Battle in the Denmark Strait Written by Niklas Zetterling & Michael Tamelander & Published by Casemate Publishers
Battle in the Denmark Strait Lütjens had absolutely no knowledge about Holland’s presence until the British squadron was so close that battle was imminent. The first indication of a new enemy was received at 05.25 – merely five minutes before the British lookouts sighted the German ships – when the hydrophones on the Prinz Eugen picked up propeller noise on the port side. Twelve minutes later a mast head was sighted, believed to be part of a British cruiser, and a few minutes later another masthead was seen, close to the first. The two ships seemed to travel at about the same speed as the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen and while Lütjens’ ships held a 220 degrees course, the enemy ships were estimated to travel at 240 degrees. Were these newcomers cruisers or perhaps heavier ships?
On board the Hood the lookouts strained their eyes to make out details of the German ships. More and more of their masts and superstructures became visible as the range gradually decreased. However, unlike Lütjens, the British commanders did not have any doubts about the identity of the ships they approached. Holland had originally intended to advance towards the German ships on their port bow.
However, due to the sequence of events that had taken place during the preceding night, he closed on the port aft of the German ships. Thus many of the advantages connected with the element of surprise eluded him. Furthermore, instead of initially being able to fire with all his 18 heavy guns against only the four heavy guns on Bismarck’s bow, he could now only use the ten bow guns of the Hood and Prince of Wales, while the Bismarck would be able to fire with all her eight guns. He had to adjust to the altered situation and his first intention was to close the range as quickly as possible – thus reducing the German advantages of better deck armour and accuracy at longer range.
As soon as the German squadron was sighted, Holland had ordered a change of course, from 240 degrees to 280 degrees and his ships now steamed directly towards the enemy ships. The British ships presented as small a silhouette as possible, in order to be as difficult targets as possible. When the range had been properly reduced, Holland would turn his ships to allow all heavy guns to fire. Then the British ships would constitute larger targets, but on the other hand, the disadvantage of the Hood’s weak deck armour would be greatly reduced at the shorter range. Lütjens initially tried to avoid battle and changed course from 220 to 265 degrees.
At this stage, mistakes were made on both sides. As Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had changed positions, after the breakdown of the flagship’s radar, Holland believed that the first ship in the German squadron was the most dangerous enemy. On board the Prince of Wales, a correct identification of the German ships had been made, but Holland continued into the battle aiming at the Prinz Eugen.
On the German side, mistakes were made in the identification of the suddenly emerging warships. As they approached at a steep angle, they did not present much of a silhouette and were thus difficult to identify. In the fire control centre of the Prinz Eugen, Commander Jasper was of the opinion that the two enemy ships were cruisers. Lieutenant Commander Schmalenbach, the second artillery officer, was more pessimistic. He studied the huge surge from the bow of the ships and said that one of them was a modern battleship and the other a battlecruiser.
“Nonsense!” Jasper seemed certain. “It’s either a cruiser or a destroyer.”
“I’ll bet you a bottle of champagne,” Schmalenbach offered, “that it’s the Hood.”
“Taken!” replied Jasper, thinking he was sure to win this bet. “Load with high explosive shell and impact fuses!”
Also, on board the Bismarck, the officers were unsure about the identity of the ships. Schneider believed they were cruisers and issued orders accordingly. Commander Albrecht, who was in the fore fire direction turret, protested over the phone and said they were battleships or battlecruisers.
The moment when the heavy guns would open fire approached quickly. Members of Holland’s staff watched the German ships in their binoculars. They felt neither enthusiasm nor despair, because they were not certain whether the advantage lay with the British squadron or the German. On paper, the British were superior in firepower, as the Prinz Eugen was a much lighter vessel.
However, due to various circumstances, the British advantage was reduced. As Holland’s ships were on a bearing towards the wind, spray from their bows spattered the lenses of the range finders at the fore turrets, just the situation Holland had probably intended to place Lütjens in. All fire had to be directed from the inferior range finder at the main director. It was an aggravating circumstance, especially worrisome as the enemy could be expected to fire very accurately. The known problems with the Prince of Wales’s guns were also an uncertainty. The civilian technicians from Vickers-Armstrong were near-by to attend any troubles that might occur during battle.
Another aspect to consider was the course followed by the British ships, which, together with the formation adopted by Holland, caused them to be placed close in the German sights; a situation that resulted from Holland’s need to quickly reduce range. Thus it would be easier for the Germans to shift target, without wasting much time on finding the range and direction. The battle promised to be uncomfortably even, much more so than Holland had initially believed.
Ted Briggs, who had remained on the bridge, did not speculate in these details. While the voice from a seaman searched its way through the voice pipe – and mechanically reported the shrinking range to the German ships – Briggs was firmly focussed on his own tasks. He had been at Oran the year before. That time it had been more of a slaughter than anything else. Now it was different. The Hood faced the kind of task she had been designed for – to fight a battle at sea. Briggs was fully confident in the battlecruiser – more so than the knowledgeable officers around him on the bridge. “My emotions were a mixture of expectation, wild excitement and fear,” he recalled. “I don’t believe there was anybody on board who did not consider our mighty Hood to be too much for the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen to handle.
Unfortunately his trust in the battlecruiser would prove tragically unfounded.
It was 05.53 hours and the Hood made 28 knots. The seaman down at the admiral’s bridge reported that the range at which Holland had intended to initiate the battle had been reached. The admiral looked in his binoculars at the German ships one more time and then said: “Execute!”
“Open fire,” commanded Captain Kerr.
A second later the voice of the first artillery officer was heard: “Fire!”
The fore guns of the Hood woke with a tremendous thunder, the wind swept a huge cloud of black cordite smoke over the bridge and four shells, each weighing more than 800 kilograms, began the 23,000 metre-long journey towards the intended target.
All German doubts disappeared as the Hoods guns fired, almost immediately followed by the main guns of the Prince of Wales. The huge muzzle flashes and the long firing range were signs clear enough. “Blast!” Jasper exclaimed on board the Prinz Eugen, having now realized his mistake. “Those guns are not mounted on any cruiser. They are battleships.”
Schmalenbach, cursed silently. He had just won a bottle of champagne. Whether he would ever be able to drink it or not was a completely different question.
“Request permission to open fire,” crackled Schneider’s voice in the loudspeaker on the bridge of the Bismarck, but Lütjens hesitated and the Bismarck’s guns remained silent. The seconds ticked into eternity. It was still silent, except from the rushing when the bow split the waves and the wind that whistled and whined in the masts and bracing-wires. “As the shells passed over our heads,” remembered the engine-man Josef Statz, who was stationed in the damage-control centre and heard the howling shells through an air intake, “they literally whipped the noise through my body. A noise that can not be described”.
Pillars of water thrown up by the shells landing around the Prinz Eugen made it clear that the Hood’s fire was not far off the mark. Soon the shells from the Prince of Wales, falling near the Bismarck, followed. As the fountains of water fell down, the crack from the explosions reached the ears of the German seamen. “The enemy has opened fire.” Schneider’s voice was again heard from the loudspeaker, this time much more impatiently. “Their fire is accurate. Request permission to open fire.”
At this moment, the thunder from the firing British ships had caught up with the shells and passed over the German ships. On the horizon, new muzzle flashes from the British guns could be seen. Lütjens still hesitated. His orders were to avoid all contact with major enemy ships. Now he suddenly found himself in a battle with two British battleships or battlecruisers. Should he fight or flee?
“It is the Hood!” Albrecht shouted through the loudspeaker. “It is the Hood!”
Holland had now turned 20 degrees to port, to allow the aft turrets to fire too, and the Germans could more easily discern the silhouettes of the British ships. Funnels and superstructures could be distinguished and the uncertainty was dispelled. The Germans no longer hesitated; it was the Hood. Soon the other battleship had been studied well enough to determine her identity. The Germans believed her to be the King George V, the virtually identical sister ship of Prince of Wales.
As the British shells fell around his ships, Lütjens struggled with his decision. His ships were faster than the Prince of Wales, but it would be more difficult to outpace the Hood. If he fled, only four heavy guns of the Bismarck would be able to fire, while the enemy would be able to use ten, at least until the Prince of Wales was out of range. It was not particularly tempting. But was the alternative better? Did Lütjens dare to fight against the two most powerful ships of the Royal Navy?
“I will not let my ship be shot away beneath my butt,” muttered Lindemann, who wanted to engage the enemy immediately.
The fore guns of the Hood flashed out their sixth salvo and suddenly Lütjens made his decision. “Open fire,” he said to Lindemann and subsequently ordered a change of course, from 265 degrees to 200.
On board the Hood, Corporal Tilburn watched as orange flashes left the Bismarck’s fore guns. His own gun was on the port side, but he anyway discerned the dark silhouette of the German battleship, as a huge black cloud of smoke was swept away from it by the wind. The battle between the largest British and German warships was now two-sided. Müllenheim-Rechberg, who had been ordered to watch the British cruisers while Schneider directed all the guns from the main fire control centre, monitored how the orders were issued over the headset. The first salvo was short. The second was fired as a 400-metre bracket and was classified as “over” and “on target”
“Straddling!” Schneider yelled. “Full salvos good rapid!”
There was no longer any need to wait for the fall of shot to adjust the fire. The turrets could fire as soon as the breechblocks had been closed behind the propelling charges. The flagship as well as the cruiser fired at the Hood and soon the battlecruiser was engulfed by white fountains from the shells striking the water unpleasantly close to her.
“I remember watching with a mixture of dread and fascination how the guns of the Bismarck spitted out four glowing stars,” Ted Briggs wrote, “and realized they were shells aimed at us.”
He heard how someone from the spotting-top shouted: “We’re shooting at the wrong ship. The Bismarck is to the right not to the left!”
Holland did not allow himself to be excited by this news. “Shift the fire to the target on the right,” he said with a calm voice. But due to the long order chain between commander and gun crews, and the fact that the ship soon was hit, the order was not executed in time. On board the Prince of Wales, the misunderstanding had already been corrected and she was firing at the Bismarck. The sixth salvo was covering and it was judged that the enemy battleship received at least one hit. However, the first significant damage was incurred by the Hood.
“The ship shuddered,” Briggs recalled, “and Commander Gregson, the torpedo officer, ran out on the starboard wing to investigate. He returned and reported a fire at the base of the mainmast.”
On the shelter deck corporal Tilburn and a few other gunners were ordered to extinguish the fire, when part of the ammunition began to explode and the gunners had to take shelter by throwing themselves to the deck. Almost immediately afterwards, the Hood was hit again, this time by a shell from the Prinz Eugen which struck the fore-top without exploding. The shockwaves from the hit threw many seamen off the mast, whereupon they fell down on the deck. Some of them were dead before they hit the surface of the deck. Tilburn, who was already lying down, felt a heavy blow on his leg and when he turned to see what had happened, he found to his horror that parts of a human body had struck him.
Another body fell on the open deck outside the compass platform. Kerr told midshipman Bill Dundas to check who it was. Dundas glanced through the window, got pale and shook his head. “I don’t know, sir,” he said. “It is a lieutenant, but I can’t see who it is. He has no hands and … he has no face.”
As the ships exchanged fire on the surface of the ocean, a British Sunderland flying boat approached. It had started from Iceland and passed right over the Suffolk, when the commander of the aircraft, captain R. J. Vaughn, discovered the muzzle flashes from the battle below. “As we closed in,” he later reported, “we saw two columns of two ships each, going on parallel course separated by approximately 20 kilometres.”
Vaughn saw that the leading ship in the left column was on fire, but it still fought back with its fore as well as aft guns. He still did not know that the burning ship was the Hood; in fact, he did not know which column that was German and which was British. He slowly turned his big sea plane to take a closer look at the right column.
The time was now 06.00. On board the Hood, Holland ordered: “Turn twenty degrees to port together.” The distance was down to about 16,000 metres. The Hood had to assume a course more parallel to the German ships, in order to prevent the rear turrets from being obstructed from firing by superstructures. On board the Prince of Wales, the Yeoman of Signals observed how the flagship hoisted two blue flags in the yardarm, indicating that Holland had ordered a 20 degree turn to port. Leach and his staff welcomed it. One of the guns in the forward turret malfunctioned, but with the turn, the aft turret would be able to fire, thus adding four guns to Leach’s broadsides.
Possibly, the fact that Holland ordered the turn at this very moment had a disastrous impact on the short battle. When the Hood began to sheer, the shells from the Bismarck’s fifth salvo were probably already in the air. Maybe one of them would have hit the battlecruiser anyway, but it was not likely to have resulted in the catastrophe now taking place.
One of them penetrated the Hood’s side armour.
“I did not hear any explosion,” Briggs recalled, but he was thrown to the deck by the impact. A fantastic flame of fire, right before his eyes, shot up on both sides of the bridge, as he was engulfed by an enormous welding flame.
Exactly where the fatal shell hit the Hood may perhaps never be known, but the ensuing detonation seems to have set alight the cordite in the magazine for the aft 10.2 cm guns. As the cordite began to burn, it almost immediately created such high pressure that nearby bulkheads collapsed and opened the way to the adjoining compartments. The flame wandered ahead to the engine rooms, where it turned up through the ventilation system and caused a huge flame to shoot up in the air. The same flame also wandered astern and reached the magazine under the X-turret. It contained almost 50 tons of cordite. When it detonated, a fifteen-metre hole was blown in the side armour and coxswain French, who stood near one of the AA guns on board the Prince of Wales, saw how Hood’s X-turret was blown off. In a fraction of a second, the wandering flame had also reached the Y-turret and a section 70 metres long – from the two aft turrets to the forward machine room – had been destroyed to such an extent that the ship was broken apart.
Despite the fact that many thousand men fought in the battle, only a few of them actually saw the explosion and all of them experienced it differently. It was described as being “like an enormous blowtorch” by Captain Leach. Other observers regarded it as a “red white glow, shaped like a funnel”, “like a bunch of red rhubarb” or “as a long pale red tongue of fire”. From the Norfolk, about 24,000 metres northwest of the dying Hood, it was described as “a sea of fire shaped like a fan or an inverted cone”.
On board the Suffolk, almost 30,000 metres from the explosion, it had not been possible to see much except the muzzle flashes from the duelling ships.
Suddenly Commander Porter observed “a very thin column of fire, reaching between 200 and 300 metres up in the air”. All observers were however unanimous in one respect – they did not hear any remarkable sound. Most of them considered the explosion to be completely silent; a few believed they heard a low hissing sound.
In the air, Captain Vaughn had approached the right column. He noted that the rearmost ship produced an unusual amount of smoke and oil traced behind it. He moved closer to it as the first ship in the left column suddenly disappeared behind an eruption of smoke and fire.
Despite the explosion that ate its way along the hull of the ship and immediately killed everything living that happened to be in its way, a few seconds elapsed before the officers on the admiral’s bridge realized that everything was over. “The compass is out of order,” the officer of the watch said calmly.
“Steering’s gone, sir,” reported the helmsman through the voice pipe.
“Change over to emergency steering,” the captain ordered.
At this very moment, the ship began to list to port – at first by 10 degrees, then twenty, thirty – and everybody on the bridge realized she would never again regain trim. The Hood was capsizing.
“There was never any panic,” Briggs recalled. “And nobody ordered us to abandon the ship. It simply was not needed.”
He made his way towards the door leading to the open bridge on the starboard side and saw that Commander John Warrand, the navigation officer, blocked his way. Warrand took a step aside, smiled kindly towards Briggs and let him pass by. It was a smile that etched itself on Briggs memory.
On the shelter deck, corporal Tilburn felt how the ship shuddered powerfully and perceived a tremendous flame between the bridge and the B-turret. He saw one of his comrades fall down on his back, dead. As Tilburn let his eyes sweep over the deck, he saw another seaman, whose stomach had been ripped open by a splinter and incredulously watched his intestines fall out onto the deck. The sight was so disgusting that Tilburn staggered towards the gunwale to vomit. Once there, he realized that the sea was not where previous experience would suggest.
The dark waves were rapidly coming nearer.
He managed to throw off his steel helmet before the waves washed the deck. Then he was below the surface of the water. He tried to swim upwards, but discovered that a cord from an antenna had caught one of his feet and dragged him down. With a presence of mind that would later surprise him, he grasped his knife and cut off the cord. However, while accomplishing this feat, he had been dragged down quite deep into the water.
For a moment, Briggs hesitated in the door to the bridge. He took a glance into the bridge and saw Holland sitting huddled up on his seat, resigned about the fate engulfing them all. The defeated admiral was the last person seen by Briggs, before ice cold water surrounded him and pulled him down into the bubbling depths of the ocean. At the same time Bill Dundas had struggled to overcome the list and reached a window on the port side. He managed to break the glass and was half way out when the water rushed in and covered him.
On board the Prince of Wales orders were quickly issued to avoid colliding with the sinking flagship. A turn to port had previously been initiated, but the helm had to be shifted sharply to starboard.
To the Germans watching the Hood’s destruction, the sight was as fantastic as it was terrifying. In the charthouse, Lieutenant Commander Neuendorff had heard Schneider shouting “Straddling!” and dashed to the eye-slits on the port side. Somebody yelled that the Hood was ablaze and moments later there was a blinding explosion. Neuendorf’s assistant stood next to him:
At first we could see nothing but what we saw moments later could not have been conjured up by even the wildest imagination. Suddenly, the Hood split in two, and thousands of tons of steel were hurled into the air. More than a thousand men died. Although the range was still about 18,000 metres, the fireball that developed where the Hood still was seemed near enough to touch. It was so close that I shut my eyes but curiosity made me open them again a second or two later. It was like being in a hurricane. Every nerve in my body felt the pressure of the explosion. If I have one wish, it is that my children may be spared such an experience.
The cry “The Hood is ablaze!” was followed by “She is blowing up!” and the men on board the Bismarck looked at each other with doubt in their faces. Moments later they realized that they had won the brief duel with the enemy warship, thus dramatically increasing their chances of surviving the battle. They began to shout and cheer and slap each other’s backs. In the damage-control centre the shouting was heard through the intercom and Commander Oels was beset by an exuberant joy artificer Statz had never seen before. Just like the astonished Statz, Lieutenant Jahreis and the others gazed at Oels, “the loneliest man on board”, as he ecstatically urged them to “three ‘Sieg Heil’ for the Bismarck”.
Far below, in one of the Bismarck’s boiler rooms, Leading Seaman Johannes Zimmermann found it difficult to accept what was going on. When the loudspeakers at first announced that the Bismarck was about to enter battle with the Hood, he briefly believed that the message concerned an exercise or a war game. Hardly had he brought himself to accept that the battle was raging, when the loud cries about the destruction of the Hood penetrated into the lower parts of the German battleship. “It was like a shock”, he said. “At first we were all smiling, but gradually we realized what it meant. I got a strange feeling in the stomach – tomorrow it could be us.”
In his director, Müllenheim-Rechberg heard in his headset how the voices multiplied, until it was impossible to make out the words. Something remarkable had happened. He left the task of watching the Norfolk and Suffolk to a subordinate and moved to the port sight.
While I was still turning [the director] towards the Hood, I heard a shout, “She’s blowing up!” “She” – that could only be the Hood! The sight I then saw is something I shall never forget. At first the Hood was nowhere to be seen; in her place was a colossal pillar of black smoke reaching into the sky. Gradually, at the foot of the pillar, I made out the bow of the battle cruiser projecting upwards at an angle, a sure sign that she had broken in two. Then I saw something I could hardly believe: a flash of orange coming from her forward gun! Although her fighting days had ended, the Hood was firing a last salvo. I felt great respect for those men over there.
This final salvo from the Hood was probably not a conscious act. It seems more likely that some kind of shortcut in the electrical firing system may have fired the guns one last time. Another plausible explanation is that Müllenheim-Rechberg did not see gun flashes at all, but a flash caused by an explosion in the fore magazines of the Hood. The wandering explosion had made its way horizontally towards the bow – confined by the armour deck it moved forward compartment for compartment as the bulkheads gave way after being delayed a fraction of a second each time – causing a slight delay between the explosions in the aft and fore magazines.
It was sufficient for the German lieutenant to move to the port sight to observe the event. From the Prince of Wales, Coxswain French had seen flames shooting up from the water along most of the Hood’s hull and he believed he saw how the ship was broken just ahead of the A-turret. Coxswain Westlake on the Prince of Wales also got the impression that the battlecruiser’s hull was broken in the fore part. When the Hood rolled over and sank, Lieutenant Commander A. H. Terry, who was situated very high up on the Prince of Wales, briefly saw the damage wrought to the battlecruiser’s hull and keel. He could see into the interior of the ship and the exposed frames where plating had disappeared.
With the tormented noise of broken metal, bubbles of air rushing to the surface of the sea and the beating of his heart echoing in his ears, Briggs struggled desperately for his life in the dark water. He tried to swim, but the suction created by the sinking Hood dragged him down.
Panic had gone. This was it, I realized. But I wasn’t going to give in easily. I knew that the deckhead of the compass platform was above me and that I must try to swim away from it. I managed to avoid being knocked out by the steel stanchions, but I was not making any progress. The suction was dragging me down. The pressure on my ears was increasing each second, and panic returned in its worse intensity. I was going to die. I struggled madly to try to heave myself up to the surface. I got nowhere. Although it seemed an eternity, I was under water for barely a minute. My lungs were bursting. I knew that I just had to breathe. I opened my lips and gulped in a mouthful of water.
My tongue was forced to the back of my throat. I was not going to reach the surface. I was going to die. I was going to die. As I weakened, my resolve left me. What was the use of struggling? Panic subsided. I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle. I was being rocked off to sleep. There was nothing I could do about it -goodnight, mum. Now I lay me down …I was ready to meet God. My blissful acceptance of death ended in a sudden surge beneath me, which shot me to the surface like a decanted cork in a champagne bottle. I wasn’t going to die. I wasn’t going to die. I trod water as I panted in great gulps of air. I was alive. I was alive.
Also Corporal Tilburn and Midshipman Dundas shot to the surface, saved by a mysterious force that was later presumed to have originated from an exploding boiler. As they struggled on the surface, they saw the forecastle of the battlecruiser disappear as if it had been a toy in a pond. The other two parts of the ship – the mid and aft sections – had already begun their decent to the bottom of the ocean. The rumbling and hissing sounds from the sinking ship died out; the blazes disappeared as if by a stroke of magic. Soon only a dark cloud, already beginning to dissolve, and a large patch of dark oil, mixed up with wreckage, remained where the Hood had once been.
But the battle had not ended. When the sixth salvo from the Prince of Wales straddled the German battleship, Captain Leach noted that the Bismarck was hit. Still there might exist a chance to turn the battle in British favour. Then the Bismarck’s first salvo aimed at the Prince of Wales found its mark. One of the shells crashed into the bridge, but fortunately for Leach, it was a dud which continued straight through the bridge and out on the other side of the battleship, before tumbling into the water.
Still, even a non-exploding 38 cm shell wrought havoc.
A moment earlier, Leach had had a properly working staff around him. A fraction of a second later he was in a slaughterhouse of smoke, screams, blood and cut off body parts. As the dazed Captain struggled to get back on his feet, he saw that only the Yeoman of signals was standing. Everybody else was on the floor, all but one of them were dead.
It was just the beginning. Shell after shell hit the British battleship. Radar systems and sights were knocked out, boats and cabins were destroyed. A Walrus-plane, just about to be launched to direct fire, was riddled by splinters and the aircrew hastily had to abandon it. The Prince of Wales returned fire, but several of her guns malfunctioned. Despite the efforts of the civilian technicians, problems with the guns occurred more rapidly than they were repaired. Finally Leach gave orders for retreat. If the uneven duel had continued, the outcome was clearly not going to be favourable.
It was better to save the ship.
The range between the combatants rapidly opened up, until only wreckage, oil and three men remained in the area.
Two of these men were Tilburn and Dundas. The third was Ted Briggs.
His boyish dream to serve with the Hood had become a nightmare that would haunt him for the rest of his life.