Bad weather forced the cancellation of an operation this summer to recover one of the ship’s bells from the wreck of the Royal Navy battlecruiser Hood, lying in more than 8,500ft of water in the North Atlantic.
The Hood was sunk in one of the most famous naval incidents of the Second World War. On May 21, 1941, the new German battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen sailed from Norwegian waters on a voyage to attack British merchant ship convoys in the North Atlantic. At this time, there were 11 convoys, including a troopship convoy, at sea or about to sail.
Around 1300 on May 21, a Spitfire aircraft, of the RAF’s 1st Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, discovered the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in a fjord just south of Bergen. Later that day, the Royal Navy Battle Cruiser Squadron, under Vice Admiral L E Holland, put to sea from Scapa Flow. It comprised the Hood, the flagship, the new battleship Prince of Wales, fresh from the Birkenhead yard of Cammell Laird & Co and still with shipyard workers on board, and the six destroyers Achates, Antelope, Anthony, Echo, Electra and Icarus.
On May 23, in terrible weather with fog, rain and snow, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were spotted in the Denmark Strait by the cruiser Suffolk. The cruiser Norfolk closed the enemy warships and came under fire from the Bismarck. The Hood, Prince of Wales and their escorts set course to intercept the German ships at daylight the following day west of Iceland.
Shortly after 0530 on May 24, the Hood and Prince of Wales sighted the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen and at 0552, the Hood opened fire at a range of about 25,000 yards. The Prince of Wales targeted the Bismarck, the rear of the two enemy ships, while the Hood fired at the Prinz Eugen. The two German ships concentrated their broadsides on the Hood. Less than 10 minutes into the engagement, the Hood was hit by the Bismarck’s fifth salvo and blew up, sinking in less than four minutes. There were only three survivors from her crew of 1,419.
The operation to recover one of the two bells on the Hood was mounted from the large yacht Octopus, owned by US philanthropist Paul Allen. The team was forced to discontinue the operation after more than 10 days working in worsening weather and difficult deep currents. On Sept 3, the crew of the Octopus laid wreaths at the scene in memory of those who died.
Mr Allen said: “I stand ready to help the Royal Navy try again in the future. Recovering this bell is a way to commemorate the hundreds of brave sailors who were lost at sea.” Mr Allen has offered to recover the bell without any cost to the Royal Navy and Ministry of Defence.
The Octopus, which is equipped with a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), was supported by Blue Water Recoveries Ltd which specialises in the search for and investigations of shipwrecks. The recovery is supported by the HMS Hood Association, whose members include veterans who served in the ship before her final voyage and relatives of those lost with her.
Association president Rear Admiral Philip Wilcocks, whose uncle was among those who died on board the Hood, said: “While hugely challenging conditions have precluded a successful recovery of the bell on this occasion, the association hopes that another attempt will be made at some stage in the next year or so.”
A Royal Navy spokesman said: “We will be co-ordinating with all parties to see if and when we can make another attempt some time in the future.”
The aim is to display the bell in a new exhibition dedicated to the 20th and 21st Century Royal Navy which is due to open at the National Museum of the Royal Navy at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in 2014. The wreck is designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 and the recovery of the bell has been licensed by the British Government.