The Prinz Eugen’s first salvo had been a little short; now she was firing her second. White fountains shot up, some short,
some over a straddle — and then
a flame leapt up on the Hood’s boat-deck amidships. “It’s a hit,” shouted one of the German crew excitedly, “the enemy’s on fire.”
On the Hood’s bridge the fire was reported as caused by a shell-burst among the four-inch anti-aircraft ammunition. Able Seaman Robert Tilburn, ordered with others to put the fire out, was about to do so when more ammunition began exploding, so they all lay flat on the deck. Then another shell, perhaps two, hit the Hood, killing many of the gun crews now sheltering in the aircraft hangar.
Holland decided, whatever the risks, that he could no longer afford to keep half of his gun power out of action. He hoisted the signal for an alteration back to port to bring the after turrets of both ships to bear.
The executive signal came down, the two ships began to turn. Then the incredible happened. The Bismarck had fired another broadside and, for the fifth time in four minutes, the Hood was hidden by a curtain of shell splashes. But at least one shell made no splash : it came plunging down like a rocket, pierced the deck that should have been strengthened and never was, penetrated to the ship’s vitals deep below the waterline, exploded, touched off the four-inch magazine which in turn touched off the after 15-inch magazine.
Before the eyes of the horrified British and unbelieving Germans a huge column of flame leapt up from the Hood’s centre, followed by a thick mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke. Bits and pieces of the Hood could be seen flying through the air—part of a 15-inch gun turret, the mainmast, the main derrick. High up in the smoke, the ship’s shells were exploding, bursting like white stars.
The smoke cleared to show the Hood with a broken back, in two pieces, bow and stern pointing towards the sky. The gunnery officer aboard the Prinz Eugen saw, through the main range-finder, the whole forward section of the Hood rearing up from the water like the spire of a cathedral, towering above the upper deck of the Prince of Wales as she steamed by. Then the Prince of Wales passed, and both parts of the Hood slid quickly beneath the waves.
After only another 12 minutes of battle the Prince of Wales made smoke and disengaged. She had been hit by four of the Bismarck’s heavy shells and three of the Prinz Eugen’s. The compass platform, echo-sounding gear, radar office, aircraft recovery crane, all the boats and several cabins had been wrecked. Her casualties were 13 killed, nine wounded. The time was 6.13 a.m., just 21 minutes after Admiral Holland had so proudly led his squadron into battle.
For most Englishmen, the news of the Hood’s death was traumatic, as though Buckingham Palace had been laid flat or the Prime Minister assassinated. Many simply did not believe it.. Lieutenant-Commander T. J. Cain, 30 miles to the north in the destroyer Electra, thought the Yeoman of Signals was trying to be funny, and rounded on him fiercely. “My God, but it’s true, sir,” the man replied, his eyes filling with tears.
All over the Empire and in South America and the United States, those who remembered her gliding gracefully into their harbours or lying like a golden jewel there at night, who had danced beneath white awnings on her quarter-deck, who had seen her power and majesty for themselves, were incredulous and aghast. If the Hood could not stop the Bismarck, what could?
And what of Hood’s survivors? Admiral Wake-Walker could not spare the Norfolk or Suffolk to look for them, but the Hood’s own destroyers were not far off and they were ordered to the spot. After two hours’ hard steaming the Electra reached the edge of the scene. There were patches of oil on the water, a floating drawer full of documents, odd bits of wood, little else. They moved on at slow speed, saw three rafts not far apart, one man on each. Was this all, then, that had survived from the great ship’s company?
Cain remembered how the ship looked at Sunday divisions, line upon line of men mustered on her upper decks “like a small army.” “There incest be more,” said the Engineer Officer, “there can’t be only three of them.” But no, that was all. They searched a long time, found other small pieces of wreckage, but nothing human, not even bodies. The rest of the small army, more than 1,400 men, lay 500 fathoms down, their ship their tomb. There they would lie for ever.