-History of H.M.S. Hood-
The Sinking of H.M.S. Hood–Why Such a Heavy Loss of Life?
Updated 18-May-2014

We honour the memory of Hood's crew- especially those who died when she sank. The loss of the ship itself is nothing compared to the cost of all the lives lost. Understand therefore, that it is not the intention of this article to be morbid, gruesome or offensive, but to provide plausible and truthful answers to the one question we are all too often asked: Why did so many men die? Perhaps it would be more pertinent to ask: How did anyone survive?

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The sinking of H.M.S. Hood on Empire Day, 24th May 1941, resulted in the single largest loss of life for the Royal Navy during World War II: 1,415 were lost. There were absolutely no traces of any crewmen, living or dead, save the three survivors, Ted Briggs, William Dundas and Bob Tilburn. There are four main factors that likely contributed to such an overwhelming loss of life. These are presented in chronological order (in as much as that is possible) below:

The Battle with Prinz Eugen and Bismarck
Hood was struck early in the engagement: High explosive shells fired by Prinz Eugen struck Hood's shelter deck (aka "boat deck") somewhere near the main mast. This salvo started a fire which soon spread. As it did so, it fed on notable quantities of cordite propellant found in the "ready use" ammunition. Note: "Ready use" ammunition was extra ammunition for the various antiaircraft and duel purpose weapons located about Hood's shelter deck. This ammunition (bullets, shells and rockets) enabled crews to quickly load the weapons and be prepared for action. Ammunition would then be re-supplied from below deck. Unfortunately, the ready use lockers were numerous and very lightly protected. A number of men assigned to these exposed action stations may have been killed by the detonation of Prinz Eugen's shell(s). A number more may have been injured or killed when Hood's own antiaircraft ammunition and rockets began sporadically detonating in the fire. Still more men may have been injured or killed later in the battle when a 15" shells from Bismarck may have passed through the Spotting Top and lower bridge structure (these hits are unconfirmed).

The Fatal Explosion
One fact in Hood's sinking is certain: something ultimately caused her aft 15" magazines to rapidly burn or detonate, causing the area of the ship between "Y" turret and just aft of the second funnel to be violently devastated. The fire was so intense that it likely caused the instant deaths of the majority of the crew in the affected areas of the hull and at upper/aft action stations. After the main explosion aft, there are indications that the ship's interior may have been swept by fire followed by a second exploiosn forward. This possibility is based upon the findings from the 2001 expedition to the wreck site. This alone would account for the majority of casualties.

The Collapse/Splitting of the Ship and the Subsequent Rapid Sinking
Hood initially split/twisted and/or collapsed into at least two main sections following the explosion. Though the very end of the stern was intact, its structure from the aft turrets forward was a mass of blasted-out plating and twisted framework. This damage caused the stern to tilt upward and sink almost immediately- so quickly in fact, that anyone in that area who had survived the conflagration and catastrophic explosion (which was highly unlikely) would have had no time to escape. The forward section held out a bit longer- perhaps as much as 3 minutes. Between the damage caused by the main explosion, ensuing internal fires/secondary explosion, power failures, splitting/collapse of the ship, vertigo and the rapidity of the sinking, there was very little time to react, let alone escape the hull. It was a terrible end for those who survived the conflgration and were trapped in the dark, inverting, rapidly sinking ship.

Suction & The Improper Use of Life Saving Gear
Based on testimony from the survivors, Hood generated a substantial amount of suction as she sank. This suction was a likely factor in the deaths of a number of men from the forward part of the ship. It is believed that a number of men may have made it outside, but as they did so, the sea overtook them. They were then trapped under deck heads or pinned to the twisting and rapidly sinking ship by the suction. Some may have been trapped as the ship continued to tear apart. As for life saving gear, survivor Ted Briggs said that he wore his life vest under his heavy Burberry cold weather gear. If he did this, it is likely that others in the crew did the same. By having heavy coats and sweaters (not to mention anti-flash gear and gas masks) over life vests, the buoyancy of the swimming men would have been drastically reduced. This lack of buoyancy could have been a contributing factor as to why people could not escape the suction while submerged.

The real question is noy why did so many die, but how did anyone survive? The fact that just three men survived is purely due to chance: they were propelled to the surface by some release of air far below the surface, perhaps from an exploding boiler or from air being forced from the rapidly imploding hull. They were indeed fortunate- had they been only a few feet from their respective positions, perhaps the air bubbles would not have reached them at all. They could have been trapped in the sinking wreckage. Their luck held after reaching the surface in that each made it to 3 foot square Denton rafts that had broken free from the sinking ship- this kept them out of the freezing water (although being thoroughly wet in the first place, the wind chill must have been excruciating- nearly as bad as the cold water itself). They were also very fortunate that they were rescued before freezing to death- destroyer Electra arrived just as at least two of them were starting to pass out from the effects of hypothermia.

To learn more about the men who died, please visit our Roll of Honour