HMS Hood : Tragedy on the High Seas

HMS Hood : Tragedy On The High Seas

860ft long and weighing over 43,000 tons, HMS Hood was a global star.

For almost 2 decades, she was the largest and most powerful warship afloat.

HMS Hood bore the motto “with favorable winds” and  was named after Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, a victorious commander in the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolutionary War, and the French Revolutionary War. 

Yet, the namesake’s victory did not carry on, and HMS Hood was sunk by the infamous Bismarck in World War 2. Her loss devastated the British public. 

Being built at Clydebank, 1919

Despite its size, HMS Hood was very fast as well. With a top speed of 32 knots, she was originally classified as a Battlecruiser, not Battleship. 

HMS Hood’s first duty after her commissioning into the Fleet was to lead the Battle Cruiser Squadron on a “Spring Cruise” to Scandinavia, which included several visits to friendly ports as well as a foray into the Baltic to dissuade the Bolsheviks from any mischief during the Russian Civil War. 

The Cruise lasted from May 29th to July 1st 1920.

In 1924 Hood would visit Australia and New Zealand as part of her Empire Cruise of the Special Service Squadron. 

Hood in New Zealand 

Hood off Adelaide 

Hood in Hawaii 

Hood was 1 of 4 planned Admiral Class battlecruisers by the Royal Navy. Hood was redesigned after the battle of Jutland in World War 1.

The Royal Navy wanted faster ships, and Hood became the world’s first truly fast battleship. Hood would become a Naval blueprint for many ships that came after her.

HMS Hood in Drydock in Portsmouth in 1935.

Hood damaged the hull and propeller from a collision with the HMS Renown during maneuvers off the coast of Spain.

HMS Hood going into action against the German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, 24 May 1941. This image taken from HMS Prince of Wales was the last photo ever taken of HMS Hood.

There are many theories on how Bismarck sunk the Hood so quickly. From an open compartment door on the armored deck to fire seeping through a ventilation shaft.

Hood’s armored deck was tested with 15” shells, so the theory that she was weakly armored doesn’t hold water.

The simplest explanation is probably the most likely. One of Bismarck’s shells penetrated the upper belt that resulted in the shell reaching the engine room, setting off the 4″ magazine.

Hood’s Captain Kerr who made no attempt to abandon ship and was last seen by one of the survivors in the compass room with Admiral Holland.

For a first hand account of Hood’s sinking we look to Seaman R Tilburn of Roundhay, Leeds. Tilburn was one of the only three survivors of HMS Hood.

Bob Tilburn joined the ship in 1938 at Gibraltar and his job was to help crew one of the ship’s four-inch guns.

Seaman Tilburn gave an interview to the Yorkshire Post on his survival from the HMS Hood: https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/whom-bell-tolled-fate-warship-and-sailor-who-survived-1892959

In a clash of the titans, the Hood and the Bismarck were to be locked into a fight to the finish.

Years later, Bob recalled: “Everyone was prepared as far as they could be. Everyone knew there would be casualties – but it would be someone else, not you. No-one thought the Hood would be sunk – no-one gave it a thought – but there would be casualties, which was to be expected.

“When we went to action stations I was wearing two pairs of socks inside my sea boots, two heavy woollen jerseys, an overcoat, a duffle coat, an oilskin, anti-flash gear, lifebelt and gas mask. 

About 2am the sky cleared and we saw the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen on the horizon.”

Admiral Holland in HMS Hood ordered his ships to close the range and shortly before 6am both sides opened fire.

The anti-aircraft crews on the upper deck, of which I was a member, were ordered to take cover in the recreation space at the base of the bridge,” remembered Bob.

“All obeyed except four of us, who lay on the deck, joking to relieve the tension.

Then the Bismarck hit us. The shell came over with a frightening noise, like an express train rushing at us. There was a deafening explosion followed by stunned silence. We leapt up to find the forward anti-aircraft gun had been hit and ammunition was exploding. 

The next salvo hit the recreation space where the anti-aircraft gun crews had gone for shelter. Another salvo hit the top of the mast where officers were directing our fire. The upper structure was blown away.

Debris and bodies fell all over the deck. Next moment came a terrific explosion aft. Complete silence followed. My companions were dead.”

Bob stripped off excess clothing that would make keeping afloat difficult. Suddenly he found himself in the water. Soon after, he was struck on the back of his leg by a mast as the forward half of the Hood fell over.

Worse was to follow, as an aerial snagged one of his sea boots and pulled him down below the surface. Luckily, Bob still had his wits about him and was able to cut off the boot with his knife. On freeing himself, he shot back up to the surface. There he grabbed hold of a “biscuit” raft and paddled across to where the only other two survivors – William Dundas and Ted Briggs – were situated.

As time went on, Bob, as well as Ted Briggs, started to succumb to the cold. Bob felt himself slipping away but he and Ted were rousted by William Dundas, who kept them alert by singing popular songs and getting the others to join in. At one point an aircraft flew over but they were not spotted. 

Eventually, it was William Dundas who saw the Destroyer Electra heading to their rescue. “It was a marvellous sight,” Bob later said. The loss of the Royal Navy’s flagship in such dramatic circumstances and the appalling loss of life were greeted with profound shock across Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously signalled to the fleet: “The Bismarck must be sunk at all costs.”

Once aboard the Electra, Bob was cleaned up and given tea with rum to warm him up and get his blood flowing again. The Electra took them to Reykjavik. Bob recalled: “I was taken to hospital with the other two survivors. 

Within a week I was home on leave. On the journey, I heard that the Bismarck had been sunk. I remember thinking I was the luckiest man alive.”

Hood’s crew must have been terrified during the sinking. 

The ship’s normal orientation shifts from horizontal to near upright. 

The lights almost went out. 

The men began to panic and scream. 

Then, when the bow was somewhere between the 45 and 90 degrees of angle, the aft fires reached, however it happened, several magazines blew, vaporizing most of the remaining crew.

HMS Prince of Wales Chief Petty Officer William Mockridge said, “I saw a very vivid flash.” “It was so bright, like a magnesium flare.” and according to Mockridge the burn lasted 10 seconds.

Ordinary Signalman Albert Edward Briggs said, “She has hit us on the boat deck and there is a fire in the ready use lockers.” Briggs also felt that hit was on the Starboard side though he did not see the actual hit, because when asked in an interview Briggs said “…because we all tended to fall over to starboard.”

David Wilson Boyd of Prince of Wales recalled that “She went up with more of a rumble than a bang.” The Prince of Wales Captain Leach referred to the explosion as, “. . . a very fierce upward rush of flame the shape of a funnel, rather a thin funnel, and almost instantaneously the ship was enveloped in smoke from one end to the other.”

Furthermore, Hood’s bow was crushed by an implosion due to pressure from her sinking. 

Hood’s fatal fire did not spread very deep into the ship, as her engine rooms apparently unaffected, and her ship’s speed remained constant until the end.

Photo from Prinz Eugen

And compartments in her bilges were not full of water as she plunged to the bottom of the sea, which in turn caused partial implosion of other compartments.

It is likely the aft deck’s 4″ magazine went up first, vented forward initially and then seared through the aft bulkhead into the 15″ magazine which then caused Hood’s fatal explosion. 

The extreme improbability of a penetration of her quite adequate armour – other than through that very small “window” identified by Bismarck writer William Jurens in his book Battleship Bismarck.

A few historians believe Hood’s sudden loss in the battle was due to poor management of her weapons storage. Something that doomed the modern-day Russian nuclear submarine Kursk. 

However, most reject this theory.  

Hood sank in 3 minutes. Of the 1418 crew, only 3 survived.

Written by Hantong Wu, Calvin Ma & Alexander Fleiss