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This Week in World War II: 75 Years Ago

The HMS Hood sank in three minutes after an attack from the Bismarck. Public Domain as a U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

The HMS Hood sank in three minutes after an attack from the German ship Bismarck. Public Domain as a U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

By: Phil Kohn. Dedicated to the memory of his father, GM3 Walter Kohn, U.S. Navy Armed Guard, USNR, and all men and women who have answered the country’s call in time of need. Phil can be contacted at ww2remembered@yahoo.com.

On May 23, 1941, the Germans consolidate their hold on Maleme, Crete, and its airfield, sending in artillery equipment and fighter planes. In the Denmark Strait (between Iceland and Greenland), the British cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk spot Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. British shipboard radar assists in tracking the vessels.

At 5:52 a.m. on May 24, HMS Hood — known as “The Mighty Hood”, one of the world’s largest and most powerful warships, and the pride of the Royal Navy — opens fire on Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in the Denmark Strait, joined by the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Ten minutes later, a shell from Bismarck hits Hood near her after ammunition magazines and Hood explodes, sinking in less than three minutes. Of Hood’s complement of 1,418, only three crewmen survive. Prince of Wales, badly damaged by the concentrated fire of the two German vessels after Hood’s sinking, makes smoke and speeds away. The Germans do not follow, obeying orders to avoid engaging if possible. Off the coast of Sicily, the British submarine HMS Upholder sinks the Italian troopship Conte Rosso, killing 1,300.

The next day, May 25, the British are frustrated as they search futilely for the whereabouts of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, which, unbeknownst to the British, have split up. Bismarck, however, breaks radio silence to report in and the signal is picked up by British direction-finding equipment. Unfortunately, HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, in pursuit, are both low on fuel and have no hope of catching Bismarck unless the German vessel can somehow be slowed.

On May 26, a British Catalina flying boat spots Bismarck about 700 miles from the port of Brest, Occupied France. Later that evening, the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal — the only vessel close enough — launches 15 Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers that attack Bismarck and cripple her steering, practically bringing her to a halt. Hours later, five British destroyers arrive and during the night continually harass the German vessel — able to move only in wide circles — with gunfire and torpedo attacks.

On the morning of May 27, the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney and the heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Norfolk arrive on scene and engage the crippled Bismarck. After two hours of shelling and torpedo attacks, Bismarck sinks. Of her crew of over 2,200, only 114 survive. On Crete, the Germans take two inland towns. The Allies, now split, are moving in a somewhat disorganized manner toward Sfakia, on the south coast, for evacuation to Egypt. Along the Egyptian border with Libya, Rommel has reinforced his troops, and his two panzer divisions retake the Halfaya Pass. In Washington, spurred in part by the sinking of the U.S. vessel SS Robin Moor (on May 21), President Roosevelt declares an “unlimited national emergency,” stating: “what started as a European war has developed as the Nazis always intended it should develop — into a world war for world domination.”

By May 28, the 20th Indian Brigade has advanced from Basra to Ur, in Iraq, but is stalled awaiting repairs to damaged roads and railroads. On Crete, the Allies fight a number of rearguard actions to cover their retreat to the beaches at Sfakia, where they begin evacuating the island.

At Sfakia, Crete, the destroyer HMS Hereward, engaged in evacuating Allied troops, is sunk by the Luftwaffe during an air raid on May 29 with a loss of 76 lives. Italian torpedo boats rescue 89 crew members from the water and take them prisoner.

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