Tuesday, June 19, 2007

HMS Hood

The HMS Hood was perhaps the most famous battlecruiser in the Royal Navy. Construction on the ship, named after the 18th Century Admiral Samuel Hood, began in September of 1916. After the loss of three British battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland in June of 1916, 5,000 tons of extra armor was added to the Hood. The additional armor was supposed to protect her from 15-inch shells fired by German battleships. But the additional armor did not cover the entire ship and the first three decks only possessed thin layers of armor. This defect would have tragic consequences later on in her life. The Hood was also the largest capital ship in the British fleet at the time of her commissioning and she was longer than any other British capital ship.

The Hood was launched on 22 August 1918 and was christened by the widow of Admiral Sir Horace Hood, who died in the battlecruiser Invincible at Jutland and who was also a distant relative of Lord Hood, for whom the ship was named. The ship was commissioned on 15 May 1920 under the command of Captain Wilfred Tomkinson and she became the flagship of the British Atlantic Fleet’s Battle Cruiser Squadron. In the years between World Wars I and II, the Hood was the largest warship in the world and was seen by the British public as a symbol of the Royal Navy’s immense size and power. She went on a world-wide cruise with the HMS Repulse and several other ships between November 1923 and September 1924. It was estimated that approximately 750,000 people visited the Hood during that cruise.

The Hood was given a major overhaul from May of 1929 to June of 1930 and was transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet in July of 1936. In June 1939 the Hood was assigned to the Home Fleet’s Battle Cruiser Squadron at Scapa Flow. When war broke out in September of 1939, the Hood was sent to patrol the area around Iceland and the Faroes to protect and guard against German raiders attempting to sneak into the Atlantic. She then steamed back to the Mediterranean as flagship of “Force H” and took part in the destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in July 1940. The Hood fired 56 rounds of 15-inch shells during the battle, which lasted only 30 minutes. In August she was sent back to the Atlantic Fleet’s Battle Cruiser Squadron and continued to search for German sea raiders. From 13 January to 18 March 1941, the Hood was sent to Rosyth for some badly needed maintenance, but the urgent demand for British capital ships prevented her from undergoing a more lengthy overhaul.

In May of 1941, the dreaded German battleship Bismarck, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, attempted to break out into the Atlantic to attack Allied merchant convoys bound for Britain. The Hood, under the flag of Admiral Lancelot Holland, together with its escort, the newly commissioned Prince of Wales, was sent out to intercept the German warships. Although numerous British warships were searching for the German raiders, the Hood and the Prince of Wales were the first Royal Navy capital ships to actually try and stop them. The Hood and the Prince of Wales finally caught up with the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen in the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland on 24 May 1941.

What followed was one of the quickest and most savage battles in naval history. Because the British warships were heading toward the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, they could only fire their forward guns at the Germans. The Germans, though, could fire full broadsides at the British. The Hood possessed eight 15-inch guns, while the Prince of Wales had ten 14-inch guns. The Bismarck had eight 15-inch guns but the Prinz Eugen had only eight 8-inch guns. The British fired first but scored no hits. The British ships then began to turn so that their rear guns could begin firing at the enemy ships. At this point the German warships opened fire on the British. The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen started hitting the British warships almost immediately. Although the Hood’s side armor was 12 inches thick, the battlecruiser’s deck armor was only three inches thick, making her vulnerable to plunging armor-piercing shells being fired by the Bismarck. One of the Bismarck’s hits started a major fire amidships on board the Hood. Then, at approximately 0601, right after the Bismarck’s fourth salvo, the Hood’s after ammunition magazines blew up in a gigantic pillar of flame and smoke. The ship broke in two and the Hood’s bow rose out of the water, with the after section sinking rapidly. The shattered bow section pointed straight into the air, remained there for a few brief moments, and then slid down beneath the waves. The entire battle lasted only ten minutes. Of the 1,418 men on board the Hood, only three survived. The destroyer HMS Electra rescued the three men almost two hours later.

At the same time, three 15-inch and four 8-inch shells hit the Prince of Wales, seriously damaging the ship. The Prince of Wales, though, was able to hit the Bismarck three times before having to break off contact and leave the area. The damage to the Bismarck was serious enough to reduce her speed and make her leak oil, thereby reducing her range. The brief “Battle of the Denmark Strait” caused the Germans to end the Bismarck’s attempt to enter the Atlantic. The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen split up later that day, with the undamaged Prinz Eugen heading for Brest, France, and the damaged Bismarck also steaming toward German-occupied France for repairs. After hearing about the loss of the Hood, Winston Churchill and the Royal Navy sent every available warship out to “Sink the Bismarck.” Although the Prinz Eugen got away and made it to Brest, the Bismarck was eventually cornered and sunk by a British task force on 27 May 1941. The Royal Navy had avenged the sinking of the Hood.

The HMS Hood was the symbol of the Royal Navy for many years. It was big, intimidating, heavily armed, and its men were unafraid to meet any enemy, even if that enemy happened to be a more modern battleship. But, sometimes, courage is no match against a more powerful adversary. The Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy and indeed looked like a formidable warship, but that was before she met the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait.


Figure 1 (top): HMS Hood, Watercolor by Edward Tufnell, RN (Retired). Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC. Donation of Melvin Conant, 1969. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 2 (middle, top): HMS Hood, photographed in 1931-32, while fitted with an aircraft catapult aft. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 3 (middle, bottom): HMS Hood, photographed in 1931-32, while fitted with an aircraft catapult aft. The seaplane on the catapult is a Fairey IIIF. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.

Figure 4 (bottom): Explosion of the British battlecruiser Hood. Smoke from HMS Prince of Wales's gunfire is faintly visible just to the left. This photograph was taken from the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. Copied from the report of officers of Prinz Eugen, with identification by her Gunnery Officer, Paul S. Schmalenbach, 1970. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.