Hood opened fire at 05:52 at a distance of approximately 26,500 yd (24,200 m). Holland had ordered firing to begin on the leading ship, Prinz Eugen, believing from her position that she was Bismarck. Holland soon amended his order and directed both ships to engage the rear ship, Bismarck. Prince of Wales had already identified and engaged Bismarck, whereas Hood is believed to have continued to fire at Prinz Eugen for some time.
Holland was a gunnery expert; he was well aware of the danger posed by Hood‘s thin deck armour, which offered weak protection against vertical plunging fire. Holland therefore wanted to reduce the range as quickly as possible, because at a shorter range the trajectory of Bismarck‘s shells would be flatter, and the shells would therefore be more likely to hit the armour belt protecting the sides of the ship or glance off the top deck, rather than penetrate vertically though the deck armour. Holland closed the range at an angle that placed the German ships too far forward of the beam, which meant that only 10 of the 18 British heavy guns could train and presented the Germans with a bigger target than necessary. One of Prince of Wales‘ forward guns became unserviceable after the first salvo, leaving only 9 still firing. Suffolk and Norfolk tried to engage Bismarck during the action but both were out of range and had an insufficient speed advantage over Bismarck to rapidly close the range.
The Germans also had the weather gauge, meaning that the British ships were steaming into the wind, spray drenching the lenses of Prince of Wales “A” turret’s 42 ft (13 m) Barr and Stroud coincidence rangefinder and both British ships’ “B” turret 30 ft (9.1 m) rangefinders.[nb 3] The shorter based (15 ft (4.6 m)) ones in the director towers had to be used instead. Holland had Prince of Wales stay close to Hood, conforming to Hood‘s movements instead of varying course and speed, which made it easier for the Germans to find the range to both British ships. It would have aided Holland’s gunners if they had both fired upon Bismarck as originally planned, since they could time precisely each other’s salvos to avoid mistaking one ship’s fire for the other. The British could also use Concentration Fire, where both ships’ main armament salvos would be controlled by one ship’s fire control computer—probably Prince of Wales‘ modern Admiralty Fire Control Table.
Prince of Wales struck her target first. She would ultimately hit Bismarck three times. One shell struck the commander’s boat and put the seaplane catapult amidships out of action (the latter damage not being discovered until much later, during an attempt to fly off the ship’s War Diary on the eve of her final battle). The second shell passed through the bow from one side to the other without exploding. The third struck the hull underwater and burst inside the ship, flooding a generator room and damaging the bulkhead to an adjoining boiler room, partially flooding it. The last two hits caused damage to Bismarck‘s machinery and medium flooding. The hit also severed a steam line and wounded five of Bismarck’s crew by scalding. The damage to the bow cut access to 1,000 long tons (1,000 t) of fuel oil in the forward fuel tanks, caused Bismarck to leave an oil slick and reduced her speed by 2 kn (2.3 mph; 3.7 km/h). Bismarck was soon listing 9° to port and lost 2 m (6.6 ft) of freeboard at her bow.A modern reconstruction showing a 14-inch shell from HMS Prince of Wales penetrating Bismarck‘s bow.
The Germans held their fire until 05:55, when both German ships fired on Hood. Lütjens did not immediately give the order to begin firing. Bismarck‘s first gunnery officer, Korvettenkapitän Adalbert Schneider, asked “Frage Feuererlaubnis?” (Permission to open fire?) several times without receiving a response, until the captain of Bismarck, Kapitän zur See Ernst Lindemann, impatiently responded: “Ich lasse mir doch nicht mein Schiff unter dem Arsch wegschießen. Feuererlaubnis!” (I’m not letting my ship get shot out from under my arse. Open fire!)
A shell hit Hood‘s boat deck, starting a sizable fire in the ready-use 4 in (100 mm) ammunition store but this fire did not spread to other areas of the ship or cause the later explosion. It is possible that Hood was struck again at the base of her bridge and in her foretop radar director. There has been contention over which German vessel struck Hood; Prinz Eugen (Kapitän zur See Helmuth Brinkmann), was firing at Prince of Wales, following an order from the fleet commander. The Gunnery Officer of Prinz Eugen, Paul Schmalenbach is quoted as saying that Prinz Eugen’s target was Hood.
Sinking of Hood
A sketch prepared by Captain JC Leach (commanding HMS Prince of Wales) for the 2nd Board of Enquiry, 1941. The sketch represents the column of smoke or flame that erupted from the vicinity of the mainmast immediately before a huge detonation which obliterated the after part of the ship from view. This phenomenon is believed to have been the result of a cordite fire venting through the engine-room ventilators (see article).
At 06:00, Holland ordered his force to turn once again to port to ensure that the aft main guns on both Hood and Prince of Wales could bear on the German ships. In terms of the force balance this would nominally give Holland’s force the advantage of 18 large caliber (14/15 in.) guns (10 in Prince of Wales, 8 in Hood); to 8 (8 – 15 in. in Bismarck).
During the turn, a salvo from Bismarck, fired from about 9 mi (7.8 nmi; 14 km), was seen by men aboard Prince of Wales to straddle Hood abreast her mainmast. This straddle meant that some of the salvos fell to port, some to starboard (of the hull), and some precisely aligned over the center of the main deck of Hood. It is likely that one 38 cm (15 in) shell struck somewhere between Hood‘s mainmast and “X” turret aft of the mast. A huge pillar of flame that shot upward ‘like a giant blowtorch,’ in the vicinity of the mainmast.[nb 4]
This was followed by an explosion that destroyed a large portion of the ship from amidships clear to the rear of “Y” turret, blowing both after turrets into the sea. The ship broke in two and the stern fell away and sank. Ted Briggs, one of the survivors, claimed Hood heeled to 30 degrees at which point ‘we knew she just wasn’t coming back’. The bow rose clear of the water, pointed upward, pivoted about and sank shortly after the stern. “A” turret fired a salvo while in this upright position, possibly from the doomed gun crew, just before the bow section sank.[nb 5]
Splinters rained down on Prince of Wales .5 mi (0.43 nmi; 0.80 km) away. Hood sank in about three minutes with 1,415 members of the crew. Only Ted Briggs, Bob Tilburn and Bill Dundas survived to be rescued two hours later by the destroyer HMS Electra.
The Admiralty later concluded that the most likely explanation for the loss of Hood was a penetration of her magazines by a 38 cm (15 in) shell from Bismarck, causing the explosion. Recent research with submersible craft suggests that the initial explosion was in the aft 4 in (100 mm) magazine and that it spread to the 15 in (380 mm) magazines via the ammunition trunks. It has been suggested from examination of the wreckage, found in 2001, that the magazine explosion in the 4 in (100 mm) armament near the mainmast caused the vertical blast of flame seen there, and this in turn ignited the magazines of the aft 15 in (380 mm) guns that caused the explosion that wrecked the stern. This explosion might have travelled through the starboard fuel tanks, igniting the fuel oil there, setting off the forward magazines and completing the destruction of the ship.A photo taken from the Prinz Eugen shows the Hood exploding in the far distance with the Prince of Wales nearby.