Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Ironic Legacy of Rear Admiral Horace Lambert A. Hood

This story might only be of interest to hardcore military history geeks like myself. In designing warships, designers must always deal with the triangle of firepower, mobility, and protection. American battleships of the 20th century tended to be slow but well-armed and well-protected. German battleships tended to be fast with good protection and relatively light armament. Since one of the Royal Navy’s primary missions was commerce protection, it made perfect sense to design some ships as battle cruisers with excellent speed, great firepower, but very little protection, which can backfire horribly.

That’s something Admiral Spee found out in the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914. A year and a half later, the Royal Navy committed a serious blunder at the Battle of Jutland—they put battle cruisers in the battle line alongside better-protected battleships to exchange fire with German battleships, and the results for the cruise was positively ghastly. In very short succession, the Queen Mary, the Invincible, and the Indefatigable, battle cruisers all, exploded.

When a 1,000 lb shell explodes in a ship’s ammunition magazines, the results are immediate, spectacular, and quite unfortunate for the crews (Admiral Beatty famously commented to his flag secretary on the explosion, “Something seems to be wrong with our bloody ships today, Chapfield.”).Out of 3,300 crewmen, there were only 16 survivors. The rear admiral in charge of that squadron, Horace Lambert A. Hood, was not one of them. Hood was the great-great grandson of one of the Royal Navy’s greatest 18th century admirals, the legendary Samuel Hood. Horace Hood was only 35 and likely would have had an extraordinary career if not for mis-positioning of ships by the Royal Navy.

I only learned about the 20th century Admiral Hood a few days ago. His legacy is ironic beyond words. After WWI, the US, Great Britain, and Japan tended to convert would-be battle cruisers into aircraft carriers, which proved to be an excellent idea, since aircraft proved to be the decisive weapon in WWII. However, in 1920, British government asked Admiral Hood’s widow (they had only had five years together) to christen a new battle cruiser named The Hood. Whether it’s named for Horace Hood, his legendary great-grandfather, or both is anyone’s guess.

The Hood had the same battlecruiser design as its predecessors , a speed around 30 knots (very fast), 8 15-inch guns that fired off thousand-pound rounds, and very thin armor. In May of 1941, the Hood was sent out to the strait between Greenland and Iceland to intercept the new German battleship the Bismarck. The morning of May 24, they Hood made contact with the Bismarck, and after exchanging a few rounds, a missile lodged in the Hood’s ammunition magazine. Of a crew of 1400 men, there were 8 survivors.

Lady Hood was alive, and she no doubt would have heard of the devastation. One hopes that the dry fatalism of British culture would have helped her accept that history repeats itself as long as nations refuse to learn from their mistakes.

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