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Battle of the Denmark Strait

HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy sunk by the mighty German Bismarck at the Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24th May 1941.

Before the Battle of the Denmark Strait, HMS Hood had been the largest, heaviest and fastest warship on the sea for the last 20 years. HMS Hood had been the pride of the British Royal Navy. The Admiral-class battlecruisers main fire power came from eight 15-inch guns. The ship had a top speed of 30 knots and a complement of 1,325 crew members.

A refit had been planed during 1939 to upgrade HMS Hood, part of the upgrades were the 3-inch deck to be doubled to 6-inches. However, with the outbreak of World War II the upgrade became put off.

hms hood, sunk at the battle of the denmark strait
HMS Hood – 17th March 1924

During May 1941, HMS Hood had been operating as a convoy escort in the North Atlantic area of Scapa Flow, during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Hunt for Bismarck

19th May 1941, Bismarck departs Gothenhafen on its first operational sortie.

The Royal Navy received intelligence reports of two battleships of the Kriegsmarine in the Norwegian Sea, heading towards the Denmark Strait. The German battleship Bismarck and heavy-cruiser Prinz Eugen had become spotted.

bismarck in grimstadfjord in norway, 21st may 1941
Bismarck in Grimstadfjord in Norway, 21st May 1941

The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen stopped off at Bergen in German occupied Norwegian fjords for refuelling and supplies. Coast-watching and aerial surveillance by the RAF gave updates on the two Kriegsmarine battleships.

Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland formulated a plan to have HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales to engage Bismarck. The two heavy-cruisers HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk of the 1st Cruiser Squadron to engage Prinz Eugen.

Vice-Admiral Holland signalled the plan from HMS Hood to Captain John C. Leach of HMS Prince of Wales. Commander Wake-Walker of the 1st Cruiser Squadron could not be contacted in fear of the Germans intercepting the signal. It had been hoped they would meet enemy at 2am which was sunrise in the region of Norway. The thought was that the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen would be silhouetted against the rising sun. HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales would give a surprise attack in the cover of darkness. However, HMS Suffolk had lost sight of the German battleships.

21st May 1941, just after midnight, Six E-Class destroyers (HMS Achates, HMS Antelope, HMS Anthony, HMS Echo, HMS Electra, and HMS Icarus) escorting HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales were sent to search the Norwegian Sea for the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.

bismarck at the battle of the denmark strait, 1941
Bismarck at the Battle of the Denmark Strait, 1941

23rd May 1941, the weather had deteriorated during the evening, making it hard for the destroyers to maintain their speed. They were 60-miles away from HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales.

24th May 1941, at 2:15am Vice-Admiral Holland ordered the destroyers to spread out at 15-mile intervals while searching for the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.

Battle of the Denmark Strait

24th May 1941, at 3:00am, HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk had visual contact with Bismarck at the entry of the Denmark Strait. HMS Suffolk would shadow Bismarck through the Denmark Strait, reporting on location. Vice-Admiral Holland was waiting at the exit of the Denmark Strait with HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales. The Denmark Strait is the area between Iceland and Greenland, and above the North Atlantic.

5:35am the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had become spotted 17 miles away by HMS Prince of Wales. The German battleships had hydroponic equipment fitted, which had already alerted them to the sounds of high-speed propellers. The British ships smoke and masts came in to view soon afterwards.

5:37am, Vice-Admiral Holland ordered his squadron into action. The sea state of the Denmark Strait was too rough for the destroyers to be effective in Battle. Both HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk were out of range behind Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.

Firing upon Bismarck

5:52am, HMS Hood opened fire upon the leading ship, mistaking Prinz Eugen to be Bismarck. Once it had become realised that the leading ship was Prinz Eugen, HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales fired upon the Bismarck.

hms prince of wales
HMS Prince of Wales

Due to the vulnerability of HMS Hoods thin deck, Vice-Admiral Holland closed the range to the Bismarck. The manoeuvre was to flatten the trajectory of the shells from the Bismarck, giving HMS Hood protection with the 12-inch belt armour. During the manoeuvre, only 10 of the 18 British heavy guns could be used at the current angle. The British ships had also become a bigger target for the Bismarck to fire upon.

HMS Prince of Wales forward 14-inch guns fired a salvo upon the Bismarck. HMS Suffolk and HMS Norfolk were still out of range to join the battle. Both HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales were taking water ‘green’ over the bows as they smashed into high seas. Spray from the sea blinded their main rangefinders making it difficult to fire upon Bismarck.

kriegsmarine heavy-cruiser prinz eugen
Kriegsmarine heavy-cruiser Prinz Eugen

Three shells from HMS Prince of Wales hit the Bismarck. The first strike put the seaplane catapult out of action. The second shell passed through the bow, and the third went through the hull and exploded inside the ship. Bismarck’s suffered with bulkhead damage, and flooding in the generator room and partly flooding the boiler room. The Bismarck now listing a little towards the port side, and leaving and oil slick from the damage from the forward fuel tanks.

The sinking of HMS Hood

5:55am, The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen fired upon HMS Hood. A shell hit HMS Hoods deck, resulting in a fire in the ammunition store. Another shell hit just below the bridge and foretop radar director.

6:00am, Vice-Admiral Holland ordered both HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales to turn to port, bearing both forward and aft large guns towards Bismarck. During the manoeuvre, Bismarck now around 9 miles away started firing salvos from the large 15-inch guns. Some of the shells straddled HMS Hood, landing to the port and starboard of the ship.

bismarck fires on hms prince of wales during the battle of the denmark strait
Bismarck fires on HMS Prince of Wales during the Battle of the Denmark Strait, 24th May 1941

Another shell had struck HMS Hood between the masthead and ‘X’ turret aft of the mast, causing a large pillar of flame on impact. A large explosion followed blowing both aft gun turrets off. The ship broke in two from an implosion that had been caused when the magazine exploded. The rear of the ship immediately fell away and sank, and the front of the ship rose out of the water. The front 15-inch guns fired off a salvo while in the upright position, just before the bow section sank into the sea out of sight.

During the explosion, HMS Prince of Wales became showered by small parts from HMS Hood half-a-mile away. It had taken just three minutes for HMS Hood to sink with 1,415 of the crew.

Upon hearing that HMS Hood had been hit, HMS Electra picked up speed and headed to the location.

Aftermath

HMS Prince of Wales took an avoiding manoeuvre to avoid the wreckage of HMS Hood, while becoming and easier target.

Both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen took advantage by firing salvos from their large guns with seven shells hitting HMS Prince of Wales. The superstructure was struck, killing several of the crewmen in the Compass and Air Defence Platforms. Crew had been killed when the aft radar office was hit. Two shells hit the aft of the ship below the gun turrets and below the amour belt underwater. Neither of those shells exploded, but they resulted in minor flooding. The ship had lost some of the main armament with intermittent problems.

6:04am, Captain Leach turned HMS Prince of Wales away, giving off a smoke screen while firing from the rear guns. A shell ring jammed and cut off the ammunition supply, making the rear guns redundant.

hms electra an e-class destroyer
HMS Electra an E-Class Destroyer

6:10am, HMS Prince of Wales retired from the battle, with 13 crew killed and nine wounded. The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen broke off the engagement to carry out their main objective of sinking the Allied convoys in the North Atlantic. This effectively ended the Battle of the Denmark Strait.

HMS Electra arrived two-hours after HMS Hood had sunk, they had prepared to pickup many survivors. HMS Icarus and HMS Anthony arrived shortly after and joined in the search amoungst the floating debris, driftwood, broken rafts, clothing, and personal effects.

Out of 94-officers and 1,321 seamen of HMS Hood, only three survivors became found. They were rescued from the cold Atlantic sea by HMS Electra.

Survivors of HMS Hood

  • Ordinary Signalman, Ted Briggs (1923–2008)
  • Able Seaman, Robert Tilburn (1921–1995)
  • Midshipman, William John Dundas (1923–1965)



By , last updated: 8th January 2021