THE BATTLE OF THE BISMARCK AND THE LOSS OF HMS HOOD
In April 1941, Admiral John Tovey was aware of Admiral Raeder’s plan whereby the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen should escape unseen from the Baltic, join forces in the Atlantic with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and thereby, pose a powerful threat to Britain’s Atlantic lifeline. The Bismarck was Germany's most feared ship as it was a modern, fast and well armed battleship. Tovey dispersed his fleet accordingly, ordering his cruisers to keep a close watch on the Denmark Strait.
On 21st May 1941, the Battle Cruiser Squadron of the Home Fleet, under the command of Vice-Admiral Holland on his flagship HMS Hood, along with HMS Prince of Wales and six other destroyers were ordered to the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. On the 22nd May 1941, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had been reported as having left Bergen, indicating an escape was imminent. At 7.45pm, on his flagship HMS King George V, he led the rest of the Home Fleet towards the Denmark Strait. At 7.22pm on 23rd May, the cruiser HMS Suffolk sighted the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen seven miles ahead of it in the Denmark Strait.
On 23rd May the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were sited 300 miles away from the Hood’s force. The force increased its speed to 27 knots, and by 0535 the next morning they were only 17 miles away. At 0552 when the Bismarck was within 25,000 yards, the Hood opened fire, quickly followed by the Prince of Wales. The Bismarck immediately returned fire, straddling the Hood with her second or third salvo. The magazine was hit and a fire broke out and quickly spread. At 0600 just after the Bismarck fired her fifth salvo, a huge explosion split the Hood in two, and within a few minutes she had sunk. The Prince of Wales sent the signal ‘Hood sunk’ which was received by the destroyer HMS Electra at 0600, and she and the rest of the escort instantly went in search for survivors. HMS Prince of Wales had to withdraw under cover of smoke after being damaged, but was able to continue to shadow the German ship. The Bismarck had also been hit and had sustained a fuel leak and headed for St Nazaire.
Tovey with HMSs King George V, Repulse and Victorious, were still 300 miles away but were intent on intercepting the Bismarck. The Admiralty diverted various ships to come under Tovey’s command. These included HMSs Ark Royal, Rodney and Ramillies. Late on 24th May, torpedo reconnaissance bombers from HMS Victorious found the Bismarck, and attacked it scoring a hit, but she managed to escape yet again. Due to shortage of fuel in his ships, Tovey decided that if the Bismarck had not been slowed down by midnight on 26th May, he would be compelled to break off the chase.
At 8.47 pm on 26th May, in deteriorating weather conditions, aircraft from HMS Ark Royal launched a torpedo attack. They managed to score a hit that damaged Bismarck’s propellers, jammed the rudder, and effectively stopped the ship. She began to turn helplessly in circles and trailing oil. Just before midnight, the Commanding Officer, Admiral Lutjens sent a message saying "Ship incapable of manoeuvring. Will fight to the last shell. Long live the Fuhrer"
At 0800 of the 27th May 1941, the Bismarck, floundering helplessly, faced the combined fire of HMSs King George V and Rodney and sustained heavy damage within an hour, although she was able to continue to return fire. Tovey ordered that the ship be sunk with torpedoes, which were fired from HMS Dorsetshire. It still took two hours before the German battleship sank below the sea a few hundred miles off Brest.
110 men out of 2,200 of the Bismarck’s crew were later picked up. Only 3 men out of the 1,421 crew of HMS Hood survived - Able Seaman Ted Briggs, Able Seaman Robert Tilburn and Midshipman William Dundas. The loss of the ship was a bitter blow to the Admiralty, but in reality, she had been overtaken by technology and not the invincible ship she had been thought of. This was summed up by Admiral Chatfield in The Times, in that she ‘was destroyed because she had to fight a ship 22 years more modern than herself. This was not the fault of the British seamen. It was the direct responsibility of those who opposed the rebuilding of the British Battle Fleet until 1937, two years before the Second Great War started.’
© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2001
The information contained on this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.