‘Morale at the time was already low and on a point of honour we knew we were going to have to sink Bismarck.’
Lieutenant Peter Wells-Cole, aboard HMS Rodney
‘We aren’t going to let Adolf get away with sinking Hood.’
Swordfish aviator Alan Swanton, 820 Squadron in HMS Ark Royal
It is a cold, gloomy morning for Britain and the Royal Navy. On 25 May 1941 the loss of HMS Hood casts a dark shadow across a nation that has seen its navy rule the waves since 1805.
It managed to see off the naval challenge of Germany in one world war only to find it rise again in a second. However, to think the globe-girdling giant that is the Royal Navy will let one heavy punch knock it to the canvas would be an error. The Admiralty is, via its signals net, co-ordinating a hunt for the Kriegsmarine battleship Bismarck and cruiser Prinz Eugen
For a number of the men in the Royal Navy’s ships, gaining retribution for the 1,415 sailors and Royal Marines killed by Bismarck on 24 May 1941 is a personal matter. For not only was Hood beloved of the entire Navy but many of their friends were lost. The Luftwaffe fire-bombing of Plymouth and other cities back home does not improve the mood as the Royal Navy’s men are worried about their families too.
To the southeast of Greenland the German high seas raiders are still being watched closely by the cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk with back up from the damaged battleship HMS Prince of Wales.
The previous day Prince of Wales had her bridge taken out, with only the CO, Captain John Leach, the Navigator and Chief Yeoman left standing, plus she also sustained other damage while grappling with defective guns.
The sailors and Royal Marines of Prince of Wales had looked on in horror as the famous battlecruiser was blown apart, with bits of the Hood raining down on their own ship’s upper decks.
Prince of Wales herself suffered thirteen dead, yet this brand-new warship – even now still ironing out defects and nursing wounds – is standing by to fight and to engage the German raiders again.
Crucially, one of the three hits Prince of Wales landed on the Bismarck punctured a fuel oil tank and forced a changes of plan for the enemy flagship, which will no longer seek to attack UK-bound convoys. She is down by the bows and must head to a port for repairs.
Beyond the shadowing group trailing the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, numerous British warships are about to abandon convoy escort work and other tasks to join the pursuit of the enemy.
Among them is the old battleship HMS Rodney whose captain reads the charts and monitor the Admiralty’s signals, while maintaining radio silence. Captain Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton holds a discussion with some of his junior officers while weighing up where best to place his vessel, which has more – and bigger – guns than Bismarck…
And steaming hard, having left Gibraltar, is Force H, spearheaded by the battlecruiser HMS Renown and the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, the latter with Swordfish torpedo-bombers embarked.
However, the closest ship with the best hope of crippling Bismarck – so the rest of the fleet can gather overwhelming force to sink her – has been the carrier HMS Victorious. On the night of 24 May she left the company of the Home Fleet flagship HMS King George V in order to race ahead with escorting cruisers and position herself to launch her own Swordfish (of 825 Naval Air Squadron).
They made an attack in the early hours of 25 May, which, while heroic only landed one hit which failed to cause serious damage to Bismarck, though killed one of her sailors. It does worsen the oil leak, making it even more urgent that the German battleship reaches a friendly port for repairs.
• More on this epic story and how my ‘Bismarck trilogy’ tells it from three distinct angles here.