Iconic Ships 3: HMS Hood

May 2021

A very special episode in our new Iconic Ships series, published on the anniversary of the loss of HMS Hood in 1941. HMS Hood is without doubt one of the Royal Navy’s most famous ships. A battle-cruiser, laid down in 1916 and launched in 1918, she was the largest battle cruiser ever built and the largest warship of any type in the world for twenty years. She enjoyed a correspondingly high profile which rendered her loss, with all but three of her crew, particularly potent. On this day in May 1941, whilst hunting the mighty German battleship Bismark, Hood was struck by several German shells, exploded, and sank in just three minutes.

This week is special not only for the subject but also for the historian who makes the case for Hood being an Iconic Ship – it is a contribution made by the late Eric Grove who so sadly was recently lost to us.

Eric was one of the UK’s most important naval historians; a magnificent personality, a brilliant teacher and a formidable scholar. His works include Vanguard to Trident: British Naval Policy Since 1945 (1987), The Future of Sea Power (1990), The Price of Disobedience (2000) and The Royal Navy Since 1815 (2005). He also edited a new edition of Julian Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy in 1988. He made contributions to many television programmes including BBC2’s Timewatch series, Deep Wreck Mysteries, Channel 4’s Hunt for the Hood and the Bismarck and the series The Battleships and the Airships.

Grove was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a Member of Council of the Navy Records Society and most importantly of course, he was a Vice President of the Society for Nautical Research.

This recording was made just the day before his death and was the last piece of work he prepared for publication. HMS Hood was the subject that Eric was most passionate about and in this episode you can hear him explain why she was so important, in his own words, and in his own voice.

 

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello, everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. This is the third episode of our ‘Iconic Ships’ sub-series in which the curator of a historic vessel gets to make the case that their surviving historic ship is iconic, or a historian gets to make the case that their chosen ship from history is also iconic. So far, we have heard excellent contributions on the Mary Rose and the Mayflower. And when we have received sufficient entries, we will be holding a public vote on social media, which I expect to be acrimonious, bitter, and immensely good fun. So, stand by for that.

    This week is a particularly important entry, not just because it is our first contribution concerning a ship from the 20th century HMS Hood, but because it is a contribution made by the late Professor Eric Grove, who so sadly, was recently lost to us. Eric was a magnificent personality, a brilliant teacher, and a formidable scholar. His works include ‘Vanguard to Trident: British Naval Policy Since 1945’, ‘The Future of Seapower’, ‘The Price of Disobedience’, and ‘The Royal Navy Since 1815’. He also edited a new edition of Sir Julian Corbett’s ‘Some Principles of Maritime Strategy’. Eric made contributions to many television programs including BBC 2’s Time Watch Series, Deep Wreck Mysteries, Channel 4’s Hunt for the Hood and the Bismarck, and The Battleships and the Airships. Eric was a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a member of the Council of the Navy Records Society, and most importantly, of course, he was a Vice President of the Society for Nautical Research. I now feel very fortunate indeed to have been able to convince him to prepare an episode on HMS Hood, certainly the subject he was most passionate about. And even more fortunate that I managed to record him making the case for HMS Hood a matter of days before his untimely death. HMS Hood is, without doubt, one of the Royal Navy’s most famous ships, a battlecruiser laid down in 1916, launched in 1918. She was the largest battlecruiser ever built, and the largest warship of any type in the world for 20 years. She enjoyed a correspondingly high profile, which rendered her loss with all but three of her crew particularly potent. On this day, in May 1941, whilst hunting the mighty German battleship Bismarck, Hood was struck by several German shells, exploded and sank in just three minutes. Eric Grove formed part of the team that discovered her wreck in 2001, and there really is no better person to make a case that HMS Hood is indeed one of the world’s most iconic ships. So here is Eric – and this was the last piece of work he produced for publication before he died. And all the more remarkable that we can hear him make the case not only in his own words but with his own unique and distinctive voice.

    Professor Eric Groves

    The iconic ship I’ve chosen to talk about is one that I’ve had a certain amount of contact with myself, and that is the battlecruiser, HMS Hood. A huge vessel in her time 45,000 tonnes, not quite so big as the new aircraft carriers, but still, in her day, the largest warship in the world. She was a battlecruiser rather than a battleship in that she had rather higher speed – she could make well over 30 knots when new, and she was definitely the pride of the Royal Navy. She was commissioned in 1920, but she had certain problems in her design, which weren’t obvious but would later lead, unfortunately, to her loss – her catastrophic loss. She had been designed before the Battle of Jutland, and Jutland had a considerable effect in making people much more conscious about the armour protection of ships. Her armour protection was modified on several occasions; was improved on several occasions. But the layout of the armour meant that she couldn’t be protected quite to the level that perhaps was desirable. A particular Achilles heel was that she did not have heavy enough protection over her secondary armament magazines. She had over her main armament magazines and in fact, so extra armour was put on the ship that she turned out to be very low in the water: her crew sometimes called her ruefully, the biggest submarine in the world. And in fact, her quarter-deck, right aft part of the ship, was often underwater. They tried mounting an aircraft on it in the interwar period, but it didn’t work.

    So, she had her problems. But she was a beautiful vessel: there wasn’t a straight line and the sheer of her hull, which made her very elegant. And she combined a huge sense of elegance, beauty even, and power. She was used by this on a world voyage of a special squadron, around the world, to demonstrate that Britain was still there as a sea power. It visited all the major areas of the Empire. It visited the West Coast of the United States, but not the East Coast of the United States, interestingly, because at that time, Britain wasn’t very popular in places like New York, because of the Irish problem and this kind of thing. So she bypassed the East Coast of the United States. But in this cruise, she went to virtually every major colony and Commonwealth country. And this was a huge demonstration of continued British power, and also how popular the Royal Navy was still globally. She was visited by tens of thousands of people; accompanied by the battlecruiser Repulse on a squadron of light cruisers, one of which was left behind in New Zealand to help found the New Zealand Navy, Dunedin. And it was a huge great success. And this I think, made Hood such an enormous icon of British sea power, she symbolized it: her size, her grace, etc. She was a wonderfully iconic ship, and she was the Royal Navy and the prestige of the Royal Navy. And this lasted despite the fact she was involved in the Invergordon Mutiny, which came as quite a shock to everyone, not least the Admiralty.

    She continued in service in the 1930s. She played a very significant role in protecting British merchant ships from Spanish nationalist ships in the Bay of Biscay, although her normal station was in the Mediterranean, and she became known as the Mighty Hood. This, however, as time went by, tended not to be reflected in her actual striking power. I mean, her eight 15-inch guns were a powerful armament. She had her anti-aircraft armament progressively modified with her original 5.5-inch guns taken out and 4-inch twin anti-aircraft guns added. But her armour weaknesses were perhaps more and more salient as the ranges at which actions occurred increased, and her vulnerability to plunging fire became a factor to be taken into account.

    When the war started, she served in a few operations notably, and rather sadly, in the eyes of most of her officers, the attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, following the French armistice. Admiral Somerville did not like what he was doing – he said it was a great error. And in fact, actually, it might have backfired, it gets a lot of support. But in my opinion, the French Navy could well have come in on the side of the Germans as a result of this and the entire fleet was far from being destroyed. And it was rather unfortunate that Hood, that had been serving alongside the French, some of the French ships actually at Mers-el-Kebir, had to play a part in this rather unfortunate operation.

    Then as flagship of the so-called battle cruiser squadron (in fact, it’s interesting that the World War I structure was kept and there was an actual battle cruiser squadron commander, who was effectively the second in command of the whole fleet), she went to Scapa Flow and was there in May 1941, when the Bismarck and Prince Eugen came out on their attempted raiding voyage. Admiral Tovey, the British Commander, had four capital ships available, and two of them, Hood and the brand-new Prince of Wales, were tasked with guarding the Denmark Strait, which is the straight to the north of Iceland, through which it was perhaps most likely that the Germans would come. In his own flagship King George VI and the battlecruiser Repulse, they guarded the Iceland Faroe passage. The Bismarck was found by two British cruisers, and with some success Admiral Holland, who had just taken over as battle cruiser fleet Commander, he was able to run the Germans down. He caught them as they came out of the Denmark Strait, and then turned to engage them. But here’s where things sadly began to go wrong.

    For one thing, the Germans who deliberately made their ships look alike look to be in a different order, in fact, Prince Eugen had taken over the lead because in engaging the British cruisers, Bismarck had lost her fore radar. And Holland and his offices mistook Prince Eugen for Bismarck, which meant that the Bismarck was able to fire at first rather unopposed against the British force. As Hood turned to open the so-called ‘A arcs’, in other words, to open up with her after guns as weapons, as well as forward guns, German shells began to strike Hood. And one of them appears to have gone through a thin part of the side armour, and then through the horizontal armour of the after magazine, the after secondary magazine, which then to use the technical term deflagrated, I think a layman would say blew up. And this caused a huge, great catastrophic explosion, which blew the after part of the ship quite literally to smithereens.

    And there now comes a bit of controversy among historians. I was involved in the hunt for the Hood, spent a month at sea trying to find both the wrecks of the Bismarck and the Hood. And we didn’t know what to expect with Hood, and we found she was in a pretty dire state, there were two major debris fields. And in fact, interestingly, her conning tower, the heavily armoured tower at the front of the ship just behind the fore turrets, was blown about a mile away, which, and I then went down to have a look at the diagram of the vessel, and sure enough, under the conning tower, there was a magazine. So, there was a second magazine explosion – it looked like. And in fact, Ted Briggs, one of the three survivors because only three out of the 1,400 or so people on board survived this catastrophic event, and he said he remembered being surrounded by a sheet of flame just before the ship, his part of the ship went down. So, my theory is, is that the explosion came forward, a lot of the starboard side of the ship, the right-hand side of the ship had actually disappeared, the first thing we saw, were, in fact, the inside of the starboard fuel tank, so most of the starboard side went. So it looks as if the explosion might have been transmitted up the starboard side of the ship, and into the forepart of the ship, where there was at least one major secondary explosion. So, effectively, Hood blew up twice. She went down, only three survivors, and the last thing Ted Briggs, the last alive survivor, who I got to know quite well remembers, was seeing the bow of his ship going down. It may then have suffered an implosion event. But there is, as I say, a controversy over the actual detail. And in fact, the interpretation of the wreck is difficult, because it’s in such a bad state.

    So, the symbol of British sea power had disappeared in its first major action, with an enemy ship firing back. And it came as a tremendous shock: a shock to Britain, a shock to the Empire, a shock to the government, and a shock to the Navy, that this great symbol of British sea power had disappeared, with very heavy loss of life. And it certainly gave the British an extra incentive to find and sink the Bismarck, which they did. And Hood sadly became a symbol of the decline, as well as the continued strength, of the British Empire in the early part of – the first half of the 20th century and iconic ship indeed.

    Sam Willis

    Well, I very much hope you enjoyed that. So, do please go back through our archive and make sure you listen to the previous episodes on ‘Iconic Ships’, so the Mary Rose and the Mayflower. And keep in touch so that you don’t miss any more coming your way: we’ve got fabulous entries on HMS Bellerophon (yes, the Billy Ruffian!), on HMS Ark Royal (so something for you aircraft carrier fans out there), also the Cutty Sark, the SS Great Britain, tiny old HMS Pickle, HMS Belfast, so many ships; it promises to be great fun. Do please follow the Society for Nautical Research on social media, on Twitter and on Facebook. And the Mariner’s Mirror Pod has its own Instagram and YouTube pages, both of which include wonderful original visual material that sits alongside the audio podcast episodes. There are films, documentary-style pods there, as well as innovative animations and other interesting visuals, it really is tremendous. Please leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. But best of all, please do join the Society for Nautical Research, you can find us @snr.org.uk and your annual subscription will go towards publishing the most important maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past.

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