Bismarck Excerpt – Part 2

HMS Hood

Today, we continue to track the last days of the Bismarck in this excerpt of a sweeping historical novel by Stacy Danielle Stephens.  The Plot, as they say, thickens!

Admiral Holland, commanding the task force which included The Hood, The Prince of Wales (a battleship so new that civilian contractors were still on board), and several smaller ships, might have chosen to wait prudently for the two German ships to meet his, but decided instead that it would be better to intercept the Bismarck.  This may have been reckless pride, or a justifiable confidence, or simply a willingness to do his duty by promptly bringing the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

Technically a battle cruiser, the Hood was slightly larger than the Bismarck, and slightly faster.  It, too, had eight fifteen-inch guns.  For twenty years, HMS Hood had been a key player in the British Empire’s public relations program.  It had toured the world, demonstrating to everyone who saw it that the Royal Navy was, and always would be, everywhere, and verifying what Mussolini himself had once observed: No one comes or goes anywhere unless the British have first said that he may.

On the morning of May 24th, 1941, the crew of the Hood anticipated an awful battle in which superior seamanship–a legendary attribute of the Royal Navy–would prove decisive.  They could have felt little doubt that the Bismarck would go down somewhere to the west of Iceland later that morning.  In addition to their task force, there were also two cruisers, the Suffolk and Norfolk, behind the Bismarck, precluding its escape.

* * *

At 5:27 AM the Germans noted the smoke plumes of two approaching vessels, which they assumed to be another pair of cruisers sent to assist the Norfolk and Suffolk in shadowing them.  Admiral Lutjens had been ordered to slip out into the Atlantic.  His mission was to disrupt convoys and destroy shipping.  He had been explicitly instructed to avoid battle if he could; but he had also been advised that if battle could not be avoided, he was not to enter into it timidly, and under no circumstances was he to withdraw from an inconclusive battle.  He could turn away from these cruisers now, and attempt to elude the four cruisers that would then be following his task force.  Or he could make for these cruisers, and attempt to sink them.  Either way, if things went badly, it was he alone who would face a court martial for failing to adhere to his essentially contradictory orders.  This exasperating contrariness was in the nature of orders given to any fleet commander in any navy.

Admiral Lutjens

Hedging his bet, Admiral Lutjens ordered a forty-five degree turn to starboard.

* * *

In Spain, I had learned something about modern artillery methods while translating for American gunners relying on Spanish spotters.  In the era of smooth-bore muzzle-loading cannon, artillerymen would adjust their firing angle for distance, but always saw for themselves what they were shooting at.  The invention of breech-loading pieces with long rifled barrels made it possible to fire a weapon at targets beyond the line of sight.  A forward spotter was necessary to identify and locate the target.  If the target had not been hit on the first shot, the spotter would inform the gun crew of the distance and angle by which the shot had missed, and the crew would adjust accordingly.  Accuracy, and with it success in combat, requires a quick facility with trigonometric functions.  On land, with a stationary target two or three miles distant, this is difficult enough.  At sea, with a firing platform that moves up and down on the waves, and targets moving laterally at a fairly brisk speed and distances of ten miles or more separating combatants–an error of one fiftieth of a degree will put a shot several hundred yards either side of a target–the necessary skill rivals that of a cardiac surgeon.

* * *

In order to hurl a three-quarter ton projectile a distance greater than seven miles, the barrel of the gun must be at a fairly steep angle to horizontal.  When this projectile reaches its target, it will be descending at an even steeper angle.  Aware that the speed of the Hood was only possible because its deck armour was ridiculously thin, Admiral Holland thought it best to close with the Bismarck as rapidly as possible, so that the majority of shells striking the Hood would arrive in a  horizontal trajectory, and be unlikely to pierce the deck.

Approaching the German task force, Admiral Holland mistook the Prinz Eugen, which was the closer of the two ships, for the Bismarck, and ordered that all fire be directed at it.  The Captain of the Prince of Wales, upon recognizing the Admiral’s error, countermanded the order, so it was his ship which actually fired on the Bismarck first.

* * *

The average age of the Bismarck’s crew was twenty-one.  Few of them had served on any other ship, and even fewer had ever been on the Atlantic, or seen any hostile action.  Any one of them could have distinguished an aircraft carrier from a tugboat, but it was the gunnery officers–when they saw the flash of fourteen and fifteen inch guns–who realized that these British ships were not cruisers.  And it was a gunnery officer who first shouted, “The Hood!  It’s the Hood!”

Admiral Lutjens, not wishing to explain to Admiral Raeder how it happened that he had compromised his mission by fighting an avoidable battle with a pair of British cruisers, had not given an order to either open or return fire.  Now that the Bismarck had been hit, and he had heard positive identification that it was HMS Hood–The Hood!–approaching, he assumed that the second British ship was the King George V, and he realized that if he survived this impending action, he may have to explain to Hitler how he had lost the largest battleship in the world by accidentally placing it in the path of the two enemy craft most able to sink it.

At this point, Captain Lindemann allegedly said, “I refuse to have my ship shot out from under my ass!”  Within moments, the Bismarck’s eight fifteen inch guns fired on the Hood.  The sound of this first salvo was heard in Reykjavik, more than three hundred miles away.  Six minutes later[1], the men of the Bismarck saw what one described as a ball of flame so huge it “seemed near enough to touch” and another described as “a pillar of black smoke reaching into the sky.”  A hurricane of debris–some of it molten–filled the air, and then wreckage surrounded the space where the Hood had been a moment earlier.  Other than that pulverized debris and fragmented wreckage, all that remained of the Hood was tons of steel plunging toward the ocean floor and three men thrust to the surface by a subsequent explosion.

* * *

Wreck of the Hood - Bow

Conventional wisdom holds that the Hood was sunk by a shot that was, consistent with one’s frame of reference, either very lucky, or very unlucky.  For the crew of the Hood, that shot was misfortune at its most extreme.  For the gunnery officers and gunners of the Bismarck, it was only the nearly instantaneous realization of their success that had been unexpected.  They had practiced sinking the Hood any number of times.

In the battle of Jutland, twenty-five years earlier, three ships identical to the Hood had been sunk in much the same way.  It was fortunate for the Germans that the Hood had been built before their proficiency at long-range naval engagements was a given.  Other than that, putting a shot precisely where you want it to fall involves very little luck.


[1] 5:57 AM  By this time, four dozen shells had been fired at the Hood, although the number that actually struck may have been as few as three.  A gunnery officer on the Bismarck saw a shell penetrate the deck of the Hood, but concluded that it was a dud.  That shell had landed in the magazine, amid dozens of shells weighing three quarters of a ton each.  It almost certainly detonated every shell it contacted, and each of these shells would have detonated adjacent shells.  In a matter of seconds, every shell in the magazine had exploded.  Investigations by the Admiralty concluded only that the Hood had broken apart, with both sections submerging within a minute as they rapidly filled with water.

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