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Iceland Mag

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May 24th marks the 75 years anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Hood off the coast of Iceland

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • The Mighty Hood One of the largest and most powerful battleships of WWII was sunk off the coast of West Iceland on May 24 1941. Photo/Wikimedia under a Creative Commons license

May 24th marks the 75 anniversary of one of sinking of the HMS Hood, the flagship of the Royal Navy, during one of the most dramatic naval battles of WWII. The battle, which took place off the west coast of Iceland, involved two of the most powerful battleships of the war, the HMS Hood and the German battleship Bismarck.

One of the most important naval battles of WWII
Known as the Battle of the Denmark Strait the battle between the HMS Hood and Battleship Bismarck, and their escort vessels, is one of the most historic naval battles of WWII. The battle took place on May 24 1941 in the strait between Iceland and Greenland, when the Royal Navy caught up with the pride of the German Navy as it was attempting to break out into the Atlantic. The thunder of the battle could be heard in Reykjavík.

The HMS Hood which was built in 1916-1920, was the largest ship in the Royal Navy. It was 47,430 tons and 262 meters (860 feet) long, with a crew of 1,418 men when it was sunk. Only three sailors were rescued.

The pride of the Royal Navy
The HMS Hood was the only Admiral-class battlecruiser ever built for the Royal Navy. Although she commanded enormous prestige as one the largest and most power battleships of its time, known as “The Mighty Hood”, HMS Hood had design flaws which limited its effectiveness when WWII broke out. During the earliest phases of the war she patrolled the waters between Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, hunting for German blockade runners and raiders.

Hood made several visits to Iceland after the British occupied Iceland on May 10 1940. Hood anchored several times in Hvalfjörður fjord, north of Reykjavík, the fjord having been turned into a major naval base in support of British operations in the North Atlantic.

Read more: Watch: What did the “bleak outpost” of Reykjavík look like in WWII?

After having participated in the destruction of the French fleet in June 1940, after the surrender of France, the Hood returned to Icelandic waters in May 1941.

A failed attempt to break into the Atlantic
On May 20 Bismarck, the pride of the German Navy, entered the Atlantic along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. The objective of the German capital ships was to break out into the Atlantic, where they would attempt to block allied shipping between North America and the UK. As the ships were leaving the Baltic they were spotted by the Swedish navy which alerted the British Admiralty which immediately launched a search for the German ships.

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were sighted in the Denmark strait, west of Iceland on the evening of May 23. Although the Hood was over 20 yeas old and no match for the 8 month old Bismarck, it was chosen for the intercept because of its speed. Along with its escort, the battlecruiser Prince of Wales, it also outgunned Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.

The battle of the Denmark Strait
At 5:52 AM in the morning of May 24 Hood made contact with the Germans 250 nautical miles (460 km/285 m) west of Reykjanes peninsula. The thunder of the battle which ensued could be heard all the way to Reykjavík. However, the confrontation lasted only six minutes, as a shell from Bismarck hit Hood, which sank within three minutes. Only three crewmembers were rescued, while 1,415 men perished.

The German capital ships now concentrated their fire on The Prince of Wales, which was hit seven times by the German ships, but managed to escape, withdrawing from the battle at 6:10. Between 6:19 and 6:25 AM the heavy cruiser Suffolk attempted to fire at the German ships, but was out of range. The more than 30 minutes of gunfire could be heard in Reykjavík where residents woke up to the thunder.

A German victory turned into a humiliating defeat
The sinking of the Hood was met with elation by the crews of the two German battleships, but the Bismarck had suffered several hits which had caused serious damage. Crucially, she was leaking fuel oil, which made its trailing easier, as well as reducing its capacity to operate against Allied shipping in the Atlantic.

After the battle of the Denmark Strait the Bismarck sailed on south into the Atlantic. To make necessary repairs she had to reach port in France. However, pursued by the entire Royal Navy the Bismarck had little hope of making it to safety. The Royal Navy shadowed Bismarck for two days before aircraft from the navy and air force managed to strike it with torpedoes on the morning of May 27. The crew scuttled the Bismarck west off the coast of France.

Read more: The mission of the Octopus revealed: The recovery of HMS Hood‘s bell

The wreck of HMS hood was discovered in 2001 allowing persistent questions about exactly what had caused it to sink to be settled. Last summer the US billionaire and adventurer Paul Allen recovered the ship bell of the Hood.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ordering and laying down of the HMS Hood, the 75th anniversary of its sinking and the 15 year anniversary of the discovery of the wreck.

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