Reliving the horror of the loss of HMS Hood

HMS Hood leaves Portsmouth between the wars
HMS Hood leaves Portsmouth between the wars
James Taylor at his desk in his office at 116 High Street, Old Portsmouth.

Those halcyon days when pen and paper just worked!

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I saw the Hood sink in a sheet of flame – her guns still blazing.’

That was the headline of The News days after the tragic loss of HMS Hood.

Hood had been chasing the pride of the German navy, Bismarck, when the Nazi vessel blasted her with an explosive shell on May 24, 1941.

The hit thumped through the ship’s hull and caused her magazine to explode in a bright flash of light that enveloped the 23-year-old battleship.

Nearly all the ship’s company was wiped out – 1,415 men were killed with only three survivors remaining.

News special correspondent JR Nixon witnessed the engagement and wrote about how Hood went out fighting:

I watched the ‘battle of the giants’ which culminated in the sinking of the Bismarck, Germany’s new 35,000-tonnes ‘unsinkable’ battleship.

Standing on the bridge of one of H.M. ships I saw HMS Hood, for long the world’s biggest warship, go down, only two or three hundred yards away, with her guns still firing.

So began the greatest naval epic of the war.

This engagement between Greenland and Iceland was followed by a running fight lasting three days and four nights, which ended when the pride of the Germans’ fleet was sent to the bottom.

The end of the “mighty Hood” was an almost unbelievable nightmare.

Shortly after the engagement began, shells hit the 21-year-old battleship.

There was a bright sheet of flame and the ship blew up. Parts of her were thrown hundreds of feet into the air, and in a few minutes all that remained was a patch of smoke one the water and some small pieces of wreckage.

So within the space of minutes occurred one of the most inexplicable disasters in naval history.

The (HMS) Prince of Wales was hit soon after by a 15-inch shell but the damage was slight.

The battle of the giants was the climax to a chase by the Hood and Prince of Wales at top speed, with the accompanying destroyers, to prevent the Bismarck breaking out into the Atlantic to attack convoys.

The pursuit began off Iceland, and continued hour after hour in the eerie half light of the Arctic night. The cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk, which had been shadowing Bismarck since she left Bergen, kept the Hood and Prince of Wales and others informed of her movements, and so helped them find their quarry.

Blinding snowstorms lashed the black sea and at times visibility fell to a few yards. Most of this time a thin curtain of snow enveloped the scene. Then, as if nature were taking a hand, this curtain suddenly lifted.

There was the sea like black treacle, and there in the sombre murky light of dawn appeared two black specks on the horizon – Bismarck and her accompanying cruiser.

For some minutes our ships sped on towards the Germans to shorten the range. They, too, turned in towards their pursuers.

The world’s biggest warships were thundering towards one another at a combined speed of probable over 60 miles an hour.

Their specks grew rapidly into recognisable shapes, with masts, bridges, funnels - and the guns.

The tension of waiting for the battle to begin became acute.

“Open Fire” was ordered by signal. Almost simultaneously bursts of flame belched with a roar from Hood’s great, forward guns. Within three seconds puffs of black smoke shot out from the Bismarck – she had also opened up.

The Prince of Wales’s guns then began firing. Dense clouds of yellow cordite smoke enveloped her bridge momentarily blotting out the view.

To the left the Hood, two or three hundred yards away, was still surging forward on a parallel course. Fountains of water shot up in her wake – the first about a hundred yards astern, the second 50.

The Hood thundered on, then suddenly she was hit. The shell of shells appeared to fall just ahead of one of her aft gun turrets, and a large fire broke out with thick black smoke. The Hood continued to fire and race forward.

What happened next was a strangling, sickening sight. There was a terrific explosion and the whole of the vast ship was enveloped in a flash of flame, and smoke which rose high into the air in the shape of a giant mushroom.

Sections of funnels, masts, and other parts hurtled hundreds of feet into the sky, some falling on the ship. Most landed back on the sea and quickly disappeared.

The Hood’s bow titled vertically into the air, and three or four minutes after she was hit all the remained, apart from bits of wreckage, was a flicker of flame and smoke on the water’s surface.

A destroyer was diverted to rescue work, and managed to pick up three of the ship’s company – two seaman and a midshipman.

All this time the Prince of Wales had continued pouring shells at the Bismarck – more than once spurts of water showed she was straddled.

Again, the Bismarck’s shells crashed near the Prince of Wales, but no serious damage had been done.

The Prince of Wales never lost her fighting efficiency, and her speed was not impaired.

Then the Bismarck turned away, only to be pursued all that day and night, and next day over the Atlantic at high speed. Attacks were delivered intermittently for three days and four nights.

Then the final dramatic message from the cruiser Dorsetshire that she had torpedoed the Bismarck.

It took a while for the full story of Hood’s heroics to come to light.

However, when news broke that Bismarck had been sunk, there was an air of celebration.

As The News reported on Tuesday, May 27, Hood had ‘been avenged’. The Hood’s destruction dominated the front pages in the paper in the weeks that followed.

Winston Churchill at the time described the loss of Hood as a major blow for the Royal Navy.

Speaking to MPs following the news, the wartime PM said: ‘This splendid vessel, although designed 23 years ago, is a serious loss to the Royal Navy, and even more so are the men and officers who manned her.’

Fareham man Ted Briggs was one of the three to survive the sinking of Hood.

He was just 18 at the time when Hood engaged the German warship.

He died in 2008 but recalled the moment the fight began.

‘We had taken them by surprise and we fired about half a dozen salvos before she replied,’ he had said.

‘But when she did, her gunnery was excellent. The third salvo hit us at the base of the main mast, which caused a fire. Then we were hit just above the compass platform, which caused some bodies to fall down. I saw one officer with no face or hands.’

Speaking of the moment Hood exploded, Mr Briggs said: ‘A blinding flash swept around the outside of the compass platform.

‘I found myself being lifted off my feet and dumped head-first on the deck.’

He was thrown into the icy waters of the Denmark Strait and when he swam to the surface all he could see were pieces of wreckage and two other survivors, Midshipman William Dundas, who was killed in a car crash in 1964, and Able Seaman Bob Tilburn, who died in 1995.

All three clung to floats, and after four hours they were picked up by the destroyer HMS Electra.

Ted continued his service in the Royal Navy until 1973.

In 1975 he joined the HMS Hood Association and became its first president.

Mr Briggs died on October 4, 2008 and was the last survivor of HMS Hood.