Obituary first published on this website October 8, 2008
On May 24, 1941 in the Denmark Strait the battle cruiser HMS Hood blew up after being hit by a salvo from the German battleship Bismarck. One of Bismarck’s shells exploded in an ammunition hoist causing a flash which travelled down to the main magazine. It was an old, known fault with British battlecruisers. During the Battle of Jutland, a quarter of a century earlier. similar hits on ammunition hoists had led to the loss of Queen Mary and Indefatigable. Ted Briggs was one of only three survivors of the Hood’s crew of 1,421. All his life, Ted remembered his old ship and her crew.
As an 18-year-old Flag-Lieutenant’s messenger, Briggs was on Hood’s compass platform when a shell from Bismarck hit the ship between centre and stern, penetrated the deck, exploded and touched off the ammunition in the four-inch and 15-inch magazines. According to one witness, the column of flame generated was “four times the height of the mainmast”.
Ted Briggs himself recalled that he was lifted off his feet and dumped headfirst on the deck: “Then she started listing to starboard. She righted herself, and started going over to port. When she had gone over by about 40 degrees we realised she was not coming back.” There was no time, or need, for an order to abandon ship. Hood sank within three minutes.
On his way to the compass platform shortly before the action, Briggs had bumped into a fellow-sailor, Frank Tuxworth, with whom he had earlier been playing cards. Tuxworth joked: “Do you remember, Briggo, that when the Exeter went into action with the Graf Spee, there was only one signalman saved?” Briggs laughed and replied: “If that happens to us, it’ll be me who’s saved, Tux”
LADY HOOD, WIDOW OF SIR HORACE HOOD (LOST AT JUTLAND) IS INVITED TO LAUNCH THE NEW SHIP
Hood, launched in 1918, was at the time still the biggest warship ever built. “She was the outward and visible manifestation of sea-power,” wrote Sir Ludovic Kennedy in his book Pursuit: the Sinking of the Bismarck. “For most Englishmen the news of Hood’s death was traumatic, as though Buckingham Palace had been laid flat or the Prime Minister assassinated.”
Albert Edward Pryke Briggs was born on March 1 1923 at Redcar, in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He never knew his father, a builder and decorator who died in a fall from a ladder three months before his son’s birth. Ted first saw Hood when he was only 12 and she was anchored off the mouth of the Tees. In his book, Flagship Hood, co-written with the late Alan Coles and published in 1985, he recalled: “I stood on the beach for some considerable time, drinking in the beauty, grace and immaculate strength of her.”
The very next day he went to the local recruiting office and announced that he wanted to join the Royal Navy: “They patted me gently on the head,” he remembered, “and told me to come back when I was 15. So I did just that. I had joined up within a week of my 15th birthday.”
A SIGNAL CARD FROM HMS HOOD
After his training at HMS Ganges, Ipswich, Briggs was surprised and delighted to be assigned to Hood; he joined her on June 29 1939, just before war was declared. “It never once occurred to me that she might be sunk,” he said. “As far as I was concerned, she was invincible. And everybody on board shared this view.”
The fact was, however, that this formidable vessel had one – and, as it turned out, fatal – weakness: her deck armour was not strong enough to withstand the vertical trajectory of a shell fired at extreme range. It was a weakness that the Bismarck was able to exploit.
HMS HOOD ON THE WAY TO HER DESTINY, TAKEN SW OF THE FAENCE ISLANDS ON THE AFTERNOON OF MAY 22, 1941
The British were aware in May 1941 that the German fleet had left Norway, and guessed that it would attempt to use the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland to break through to the Atlantic, where it would attack the convoys carrying supplies and arms from America to Britain.
On the evening of May 23 Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen were sighted in the Strait. Hood, along with Prince of Wales and six destroyers, went to intercept them. There followed several nerve-wracking hours of cat-and-mouse, as Hood and her sister ships tried to locate the Germans. Although dawn at this latitude was at 2am, visibility was poor; there were snow flurries, and radar at this stage of the war was not fully effective beyond 20 miles.
LAST SIGNAL TO THE ADMIRALTY FROM HMS HOOD
Finally, at 5.35am on May 24, Hood spotted the enemy. She moved to close in, and attacked. Briggs recalled: “We had taken them by surprise, and fired about six salvoes before she replied. And when she did, her gunnery was excellent. The third salvo hit us at the base of the mainmast, causing a fire – some of the ammunition was exploding.
“Then there was a hit just above the compass platform. It didn’t explode but it caused some bodies to fall down. I saw one officer with no hands and no face – I knew every officer on the ship, but I didn’t recognise him. We were closing in to get the range we wanted, and that’s when the final salvo hit. I didn’t hear any explosion – all I saw was a terrific sheet of flame.”
The Bismarck’s fifth salvo hit the Hood’s magazine hoist resulting in a catastrophic explosion that tore the ship in half.
Briggs was sucked down beneath the sea. He later wrote: “I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle – I was ready to meet my God. My blissful acceptance of death ended in a sudden surge beneath me, which shot me to the surface like a decanted cork in a champagne bottle. I turned, and 50 yards away I could see the bows of the Hood vertical in the sea. It was the most frightening aspect of my ordeal, and a vision which was to recur terrifyingly in nightmares for the next 40 years.”
HOOD SINKING WITH HMS PRINCE OF WALES IN FOREGROUND. Painting by J.C. Schmitz-Westerholt aboard Prinz Eugen
“When I came to the surface I was on her port side . . . I turned and swam as best I could in water 4″ thick with oil and managed to get on one of the small rafts she carried, of which there were a large number floating around. When I turned again she had gone and there was a fire on the water where her bows had been. Over on the other side I saw Dundas and Tilburn on similar rafts. There was not another soul to be seen.”
Only these two other men – Midshipman William Dundas and Able-Seaman Bob Tilburn – survived.
“We hand-paddled towards each other and held on to one another’s rafts,” Briggs recalled, “until our hands became too numb to do so.”
The three clung on for nearly four hours, singing Roll Out the Barrel to stay awake; even so, they were close to death from hypothermia when they were picked up by the destroyer Electra. Their rescuers could not believe that there was no sign of anyone else from Hood, alive or dead.
ADMIRALTY SIGNAL ANNOUNCING LOSS OF THE HOOD
Ted Briggs served 35 years in the navy, reaching the rank of lieutenant. He was appointed MBE in 1973, and until his retirement in 1988 worked as a furnished letting manager for an estate agent at Fareham, in Hampshire.
Both his fellow-survivors from Hood predeceased him: William Dundas in 1965, and Bob Tilburn in 1995.
Briggs, who was president of the HMS Hood Association, said shortly before the 60th anniversary of the sinking: “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think about it. I once said to an old Navy man that I sometimes wished I could forget about it. He said to me, ‘You are a naval curio, and you will always remain so. You will never be allowed to forget.’” In July 2001 he visited the site of the wreck and released a plaque to commemorate the ship and those who served in her.
Ted Briggs married twice, and his second wife, Clare, survives him. They had no children.
Sources: Daily Telegraph, October 5, 2008. HMS Hood Association, Ulrich Rudolfsky
J.C. Schmitz’s original sketches made during the battle
Lieutenant Julius Caesar Schmitz was an accomplished marine and railroad artist. He served as a propaganda command officer aboard Prinz Eugen during Operation Rheinübung as “Marinekriegsmaler – navy combat illustrator”. The hypen name – Westerholt was added to his name perhaps by the American or British archivists. He generally signed his name “J. or J.C. Schmitz” on his paintings. He may have been from Westerholt near Wilhelmshaven. The Julius Schmitz water-colour sketches of the sinking of the HMS Hood (with handwritten comments by the PG’s KzS Helmut Brinkmann)
http://www.kbismarck.com/archives/signalart.html, are the artist’s superb interpretation of the action. In 1989, there was an estate sale in Germany by the son of Admiral Lütjens and, among medals, uniforms etc, another great painting of J. C. Schmitz surfaced: Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in action against HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales http://i18.photobucket.com/albums/b138/ … 2large.jpg. The picture was a gift to the Lütjens family by the Office of Naval Operations after the death of the admiral. I don’t know what happened to that picture in the auction; the reproduction is small and a lot of detail is lost. Ulrich Rudofsky