Old salt survived Royal Navy's most inglorious sea blow from Bismarck
By Dan van der Vat

Oct. 8, 2008
1-3-1923 - 4-10-2008

TED Briggs, the last survivor of the great battlecruiser HMS Hood that was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941, has died, aged 85.

Briggs was one of only three Royal Navy sailors to survive the disaster; the other 1415 crew went down with the 46,000-tonne battle cruiser in the Denmark Strait, between Greenland and Iceland.

The Hood was the largest and most famous British capital ship in the interwar fleet, and its swift sinking affected the British public more than any other navy setback in World War II.

Briggs was born at Redcar, Yorkshire, and at age 15 joined the Royal Navy - having attempted to join at age 12 after first seeing the Hood. He was delighted that his first posting was as a messenger on the battlecruiser that was known below decks as "the mighty 'Ood".

After surviving the sinking - he was rescued after spending 2½ hours in the water - he stayed on in the service and retired in 1973 as a lieutenant. He was appointed a Member of the British Empire (MBE) and was president of the HMS Hood Association. When the wreck was located in 2001, Briggs released a commemorative plaque over the spot.

The Hood, the new battleship Prince of Wales as well as other ships were sent to sink the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen after RAF aircraft located them emerging from the Baltic on May 20, 1941.

The Hood, laid down in 1918, was armed with eight 15-inch guns, displaced about 46,000 tonnes and had a top speed of 31 knots. The Bismarck, commissioned in April 1941, was no faster, but was then the world's most powerful serving warship, displacing 50,000 tonnes fully loaded, with eight of the latest 38cm (15in) guns. It also enjoyed the usual German superiority in rangefinders.

Early on May 24, Hood's crew sighted the Germans 39 kilometres to starboard, and Rear Admiral L. E. Holland raced to attack, line abreast. This meant only his 15-inch guns capable of firing over the bows could be brought to bear, but the Bismarck could fire all eight 15-inch guns broadsides at the Hood. The British thus lost their large potential advantage in firepower. Also the Hood and Prince of Wales (Captain J. C. Leach) were sailing close together, conveniently for the German gunners. At 21 kilometres the Germans opened fire, sending plunging shot through the Hood's thin deck armour.

Holland mistakenly concentrated his fire on the Prinz Eugen until Leach realised the error, and opened fire on the Bismarck. The Germans, concentrated on the Hood, which caught fire amidships.

It was 6am on May 24 when Holland turned his two ships broadside on in order to bring the maximum number of guns to bear, but it was too late. Another broadside from the Bismarck set off the ammunition in the Hood's main magazines in a huge explosion. The ship rolled over to port and sank in three minutes.

Briggs was sucked under but, caught in an air pocket, he was able to get out and swim to a safe distance. He saw the bow of his ship pointing vertically out of the water before disappearing. For the rest of his life he suffered from nightmares.

The Prince of Wales escaped, but was sunk by Japanese bombers that December.

The Bismarck withstood attacks by aircraft, destroyers, several battleships and finally cruisers. After 109 minutes of unremitting bombardment at shrinking ranges, the German flagship went down; only 110 out of a crew of more than 2000 survived. When the wreck was found half a century later, evidence suggested the ship may have been scuttled.

Briggs worked for an estate agent until he retired in 1988. Clare, his second wife, survives him, as do cousins in Australia.

-Dan van der Vat

Reprinted with the permission of The Age Company Ltd.
© 2008 The Age Company Ltd. All rights Reserved

Page published Oct. 13, 2008