Wednesday, October 24, 2018
HMS Hood

In writing about HMS Hood and her service career, I am not going to attempt to cover it fully, as that would be a book in its own right. Rather, some selected comments drawn from articles which have come my way over several years, sometimes because of family links, or close friends of my father, also through the HMS Hood Association.

The Hood represented the power and might of the Royal Navy. She was then still the largest and most powerful battleship in the world, hence her nickname, “The Mighty Hood”. The Hood’s encounter with the Bismarck in Denmark Strait was the last great battleship duel in the history of maritime warfare.

In telling this great ship’s story I have relied more upon some personal contacts than a detailed examination of HMS Hood’s operational history. I have been privileged to be the HMS Hood Associations’ “Enquiry Desk” for three years. This role continues to throw up interesting aspects of life aboard the ship, and I have included a few snippets here.

Keel laying commenced on 1st September 1916 and she was launched, on 22nd August 1918, by Lady Hood who presented the ship with a bell that had inscribed on its waist “In accordance with the wishes of Lady Hood, it [the bell] was presented in memory of her husband to HMS Hood battle-cruiser which ship she launched on 22nd August 1918”. The bell already had a cast inscription around its skirt reading “This Bell was preserved from HMS Hood Battleship 1891-1914 by the late Rear-Admiral the Honourable Sir Horace Hood, KCB, DSO, MVO, killed at Jutland on 31st May 1916”. The bell forms the link to the final part of my involvement with the Hood story.

This is just one of the interesting facts of what stores needed to feed the Hood crew at a single breakfast:

Bacon (576lbs/261kgs), 300 lbs of tomatoes (136 kgs), 100 gallons of tea (379L), 1,000 lbs of bread (454kgs), butter (75lbs/34 kgs).

These bare facts above do little to tell the story of a remarkable ship, which served the Royal Navy for 21 years. A ship whose side armour was formidable, and torpedo protection significant. However, because it was believed the Hood’s speed would be a significant factor in her ability to avoid damage, her decks were lightly armoured and offered little protection from plunging shells.

My great uncle, Jack Crace, who had grown up on Gungahlin, a sheep property just outside Canberra (now a suburb named Gungahlin), had, at the age of 13, taken himself to England to join the Royal Navy in 1902. Towards the end of WWI Jack Crace, by now a Torpedo Lieutenant, was appointed to the Hood which was still fitting out. His responsibilities were the installation of the six torpedo tubes and general electrical works aboard the ship. Following the Hood’s acceptance trials, there was a planned cruise to Scandinavian waters. He left the Hood in late 1920 as a Lieutenant-Commander, and became Executive Officer aboard HMS Danae which was one of the 5 escorting “D” class cruisers for the World Empire Cruise by the special service squadron led by Hood in 1923-1924.

The Empire Cruise was designed to showcase Britain’s sea power globally. It involved ships making many ports of call in the countries which had fought together during the WWI. The Cruise left the UK on 27th November 1923 and returned on 24 September 1924, having steamed 38,152 miles. The entire fleet welcomed over 1 million visitors during the cruise, with the Hood welcoming 752,049 of the visitors. One can understand why the sailors called it the ‘World Booze Cruise’.

Special Service Squadron World Cruise in 1923/24, to show the flag, led by the HMS Hood, in company with HMS Repulse, HMS Delhi, HMS Danae, HMS Dragon, and HMS Dauntless.

It is reported that half a million-people lined the harbour shores to watch the entrance of the Special Squadron led by the Hood.

The photo (see print edition) of the bridge structure is interesting, in that it clearly shows the pipes beneath the bridge, which are voice pipes to various parts of the ship. The armoured conning tower just forward of the bridge compass platform was not popular with the commanding officers due to the restrictive views from the bridge. The Admiral’s bridge is below the compass platform.

Now we turn to the fateful battle. The Hood had been stationed in Scapa Flow for quite some time precisely to prevent the breakout of the German capital ships into the. On 18th May the German warships Bismarck and Prinz Eugen sailed from Gothenburg to pass through the Katteract, the channel between Sweden and Denmark to the Baltic Sea. After refuelling in Norway, Prinz Eugen then proceeded to the Denmark Strait where the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk picked up the trail overnight on 23rd May.

So, the famous battle was set for dawn on 24th May 1941, when the Hood and Prince of Wales intercepted the German warships. Unfortunately, during the previous night the Bismarck had gradually altered course westwards following the line of the pack ice. Instead of the Hood and the Prince of Wales being ahead of the German ships, blocking the exit to the Atlantic, they were at first light almost parallel.

At 0535, lookouts on Prince of Wales spotted the German ships 17 miles away. The Germans, already alerted to the British presence through their hydrophones (underwater microphones), picked up the smoke and masts of the British ships ten minutes later. At this point, Admiral Holland on the Hood had the option of joining Suffolk shadowing Bismarck, and wait for Admiral Tovey to arrive with King George V and other ships to attack, or to order his squadron into action. He chose the latter at 0537. The rough seas in the Strait kept the destroyers’ role to a minimum while the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk were too far behind the German force to reach the battle.

Hood opened fire at 0552. For the previous 17 minutes from the initial sighting Admiral Holland had to accept a course to close the distance rapidly, which limited the fire from the British ships to only the forward guns of both HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales. After steaming for a further three minutes on the closing course, and with the range down to eight miles, the order was given for a 20 degree turn to port to open the arcs and to enable all guns to be brought to bear on the German ships. About this time a plunging shell from the Bismarck is believed to have penetrated the thin deck armour and allowed fire to reach the after magazine causing a massive explosion which is believed to have ripped through the ship causing her to sink in less than three minutes. There were just three survivors from a total complement of 1,418.

The battle from first sighting to when the Hood was sunk lasted a mere 30 minutes.

The horrific loss of the Hood sent shock waves throughout Britain and around the world. British PM Winston Churchill ordered, “Bismarck must be sunk at all costs.” This was quickly avenged when the Bismarck, although damaged in that brief encounter, was sunk three days later after being pursued by the remaining battleship squadron. Out of a total complement of 2,222 on the Bismarck, only 110 survived.

For the Hood, there were just three survivors - Ted Briggs, Bob Tilburn, and William Dundas. I was privileged to know both Ted and Bob. In his later years Ted Briggs used to ring my mother on a casual semi-regular basis; this was when they were both in their eighties. My mother appreciated Ted’s efforts to reach out to her, especially as he used to cheekily say “Hello Mum it’s Ted here”. My mother, who had always loved my father throughout her life, found this very challenging with the memories it recalled. Our family is forever grateful to Ted for his generous thoughts, and willingness to share his memories of the battle and my father’s actions on the bridge on 24th May 1941.

The finding of the wreck occurred whilst David Mearns was establishing his reputation as a discoverer of ship wrecks. It was he who located Britain’s largest vessel, the oil/bulk/ore OBO carrier Derbyshire, which sank in the South China Sea without warning. After he had located the wreck, and the UK’s Channel 4 had followed this expedition, he mentioned to Rob White, a producer, that he would one day really like to find the Hood. Rob White took up this idea with Channel 4 who became interested in sponsoring an expedition to find the wreck.

In 2001 an expedition left Limerick in Ireland to first relocate the wreck of the Bismarck, and then seek the wreck of the Hood. After successfully re-surveying the Bismarck they then moved on to the area of the Hood sinking. The location of the wreck, as David Mearns has pointed out, was more difficult to determine because, under the stress of battle, and the fact that all the key players had been sailing under dead reckoning conditions for over two days, made for some significant differences in location. Eventually, he took the Hood’s reported position at 0543 hrs, the last signal received, as his base point; then using all the known speeds and courses to the explosion, calculated a position for the wreck. He checked all the other sighting reports and found that three of those corroborated this position. This position was actually more than eight miles from the original reported sinking position. After 39 hours of searching in this area, they located the wreck and, by virtue of unusually favourable weather, were able to carry out a very full survey, concluding with Ted Briggs making a special trip to the site to press the release button for a memorial plaque laid at the bows of the Hood on the 60th anniversary of her sinking.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - May 2018 Issue
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