After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany controlled much of the European continent. British resistance now depended on a constant flow of supplies from America and the British Commonwealth.

The Battle of the Denmark Strait

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the sailors of the Merchant Fleet faced a deadly gauntlet of submarine attacks and travelled in convoys for safety. However, if heavy German surface ships could get into the Atlantic these slow-moving convoys would be easy prey and Britain could be starved into surrender.

On 21 May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen left the safety of Bergen harbour in Norway and slipped into the stormy waters of the North Sea. Bismarck's location had been reported by Norwegian resistance and after images were captured by a Royal Air France (RAF) reconnaissance aircraft, the Royal Navy prepared to intercept.

The last known photograph of HMS Hood, taken from the deck of HMS Prince of Wales. 24 May 1941
The last known photograph of HMS Hood, taken from the deck of HMS Prince of Wales. 24 May 1941. IWM (HU 50190)

Warships set sail from across the British Isles and in the early hours of 24 May, the British battle cruiser HMS Hood along with the battleship HMS Prince of Wales engaged the German ships just south of the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland.

Photograph taken from Prinz Eugen showing the fall of shellfire from HMS Prince of Wales
Photograph taken from Prinz Eugen showing the fall of shellfire from HMS Prince of Wales. IWM (HU383)

Bismarck turned her guns on Hood and opened fired. A shell penetrated Hood's armour and detonated the explosives in one of her magazines. Hood blew apart, the force of the blast ripping the ship in two. Some 10 minutes after the engagement began, Hood vanished beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic taking with her all but three of her 1,400 crew.

The Bismarck firing a broadside at HMS Hood (photograph taken from Prinz Eugen)
The Bismarck firing a broadside at HMS Hood (photograph taken from Prinz Eugen). IWM (HU 381)

Prince of Wales was also damaged but managed to escape destruction. The German ships made for the safety of the French Atlantic coast.

The loss of Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy and flagship of the Home Fleet, was a devastating blow. In response, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued the order 'Sink the Bismarck!'

On 27 May, after the Bismarck had been crippled by British air attacks, Royal Navy ships closed in and fulfilled Churchill's orders.