Clash of the Titans that Lasted Eight Minutes
The opening engagement of the famous Bismarck Action was a brutally short fight that saw great loss of life in a very short space of time
Eighty years ago, on 21 May 1941, the battlecruiser HMS Hood sailed out of Scapa Flow, the Royal Navy’s war anchorage in the Orkneys, for the last time. She was heading north for Icelandic waters in company with the recently commissioned battleship HMS Prince of Wales and a flotilla of destroyers.
Only three of Hood’s 1,418 sailors and marines would ever see home again.
Two days earlier the pride of Hitler’s fleet – the battleship Bismarck – accompanied by the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, had set sail from their Baltic base, at Gotenhafen in occupied Poland.
After a pause at Bergen, Norway, the German warships made their run around the north of Iceland and into the Denmark Strait where they were spotted and shadowed by the British heavy cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk.
Bismarck’s foray into the Atlantic to attack convoys had been awaited with dread in the Admiralty for some time. On paper Bismarck was more powerful than any battleship the British possessed due to the combination of 15-inch guns, armour and speed.
When it came to sending out a task group to try and stop Bismarck’s breakout through the Denmark Strait, teaming the elderly veteran Hood – a product of pre-WW1 thinking about fast, battleship-sized cruisers with big guns – with the new Prince of Wales (still ironing out gunnery teething problems) was a real gamble, but a necessary one.
In deciding what to do, Home Fleet commander, Admiral John Tovey was mindful of an earlier occasion when he had committed his entire force to blocking one particular route Kriegsmarine surface raiders might take – only for them to slip past.
This time he held back his flagship, King George V, and the carrier HMS Victorious, plus cruisers, until he knew which way the enemy was going. Suffolk and Norfolk provided that surety by tenaciously hanging on to Bismarck and Prinz Eugen’s coat tails.
IN the turrets of Prince of Wales as she raced north, civilian technicians worked feverishly to correct defects in her 14-inch guns, which were not yet properly worked up. The hydraulic system was leaking so badly gun crews were wearing oilskins. It was not a good omen, but the young men in Prince of Wales were inspired by the sight of the biggest and most beautiful ship in the Navy – the Mighty Hood – steaming hard and fast ahead of them.
When the clash came on the morning of 24 May, there was barely eight minutes of action before the inside of Prince of Wales’ gunnery control position was brightly illuminated, as if by a sunset or sunrise. Hood had blown up, her bows rising vertically in the air, the twin 15-inch guns of A turret firing one last, defiant, salvo.
Sailors and marines in Suffolk, observing the horrifying turn of events from a distance, found it was almost beyond the capacity of their minds to process what had occurred. A capital ship gone in an instant…
News of the event pulsated around the globe, via navy-wide signals on the Admiralty net, but neither the name or nationality of the ship destroyed in the Battle of the Denmark Strait was at first revealed.
In the battleship HMS Rodney, several hundred miles to the north-west of Ireland, escorting the troop ship Britannic to Canada, her Gunnery Officer, Lieutenant Commander William Crawford, initially hoped the unidentified destroyed ship in the fleet-wide signal was Bismarck.
In King George V – by then 360 miles south-east of the Denmark Strait having deployed from Scapa – Admiral Tovey, received news of Hood’s loss from a bellowing fleet wireless officer. Tovey told him to calm down, adding: ‘There’s no need to shout.’
Because the news was so incredible, different cipher officers in King George V were tasked with producing their own transcripts of the signal – just in case there had been an error. Perhaps it actually said Hood had been damaged?
However, the only conclusion was: ‘Hood has blown up.’
Meanwhile, Force H, under the command of Admiral Somerville in the battlecruiser Renown, battered its way north-west through heavy seas after leaving Gibraltar. In the Force H carrier HMS Ark Royal, Swordfish pilot Alan Swanton felt that throughout the ship there was ‘a strange mixture of incredulity, anger and loss.’
As the Admiralty directed ships from all over the Atlantic to join the pursuit of Bismarck, the aviators in Ark Royal recognised with grim satisfaction that vengeance would surely be achieved. Swanton observed: ‘We soon came to realise that the Admiralty weren’t going to let Adolf get away with sinking Hood.’
Shortly before midnight on May 24, Swordfish from HMS Victorious – which, along with cruisers, had separated from King George V to make speed and get closer to the target – attacked Bismarck, scoring one hit but causing no damage.
A German sailor was killed when equipment fell on him. Contact with Bismarck was lost in the early hours of May 25 after she parted company with the Prinz Eugen. The Home Fleet then searched in the wrong direction. They went north and Bismarck went south-east, heading for an Atlantic port in occupied France.
With her CO, Captain Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton, suspecting Bismarck might head towards a French Atlantic coast port, Rodney departed her escort assignment and tried to place herself across the path of the enemy.
In HMS Cossack, Captain Philip Vian decided to leave his convoy and, with the rest of the escorts in his 4th Destroyer Flotilla, headed straight for where he also felt Bismarck might end up if she was coming south.
Numerous warships of the British fleet were scouring the Atlantic on a mission to achieve retribution for Hood’s loss. Whether or not the RN’s scattered units would succeed was very much hanging in the balance.
This is an abbreviated version of a feature published in the June edition of the naval news magazine WARSHIPS IFR The story of how the Royal Navy pursued the Bismarck is told by Iain Ballantyne across three books, from different perspectives, as explained elsewhere on this web site.
‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’, a cinematic telling of the end game in the pursuit of Bismarck and its final battle, is presented in a new, expanded edition of ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’. It has been published by Agora Books to mark the 80th anniversary of the Bismarck Action.