Battle of Hood and Bismarck

Battle of Hood and Bismarck

Sat, 10/15/2011 - 3:00pm

Pictured: The ship's bell

Credit: PBS.org

Join us for both episodes of the two part documentary about the naval battle which inspired the famous Churchill command, "sink the Bismarck".

In July 2001, an expedition launched to find the wreck of the Hood - a British warship sunk during WWII. Learn the history and see the stunning images of the Hood, shot 3000 metres under the icy North Atlantic in Battle of Hood and Bismarck airing Saturday, October 15 at 3 p.m. on WXXI World (cable 524/DT21.2). The two part series encores at 10 p.m.

May 1941: Britain had no allies in mainland Europe. It would be another six months before the USA joined the forces fighting Hitler's Germany. America was however sending vital supplies, without which, the war would be lost. All those supplies came by ship across the Atlantic.

Hitler's plan was to cut that lifeline by scattering and destoying the convoys. Submarine warfare was already planning successful for the Nazis, but the destructive power of a battlecruiser against a convoy was even greater. Unlike subs, surface vessels could wipe out a convoy ship in one blow. The Nazi navy, the Kriegsmarine, sent the battleship Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen to cut Britain's transatlantic supply line.

But before the Bismarck could achieve her mission she had to break through the Naval blockades obstructing her path into the Atlantic. Leading the blockade was the pride of the British fleet - HMS Hood.

Hood was a battlecruiser - one of a new breed of warships developed before the First World War. With more horsepower and less armour, they were faster than battleships and were designed to outrun and outgun enemy ships.

Launched on 22 August 1918, HMS Hood was the 13th and final British battlecruiser. Big, fast and powerful, for the population at home, she was a symbol of Britain's supremacy in the world. However, she was an old ship, due for modernisation. The Navy knew that, like her predecessors, she would be vulnerable to plunging shell fire. But she was too urgently needed to be spared for a full refit.

Bismarck
Bismarck, in contrast, was a much more modern ship. The 1919 Versailles Treaty severely restricted Germany's ability to re-arm after the First World War. These restrictions were not lifted until Britain and Germany signed the Anglo-German Naval Agreement in 1935.

That allowed Germany to build a surface fleet of up to 35% of the size of Britain's, and up to 45% in the case of submarines. Five months later, Bismarck's design was complete.

She was launched on 14 February 1939. One of the most significant characteristics of this new ship was her ability to withstand damage. The design of her armour meant she was very well defended against any potential adversary. Armed, too, with powerful 38cm guns, she looked invincible.

Denmark Strait
'Worked up' and ready for action, on 19 May 1941, the Nazi ships Bismarck and Prinz Eugen set sail from Gotenhafen on the Baltic coast on a mission to cut the British supply route across the Atlantic Ocean from America.

Once out of the Baltic, they headed north. They were spotted during an RAF reconnaissance flight, lying in a Norwegian fjord, but by the time the RAF could strike, Germany's warships had left.

The Home Fleet brought a large number of ships into action to cover all the routes into the Atlantic. But it wasn't until 23 May that the cruiser Norfolk reported that Bismarck had been sighted in the Denmark Strait, where the battle cruiser Hood, the new battleship Prince of Wales, and six destroyers were waiting.

Early the following morning Prince of Wales sighted Bismarck 17 miles away and both ships moved towards the German vessel. At that range, Hood was vulnerable to plunging shell fire. The British ship tried to close up on Bismarck so that any fire would hit her well-protected sides rather than her thinly-protected decks.

Hood opened fire first, but her speed and the water spray made accuracy difficult. The Germans, though, shot well using their stereoscopic rangefinders. A shell fromPrinz Eugen hit Hood on the boat deck, causing a fierce fire.

As the two British ships turned round, a salvo from Bismarck hit Hood. There was an enormous explosion and the ship broke in half and then sank within minutes. Only three of the crew of 1,419 survived.

Prince of Wales was damaged but managed to escape. Bismarck also sustained damage that was serious enough for her to be ordered to St Nazaire in Brittany for repair.

Revenge
The loss of The Hood sent shockwaves around the Empire and dealt a cruel blow to Britain's confidence in winning the war. Churchill responded by issuing his now famous command, "sink the Bismarck". Her demise was sought, not purely for a military reason, but to secure the revenge and morale of the British people.

For a time the battleship disappeared from view but on the afternoon of 26 May, a patrol aircraft found Bismarck and 14 tiny, fragile Swordfish torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal hit her three times. One of those hits jammed her twin rudders. The ship could no longer be steered.

The Nazi navy knew there was no hope for Bismarck and the U-boats they sent arrived too late to help her. The Home Fleet's Norfolk was the first to make contact with her again, then King George V and Rodney started an attack that lasted two hours.

Despite this pummelling, she still didn't sink until torpedoes from Dorsetshire finally sent Hitler's most fearsome ship to the bottom of the sea - though some people think she was scuttled by her own crew. Her swastika ensign was still flying and her captain standing on the deck, saluting, as she went down.

Only 115 of the men on board were rescued.

An Invincible Ship
The British public saw HMS Hood as invincible - so her loss was devastating to morale at home. Even those who had no direct connection with the ship remember her today. But there are also many thousands of crew members and their relatives and friends who want to commemorate the ship and remember her history as well as her demise.

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