The Battle of the Denmark Strait

Just before midnight on 23 May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck with the trailing heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen took advantage of an impending snow storm and turned to fire on the shadowing British cruisers. The storm line played hell with radar and the move surprised the British. Their sudden evasive maneuvers caused them to lose contact with the Germans for over three hours. However, during that engagement, the Bismarck’s big guns rendered its own forward mounted radar inoperable. So while the British were out of contact, Lutjen’s ordered the Prinz Eugen in the lead so it could use its own radar to cover the forward arc of the formation. When the Suffolk, still in the snowstorm, reacquired the Germans at 0300 on 24 May, it reported the Bismarck was still in the lead.

At 0530 the Hood and Price of Wales spotted the Germans, with the larger ship in the north and the smaller, one and half km south. Because of the distance, VADM Holland on board the Hood, couldn’t tell which direction they were going. And since the Suffolk reported the Bismarck was in the lead (Bad MASINT. Bad), Holland assumed they were heading back north. He ordered the formation to pursue. The Suffolk and Norfolk at this point were inexplicably under radio silence and didn’t correct. Since the Prinz Eugen was in the lead and the Germans were actually headed south, this order effectively placed the British in the unenviable position of having its own “T” crossed.

At 0552, the Hood’s gunnery officer told the forward turrets to open fire “on the lead ship” which he thought was the Bismarck heading north. But to the gunnery officers in the turrets, the lead ship was clearly the Prinz Eugen heading south, which they engaged. The captain of the Prince of Wales to his credit disregarded order and engaged the Bismarck, and scored several hits despite several guns failing minutes into the battle (she was so new, she still had civilian builders on board), She even scored one hit that was critical to the Bismarck’s fuel tanks. But it didn’t matter at the time. After only eight minutes and five salvoes from the Bismarck, the Hood’s fatal flaw doomed her.

The Hood, launched in 1918, was designed with all of the naval experience of the First World War. She had great speed, powerful guns, and thick side armor to deal with the flat trajectories of shells fired at ranges of 12 kilometers or so. But advances in gunnery during the interwar period saw the ranges of the big guns increase to over 20 km. At this distance, the trajectories were no longer flat but plunging. And the Hood had little deck armor, which was sacrificed for her great speed. At exactly 0600, a 15” shell from the Bismarck hit below the mainmast, penetrated a magazine, which caused a 15” wide 400m high column of fire followed two seconds later by a catastrophic explosion and gray mushroom cloud. The Hood broke in half and sank in two minutes. However, in those two minutes, her forward turrets defiantly fired one last time into the air, and her aft torpedo tubes launched her spread. Only three men of the 1421 man complement survived. The Norfolk (not the Prince of Wales as in the movie) immediately sent off the now famous message, “Hood has blown up.” Followed by a more detailed message from the Suffolk.

With the Hood gone, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen focused fire on the Prince of Wales, landing seven hits between 0602-0604, one of which was in the command tower that killed everyone but the captain. The seriously damaged Prince of Wales disengaged, but only because the Bismarck had to turn to avoid the Hood’s torpedoes. This provided a critical respite from the accurate firing and permitted her to retreat into her own smoke. Admiral Lutjen’s ordered his ships to cease fire at 0609, 17 minutes after the first shot. He didn’t pursue the PoW for fear of being cornered by the King George V and Rodney, whom he thought were close. The Bismarck turned south and proceeded on its primary mission: sinking convoys.

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