Come Aboard the Bismarck: Nazi Germany's Deadly Battleship

May 23, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: BattleshipMilitaryTechnologyWorldNavyWarHistory

Come Aboard the Bismarck: Nazi Germany's Deadly Battleship

And the story of how it was sunk. 

At 5:59 am, Holland ordered another 20-degree turn to port, which would finally allow his ships to bring their full armament to bear. The range was now down to 18,000 yards. Bismarck fired three salvos in rapid succession about 30 seconds apart. The first, the fourth in total, again straddled Hood, but the fifth hit with devastating effect at about 6 am.

For the sailors aboard Hood, their worst nightmares were about to come true.

Explosion on the Hood

Ted Briggs had joined Hood as a signal boy on March 7, 1938, at just 15 years of age. Three years later he was an ordinary signalman on Hood’s compass platform, manning the voice pipe to the flag deck.

During the battle, Hood’s X Turret fired for the first time, but Y Turret was silent. Seconds later, Briggs saw a blinding flash sweep around the outside of the compass platform. However, he said there “was not a terrific explosion at all regards noise.” He felt the ship “jar” and begin listing to port. The “jar” was the ship breaking in two. The list got worse, and the men began leaving his area. By the time Briggs climbed down the ladder to the admiral’s bridge, the icy sea was already around his legs.

Eighteen-year-old Midshipman William Dundas had the duty of watching Prince of Wales to make sure she was keeping station; he was not far from Ted Briggs on the compass platform. He remembered bodies falling past his position from the higher spotting positions––the result, he felt, of Bismarck’s shells hitting without exploding. He recalled a mass of brown smoke just before the list to port began. Dundas escaped by kicking out a window on the starboard side of the compass platform. Even so, he was dragged under the water by the sinking ship but miraculously regained the surface.

Twenty-year-old Able Seaman Robert Tilburn was stationed at Hood’s aft-port 4-inch antiaircraft gun and witnessed the fire started by Prinz Eugen’s shells. The heat of the blaze made fire fighting impossible as the flames were being fanned by Hood’s 28-knot speed. Then he said, “The ship shook like mad” and began listing to port. Tilburn got onto the forecastle but was washed over the side by a great wave.

At the second board of enquiry, Tilburn told the admirals, “The Bismarck hit us. There was no doubt about that. She hit us at least three times before the final blow.”

Briggs, Dundas, and Tilburn were the only survivors from Hood; her 1,415 other crewmen were lost. But there were other witnesses, such as Lieutenant Esmond Knight. Aboard Prince of Walesobserving Hood, he remembered thinking, “It would be a most tremendous explosion, but I don’t remember hearing an explosion at all.” Chief Petty Officer French, also on Prince of Wales, said that the middle of the Hood’s boat deck appeared to rise before the mainmast.

Leading Sick-Berth Attendant Sam Wood, also on Prince of Wales, observed, “I was watching the orange flashes coming from Bismarck, so naturally I was on the starboard side. The leading seaman who was with me said, ‘Christ, look how close the firing is getting to Hood.’ As I looked out, suddenly Hood exploded. She was one pall of black smoke. Then she disappeared into a big orange flash and a huge pall of smoke which blacked us out…. The bows pointed out of the smoke, just the bows, tilted up, and then this whole apparition slid out of sight, all in slow motion, just slid away.” Within three minutes Hood was gone.

What Destroyed the Hood?

So what did happen to Hood? Were the boards of enquiry right that a 15-inch shell from Bismarck had hit close to her 4-inch and/or 15-inch magazines, causing an explosion that wrecked the after part of the ship?

What evidence we have would seem to shed some doubt on this. First, Hood was about 17,000 yards from Bismarck by 6 am. By that time, the heavy shells from both sides were travelling on a fairly low trajectory. As the range decreased, the guns would have been progressively depressed. Therefore, any hit would have been more likely to strike the belt. Hood’s belt armor was 12-inches thick and superior to any ship in the fleet; it was also inclined at 12 degrees.

It is still possible a shell could have hit the deck with its thin armor of three inches, but not with the plunging effect Holland had feared at long range. The shell likely fell at a rather oblique angle, which would make penetration of four decks to the main magazine under X Turret unlikely.

Also, it was witnessed aboard Hood and Prince of Wales that Bismarck’s 15-inch shells were likely defective, that most failed to explode.

Could there have been some sort of cordite flash explosion similar to those that destroyed three British battle cruisers during the battle of Jutland in May 1916?

This again seems highly unlikely as Hood’s shell-handling rooms were situated well below the X and Y Turrets’ magazine and the engine room thanks to lessons learned from that tragic Jutland episode. Also at Jutland, all three battlecruisers were destroyed by massive explosions, and there was none audible on Hood. One question about the magazine theory is why Y Turret did not fire like X had. Was something already happening there?

Then there is the fire started by Prinz Eugen’s 8-inch shells. Captain Leach of Prince of Wales described the fire as “a vast blowlamp.” The fire consumed much combustible material on the deck and upper superstructure, but the two- and three-inch deck armor and forecastle armor prevented this fire from penetrating below. The ventilation systems were fitted with gas-tight flaps and, at action stations, all should have been closed. Thus, it is fairly certain that the deck fires could not have resulted in Hood breaking in two or could even have contributed to this significantly.

The second board of enquiry did look at the possibility of Hood’s own above-deck torpedoes causing her to sink. Sir Stanley Goodall, who had supervised Hood’s design, believed an enemy shell could have detonated the torpedo warheads in their  tubes.

Four 21-inch MK IV torpedoes were kept in tubes, two on either side of the mainmast, and four reloads were nearby in a three-inch armored box. These torpedoes were certainly capable of breaking Hood’s back and could have been set off either by a direct hit from an enemy shell or by an intense fire. the TNT in the warheads would ignite at around 250 degrees Fahrenheit and explode at around 280 degrees. Again, however, there was no explosion. It is worth noting that similar torpedo tubes on the battlecruisers Repulse and Renown were later removed.

Was there some sort of underwater penetration? This seems even more unlikely. Hood was outside torpedo range of the German ships. One of Bismarck’s 15-inch shells could have penetrated the side and exploded in or near Hood’s shell-handling rooms––again unlikely without evidence of a massive explosion.

A Lucky Shot

The final theory or possibility is that Prinz Eugen’s 8-inch guns, firing at over half their maximum range, would have been falling on the target at a much steeper trajectory than Bismarck’s 15-inch guns and that one of her high-explosive 8-inch shells might have gone down Hood’s after funnel. If this did happen, it would have been just before Lütjens ordered Prinz Eugen to shift her fire to Prince of Wales, about the time Hood was engulfed.

The wire cage that covered the top of the funnel would not stop a shell and would be unlikely to explode it. The next obstacle on a shell’s journey would have been a steel grating positioned in vents at the level of the lower deck to protect the boiler room. If an 8-inch shell exploded here, it would have detonated in the boiler room. A high-explosive shell bursting in one of the boiler rooms or nearby might have resulted in an enormous buildup of pressure, resulting in an explosion inside the ship. The line of least resistance to this would have been up through Hood’s thin decks, not through the heavily armored sides or bottom.

Was this the result, a muffled explosion within the ship only heard below decks, the flash seen above decks near the mainmast with the propellers still turning driving the rear into the severely weakened midsection and breaking Hood in two parts? Could it have been a fatal combination of two of these theories?

In July 2001, the wreck of the Hood was found 9,334 feet below the surface of the  Denmark Straight. She lies in three sections  with the bow on its side, the mid section upside down, and the stern speared into the seabed. In 2013, the wreck was more fully explored with a remote-control vehicle. The exploration appears to confirm a massive explosion had taken place in the magazine feeding Y Turret and breaking the back of the ship. However, it remains a mystery, given the low trajectory of any shell, how one could have passed through four decks and the magazine armor. It must have been a lucky shot, indeed.