One of the most well known and controversial naval actions of World War Two took place in the Denmark Strait west of Iceland in the early hours of the 24th May 1941. Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland, commanding the British striking force, despite an apparent two-to-one superiority, managed not only to lose his own life and those of over 1400 of his shipmates, but also the ship that had epitomised British sea power around the world for a generation. The tactics of Jellicoe and Beatty, Halsey and Spruance are the subject of varied interpretation and lively even-handed debate, but poor Holland’s decisions are frequently described as, at best ill-judged, at worst grossly incompetent. His immediate superior in the Home Fleet subsequently offered opinions in hindsight on how his force could have been better disposed; even a friend and colleague could do no better than to comment: “Can’t understand the tactics of the Hood action, so unlike that very cool headed Lancelot Holland.”
This paper seeks to redress the balance, by reconsidering Holland’s tactics and those of his opponent, Admiral Lütjens, with a particular emphasis on avoiding hindsight, which seems to taint many of the accounts. Holland has been unjustly pilloried in my view, often by his Royal Navy contemporaries, men whose own experience of manoeuvring high speed vessels, the fog of war and the influence of chance in momentous times might have made them more charitable. Sailors are often sentimental about ships and no Royal Navy vessel of recent times was more loved than the ‘Mighty Hood’. Apart perhaps, from damage to Nelson’s Victory, no more savage blow to the pride of the Senior Service could have been struck than the seemingly contemptuous ease with which Hood was destroyed, and the damaged Prince of Wales thrust aside, by the upstart Kriegsmarine. Someone must have blundered, someone must be accountable, and Holland was in no position to defend himself.
Most criticism resolves around Holland’s perceived error in letting his ‘T’ be crossed, thereby depriving himself of half his available gun power, while allowing his opponent full deployment of his own weaponry. Yet even the significance of this most famous of naval tactics should be scrutinised, based as it was in the era of large, slow moving sailing fleets where the early disabling of masts and yards often led to an action as static as any Western Front land battle. The tactical skill often lay in achieving a local superiority in numbers, either by cutting off and concentrating against part of the enemies’ force, or indeed only choosing to engage some of his vessels. The degree of freedom of manoeuvre, of course, depended on wind direction and speed, and the measure of an admiral’s skill lay in exploiting these environmental factors within the tactical context. Technology was a minor factor, the vessels of different nations’ navies being fundamentally similar, although differing levels of experience (as between the British and Combined fleets at Trafalgar) or particularly developed skills -- for instance the long range gunnery of the American Navy in 1812 -- could be significant factors.
With the coming of steam propulsion and really long range gunnery at the end of the 19th century, different factors began to constitute the building blocks of the naval tactician’s art. Technology came to the forefront and actions became as likely to have been decided on the naval architect’s drawing board years before, or in the Director Control Tower during an action, than on the admiral’s bridge. There is little doubt that Jellicoe comprehensively out-manoeuvred Scheer at Jutland, even achieving the fabled ‘T’ crossing twice, and yet faulty British shells, thin British armour, accurate German gunnery and stout German construction took away his chance of unequivocal victory.
Much of the development of naval tactics had been done in an artificial ‘wargames’ environment which assumed a similar willingness between the protagonists to accept action and follow it through to a conclusion, whereas often the real world strategic situation made this unlikely. If both parties are not resolved to stand up and make a fight of it, then the tactics adopted by each will reflect and be moulded by this situation.
For the Kriegsmarine of 1941 a situation based on near equality did not apply, since the Royal Navy outnumbered it ten to one or more in most categories. Qualitatively, its individual vessels were often newer, faster and probably had better weapon systems than their British counterparts, but the disparity in numbers meant it was essential to fight only on their own terms. Consequently, German naval commanders were severely constrained in their operational freedom, and Lütjens on the bridge of Bismarck was under no illusions that his mission was other than to slaughter British merchant shipping, not to get involved in a knock down, drag out fight with the Royal Navy for the glory of the Third Reich. In the Operation Berlin raiding mission with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the Atlantic earlier in the year, Lütjens had initially withdrawn during the breakout when he was spotted by a cruiser. He later refused action again, even when convoys were escorted only by ageing battleship veterans of the Kaiser’s War. He even went so far as to reprimand Captain Hoffman of the Scharnhorst when operating independently against HX 106, for attempting to draw off H.M.S. Ramillies so that the flagship, Gneisenau, could have a clear field. By the Spring of 1941, the commander of a British squadron could be fairly sure that unless his force was completely overmatched in strength, his opponent would avoid or withdraw from action if he had the speed to do so. German warships had taken on the Royal Navy when the odds were heavily stacked in their favour, as in the Glorious, Rawalpindi and Jervis Bay actions or when cornered as in Narvik, but when the cards were more evenly dealt, as in the fight against Renown, off Stromvaer near Narvik, the overall numerical factor made discretion the better part of valour.
Only when viewed in this light do the tactics employed by Holland in the Denmark Strait become sensible -- indeed perhaps the only viable possibility. Authors who have railed against his ‘tactical blundering’ (V Tarrant "King George V Class Battleships") for instance, have the advantage of knowing through the 20/20 vision of hindsight that Lütjens would hold course and fight, rather than make smoke and execute a gefechtskehrtwendung in the face of interception by an apparently superior force of RN vessels.
Other new factors played their parts as well, notably radar. Denmark Strait was the first major action at sea in which both sides were equipped with such equipment. Perhaps the first ever radar action was Suffolk’s brief duel with Bismarck just a few hours earlier. On both sides the main systems in use were the gunnery ranging sets mounted on the Director Control Towers (DCTs). The directors were turned complete with their narrow beam antennas to provide the azimuthal scanning necessary for search purposes. The oscilloscope type display indicated a peak as the target return with a horizontal scale to indicate range. According to various sources , the German FuMo 23 (Bismarck) and 27 (Prinz Eugen) Seetakt installations probably had a slightly longer range than the Type 284 installed in Suffolk, Hood and Prince of Wales, maybe 28,000 yards versus the latter’s 24,000 yards. Perhaps the often quoted failure of Bismarck’s forward outfit suggests that her equipment was less robust. However, since she had installations on both her forward DCTs, that is, above the bridge and atop the superstructure, did this mean that both these systems had failed, leaving only the aft unit operational? As Suffolk raced through the Arctic darkness, with visibility often further affected by snow showers and Norfolk with her more primitive set effectively running blind, she was the eyes of the entire Royal Navy on their most dangerous foe. Every temporary loss of contact on her radar screen might mean a minor technical fault, a little too much snow clutter, a slight misdirection of the probing beam or that her mighty opponent had turned on her, and was closing at a cumulative speed of sixty knots. Her radar team did an incredible job in holding contact for as long as they did, and in reacquiring their target at 02:47 when hope was surely fading. Two of the Able Seaman involved subsequently received Distinguished Conduct Medals.
Holland’s strict limitations on radar usage and radio silence, virtually up to the moment of opening fire, shows he (and his staff) had a full grasp of the nascent skills of electronic warfare. Many commentators have deduced that Hood’s single Type 284 mounted on the spotting top director had become unserviceable by the early hours of the 24th because at 02:03 Holland requested that Prince of Wales search the sector across the squadron’s stern, but this was almost certainly only because his own unit would not bear astern. He had presumably not realised that Prince of Wales did not have Type 284 on her after director as well as her forward unit. However he did differentiate between systems, refusing the offer to use the more easily detected Type 281 air warning set aboard Prince of Wales as he must have rejected using Hood’s own single aerial Type 279 air warning set. Howse ("Radar at Sea") records that in a March 1939 trial, Rodney had detected Sheffield’s Type 79 transmissions from 100 miles away, and quotes Ellis’s unpublished autobiography that Suffolk’s Type 279 was used in listening mode only in the Denmark Strait.
Roskill’s opinion (in "The War at Sea") -- interestingly he was the technical officer who had confirmed the performance of the squadron’s radars in Scapa Flow -- was that Holland was over-cautious. He argued that earlier use of radio would have assisted the concentration of the cruisers and destroyers, and that earlier activation of the radars might have helped the British gunnery in the first few critical minutes of the engagement. However, we are now well aware that the highly efficient B-dienst teams in the German ships were intercepting British transmissions very effectively, and it seems likely to this author that earlier use by Holland might have evaporated Lütjens’ resolve and turned him back on the cruisers and away through the Strait. Neither should we lose sight of the fact that the German squadron was making about 28 knots through rising seas and the cruisers and destroyers would have needed a great deal of notice, perhaps a couple of hours or more with a speed advantage of only 2 to 4 knots, to get into striking range at the time of Holland’s interception.
There are further interesting points with regard to radar usage. There has been some question over the German squadron’s ability to detect incoming radar pulses. Two excepts from the signal log in "Make Another Signal" (Jack Broome) contradict this. At 08.01 on the 24th Lütjens’ damage report included “Two enemy radar sets recognised”. The following day Group West sent “Discovery of enemy radar frequency will be useful for fitting jamming gear later.” Lütjens’ own appallingly poor observation of radio silence, with his long winded description of the Hood action which allowed the direction-finding of his position, suggests that the Germans must have been detecting radar pulses even at ranges at which the British could no longer detect returns. Such a detector may well have reinforced the German commander’s dismay that his Intelligence service had failed to warn him that British radar was at least as advanced as his own, making an undetected Atlantic breakout through the narrow Strait unlikely, even given suitable weather.
Wake-Walker’s loss of contact after reporting an apparent enemy course change in deteriorating visibility in the first few minutes of the 24th threw Holland into a quandary. Like every British naval officer of his generation he was eager to get to grips with the enemy and avoid the gnawing and seemingly endless frustration which had characterised the Grand Fleet’s long wait for Der Tag in the first global conflict. The German force had now cleared the Strait and a wider range of courses were available to steer. The interception west of Iceland was in jeopardy, and the longer Lütjens’ force remained unsighted, the more likely it was that he would evade the trap. Only the ice to the North West constrained Lütjens, and he had already reversed course once to attack his pursuers in the Strait. Since Wake-Walker had not easily regained contact, Bismarck must surely have changed heading, possibly radically, and if Holland continued to charge on to the westwards there was a danger that Lütjens would cut inside of him and head south or even south east. In that direction, and only 10-12 hours’ steaming away, were two convoys, HX 126 and SC 31, just the targets the German force was seeking. With hindsight, we know Lütjens was pressing on relentlessly south-westwards, and that Holland’s turn to the north was a mistake.
For commentators with the benefit of Lütjens’ subsequent track in front of them, like Bernard Ash ("Someone Had Blundered") Holland “had made the first of a series of blunders” and it was “almost impossible to follow Holland’s reasoning”. They were not faced, as the minutes ticked by since loss of contact, with drawing ever widening ‘furthest on’ circles centred on Bismarck’s last known position. On Hood’s bridge in the earliest hours of the 24th the picture was far less clear, and the decision to detach the destroyers to continue the search to the north and the distant ice, in case Lütjens had looped around behind the cruisers, was a reasonable one. The German commander’s objective, at that moment, was to lose his shadowers in the deteriorating conditions. Later in the chase, Lütjens performed just such a manoeuvre on the 25th to give his pursuers the slip, and left Wake-Walker searching fruitlessly along his presumed southward track.
Holland gambled successfully in that he turned Hood and Prince of Wales back to a heading close to Lütjens’ base course to the south west just after 02:00, still with no indication whatsoever of the German squadron’s location. The temptation to break radio silence and co-ordinate the British search must have been almost overwhelming, but Holland knew that if he did, he would surely put the Germans to flight. The destroyers were by now committed to their search to the north, beyond recall by visual signal (i.e., signalling light), and radio silence could not be broken to get them back into the chase. When Wake-Walker did regain contact at 02:47, it became clear that Lütjens had made no radical change of course, and all Holland’s reaction had done was lose him bearing on the enemy, and open himself to criticism by commentators with a key advantage over his situation: hindsight.
Having “expended”, or wasted according to his critics, his destroyer force in covering a possible loop to the north by the enemy, Holland had to rely on them abandoning the search when the enemy was reported, and steering for the anticipated “sound of the guns”. Judging by Electra’s and Echo’s arrival time of 07:40 at the location of Hood’s sinking, and contradicting the account in T J Cain’s "H.M.S. Electra", the destroyers probably did pick up Suffolk’s report, and did indeed, take up the chase. However, in the time between Holland’s turn to 200 degrees at 02:10 and the 02:47 sighting report, the destroyers had lost a huge amount of ground, resulting in them being an hour and three quarter’s hard steaming, maybe 50 miles, behind Holland.
Aside from the assumed unwillingness of the German force to accept combat, and the presence of vulnerable convoys, there was one other overriding consideration in Holland’s mind. His intercepting force was slower than the ships he sought to engage. Although the aged Hood had made 30 knots on trials after a minor refit in May, the German force had been making 28 knots all through the Denmark Strait run and presumably had at least a couple of knots in hand. Prince of Wales on the other hand had made no better than 28 knots on trials, and there was no doubt that to observe the Washington limits, compromises had been made in the propulsion department as well as in the armaments section. Captain Leach’s narrative reports a speed of 27 knots was ordered at 20:54 on the 23rd, and in response to signals from Hood, he reported at 23:15 that no more speed was possible without taking risks. Briggs, writing in Flagship Hood, reckons that Hood, by this time, was only good for 28.5 knots. A deficit of two to two and a half knots may not sound much, but when a flying enemy is increasing the range by 4000 to 5000 yards per hour it might be sufficient to deny decisive action and allow the escape that would be unacceptable to those who made policy. Once the loss of contact in the night had made Holland’s original plan to appear across the German squadron’s projected route obsolete, he was forced into a situation where he would have to approach from their beam.
The ‘End-on Approach’
Here we delve into the vexed question of the ‘end on approach’ and its relevance to gunnery factors in the Denmark Strait battle. I consider that more mistaken opinion has been expended in this context than almost any other feature of the action. Even Ernle Bradford, in his otherwise excellent description in "The Mighty Hood", talks about Holland exposing his ships to extra danger because they were 30 degrees off from pointing directly at their enemy. Many authors have debated whether it is easier to hit a target vessel end-on or side-on, and speculated whether a salvo’s shape on landing makes a difference. Sometimes it would appear that the application of apparent common sense to the problems of relative vessel position and gunnery matters have lead to conclusions which ignore some fairly fundamental factors.
By the middle of the Twentieth century naval gunnery had become a complex scientific process employing sophisticated optical sensing and mechanical computing systems for range and bearing determination and subsequent adjustment of gun pointing to allow for relative movement and environmental factors affecting ballistics. This esoteric approach combined, once action had been joined, with the time honoured principle of spotting where the projectiles fell and adjusting the point of aim accordingly through the heavy engineering systems necessary to move turrets and their associated structure weighing up to a thousand tons. This complexity has tended to limit the understanding of gunnery principles and techniques outside that speciality within the Services, and means that there have probably only been half a dozen publications in English available to the general reader which address the subject. I would be the first to admit that as non-specialist, my own knowledge is all too limited, but I believe a general understanding of the principles at work is necessary to assess their influence on tactics.
For instance, it should be understood that the optical systems used by the protagonists in World War Two meant that the physical size of the visual target presented to a fire control system was of little significance. It was almost immaterial whether an end elevation or a side elevation was presented; the stabilised high magnification optics were quite capable of resolving their target out to the limits of visibility. Both Esmonde Knight in Prince of Wales’ AA control, and *(Brooke: "Alarm Starboard") (in the after main armament DCT) describe identifying individual components of Bismarck’s superstructure in the clear morning light as they came up over the curve of the earth’s surface. Given the relative heights of the observer and Bismarck’s DCT, the Nautical Almanac suggests a range possibly in excess of 23 miles. If these descriptions are accurate, they give a clue towards explaining the reconciliation of the anomalous ranges identified by Jurens ("Warship International", 1987) when reviewing the various accounts, and make his estimate of sighting range at 05:37 of 38,000m perfectly feasible.
The ‘Danger Space’
Naval gunnery is not like pistol shooting at short range where the only the apparent lateral and vertical dimensions of the target determine how easy it is to hit. A naval shell at long range does not travel in a straight line but through a relatively high trajectory and drops at angle determined by its ballistic characteristics. If the shell were dropping vertically, an angle of fall of 90 degrees, then the area on the earth’s surface which would constitute a hit would be limited to the target vessel’s deck area. However as the shell’s hitting angle relative to the horizontal drops lower, a larger area constitutes a hit, as to hit the water on the far side of the target it would have had to pass through some part of the vessel’s structure. As the range gets even shorter the trajectory approaches the horizontal, and the deck area, plus the area of sea beyond the target, constituting a hit becomes exponentially larger. This is the concept of the ‘danger space’, where the square area represents the measure of how easy or hard it is to score a hit. This was the precept upon which the all-big gun Dreadnought concept was based, in that the flat trajectory 12-inch would hit more often than smaller calibre, high flying projectiles for a given range.
Perhaps the best way to envisage this is to imagine looking down from an aircraft onto a vessel illuminated by a low afternoon sun. As the sun drops lower, analogous to the angle of fall getting lower, the shadow cast by superstructure, funnels, turrets and masts covers an increasingly large area. Of course the target’s orientation can make a difference, for if the vessel axis is pointing directly toward or away from the sun, the shadow of the upperworks falls mainly on the deck plan and therefore does not increase the area representing a hit. This differentiation is less marked at longer ranges.
The explanation most often put forward for Admiral Tovey’s enthusiasm for the ‘end- on’ approach seems to involve a belief that naval gunnery more often missed for ‘line’ (or azimuth) than for distance. Yet, oddly, this is contradicted everywhere, as for instance by diagrams showing the results of shooting exercises (see W Jurens "Warship International" No 3 1991 The Evolution of Battleship Gunnery in the US Navy 1920-1945). One can imagine that it is relatively easy, within engineering limits, to align the gun barrels of a vessel accurately, but much harder to ensure that propellant combustion and the seal around the projectile result in precisely the same amount of energy being imparted to each shell. Consequently the fall of shot pattern tends to be elongated along the line of shooting, even if the effect has not been deliberately created by using different elevations to create a ‘ladder’, where the number of shots landing short or long in a straddle acts as an additional range measuring device.
The other oddity is that an intercepting course, apart from one from a point directly ahead or astern of the target vessel, never points directly at it. If Holland’s squadron had steered directly at Bismarck, which was travelling right to left at about thirty knots, it would have been necessary to continually change heading to port while losing bearing, i.e., dropping further astern of the German ships. Helmsmen steer ships by attempting to maintain ordered compass headings, normally from safer locations below the waterline, until given a new heading to steer. Steering a continually curving course is virtually impossible. As the British and German squadrons were moving at similar speeds it was necessary for the former to point far ahead of the latter to achieve maximum closing rate. Several authors have observed that any number of intercepting courses would have allowed Holland’s ‘A’ arcs to remain open, and still closed the range, so why did Holland approach so steeply? The answer, I believe, is that he needed to get close enough to take any hits on Hood’s side armour and allow Prince of Wales’ raw crew a good chance of scoring hits at close range, as soon as possible, before Lütjens realised what he was up against. Leaving either vessel to close at slower rate would not have fulfilled both criteria. He had to cover the very strong likelihood Lütjens would make smoke, turn his two ships simultaneously to starboard and run as fast as possible on any course which would keep him clear of the ice. The longer the German squadron maintained its southwesterly heading, the more often Holland could make his incremental turns to port that would eventually open his ‘A arcs’.
That Lütjens did not disengage is attributable to a case of vessel misidentification far worse than the British confusion over whether Bismarck or Prinz Eugen led the German squadron. For it was only because the Germans failed to identify their opponents as capital ships until the first salvos landed, that there was an action at all. Initially they thought the intercepting ships were cruisers, ships a fraction of the size of Hood and Prince of Wales. Maybe it was the near head on angle, the inaccurate assurances of the Luftwaffe on the whereabouts of the Home Fleet, or plain wishful thinking that created the illusion. Whatever the reason, Lütjens held his course for vital minutes allowing Holland to succeed in closing the range dramatically. It seems certain that Prinz Eugen at least, opened fire using high explosive zero delay projectiles, better suited for more lightly protected ships, rather than with armour piercing shells. Indeed, despite ending up as the victor of the action, Admiral Lütjens seems to have had little input at the tactical level at all. It is claimed that Prinz Eugen’s GHG passive sonar installation gave nearly an hour’s warning, before sighting, that an intercepting force was approaching, yet Lütjens seems to have made the unwarranted assumption that it could be nothing more than further units of a cruiser picket line. When Hood did appear over the horizon, the Germans continued to see “cruisers” despite Hood’s bulk and the huge and distinctive spotting top on her tripod foremast which marked her out as a British World War One capital ship. In the Prinz Eugen Second Artillery Officer Schmalenbach even came up with an identification of an “Emerald” class cruiser or one of the earlier “C or D” classes to explain these features. It would appear that Lütjens remained so self absorbed and indecisive even once the action had commenced, that Bismarck’s Captain Lindemann was moved to make his famous observation “I will not let my ship be shot out from under my ass!” before the belated order to return the British fire was given.
Confusion over which German vessel was leading resulted in Holland’s famous last moment redistribution of fire signal, and all the more recent accounts seem happy to accept that Hood actually fired at Prinz Eugen throughout. This failure to concentrate all his fire on the more dangerous enemy is another of the major criticisms of Holland’s leadership. Concentration has its disadvantages though, in terms of identifying each vessel’s fall of shot, and it is interesting that Lütjens had ordered Prinz Eugen to switch targets to the Prince of Wales even before the Hood blew up, presumably to avoid such confusion. Hood had of course been heavily hit by then and maybe Lütjens wanted to spread his squadron’s fire more evenly. Some authors seem to imply that the fact that Holland’s revised order to fire at Bismarck apparently never reached the Hood’s own fire control team indicates inefficiency in the flagship. On the other hand, since Hood was only firing two gun salvoes, the closing rate was very high and the ship’s course was changing every few minutes, the chance of scoring hits was low, and would not be helped by changing targets. A further, revised, decision may have been made to stick with the original target until the ‘A’ arcs were opened, the closing rate dropped to a more predictable figure and the British force had formed on a steady course at decisive range. If Prinz Eugen had been disabled by a lucky hit during the run-in, Lütjens would have been obliged to stay with her and fight, or leave her to her fate like the Blucher at Dogger Bank in the First World War.
That the German gunnery throughout the action was superb goes without saying, but it is interesting to note how many of their projectiles did not explode or went off with a low order of detonation. Some might be cases like the shell through Prince of Wales’ wheelhouse, which was presumably armour piercing and therefore was not triggered while passing through unarmoured structure. That she also suffered unexploded rounds in a magazine handling room (8”) and below the waterline (15”- found only when dry docked) shows how comparatively lucky she was. How unlucky for Hood that the shell that penetrated, apparently all the way to her magazine, performed more even more effectively than its specification should have allowed. Although Prince of Wales’ gunnery has been described as poor, it is interesting to note that once she was alone against two opponents at decisive range she almost managed to score as many hits as either of her opponents, and of course it was her decisive hit on Bismarck’s bow which sealed the fate of the Atlantic sortie. Still photographs, apparently extracted from the elusive film of the action, show that despite the difficult gunnery conditions, Hood’s shooting at Prinz Eugen was not so bad. Standing by one of the upper deck 4.1” AA mounts, surprisingly calm-looking Kriegsmarine sailors ( one even apparently has his hands in his pockets) can seen watching a two shell 15” salvo pitching into the water about 150 metres away on the ship’s starboard quarter*. A four gun salvo might have been a straddle.
Some authors have decided that Holland’s decision not to use radar as a ranging aid until opening fire was a mistake, leaving little time to get it fully operational, but we only know for sure that Prince of Wales had difficulty with hers. William H Garzke and Robert Dulin "The Bismarck’s Final Battle" article in "Warship International" No 2 1994 quote the senior gunnery officer McMullen, located in the forward DCT as being sure that the radar had contributed useful data, but this is contradicted in * Corelli Barnett’s ("Engage the Enemy More Closely"). He quotes the ‘dagger gunner’ in charge of Prince of Wales’ fire control table (computer) as saying that he did not receive a single radar range throughout the action. The Type 284 is normally described as being jammed by Prince of Wales’ own radio transmissions, perhaps due to salt from spray shorting across the aerial insulators to the ship’s hull. Another contribution from Howse* quotes the Prince of Wales’ radar officer Sub-Lieutenant Stuart Paddon RCNVR reporting that the Type 281 had good returns from three enemy vessels and sent ranges via a numerical indicator on the bulkhead of the Transmitting Room. The operator speculated that there was a support ship with the German squadron, but, of course, we know this to be incorrect. Type 281 was primarily an air warning radar with poor azimuthal discrimination and it seems at least possible that the third contact was Norfolk, broad on Prince of Wales’ beam. This confusion over whether ranges were available, and poor awareness of the tactical situation for individual, isolated radar operators, perhaps indicates how far the tactical team had still to go in the ‘working up’ process.
Relative Positions During the Approach
Several authors have observed that there are some irreconcilable differences between different accounts when looking at the reported ranges between the forces during the action, and Winklareth* has decided to come up with a completely new track chart to try to explain the inconsistencies. These all seem to stem from Prince of Wales’ sighting report usually timed at 0537 giving the enemy’s range as 17 miles. Trying to plot the given courses and speeds from this point puts the forces far too close together at the time of Hood’s destruction. The question is, where did this figure come from?
Up until Holland’s force sighted the enemy themselves, all they had to go on were Suffolk’s reports of the enemy’s position relative to their own ‘dead reckoned’ position. During much of the run through the Strait Norfolk must have been a passive partner, since her fixed aerial Type 286 radar (an aircraft search design pressed into shipborne service) with its narrow field of view ahead of the vessel, meant Wake Walker had to rely on Suffolk’s Type 284 as well. Indeed for much of the time the two ships of his command were invisible to each other, and there was no way of checking discrepancies in navigation between their derived positions, relative even to each other. Poor weather conditions resulted in the various vessels accumulating differing but cumulative errors in their estimated positions, where allowance for currents and leeway were applied to their dead reckoned positions, themselves derived purely from course steered and speed travelled since the last time the vessel had a definite navigational fix. In Suffolk’s case this was 11:00 on the 23rd. Interestingly, the first reference to a major discrepancy between Suffolk’s position and those of Holland’s force was not identified in the popular literature until 1999 in Graham Rhys-Jones’ excellent "The Loss of the Bismarck". In an end of Chapter 6 note he observes “Taking the mean of the position reports made by the Norfolk, Prince of Wales and Hood on sighting the Bismarck, Captain Ellis calculated his navigational error as 110 degrees 14 miles. His next sight confirmed it. Suffolk ROP, PRO ADM 199/1188 p.270.” This error in Suffolk’s position, and hence in the relative position reported for the German squadron, was confirmed in Ellis’ and Lieutenant-Commander S C Howe’s statements to the Second Enquiry Board. The former said “-this occasion is the first time I have seen my own and the Norfolk’s plots put together and it (distance from Hood) is a surprisingly greater distance than I thought it was.” The latter gave more detail on being asked the distance he stated,”We estimated it at about eighteen miles from the plot. By subsequent plotting it was shown that it was probably nearer thirty miles.” Both in ADM 116/4351.
We have no real way of knowing whether this error was developed on a slow cumulative basis, or appeared during a short period of time, perhaps as when Suffolk doubled back on her course as she did during the midnight loss of contact, fearing that Bismarck had turned on her pursuers. However, it would appear that during the critical phase when Holland was deciding on his attack plan, in the two and a half hours between 03:00 and 05:30, he believed the German force was 14 miles further to the east, on a bearing of 110 degrees, than it really was. David Mearns was kind enough to show me his documentation showing that Suffolk corrected her position by no less than 20.5 miles on a heading of 290 degrees at 08:00 to reconcile her position with Wake-Walker’s. His location of Hood’s wreck with modern positioning systems in 2001, substantially confirmed the accuracy of Holland’s navigating officer based on Hood’s “lost” enemy sighting report timed at 05:43 and from which Wake-Walker’s relative position was not so far out.
I consider this comparatively large error is of very significant importance, since on Hood’s plot, based on Suffolk’s reports, it must surely have indicated to Holland that he was in position on the enemy’s beam, and still in a reasonable position to intercept. This is confirmed by Captain Leach’s own narrative suggesting Suffolk’s 02:56 report put the enemy only 15 miles to the north west of Holland’s ships, a distance which had increased to 20 miles by 04:00. He observes that frequent radio direction finding measurements of Suffolk and Norfolk’s radio reports gave bearings which were passed to the flagship. These may have indicated the enemy was further west and hence nearer to escaping. When Bismarck was finally sighted at 05:37 her bearing of 335 degrees put her just abaft the beam of Holland’s force, but further west than he expected. The interception was still possible, but only if Holland acted swiftly and decisively.
Finding the Range
Esmond Knight, high up in Prince of Wales’ AA Defence Station describes an 18 year old sailor called ‘Knocker’ White being sent up to the masthead with binoculars to keep the lookout, as getting the first sighting. Knight himself saw the Bismarck’s topmasts rising up above the horizon although he does not specify a time for the event. Brooke describes being unable to pick out anything through his sights in Prince of Wales’ after director even though the forward DCT was tracking the enemy. He accounted for this fact by observing “that they were a good deal higher than us”. (25.4m compared with 13.5m). He later watched Bismarck’s Director Control Tower complete with projecting rangefinder climbing over the horizon. What seems clear from this is that whatever the range actually was at 05.37, Bismarck was first sighted at much more than 34,000 yards (17 nautical miles) reported. The ‘dipping tables’ giving the distances at which objects of a known height, say a lighthouse on a headland, can be first seen on a clear horizon by an observer at a known height above the water surface are a standard component of every nautical almanac. Even if we discount young Knocker at the masthead, and only include the forward DCT sighting, from a height of 25.4m above the water surface, the range to the horizon is over 20 miles. Of course this is looking at an object floating on the surface, whereas Bismarck’s DCT was at 37.0m. As a result the sighting range was theoretically more than doubled, although atmospheric refraction may have had considerable influence. What Holland had needed was limited visibility to enable him to force an engagement before the Germans had a chance to evade, but in the prevailing extreme visibility only extreme measures could make that happen.
I am of the opinion that the 17 mile range was an underestimate, resulting perhaps from navigational errors in Suffolk’s position for Bismarck compared with Hood’s own independent position, an earlier guess of visibility to the horizon, or on a quick and inaccurate estimate from one of the short baseline rangefinders in Prince of Wales’ DCT being used for a range far beyond its capabilities. Although by 1941 radar was beginning to emerge as a more effective method of determining range, all the vessels were equipped with optical rangefinders, which at this stage were probably more robust and reliable than the early radars. It can easily be understood that he longer the optical baseline is, the more accurate the instrument is for a given range. The long baseline turret-mounted units had a relatively restricted range to the horizon, due to the Earth’s curvature and their relatively low height above the water surface. Interestingly all the other combatant nations apart from Britain, installed longer baseline instruments on the top of the forward superstructure, to give more accurate rangefinding capability to the maximum visibility. The KG Vs, like earlier British designs, had only 15 foot (4.5m) instruments in the DCTs, inadequate for the longer ranges at which actions often commenced. Indeed Hood had her spotting top rangefinder removed at the March refit at which her Type 284 was installed, presumably on grounds of weight saving or lack of space, although she did have an additional 30 foot (9.1m) unit on her armoured conning tower abaft ‘B’ turret. Bismarck had a 10.5m instrument atop her forward superstructure, 37m above the waterline, Yamato a 15m at 39m and Iowa a 26.5 foot (8m) at 35.3m in this ‘Topspot’ position. A former senior gunnery officer from the latter confirms however that even the last generation rangefinder in the Iowas was accurate to no better than a thousand yards out beyond 30,000 yards (Warship International) and this error must have increased almost exponentially beyond that.When it is considered that the longest ranges at which hits have ever been recorded are either the Warspite’s on Guilio Cesare at Cape Sparviento or Scharnhorst/Gneisenau against the Glorious (both at about 26,000 yards), the pragmatic British policy against catering for very long ranges becomes more understandable.
Of course it is not just rangefinding which is the gunnery control problem at very long ranges. When times of flight for shells approach a minute, a fast moving target warship covers a considerable distance during that period, and an element of prediction based on estimates of target course and speed come into the equation. This is where the oft misused term deflection should be defined and introduced. Many authors have used this term to mean the horizontal angle (azimuth) between either the ship’s bow or compass North and the target bearing. No lesser authorities than William H Garzke and Robert Dulin in their "The Bismarck’s Final Battle" article Warship International No 2 1994 page 166 say “In that era, long range accuracy in deflection was much more readily obtained than accuracy in range.” Regrettably, my copy of Naval Ordnance, US Naval Institute 1921 does not offer a simple definition of the term deflection, whilst giving many practical examples of its application. Therefore I offer my own, based on the British BR 224/45 Gunnery Pocket Book, as follows: Deflection is the horizontal angular offset applied between the sights, which point at the target throughout and the gun barrel orientation. Deflection is applied for a number of reasons, the first of which is the tendency of the shell to curve off to the right, or drift, due to the spin imparted by the rifling in the gun barrel. Therefore the further away the target, the more angular correction must be applied to drop the shell where the sights are aimed. The deflection scale is used for making this compensation. Further right/left correction may be necessary to allow for prevailing wind direction but one of the largest factors is relative movement between the gun and its target during the time of flight. If both vessels are on similar courses and speeds, the relative movement, and hence correction, is small, whereas if they are on reciprocal headings at high speed the distance travelled by the vessel during shell flight is large, the correction is large and therefore the potential for error is large.
Another confusing aspect is the differentiation between navigational range and gun range. The rangefinders would determine an instantaneous distance to the target, within their limitations, but the gun, whose elevation was expressed as a range, would have an up or down correction applied to allow for environmental conditions, gun wear and target movement during the time between range estimation and the shell landing. Hence the range set on the gun would not be the same as the measured range. In addition, there is the clock range, derived from the fire control table and computed on elapsed time, speed and relative courses of own ship and enemy.
For gunnery purposes a target is usually described as having a bearing (or target angle) from the observer, a range, an inclination (described in degrees and being either rotated right or left in plan view from the bearing, zero is heading directly away, left 90 is heading from right to left across the field of view at 90 degrees to the bearing) and a speed. Obviously, depending on the relative movement, the adjustment necessary to hit the danger space where the target will be when the shell arrives may require an adjustment in both azimuth (via deflection) and elevation. Given that ships tended to steer fairly straight courses, determining the rate of change of target angle was relatively easy, and use of a gyro would help even when ‘own ship’ course changes took place. However, as we have seen, rangefinding had considerably more error involved and this could contribute to erroneous estimates of the rate of change of range which often lead to this figure being estimated on a trial and error basis, and corrected by spotting observations. The target’s inclination was largely an estimate, except of course when it was zero or 180 degrees, that is when heading directly up or down the target angle. A mistake of twenty or thirty degrees in the estimate of target inclination would result in a rate of change of range which was severely in error. Many of the wartime camouflage schemes, especially those which had false bows or sterns painted on, sought to change the apparent relationship between hull length and superstructure size, to give the illusion of greater inclination and so confuse fire control set ups. The inclinometer was an instrument developed to use the distance between known points on the target vessel and apparent angle for a measured range, to give inclination, although it could not say whether the target was closing or opening the range,
Holland’s steep approach towards the German squadron resulted in a high rate of change of range, and put most of the fire control solution responsibility on accurate rangefinding and inclination estimation. His occasional slight changes of 20 degrees or so to port were probably intended to throw off the German’s computations. These factors could not overcome the technical efficiency of the German gunnery installations. During the early part of the fight Bismarck had three long baseline rangefinders looking ‘downweather’, and as the British closed, the turret mounted units added their data to the solution as well. In addition, even if both the forward Seetakt installations were unserviceable, the after unit may have been contributing range estimations with the model’s typical 70 metre accuracy. Prinz Eugen’s fire control outfit was no less effective, in fact she would have had an even more accurate solution, since her radar installations appear to have been more reliable.
With only the inadequate DCT rangefinders effectively operational, the turret mounted units obscured by spray, and her radars jammed or overlooked, it is no wonder that Prince of Wales’ shooting took some time to settle down. It is also worth noting that a number of reproduced battle plans, based presumably on her plot, show a difference of about 20 degrees between the actual and the British estimate of German course which suggests that her inclination assessment was seriously in error. Welding her crew into an effective fighting team and overcoming mechanical and installation problems would have taken far longer than the four weeks which had been available since commissioning.
One thing which did complicate the German fire control solution and may have given Prince of Wales an easier time than would otherwise have been the case, were the radical and uncoordinated course changes which Bismarck and Prinz Eugen undertook after Hood had exploded. Based apparently on a warning of approaching torpedoes from Prinz Eugen’s GHG operators, the two German vessels independently made major course changes starting with a turn of almost 90 degrees away from the enemy. Battle plans based on Schmalenbach’s original show this manoeuvre, while British plans tend to have missed this in the heat of battle.
This brings us to the famous Denmark Strait film, from which perhaps nearly all the photographic single frame illustrations of the action seem to have been taken, although possibly there were both movie and conventional still cameras in use. Fritz Otto Busch’s book "Prinz Eugen im Ersten Gefecht" credits the name Lagemann for the photos in the sequence. In many English language books these have been credited to 2nd Artillery Officer Paul Schmalenbach himself, but more recently to a variety of sources. Robert Winklareth’s "The Bismarck Chase" (1998) credits Lagemann, and goes so far as to completely reinterpret the German track during the action. Since, as he asserts, these still shots apparently show both Bismarck’s port and starboard sides from Prinz Eugen, which he considers unlikely, he concludes some must have been inadvertently printed in reverse. He constructs an entirely new track which includes a major turn away on sighting the British, which he claims helps explain some of the range anomalies, followed by a straight course, with Bismarck on a track parallel and to port of Prinz Eugen. For some unexplained reason, and in the middle of the action, the latter slows dramatically, allowing the flagship to pass up her engaged side, thus fouling her own range. With several of the commonly reproduced pictures reversed they do to an extent support this hypothesis, but another shows Bismarck heading straight towards Prinz Eugen’s starboard beam with no wake between, indicating that the ship’s courses are at right angles to each other. During these gyrations, prompted by the GHG operator’s torpedo warnings, their tracks did cross, so an observer in Prinz Eugen would have seen both sides of the Flagship during the course of the action.
Unfortunately, the Schmalenbach film shows only short disconnected sequences from the action. The cameraman, standing, unprotected on the upper deck while 15 inch shells screamed towards him does not provide a continuous record, the prospect of imminent death apparently curbing his documentary enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, when what coverage is available is studied, it seems to confirm Schmalenbach’s track chart. Looking at the reproduced frames, it appears to me that the cameraman was probably amongst Prinz Eugen’s anti aircraft gunners on the upper deck and moved between the after 4.1 inch mount on the disengaged starboard side and its equivalent on the port. From the former position he filmed Bismarck opening fire with forward and aft turrets firing separately as two groups and Hood’s salvoes dropping as ‘overs’. At other points in the action he was on the engaged side, recording the blazing wreckage of Hood, with Prince of Wales turning away. Jurens* Warship International 1987 identifies one of the palls of smoke as Norfolk shadowing on the port side but this surely cannot be, as the sketch drawn by her Captain Philips says he was 10 miles (20,000 yards) away at the time of Hood’s destruction, and therefore most likely still on Bismarck’s port quarter. Some versions of Schmalenbach’s plot do show Norfolk’s track passing to the south east of the site of Hood’s destruction, but this must have been at least 20 minutes later. Overall, although Winklareth has attempted to resolve the range anomalies, his fabrication of a complete new German track, without any evidence, apart from his own speculations on the photographs, cannot be justified when compared with accounts like those of Schmalenbach and Müllenheim-Rechberg who were actually there, and as gunnery officers would have been well aware whether major course changes or a straight track were followed. Jurens in Warship International seems to have accepted the accuracy of the later ranges in the action and then extrapolated backwards to come up with 38,000 m (41,500 yds) as the Prince of Wales’ sighting range at 05:37, a far more sensible approach.
Another criticism of Holland’s tactics is of his decision to fight in such close order with his ships, with only 800 yards between them. Many have observed that this made switching targets much easier for the Germans, and there were also potential problems with funnel and gun smoke fouling the range and even collision. The only justification seems that Holland was relying on flag signals to transmit orders, and needed to avoid the possibility of signalling gaffes like those which had caused so much grief and frustration at Dogger Bank and Jutland. His ships had to be close enough to be able to read flags through smoke and spray without possibility of error. However, the modern reader must wonder that nearly a year after VHF radio directed fighters had beaten back the mighty Luftwaffe using interceptions based on radar, and at a time when Bletchley Park was developing the first computers for cryptanalysis, the Royal Navy was still using flag signals for vital operational orders, just like Lord Howard of Effingham 350 years earlier. Granted there were problems of signal discipline and interception with the early TBS (Talk Between Ships) radio telephony systems, but surely they cannot have precluded their use, especially when they would shortly be the norm in convoy escort work. As for not allowing Captain Leach of the Prince of Wales much freedom of action, Holland knew that in order to force the German squadron to fight, and minimise their possibility for escape, there was no leeway, no margin for error. Both his ships had to get from the limit of visibility to decisive range as rapidly as possible, ideally before the Germans could react. He did not have the luxury, as Tovey did a few days later, of engaging a slowed, crippled Bismarck incapable of evasive action. In that instance even the ‘worn out’ Rodney had a considerable speed advantage over her opponent, and Tovey’s ships could operate independently to achieve the best conditions for their target practice.
As for Admiral Tovey’s own unwelcome epitaph on the action, it is a pity he was not as generous to Holland as he was to Wake-Walker when the latter’s action in refusing to re-engage Bismarck incurred the displeasure of Winston Churchill. The story of his offer to haul down his flag and act in Wake-Walker’s defence at any court martial is well known and reflects well on the Home Fleet commander. His claim that he considered suggesting to Holland that Prince of Wales should lead on the grounds that she was better armoured, but thought better of interfering with the plans of so experienced an officer, would have been better not voiced at all. Unlike the situation of ‘command from the rear’ which so often applies to army generals and senior air force commanders, most admirals share many of the same risks as their men. To those crouching behind the thin splinter proof shields on Hood’s upper deck, while 15 inch salvoes screamed in at them, the fact that their leader was up on the unarmoured Compass Platform must have meant much in morale terms. When Holland and the Hood went to their doom, his pennant crackled at the masthead, battle ensigns streamed from the halyards and ‘private ship’ followed flagship into action in the time-honoured fashion. As Admiral A B Cunningham put it at about the same time during the Royal Navy’s trial by air assault in the Battle for Crete, “ It takes three years for the Navy to build a ship, and three hundred to build a tradition.”
Vice-Admiral Holland and Enigma
Evidence that Holland was no fool is confirmed by features of his service record earlier in the war, as for instance, his actions when he successfully commanded a cruiser squadron in the Mediterranean under Somerville, and which included combat at the Battle of Cape Spartivento. Less commonly known is the fact that he was entrusted with an extremely important intelligence mission just a few weeks before his death. As more information becomes available on the critical value of the ULTRA intercepts in defeating the Axis in World War II, it is clear that together with the prodigious logical and analytical thinking displayed by the Bletchley Park codebreakers, and the sterling work of those who supported them, vital captures of German material often gave the starting point for their breakthroughs. Cryptanalysis based on the characteristics of language and statistical study could allow the breaking of the Enigma encoded information, but often took so long that the intelligence derived was no longer significant. As is well known, when Fritz-Julius Lemp’s U-110 was blasted to the surface by H.M.S. Bulldog on May 9th 1941, an enterprising British officer took over a boarding party and captured the Enigma machine and enough coding documentation to fill two packing cases. With this, the Bletchley teams could start reading German radio traffic with a far shorter time delay.
Less well known is that this opportunistic ‘pinch’ of Enigma information occurred a few days after a Royal Navy force had been sent to intercept and capture such material from the German meteorological observation vessel München far out in the Atlantic in a carefully orchestrated raid. Harry Hinsley, one of several Bletchley Park civilian ‘experts’, had realised the isolated and vulnerable little weather ships carried the full Enigma outfit. Holland, flying his flag in the cruiser Edinburgh, with Birmingham, Manchester and the destroyers Somali, Eskimo and Bedouin, was selected for the mission, and concentrated his force north of the Faeroes on the morning of the 6th of May, before heading for the München’s patrol station in German naval grid square AE 39. After a short search on the 7th May, the quarry was sighted, overhauled and Somali got alongside, and although some material was jettisoned, including the Enigma machine itself, much information vital for Bletchley Park’s work was collected from the München. The annihilation of the German supply ship network in the Atlantic which followed immediately after the Bismarck episode was only possible using forecasts of their locations derived from the material captured by Somali and Bulldog. Between the 3rd June and the 21st of the same month five tankers and two scouting ships were sunk or captured, mostly using the Enigma June key settings from München. Vice-Admiral Holland had struck back from beyond the grave at the Kriegsmarine surface raider support network, delivering a blow from which it never recovered. Even when Scharnhorst and Gneisenau regained operational status in Brest, joined by Prinz Eugen, and Tirpitz completed her working up period in the Baltic, with no remnant of the supply network remaining and Atlantic air patrols strengthening, major surface raider operations were de facto at an end.
Did Bismarck Sink the Hood?
There remains one more outstanding matter to consider with regard to the loss of the Hood, and that is the possibility that she was destroyed not by enemy action, but by accident. Suspecting that the cause of death might be heart attack when there are so many smoking guns in the vicinity may seem excessively imaginative but there is at least a little circumstantial evidence for this eventuality. Jurens in his definitive paper in Warship International * allowed for the possibility that a magazine or turret handling problem had resulted in spontaneous combustion of the propellants in Hood’s after magazine. As he observed, a significant number of witnesses considered that Hood’s explosion did not closely coincide with a fall of shot from Bismarck, and identified apparent anomalies with the operation of ‘X’ turret during the final moments of her life. Mr C MacLeod ("Saga" magazine, 1998) * contributed his own recollection of laying alongside the Hood in the trawler H.M.S. Celia and hearing of problems with gun hoists in the after turrets shortly before she sailed. As Jurens observed, we do not have the luxury of a close range photographic or a ‘black box’ recording of the last few minutes of the vessel’s existence, but film does exist of the destruction by magazine explosion of Hood’s near contemporary, H.M.S. Barham. Several minutes after being struck by three torpedoes on the port side from U- 331, the vessel slowly capsized to port, still with way on, and a heartbeat after her masts touched the water she disintegrated in a colossal explosion. Again, the cause of demise seems obvious, torpedo flash, and yet similar vessels have received similar damage without cataclysmic explosion. In smaller vessels where the magazines are close to the hull plating, the explosion is usually near-instantaneous with the torpedo strike. In other cases fuel oil fires have threatened the magazines after some time. The gigantic flooding by thousands of cubic feet of water which destroyed her stability and put Barham on her beam ends in just a few minutes would not appear to have been able to quench such fires if they were indeed the cause of the explosion.
The Official Enquiry quoted in Peter Smith’s "Battleship Barham" again (like Hood) suggests an initial explosion of 4” magazines caused by internal fires possibly followed by ‘X’ and ‘Y’ letting go. However the portside magazines were already presumably open to the sea under 40- 50 feet of water when the she blew up. The enormous explosion must have been much as Hood’s was, and the film clearly shows huge fragments of debris hurtling hundreds of feet into the air. Descriptions of the sound, quoted by Smith, vary as in the case of the Hood, but several mention the lack of a shockwave suggesting that cordite combustion rent the hull apart. The relatively limited blast effect, and the vessels loss of way during the capsize, probably account, along with water temperature, for the comparatively large number of survivors, including Vice-Admiral Pridham-Whippell. The film shows little apparent evidence of raging fires on Barham’s port side as she begins to list, and certainly no sign of precursor explosions prior to the main one.
All of these factors, considered together, leads one to speculate that the explosion is more likely to be a result of the capsize itself rather than of the torpedo flash, and some have suggested that it was caused by collapse of the cordite or shell stowage. Since it requires the vast accelerations of the act of firing a projectile to arm it in the first place, it would be surprising if the shocks produced even in a vessel capsize would trigger a shell detonation. Considerable modification of British cordite’s constituents and manufacturing process had taken place during the inter war years, but it remains likely that it was more delicate than its German or American counterparts. In Hood’s case a cordite handling accident caused perhaps by frustration built up during the run in when ‘X’ and ‘Y’ turrets would not bear is a least a possibility. On the other hand, it has to be admitted that sailors are an imaginative crowd, and unwillingness to accept that Bismarck could have destroyed Hood so quickly and at so little cost, may have fuelled speculation that another factor may have come into play. It remains the case, as Jurens concluded, that Hood was very unlucky if Bismarck’s shell did penetrate and detonate in a magazine. Hood should have been close enough for her armour and the low striking angle to keep Bismarck’s shells out of her vitals. It could even be, as he speculated, that it was an underwater shell hit that defeated her protection, and sealed her crew’s fate.
Holland’s Tactics Vindicated
I believe these arguments conclusively prove that Holland’s tactics were basically sound, and offered the best chance of doing what he had to do, which was intercept and engage Lütjens’ force, cause enough damage to frustrate the latter’s objective, and give Tovey a chance to join in. The cruiser forces’ overnight loss of contact, and the subsequent requirement to try to cover a southern breakout made Holland’s interception far harder. Lütjens’ tactics, in contrast, were faulty throughout, from failing to top up Bismarck’s tanks in Norway, through assuming he could shake off Wake- Walker after initial contact, to his non existent command style when Holland intercepted. From the moment of sighting Holland’s force he seems to have been transfixed with indecision, neither detaching Prinz Eugen to investigate, nor instigating action by Bismarck herself. Holland’s headlong charge closed the range from, probably, over 40,000 yards down to 25,000 without, seemingly, any reaction from the German commander. Only the landing of the first British salvoes seem to have broken the spell. It seems to me that he was almost unable to accept that his attempt at an unhindered breakout had been frustrated, although to suggest, as some have, that he delayed opening fire in abeyance of his orders to avoid a battle with the British is frankly ludicrous. Of course, brilliant German gunnery and perhaps, sensitive British cordite ultimately gave him victory and temporarily enhanced his reputation, even though Lütjens had personally contributed little and in no way complied with his mission instructions to avoid a fight. A little later, his tactical and strategic shortcomings would be exposed by his decision to let the disabled Prince of Wales escape and later to signpost his position with a rambling radio report to Berlin. In the Denmark Strait, history judged him the victor but it is interesting to speculate how the action could have turned out, but for the loser’s poor luck.
As Hood swung to port onto the heading which opened her ‘A’ arcs, and Prince of Wales followed around, Holland had seemingly achieved all he could have hoped for from the initial stage of the action. True, his flagship’s upper deck was ablaze, and the ship may have received a potentially crippling hit on the spotting top (Briggs), but he had got both his ships to within 16-18,000 yards of the enemy, and both had speed and firepower virtually intact. Seventeen British big guns would face eight German, at close range, where even Prince of Wales’ unready crew might be expected to give nearly as good as they got. If Prinz Eugen found herself on the receiving end of heavy calibre fire she would be roughly handled, as she was far less fit to lie in the line of battle than Hood. Any reduction of Lütjens’ speed due to battle damage would bring first the shadowing cruisers and then the destroyers into the fray. His escape to the south was blocked, he was matched for speed on a run to the west, the ice lay to the north and the cruisers and destroyers covered a retreat through the Strait. Unbeknown to him, Tovey was thundering westwards with overwhelming reinforcements. Defeat stared Lütjens in the face, British victory seemed inevitable, Holland had done all that could be asked of a commander.
And yet, in an instant it was all gone. Hood gone, Holland gone, 1415 lives cut short and another tragic token of the Royal Navy’s heroic myth of invincibility sliding down to oblivion through the darkening waters of the Atlantic. Within three days a shattered Bismarck and virtually her whole crew would join them in their ocean grave at the end of one of the most dramatic sea chases of all time. More than sixty years on, Vice- Admiral Holland’s last action surely deserves a more charitable appreciation.
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