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.
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.
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