Seventy-eight years ago, on May 24, 1941, the battlecruiser Hood, pride of the British navy, blew up and sank during a brief exchange of gunfire with the new and powerful German battleship Bismarck. Over fourteen hundred men went down with the Hood; only three crew members survived.
The HMS Hood
The Hood was the last and largest battlecruiser built for the Royal Navy. Battlecruisers were often as large as battleships and carried the same sort of armaments (guns), but they differed from battleships in that they usually were not as heavily armored and depended more on speed and mobility. The Hood was launched on August 22,1918, and commissioned in 1920. The Hood was a beautiful ship, and it was involved in a number of showing-the-flag exercises during the interwar years, including a circumnavigation of the globe with the Special Service Squadron in 1923-24. The Hood became a symbol of the power of Britain’s navy. In 1939 the ship returned to Britain for an overhaul. By that time, advances in naval gunnery had reduced Hood‘s usefulness, and she was scheduled to undergo a major rebuild in 1941 to correct these issues. The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 forced the ship into service without the upgrades.
The recently completed German battleship Bismarck was the most powerful ship afloat in early 1941, and the British were very concerned about the potential danger that it posed to their vital merchant shipping. When the Bismarck, accompanied by the cruiser Prince Eugen, broke out into the Atlantic in May 1941, the Hood and the newly commissioned battleship Prince of Wales were sent to guard the Icelandic passage against a possible German turn into the Atlantic sea lanes. It was a disastrous encounter for the British. The Hood was quickly sunk, and the Prince of Wales was badly mauled. The Bismarck suffered relatively minor damage, but her fuel supply was compromised, and her commander soon decided to run for the safety of the European Atlantic coast. Several days later, the Bismarck was found and destroyed by other British naval units.
Over the years there have been several inquiries and much speculation about the loss of the Hood. Why did that mighty warship blow up?
Perhaps the best answer is to attribute her loss to poor ship design. During the Battle of Jutland in 1916, three British battlecruisers blew up when struck by plunging gunfire from German ships. British ship designers were acutely aware of that experience, and they took it into account as they designed and built the Hood. Nevertheless, for the sake of speed, they still made compromises on the thickness of deck armor. The scale of Hood‘s protection, though adequate for the Jutland era, was at best marginal against the new generation of big-gunned capital ships. The Royal Navy was fully cognizant of the ship’s armor protection flaws. When Admiral Phillips, British squadron commander, encountered the Bismarck in May 1941, he quickly closed range with the enemy so as to decrease the probability of plunging fire penetrating the Hood’s relatively modest deck armor. Unfortunately, the maneuver did not work. A shell from the Bismarck smashed through the aft decking, exploded two of the Hood’s ammunition magazines, and blew the ship apart.
It is interesting to note that the much more heavily armored Bismarck later withstood a heavy pounding from many British naval units, and her topsides were virtually destroyed, but gunfire was unable to sink her. Finally, late on May 27, 1941, three days after the destruction of the Hood, the Bismarck was sunk by a combination of British torpedoes and scuttling actions by her own crew.
Thousands of brave men, British and German, had been sacrificed in a few short days of naval warfare.