen had already begun to pull well ahead of Bismarck. The German ships ultimately resumed their pre-battle positions.

Admiral Lütjens was satisfied with the outcome of the battle. He ignored suggestions from Capt Lindemann that they pursue and destroy the damaged Prince of Wales. He felt that any delay would likely bring more British warships to the area and potentially risk more damage to Bismarck – it was best to make a quick get away, fully assess and repair the existing damage then fulfill the mission objectives.

Survival
Hood was gone. Out of her crew of 1,418 men, only three, Midshipman William Dundas, Able Seaman Robert Tilburn and Signalman Ted Briggs remained: Midshipman Dundas had escaped the Compass Platform by kicking out one of the starboard windows. He squeezed through to safety just as the sea reached him. Moments earlier, Ted Briggs had exited the Compass Platform by the starboard side door. As Ted reached the door, the Squadron Navigator, Commander John Warrand, smiled and selflessly moved aside and gestured for him to leave first. Though he was sure that Commanders Warrand and Gregson had also made it outside, he was never to see either of them again. As Ted climbed down the ladder ways, the sea overtook him. He came to the surface a short time later. Meanwhile, on Hood’s port forward shelter deck, Able Seaman Bob Tilburn escaped by climbing down onto the forecastle deck and diving into the sea. He narrowly missed being fatally trapped by Hood’s plunging superstructure. After being dragged down some distance, he freed himself and reached the surface.

There was absolutely no trace of the other 1,415 crewmen alive or dead. Of Hood herself, all that remained on the surface was a morass of floating debris and an oil slick 4inch deep. Fire flickered here and there among the debris.

Why Such a Heavy Loss of Life?
Click here to learn about factors
which may have contributed
to the high death toll.

The three men had each quickly found their way to recently installed small grey 3ft square rafts (not Carley Rafts, but a different design) floating in the wreckage. They then managed to link up with one another. They were thoroughly soaked, caked with stinging oil and in a state of shock. As they sat in the frigid air, they watched as Prince of Wales steamed by attempting to continue the battle. They could also see smoke from Norfolk quite a way off when it eventually passed the scene. For around three hours they fought off the effects of hypothermia – only the persistence of Dundas, through non-stop talking and singing (especially "Roll Out the Barrel"), kept the men coherent and alive.

Nevertheless, as time wore on, the cold began to take effect despite Dundas’s best efforts. At one point a passing aircraft (Sunderland Z201 most likely) managed to bring them back to full alertness, but as it did not see them, they soon began falling victim to the cold once more. Some two hours had passed and the men eventually drifted apart and began to give up hope. Fortunately, it was then that destroyer H27, H.M.S. Electra (later to play a role in rescuing Prince of Wales’s survivors on 10th December 1941), arrived on the scene. She quickly picked up the three men, searched for other survivors, found none, then departed the scene. The men were landed at Reykjavik, Iceland late on 24 May. They were then transferred to a hospital for one day, and then to the merchantman Royal Ulsterman for transport back to Britain.

Continued in Part 3 (click on the link below)