Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

78 YEARS AGO TODAY, THE BATTLE OF THE DENMARK STRAIT

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24 May 1941. Big event today in history, so I will write about it instead of ranting about nonsense in the news. On this day in 1941 was The Battle of the Denmark Strait. This was the only daytime engagement between battleships during World War Two. Shows just how important and deadly air power had become even early in the war. And how modern war is global, this took place between Greenland and Iceland, about as remote as it gets.

So, the battle. This was in the first year of World War Two in Europe. Germany had already conquered Poland, Denmark, and Norway. And the German blitzkrieg was rapidly advancing through France and the low countries. In the North Atlantic the British were having a hard time of it, German submarines were sinking British ships left and right. And Britain had already lost two aircraft carriers. The Courageous, the first British warship sunk during World War Two, was sunk by a U-boat in the first few weeks of the war. After being torpedoed twice, she capsized and sank in 20 minutes, with the loss of over 500 crewmen and her captain. The Germans were elated and the crew of the U-boat were all decorated. And the British stopped using their fleet aircraft carriers in anti-submarine duties.

The second aircraft carrier loss was even uglier, the HMS Glorious was sunk in the North Sea by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Wait, how did two German battlecruisers get close enough to an aircraft carrier to sink it? Where was the rest of the mighty British fleet? Good question. Short version, the captain of the Glorious was unbelievably incompetent, sailing in the North Sea with only two destroyers as escorts, he had no scout planes launched, no planes ready to launch, and no one even on watch in the carrier’s crow’s nest! So when the two German battlecruisers appeared on the horizon, the Glorious was essentially helpless. She and her two escorts were quickly sunk with the loss of over 1500 lives, for unknown reasons they didn’t get an SOS out. So the British didn’t even know the Glorious had been sunk until it was announced on German radio news!

So as above, this early in the war the Germans were still risking surface warships in an attempt to destroy British shipping. And in our battle the German battleship Bismarck along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were trying to sneak into the North Atlantic, where they could have devastated British convoys. The Swedes spotted them though, and the British intercepted Swedish communications, so they knew they were coming. A pair of British cruisers spotted them trying to slip past Iceland. The cruisers shadowed them, and in the morning a British fleet consisting of two battleships and six destroyers intercepted them. The two battleships were the Hood and the Prince of Wales. Vs the German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.

The historically astute reader already knows how this ends. A little bit of background. The Prinz Eugen and the Bismarck were both modern warships built in the 1930s. The prince of Wales was also brand new, so new that construction crews were still aboard her during the battle. Then there was the Hood. The pride of the British fleet, and for much of her career the largest battleship in the world. The Hood however had been built during World War One. And as such was primarily armored  against shells fired directly towards it. What the Hood was not armored against was plunging fire, as such wasn’t yet a thing in World War One. This is long range fire that goes very high and then plunges downward hitting its target on the deck. The Hood only had very minor armor on her deck, just enough to stop shrapnel and shell splinters. There were plans to upgrade her deck armor, but she was rushed into service in the desperate early part of the war.

The plan was when the British spotted the Germans, they would head straight towards them until they were close enough that plunging fire wouldn’t be an issue. It meant they could only use their forward guns initially, but once they got close enough they would turn and be able to use their forward and aft guns. It wasn’t the best of plans, but the British had to work with what they had. And it almost worked. They had closed to about half a mile and were beginning their turn when a salvo from the Bismarck’s 15 inch guns bracketed the Hood. One of them must of hit dead center, because a huge column of explosive flame like a blowtorch shot up from the Hood. Moments later there was a huge explosion that basically destroyed the ship. It broke in half and sank in minutes, there were exactly 3 survivors.

At this, the captain of the Prince of Wales decided that cowardice was the better part of discretion, and he turned and fled. Some criticized his decision, but it was likely the right move. The Prince of Wales had already been hit twice by 15 inch shells from the Bismarck, but as luck would have it neither had detonated. So the Prince of Wales lived to fight another day. In fact lived for less than a year, and went on to be the second battleship to be sunk in the open sea by enemy aircraft. The Repulse being first, sunk less than an hour earlier by the waves of Japanese bombers that sank both ships.

The loss of the Hood was a huge blow to the British. And they wasted no time mustering every available ship and plane to hunt down the Bismarck. The Bismarck didn’t get to bask in glory long, three days later the British exacted their revenge and sank the Bismarck. The Prinz Eugen however made it to Brest in occupied France. Then in 1942, in the infamous Channel Dash, the Prinz Eugen and two German battleships fled occupied France through the English Channel right in front of the British and made it to safe waters in the Baltic Sea. Where the Prinz Eugen served until the end of the war, and was one of only two German heavy warships to survive the war. She was turned over to the Americans, who ingloriously used her as a target in atomic bomb tests in the Pacific.

78 years ago today. God rest the souls of those who died that day. The only other lesson here is that it’s been a long time since westerners had to cope with death tolls like this during wars. With over 5,000 crew on some modern ships, another good reason not to get into wars lightly. Video of the Bismarck firing can be seen here, one of those flashes killed over 1,500 British sailors. Ain’t technology grand? Have a great weekend everyone.

Copyright © 2019 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

(Image: The last known picture of the Hood before she blew up, taken from the Prince of Wales. Credit: IWM, which I am guessing means Imperial War Museum. It was from Wikipedia, so is being used legally.)

Written by unitedcats

May 24, 2019 at 7:53 am

Posted in History, War, World War Two

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