Friday 1 June 2012

The Mighty Hood and the pursuit of Battleship Bismarck

I had planned to publish the following entry last weekend but laptop problems precluded this, hence the slightly belated recognition of the anniversary of this action.

KMS Bismarck (Bundesarchiv photo)
Last weekend marked the seventy first anniversary of the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck following an epic six day sea chase following her break-out from Norway, during which time just about every major unit in the Royal Navy was involved in the hunt for this threat to British sea power. During this chase, Bismarck also obliterated the pride of the Royal Navy, the battlecruiser HMS Hood in a short action which saw the loss of over fourteen hundred of her ship’s company leaving just three survivors to be plucked from the icy North Atlantic.

The origins of the Bismarck can be traced to the rise to power of the Nazis. During the Great War, the Imperial German Navy had challenged the Royal Navy for supremacy at sea although following their tactical defeat at Jutland had rarely ventured from their home ports except when proceeding to Scapa Flow for their ignominious surrender in 1918, an event which haunted the officers of this service, including one Erich Raeder, at that time holding the rank of Fregattenkapitan or Commander. By the time the Nazis came to power in 1933, Raeder was an Admiral and the man chosen by Hitler to head the Kriegsmarine as the reconstituted German Navy was to be known. Hitler vowed to build a new High Seas Fleet and although Raeder did not support the Nazis or agree with their ideals, the promise of heading this new fleet was too hard for him to resist. 

 Erich Raeder (Bundesarchiv photo)
At the heart of the ideal was ‘Plan Z’, a scheme for a balanced fleet of battleships, pocket battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and of course submarines designed to challenge the Royal Navy, still at that time by far the largest in the World. The Bismarck and her sister ship Tirpitz were amongst some of the first vessels in this new fleet. To build a new fleet virtually from scratch takes time but there seemed no cause for hurry, for Hitler had assured Raeder that conflict with England would not come before 1945, by which time this new fleet would be virtually complete. Like most of Hitler’s promises, this one was to go seriously awry and when war came in 1939, the fledgling Kriegsmarine, could in Raeder’s own words, do little to the British “except to demonstrate to them how to die gallantly.”

It was against this background in August 1940 that Bismarck was commissioned at her builders, the famous Blohm & Voss yard in Hamburg. Despite their numerical disadvantage, it was planned that Bismarck should form a powerful squadron with her sister and the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and to make a foray into the Atlantic creating havoc amongst the British convoy routes. This mission was planned for April 1941 but this formidable squadron was never to see action. Gneisenau was torpedoed in Brest harbour and subsequently bombed whilst under repair, Scharnhorst needed boiler repairs and Tirpitz was late in being completed by her builders. A scaled down version of this sortie was therefore planned, with the giant battleship teaming up with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to mount the raid. Hitler, anxious to avoid the loss of his precious ships was wary of the whole idea but reluctantly went along with the plan and the two ships duly sailed from their Norwegian hideout on 21st May under the command of Admiral Gunther Lutjens.

The British had been aware of the vessels hiding away in the fjords and had organised photographic reconnaissance aircraft to capture them on film. Once they had been found to sail, the hunt was on and Admiral Sir John Tovey, commander of the British Home Fleet, ordered the battlecruiser HMS Hood and the newly commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales to sail from Scapa Flow and intercept the German vessels in the Denmark Strait. Although powerfully armed, Hood was effectively obsolete, having been designed during the Great War and although scheduled for a major rebuild to bring her up to modern standards, the war had come too soon to allow this and she had had to continue in her un-modernised condition. To compound the problem, Prince of Wales was fresh from the builder’s yard and indeed, still had workers from Cammell Laird’s shipyard aboard ironing out snags in her main armament amongst other things.

HMS Hood in 1924 (State Library of Victoria)
At 05:52 on the 24th May 1941, HMS Hood opened fire, closely followed by her consort. Bismarck returned fire; her shooting was remarkably accurate and with only her fifth salvo, struck Hood a mortal blow with her 15 inch main armament. Her thin deck armour penetrated, Hood simply exploded – her magazines detonating and breaking the graceful battlecruiser in two. She sank in seconds and just three survivors were later pulled from the water by the escorting British destroyers. Of the remaining 1,415 men of her ships’s company, not a trace, not a single body was to be found. The pride of the Royal Navy had gone. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen then shifted their fire to the Prince of Wales, which in turn was also heavily hit but not before the British battleship had hit the German vessel hard, piercing one of her fuel tanks, causing her to leave a tell-tale stream of fuel oil in her wake and more importantly limiting her range and scope for further operations.

The secrecy of the mission blown and the German battleship seriously damaged, Lutjens decided to abandon the sortie and make for the French Atlantic port of Brest. Prinz Eugen was detached and slipped away undetected by the shadowing British cruisers, whilst Bismarck forged her way to safety. The British used their huge numerical superiority to bring in ships from all over the Atlantic and even from the Mediterranean. The aircraft carriers Victorious and Ark Royal launched strikes with their venerable Swordfish torpedo bombers and it was a strike from the latter carrier, which was to strike Bismarck what proved to be a mortal blow.

A fortunate torpedo strike hit Bismarck right astern and disabled her steering gear, causing her to steam an erratic and ultimately circular course. She could only await her doom, as almost within touching distance of Brest and air cover but in appalling weather, she was tracked down by the Royal Navy. Tovey’s flagship HMS King George V  had rendezvoused with another battleship, HMS Rodney and prior to this, Bismarck had been harried by British destroyers, attempting to further slow her with torpedoes. Shortly after daybreak on the 27th May, the British battleships opened fire and between them began to pulverise the once proud super-battleship and by 10:00 had reduced her to a blazing wreck, with hundreds of men dead and dying. Tovey called on any of his ships with torpedoes remaining to use them on Bismarck to finish her and shortly after 10:40, having been hit repeatedly by torpedoes fired by the cruiser Dorsetshire, the former pride of the Kriegsmarine slid beneath the waves, leaving hundreds of men in the water.

To paraphrase Lord Nelson, humanity after victory has always been the predominant feature of the British Fleet and following the demise of the Bismarck, the victors set about rescuing the vanquished survivors but in a final tragedy, one of the lookouts aboard Dorsetshire, spotted what he thought was the periscope of a U-Boat. Fearing the worst, the British abandoned the rescue attempt and scattered, having rescued just one hundred and ten men, one of whom later died. There was no U-Boat, although one was soon to arrive and managed to pick up a further three men with a German trawler rescuing another two. Out of a total of two thousand two hundred men aboard Bismarck, there were just one hundred and fourteen survivors.

This article is dedicated to those men of Hood and Bismarck, the pride of their respective fleets, who did not return to their home ports.

Published Sources:

The Battle of The Atlantic - John Costello & Terry Hughes, Collins 1977
Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Bismarck - Ludovic Kennedy, Cassell 2001
The War at Sea - Julian Thompson, Sidgwick & Jackson 1996 


  1. The RN actually considered the Hood to be obsolete in 1918. The Director of Naval Construction thought the Hood should be completed because so much work had already been done, but that the other three should be scrapped and replaced by a new design. The new design became the G£, which was cut down by Washington to become Nelson. Nothing much was done to upgrade the Hood. She was completely obsolete by WWII and hyped by the press.

  2. I would dispute that she was obsolete in 1918 - her protection, or lack of was certainly apparent but two decades of inter-war 'showing the flag' cruises and a lack of political will obviated any chance of her being modernized. By the time a sense of urgency returned, she was scheduled for a refit and had the war not occurred in 1939, Hood was due to be taken in hand for a reconstruction along the lines of Renown, with new engines/boilers, a new secondary armament of either 5.25" or 4.5" DP guns and enhanced protection but obviously this never had the chance to happen. She was a beautiful ship but sadly obsolete by 1941. Thanks for your comments - Kind Regards, Steve