No.69 Diary of the War No.4

HMS Hood

The loss of HMS Hood, built 1916, and sunk in 1941, by shells from the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in one of the Royal Navy’s worst disasters of the Second World War, is well-known. Less well-known is her predecessor of the same name, built in 1891 and disposed of on 4 November 1914.

Aerial view of Portland Harbour from the south-west. © English Heritage, reference 24688_028
Aerial view of Portland Harbour from the south-west, showing the gap between the breakwaters nearest the viewer: last resting place of HMS Hood. © English Heritage, 24688_028

Disposed? Surely a country at war needed all the warships it could get? The answer lies in her history and in the exigencies of war. Hood was the least functional of the Royal Sovereign-class warships, built in 1891. She was let down by her low freeboard (the side of the ship between the waterline and deck) which left her ill-equipped for rough British weather in rough British waters and serving principally in the Mediterranean or in static roles in home ports.

After three months of war the full scale of the threat at sea was not yet apparent. Most of the war losses in English waters between the declaration of war to 4 November 1914 were 27 ships sunk by mines, but the emerging picture worldwide was sobering:

Loss to Mines 3 August-4 November:

22 British ships for 24,609 tons; 4 Allied ships for 3,019 tons; 22 neutrals for 27,008 tons

Surface ships 3 August-4 November:

64 British ships for 189,229 tons; 5 Allied ships for 10,140 tons; 1 neutral for 3,804 tons (1)

One British ship had already been sunk by a U-boat off Norway on 20 October, the first recorded loss to U-boat activity, and on 31 October, HMS Hermes, Hood’s contemporary from the 1890s, fitted out as an experimental seaplane carrier, had been torpedoed in the eastern Straits of Dover.

This was a sign of things to come: British naval bases began to look vulnerable to submarine and torpedo attack. Portland, in the English Channel, followed Scapa Flow, Orkneys, in having blockships sunk for their protection. HMS Hood was scuttled for this purpose beside the entrance to the South Ship Channel between Portland’s inner and outer breakwaters, to prevent an attack on the base – where she still lies, a century after she was scuttled. She is now a well-collapsed wreck on which diving is now forbidden.

Sinking HMS Hood paradoxically extended her usefulness in a wartime role. Physically, she partially bridges the gap between the breakwaters. Conceptually, this use of Hood is also a link between the shore installations of naval and harbour infrastructure and the ships that used them, by transforming a ship into structure.

(1) Sourced from Lloyd’s War Losses 1914-18, pp1-5