Seaman R Tilburn of Roundhay, Leeds, one of the three survivors of HMS Hood out for a walk with his young brother, June 1941.
Bob Tilburn joined the ship in 1938 at Gibraltar. He was nicknamed Lofty by his shipmates. It was his job to help crew one of the ship’s four-inch guns.
In a clash of the titans, the Hood and the Bismarck were to be locked into a fight to the finish.
Years later, Bob recalled: “Everyone was prepared as far as they could be. Everyone knew there would be casualties – but it would be someone else, not you. No-one thought the Hood would be sunk – no-one gave it a thought – but there would be casualties, which was to be expected.
“When we went to action stations I was wearing two pairs of socks inside my sea boots, two heavy woollen jerseys, an overcoat, a duffle coat, an oilskin, anti-flash gear, lifebelt and gas mask.
About 2am the sky cleared and we saw the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen on the horizon.”
Admiral Holland in HMS Hood ordered his ships to close the range and shortly before 6am both sides opened fire.
The anti-aircraft crews on the upper deck, of which I was a member, were ordered to take cover in the recreation space at the base of the bridge,” remembered Bob.
“All obeyed except four of us, who lay on the deck, joking to relieve the tension.
Then the Bismarck hit us. The shell came over with a frightening noise, like an express train rushing at us. There was a deafening explosion followed by stunned silence. We leapt up to find the forward anti-aircraft gun had been hit and ammunition was exploding.
The next salvo hit the recreation space where the anti-aircraft gun crews had gone for shelter. Another salvo hit the top of the mast where officers were directing our fire. The upper structure was blown away.
Debris and bodies fell all over the deck. Next moment came a terrific explosion aft. Complete silence followed. My companions were dead."
Bob stripped off excess clothing that would make keeping afloat difficult. Suddenly he found himself in the water. Soon after, he was struck on the back of his leg by a mast as the forward half of the Hood fell over.
Worse was to follow, as an aerial snagged one of his sea boots and pulled him down below the surface. Luckily, Bob still had his wits about him and was able to cut off the boot with his knife. On freeing himself, he shot back up to the surface. There he grabbed hold of a “biscuit” raft and paddled across to where the only other two survivors – William Dundas and Ted Briggs – were situated.
As time went on, Bob, as well as Ted Briggs, started to succumb to the cold. Bob felt himself slipping away but he and Ted were rousted by William Dundas, who kept them alert by singing popular songs and getting the others to join in. At one point an aircraft flew over but they were not spotted.
Eventually, it was William Dundas who saw the Destroyer Electra heading to their rescue. “It was a marvellous sight,” Bob later said. The loss of the Royal Navy’s flagship in such dramatic circumstances and the appalling loss of life were greeted with profound shock across Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously signalled to the fleet: “The Bismarck must be sunk at all costs.”
Once aboard the Electra, Bob was cleaned up and given tea with rum to warm him up and get his blood flowing again. The Electra took them to Reykjavik. Bob recalled: “I was taken to hospital with the other two survivors.
Within a week I was home on leave. On the journey, I heard that the Bismarck had been sunk. I remember thinking I was the luckiest man alive.”
Shared with kind permission from Clydebank Battlecruisers.