The Royal Navy's Ill-Fated Symbol

By Michael D. Hull

With France’s recent capitulation to Nazi Germany, Great Britain could not take the chance of the vessels falling into Axis hands. The thought of firing on the French, who had been close allies less than two weeks earlier, was “a sickening idea” to Briggs, and no doubt many others. Nevertheless, with Force H now arrayed against a powerful French naval squadron in port at nearby Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria, the moment seemingly was at hand.

On the Hood ’s flag deck, a message was received at 1745, and the three sailors took up the flag signifying “open fire.” Briggs recalled, “My fingers trembled as I performed my task of putting an Inglefield clip on the flag’s head.” The white and red piece of bunting quickly was hoisted, and almost immediately the British warships’ guns, including the Hood ’s 15-inchers, roared.

Commissioned in 1920, the legendary Hood had been celebrated as the embodiment of Royal Navy pride and strength during the lean interwar years, when she showed the British ensign in distant ports during frequent goodwill cruises. But now she was leading a bombardment that Prime Minister Winston Churchill would call “a hateful act.” The Hood’s rich history had reached a low point, and decades of neglect had rendered her virtually obsolete. Moreover, the ship’s days were numbered.

A Great War Battle Cruiser

The Hood ’s origin dated back to October 1915, when Rear Admiral Frederick Tudor, director of naval construction, requested a design for an experimental shallow-draft battleship that incorporated advances in seakeeping. Five designs were drawn up, all of which were rejected by Admiral John Jellicoe, Grand Fleet commander-in-chief. He maintained that advanced battle cruisers, not battleships, were needed in response to the 13.8-inch-gunned Mackensen -class battle cruisers Germany was building. With the same armament as dreadnought battleships but sacrificing armor protection for speed, battle cruisers were designed to chase down and pummel enemy surface raiders, but the exigencies of war led to them being used as spearheads for battle fleets.

Seven new designs were produced in February 1916, and on 7 April the Admiralty Board gave the nod to the chosen blueprint for four Admiral -class battle cruisers. The Hood , bearing the name of Admiral Samuel Hood (1724–1816), would be the only one completed. With a length of 860 feet, the enormous vessel would be 160 feet longer than Vice Admiral David Beatty’s flagship at the Battle of Jutland, the battle cruiser Lion .

Work on “Ship No. 460” began on 1 September 1916 in the big John Brown & Co. yards at Clydebank, Scotland. The Hood’ s construction was a massive undertaking that involved the skills and labor of thousands of workers. The project faced significant delays, however, because of constant design alterations and the demands of World War I, then at its peak. The ship eventually was launched on 22 August 1918. Urged on by Admiral Beatty and others, work on the Hood gained momentum after the 11 November 1918 Armistice. Finally, on 9 January 1920, the vessel was able to leave the Brown yards under her own power. Fussed over by four tugs, she eased into the River Clyde while a large crowd watched. The Hood had cost the British government £6,025,000—almost twice the price of any previous warship.

She was completed in March 1920 and commissioned in the Firth of Forth on the 29th, but it was not until 15 May that the Hood was officially received into the Royal Navy. At the time of her commissioning, she was the largest and most powerful warship in the world.

 

Flawed from the Start

From the beginning, the “mighty Hood ” caught the imagination of all who saw her. She had an elegance not seen before, yet she was flawed. Her design had sacrificed deck armor in favor of speed and a heavy gun battery (eight 15-inch guns). A lesson from Jutland that became known late in the Hood ’s construction was that capital ships needed horizontal armor plating for protection, instead of relying on numerous thinner layers of plating. Misgivings were sounded early. During a meeting of the Institution of Naval Architects in March 1920, Rear Admiral Ernlie Chatfield surmised, “If the director of naval construction was going to design a ship today, he would not design the Hood .” But the deck armor defect was never corrected.

The battle cruiser weighed anchor at Rosyth, Scotland, on 15 May 1920 and steamed southward for the first time. After pausing to hoist the flag of Rear Admiral Roger Keyes, she eased up Plymouth Sound to Devonport, her home base for the next decade.

World War I, meanwhile, had not ended the struggle for supremacy at sea, and a new arms race was in progress. In November 1921, the United States convened an international conference in Washington aimed at limiting the development of capital ships and size of navies. The Washington Naval Treaty, signed on 22 February 1922, established a 5:5:3 ratio of capital ships for Britain, the United States, and Japan, respectively, and demanded that such vessels not exceed 35,000 tons and carriers 27,000 tons. Exceptions permitted the United States to complete the battle cruisers Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) as carriers, Japan to retain the new battleship Mutsu , and Britain to keep the Hood because she had been built so recently.

Pride of the Navy

With her graceful lines and impressive size, the Hood was widely viewed as the most beautiful ship ever built for the Royal Navy. But as one of the service’s more modern capital ships, she would be low on the priority list for modernization, with parsimonious defense budgets and her extensive goodwill cruises through the 1920s and 1930s precluding needed improvements.

HMS Hood steamed thousands of miles as a showpiece of British naval might and dominated harbors and anchorages from Oslo to Honolulu and Zanzibar to Rio de Janeiro. On 29 November 1923, she embarked with the Battle Cruiser Squadron and the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron on a circumnavigation voyage. With Vice Admiral Frederick Field in overall command and flying his flag in the Hood, the 10-month cruise covered 38,000 miles. The flagship also carried the Prince of Wales.

Half a million people watched the ships glide into Sydney Harbor, and the Hood hosted 700,000 awed visitors during the global tour. Her crew competed in cutter races, a tug-of-war, and boxing matches with men from the U.S. battleships Maryland (BB-46) and Nevada (BB-36). When the British ships arrived at San Francisco in July 1924, it was the first time in 40 years that a Royal Navy squadron had dropped anchor in U.S. waters, and the visit made a lasting impression.

Besides ranging as a seagoing ambassador during the interwar years, the Hood was one of a few ships with the power to spur Royal Navy recruitment. The moment in 1935 when 12-year-old Ted Briggs first saw the Hood from a beach at Redcar, Yorkshire, defined his life. She inspired him to join the navy three years later, and on 29 July 1939 he would report aboard what he called “the ship of my dreams.”

Heightened Tensions and War

The Hood increasingly was active through the 1930s as political tensions mounted in Europe. After suffering serious damage in a collision with the battle cruiser HMS Renown off Spain in January 1935, she was fully dressed to salute King George V in the spectacular silver jubilee review at Spithead that July. She was visited at Gibraltar by Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia in May 1936, was illuminated from stem to stern for King George VI’s momentous coronation review at Spithead in May 1937, and ferried Spanish Civil War refugees that summer.

A year later, when the Royal Navy went to war stations during the Sudetenland crisis, the Hood escorted the troopship Aquitania through the Strait of Gibraltar. It was feared that the German “pocket battleship” Deutschland , berthed at Tangier, might attempt to intercept. As it happened, however, the German vessel followed the Hood into Gibraltar on 2 October and moored alongside her. The British and German crews took to each other, beer flowed freely, festive meals were served in the Hood ’s mess, and the crews competed at soccer. Able Seaman Joseph Rockey found the Germans “very efficient, clean, smart, well drilled, well disciplined.” Able Seaman Fred White agreed: “We were all very fond of the Germans. . . . A very proud race and a credit to their country.”

When the 1930s waned and war clouds darkened, the Hood was in sorry shape because of her many cruises and lack of maintenance. The hull was overloaded, much of her machinery was worn out, her hydraulic systems were faulty, she had many rust holes, and her antiaircraft defense was woeful. But the Admiralty turned a deaf ear to reports that the Hood was neither seaworthy nor battleworthy. In a prophetic 1939 note, the director of naval construction warned that if she was not completely modernized there might be “eternal cause for regret.”

In short, the proud old Hood was decrepit. But war was imminent and she was needed. The Hood was cruising between Iceland and the Faroe Islands on the fateful Sunday, 3 September 1939, when word came that Germany had invaded Poland and Britain had issued an ultimatum for a withdrawal. There was no response by 1100, so Britain and France declared war.

The battle cruiser buttoned up for war and zigzagged with her destroyers. By the time the carrier Courageous was torpedoed by a U-boat in the Western Approaches two weeks later, the Hood’s crewmen were wearing inflatable life belts day and night. The ship spent the rest of the year making sweeps for enemy raiders and blockade-runners in northern waters, except for a detour on 16 December when she escorted an initial convoy carrying 7,450 Canadian troops into Greenock, Scotland.

Six months later, in June 1940, the Hood carried out a similar duty for World War II’s greatest troop convoy of World War II. Sailing from Liverpool with three Canadian destroyers on 12 June, she met Convoy US 3 in the Bay of Biscay and escorted to Britain six ships carrying 26,000 Australian and New Zealand troops. The convoy arrived safely four days later.

 

Further Wartime Service

After France capitulated to Germany on 22 June, Great Britain—facing the Axis powers alone except for limited aid from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—was presented with a daunting strategic situation. The long Atlantic coast from the North Cape to the Pyrenees was under enemy control, while the Mediterranean Sea, previously controlled by the British and French, was challenged by dictator Benito Mussolini’s Italy, which had sided with Germany and declared war on the Allies on 10 June. Italy possessed a powerful navy and air force, so Britain made haste to strengthen her naval forces in the Mediterranean.

Four battleships and the aging carrier HMS Eagle were moved there, and the headquarters for the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet were shifted from Malta to Alexandria, Egypt. The Admiralty, meanwhile, ordered more warships to assemble at Gibraltar. Led by Vice Admiral James Somerville flying his flag from the Hood , Force H was assigned to operate in either the Mediterranean or the Atlantic when the need arose.

Force H’s first assignment was to seize or destroy Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul’s large squadron at Mers-el-Kébir, near the port of Oran. Gensoul was given several choices, but he angrily rejected all and cleared his ships for action. Somerville had no alternative but to open fire. During a 10-minute bombardment, the battleship Bretagne exploded and went down; her sister, the Provence , burned and ran aground; the battle cruiser Dunkerque was seriously damaged; and a 15-inch shell tore off the stern of the destroyer Mogador . The Hood fired 56 15-inch shells and 120 4-inch shells at the French vessels and shore batteries. She herself was straddled twice by French salvoes, and was hit by shrapnel, which caused two casualties. The action at Mers-el-Kébir left 1,147 French dead.

In early August, the Hood was relieved of her duties with Force H and headed north, joining the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. The next month, as the Battle of Britain raged and a German invasion was feared, heavy Royal Navy units were moved into defensive positions. The battleship Revenge was stationed at Plymouth and the battleships Nelson and Rodney joined the Hood at Rosyth. But Royal Air Force Fighter Command prevailed over the Luftwaffe, and the Germans called off plans for an invasion. Later in the year, the battle cruiser participated in fruitless efforts to track down the German heavy cruisers Admiral Sheer and Admiral Hipper .

On 13 January 1941, the Hood began a three-month refit at Rosyth. Much-needed deck, structure, and machinery repairs were made, and gunnery and air-warning radar was installed. Work temporarily halted on 6 March when King George VI toured the ship. Twelve days later, the Hood again set out in pursuit of German surface raiders.

Her Last Engagement

The fleet had its hands full early in 1941 because the German Navy was on the offensive. Making brief sweeps into the Atlantic that spring, the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the Admiral Hipper sank more than 140,000 tons of Allied shipping in two months. Encouraged by the success of his raiders, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, the Kriegsmarine commander-in-chief, planned a mass attack with surface units and U-boats. But his resources had by then been reduced.

The Gneisenau was badly damaged in British air raids on the base at Brest, the Scharnhorst was undergoing repairs there, the Hipper was being refitted in a German dry dock, and the battleship Tirpitz had not been completed. Raeder had only two heavy ships available for the operation: the Bismarck , reputedly the most powerful battleship in the world, and the new heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen .

Raeder went ahead, and the two ships, under the command of Vice Admiral Günther Lütjens, departed the Baltic port of Gotenhafen (present-day Gdynia, Poland) on 18 May 1941, bound for the North Atlantic. Two days later, a Swedish cruiser sighted the German vessels in the broad Kattegat between Sweden and Denmark. News of the departure was flashed to the Admiralty, and British reconnaissance planes reported the raiders pausing in a Norwegian fjord on 21 May. Admiral John Tovey, Home Fleet commander-in-chief, swiftly deployed his ships to block all passages from the Norwegian Sea into the Atlantic.

While some Home Fleet units stood by at Scapa Flow, Tovey ordered the battleship Prince of Wales ; the Hood , flying the flag of Vice Admiral Lancelot E. Holland; and six destroyers to patrol the northern latitudes. The German ships, after leaving their fjord, were sighted and shadowed by the heavy cruisers Suffolk and Norfolk the evening of 23 May. The Hood , commanded by Captain Ralph Kerr, was 600 miles away and south of Iceland. She was alerted and sped toward their reported position.

When Admiral Lütjens reached the Denmark Strait, the passage to the Atlantic between Iceland and Greenland, he found the Hood and Prince of Wales blocking his way. The two opposing forces sighted each other at about 0532 on 24 May, and at 0552 the Hood opened fire at a range of 25,000 yards, followed within seconds by the Prince of Wales . Two minutes later, the German pair replied. In a short, sharp clash, the Germans brought their full broadside to bear on the Hood and Prince of Wales , which started to alter course in order to level their own broadsides. Admiral Holland had superiority of firepower, with 18 heavy-caliber guns against 8. But the Prince of Wales was too new to be considered reliable, so he swiftly closed the range with the Hood leading.

An 8-inch shell from the Prinz Eugen burst on the Hood ’s boat deck, touched off ready-use ammunition, and started a large fire. The Bismarck fired five deadly accurate salvoes at the battle cruiser, the last from 16,000 yards. One of the battleship’s plunging shells sliced into the Hood , perhaps through her weak deck, and touched off the magazines. Horrified sailors on board the Prince of Wales watched at 0600 as a pillar of flame soared 1,000 feet over the battle cruiser and a massive explosion spewed chunks of gun turrets, superstructure, derricks, and masts into the air. The venerable Hood split in two, and within a minute and a half, there was nothing left but a huge cloud of gray-black smoke.

As the battle raged on under leaden skies, the Hood sank more than a mile and a half to the bottom with 1,415 of her company, including Admiral Holland and Captain Kerr. Ted Briggs, who had been promoted to ordinary signalman when he turned 18 less than three months earlier, was one of only three survivors. He reported that neither officer made the slightest effort to escape. A bluejacket aboard the destroyer HMS Electra, which raced to the scene and searched for survivors, reported: “It was a moment never to be erased from the memory. It was a revelation of horror.”

 

A Grieving Nation

The loss was avenged when the battleships Rodney and King George V , and the cruiser Norfolk , aided by Swordfish torpedo-bombers from the carrier Ark Royal , fatally damaged the Bismarck on the morning of 27 May. But the death of the Hood sent a shock wave through the hard-pressed Royal Navy, which, in the next 15 months, also would lose the battleships Barham and Prince of Wales ; the battle cruiser Repulse ; the carriers Ark Royal , Hermes , and Eagle ; and many cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.

The Hood tragedy also stunned the British people, not least of all Prime Minister Churchill. Spending the weekend at Chequers, his official country house in Buckinghamshire, he was emerging from his bedroom on the morning of 24 May when he received the news. Later that gloomy morning, as Churchill left his study, U.S. envoy Averell Harriman’s daughter, Kathleen, saw “a tear running down his face, and it was the saddest sight I’d ever seen.”

U.S. Navy officers shared in Britain’s grief. Rear Admiral Augustus J. Wellings, who had been an official observer in the battle cruiser during the winter of 1940–41, was on board the Rodney when he heard the news. “I was shocked because the Hood had been the symbol of British naval supremacy for over 20 years,” he said, “and saddened because of the loss of so many friends.” Rear Admiral Ernest M. Eller, director of naval history and an observer in the ill-fated vessel during the spring of 1941, said, “Her loss hurt me deeply.”

In a letter to The Times of London four days after the tragedy, Admiral Ernle Chatfield stated: “The Hood 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.”

 



Sources:

Winston Churchill, The Grand Alliance, vol. 3, The Second World War (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1950).

Alan Coles and Ted Briggs, Flagship Hood: The Fate of Britain’s Mightiest Warship (London: Robert Hale, 1988).

John Hammerton, ed., The Second World War (New York: Trident, 2000).

Richard Hough, The Longest Battle: The War at Sea (New York: Morrow, 1986).

John Keegan, Rand McNally Encyclopedia of World War II (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1977).

Brian Lavery, Churchill’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation (London: Conway, 2006).

Maurice Northcott, Hood: Design and Construction (London: Bivouac Books, 1975).

E. B. Potter, Sea Power: A Naval History, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981).

John Roberts, The Battlecruiser Hood (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1982).

Bruce Taylor, The Battlecruiser HMS Hood : An Illustrated Biography (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).

Richard Worth, Fleets of World War II (New York: Da Capo Press, 2001).


Mr. Hull , a veteran of the British Army, is a military historian and has contributed extensively to numerous magazines and the Eisenhower Center for Military Studies’ World War II Guide. He was a longtime newspaper reporter and editor on both sides of the Atlantic.
 

 
 

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