Symbol of Empire

Today, 22nd August, marks the centenary of the launch of “The Mighty Hood” from John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank. In an era of massive Royal Navy battleships, most of which had been born on the Clyde, this one was a whopper—a source of immense pride to the Bankies who built her and the nation at large. H.M.S. Hood was the modern peak of refinement in battleship. design promoted by Admiral ‘Jacky” Fisher during his seminal stint as First Lord of the Admiralty; a battlecruiser. Though carrying eight of the same massive 15-inch guns arming the latest Queen Elizabeth class, she could move them, her 1,715 crew and all 48,000 tins at destroyer speed of 32 knots or half again as fast as her WW1 battleship sisters. The idea was she could out-gun anything that could catch her and elude anything big enough to sink her.

Completed too late to fire a shot in anger in WW1, she proved to be the perfect PR tool for the interwar British Empire. While an almost bankrupt Britain scrapped most of the Home Fleet, demobbed the Army and  embraced the popular notion that the Great War had indeed been “The War to End All Wars”, the notion of Empire and Britain’s pivotal role at the economic heart of it was reinforced bu new developments like radio and long-range flying boats that bound new colonies like Tanganyka, while making the older ones seem closer together.

A crucial part of this was the World Cruise. Usually undertaken by a senior member of the Royal Family, on several occasions, the Admiralty contributed one of its capital ships on such ‘showing the flag’ missions. Hood was by far the most effective and impressive. Her sheer bulk and 856 ft (263m) length simply dwarfed anything in colonial ports. She was the largest ship to pass through the Panama canal at the time, barely scraping through with a foot to spare on either beam.She and the massive base built at Singapore between the wars became the twin symbols of the modern and enduring British Empire, about which just about all the British from char lady to Churchill were proud.

But both shibboleths were cons, whose weaknesses few people knew and those in power never admitted. This modern Tory claptrap about “Britain punching above her weight” is an old chestnut that dates from this era. When war did come again in 1939, the imperial bluff would be called. Britain was (with the honourable exception of RAF Fighter Command) woefully under-prepared. The inadequacy of the Army’s training and equipment was shown in May 1940, prior Dunkirk. But it was not until in 1941, two events six months apart demonstrated the hollowness of the two pillars of awe upon which Britain’s imperial power rested. Space does not permit  relating how two Japanese divisions bamboozled Percival’s 50% larger force at Singapore and dealt the British their worst defeat. Ever.

But six months earlier, the Royal Navy had a comeuppance almost as bad. Early in the war, the German Kriegsmarine fought a clever war, stretching the RN’s resources thin to cover shipping lanes sprawling round the globe. As a result, when their newest battleship Bismarck sortied in May 1941, there were only two capital ships at Scapa that might intercept it before it got lost in the boundless storm-tossed Atlantic. Hood, along with Britain’s newest H.M.S Prince of Wales (ten 14-inch guns) sailed and intercepted at dawn in the Denmark Strait. Bismarck also carried eight 15-inch guns and was better built and armoured. Everybody seemed pleased at this, convinced it would turn out well—this was, after all Britain’s newest AND Britain;s best, “The Mighty Hood”.

A year before, Hood had been “modernised’. This was a four-month stint in dockyard when all the 6-inch secondary battery, submerged torpedo tubes and old-fashioned AA guns were removed. Experimental UP projectors replaced them. Much equipment like pumps, radio, radar and generators  were replaced. all this lightened the ship bu over 1,000 tons and the plan had been to upgrade deck armour from 2-3 inches to 7 inches as protection against the then-new threat of bombs. But, such was the urgency of war, this was never done.


Denmark Strait: Bismarck enters from te top; Hood & Prince of Wales lower right

In this action, Hood, built as a battlecruiser, was deployed as a battleship.The tactics of both British ships was to work together on parallel courses, at first close the range with the enemy and then turn on the bean to open the arc of fire of the rear turrets. In the diagram, the lower dotted line is the rough path followed by shells when fire was opened at 05:53 at a range of over 10 miles. At that point, Bismarck is about 30 degrees off Hood‘s starboard bow so only her two forward turrets  (‘A’ and ‘B’) are firing. That also means that, because of the 10 nile range a d the steep trajectory to cross it,  almost any hit on Hood will plunge onto her deck, not her relatively strong side armour. An early shell from Bismarck does hit her boat deck amidships, near the mainmast. This starts a fire in the ready-use ammunition lockers of the new UP projectiles.

Just after the order is given to turn to port and bring the aft turrets to bear, another shell plunges near the mainmast, penetrates the deck armour and several decks before exploding. The explosion reaches the magazine of ‘X’ turret, still full of 15-inch shells and cordite charges. These explode with such force that the 120-ton X turret is blown 100 feet into the air, the ship’s back breaks. Driven by four still-churning propellers, that after quarter of the ship drives into the remaining part, whose bow tilts up with the impact and all is concealed by a boiling cloud of smoke, steam, sea water and debris.

When it settles, H.M.S. Hood is gone, along with 1,713 sailors who never know what hit them and much of the Royal Navy’s mythical omnipotence at sea. As a symbol of Britain’s fall from power, it was bettered only by an ignominious fall of Singapore by early 1942. As a military blunder, it does not rate with the stupidity of the Charge of the Light Brigade or crass overconfidence of Isandlwana. It was a calculated risk to use the wrong tool for the job. But the admirals making the decisions (Pound, Holland) should have known better. A quarter century before,  Beatty had made the same mistake at Jutland. He lost two of his six-strong squadron to magazine explosions by charging into accurate German gunfire. He was lucky not to lose a third.

The Bankies were rightly proud to have built such a magnificent ship. But the British Empire Hood and they served so well often did not merit such quality of material and people at their disposal. Lions were led by donkeys at sea, as well as on land.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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