Key point: The fight was tough and it it still unclear exactly what caused the explosion that sunk London's famous warship. But either way it was lost and Berlin had a naval victory.
The British Admiralty Board of Enquiry into the loss of the battlecruiser HMS Hood, presided over by Vice Admiral Sir Geoffrey Blake, concluded, “The sinking of Hood was due to a hit from Bismarck’s 15-inch shell in or adjacent to Hood’s 4-inch or 15-inch magazines, causing them to explode and wreck the after part of the ship.”
Director of Naval Construction Sir Stanley Goodall, however, found this conclusion unsatisfactory and in his report pointed out the explosion was observed near the mainmast 65 feet further forward from the aft magazines. A second board of enquiry was convened under Rear Admiral H.T.C Walker. Even given eyewitness accounts that described fires on deck, that board still found a hit by Bismarck being the likely cause, although finishing with, “The probability is that the 4-inch magazines exploded first.”
Taking on the Feared Bismarck
In May 1941, Admiral Sir John C. Tovey, commander of the British Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, was ordered to attack the German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen that had just been spotted in the Denmark Strait. Tovey’s fleet consisted of two new battleships, King George V and Prince of Wales, the battlecruisers Hood and Repulse, and the aircraft carrier Victorious, plus many additional cruisers and destroyers. Also hurrying north to join him was the older battleship Rodney, mounting nine 16-inch guns, the largest caliber in the fleet.
Of all the German surface warships, the British feared Bismarck the most. Her size, speed, and firepower made her a definite threat to Allied shipping in the Atlantic, and it was imperative that she be neutralized.
On May 21, 1941, Hood and Prince of Wales left Scapa Flow with six destroyers under the command of Admiral Lancelot Holland flying his flag in Hood, their mission to provide heavy support to the cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk covering the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland––one of the likely routes the German naval squadron would take to reach the North Atlantic. The rest of the fleet was gathering to cover the area between Iceland and the Orkney Islands.
Early on the evening May 23, Suffolk made contact with the enemy ships, quickly turning away toward the coast of Iceland and into a fog bank. Suffolk immediately transmitted a sighting report to the Admiralty and then came around astern of the German ships to shadow them on radar.
Norfolk came up as well, a little too boldly, for Bismarck opened fire on her; like Suffolk, she raced for the fog bank. The blast from Bismarck’s 15-inch guns disabled her own forward radar, and overall German commander Admiral Gunther Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to take the lead.
The Germans had picked up the sighting report from Suffolk and advised their own high command. Lütjens was shocked their presence had been discovered so easily and had little intelligence on what his two warships might face.
The Dwindling British Advantage
As the two forces moved toward each other, Holland had a marked two-to-one superiority in firepower. However, this was offset by the age of the Hood (commissioned in 1920) and the newness (commissioned in January 1941) and lack of combat readiness of Prince of Wales, which was still having trouble with her main armament.
Holland soon realized he was in a favorable position to bring the enemy to action that evening, sailing northwesterly toward the Denmark Strait with the enemy on a southwesterly course. He hoped to catch the Germans just before sunset at around 2 am at 65 degrees north latitude. He also hoped to cross the German squadron’s “T,” which would give him a great advantage. “Crossing the T” is a tactic in naval warfare in which a line of warships crosses in front of a line of enemy ships, allowing them to bring all their guns to bear while receiving fire from only the forward guns of the enemy.
During the evening of May 23, the forces converged. Suffolk continued to shadow and update the Admiralty, Holland on Hood, and Tovey on King George V.
Around midnight, Suffolk lost contact because her radar was blinded by a snowstorm the German ships had entered. Holland waited an hour but, hearing no news, turned more northerly in case the enemy turned south. He could not afford a German breakout into the North Atlantic. At 2 am, still with no news, he turned southwesterly hoping to cut off the enemy before total darkness.
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About an hour later, Suffolk regained radar contact and discovered the German ships were still on their original course. Holland must have cursed his luck, for his maneuvering had lost time and space, and the opportunity to cross the T was gone; this would prove critical in the coming battle.
Failing to Concentrate Fire on the Bismarck
Not wanting a night engagement, Holland brought his ships onto a course to intercept the German squadron at first light, keeping up a good speed but in the heavy seas dropping the escorting destroyers astern. By dawn, the destroyers were an hour behind.
Lookouts scanned the horizon for a glimpse of their quarry. At 5:37 am the two ships were spotted to the northwest, 30,000 yards (17 miles) away. The heavy guns could fire that far but the chance of a hit was remote; they needed to reduce the range to 25,000 yards or less––and quickly.
Prinz Eugen had already picked up the sound of ships with her underwater detection gear at some 20 miles to the southeast. At about the same time as the British lookouts spotted them, the Germans spotted smoke on the horizon. Lütjens believed that these were likely more cruisers, and he was under orders to avoid contact with British warships. He turned to starboard and headed almost due west, confident that he could outrun them.
Holland was soon aware the enemy had turned away, but he had to maintain his intercept course. Turning toward them would merely put his ships behind the Germans and make it a chase.
By 5:50 am, the range was down to 26,000 yards, and Holland would soon give the order to open fire. He was fully aware of Hood’s vulnerability to plunging fire at long range and wanted to pass through the critical zone as fast as possible. Therefore, he compromised by turning 20 degrees to starboard on a new course of 300 degrees toward the enemy. This would close with the enemy faster but make it impossible for the rear turrets of the British ships to bear on the Germans.
At 5:52 am, Holland designated the lead ship as the target and gave the order to open fire. This caused Captain John Leach of Prince of Wales a few anxious moments, for he was convinced that the rear ship was Bismarck, posing the greater threat. He ignored the orders from Holland and concentrated on Bismarck.
In seconds, huge columns of water erupted around Prinz Eugen, followed seconds later around Bismarck. Lütjens now had no doubt about what he faced. However, the British angle of approach still made identification difficult.
Marking the fall of shots, the British ships fired another salvo still firing at different targets. Leach had not informed Holland of his opinion and later had not been informed by his own gunners that Prince of Wales was firing at the second ship.
The Hood is Struck
The range was down to 24,000 yards when Lütjens ordered his ships to turn 65 degrees to port toward the British on a new course of 200 degrees and directed his ships to open fire as soon as they had turned. Lütjens was now on course to cross the British T and would be able to employ all his ships’ heavy guns.
Prinz Eugen opened fire first at 5:53 am, concentrating on the lead British ship, Hood, with her fast-firing 8-inch guns at four salvos per minute; she was firing high-explosive, not armor-piercing shells. After a few ranging salvos, Prinz Eugen hit Hood, her shells starting a large fire amidships among the ammunition lockers of the 4-inch antiaircraft guns, as well as ammunition for the unrifled projectile launchers used for defense against aircraft. Attempts to put out the fire were frustrated by the exploding ammunition.
Both British ships were still firing but at different targets. As yet, Bismarck had not opened fire. By now the range was down to 22,000 yards. After turning, Bismarck opened fire on Hood at 5:55 am with all eight 15-inch guns. Her first salvo fell close to Hood. At last Hood’s gunners realized they had been firing at the wrong ship. About this time, Holland ordered another 20 degree turn to port. This turn still would not allow the British ships to use their rear turrets.