Huge columns of water erupted in the vicinity of the Prinz Eugen as the 15-inch projectiles fired by the Hood exploded nearby in the sea. A half a minute later, the Bismarck had a similar experience as shells from the Prince of Wales arrived in her area. If there was any doubt before as to the type of British ships involved, there was none any longer in the minds of the Bismarck’s gunners. Only the big guns of capital ships could have produced the blasts seen as the British opened fire on the German squadron and created the gigantic waterspouts caused by their shells exploding in the sea. The angle of approach by the British force still made it difficult to see any distinguishing features of the British ships, and therefore they still could not yet be positively identified.
Admiral Lütjens was surprised to see that the Prinz Eugen was also coming under fire from the British ships, but not nearly as much as the crew of the Prinz Eugen itself. An element of fear had to come over those aboard the cruiser with the realization that a single hit by a major caliber shell could easily wreak havoc on their relatively thinly armored ship. A 15-inch shell is about seven times more powerful than an 8-inch shell based on their relative weights (i.e., 1,900 pounds versus 270 pounds). The Prinz Eugen’s crew naturally assumed that the Bismarck would be the primary target of any British capital ships and that they might have to take on one or both of the enemy cruisers following the German squadron, but they did not expect to take fire from enemy capital ships.
Admiral Lütjens realized that he had a real fight on his hands and that he could no longer evade the issue. The range was down to 23,500 yards and the British ships were at a bearing of 70° off the port bows of the German ships, just 20° forward of their port beams. Lütjens finally gave permission to open fire on the British force. The Germans had gained the tactical advantage of being able to employ their full firepower while the British ships were initially limited to their forward turrets only, depriving them of their two to one superiority in firepower.
The Prinz Eugen had been traveling on a steady course of 220° since 0532, and her gunners had been tracking the lead ship for over 20 minutes. Although he had not been given any specific instructions from the flagship, Captain Brinkmann naturally assumed that the Prinz Eugen, being the lead ship of the German squadron, would take on the lead ship in the enemy column as commanders had done since the time of ships-of-the-line. The Prinz Eugen’s gunners had been working on a firing solution as they went along, and they were therefore able to detect the last 20° turn to starboard by the lead ship at 0549 and make the necessary corrections before opening fire.
When permission was finally given to open fire, the Prinz Eugen fired a full salvo at 0555:00. With her fast-firing 8-inch guns, the Prinz Eugen could discharge as many as three to four salvos per minute, and she began a blistering attack on the lead ship in the British force, i.e., the Hood. Her guns had a muzzle velocity of over 3,000 feet per second, and her 23cm (8-inch) projectiles, each weighing 270 lbs., could cause some damage to lightly armored sections of even enemy capital ships.
Believing at first that the oncoming British warships were cruisers, the first gunnery officer of the Prinz Eugen, Paulus Jasper, decided to use high-explosive shells rather than armor-piercing ones, since they were more effective against lightly armored targets. This choice of ammunition was carried out for the entire period of the battle, but it did have the advantage of distinguishing the detonation of those shells from the armor-piercing shells used by the Bismarck.
At the time the Prinz Eugen opened fire, the range was down to 22,200 yards, and it would take 38 seconds for the results of her first salvo to become known. Not being certain that the splashes seen in the distance were from Prinz Eugen’s shells, Jasper fired a second full salvo, which straddled the target and scored a hit on the upper deck of the Hood. The hit started a fire that remained visible to the German squadron for the next few minutes.
It was now the Bismarck’s turn to get into the action. The Bismarck was directly astern of the Prinz Eugen at the time, but when the Prinz Eugen came under fire from the Hood, Captain Lindemann altered course to 215° which was 5° to port of the Prinz Eugen’s course of 220°. With the Bismarck traveling at her full speed of 30 knots and Prinz Eugen continuing to travel at a speed of 27 knots, the Bismarck would eventually pass the Prinz Eugen off the cruiser’s port beam. The Bismarck would then come between the Prinz Eugen and Prince of Wales and thereby place the Prinz Eugen on the lee side to protect the cruiser from heavy British gunfire as prescribed by German naval operating procedures.
The last turn to port by the British ships at 0555:00 put them at a more broadside inclination from the line of sight from the German squadron, and the gunners on the Bismarck were finally able to positively identify (erroneously) the enemy ships from their features as being the Hood and King George V, the worst-case scenario in their minds. The Germans thought that since the Prince of Wales had just been commissioned and did not have the time to weld its crew into a cohesive fighting unit, they did not consider the possibility that they would be facing the Prince of Wales instead of the King George V. The Hood was always the foe in war games played by the Kriegsmarine, and the Bismarck’s gunnery crew was anxious to try out the tactics developed during those war games.
Admiral Lütjens was perplexed by the sudden appearance of what he believed to be the two most powerful ships in the Royal Navy and which were thought to be still at Scapa Flow. Not only had he been let down by his own intelligence service, but he at last realized that the British had been fully aware of his sortie all along and that this was not merely a chance encounter. The enemy knew exactly where he was, but Admiral Lütjens had absolutely no idea of the disposition of British forces that he knew would be directed to intercept him and keep him from accomplishing his mission.
When the Bismarck’s gunners finally worked out the initial firing solution, considering the time of flight for her shells, the lead angle, and the corresponding range and azimuth, the Bismarck opened fire with a full salvo from her eight 15-inch guns on the lead ship shortly after 0555:30. At the time, the Bismarck was still 1,500 yards astern of the Prinz Eugen, and the range was down to 21,100 yards. With the Bismarck’s guns having a muzzle velocity of 2,700 feet per second, her 1,760-pound armor-piercing projectiles would reach their target in 32 seconds.
The splashes from the Bismarck’s first salvo landed ahead of the Hood and slightly short, and her gunners made the necessary adjustments in the azimuth and elevation of the guns before she fired again. Her second salvo was fired at 0557:00 at a range of 20,100 yards, and there was another wait of 30 seconds before the telltale splashes would reveal where it had landed and what further corrections might be necessary. The second salvo by the Bismarck also went wide of the target, but by then the gunners on the Bismarck realized that the British ships had probably made a turn to port from their previous course.
When the new course and speed of the Hood had been determined from successive sightings, the Bismarck’s gunners worked out new range and azimuth settings for their guns. They then fired their third salvo at the Hood at 0558:00 at a range of 19,000 yards. After a 28-second wait, they could see the splashes of their shells erupt around the Hood. Again no hits, but they were able to straddle the target.
After her second salvo, the Prinz Eugen began a rapid-fire attack against the Hood, firing at a rate of one salvo every 25 seconds, but she scored no further hits. When the Bismarck achieved a straddle on the Hood with her third salvo, Admiral Lütjens knew that it was just a matter of time before the Bismarck would begin scoring hits on the British battle cruiser. Having the range on the Hood, and not wanting to leave the Prince of Wales unattended, Lütjens ordered the Prinz Eugen to shift target to the Prince of Wales. By that time, the Bismarck had probably received at least one if not two hits from the Prince of Wales, and coming under fire from the Prinz Eugen could possibly interfere with the gunnery of the British battleship sufficiently to make it more difficult for her to score any more hits on the Bismarck.
After firing her sixth salvo at the Hood at 0557:40, the gunners on the Prinz Eugen turned their sights toward the Prince of Wales. It took about a minute to make the necessary changes in elevation and azimuth, and at 0558:40, the Prinz Eugen begin firing at the British battleship. With this new arrangement, the lines of fire from the German ships would be crossing each other instead of being parallel or converging on one ship. The lead ship of the German squadron would now be firing at the rear ship in the British column while the rear ship in the German squadron would continue to fire at the lead ship of the British.
In addition to taking on the Prince of Wales, the Prinz Eugen was ordered by Admiral Lütjens to keep the British cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk, still trailing the German force, under observation and to prevent any unexpected incursion from that direction. At the time, the Norfolk and Suffolk were still over 10 nautical miles (20,000 yards) astern of the Prinz Eugen, and therefore they really posed no threat to the German squadron. At almost zero inclination, the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen could not even be distinguished from one another at that distance.
Having found the range, the Bismarck’s first gunnery officer, Lt. Comdr. Adalbert Schneider, ordered the firing of three more salvos in rapid succession at the Hood. These salvos were 25 seconds apart, beginning at 0559:10 and at an initial range of 17,800 yards. After the fourth salvo, each additional one was then fired at a slightly reduced elevation with the hope that the Hood would sail into the impact area of each salvo as the range between the opposing forces continued to drop. The Bismarck fired her fifth salvo at 0559:35 at 17,300 yards, and it had a flight time of 25 seconds.
The first of three rapid-fire salvos (the fourth in total count) fired by the Bismarck straddled the Hood but without scoring any hits. The fifth salvo, however, landed with devastating effect at 0600:00, just as the Hood was still executing her second 20° turn to port onto course 260°. Most of the shells from that salvo fell harmlessly into the sea, but one projectile plunged into the stern of the ship in the area below her after turrets. The shell penetrated the Hood’s armored side and exploded in one of her after magazines, causing the ammunition stored therein to blow up. British experts believe that the smaller magazine with ammunition for the secondary armament of 4-inch guns may have exploded first, and that this ignited the ammunition for the Hood’s 15-inch guns in the main magazines.
A large sheet of flame was seen to shoot skyward near the mainmast of the Hood, and this was followed by a tremendous explosion in the after section of the ship. The Hood had been dealt a mortal blow when tons of cordite propellant stored in her magazines detonated. In the maelstrom created by exploding powder, high explosive shells could also be seen rapidly detonating. The force of the explosion literally tore the ship apart with debris consisting of shattered structural members, equipment, and even human remains raining down on the ship and the surrounding sea. A huge cloud of brown and yellowish smoke boiled skyward above the remains of Hood, marking the end of her long and illustrious career.
The Bismarck fired its sixth salvo at the Hood at 0600:00, just before her gunners realized that the battle cruiser had blown up, but it was a wasted salvo since the fifth one had already done the job. The sixth salvo landed in front of the huge smoke cloud enveloping the Hood, and it can be readily seen in one of the photographs taken from the Prinz Eugen during the battle.
The officers and crewmen on the bridge of the Hood were so concentrated on the ongoing action against the Bismarck that they scarcely noticed what had happened to their own ship. They felt the jolt when the ship was hit, but they had no idea at first that the after section of the ship had been blown away and that the Hood was in imminent danger of sinking. The helmsman first noticed that he had lost steering control of the ship, and then the rest of the bridge crew finally realized that there was something dreadfully wrong. They began to sense that the ship was slowing down and taking a gradual list to port. A look outside by one of the crewmembers revealed the stern obscured by smoke and confirmed the fact the Hood was indeed sinking by the stern.
The blown off aft section of the Hood quickly slowed down as its ragged broad surface, acting as a brake, pushed against the sea and rapidly filled with water. It gradually tilted forward as the water gushed in, lifting the stern end completely out of the water and exposing the ship’s screws and rudder underneath. Within a minute, the stern slipped beneath the sea, taking all within it to a watery grave.
The momentum of the forward section of the Hood, however, caused it to surge ahead, but without the push from her screws, that section also began to slow down and take on water more rapidly through its shattered after end. As the after part of the ship became heavier, it caused the front end to begin lifting out of the water. Crew members who were on the bridge, in adjacent areas, in gun positions or other locations on deck, or otherwise had access to avenues of escape, began to scramble for survival as the ship took on a greater list and sank deeper into the water.
As the Hood continued to sink downward by the stern, its forward section became almost upright out of the water, causing some to liken it to a church steeple. Observers saw what appeared to be the guns in the Hood’s forward turrets fire one more salvo aimlessly into the air as the forward section of the ship continued to sink. After the Hood had fired her tenth salvo at 0559:25, her guns were probably reloaded and ready to fire by 0600:00 when she was mortally stricken. It may have been possible for the firing circuits to be short-circuited by the seawater gushing into the forward section of the ship, causing the guns to fire spontaneously.
However, the forward section of the Hood was later found to be separated from the rest of the hull on the ocean floor, leading to speculation that there may have been a secondary explosion in that part of the ship. Such an explosion with its resultant smoke could have been mistaken for the Hood firing one last salvo as she was sinking. The issue is still open to speculation.
Finally the sea closed over the bow of the Hood about three minutes after she had been struck, taking hundreds more of her crew in their steel tomb to the ocean floor. For a few moments, the sea seemed to boil as the air trapped in the sinking ship continued to bubble its way to the surface. All that remained on the surface after the bow disappeared were pieces of floating debris, patches of fuel oil, a couple of Carley rafts, and a few survivors.
There was little time to abandon ship once it became certain that the Hood was going to sink, however several crewmen were able to clear the ship before she went under. Admiral Holland and Captain Kerr apparently made no effort to escape and went down with their ship in true naval tradition. Eventually, only three crewman survived the sinking of the Hood. Thus ended the illustrious career of the most revered ship in the Royal Navy and one of the most renowned fighting ships in all of naval history.
Admiral Wake-Walker, who saw the Hood blow up from his position on the bridge of the Norfolk, immediately radioed the news to the Admiralty and to Admiral Tovey on King George V, which was still sailing on a westerly course to intercept the Bismarck. The news was initially received in disbelief: How could the pride of the Royal Navy be so quickly destroyed? But then reality set in, and now the entire weight of British resources would be devoted to avenge the Hood and sink the Bismarck.
The destruction of the Hood was reminiscent of the loss of three British battle cruisers during the battle of Jutland in World War I. The battle cruiser concept was the brainchild of Sir John Fisher, who as First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty before the war had a number of these ships built. Fisher believed that the thicker armor of battleships could be sacrificed for the greater speed of cruisers to enable heavy firepower to be brought into play more quickly during a naval battle.
The battle cruiser concept was discredited by the Battle of Jutland, and it was eventually replaced by the concept of the fast battleship, which offered a better balance between armament, armor protection, and speed. During World War II, the United States built two ships classified as battle cruisers—the Alaska and Guam—to counter Japanese cruisers and German pocket battleships, but these ships were not cost effective, and were scrapped after the war. Another ship of that class, the Hawaii, was launched, but never completed, and three more were authorized, but never even laid down as their programs were cancelled.