The Battle of Jutland Exposes a Weakness
The Battle of Jutland exposed some frailty within the designs of British battlecruisers to the point that three such vessels were lost in the battle. The battle began on May 31st, 1916, and ceased on June 1st. Fighting was concentrated in the North Sea near the Denmark coast and failed to prove a victor between the Royal Navy of the British Empire and the Kaiserliche Marine of the German Empire. By the end of the conflict, the Battle of Jutland was recorded as the single largest naval battle of the First World War - 28 Royal Navy battleships faced off against 16 Kaiserliche Marine battleships along with several battlecruisers, destroyers and lesser ships in attendance. By the end of it all, 6,094 Royal Navy sailors were dead, joining the 2,551 German sailors on the other side. Hundreds were wounded or captured in the fracas. Key to the German side was the loss of three British battlecruisers (lost to subsequent internal cordite explosions at her magazines) and eight destroyers to the loss of just one German battlecruiser.
Righting Past Wrongs
As a result, design of HMS Hood was revised to incorporated some 5,000 tons of additional armor (making up over a quarter of her end-product displacement) and bracing to help protect her vital spots from more powerful main guns. Her main belt was 12-inches thick while her middle belt was given 7-inches of armor. Her upper belt topped at 5-inches with the exception of 4-inch protection held aft. Plating along the main deck came about very late in the stages of the Hood's construction. Her turret forward facings were given up to 15-inches of armor while their sides sported up to 12-inches. Their tops were limited to just 5-inches of protection. Anti-torpedo protection was addressed through the then-conventional practice of "torpedo bulges" along her lower hull - this involving an empty hull space supported further by steel reinforcement. During testing, it was found that the Hood would have little in the way of proper armor protection for the next series of gun calibers and projectiles in development. Additionally, her armor design would prove highly susceptible to "plunging fire", that is, incoming enemy fire from above as opposed to the sides. Nevertheless, the Hood was allowed to exist for there was no going back on her construction at this point.
Going in the Wrong Direction
While this armor address proved a novel attempt, the end-product proved a rather hasty revision that never fully satisfied all-around protection for the ship - not to mention making her a heavier girl than originally intended. She sported a three-deck layout which assumed the top deck would contain and retard any incoming projectile's explosion. However, by the end of World War 1, delayed-fuse projectiles were becoming the norm, rendering the three deck theory more or less useless. Delayed-fuse projectiles could penetrate upper decks and still explode below deck, closer to the vital components of any ship and, ultimately, sink or cripple her. As such, the Hood sat lower in the water than anticipated and would always sail forth with a good deal of stress placed against her understructure. Despite the flaws, the ship was pushed into the water and evaluated to satisfaction.
Birth of the Hood
HMS Hood was ordered, along with three other sister battlecruisers, as part of the Admiral-class under the "Emergency War Programme" during World War 1. Along with Hood, there was to be HMS Anson, HMS Howe and HMS Rodney. However, construction of these three vessels was soon stopped in March of 1917 though work on the Hood was allowed to continue. It was seen that any near-future work by the Germans on their own battlecruisers was severely in doubt with the changing nature of the war. HMS Hood was ordered on April 7th, 1916, and laid down on September 1st later that year in Clydebank, Scotland by the John Brown & Company shipbuilder. She was launched to sea on August 22nd, 1918, and formally commissioned on May 15th, 1920. She carried the same of Samuel Hood, the First Viscount Hood remembered for his service in the American War of Independence and the French Revolutionary Wars and, himself, serving as a mentor to Horatio Nelson of the Napoleonic Wars fame. The widow of Rear-Admiral Sir Horace Hood - great-grandson to Lord Hood - was the sponsoring party. Captain Wilfred Tomkinson, CB, was awarded the helm as her first commander and HMS Hood became the flagship to the Atlantic Fleet Battle Cruiser Squadron of the British Empire. Her first voyage saw her journey to Scandinavia in 1920 and then on to Brazil and ultimately the West Indies.
HMS Hood Walk-Around
HMS Hood was something of a majestic design in terms of warships. She sported two funnels amidships about her superstructure with the bridge stationed ahead. Her bow was clean and relatively uncluttered, streamlines to a maximum efficiency needed for traversing the volatile waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Ahead of her bridge sat a pair of 4 x 2 BL 15-inch (381mm) Mark I /42 caliber cannons (standard among the main ships of the Royal Navy), the aft system elevated over the forward emplacement for an unfettered view. Similarly aft, there lay another pair of 15-inch gun turrets giving the grand ship a total of eight 15-inch guns. Each turret sported angled side armor and flat top-facing armor as well as 120 projectiles to a turret as minimum. This primary armament was backed up by no fewer than twelve single-mounted BL 5.5-inch (140mm) Mk I series cannons. Anti-aircraft defense was handled by 4 x QF 4-inch (102mm) Mark V series cannons. To counter enemy surface vessel threats, the Hood was afforded 6 x 21-inch (533mm) Mark IV torpedo tubes, these systems mounted amidships along her starboard and port sides for maximum effectiveness. By all accounts, HMS Hood stood as the power of the Royal Navy during her tenure and was one of the most powerful warships of her time not to mention the largest vessel on water and the longest (in terms of length) capital ship then in service. The Hood coupled battleship-like firepower with cruiser-like speed, often leading many to question her classification as a true "Battlecruiser" when she was - according to some - more of a "Fast Battleship".
The crew in each gunhouse had access to a variety of projectile types. This included the standard-use 1,920lb Common Pointed Capped (CPC) shell and the equal-weighted Armor-Piercing Capped (APC) shell. Practice rounds were available, although in smaller number, and shrapnel-based projectiles were even lesser in number - and these only supplied to the forward turrets. All guns, including the 5.5-inch systems, held an elevation range of -5 to +30 degrees.
The Hood fielded a variety of onboard aircraft for patrol duties during her active tenure. Initially, this came in the form of a conventional biplane navalized aircraft (with a fixed wheeled undercarriage) during the 1920s but later replaced by specialized floatplane types in the beginning of the 1930s. The single floatplane was launched via a positional catapult fitted to the quarterdeck. it would then complete its reconnaissance sortie and return to the waters alongside the ship. An onboard crane would then haul the floatplane back onto the ship for reuse. The catapult was later dropped from the design in 1932 due to the low-waterline nature of the Hood when at speed and at sea.
The Hood on Tour
During the inter-war years, the Hood spent most of her time at sea completing standard overseas show-of-strength tours around the world. From late 1923 to late 1924, she was part of the "Cruise of the Special Service Squadron" - a global cruise involving several ships. After the cruise, she was assigned to the Atlantic and Home Fleets in 1925. She underwent refit from May 17th, 1929, to June 16th, 1930, with an upcoming modernization program scheduled for sometime in 1941. In the latter half of September of 1931, her crew took part in the "Invergordon Mutiny" as part of a military strike to fight defense spending cuts to the Royal Navy during the Great Depression. The strike lasted all of two days and involved over 1,000 Royal Navy sailors. The refit added a new 15-inch APC round to her forte but did not receive the needed weapon revisions to fire this round before her end. When tensions broke into an all-out civil war across Spain, Hood was stationed in the Mediterranean Sea to help protect British interests in the region.
Refits Cant Stop the Aging Process
Over the years and as the pride of the Royal Navy, rest alluded the Hood and she was forced to maintain her sea-worthy presence on an almost monthly basis. As such, her structure and internal systems were never fully allowed to be replaced or set in prime original working order. 1931 saw 2 x octuple mountings added for QF 2-pdr Mark VIII 40mm guns. 1933 added 2 x quadruple mountings for 0.50 caliber Vickers Mark III heavy machine guns. When World War 2 arrived in Europe in the latter half of the 1930's, HMS Hood was set out to station in the Mediterranean Sea without any respite in July of 1936. In 1937, her QF 4-inch Mark V guns were added to by way of 4 x twin-mounted QF 4-inch L/45 Mark XVI guns. Three Mark XIX mountings replaced the remaining 4-inch single guns and a third QF 2-pdr Mark VIII 40mm gun was added, the latter also in 1937. 1937 also added an additional 2 x 0.50 caliber mountings as well as rocket-assisted cables intended to snag low-flying enemy aircraft. She became a part of the Home Fleet Battlecruiser Squadron at Scapa Flow in June of 1939. Full-scale war with Germany soon followed. Another refit in 1940 removed her 5.5-inch guns, two of these ending up as coastal defenses on Ascension Island between Africa and Brazil.
Her initial primary mission was to serve as defense for the vital convoys needed at mainland Europe. This defense would tangle against enemy aircraft, surface vessels and the much-feared German U-Boat submarines prowling the waters. In one action, an aircraft bomb did manage to hit the Hood but resulted in little damage to her structure. Her early patrols placed her near the vicinity of Iceland and attempted to contain the German fleet to the Atlantic.
Surrender or Else
When France fell to the German invasion by June of 1940, Britain maintained a rational fear that France's still-existing naval fleet would soon come under the power of the progressing German and Italian land forces. The French fleet was at harbor at Mers-el-Kebir (Algeria) in July of 1940 and the British Admiralty requested that French sailors destroy their vessels than have them land into enemy hands. The British government understood that it could match the German Kriegsmarine to some extent, but, a German Navy with the French Navy in tow could outdo the island nation - making a British Isle invasion that much more difficult to derail or defend against. Meetings between the French and British commanders took place with little resolved. As time was of the essence, British leader Winston Churchill forced an ultimatum onto the captain of the HMS Hood - Captain C.S. Holland - to end the situation with due diligence before it was too late. When the original deadline for surrender had passed, HMS Hood, for the first time in her history, opened her guns in anger against the moored (and unsuspecting) French fleet.
Death of the French Fleet
The French responded by attempting to leave the harbor and fire back. However, the guns of the Hood proved very accurate and consistent and hit the French battleship Bretagne. She eventually succumbed to additional shelling and sunk in just 20 seconds according to sources. HMS Hood would fire some fifty-six 15-inch shells during the ordeal, covering just one half hour in whole. By the end of the action, some 1,000 French sailors were killed and the French fleet lay in ruins. The French were only able to land a few close hits at HMS Hood, injuring just two sailors. The Hood then preceded to chase the battleship Strasbourg attempting to get away. After one and a half hours and night falling, the chase was called off by Holland. HMS Hood left the Mediterranean on July 8th, repelling and surviving an attack by Italian bombers. By the time German land forces arrived at Mers-el-Kebir, the French fleet was no more. What vessels the British Navy failed to sink were, in fact, sabotaged by their French owners, leaving the Germans incensed that their prize was not meant to be.
In England, the unwarranted attack on the French fleet was greeted as one of the ugly necessities of war. Churchill spoke before the House and explained the need and reasoning to eliminate the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir - a very hard decision to make he later professed. He was greeted to cheers and support of the British public for doing what had to be done for the betterment of the future. In America, President Franklin Roosevelt stood by his ally. Though not officially at war with any party at the time, America soon delivered much needed supplies to the British mainland and - more importantly - delivered several mothballed US Navy destroyers for British use via Lend-Lease. British actions at Mers-el-Kebir proved the British were capable of doing the ugly business of war and they had gained the respect of the Americans for it. This relationship between the two nations would remain relatively unchanged for the next seventy-plus years. Churchill knew, perhaps better than most, the importance of having their American ally for the duration of the war and he played his cards accordingly.
France did not take the shelling of her fleet so lightly. Resentment and outcry grew across France for the murder of their sailors. In true Nazi fashion, Germany used this hate to channel further dislike of the British people and showcased them as barbaric with only the interest of conquering France themselves. Many in France would never forgive the Royal Navy - or the British government for that matter - for their action at Mers-el-Kebir. Others understood it as a necessity of war. Even Royal Navy sailors recounted their dislike for the order to assail the French fleet in such a defenseless position, and many regretted the action, but understood it what war was - illogical from the start, with orders handed down from men of authority.
Back in Action
HMS Hood was back at Scapa Flow to help defend the British mainland from a German sea invasion. The Battle of Britain was waging above the skies of lower England and the North Sea. Hood was sent to join HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney at Rosyth in Scotland and later went back on patrol to protect convoys. Any major overhauls alluded the Hood once again for she was sent out to locate the whereabouts and, if possible, engage the Admiral Scheer pocket battleship. When this came up empty, she was similarly sent away to find the heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper, again coming up empty. 1940 closed without action and the Hood entered Rosyth for a much-needed refit.
Final Voyage: Hood VS Bismarck
Hood was once again sent out to sea with Flag Captain Ralph Kerr CBE in command, this time to locate and engage the German battleship KMS Bismarck. The Bismarck proved quite the elusive beast and was building a rather mythical existence for itself. It was deemed that if she were to break out into Atlantic waters, the convoys of the Atlantic would soon fall prey to the mighty vessel. As such, HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales were teamed up to peruse. The ships HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk, tracking the Bismarck, found her with the KMS Prinz Eugen near the Denmark Straight.
However, the vessels were soon lost after midnight. In the resulting action, the British and German fleets had passed one another without notice. It was not until 2:47AM on May 24th, that the Germans were located once more. Vice-Admiral Holland was now back in the helm of the Hood and took to chasing the German fleet. He had already dispatched his destroyers during the search for the Germans and had thusly made himself more vulnerable. Holland tried to maintain an angled course to keep all of his guns in play. Taking a head on course - and thusly reducing the closing range - would have only given him use of his forward turrets while the Germans could have loosed a full broadside on his battered ship. Hood led the charge with Price of Wales in tow.
Darkness has made things worse. It was soon found that the two Royal Navy ships were in fact approaching the Germans with their bow. At 5:45AM, the two sides had made clear identification of the other. Now the Bismarck had been sent out with orders to engage enemy shipping and convoys and avoid engagements with warships if possible. However, the current situation (enemy cruisers nearby as well as the nearing ice edge) that presented itself to Admiral Lutjens of the Bismarck made it clear that this was a battle he would have to have. The crew of the Bismarck, therefore, sprung into action.
The guns of HMS Hood opened up at 5:52AM and, by mistake, were aimed at the similarly-profiled Prinz Eugen. The initial salvo landed just near the enemy vessel. Holland knew he only maintained a limited window of opportunity, not wanting to expose his weak decks to plunging enemy fire for long periods of time. Hood closed in as fast as possible.
The German gunnery crews, equal experts at their craft, soon ranged the Hood and the Prinz Eugen landed an 8-inch projectile into her. The resulting explosion soon ignited some of the onboard 4-inch ammunition, causing a fire within the Hood. Beyond actually sinking, an onboard uncontrollable fire was the second worse fate to befall any sea-going crew. The billowing smoke, boiling oil and the prospect of igniting more ammunition could completely send a given vessel to the bottom of the ocean within seconds. Bismarck then ordered Prinz Eugen to concentrate on the Prince of Wales. Holland positioned the Hood for a full broadside attack to make use of his aft turrets.
The Hood is Lost
A salvo from the engaged Bismarck struck the Hood while in the turn. The Hood exploded in a violent fireball that was followed by an equally powerful explosion further aft. Presumably, she was splitting in two for her stern section, then her bow section, lifted from the waters and came back down. Her bow section began to sink while her gunnery crews let off one last salvo from their forward turret. In only three minutes, HMS Hood had taken on water and sunk to her fate - her entire action, from first fire to sinking - lasted just over 10 minutes. Of the 1,418 Royal Navy sailors aboard the Hood that morning, only three survived to tell the tale, rescued by HMS Electra hours later. The three surviving sailors were William John Dundas, Robert Ernest Tilburn and Ted Briggs. Briggs survived them all, living up until 2008.
Effect on the British
The news of the loss of HMS Hood has a profound impact on the government and the people of the British Empire. Their pride of the seas was gone at the hands of the hated Germans and the Bismarck lived to fight another day. Further efforts to find and sink the vessel eventually led to fruition after May 27th, 1941, in what is viewed as the sequel to the Battle of Denmark Straight. 2,200 German sailors died while a further 110 were captured. The Allies suffered 49 dead and a destroyer lost in the battle. The souls of HMS Hood were at last avenged.
Following the Hood's loss, a Board of Enquiry was established to officially set the record on what caused the loss of the British vessel. It was deemed that a 15-inch shell lobbed from the Bismarck exploded the Hood's 15- or 4-inch magazines and cause a cumulative explosion that eventually shocked and took the ship down. Vice-Admiral Holland was cleared of any wrong doing in the loss of the Hood. As can be expected, modern theories as to the exact cause of the explosion and subsequent loss abound.
The Hood is Found and Her Memory Lives On
The wreck of HMS Hood was located in July of 2001 in 10,000ft of water. The following year, the British government labeled it a war grave and the site came under the care of the Protection of Military Remains Act established in 1986. The act was passed by the British Parliament to cover both lost aircraft and vessels of the British Empire, though those not necessarily lost in combat or wartime. The Hood is survived in history, memory and as two fixed emplacements still stationed on Ascension Island. The fixed emplacements were her former 5.5-inch guns removed during her 1935 refit. They served to protect the remote island from German approach and even fired in anger at a surfaced U-Boat. While not scoring a hit, the submarine dove out of harm's way and the emplacements survived up to today.
Many memorials were erected throughout Britain to commemorate the valor and loss of the crew of the Mighty Hood.