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"H.M.S. Hood Will Proceed ..."
The clank of cable coming in, its heavy thump along the decks, the flicker of a dimmed torch, or the occasional glow as a blackout screen was pushed aside —these things alone showed that a fleet was getting under way.
To the whir of winches, or the "Heave! one—two—three —HEAVE!" of men, the last boats were being hoisted on board. Funnels rumbled and emitted, for a brief moment, a roll of oily smoke as additional sprayers were switched on to the boilers. Here and there auxiliary craft, some with mail and stores, others landing or embarking personnel, lingered alongside the darkened warships. An arrowhead of foam going past, quick and hard through the pewter-colored sea, indicated a high-speed launch, with senior officers perhaps, or last-minute dispatches. It was midnight, May 21, 1941, in Scapa Flow.
The great anchorage was dark and silent save for these few signs of activity. To the north loomed Mainland, or Pomona, largest island in the Orkneys, with its capital, Kirkwall, and its memories of the Norsemen—the Temples of the Sun and Moon, and the great monolithic Stone of Odin. To the east were the quiet islands of Burray and South Ronaldsay. To the west lay Hoy with the pinnacle rock of the Old Man of Hoy standing detached from its northwest coast, guarding the entrance to the sound. Norse islands—islands destined to hold long ships ever since Harold Fairhair had added them to Norway in the ninth century —they had been the main war base of the British fleet since Admiral Jellicoe had selected Scapa Flow in preference to Cromarty Firth in 1914.
Looking at the Flow today it is difficult to remember how many ships it held then, difficult to recall this inland sea filled with destroyers, with escort vessels coming and going, and the waters of the firths scarred by the wash of cutters and many launches. The sound of the bosuns' calls no longer drowns the noise of seabirds over the headlands. In spring, though, when the islands are starred with wild flowers, and the salt sea smell is mixed with bruised grasses and herbs, it is even more hard to realize what it was like that May, eighteen years ago.
It was the long darkness when the dawn seems unimaginable. From Norway to the Atlantic coast of France an ironbound continent confronted Britain. Greece had been invaded. The battle for Crete was beginning. Everywhere the mounting losses of shipping reflected the contention that if Britian could ever be beaten, it would only be by strangling her sea lines and starving her out. The pressure was being applied now, and the screw tightened. The heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was at sea, and with her the world's heaviest and most modern battleship, the Bismarck.
As the British ships weighed and made for the gates of Scapa Flow—the booms opening up before them and the heavy nets sliding through the water —the men with the cold, unglamorous task of protecting the great anchorage watched them go. It was a little over a year since Lieutenant Gunther Prien had penetrated Scapa Flow in the U-47 and sunk the battleship Royal Oak. He had come through a gap in the defenses of Holm Sound, noting in his log as he did so: "It is disgustingly light. The whole bay is lit up." Those weaknesses had been eliminated, but the watchers and defenders had to remember that whenever the fleet went out and the gates were open, there was always a chance of an enemy getting in.
The darkened ships slid past, silently hush-hushing through the water. The destroyers were first, moving rakish and graceful to take up their screening positions outside. Big ships were coming out too.
Dialogue varies little from one war area to another, or from one war to another for that matter.
"What's up, mate?"
"Some flap on. Fleet's going out."
"'Ope no one 'its the gate. Last time it cost us twenty-four hours solid to fix things up."
On board the destroyers there was the inevitable grousing of small ship sailors, who tend to have the same feelings about battleships as a collie dog does about its sheep.
"Always us. Only got in yesterday."
"There's a big panic on."
"They spends weeks swinging round the buoy, and as soon as they goes to sea we 'as to go too."
"They can't look after themselves."
"This'll wreck the chiefs' billiards party in their second-best saloon!"
"They're both coming out."
"They" was always the battleships to destroyer men—a sardonic "they" reserved for capital ships, aircraft carriers, and the remote figures of the senior officers and politicians who directed the war.
Both of them were coming out—the new Prince of Wales, and the old, the world-famous Hood. Their silhouettes were visible now against the lines of the sea and the islands: the long sweep of their foredecks, the banked ramparts of their guns, and the hunched shoulders of bridges and control towers.
We shall never see their like again, but no one who has ever watched them go by will forget the shudder that they raised along the spine. The big ships were somehow as moving as the pipes heard a long way off in the hills. There was always a kind of mist about them, a mist of sentiment and of power. Unlike aircraft, rockets, or nuclear bombs, they were a visible symbol of power allied with beauty—a rare combination.
Achates, Antelope, Anthony, Echo, Electra, and Icarus—the destroyers went past—their names culled from myth, legend, and history—then the new battleship, and then the ship that was almost a legend herself, the Hood.
She was 860 feet long, with a displacement of 44,600 tons, a battle cruiser designed before Jutland had been fought, and the ship that above all others had represented British sea power in the harbors and oceans of the world during the uneasy inter-war years.
In the destroyers, when they were "washing down" heavily, or when shore leave had been long in coming, or on any other occasion when the matelot was fed up with his lot, he would sigh for a comfortable billet in one of those leviathans that—to his way of thinking—never seemed to go to sea. His chorus was always the same:
'Roll on the Nelson, the Rodney, the Hood—
This one-funneled basket is no mucking good!'
Although they might despise battleship life and feel themselves superior sailors to the big ship men, there were times when they thought nostalgically of the comforts, the canteens, and the large messdecks of the Hood and her sisters.
The ships were all heading out now into the night and the sea. The boom gates were closing, the normal antisubmarine patrols were resuming their stations, and aboard the ships left behind, in the shore stations, and in the humble boom-defense vessels, routine went on. It was just after midnight and the watches had changed over. There were cups of cocoa in the galleys, and men were pulling off their sea boots and stockings before rolling into bunks or hammocks. The islands were pools of darkness against the glow of the northern sky, and the night wind smelled of the turf as well as the sea.
Beyond the confined waters of the Flow the destroyers were skating into position, moving on to bow and beam and quarter of the giants. Their asdic sets were combing the dark fathoms, and their lookouts were posted. Duty watch helmsmen and telegraphists were relieving the Special Sea Dutymen who had taken the ships out of harbor, and navigating officers were putting down a last fix before leaving the shore line.
The force was bound for Hvalfiord in Iceland, there to refuel. Then, under the command of Vice-Admiral Holland in the Hood, they would proceed again to sea and cover the northern approaches to the Atlantic. Theirs was the force detailed to watch the cold, treacherous Denmark Strait.
Dropping the Seal Islands of the Orkneys behind them, the ships turned to the northwest and increased speed. Their bow waves began to crest and shine against the dark gray paint, and their sterns settled deeper as the screws took up their thrust against the sea. Directors and turrets began to turn. Voices echoed over a complexity of wires or down the simple bell mouths of bridge pipes. The sky was cloudy and the wind came from the north.CHAPTER 2
Birth of a Ship
It was a long time since she had been built—another world almost. But it was similar in one respect—it was a world at war.
Lord Fisher had been First Sea Lord when she was laid down. From the Admiralty, his pen spluttering with indignation and the underlinings coming fast and furious on the paper, he had written to Admiral Beatty on March 5, 1915:
I've had a big fight to get you Pakenham [to command the Second Battle-cruiser Squadron]—fierce endeavours in other directions. Pakenham is a brave man. Also Pakenham believes in you. We must have officers who believe in their Admirals instead of back-biting them. But what can you expect when Sir Gerard Noel writes to the First Sea Lord protesting against my being at the Admiralty and saying, "God help the Navy"? We have laid down 187 new ships since 15th November (four of them battle-cruisers of 33 knots and 15-inch guns) and all of them will be fighting within a year. God is helping the Navy.
Extravagant, eccentric, at times almost irrational, emotional—but with a genuine sincerity and patriotism unequaled—Lord Fisher comes to life in his letters.
One of the battle cruisers to which he referred was the Hood. She was not fighting within a year, but before that year was out Lord Fisher had resigned. Disagreeing with Winston Churchill, then First Lord, over the Dardanelles campaign, he had said, "I was always against it." He had also said, "This is wartime, and we can't have any damned folly about susceptibilities. Don't you worry about any odium—I will take that and love it." He retired to become Chairman of the Inventions Board, but the four battle cruisers he had written of with such gusto and affection—"33 knots and 15-inch guns"—were taking shape in the hammering shipyards. More than twenty years later, one of them, the Hood, would be at sea under war conditions and still engaged against the same German enemy.
The Hood was born in the thundering, clanging yards of John Brown & Company, on the banks of the Clyde, the "strong" river of Lanarkshire, the largest firth on the western coast—the building ground of great ships. But before a section of her keel was laid, before a rivet was driven, or the dimensions of angle bars or channels, frames, girders, or strakes specified, the design of the vessel had to be passed and approved. The naval architects who designed the Hood were guided by the overriding factor that she was to be a battle cruiser, not a battleship.
The distinction is important, and her history is meaningless without some knowledge of her ancestry. The battleship itself was a logical development of the old "line-of-battle" ships, ships capable of standing and fighting the heaviest adversary in the line. At the close of the nineteenth century, with Germany arming and with the building of the High Seas Fleet, the necessity for Britian to be able to meet a heavy threat in home waters became obvious to Admiral Fisher. The final outcome of a great deal of experiment was the Dreadnought. The first all-big-gun ship, she mounted movable turrets, three on the center line and one on each side, each turret holding twin 12-inch guns.
The race between England and Germany was now joined—the race to produce the heaviest armored, heaviest gunned battle fleet. But heavy armor, massive turrets, and the weight of the new guns inevitably meant that a loss in speed had to be accepted. Fast ships, of course, were still needed: as commerce raiders; to protect the fleet; and to act as supporters to the line-of-battle ships. These fast ships were the cruisers, some of them armored, and known as second-class cruisers; some of them unarmored, light cruisers.
But between the battleship and the cruiser lay a world of difference, and it was in an attempt to bridge this gap that the battle cruiser was evolved. The driving idea behind her conception was that she should be fast enough to cope with enemy cruisers and destroy them with her greater firepower; but at the same time she must be heavily enough gunned and sufficiently armored to be able to stand in the line of battle and, if necessary, fight against the slower but more heavily armored battleships. The battle cruiser was a hybrid and, like many hybrids, she possessed a unique beauty. She had, though, her deficiencies, in staying power and resistance—deficiencies which are also sometimes marks of the hybrid. In a footnote to The World Crisis, 1911-14, Winston Churchill wrote: "Contrary to common opinion and, as many will think to the proved lessons of the war, I do not believe in the wisdom of the battle cruiser type. If it is worth while to spend far more than the price of your best battleship upon a fast heavily gunned vessel, it is better at the same time to give it the heaviest armor as well. You then have a ship which may indeed cost half as much again as a battleship, but which at any rate can do everything. To put the value of a first-class battleship into a vessel which cannot stand the pounding of a heavy action is a false policy. It is far better to spend the extra money and have what you really want. The battle cruiser, in other words, should be superseded by the fast battleship, i.e. fast strongest ship, in spite of her cost."
"She was the most beautiful ship I ever worked aboard ... I was in a bar on Clydeside in November 1940, an ordinary seaman in my first ship. An old man was telling me about the Hood.
"I've seen her but once since the war," he said. "O' course she's been refitted like, over the years. But you couldna' spoil those lines. I was only an apprentice then."
It was difficult to visualize him as a young man. The ship I was in was only an armed merchant ship. (I felt a little ashamed that I was not in a real warship.) And here was a man who had helped to build the Hood. I had seen her only once myself, sliding through a gray mist off the Pentland Firth, with her escorting destroyers looking like the flunkies and outriders of royalty.
"I remember weel the day that Lady Hood launched her. As she went doon the ways I was looking at my bit of plating, just on her starboard quarter —the plating I had worked on mysel'."
Now I could see him as a young man—a handkerchief round his neck, and his eyes shining as he watched her smoke down into the sea.
"She's oot there noo," he said, with a twitch of his head toward the Firth. But she was not visible, and I knew that he meant she was somewhere out on the gray sea.
"I'm gettin' on," he said. "It's many years. She's still working, though."
He was old, and there was another war, and he was living on his pension, but something he had helped to build was still afloat and working. He had a small gleam of satisfaction on his face—like that old admiral, perhaps, who used to thrust acorns into the ground on his country walks and smile to know that one day they would make great oaks for the wooden wall of England.
It is a long time between the conception of a great ship and the moment when the workmen begin on her. After the requirements of a ship like the Hood are laid down by the naval staff, the Director of Naval Construction and his assistants must evolve the outlines or preliminary designs, balancing one requirement against another. A warship of her magnitude involves so many more factors than even the largest merchant vessel that there can be hardly any comparison between them.
There are gunnery, engineering, armor, communications, torpedo, and antitorpedo requirements—so many and so varied, in fact, that design must always remain to some extent a matter of compromise. The vessel is to be fast, but at the same time there is the gunnery school demanding the heaviest possible guns. When a solution between these two worlds has been worked out, there remains the demand that she must be able to receive an appreciable amount of underwater damage without losing her fighting efficiency. Yet this, which necessitates armor plating and "bulges," must still be achieved without detriment to her speed. Finally, something like fifteen hundred men have to be accommodated, given sleeping and eating facilities, and some space for recreation.
Excerpted from The Mighty Hood by Ernle Bradford. Copyright © 1959 Ernle Bradford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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