An Eyewitness Account of the Sinking of H.M.S. Hood

Although not directly pertinent to the main theme of this website - the British mechanized cryptanalytic attack against the Enigma machine - the following eyewitness account, by Lieutenant D. N. Paton R.N., serving on board H.M.S. Suffolk, of the events leading up to the destruction of H.M.S. Hood, and of its aftermath, is of particular interest and value in that it has not been previously published. The account was presented to me by Lieutenant Paton’s son, Mr M. Paton. Please note that this account is strictly copyright © D. N. Paton.

H.M.S. Suffolk sights and chases Bismarck

by Lieutenant D. N. Paton R.N.

In January 1941, after a long period of training at R.N. College, Greenwich and other shore establishments, I was appointed as a Lieutenant R.N. to the 10,000 ton County Class cruiser H.M.S. Suffolk. At that stage in the war at sea prospects were bleak. Our shipping was being harried by U-boats, and the German command was planning further attacks on our merchant vessels with their capital ships. In 1940 the Norwegian campaigns had been a failure and the only cheering episodes had been the scuttling of the Graf Spee after the battle of the River Plate in December 1939 and the legendary cry “The Navy is here”, when H.M.S. Cossack rescued 299 British seamen from the Altmarck – a supply ship of the Graf Spee – off Norway in February 1940.

In April 1940 H.M.S. Suffolk bombarded the airfield at Stavanger. During the withdrawal she was damaged during almost seven hours of air attacks. After returning to Scapa Flow with her quarterdeck awash she was sent for repairs to the Fairfield Yard in Glasgow.

It was, then, at the Govan Yard in Glasgow that I first saw what was to be my home until May 1942. With a cabin amidships, an electric radiator, a safe for secret documents and a marine servant it all seemed luxurious compared to the condition of the ratings, slung in hammocks at night in the flat (deck space) outside.

An air ventilating machine immediately outside my cabin at first proved an irritation. But much later – when in dry dock with no electricity – I found it difficult to sleep without the familiar noise!

After some weeks the ship was declared fit for sea and we sailed through green fields down the Clyde to lie at anchor at Tail of the Bank off Greenock. Then followed speed trials and other tests in the Firth of Clyde and off Arran, followed by the great day of joining the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow.

‘Working up’ practices followed west of Orkney, when the ship’s company learned to work as a highly efficient whole. One exceptional feature was that Suffolk was the first ship to be fitted with the new experimental RDF (now radar) equipment, and this was later to have far reaching consequences. The equipment was of course highly secret at the time.

Because of the anticipated break-out of the German capital ships from their bases to the Atlantic, the two most important escape routes were closely watched. From Iceland to the Faroes minefields were laid and the area patrolled by cruisers of the Arethusa class. In the Denmark Strait mines were also laid, and patrolling was undertaken by the 1st. Cruiser Squadron under the command of Admiral Wake-Walker, with ships Norfolk and Suffolk. These two ships were based at Hvalfiord, close to Reykjavik, and did roughly one week’s patrol in turn.

Hvalfiord is a magnificent situation, with towering cliffs and views of distant peaks inland. In sunshine it offered almost a holiday atmosphere, with fishing, wild flowers and birds as distractions. But a maximum of four hour’s notice for steam precluded longer expeditions. It was once possible to visit Reykjavik by drifter and buy some scarce commodities. Foreign currency was forbidden, but a bottle of whisky (four shillings as far as I remember) worked wonders!

The Denmark Strait is about 200 miles wide but, because of the ice which borders the coast of Greenland, the channel in winter is roughly 100 miles. In summer, southerly movement of the ice may narrow the gap to as little as 50 miles. Part of our task was to make a continuous review of the ice edge. At times wide spits would stretch across the bows as the great ship nosed her way along. At others the surface of the freezing water was covered with a jelly-like film of ice, which had the strange effect of eliminating all bow and stern waves.

By this time the crew had become accustomed to working under conditions of great hardship. Heavy seas, piercing winds, blinding sleet and freezing spray all made a nightmare of long hours on watch. Four hours on watch and four hours off did not allow much time for relaxation. But in spite of the lack of mail spirits and health were high. At any rate the Arctic conditions had proved too much for the common cold, and I do not remember a single case.

In the plotting office there was always work to be done. Besides keeping a moment-to-moment record of the ship’s position, a steady flow of naval messages would be received. These ranged from the emergency to the trivial, and it was not always possible to tell at a glance the importance of each and what action, if any, should be taken.

Meanwhile at Scapa Flow on 1st. May 1941 Admiral Tovey (C. in C. Home Fleet) received information that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were ready for service; he tightened his precautionary measures. On 18th. Suffolk was on patrol and received information from the C. in C. that the enemy ships had left their base for a fiord near Bergen. Suffolk was relieved by Norfolk, refueled at Hvalfiord, and then immediately rejoined Norfolk on patrol. In addition Hood and Prince of Wales sailed at midnight 21/22 from Scapa Flow for Iceland to cover both escape routes. On 22nd. a naval aircraft reported that the enemy ships were no longer at Bergen, so that the stage seemed set for the battle likely to follow.

Suddenly, at 7.22 in the evening of 23rd., one of the look-outs sighted Bismarck and Prinz Eugen emerging from a snow squall between Suffolk and the ice. There could be no mistaking the vastness of the battleship at the point blank range of seven miles, though the somewhat inappropriate remark of a midshipman – “Hood and Prince of Wales, I suppose” – subsequently became legendary. The enemy ships were moving fast in a S.W. direction parallel to the ice.

This was the culminating moment of all those weary months of training and waiting. “Action stations” was immediately piped, full speed rung to the engine-room, and a sharp alteration of course made into the enveloping mist. Every second was vital. In a flash the first of a long stream of reports was sent out; that stream which set in motion the elaborate chase that followed.

Meanwhile Suffolk had increased speed and located the enemy ships with the RDF. We could tell by the tremendous vibration that she was putting all her reserves into the chase. I had never seen the needle touch 30 knots before, and it was difficult to use instruments on the plotting table. Every moment we expected Bismarck to open fire. At this stage however it was more important to maintain contact than force action and be annihilated.

Later Norfolk joined us and began to shadow too. So the pursuit continued at high speed throughout the night, moving roughly parallel to the coast of Greenland. I remember losing all sense of time, especially as in that latitude there is no true night but only a kind of pallid twilight. Bully beef and hot cocoa were brought round from the galley. I have memories of the hot, sticky liquid spilling over the deck, and perhaps that is why I can no longer stomach it.

During this time Norfolk and Suffolk sent out a succession of enemy reports, from which the battle cruiser force of Hood and Prince of Wales was directed to engage the enemy. Admiral Tovey sailed from Scapa Flow in the battleship King George V together with Repulse, Victorious, cruisers and destroyers.

Hood and Prince of Wales had expected to engage the enemy shortly after midnight on 24th. but at that time Suffolk lost contact in a snowstorm. It was feared that the enemy may have doubled back in the poor visibility to return to base. But at 2.47 a.m. Suffolk regained contact. We all knew action was imminent and it was only a question of time and place.

With the pale light of the morning Hood and Prince of Wales intercepted the enemy at 5.35 a.m. and the battle opened about 6 o’clock. The orange flashes on the horizon showed the enemy had replied. In the short action which ensued Hood was hit and a great column of flame shot into the air followed by an immense pall of black smoke. In an instant the stately ship and all but three of her gallant crew of over 1400 perished. Apart from the magnitude of the disaster a dazed sense of incredulity overtook us all.

Prince of Wales had suffered damage too. One gun turret was out of action and in her forward turret there was a defective gun. Shortly after 6 a.m. a hit on the bridge killed or wounded all the officers except for the captain. The ship had only recently been commissioned and owing to defects was still carrying civilian workmen. But the enemy had not escaped entirely and her speed had been reduced. There were also tell-tale patches of oil in the sea. So the chase continued with the enemy ships heading for the safety of the ocean, followed closely by Prince of Wales and the two cruisers.

After mid-day the enemy altered course to the south. At the same time the weather deteriorated and patches of mist and rain got thicker and more frequent. The range was closed so as to maintain contact. As each successive storm hid the German ships it became crucial to proceed warily. At about 6.30 in the evening (24th.) the enemy entered a particularly thick squall. An uncanny sense must have warned the captain to beware of the ambush. Suddenly the great battleship loomed through the mist about ten miles distant. Immediately we altered course and at the same time opened fire with the main armament of 8-inch guns. The noise was deafening. Bismarck, too, was firing and after what seemed an interminable wait great fountains of water rose into the air nearby. From the comparative safety of the plotting office exploding shells sounded like extra loud machine gun fire. We made violent alterations of course and laid smoke in order to escape the fire. Prince of Wales had come to our assistance, but the enemy turned again to the south and tried to elude the British ships at high speed. What was not known at the time was that during this encounter Prinz Eugen had been detached to the south west.

So the chase continued with another brief but ineffective encounter at about 1 a.m. on 25th. But at 3.6 a.m. Suffolk lost contact. It was apparently at this time that Bismarck had altered course eastwards seeking the shelter of a French port. Suffolk and Norfolk were ordered to search to the west and south west in case the enemy tried to rendez-vous with a supply tanker.

By this time the ship’s company had been at action stations for 32 hours and tiredness was inevitable. We tried to snatch an hour’s rest in turn if opportunity allowed. Outside the sea was rising and the visibility getting worse. We were no longer in the Arctic circle and darkness was adding to other difficulties.

Meanwhile conflicting reports were reaching the C. in C. as to the enemy’s position and intentions. However practically every capital ship was diverted to the area to prevent the enemy from reaching France. An anxious search proceeded throughout the day but it was not until 10.30 a.m. on 26th. that Bismarck was at last located by a Catalina aircraft of Coastal Command some 700 miles N.W. of Brest.

At that time Admiral Tovey was 130 miles to the north. Unless the enemy’s speed could be reduced he would be unable to force an action, especially as the German ship would soon be under the protection of the Luftwaffe’s heavy shore-based bombers.

Force H, consisting of Renown, Ark Royal and Sheffield, had been diverted from Gibraltar on 23rd. and was now in a position to bar the enemy’s eastward progress. Attacks were mounted by Swordfish aircraft from Ark Royal in the evening of 26th. and, of 13 torpedoes released, two scored hits. One did little damage against the battleship’s armour, but the other hit the steering gear and propellers, and it was this hit that made her doom inevitable.

During the night the enemy was harried mercilessly by torpedo fire from five destroyers of the 4th. Flotilla commanded by Captain Vian. From the reports sent out of the position, the C. in C. in King George V, with Rodney, made contact at dawn on 27th. and in the ensuing action Bismarck’s guns were silenced, but she had been so skillfully designed that in spite of terrifying punishment she refused to sink. With colours still flying she was finally sent to the bottom by two torpedoes from H.M.S. Dorsetshire. So ended her first and last voyage. More important – though unknown to us at the time – so ended Germany’s final attempt to cut the Atlantic shipping line with surface ships.

During 25th. and until Bismarck had been found Suffolk had maintained a high degree of readiness. It was with great relief that the news of her location and subsequent sinking was received by the ship’s company, though with a feeling of admiration for her fight against hopeless odds. We were sent to St. John’s, Newfoundland to refuel and take on stores.

Of the personal memories of these events the most vivid is the tragic end of H.M.S. Hood and the feeling of desolation which followed. But lighter moments there were too. The splendid sight of the first lieutenant – a Navy rugger player and veteran of Jutland – who calmly knitted socks during the lulls in the action. The Chaplain – at one time Bishop Bell’s private Chaplain – who had words of cheer for his ‘parish’. Finally the iron-nerved Captain, whose magnificent skill and judgment brought new battle honours to the ship whose motto was “Nous maintiendrons”.

Copyright © D. N. Paton.

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