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Winston S. Churchill and Ted Briggs Liveblog World War II: May 23, 1941


The Grand Alliance - Google Books-14.png

The Grand Alliance - Google Books-15.png



H.M.S. Hood Association-Battle Cruiser Hood: Crew Information - Remembering Hood - Excerpt from "Flagship Hood, The Fate of Britain's Mightiest Warship": The nervous tension of the night before had vanished. It was, after all, another unnecessary foray, another false alarm. We were all wasting our time here on the fringes of the frozen north. Routine was back to normal until 7.30 that evening, when I was playing a quiet game of solo with Frank Tuxworth, Ron Bell and Jimmy Green on the mess deck. The broadcasting system spluttered into life and ordered: 'Flag lieutenant's messenger report to the SDO at the double!' I did as I was piped and dashed to the signals distribution office, where I was told to rush a message to Lieutenant-Commander Wyldbore-Smith in his cabin. It always seemed laughable to me that I had to rush paper missives, even though the recipient had already been told by telephone of their contents. This particular signal was at least dramatic and deserved the classification 'rush' for it stated: 'From Suffolk -enemy in sight.'...

Able Seaman Newell, Suffolk's starboard after look-out, had sighted the two at a distance of seven miles. The time was 1922, but Suffolk's signal did not reach her co-searcher, the Norfolk, because of icing on her aerials. From that moment the shadowers of the Bismarck continued to send in a stream of amplifying coded reports. 'OCAs 240-25', for example, meant 'Enemy course 240 degrees and speed twenty-five knots.' 'OST A4 ' indicated that the enemy were altering course to forty degrees starboard.

By now Admiral Holland had decided to abandon his normal occupancy of the admiral's bridge and to conduct the operation from the compass platform in company with Flag Captain Kerr. As the dogs body messenger I was required to be close to Wyldbore-smith's elbow. The 1922 report from the Suffolk, which was plotted in the Hood, put the enemy due north of us and around three hundred miles away. This prompted Holland, who was at the chart table, to order at 1945 an increase of speed to twenty-seven knots and a course alteration of 295 degrees for the interception.

With this sudden diversion the ship's company were alive again to the realization that deadly action could be just ten hours away. The back of my neck began to prickle with excitement, and I found myself stuttering slightly, a nervous habit which until then I had managed to conquer since the age of ten. Although we had still to be called to action stations, most departments were preparing for the thunder of guns. The tension was heightened by Norfolk's report at 2032: 'One battleship, one cruiser in sight.' This was the first signal to reach Tovey of the position of the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait, because Suffolk's radio was still on the blink. The Norfolk, whose radar was inferior to the Suffolk's, had run straight into the enemy but had turned about at a range of six miles, had made smoke and, despite being straddled by the Bismarck's fifteen-inch guns, had managed to retreat into the murk to continue shadowing with the Suffolk.

By now the weather was roughening. We were bumping around a great deal as snow flurries began to whip into us, and I could see the destroyer escort disappearing in great troughs and then ploughing out of them like wounded porpoise. Their plight became apparent when the senior officer of the screen signalled: 'Do not consider destroyers can maintain present speed without danger.' At 2055 Holland replied: 'If you are unable to maintain this speed I will have to go on without you. You should follow at your best speed.' But the tenacity of the tiny vessels was tremendous; for the next half hour their skippers attempted to keep with us, and then gradually they were forced to accept the inevitable, reduce speed and drop astern.

The hubbub of activity between the compass platform and the bridge wireless office continued into the night, and at one stage I could not contain my nervousness and took the unprecedented step. for an ordinary signalman, of asking Wyldbore-Smith: 'What's happening, sir?' He should have admonished me; instead he took pity on my callowness and replied: 'It looks like definite action within the next few hours, Briggs.' His prediction became known to the rest of the ship's company around 2200 when Commander Cross confirmed in a broadcast that the Bismarck and a 'Hipper-class cruiser' had been contacted and were being shadowed by the Norfolk and Suffolk. 'We are expected to intercept at 0200 tomorrow morning,' he confided. 'We will go to action stations at midnight. In the meantime prepare yourselves and above all change into clean underwear.' This last sentence galvanized the mess deck, where I had returned to collect a cup of 'kiy' (cocoa). The only other time we had been warned to put on clean vests, pants and socks, in case dirty garments infected a wound, was at Oran, where we had fired our guns in anger, although reluctantly. Apprehension was heavy in the air. I think that most of my mates, like myself, were fearing not instant oblivion but the horror of being fearfully wounded or mutilated and screaming out in painful insanity. I had the depressing dread of being afraid of fear and showing it. Yet I was not feeling afraid -just wound up. I wanted the action to be hurried on, and yet at the same time I did not want it to happen. Wouldn't I wake up tomorrow in my hammock and find it was all a mistake? I could sense the feeling around me of quiet confidence in the ship's ability, but a bravado about one's own capability.

Just before midnight I changed into clean underwear and socks, put on my number three suit, tied up my lifebelt, or Mae West, over it, buttoned up my Burberry on top of this bulk and then completed the ensemble by donning anti-flash gear, with my gas-mask slung in front on my chest and a 'battle bowler' on my head. It was not yet time to report, but I did not want to miss anything. I picked up signals from the SDO and was on my way up the ladder to the compass platform when Tuxworth, one of my best chums, stopped me for a quick chat and a joke, which was to become indelible on my memory. 'Do you remember, Briggo,' he said, ' that when the Exeter went into action with the Graf Spee there was only one signalman saved ?' I laughed and cracked back: 'If that happens to us, it'll be me who's saved, Tux.' We were interrupted by the shrill bugle call summoning us to action stations right on midnight...