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The KMSS Bismarck and Ted Briggs Liveblog World War II: May 24, 1941

The Bismarck:

HowStuffWorks _World War II Timeline_ January 26, 1941-February 15, 1941_.png

Ted Briggs:

H.M.S. Hood Association-Battle Cruiser Hood: Crew Information - Remembering Hood - Excerpt from "Flagship Hood, The Fate of Britain's Mightiest Warship": I clattered up the ladder to the glass-screened compass platform and squeezed in through the door. In the dimness of the binnacle and chart-table lights I could make out a stage-Iike setting. On the starboard, facing forward, stood the robust figure of Commander E.H.G. 'Tiny' Gregson, the squadron gunnery officer, and Lieutenant-Commander G.E.M. Owens, the admiral's secretary. Alongside, centre of stage, in the captain's chair was Admiral Holland, with Captain Kerr on his right. Then on the port side were Wyldbore-Smith, Commander S.J.P. Warrand, the squadron navigating officer, eighteen-year-old Bill Dundas, action midshipman of the watch, Chief Yeoman Carne, who was attending the captain, Yeoman Wright, who looked after the demands of the officer of the watch at the binnacle, and myself, who was required to attend the flag lieutenant and answer voice-pipes. All the officers, except Holland and Kerr, were huddled in duffle coats, over which was anti-flash gear, topped off by steel helmets. Some had their gas-masks slung on their chests. It seemed incongruous to me that I, the most junior of all, should be wearing shoes and they sea-boots. The short, slim admiral preferred to emphasize his rank by wearing his 'bum-freezer' type of greatcoat. He sat bolt upright, with his binoculars' strap around his neck, his fingers somewhat nervously tapping the glasses themselves.

Holland, with whom I had not come into close contact before, activated my curiosity. He was smaller and milder-tempered than Admiral Whitworth, his predecessor, and rarely raised his voice. Whitworth had filled me with awe every time he approached, but the quieter attitude of Holland made me want to discover what made him tick and to find the key to his advancement in the navy. I had ambitions, too! Although he was only fifty-four, his hair was almost white. He appeared to be extremely shy and withdrawn, but officers put this down to the fact that his only son, an eighteen-year-old, who seemed to have a brilliant future as both poet and painter, had died of polio five years earlier. The tragedy had left its mark on both the admiral and his wife. Holland was a gunnery specialist and had invented gadgets to improve anti-aircraft control in warships. He was commodore of Portsmouth Barracks in 1935 and two years later became Assistant Chief of Naval Staff. At the outbreak of war he was put in command of the Second Battle Squadron. His only battle experience had been seven months earlier, when he had led five cruisers against the Italian fleet off Cape Spartivento. The Italians had not waited to give full battle, however, and fled before the British could get at them.

Holland had already signalled his plan for action to Captain John Leach in the Prince of Wales. With the Hood leading the way, both ships were to concentrate their fire on the Bismarck, with the Suffolk and Norfolk taking on the Prinz Eugen. Because we were maintaining radio silence, however, the cruisers did not receive these orders. Radar was banned unless action was imminent, in case the Bismarck picked up transmissions and changed direction. At midnight the enemy were believed to be a hundred miles away, and Holland deduced that if both squadrons continued on their courses at similar speeds the Hood would cross their intended track sixty miles ahead, at about 0230, or approximately forty minutes after sunrise in these days of long light.

After I had been on the compass platform about fifteen minutes, Holland stirred himself, as if he had forgotten an important factor. Then he commanded: 'Hoist battle ensigns.' The order was repeated and then passed on to the flag deck. The great flag rustled to the yardarm. At twenty-four feet long and twelve wide it was one of the largest in the Navy and whistled towards the stern to increase the anticipation of everyone who saw it. But it was anticlimax, for almost simultaneously the signal came from Suffolk: 'Enemy hidden in snowstorm.' Then silence. The news that contact had been lost was broadcast through the ship, and the crew were allowed to assume 'relaxed action stations'. Holland got to his feet and conferred with his flag staff around the plot. The product of this short conference was a reduction of speed to twenty-five knots and a change of direction to due north.

As I had been successful in questioning Wyldbore-Smith about the situation the previous day, I tried again, and during the next two hours my queries turned into a bombardment for information. He was extremely considerate and patiently gave me more details than it was necessary to disclose to a very junior rating. He explained that the admiral was in a quandary because of the cessation of reports from the shadowing cruisers and had to guess the movements of the enemy. Because Lutjens -of course no one knew he was the admiral in command -was aware his ships were being tracked, it was expected he would make a big divergence in course to shake off the pursuers. But a major switch towards the west was impossible because the edge of the Greenland ice pack was on the Bismarck's starboard side. Holland, therefore, had concluded that Lutjens would alter to a southerly course, or just to the east of it. The consequence of this tactical guess was a reduction in the speed of the Hood and the Prince of Wales and the alteration to due north. Now Holland intended to keep to this course until 0210, when we would turn about.

The strain of this game of hide-and-seek began to show on the face of the little admiral as he turned restlessly in his swivel chair. We thundered on through snow flurries, with spray coming over the forecastle, oblivious to the knowledge that we had no definite destination. Just after two o'clock Holland ended his dilemma by first ordering a turn to the south and then another to the south-east. Again Wyldbore- Smith interpreted this manoeuvre to me. If the Bismarck had successfully side-tracked the Norfolk and Suffolk by altering to the south, Holland wanted to consolidate his position on the enemy's bows. If the Hood and Prince of Wales had persisted towards the north, Holland's intercep- tion course would have put us too far ahead, and a great deal of the squadron's gun-bearing advantage would have been given away on the enemy pair racing south. To ensure that there was a British force searching to the north still, Holland spread the destroyer escort to this area.

Apart from the muttered comments of officers around me, the compass platform became a strangely somnolent citadel. The cold fingers of the Arctic draughts were whistling through the platform, and I was sent down to the galley to bring off a dixie of 'kiy' for the ratings, while Midshipman Dundas was ordered on a similar mission to the wardroom kitchen for the officers.

But at 0247 came another stimulant. The Suffolk, veering south at thirty knots, reported she was in touch with the Bismarck and her consort again. On our plot this put the Germans thirty-five miles to the north-west, with the Hood and Prince of Wales a few miles ahead. Unknown to foe and friend alike, the four ships had been on slightly divergent courses. We were on 200 degrees, and Lutjens' squadron were on 220 degrees. The difference was that we knew they were there now, but they were still unaware that two British capital ships were stalking them. As the Hood, still ahead of the Prince of Wales, swung back to the north again, the news was broadcast to rouse the sagging figures below from their attempted slumber. The Hood began to shudder more as speed was raised to 28! knots, the maximum she could attain from her engines after months of over-use. From the billows of blackish, purple smoke emitted from the stacks, there was no doubt that the' chief stoker was sitting on the safety valves'. She was at her fastest, and not another decimal of a knot could be coaxed from the ageing engines.

The next hour was to be the edgiest of my life, as the Hood screamed into battle. There was little for me to do in the build-up to action, and I became a somewhat frightened observer. Dawn had been at 0200, and now I could see great patches of cloud that threatened rain, if not more snow and sleet. There was a heavy swell from the north-east, which slapped the great ship and produced a haze of water that showered over the bows on to the long forecastle and beat against the side of A and B turrets. Under a grey sky on a grey sea we charged towards an enemy who threatened the lifelines to Britain. Even a technicolor film of this morning would not have brought out a brighter hue.

Momentarily I was snatched from my reverie by the message that the Bismarck had been picked up by our radar 'bods' and was twenty miles off to our north-east. This was no false errand now. If there were any doubts that a full-scale naval action was about to be fought, they were dispelled at once. In an hour we would be upon the enemy.

I could visualize how the mates I knew in other departments would be preparing. Ron Bell was on the flag deck at the other end of the voice-pipe I was manning. His voice did not betray any signs of funk, as I was sure mine did. Near him would be Tuxworth, helping to handle the halyards and still joking, no doubt. Alongside in charge of the flags I guessed that Yeoman Bill Nevett would be as outwardly calm as ever, despite the pallor of his face.

On the boat deck I knew another mate, Petty Officer Stan Boardman, would be readying the crew of Sally, the starboard multiple pom-pom. Would he be thinking of his adored wife and his newly born baby or would he be questioning what on earth he could do with his anti-aircraft guns against the Bismarck's fifteen-inchers? And what of the sick-bay, where I had spent the first few days of my life in the ship? There the 'tiffies' under Surgeon Commander Hurst and sick-Bay Petty Officer stannard would be sterilizing operating instruments, laying out blankets, making sure bandages were handy -God, don't let me be wounded. I guessed a lot of blood would be flowing there today, and it made my own feel colder .

Other shipmates would be under cover and unable to see - and some unable to hear -the impending action and relying on the chaplain, the Reverend R.].P. Stewart, who had now taken over from Commander Cross as broadcast 'com- mentator', to keep them briefed, and still uncertain of each movement of the ship. At least I had a grandstand view and would not die unknowingly in darkness. Death? I'm not, and never have been, a religious zealot, nor a churchman, but my last thoughts in these moments of inaction were of the peaceful little chapel under the flag deck. It reminded me of Nelsons own prayer, 'May the great God, whom I worship ...' and I offered up a pitiful silent prayer of my own for personal courage and stamina and for a British victory. I suppose it was rather like keeping your fingers crossed!

Dead on 0500 the imminence of a high-explosive fight sent a shudder of fear through me. 'Prepare for instant action,' Holland warned, although not a man in the Hood and the Prince of Wales could not have been ready by now. There was no friendly conversation on the compass platform. Everyone was staring into the steely blend of sky and sea towards the northern horizon. At 0535 the enemy were spotted from the Hood. The sighting was reported by voice-pipe from the spotting-top as' Alarm starboard green 40.' I did not have any binoculars, so I could not see the top-masts, which everyone else was focusing on, but the maximum visibility from our perch was seventeen miles at this time. Almost in a whisper Captain Kerr commanded: 'Pilot, make the enemy report.' Lieutenant-Commander A.R.]. Batley called Chief Yeoman Came to his side at the binnacle and dictated: 'Emergency to Admiralty and C-in-C., Home Fleet. From BC1 -one battleship and one heavy cruiser, bearing 330, distance 17 miles. My position 63-20 north, 31-50 west. My course 240. Speed 28 knots.' Came copied it on to his signal pad as: 'Y -2 -Admiralty, C-in-C. H.F., V.B. Cone, IBS ICH 330-17-632°N, 315°W, 24-28.' This message was repeated by Carne through the voice-pipe to the bridge wireless office. A few minutes later came the confirmation through the voice-pipe in my hand that the message had been sent.

Then the order went from Holland to the flag deck to hoist 'Blue 4'. This meant making a turn of forty degrees together to starboard and with it the knowledge that the after batteries of the Hood and Prince of Wales would be unable to bear on the Bismarck or the Prinz Eugen. Holland was concentrating on closing the range as rapidly as possible to make the trajectory of the enemy shells flatter and to reduce the chances of the Hood's being penetrated by plummeting shells where the armour was weakest.

All that could be heard now of human activity was the steering orders of the officer of the watch and the piped repetition from the quartermaster in the barbette under the foremost director. I whispered to Yeoman Wright: 'How long do you think this is going to last, Yeo ?' He answered this silly question with an equally vacuous answer: 'I think it'll all be over within the next couple of hours, Ted.'

Ting-ting, ting-ting, ting-ting -the weak chinking, yet shrilly insistent urgency of the fire gong came through the loudspeaker at the back of the bridge. Holland had already ordered the preparatory signal to the Prince of Wales to open fire, and flag 5 was bent on the halyards ready for hoisting. Normally flag signals are not executed until they are hauled down, but flag 5 gave captains of ships the right to fire immediately it was at the mast-head. I could see our A and B forward turrets' guns lift slightly. When the range was down to thirteen miles, Holland said in a quietly modulated and polite voice: 'Open fire.' Chief Yeoman Came shouted more peremptorily to the flag deck: 'Flag 5, hoist.' A minute earlier the gunnery officers of both the Hood and Prince of Wales had been ordered by the admiral to concentrate their fire on the Bismarck, which, he told them, was the left-hand ship of the fast-approaching enemy. In the background I could hear the helmsman repeating his orders, and the closing ranges from the gunnery control position above us being sung out. Captain Kerr then ordered: 'Open fire.' From the control tower the gunnery officer bellowed: 'Shoot.' And the warning gong replied before the Hood's first salvo belched out in an ear-pulsating roar, leaving behind a cloud of brown cordite smoke, which swept by the compass platform. Seconds later a duller boom came from our starboard quarter as the Prince of Wales unleashed her first fourteen-inch salvo.

The menacing thunder of our guns snapped the tension. All my traces of anxiety and fright left me momentarily. I was riveted with fascination as I counted off the seconds for our shells to land -20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25...then tiny spouts of water, two extremely close to the pinpoints on the horizon. Suddenly a report from the spotting-top made Holland realize he had blundered. 'We're shooting at the wrong ship. The Bismarck's on the right, not the left.' Our shells had been falling near the Prinz Eugen, which many hours earlier had begun to lead the German raiding force when the Bismarck's forward radar failed. Holland seemed hardly perturbed and in the same monotonous voice said: 'Shift target to the right.'

Within the next two minutes the Hood's foremost turrets managed to ram in six salvoes each at the Bismarck. I counted each time, expecting to see a hit registered. The first salvo pockmarked the sea around her, and the third appeared to spark off a dull glow. I thought we had got in the first blow, but I was wrong. Suddenly it intrigued me to see four star-like golden flashes, with red centres, spangle along the side of the Bismarck. But I had no time to admire them. Those first pretty pyrotechnics were four fifteen-inch shells coming our way, and deep, clammy, numbing fear returned. That express train, which I had last heard when the French fired on us at Oran, was increasing in crescendo. It passed overhead. Where it landed I was not sure. My eyes were on the two ships rapidly becoming more visible on the starboard bow. They were still winking at us threateningly. But the next salvo was not just a threat. Not far from our starboard beam there were two, no three, no four high splashes of foam, tinted with an erupting dirty brown fringe. Then I was flung off my feet. My ears were ringing as if I had been in the striking-chamber of Big Ben. I picked myself up, thinking I had made a complete fool of myself, but everyone else on the compass platform was also scrambling to his feet. 'Tiny' Gregson walked almost sedately out to the starboard wing of the platform to find out what had happened. 'We've been hit at the base of the mainmast, sir, and we're on fire,' he reported, almost as if we were on manoeuvres.

Then came a crazy cacophony of wild cries of 'Fire' through the voice-pipes and telephones. On the amidships boat deck a fierce blaze flared. This was punctuated by loud explosions. The torpedo officer reported by phone: 'The four-inch ready-use ammunition is exploding.' I could hear the UP rockets going up, just as they had roared off accidentally in Gibraltar a year earlier. Fear gripped my intestines again as agonized screams of the wounded and dying emitted from the voice-pipes. The screeching turned my blood almost to ice. Yet strangely I also began to feel anger at the enemy for the first time. 'Who the hell do they think they are, hitting our super ship?' I thought ridiculously.'

As the AA shells continued to rocket around, Captain Kerr ordered the four-inch gun crews to take shelter and the fire and damage control parties to keep away from the area until all the ready-use ammunition had been expended. But the bursting projectiles were making a charnel-house of positions above the upper deck. The screams of the maimed kept up a strident chorus through the voice-pipes and from the flag deck. I was certain I heard my' oppo' Ron Bell shouting for help. These agonizing moments did not appear to trouble Holland, Kerr or Gregson. Their binoculars were still focused on the enemy. I wondered how they could be so detached, with chaos and havoc around them. This, I supposed, was the calmness of command, and some of it transferred to me like a form of mental telepathy.

By this time the range had been cut down to approximately 8 miles. We had been under fire for just two minutes, which already had taken on the time-scale of two hours. It was the moment for Holland to try to bring our aft turrets, X and Y, to bear, because we were being hopelessly outgunned. 'Turn twenty degrees to port together,' he commanded. Chief Yeoman Came passed the word on to the flag deck, where surprisingly someone still seemed to be capable of obeying orders. Two blue -flag 2, a blue pendant -went up the yard-arm. I remember musing: 'Not everyone on the flag deck is dead then.' As the Hood turned, X turret roared in approval, but its Y twin stayed silent. And then a blinding flash swept around the outside of the compass platform. Again I found myself being lifted off my feet and dumped head first on the deck. This time, when I got up with the others, the scene was different. Everything was cold and unreal. The ship which had been a haven for me for the last two years was suddenly hostile. After the initial jarring she listed slowly, almost hesitatingly, to starboard. She stopped after about ten degrees, when I heard the helmsman's voice shouting up the voice-pipe to the officer of the watch: 'Steering's gone, sir.' The reply of 'Very good' showed no signs of animation or agitation. Immediately Kerr ordered: 'Change over to emergency steering.'

Although the Hood had angled to starboard, there was still no concern on the compass platform. Holland was back in his chair. He looked aft towards the Prince of Wales and then re-trained his binoculars on the Bismarck. Slowly the Hood righted herself. 'Thank heaven for that,' I murmured to myself, only to be terrorized by her sudden, horrifying cant to port. On and on she rolled, until she reached an angle of forty-five degrees. When everyone realized that she would not swing back to the perpendicular, we all began to make our way out in single file towards the starboard door at first. Then some turned towards the port door and attempted to break panes of reinforced glass in the foreport of the platform. But it was all done as if in drill. There was no order to abandon ship; nor was a word uttered. It just was not required. The Hood was finished, and no one needed to be told that.

I was surprised by my cold yet uncontrolled detachment, as I made my way to the door. 'Tiny' Gregson was in front of me with the squadron navigation officer. As I reached the steel-hinged door, Commander Warrand stood aside for me and let me go out first. I looked back over my left shoulder and saw Holland slumped on his chair in total dejection. Beside him the captain tried to keep to his feet as the Hood's deck turned into a slide. I began picking my way down the ladder from the compass platform to the admiral's bridge. Then the sea swirled around my legs and I was walking on the side of the bridge, instead of the ladder. I threw away my tin hat and gas-mask and managed to slip off my anti-flash gear, but my lifebelt was under my Burberry and I could not get at it to inflate it. There was no one else in sight, although I knew that at least two officers were nearby, as the water engulfed me with a roar.

Panic had gone. This was it, I realized. But I wasn't going to give in easily. I knew that the deckhead of the compass platform was above me and that I must try to swim away from it. I managed to avoid being knocked out by the steel stanchions, but I was not making any progress. The suction was dragging me down. The pressure on my ears was increasing each second, and panic returned in its worse intensity. I was going to die. I struggled madly to try to heave myself up to the surface. I got nowhere. Although it seemed an eternity, I was under water for barely a minute. My lungs were bursting. I knew that I just had to breathe. I opened my lips and gulped in a mouthful of water. My tongue was forced to the back of my throat. I was not going to reach the surface. I was going to die. I was going to die. As I weakened, my resolve left me. What was the use of struggling? Panic subsided. I had heard it was nice to drown. I stopped trying to swim upwards. The water was a peaceful cradle. I was being rocked off to sleep. There was nothing I could do about it -goodnight, mum. Now I lay me down ...I was ready to meet 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 wasn't going to die. I wasn't going to die. I trod water as I panted in great gulps of air. I was alive. I was alive.

Although my ears were singing from the pressure under water, I could hear the hissing of a hundred serpents. I turned and fifty 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 forty years. Both gun barrels of B turret were slumped hard over to port and disappearing fast beneath the waves. My experience of suction seconds before forced me to turn in sheer terror and swim as fast and as far as I could away from the last sight of the ship that had formulated my early years.

I did not look back. There was a morass of debris around me as I pushed through the sea, which had a four-inch coating of oil on it. Fortunately before we had left Scapa the ship had been equipped with three-foot-square rafts, which replaced the older and larger Carley floats. There were dozens of these around in the sea and I managed to lug myself half on to one. I held on face downwards and then levered myself to look round to where the H ood had been. A small patch of oil blazed where she was cremated. Several yards away I could see the stern of the Prince of Wales as she pressed on with her guns firing. She was being straddled by shells from the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, and I did not give much of a chance to her survival. As I watched her veer away, I began to wonder about my chances of survival, too. I knew, of course, that a ship in action could not stop to pick up survivors, but this did not prevent a feeling of deep and helpless frustration.

The oil fire, which was still burning, instilled a spirit of self-preservation in me. I feared that larger patches of fuel, in which my raft was swilling, might be ignited, and with both hands I paddled out of the brown, sickening coating. Although I still had on my Burberry, number three suit, lifebelt, shoes and socks and had been in the water only some three minutes, the cold was beginning to numb my arms, fingers, legs and toes. My frantic efforts to propel the raft away from the fire helped to circulate my blood, but soon I was out of breath. I looked back and saw that the fire was out. On the horizon I could just make out the smoke from the Norfolk and Suffolk. About fifty yards away I suddenly saw life from another raft. A figure on it began to wave at me. Parallel to this was another raft with a man flapping his arms. I tried to find other signs of life. There was none -just us. We all began to paddle towards each other. The two linked up first, and then I puffed towards them. On one raft was Able Seaman Bob Tilburn and on the other was Midshipman Dundas, who had been on the compass platform with me.

Dundas had managed to sit up on his raft. For some odd reason it infuriated me that he was perched comfortably and perfectly balanced. As I neared the other two, I was crazily determined that I would 'enter their water' sitting up on my raft, too. I hauled myself into a central position, knelt up and then toppled back into the sea. I tried again and the raft capsized. I clambered back and was bucked off for a third time. I was crying with frustration when six-foot Tilburn, who was now alongside, helped me back on and said: 'Come on now; you're all right, son.' I realized I was making a fool of myself and finally gave up. I stayed sprawled out after this as we clutched the ratlings of each other's raft to bind us together.

Dundas took command not because he was an officer - the most junior one at that - but through his cheerfulness. He kept us singing 'Roll Out the Barrel' to ensure that we stayed awake. After an hour my mind was as numb as my body.... Dundas was determined that we should not drop into a coma, and to prevent this he suggested we tell our stories of how we got out of the Hood. The escape of twenty-year-old Tilburn, who had been in the Navy for four years to this very day, was the most dramatic, and he related it something like this.

I was manning one of the four-inch AA guns on the port side, but when the shooting began, we were ordered to take cover on the boat deck. Some of the men took cover in the aircraft hangar. The first hit was a small one, right near the anti-aircraft rockets. It must have been a small one, because a bigger shell would have gone through the deck. There was a tremendous fire, all pinkish with not much smoke. It seemed as if the UP ammo had exploded, but it might have been the four-inch ammo lockers. Petty Officer Bishop, who was in charge of the four-inch guns, told us to put out the fire, but then the bridge ordered us to take shelter again until all the ammo had gone off. So we all lay face down flat on the deck as everything began going off like Chinese crackers. Just after we had turned to port, the whole ship shook like mad. Bits of steel showered down on us, and bodies started f aIling from above allover the deck. Apart of a man fell from aloft and hit me on the legs. Bodies without arms and legs were falling all around. One of my "oppos" was killed; another was blown away, and a third had a splinter in his side and his guts ripped out. I felt violently sick and rushed to the side to spew up. Then the ship began to vibrate even worse, and she seemed to stop. I first noticed that she was going down by the stern after listing to port. She began to tilt at such an alarming angle that I got up and jumped on to the forecastle, which was nearly under water. I ripped off my gas-mask, coat and helmet, and the sea washed me over the side. Just before I went in, there was a flash of flame between the control tower and B turret. As I was swimming, I looked back and saw her coming over on top of me. Some part of the mast hit me on the legs, and I was partly pulled down by a tangle of wires around one of my sea-boots. Luckily I still had my knife on a lanyard, and I slashed at my boot until it was loose and I could kick it off. When I came to the top, the Hood's bows were stuck out of the water, practically upright - and then she slid underneath.

Dundas, who was only a few feet away from me on the compass platform, was a keener observer than I, for this is what he told us.

I reckon that the Bismarck's first salvo fell off the starboard side and the second off the port bow. It was after the third that the cordite fire began on the starboard side of the boat deck. The fourth salvo seemed to go through the spotting-top without exploding, although bodies began to fall from it. It was the fifth salvo that really did for us. Wreckage began raining down again, and I saw a mass of brown smoke drifting to leeward on the port side. As we began listing heavily to port, I found I could not get to the door, where you and the others got out, Briggs. I scrambled uphill and kept kicking at the window on the starboard side until I made a big enough hole to squeeze through. When I was halfway through, the water came underneath me, and I was dragged down quite a bit. The next thing I knew was that I shot to the top, and I was swimming on the surface.

We were all still dazed by the sudden demise of the Hood, especially as none of us could recall hearing any loud or catastrophic explosion before she sank. I was the only one who had escaped without a scratch. Tilburn had wounded himself on the knee, where he had cut away his sea-boot, while Dundas had sprained an ankle when he kicked in the armoured glass window in desperation. What intrigued me was that Dundas and I had gone into the sea from the starboard side, yet I was the one who had emerged on the port side. I must have gone right under the ship.

All this talking had tired us, and our stiffened fingers involuntarily lost their grasp on the ratlings and we drifted apart, to four hundred and eight hundred yards. Through the sleepy mist that was snarling my eyes and brain I could hear the distant voice of Dundas, who had started up another chorus of 'RollOut the Barrel'. My mind urged me to listen, but then I thought: 'Oh why don't you shut up, man, so I can get some sleep.' Later Tilburn revealed that he believed he was about to die and remembered that the best way to go in extreme cold was to close your eyes and sleep the deepest sleep of all. Fortunately for him he stayed awake. Suddenly Dundas stopped his raucous singing and began to cry: 'There's a destroyer coming along. She's seen us.' I looked up wearily in disbelief, but Dundas was right. She was heading towards the rafts. I recognized the pendant number- H27. 'It's the Electra,' I screamed. Then I began to bawl crazily. ' Electra ! Electra! Electra !' The other two joined in, and we waved our arms desperately. She had certainly seen us. She cut her engines and began to steer in towards us. Men with hand-lines were stationed around her sides. Scrambling-nets were already rigged, so we had obviously been spotted before we had noticed her. In jubilation Dundas sang: 'Roll out the barrel, let's have a barrel of fun. ..' and began conducting an imaginary orchestra. As low in spirit as I was, I could not but admire his bravado.

Slowly the Electra approached my raft, on which I was prostrate. Then a rope sailed into the air in my direction. Although I could not feel my fingers, somehow I managed to cling on to it. A man yelled unnecessarily at me from the scrambling net: 'Don't let go of it.' I even had the heart to retort: 'You bet your bloody life I won't.' Yet I was too exhausted to haul myself in and climb the net. After nearly four hours in the sea my emotions were a mess. Tears of frustration rolled down my oil-caked cheeks again, for rescue was so close and I could not help myself. I need not have worried. Several seamen dropped into the water, and with one hand on the nets they got me alongside and manhandled me up to the bent guard-rail, which had been battered by the storm, and into the waist of the Electra.

The sheer thankfulness of being saved acted as a tranquillizer on me. I was laid out on deck, and gentle hands cut and eased away the frozen clothes from my body. I remember thinking: 'There goes my Burberry and number three suit.' Then someone forced a cup between my lips and said: 'Here, drink this.' I did, and although I had been in the Navy for three years, this was my first taste of rum. I vomited it up immediately. My idiotic attempts to sit up on the raft, which had led to my swallowing a mixture of brine and oil, made it impossible for me to keep anything down for the next few hours. Swathed in blankets and with the ship's doctor, Lieutenant W.R.D. Seymour, massaging my hands and then my feet, I was soon joined by Tilburn and Dundas, whom I heard say to the No.1 after he was hauled up to the main deck: 'Sorry I can't salute, sir. I'm afraid I've lost my cap.' It was his last show of cheeky cheerfulness. He immediately collapsed into a heap. He, too, was massaged and then bundled off protestingly to the wardroom. Tilburn and I were carried bodily to the sick-bay. I was helped into a bunk, and then a sick-berth attendant gave me a blanket bath. But sleep did not come easily after this, because as my circulation returned I was seized with a series of cramps, which made my body rigid again. The SBA tried to massage me back to suppleness, but even this did not ease my pain. Finally I fell asleep.