Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Battle of the Denmark Strait

Today is the anniversary, in 1941, of the Battle of the Denmark Strait. This battle, fought in the straits between Greenland and Iceland, saw the sinking of the famous British battlecruiser HMS Hood by German battleship DKM Bismarck and heavy cruiser DKM Prinz Eugen. Another British battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, was damaged and forced to withdraw, although not before she managed to wing Bismarck with a couple of 14 inch shells.

The balance of forces in this engagement appeared to favor the British, but any British advantage was more apparent than real. Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were both powerful new ships with well-trained crews. Hood, in theory as powerfully armed as Bismarck, was an older vessel, with weak deck armor and inferior fire [artillery] control; while Prince of Wales, a powerful new battleship, had a crew unused to their vessel and was so new she had shipyard workers still on board making adjustments. A technical fault caused 40 percent of Prince of Wales big guns to become inoperative just after the battle began.
The British commander, Admiral Lancelot Holland, (flying his flag in Hood). was well aware of his force's deficiencies, and his tactics tried to compensate for them. . .but in any case, he had orders to stop Bismarck.

The size of these vessels is hard to imagine. If you have ever visited USS Alabama at Mobile, USS Masschusetts at Fall River, or USS North Carolina at Wilmington, you have visited ships of equivalent size to Bismarck, Hood and Prince of Wales. Visitors to USS Texas at San Jacinto should think of even larger vessels.

In prewar days Hood had traveled all over the world, and her sinking early in the engagement by one well-placed 15-inch shell from Bismarck, that exploded Hood's aft ammunition magazine – made headlines worldwide. There were three survivors from Hood¸ plucked from the cold water by an escorting destroyer. Admiral Holland, Captain Ralph Kerr and 1,414 others died with their ship.

Captain John Leach of Prince of Wales was subjected to some unfair criticism for retreating from the battle shortly after Hood’s sinking. Commanding a new ship, with an untrained crew, sent out after Bismarck before she was truly ready, with Hood sunk and his own ship badly damaged; Captain Leach’s decision to withdraw was simple prudence, and the British were fortunate indeed that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen did not pursue.
Captain Leach’s boss went to bat for him and ensured that nothing official ever resulted from the carping and sniping. Neither Captain Leach nor his ship survived the war, Prince of Wales falling victim to Japanese aircraft in the South China Sea on 10 December 1941. Captain Leach had an opportunity to escape, but he elected to remain with his fatally stricken vessel, and died with much of his crew.

Bismarck met her well-known doom several days later, sunk by British forces on 27 May 1941. The fate of Prinz Eugen is the strangest: she survived the war, and was taken into the US Navy as a war-prize. Prinz Eugen was ultimately part of the target-fleet in the famous atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, in July 1946. Amazingly, tough Prinz Eugen survived the bomb tests, but was too radioactive to be repaired, eventually sinking from leak damage in December of 1946. One of her salvaged propellers is at the German Naval Memorial at Kiel.
UPDATE: I have added a US Navy photograph (taken by someone in Prinz Eugen) showing the explosion of HMS Hood. Prince of Wales is the smaller smudge of smoke in the left-center of the photograph.


louielouie said...

you really are an anglophile.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Guilty as charged. I need to do an "Empire Day" post...maybe if time allows.