The Loss of HMS Hood

A Re-Examination

by William J. Jurens

Part 1

This article was originally published in Warship International No. 2, 1987.

HMS Hood by Edward Tufnell, RN (Retired)
HMS Hood
Painting by Edward Tufnell, RN (Retired)


MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY ago, the British battlecruiser HMS Hood and the German battleship Bismarck fought what was arguably one of the most famous surface engagements of the Second World War.  In an instant on the morning of the 24th of May, 1941, the Royal Navy lost the symbolic flagship of its fleet and the battleship Bismarck, which would have otherwise had an interesting but unremarkable history, was transformed into one of the most well-known ships of the war.  In much the same way that the loss of the Hindenburg brought a spectacular end to the era of the airship as a credible flying machine, the loss of the Hood marked the end of the battlecruiser as a credible fighting machine.

Since then, the story of Hood's loss and the subsequent hunt for the Bismarck has spawned at least one popular song, a major motion picture, more than a dozen books, and innumerable accounts in the popular literature.  In spite of this, however, no complete post-war technical analysis of the loss of Hood has ever reached print.  It is the purpose of this paper to attempt to redress this omission.

Anyone approaching this event from a distance of sixty years is possessed of both advantages and disadvantages compared to those who have gone before.  Unlike the original investigators, postwar research can provide him with comprehensive and accurate information on the ballistics and armor penetration capabilities of German guns of the period.  Unlike the original investigators, he can take advantage of the observations of witnesses from both sides of the battle.  Free of the pressure of events and internal politics, he has the luxury of attempting a more exhaustive and objective survey than the members of the original boards could hope to provide.

Of course there are disadvantages to this situation as well.  To begin with, he is more than fifty years distant from the events of the 24th of May 1941.  He cannot call new witnesses, or, with remarkable exceptions, recall old ones.  Perhaps, most significantly, he has no "walking on" experience with the ship herself.  To the members of the original boards of inquiry, Hood was not a collection of old photographs, musty engineering drawings and abstruse equations, but a concrete entity, as familiar to them as our homes and workplaces are to us.

For a variety of reasons, the exact mechanism of the loss of Hood will probably never be known with certainty.  The event occurred with remarkable suddenness, and was to most observers completely unexpected.  No cameras were clearly trained on Hood as she exploded and no "black box" counted down her final, fatal, seconds.  There were almost no survivors and there remained virtually no wreckage on which post-mortem might be performed.  The results of past investigations - and this one - must be judged with that in mind.  Those charged with inquiring into more modern disasters are by comparison usually virtually awash in a sea of data.


"Sketch by Captain J.C. Leach, M.V.O., Royal Navy, showing the appearance and position of the explosion which destroyed the ship as seen from H.M.S. Prince of Wales at a distance of 4 Cables" ADM 116/4351, pp. 40


HMS Hood
Date of Photograph unknown.  Copyright National Maritime Museum, negative number ADY5.

Click on this picture for a larger image.


The design of HMS Hood dated back to the middle of World War I.  Although the Royal Navy was secure in the knowledge that its superiority in battleships was unassailable, the Admiralty remained concerned about possible German superiority in battlecruisers, which if tactically well employed could exert an influence all out of proportion to their numbers.  Thus it was that Hood and her three proposed sisters were specifically designed to counter the three fifteen-inch gunned battlecruisers which Germany laid down in 1915 and the four more which she laid down the following year.  Ironically, Hood began her life as a fortunate survivor.  Once Germany became aware of the British intent to match her battlecruiser buildup, she abandoned battlecruiser construction to concentrate on the production of submarines and the Admiralty correspondingly cancelled its ships as well, leaving Hood the sole survivor of an unlucky group that would once have totaled eleven.  At 41,200 tons and 860 ft 7 in [262.31 meters] overall length, Hood was for many years the largest and most prestigious warship in the world.

The original design for Hood was approved on 7 April, 1916 and the ship laid down on 31 May.  On that very day, in what was to become the penultimate naval engagement of the First World War, three British battlecruisers, the Indefatigable, Queen Mary and Invincible blew up under German fire at the Battle of Jutland.  "Something seems to be wrong with our bloody ships today . . .", commented a shaken British admiral, and in fact a thorough investigation into the apparent fiasco was ordered immediately after the battle was over.  The investigators (probably incorrectly) concluded that the loss of the three battlecruisers was the result of propellant fires reaching the magazines rather than penetrations of deck or belt armor and thus changes to new designs and existing construction centered around improved anti-flash protection rather than the provision of additional armor.  Nonetheless, perceived deficiencies in the design of Hood were considered serious enough to justify suspending work to allow a rather substantial redesign, including a reworked armor scheme and work was not resumed until 1 September.  Table I below shows the changes made between the original and final designs.

Table I
Design Parameters of HMS Hood
Original Design
of 7 April 1915
Final Design
of 30 Aug. 1917
Displacement 36,300 tons 41,200 tons
Length overall 860.0'-0" (262.13m) 860.0'-0" (262.13m)
Beam 104'-0" (31.70m) 104'-0" (31.70m)
Mean Draft 25'-6" (7.77m) 28'-6" (8.69m)
Speed 32 knots 31 knots
Upper belt 3" (76mm) 5" (127mm)
Middle belt 5" (127mm) 7" (178mm)
Lower belt 8" (203mm) 12" (305mm)
Forecastle deck 1.25" (32mm) 1.625" (41mm)
Upper deck (average) 1" (25mm) 1.25" (32mm)
Main deck (average) 1.5" (38mm) 1.875" (48mm)
Lower deck (average) 1.625" (41mm) 1.6" (41mm)
Average belt 5.3" (135mm) 8" (203mm)
Total Decks 5.375" (137mm) 6.35" (161mm)
Armor Weight 10,100 toms 13,550 tons
% Disp. devoted to armor 27.8% 32.8%
Inner limit Immune Zone1 31,000 yards 22,500 yards
Outer limit Immune Zone 26,200 yards  29,500 yards
Width of Immune Zone -4,800 yards +7,000 yards

The addition of extra armor in the final design represented a significant improvement; without it, the immunity zone1 against German 380mm shells would actually have been negative.  Despite the addition of some 3,450 tons of additional armor and protective plating, however, Hood was still considered vulnerable to long range fire.  Although several schemes were put forward to update her over the years, none were ever carried out.  Although as late as 1940, Jane's Fighting Ships was stating that ". . . the general scheme of protection is most comprehensive," in Admiralty circles her actual protection was always considered marginal. In 1920, trials with built up targets representing Hood were conducted and showed that her magazines could be reached by a 15-in shell penetrating the 7-in [178mm] belt.  In a number of almost incredibly prophetic diagrams, the Admiralty sketched the path of the shells and showed how the addition of 3-in [76mm] of additional deck armor could have prevented potential disaster.2  Three of these sketches are reproduced below.


Click on this sketch for a larger image.


Cross Section of Hood from the text book "Practical Construction of Warships" by R.N. Newton (1939).  Although Newton never mentions this in the text, many of the capital ship illustrations use Hood as their example

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Internal arrangements of the stern portion of Hood.  Armor thicknesses are shown in millimeters.  Note the irregular distribution of armor thicknesses, typical of ships designed before the concept of immunity zone had become common.  Computing an immunity zone for a layout this complex would have been nearly impossible.  The arc surrounding the torpedo tubes on the starboard side shows the probable radius of destruction of a torpedo explosion, whilst the arrow shows the probable angle of approach of the shells from Bismarck.  Ammunition hoists are shown as black rectangles, and the exhausts that probably vented the explosion upwards are crossed in with diagonal lines.


The Action of 24 May 1941:

Hood's final voyage began at 0050 on Thursday, 22 May, 1941,3 as she passed Hoxa gate of Scapa Flow in company with battleship Prince of Wales and six destroyers.  Shortly thereafter, word was received that the group would proceed to Hvals Fjord in Iceland to prevent Bismarck from attacking convoys.  As the situation developed, the group remained at sea instead, less destroyers Anthony and Antelope, which were detached at 1400 23 May.

Hood's crew gained their first clue that something was developing at 1939, 23 May when full speed was ordered.  At 2002, a message from cruiser HMS Suffolk reported the enemy as one battleship and one cruiser, course 240 degrees, in a position that translated to some 560 kilometers distant and almost directly north of the battlecruiser force.  Thirty-eight minutes later a contact report was also received from the cruiser HMS Norfolk.  Speed was increased to 26 knots at 2045 and 27 knots at 2054.  Eleven minutes later, B.C. 14 signaled to destroyers; "If you are unable to maintain this speed I will have to go on without you.  You should follow at your best speed." Not to be outdone by their larger counterparts, the destroyers kept up.

Prince of Wales' narrative for Saturday the 24th, and Hood's final dawn, continues:

"Weather at 0001: Wind North, force 4-5, visibility - moderate, Sea and swells 3-4.  At this time report put the enemy 120 miles [c. 224 km] 010 degs., from battlecruiser force, approx. true course 200 degs.  Speed was reduced to 25 knots at 0008 and, course altered by blue pendant5 to 340 degs. at 0012 and 000 degs. at 0017.  At 0015 ships assumed first degree of readiness, final preparations for action were made, and battle ensign hoisted.  It was expected that contact with the enemy would be made at any time after 0140.  Cruisers at this time had lost touch with the enemy in low visibility and snow storms."

At 0031 B.C. 1 signaled "If enemy is not in sight by 0210 I will probably alter course 180 degs. until cruisers regain touch," followed at 0032 with his plan of the action; "intend both ships to engage 'Bismarck' and to leave 'Prince Eugen' (sic) to 'Norfolk' and 'Suffolk' "6

The British went to action stations at 0015.  Visibility deteriorated rapidly beginning about a half-hour later.  At 0203 Hood and Prince of Wales turned to 200 degrees and, probably in an attempt to somewhat widen the area of search, detached their four escorting destroyers.  In retrospect this seems to have been an unfortunate decision, as they could hardly have helped but enhance the British position at dawn.  Feeling by now that the chance of an encounter before daylight was minimal, Holland gave permission for personnel to sleep at action stations, but so tense was the atmosphere aboard the British ships that apparently few crewmen did.  Speed was increased to 26 knots at 0214 and 27 knots at 0222, with visibility now slightly over 9,000 meters.  At 0256 Suffolk regained contact with Bismarck placing the enemy about 28,000 meters to the northwest of the battlecruiser force.  Course was altered to 220 degrees at 0321 and to 240 degrees at 0342.  At 0353 speed was increased to 28 knots.  Bismarck was considered to be 37,000 meters to the northwest at 0400.  Visibility continued to improve, and by 0430 was about 22,000 meters.

Hood and Prince of Wales resumed first degree of readiness at 0510.  There was a long wait while the horizon became gradually more distinct and at last at 0535 Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were sighted bearing 335 degrees on an approximate course of 240 degrees, range approximately 38,000 meters.  Hood and her consort altered course 40 degrees towards at 0537 and 20 degrees towards at 0549, putting the British on a course of 300 degrees.  Prince of Wales took station 4 cables7 distant, bearing 135 degrees from the flagship, i.e., on Hood's starboard quarter.  The photograph below shows the relationship between the two ships.


 Probably one of the last photographs ever taken of H.M.S. Hood.  A photogrammetric analysis of this photo shows Hood is bearing about 341 degrees from Prince of Wales, range 975 meters (1,070 yards).  "A" turret guns of the Prince of Wales are trained on the port quarter.  HU 50190.


Photograph of a model of Hood showing how she would have appeared to observers in Prince of Wales during her last moments.  As she appears here several times larger than she would have been seen by the naked eye to observers in Prince of Wales, the level of detail is correspondingly much greater.  The model is Tamiya kit no. 7827-950.

Click on this picture for a larger image.

In what was apparently a misguided attempt to close the range rapidly, or perhaps an attempt to follow poorly conceived battle instructions, Hood and Prince of Wales gave away whatever tactical advantage they had at initial contact by holding to their original course for far too long a time, and thereby allowing the Germans to pass ahead.8  Having thus snookered themselves at the outset, the British ships were forced into following a long pursuit curve while tracking the Germans, instead of maneuvering to cut them off.  As a perfect pursuit curve would require Hood and Prince of Wales to follow a continuously curving course, and would always keep both German ships directly over the bow, in order to make maneuvering easier and to increase their effective firepower, Holland therefore apparently ordered the curve to be made in a series of straight segments, so arranged as to keep the arcs of their after turrets open.  It was, to say the least, far from an ideal solution.9  Even though the British were changing course frequently, which should have greatly hampered German fire control, their rate of bearing drift was small and the Germans' major problem would have been compensating for changes in range.


A closeup view of Hood and Prince of Wales as they approach the final minute.

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Prince of Wales' verbatim narrative of the ensuing action reads as follows:10

"During the approach 'Hood' made 'G.I.C.' - followed by - 'G.O.B.I.' - just before opening fire at 0552.  Range approx 25,000 yards.  'Prince of Wales' opened fire at 0553.  'Bismarck' replied with extreme accuracy on 'Hood.'  2nd or 3rd salvo straddled and fire broke out in 'Hood' in the vicinity of the port after 4-in gun mounting.  Lighter ship engaged 'Prince of Wales.'  'Prince of Wales' opening salvo was observed over, 6th was seen to straddle.  At this time 'Prince of Wales' had five 14-in guns in action.  'Y' turret would not bear.  Fire in 'Hood' spread rapidly to the mainmast.  A turn of 2 blue [indicating a course change of 20º to port] at 0555 opened 'A' arcs at 'Prince of Wales' ninth salvo.11  'Hood' had a further 2 blue flying when, at 0600, just after 'Bismarck's fifth salvo, a huge explosion occurred12 between 'Hood's' after funnel and mainmast and she sank in three or four minutes.  'Hood' had fired five or six salvos, but fall of shot was not seen, possibly because this coincided with firing of 'Prince of Wales' guns."

Fourteen hundred fifteen officers and men of H.M.S. Hood were killed in the explosion, or died in the water shortly thereafter.

Hundreds of eyes watched as Hood approached her end.  German eyes watched her through telescopes and periscopes aboard the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.  British eyes watched from the cruisers many miles away.  Prince of Wales' helmsman and commanders were watching her to ensure that proper position was maintained.  And because she was flag, the signalmen aboard Prince of Wales were watching her intently.  Most importantly, the entire population of the port side of Prince of Wales, on the disengaged side and no doubt feeling a little cheated at missing the "real action," had little else to do but watch the giant battlecruiser perform.  Here, reproduced as much as possible in the words of the witnesses themselves, is what they saw.

Bismarck fired four-gun salvos throughout.  Her first salvo undoubtedly fell forward and slightly to starboard of the Hood.  On Hood's bridge, Midshipman Dundas saw it come down close off the starboard bow.  Petty Officer Blockley in the port foremost H.A. Director of Prince of Wales watched it fall ". . . ahead of the Hood" and ". . . absolutely correct for range," whilst aboard Bismarck, Burkhard Von Müllinheim-Rechberg in her after gunnery control station heard Korvettenkapitän Adalbert Schneider, controlling Bismarck's salvos call it "short."  Observers aboard Prince of Wales watched as Hood steamed majestically through the resultant splashes.  Schneider ordered a 400 meter bracket, recording the long salvo as an "over" and judging the short salvo to be a straddle.  Sub-Lieutenant John Wormersley, control officer of Prince of Wales' port forward H.A. director saw the long salvo fall ". . . on the port quarter of 'Hood' and over by 200 yards."13  "After this," he said, "a fire appeared on the 'Hood's' boat deck."

Curiously, the fire had nothing to do with Bismarck's gunnery - instead it had almost certainly been caused by a hit from Prinz Eugen who was also firing at the leading British target.  Like many other British observers, Wormersley had accidentally confused the fall of shot from Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.  From the German cruiser's bridge, her captain watched through binoculars with Commander Busch, a German journalist, as Prinz Eugen's second salvo struck home, and listened as Commander Jasper, the gunnery officer confirmed it.  Within two minutes of opening fire, Prinz Eugen's gunners had drawn blood.

Observer's impressions of the hit that caused the fire are mixed.  From the port side of Prince of Wales Admiral's shelter deck P.O. Lawrence Sutton observed ". . . a salvo of H.E. fall more or less in line amidships of the 'Hood' also short.  This was of smaller caliber than the other two."14  The second salvo from Bismarck ". . . appeared to go over," he said, "and at the same time there was a flash just before the mainmast of the 'Hood' and there was a volume of black smoke which afterwards turned into grey . . ."15  Lt. Cdr. Rowell, navigating officer of Prince of Wales, saw three splashes and saw the fourth shell hit.  Later, he marked the position of the hit clearly on the ship's plans - close to the P.3 Twin 4-in Mounting about 275 station.16   Chief Petty Officer William Mockridge, who had done equipment trials of the 4-in guns and supply arrangements in 1940, saw the fire break out and was sure it was based in the 4-in ready use lockers, many of which were distributed in the vicinity.  "I saw a very vivid flash," he said.  "It was so bright, like a magnesium flare."  Although Mockridge shifted his periscope forward and thus missed the actual explosion itself, the flame burned for at least ten seconds, he said, and ". . . was still burning when I shifted my periscope."

The fire on the boat deck continued to burn from the time of the hit until Hood was destroyed.  Its effects evidently did not penetrate deep into the ship, as Hood's engine rooms were apparently unaffected, and her speed remained unaltered to the end.  It was, nonetheless, a substantial blaze.  Sergeant Terence Charles Brooks of the Royal Marines observed the scene through his periscope in P1 turret of Prince of Wales:  "The second salvo from 'Bismarck' arrived and landed two on the starboard side and one inboard on the 4-in gun deck.  The remainder I did not see.  Immediately afterwards there was an enormous flash of flame on the 4-in gun deck starboard side aft.  Just before this I had seen the 4-in guns crews clustered round the guardrail on the starboard side of the 4-in gun deck of the 'Hood.'  After the shell landed all that I could see was a mass of flame as high as the mainmast.  I could see nothing then of the 4-in gun crews . . ."17  Boy Leonard Burchell on the P.1 Pom Pom deck, however, could see men on the boat deck - each of whom was living the last few minutes of his life - trying to put out the fire with hoses.18  Lt. Cdr. Cecil Lawson, who watched through the periscope in Prince of Wales' "A" turret emergency conning position was ". . . much impressed, . . . that dense volumes of smoke were pouring out of the superstructure, the entire length of the boat deck."19

Leading seaman Hubert Fackrell, in communication with Hood by box light, saw it as ". . . a fire with bright flame - it was a blue flame - and I got the impression at the time that it was a cordite fire.  The flames were very fierce and very high . . ."20  Petty Officer Cyril Coates got the impression of ". . . a shower of sparks on the boat deck not far abaft the after funnel about amidships, followed by one roll of flame from the after screen which enveloped the after turrets."  He watched as ". . . the screen doors were blown off and an oily looking flame came through onto the quarterdeck."21  Able Seaman John Boyle looked through the periscope of P.2 gunhouse as the fire seemed to take up all the superstructure, with flames coming up both sides of it,22 while A.B. Walter Marshall, also on the Pom Pom deck, saw it as ". . . flames coming from what I thought was a fan-shaft on the port side of the boat deck between the mainmast and 'X' turret."23

Aboard Hood, A.B. Robert E. Tilburn was lying down - the safest position for unoccupied personnel during action - on the boat deck on the port side just before Hood's port forward U.P. mounting and just abreast the forward funnel.  He saw the projectile hit - just one, he was certain - on the extreme port side just at the forward edge of the aftermost U.P. mounting.  "That hit us somewhere . . . ," he heard a shipmate say.  The shell was, he testified ". . . a small one, because I don't think the deck was very thick and I think a big one would have gone through."24  "Could you say whether this shell penetrated the deck or not?" inquired the Investigative Board.  He could not.  He was, however, fairly certain that the resultant fire was of cordite.  Although he didn't know whether the petrol for the boats ". . . two or three ten gallon drums and a big drum on a slipway," had been dumped, he thought the fire was too far forward to have been petrol in any case.  An order was given to put the fire out, he recalled, but almost immediately countermanded because of the exploding ammunition.  The explosions were fairly small, he said, ". . . like Chinese crackers," and didn't seem to cause the fire to spread very much, at least not in his direction.  "Was the hatch for the 4-in ammunition hoist abreast the after funnel open or closed?" asked the court.  "It was shut," he said, "I had asked the officer for orders and he had told me to leave it shut."

Ordinary Signalman Albert Edward Briggs recalled the events from Hood's compass platform, and was able to give a word-for-word of the conversations that he heard there.25  As the first shell hit, the Squadron Gunnery Officer said "She has hit us on the boat deck and there is a fire in the ready use lockers." 'Leave it until the ammunition has gone,"26 the Admiral replied.  After that, he recalled that contact to the spotting top had been lost as well.  Although he never actually saw the hit, to Briggs the hit seemed to be on the starboard side, ". . . because we all tended to fall over to starboard."  On the upper bridge, Midshipman W.J. Dundas recalled the torpedo officer, who was at the starboard after end of the bridge, report a cordite fire on the starboard side of the boat deck.27

Fifteen miles away, in H.M.S. Norfolk, Rear Admiral Wake-Walker, watched as the fire ". . . spread forward until its length was greater than its height" and then begin to die down.  "As it died down," he said, "I saw her two fore turrets fire and the thought 'they may be able to get it under,' came into my mind."28  All around the scene of the action, other observers recalled thinking exactly the same thing.

Just then, Hood exploded.

Aboard Prince of Wales, Captain Leach had been anticipating trouble.  He had just watched clinically as a salvo ". . . appeared to cross the ship somewhere about the mainmast.  In that salvo were, I think, two shots short and one over, but it may have been the other way round.  But I formed the impression at the time that something had arrived on board 'Hood' in a position just before the main-mast and slightly to starboard.  . . . I in fact wondered what the result was going to be, and between one and two seconds after I formed that impression an explosion took place in the 'Hood' which appeared to me to come from very much the same position in the ship."29  Commander George William Rowell, also on Prince of Wales' bridge, thought two shells had hit in the fatal salvo instead of one.  Although he discussed it at length with Leach, they eventually agreed to disagree.

To most observers the explosion was an awe-inspiring event.  It temporarily blinded Sergeant Brooks, watching through his periscope.  On board Prince of Wales, Signalman Alan Cutler remembered the yeoman of the watch taking him around to the other side of the flag deck to avoid shrapnel - a needless precaution it transpired, as evidently none arrived aboard.30

To others it was surprisingly unspectacular.  To Lt. Peter Slade and A.B. Richard Scott, who were on the catapult deck of Prince of Wales preparing to fly off the aircraft, the explosion revealed itself as a silent red glow reflected from the surrounding bulkheads.31  The impressions of many others were nearly the same.  Almost everyone agreed it was essentially noiseless, or at least sufficiently quiet that it was drowned out by the sound of Prince of Wales' own guns and machinery.  Esmond Knight, in the air defense station above Prince of Wales' bridge, and who was to lose his sight in the next few minutes of action, was later to recall ". . . I remember listening for it and thinking it would be a most tremendous explosion, but I don't remember hearing an explosion at all."32  David Wilson Boyd of Prince of Wales recalled that "She went up with more of a rumble than a bang."  Others described the explosion as ". . . a deep, dull, roar," "a noise like squashing a match box on a bigger scale," or as similar to the sound one might make by hitting a vent duct with a fist.  Band Master 2nd Class Percy Cooper in Prince of Wales' Port Forward H.A.C.P. below the waterline clearly recalled hearing Hood's gunfire before the explosion, but strangely never heard the explosion itself, or felt any shock.33  Horace Jarret, a commissioned engineer who had experienced depth charges only a few days before, was in Prince of Wales' 'B' boiler room and also felt nothing significant.  "Even now, looking back, I can think of no effect," he would later tell the court.34

To Able Seaman Tilburn, still lying down on Hood's boat deck, the explosion was almost unbelievably innocuous.  "Did you feel any particular blast yourself?" the court questioned.  "No, Sir," he replied.  The noise ". . . was just as if the guns had fired, ". . . there was dead silence after the explosion."  As he floated in the water afterward, he noticed ". . . a lot of long steel tubes, sealed at both ends.  . . . Roughly 15 ft long and 1 ft diameter" floating about him, evidently crushing tubes from the ship's side protection system.  "Could you describe the color of these tubes?" inquired the court.  "Rusty," he replied.

On Hood's bridge, Signalman Briggs recalled "There was not a terrific explosion, but the officer of the watch said to the Admiral that the Compass had gone and the Admiral said move over to the after control."  Hood initially ". . . listed 6-7° to starboard and shortly after that the Admiral said she listed right over to port." "I was just flung forward on my face," he would testify, with others ". . . falling in all directions." Briggs, Dundas and Tilburn were the only survivors from a crew that totaled fourteen hundred eighteen.

Aboard Prince of Wales, Captain Leach saw the explosion as ". . . a very fierce upward rush of flame the shape of a funnel, rather a thin funnel, and almost instantaneously the ship was enveloped in smoke from one end to the other."  To Rowell, the explosion was ". . . very definitely a vertical sheet of flame . . . I might say egg-shaped."  Leading Seaman Winston Littlewood, O.N., the trainer of Suffolk's Port H.A. Director saw it as ". . . a huge orange pillar of sparks going in the air and clouds of black smoke.  It was a narrow pillar," he recalled, ". . . going up very high . . . When it reached to the top it fell over on both sides."  The explosion, he said, ". . . scintillated like stars . . . like a type of firework."35  To Petty Officer Lawrence Sutton ". . . the starting of it was a thin column of flame because it attracted my attention the way it shot into the air abaft the mainmast and before 'X' turret." Then ". . . a huge flash came up all around 'Y' turret," he said, accompanied by ". . . a tremendous roar, mingled with the noise of 'Y' turret firing."

Terence Brooks saw the fatal salvo arrive through the periscope of Prince of Wales' P.1 gun turret.  "It seemed to me that one shell went into the ship by the after funnel, and one also seemed to enter the ship by the barbette of 'X' turret.  There was an enormous flash which blinded me for a few moments.   . . . When I looked through my periscope again I was in time to see a black ball of smoke out of which I distinctly saw a 15-in gun thrown through the air followed by what appeared to be the roof of a turret."36  William Westlake saw spurts of smoke coming out of five or six places just as the explosion began.  Petty Officer Frederick Albert French saw the explosion begin as a bulge in the boat deck, between the after funnel and the mainmast.  ". . . the boat deck appeared to raise in the middle [and] all what I term cordite fumes came from underneath the ship from aft and about abreast the after funnel," he testified.  It looked, ". . . like the crown of a cap being pushed up from below." There followed a tremendous explosion.  Hood's stern simply ceased to exist.  Her bow reared up - ". . . like the spire of a giant cathedral," a German observer would note - and within three minutes she was gone.


The fatal explosion as seen from Prinz Eugen.  Note Prince of Wales firing, the smoke cloud from the fire on Hood's boat deck, and the near-vertical cloud of smoke from the explosion of Hood's magazines.  The wind has already begun to push the smoke cloud slightly to the right.  NH 69724

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Another photograph taken from Prinz Eugen after Hood exploded.  Note shell splashes from Prince of Wales, falling short, smoke from H.M.S. Norfolk, shell splashes from Bismarck, falling in front of the smoke cloud from Hood, and Prince of Wales turning away.  NH 69731.

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The final stages of the action, again as seen from Prinz Eugen.  Conventional interpretations of these and the the previous photographs cannot be reconciled with the official track charts and description of the action, which indicate that Prince of Wales would have always remained the right hand target.  NH 69725.

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Sketches of the action made by Rear-Admiral W.F. Wake-Walker of H.M.S. Norfolk.  Note the vertical impression of the blast.  ADM 116/4351 pp. 43.

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Sketchs of the action by Captain A.J. Phillips, also of H.M.S. Norfolk.  Note the "short" splash associated with the final explosion.  ADM 116/4351 pp. 44.

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More sketches of the action by Captain A.J. Phillips.  These show the same phases as the first set, but note the subtle differences between the two.  ADM 116/4351 pp. 49.

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To Part 2

Footnotes for Part 1:

1 The immune zone may be defined as that area inside of which belt penetrations might occur, and outside of which deck penetrations are possible.  Thus a target within the immune zone was, theoretically at least, invulnerable to penetration of the vitals, and in that sense "safe" from enemy fire.  The zones listed are approximate, and are calculated against Bismarck's 380mm armor piercing bullet at a 90 degree target angle, using the thickest part of the belt to define the inner limit and 0.8 times the total deck thickness to define the outer limit.  Hood's actual armor scheme was so complex that the computation of a regular immune zone is almost impossible.  The 10° slope of the belt armor has been taken into account.

2 The trials are described in C.B. 1561 "Progress in Gunnery Materiel - 1920," ADM 186/244 X/LO 1045 pp.82 et. seq.  Progress in Gunnery Materiel - 1920 pp. 82 specifically states ". . . This addition to the main deck of H.M.S. Hood has been made, the extra weight being balanced by the removal of the torpedo control tower, four of the 5.5-inch guns, and all the above water torpedo tubes," but the author was obviously speaking before the fact.  The tone of the statement shows how far the planning had progressed, however.

3 All times given are Zone -2.  Most details of the preamble to the final action are taken from Prince of Wales' "Narrative Of Operations Against Bismarck," ADM 116/4351 pp 392 et. seq.

4 This abbreviation apparently refers to Admiral Holland, then in overall tactical command of Hood and Prince of Wales.

5 The "blue pendant" refers to the signal flag that was used in association with other flags in order to transmit course change information.  The color of the flag indicated the degree of change while the order of flags on the halyard indicated the direction.  When the flags were lowered, the course change was executed by all ships simultaneously.

6 It is difficult to understand how he can have expected so early a contact as, according to Grenfell, the rate of relative approach at this time was under 35 knots.  Kennedy, however, states the relative rate of closure was almost twice this figure.  As the ships maneuvered, the relative rates were changing almost minute by minute.

7 In British service, one cable was nominally considered to be equal to 100 Fathoms or 600 feet.  It follows therefore that 4 cables would equal slightly over 730 meters.  Some reference books give a British cable as 608 feet instead, but the difference is entirely negligible.

8 Grenfell discusses a number of alternative explanations for the seemingly poor British tactics.  One is that Holland was following the informal instructions of his superior Sir John Tovey, who, observing that deflection errors were more common than range errors in target practice, suggested to many officers in his command that an end on approach was best when closing the range rapidly was of paramount importance and when "A" arcs would be closed in any case.  A more likely explanation is that Holland was simply following the precepts of the Royal Navy's Fighting instructions taught at the Admiralty Tactical School between the wars, which apparently suggested just such an approach.  See The Bismarck Episode, pp. 61-64.

9 Hood's intercept course at 0553, provided the Germans did not maneuver to avoid, would have been c. 270°, with intercept about 0628, and would have given both the Germans and the British identical target angles and problems with 'A' arcs.  Had the Germans turned away before intercept the battle would have turned into a duel of broadsides on parallel courses. Had they turned toward Hood and Prince of Wales could have neatly crossed their 'T.'  At the time of initial contact, 0535, Hood's intercept course would have been about 268° with theoretical "collision" at 0633.  Ironically, this would have closed the range at about 870 meters per minute, whereas the actual range rate in practice was only about 690 meters per minute, only a 25% improvement.  Assuming Hood's supposed zone of excessive deck vulnerability to be 5,000 meters wide, this means that the extra traverse time would have only been about two minutes, roughly enough time for only two extra salvos to have been exchanged.  Of course, as subsequent events were to make clear, it would take only one well placed salvo to kill.

10 The footnote references and the explanatory material in square brackets have been added.  The times were approximate.  The board received a number of track charts of the action, but as Captain George Rowell, the navigating officer of Prince of Wales was to note with remarkable understatement, they:

". . . were compiled on the following day from the information available.  Unfortunately, the plot where the narrative was being kept was thrown into some confusion by a large amount of blood that was pouring down from the compass platform onto the track chart."
11 "A" arcs were said to be "open" when all main battery guns could bear on a single target forward of the beam, else "closed."

12 ADM 116/4351 p.394.  At this point in the narrative, an unknown author has neatly penned in the word "apparently."

13 ADM 116/4351 p.210.

14 These were almost certainly 203mm shells from Prinz Eugen's first salvo.  Other observers made similar remarks, and particularly noted a salvo which appeared to fall roughly midway between the two British ships.

15 ADM 116/4351 pp. 212.

16 ADM 116/4351 pp. 261.  Hood's frames stations in British terminology were spaced about 640mm (25.32 in) apart on average, so this point was about 175m (580 ft) aft of the bow, i.e., just aft of the after fire control tower.  Although Rowell was sure that it was a 15-in salvo which caused the damage, he was almost certainly in error.  As can be seen on board Exhibit "M" (see next page), in order to have hit where Rowell indicated, the shell would have had to have passed through the fire control tower on its way, which almost certainly would have come to the attention of those on the bridge.  Rowell's location for the hit is therefore probably in error as well.

17 ADM 116/4351 pp. 218-220.

18 ADM 116/4351 pp. 251.

19 ADM 116/4351 pp. 225.  The reference to the "after screen" and "screen doors" remains mysterious to me.

20 ADM 116/4351 pp. 234.

21 ADM 116/4351 pp. 236.

22 ADM 116/4351 pp. 237.

23 Presumably this was flame exiting from one of the large engine room exhausts located on the boat deck between the after control tower and the break of the superstructure.  There were several skylights and ladderways in the area as well, but both of the ammunition hoists in this location would have presumably been screened from his view.  A complete deck plan of Hood's boat deck showing all relevant detail is given in a number of places throughout the minutes of the various boards as Exhibit M (see next page).

24 Tilburn's testimony is at ADM 116/4351 et. seq. A.B. Alfred James Priddy, in partial confirmation, stated that "The splashes of this salvo appeared to be smaller than the first two, and two splashes of this salvo were short," but Lt. Cdr. Rowell of Prince of Wales considered ". . . very definitely that it was a 15-in salvo."  Although the court decided to side with Lt. Cdr. Rowell, the first hit on the boat deck was almost certainly scored by Prinz Eugen.

25 ADM 116/4351 pp. 364 et. seq.

26 The exact quote in the testimony is "Leave it until the ammunition had gone," but I have corrected the obvious error in syntax.

27 Dundas's evidence before the first board of inquiry is summarized in ADM 116/4351 pp. 59.  He was apparently not recalled to testify before the second board.

28 ADM 116/4351 pp. 148.

29 ADM 116/4351 pp. 198.

30 Several accounts purport to describe various pieces of Hood which landed on Prince of Wales after the explosion.  Upon close examination, all were proven to be parts of Prince of Wales herself, thrown about in various ways from shells that arrived aboard later in the action.

31 ADM 116/4351 pp. 222.

32 Kennedy, pp. 87.

33 ADM 116/4351 pp. 217.  How he could be sure the last sound he heard was only gunfire, however, escapes me.

34 ADM 116/4351 pp. 222.

35 ADM 116/4351 pp. 191.

36 ADM 4351 pp. 218 et. seq.  Brooks also testified "When the second hit was obtained on the 'Hood' the after funnel seemed to crumple over and fall away to the port-side and I saw a yellow flash come at the same time from the barbette of 'X' ".  He indicated the source of this flash as being directly under the chase of 'X' guns at the position at which they were trained.

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