This week in history: the loss of HMS Hood

It’s 78 years this week since the battlecruiser HMS Hood went down in the Denmark Strait while fighting the German battleship Bismarck. At about 6.00 am on 24 May 1941, around eight minutes after the battle began, she exploded in a massive ball of fire and smoke as her two after magazines, X and Y, detonated. Just 3 of the 1418 men on board survived.

It was an appalling tragedy; primarily in a human sense but also on the level of morale at a time when the war hung in the balance. HMS Hood was the pride of the British fleet, the largest warship in the world for 20-odd years, and a symbol of British power at sea.

The last known British photo of HMS Hood steaming into battle on 24 May 1941. Note the way the seas are washing over her quarterdeck.

Exactly why she sank is a mystery; two Boards of Enquiry after her loss confirmed the aft magazine detonation, but neither could precisely identify why they exploded. A leading theory was that a German shell had detonated an adjacent 4-inch magazine, in turn triggering the magazines that supplied the main armament. But this could not be proven. Even investigation of the wreck, decades later, didn’t provide evidence. The after section – which would have contained vital clues – had been literally ripped apart.

A German photograph by Paul Smalenbach of the Hood sinking. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The reality is that the specific reason why Hood‘s magazine blew up, in terms of identifying the location and path of the fatal shell hit and the chain of events that followed, cannot be found; the answer can only be expressed as a range of possibilities. And that’s OK. The goal of exploring history isn’t about reducing questions to a single empirical answer. It’s about understanding. And sometimes even specific events can only be understood as a discussion.

This hasn’t stopped at least one group of amateur enthusiasts I’ve run into from coming up with what they regard as a ‘final answer’ to the question, an answer that floats on imagined certainties and a Dunning-Kruger style approach both to marine engineering and to intellectual rigour when assessing and analysing sources. The fact that there is no empirical evidence to back any of it doesn’t stop these enthusiasts from performing like vengeful psychopaths if anybody disputes them.

What all this debate has often obscured, of course, is the fact that Hood went down with all but three of her crew in just a few minutes. For those trapped inside, death was perhaps quick and merciful – if they were in the vicinity of the magazines – but for others perhaps not. Either way it was a human tragedy of the highest scale. It is this that gives us the real meaning of these events; the loss of human life, the impact this catastrophe had on families across Britain. We shall remember them.

Copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2019

6 thoughts on “This week in history: the loss of HMS Hood

    1. Certainly do. New Zealand’s memorial day is 25 April, and to my mind, war remembrance is a human matter we must all share; and remembering and understanding the sacrifices made by those now gone should be with us as an everyday thought. War knows no national boundaries, and all who experience it – with their families, friends and the rest – have suffered loss. We must think of them, respect their memory, and never forget.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “The goal of exploring history isn’t about reducing questions to a single empirical answer. It’s about understanding. And sometimes even specific events can only be understood as a discussion.” The goal of history is understanding, and that means asking a lot of questions, at least to me. Maybe that is what meaning is all about (At present, I’m exploring this idea in other areas so it is much on the mind.) Thoughtful post, Matthew, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Karen. And you’re right. Sometimes, all we can discover from history is more questions – but to me, at least, that’s OK. The fact of discovering that there is more to know (and which, perhaps, may be unknowable) is itself an answer in many respects. Better still, it provokes us to more thought – and to me, the act of thinking about something is actually a goal. It always intrigues me that western society, at least, seems to be conditioned to the notion that everything has an ‘answer’, usually one that can be empirically defined as a data-point and allow those who know it to win $64,000 when asked (or a car which is then written off in an accident, which actually happened to a quiz-whizz that I knew a while back). The challenge is that a reduction to empirical data-points is actually true in a lot of cases where the question can be answered in those terms. But the ‘algorithm’ breaks down when it hits the limits of what can be defined that way; the fuzzy greys of the unknown, or of concepts that cannot be so reduced. I suspect the main western philosophical problem is that this isn’t generally accepted, so people keep searching for the ‘definitive’ final answer. And there is much evidence of this issue, all around us. The conundrum of HMS Hood is a particular engineering example – on which much money was spent checking out the wreck (Paul Allen’s philanthropy, it was his survey ship) but of course the same philosophical issue of searching for final answers where none can be known is common enough in western thought and scholarship. I recall doing a whole post-grad course on the arguments over the English Civil War. Personally I think that the act of thinking about things, and of discussing the issues in civil and constructive fashion is perhaps a better end-goal when confronted by such matters. You might call it historical Buddhism… and to a degree, I guess it is!

      Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.