-History of H.M.S. Hood-
Putting VADM Holland's Actions During the Battle of the Denmark Strait into Context
A dissertation by Tim Woodward
Updated 07-May-2014

How far was Vice Admiral Holland to blame for the loss of his flagship, the heavy damage suffered by HMS Prince of Wales, and consequently, the failure to sink the Bismarck in the Battle of the Denmark Strait in May 1941? This is a question that many authors have endeavoured to address in the decades since Hood's loss. The findings vary but most efforts lay the blame squarely on the actions of VADM Lancelot Holland. Such critiques are largely unfair though as they benefit from hindsight and do not address the actions from Holland's point of view. Indeed, if one were to put themselves in Holland's shoes and view the situation knowing what he knew at that time, one can gain a new appreciation for the difficult task he was faced with. In short, VADM Holland has been unfairly maligned for years.

With this in mind, we thank Tim Woodward for this excellent dissertation- using the best source material currently available, he has come up with an unbiased and enlightening review of VADM Holland's actions.

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Introduction The Approach to Battle The Battle






I would like to thank Professor Eric Grove, for all the help and advice that he gave me whilst working on this topic. I would also like to thank Frank Allen and Paul Bevand, from the HMS Hood Association, for supplying me with research materials and critiquing my work.


In May 1941 HMS Hood, biggest ship and pride of the Royal Navy was dispatched with the battleship HMS Prince of Wales,under the command of Vice Admiral Lancelot Ernest Holland, to intercept and destroy the new German battleship Bismarck. Bismarck, accompanied by the large heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was attempting to break out to attack convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, Britain’s maritime lifeline to the outside world. It was of vital importance both strategically and politically that the Bismarck was sunk, as the Blitz was reaching its height, Greece had fallen with Crete soon to follow, and Rommel had pushed the British back in North Africa. A successful sortie by the Bismarck group, with convoys annihilated together with their escorting old battleships, could, the Germans hoped, force Britain out of the war. On the 24th of May 1941, minutes after entering action in the Battle of the Demark Strait, HMS Hood blew up with a huge loss of life. The aim of this dissertation is to determine whether the commander of the squadron, Vice Admiral Holland, was in any way to blame for the loss of his flagship, the heavy damage suffered by HMS Prince of Wales, and consequently, the failure to sink the Bismarck.

Admiral Holland's Background

The commander of the Squadron, Lancelot Ernest Holland, was born in Middleton Chaney in 1887 and he joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1903 onboard HMS Britannia where he gained six first Class certificates. His rise was rapid: Sub Lieutenant in 1906, Lieutenant in 1907, and a Lieutenant- Commander by 1915. In his Official Naval records contain comments such as ‘good judgement’, ‘steady’ and ‘reliable’. From 1910 – 1912 he took the Long course at HMS Excellent that made him gunnery specialist. From 1916-1918 he was again at HMS Excellent to continue his studies as his potential became clear. Following this he was appointed Gunnery Officer in HMS Royal Oak.

After the First World War Holland became a Commander and he served as Experimental Commander of HMS Excellent and on the Naval Anti Aircraft Gun Committee (1920-21). By this time he was one of the Royal Navy’s top gunnery officers. He was also brought to notice by the Commander in Chief Mediterranean Fleet for good services rendered during the Chanak Crisis of 1922-1923. He was promoted to Captain in 1929. From May 1931 until May 1933 Holland was sent to Greece as part of a British naval mission before being appointed in command of the battleship HMS Revenge. He was again mentioned for his actions in the Ethiopian crisis of 1935-36 when he was attached to the Mediterranean Fleet as a temporary staff officer. Holland’s abilities in such posts were rewarded by his being appointed Assistant Chief of Naval Staff while still only a Captain in 1937-38.

Gaining his flag Rear Admiral, Holland became commander of the Third Battle squadron just before the outbreak of the Second World War at the beginning of which he became first Naval Representative to the Air Ministry and then Chief of staff to C in C Home Fleet, Admiral Forbes. From July to October 1940 Holland commanded the 7th Cruiser Squadron and was involved in the Battle of Spartivento with Admiral Somerville’s Force H; this was a controversial action and both officers were criticised by an Admiralty Board of Enquiry. Following this setback Holland commanded the Home Fleet’s 18th Cruiser Squadron when it intercepted the German weather ship München, from which important material was gathered that would prove invaluable to the code breakers of Bletchley Park. Finally, in May 1941 Holland Succeeded Admiral William Whitworth as Commander of the Battle-Cruiser Squadron in HMS Hood 1. Effectively this made him the leading operational commander of the Home Fleet. From his record there can have been few better qualified for the job.

Major Ships Involved

HMS Hood was laid down on September 1st 1916, and officially accepted in May 1920; rated as a battle-cruiser. The battle-cruiser concept can be traced back to 1890 and the development of large first class cruisers, as large as contemporary battleships but with a different balance of characteristics with less armour protection to enhance speed and range. This term became official in the Dreadnought era with all big gun armoured cruisers intended, by First Sea Lord John Fisher, to dominate the seas outside home waters. Instead they provided a fast component in a battleship based Home Fleet. They acquired a bad name at Jutland when poor ammunition handling led to the catastrophic loss of three; the true cause was covered up and losses attributed to defective armour protection. The design of the new Hood class was modified to enhance protection, but Hood’s basic layout had already been set and her protective system had some potentially dangerous ‘achilles heels’ where shells might penetrate inadequate combinations of side and deck armour. Hood was the largest capital ship operational in the interwar period and was an icon of the Royal Navy’s power. This was established early with the 1921 Empire cruise with HMS Repulse. Hood’s power was also used politically, off Spain during its Civil War. After helping to protect Britain from invasion in 1940 she became the first flagship of the Gibraltar based Force H that attacked the French squadron at Oran. By May 1941 she was one of only three capital ships immediately available to the C in C Home Fleet to face Bismarck.

 HMS Hood was 860 feet 7 inches long and had a beam of 105 feet 2.5 inches. By 1941 Hood had a displacement of 48,360 tones and sported a main armament of eight 15 inch guns, a secondary armament of twin 4 inch mark XVI AA guns and assorted other anti-aircraft weapons which included 7" Naval Wire Barrage Rocket Launchers. By 1941 Hood’s speed was around 30 knots. Hood also possessed Type 279M (air) and Type 284 radar sets and her gunnery was directed by a Dreyer control table. The British squadron also included the Battleship HMS Prince of Wales who was newly commissioned. She was 35,000 tonnes 745 feet long and had a beam of 140 feet and a relatively high speed of 28 knots. The battleship had ten 14 inch guns and a dual purpose secondary armament of sixteen 5.25 inch guns. She was significantly smaller than Bismarck and had a slightly lighter main armament. She was a heavily protected ship but there had been insufficient time to work up to full efficiency.

The Bismarck was laid down in 1936 and commissioned in 1939; had the same main armament, but a heavier secondary battery than Hood. Bismarck was also a little larger displacing 51,760 tonnes being shorter at 823 feet but wider at 118 feet.2  Bismarck was also slightly faster, as she was the newer ship. Bismarck’s armour was also superior to that of Hood’s and was up to modern standards; the main belt was 12.5 inches and the upper belt was 5.7 inches, while her upper deck was 2 – 3.1 inches thick. Hood’s deck armour was between 1 and 3 inches thick.3 Bismarck’s companion, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, was larger than contemporary British heavy cruisers at 14,000 tonnes and had a length of 685 feet and a beam of 75 feet.  She had a speed of 32 knots and had eight 8 inch guns.

Battle Summary

Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, under the command of Admiral Günther Lütjens, were spotted sailing through the Kattegat. They were later photographed by the RAF in a Norwegian Fjord. Having been made aware of the possibility of a break out attempt into the Atlantic the Home Fleet commander Admiral Sir John Tovey had a major headache. There were four different routes in the region that the Bismarck might use for her escape: Shetland - Orkneys, Shetland - Faeroes, Iceland - Faeroes and the Denmark Strait. Tovey had to deploy his forces to cover all eventualities. He sent the cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk to patrol the Denmark Strait and other cruisers to cover the other routes. Tovey then began to deploy his major units. Holland with HMS Hood, HMS Prince of Wales and destroyers were sent to cover the Demark Strait, while the rest of the fleet remained in Scapa Flow and the battle-cruiser Repulse was diverted to reinforce Tovey’s King George V. Bismarck was then spotted on the 23rd of May by HMS Suffolk and soon both cruisers were shadowing the Bismarck using fog and their radar to great effect to guide Holland in.

On the night of the 23rd from 2120 Holland began to make fateful decisions that would dictate the course of the action that following morning. To summarise, the cruisers lost contact with Bismarck after midnight and Holland had to grope through the dark maintaining radar silence until 0247 when contact was regained. By then he had made a turn north and back that had lost him bearing and had sent his destroyers to search to the north. Holland had to think fast; he decided to attack Bismarck almost bow on to close the German ships as fast as possible and he kept HMS Prince of Wales close to his flagship. Basically, Holland was going into battle without the use of the after guns of both his ships, whilst Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had the use of all of their own. At around 0600 Bismarck managed to deal Hood a mortal blow. The shell hit a chink in the armour over Hood’s 4 inch magazines and the great ship was ripped apart by a huge explosion. Shortly afterwards HMS Prince of Wales had to retire from action because of severe damage she sustained which included a shell passing through the bridge that killed all but Captain Leach and a few others. This left the Bismarck still afloat and still a menace to Atlantic convoys. Prince of Wales, however, had managed to hit the Bismarck damaging her fuel tanks and causing her to abandon her sortie. After an extensive cat and mouse game Bismarck was damaged by a carrier strike that smashed her rudder and prevented her from being able to steer. This allowed HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, under Sir John Tovey, to disable Bismarck in a lengthy pounding. She later sank because of a combination of battle damage and scuttling actions by her crew.    

Exisiting Historigraphy

Holland, all too frequently, has been criticized for the handling of his squadron and there have only recently been publications vindicating him for his actions; then only partially. Clearly Holland is not able to defend his own actions which, on analysis, do not seem as reckless as some historians have suggested. Most historians have based their criticisms on hindsight, something Holland never had the luxury of exploiting. They also fail fully to appreciate the constraints that Holland was faced with in bring Bismarck to action. Additionally, most historiography covers other issues besides the Battle of the Denmark Strait. It either concentrates on the whole Bismarck saga or the life of HMS Hood. It does not go into as much detail as this dissertation.

Flagship Hood’ by Alan Coles and Ted Briggs is based on the memories of the longest lived of Hood’s survivors. It is rather heavily ghosted by his co-author, but Briggs’ account of the action is never the less interesting and does provide insights into the discussions between the Admiral and his staff through questions to Lieutenant -Commander Wyldbore-Smith who was Hood’s Flag Lieutenant. However, it is rather vague in other areas. The book also sits on the fence; whilst it doesn’t heavily criticise the Admiral, it does not fully defend him either, but it does raise some of the key issues during the battle and approach. Baron Von Müllenheim-Rechberg’s ‘Battleship Bismarck – A Survivors Story’ is also somewhat indecisive about Holland and tends to concentrate on the action from a German point of view. Stephen Roskill in ‘The War at Sea’ is similarly unsure whether to blame Holland fully. He points to pressures of the situation and the fact Holland was following the Fighting Instructions. Roskill was, however, critical of Holland’s turn north, the fact Holland did not break radio silence even at a late stage, and because he sent his destroyers too readily on a search for Bismarck. Bruce Taylor in ‘The Battle-cruiser Hood’ also highlights similar issues to Roskill on both sides of the argument.

There have been works that have been overly critical: ‘The Bismarck Episode’ by Russell Grenfell was written shortly after the war and is totally damning of Holland and his tactics. The book and consequently its arguments are rather limited because some of the details of the battle were not known, so key issues were overlooked at the time of its writing. For example, Grenfell does not take into account Holland could have wanted to bring on the action earlier.

Furthermore, he fails to acknowledge that Holland appeared to be following contemporary Fighting Instructions. Grenfell also makes an outlandish claim that because the British ships had roughly the same main armaments as Bismarck that he should be able to stand off and destroy her; this completely ignores Hood’s vulnerability to plunging fire. The book was, however, a good starting point for formulating counterarguments to its criticisms of Holland.

There are several books that have sought to defend Holland in certain instances. Ludovic Kennedy in ‘Pursuit’ points out that Holland’s turn north was to bring on action and not a response to the loss of contact. He also points to the fact that Lütjens had to fight and that Holland had achieved a degree of surprise when battle was finally joined.  Mearns and White in ‘Hood and Bismarck’ also underline the limitations of Holland’s situation and that he did well to get Bismarck into battle in the first place. It also indicates a lack of luck on Holland’s behalf. The Naval Staff History staff history published in ‘German Capital Ships and Raiders in World War Two’ fully supports Holland’s actions, from his turn north, to the decision to use his destroyers as scouts, and perhaps offers the most detailed analysis available of Holland’s approach, but it fails to address all the issues with the battle once it was joined. 

In response to the predominately negative or inconclusive historiography; the aim of this dissertation is to look at Holland’s decisions from a more balanced perspective. It will be solely dedicated to the battle rather than being part of more general study of the Bismarck or Hood. Holland was not a bad commander, it seems he did all he could in a prudent manner within the parameters of the contemporary Fighting Instructions and the situation in which he and his Squadron found themselves.

Paper Parameters and Structure

The study will examine Holland’s actions from when Bismarck was spotted in the Denmark Strait by HMS Suffolk until HMS Prince of Wales retired due to heavy damage; the conclusion of this specific action. Admiral Tovey’s and the Admiralty’s decision of the makeup of the squadron will not be discussed in great detail as it seemed a wise decision; it paired a battleship and a battle-cruiser in each half of the Home fleet which had to cover many different exits. Additionally, the focus of this paper is Admiral Holland, and to some extent the actions of Admiral Lütjens; not the actions of other commanders. The German side of events will also be examined to compare the situation at the same time for both squadrons. The ships will also be mentioned because it is the limitations of the British squadron in particular that forced Holland’s hand. It is also important to point out that we don’t have Holland here to explain his actions. We can only make a judgement using contemporary evidence and the doctrine at the time, as well as limited survivor accounts from Hood’s bridge, but we do have the benefit of reports from HMS Prince of Wales including her log and Captain Leach’s account.

There are a number of naval definitions that will appear in this paper. Firstly, HMS Hood was a battle-cruiser; this was primarily a reflection of her high speed. However, she was quite well protected by the standards of earlier battle-cruisers, but the distribution of her protection was better able to cope with flatter trajectories at relatively short ranges than plunging fire at long ranges.4 Secondly, all ship movements will be described in degree terms within 360 degrees of a circle. Thirdly, a salvo is usually the firing of half the main armament. The fire control table within the ship is a primitive computer that was given the observed data of the target’s movement and then provided the required angle and elevation to the guns. The fire control system was corrected by spotting as the action developed.

The dissertation will be split into two sections. The first will concentrate on the time from Bismarck’s location by the shadowing cruisers until the British Squadron’s visual sighting. This will cover Holland as he dealt with the changing situation and the loss of contact, and be split into four further sub-sections. The first of these will analyse Holland’s use of radar. It will be conducted stressing the limitations of radar at the time and will consider whether Holland was right not to use it. Secondly, Holland’s original plan to attack at 0200 will be highlighted. Thirdly, all of Holland’s course changes after midnight will be analysed to see how they affected the general picture and the possible reasoning behind them. This will pay particular attention to his turn north for which Holland has received much criticism.  Fourthly, Holland’s much disapproved use of the destroyers under his command will be examined.

The second section will focus on the battle itself, again split into four subsections. Firstly, this will cover Holland’s much condemned ‘end on’ approach. Secondly, it will analyse Holland’s disposition of his squadron, in the context both of the contemporary Fighting Instructions and criticisms he received after the Battle of Spartivento in 1940. The issue of why the shadowing cruisers were not ordered to engage during the action will also be looked into. Thirdly, the limitations of the British ships will be covered, as these had a large bearing on the outcome of the battle. Finally, the initial misidentification of the ships of the German squadron will be explained.

The Approach to Battle

Holland’s Use of Radar:

Admiral Holland operated a strict policy of radar silence on his approach to action, even when contact had been lost and the shadowing reports from the cruisers had stopped. This seems strange considering it has been suggested that the use of radar might have improved his chances of locating Bismarck during the period of uncertainty from just after midnight when the cruisers lost contact.  Holland would then have been able to put his ships in the best position to attack.  What is clear is that both Hood’s and Prince of Wales’ radar were in full working order just before sailing, according to Stephen Roskill, who had checked them personally.5 So, accusations that the equipment was faulty can be discounted. This policy of radar silence however, seems to have been a prudent one based on what was known about radar and its limitations at the time.

The development of radar was in its infancy and at this stage was not as effective as later in the war, or the ones we know today, and Holland was obviously aware of its limitations. One problem was that radar, whilst being effective at locating targets beyond the naked eye, could also act as a beacon, as the radar waves could be picked up and tied to a location. This was demonstrated in exercises just before the war in 1939. In this example the battleship HMS Rodney detected the cruiser HMS Sheffield’s radar 100 miles away whilst not transmitting herself.6 The navy were well aware of this and decided to concentrate on radar wavelengths of 25mm or shorter because of the risk of detection.7 Consequently, commanders tended to treat radar like wireless and there were regulations to its usage at sea- there would be one sweep every so often. However, individual commanders often used their initiative as the advantages of radar became clear.8 Holland was in difficult position after he lost the cruisers signals guiding him in. He needed to find Bismarck again, but this was of no use if he was discovered and Bismarck turned away - the action would not occur at all. All too often German ships had made good their escape after encountering small elements of the Home Fleet: Scharnhorst and Gneisenau off Norway in 1940 ran from HMS Renown, and the same ships ran from the Home Fleet’s cruisers in January 1941.9 Surprise was vital to Holland and using his radar could potentially throw that surprise away.

The decision not to use radar now does not appear so bizarre, especially after the limitations of Radar are further examined. Not only would radar give the location of the set, but their results were unreliable and sometimes not trusted. During the same test in 1939 Sheffield’s type 79 radar gave useful ranges on surface ships, but the results were found to be uncertain.10 A further example of this comes from Admiral Tovey’s review of the Bismarck action in 1941 when he refers to HMS Prince of Wales’ radar ‘throwing up three echoes when where were only two ships in the German squadron.’11 Radar sets could be useful, but more often and not their results were inaccurate, or misinterpreted. So, Radar would not necessarily find Bismarck at all, or, even worse, it could send Holland in the wrong direction if the set’s results were faulty or misread.

The limitations of radar at this point are well summed up by Derek Howse and gives Holland good reason for not putting total faith in it. He points to: inadequate range accuracy on long range set and  the short ranges of Types 284 and 285 (284 being used on Hood), meaning that if Bismarck was far enough away from Holland’s force there was little chance of radar picking her up.  In fact, radar had a realistic range of around twenty miles, much too short for detecting Bismarck.12 Radar suffered from insufficient bearing accuracy for blind fire, so radar was not yet good enough to be used on its own for target setting. Therefore, radar’s use in battle would not significantly enhance gunnery at this time. Indeed Prince of Wales’ Gunnery officer after the battle explained that no radar ranges were calculated at the time of opening fire as Bismarck was over 24,000 yards away.13

Interference from multiple sets on the same ship was also a problem. Finally, weaknesses of many components and the time needed to start a set up, added to the fact the apparatus was not in constant readiness, produced further problems which affected its practical use in battle. This latter problem was shown by Prince of Wales’ air warning set that was ‘slow in becoming operational.’14 It also  meant that if sweeps were to be made every so often with breaks, so as not to send out as stronger beacon, it would take time for the set to be operational; decreasing its value in an emergency. 15

During the rescue of the submarine Spearfish in 1939 limitations in the use of radar were clearly demonstrated. HMS Rodney’s radar detected a large group of aircraft 80 miles away, and although the attack was eventually directed against the Battle-Cruiser Squadron nothing was done with the radar information. ‘Rodney felt her reports were not being taken seriously enough by command.’16 This shows that high levels of command did not have full faith in this new technology.

It would be foolish therefore for Holland, firstly, to jeopardise surprise by using radar. Secondly, with radar’s mixed bag of results, successful use of it was not guaranteed. Holland’s radar silence was more than justified, as there was a good chance it would provide him with no significant advantage.

Holland’s Original Plan:

Holland was clearly an able commander, not only had he grasped the problems with radar, his original plan and interception course was excellent;17 highlighting the ability that is shown in his records. It was only an unfortunate turn of events which soured his situation. The German ships were heading in a south westerly direction, while the British squadron were sailing north westerly. This enabled Holland to, in effect, cross the path of the German ships baring their progress into the Atlantic for his planned attack at around 0200 on the morning of the 24th.18 The advantage would be in the British favour with the element of surprise. This advantage also included the weight of heavy guns, as the German ships would be limited to their forward guns, while the British could use the full weight of their broadsides. Additionally, the Germans would be silhouetted against the setting sun. At those latitudes sunset was around that time and did not totally disappear; thus making the Germans very visible while Holland would be covered by the comparative dark. To maximise this advantage Holland wished to attack Bismarck from her port bow.19 Holland’s wish to attack at 0200 is clear, as is shown by his screening orders to the destroyers issued at 2110 on the 23rd May.20 Holland also ordered action stations around midnight - a clear indication he planned the action earlier than actually it happened at 0537. 21 Holland had done well. He had achieved the perfect position for attack; he even adjusted he course at 2300 by 10 degrees to keep ahead of the enemy and his advantage. As things stood he stood a good chance of victory: he knew the location of the enemy, had the benefit of surprise, and a greater weight of heavy guns. Holland held all the aces, had read the situation well, and was set to take advantage of his chance.

Holland’s original plan was clearly a good one and this was quite an achievement when the pressures of the situation is analysed.  Holland’s main aim, now Bismarck had been located, was to get in undetected to achieve surprise. Holland must have been tempted to break radar and radio silence especially after the loss of contact, but held off and eventually engaged Bismarck with the element of surprise intact – the gunnery officer on Bismarck thought the approaching ships were cruisers.22 There was the sense that this would have been the biggest naval engagement since Jutland; if won it would be the biggest victory since Trafalgar.23 This must have gone through Holland’s mind, along with the fact that this might be the only time to bring the Bismarck into battle, especially considering that we now know Bismarck’s sister ship the Tirpitz spent most of her life in Norwegian Fjords before being sunk in one.24 Finally, there was the danger that if he failed, or made a mistake, the Bismarck would get past him and sink ships in the Atlantic at will; Holland, in Hood, would have a problem relocating her since Hood would be short of fuel and the King George V class battleships had a notoriously short range. All commanders are subject to pressure, but it is all too easy to let these pressures affect judgement which allows mistakes to appear. Holland’s decisions, despite these pressures, seem shrewd and calculated; justifying the comments of his ability by senior officers during his service.

Holland’s Alterations of Course After Midnight:

Perhaps the biggest criticism of Holland comes from his turn north. The main argument seems to be whether this turn was a turn to search for Bismarck, or a turn to bring on action just before contact with Bismarck was lost. Having looked at the timings of Holland’s actions in relation to the loss of contact; the latter seems to provide a sensible explanation for Holland’s decision, as he realised that he needed to get into action as quickly as possible due to the uncertainty of the situation. Holland must have known that if Bismarck were to shake off the shadowing cruisers he would have no guide to direct him in. Holland, quite reasonably, thought Fleet Commander Lütjens, in Bismarck, would try to shake off, or sink, the cruisers that were shadowing him. Another reason to get in quickly was that it would have been wise for the Germans to assume that the cruisers would be guiding heavy units in to attack them. Holland needed to bring on battle before the Germans got any hint of trouble.

So, it was the need to bring on action that was behind Holland’s turn north and not an attempt to search for Bismarck, which is commonly suggested. Historians: Ludovic Kennedy, Ernle Bradford, and Naval Staff History, agree that Holland wished to bring on action quickly. There were two turns before the loss of contact. The first turn came at 0012, by which time the British Squadron’s speed had been reduced to 25 knots at 0008,25 and both the turn and the course change were results of a report from Suffolk at 23:59 stating Bismarck’s alteration from South West to South (230 – 200.)26 This alteration by Holland was from 285 degrees to 340 degrees; designed to bring on action at a time when the Germans would have been in the narrows of the Demark Strait, thus preventing the German entry into the Atlantic, cramping their freedom to manoeuvre, and silhouetting Bismarck against the sky. Crucially, this course change would bring the action forward from 0200 to 0140, thus supporting the bringing on action idea.27 Furthermore, the Naval Staff History points out that ‘if Holland had continued on his 285 degree course he would have cut across Bismarck’s path 60 miles ahead [at the time Holland wanted to engage].’28 This clearly would not have helped the admiral in his quest to force an early action. ‘What then? Steer a reciprocal course to the enemy’s; as in fact he [Holland] did’.29 This would explain the reasoning for both Holland slowing and his alterations of course. Holland was on a closing course. He was acting on Bismarck’s last reported position to bring her into action earlier and ensure she did not escape.

Holland’s second turn was due North at 0017 and seems to be a response to Suffolk’s signal at 00:09. This message was sent three minutes before Holland’s first turn to 340 at 0012, so it is most likely that Holland was not aware of what it contained. The 00:09 report confirmed Bismarck was in a snowstorm and his turn north was to counter Bismarck’s movement when going into that storm, as there was a possibility Bismarck had turned further south. It should be stressed that at this point Holland was not to know that Bismarck would not be sighted for a long period of time; this was not apparent until 00:28. Even if Holland did have knowledge of the 00:09 signal earlier there was no immediate cause for alarm. Firstly, she might soon come out of the storm and a kneejerk reaction would be unwise. Secondly, Bismarck been out of sight between 2158 and 2254 the same night, along with other small lapses in contact, but each time Bismarck had been found on as similar course.30 Bismarck might well have continued to swing south based on Suffolk’s last report and Holland’s turn north at 0017 would have enabled him to execute his plan to bring on action earlier, which would bring things to a swift and decisive conclusion. Captain Leach’s narrative also seems to indicate Holland expected action early. It appears Prince of Wales’ crew went to relaxed action stations at 0200 after Holland had turned having not regained contact.31 It would be reasonable to assume that Hood’s crew had done the same. Therefore, Holland had expected action up until 0200. Action stations were ordered on Prince of Wales at 0015 thus supporting this.32 Holland’s decisions to this point had been geared to an action at or around 0140, which might well have occurred if the cruisers had maintained contact, but Holland was not to know they would not. As far as he knew he was successfully stalking his prey.

It was Suffolk’s signal at 00:28 that confirmed the loss of contact.33 Holland now had an extra task attached to his already difficult operation. He ‘now had two problems – covering all German movements when shadowing was uncertain, and not scaring the Germans back before he brought them into action.’34 Yet again however, Holland made a sensible assessment of the situation, as he must have realised that loss of contact was a distinct possibility. He decided almost immediately to continue north until around 0200 when by which time he should have engaged his enemy in accordance with his original plan. If the enemy had not been located by then he would turn 180 degrees to the west. This was subsequently communicated to Prince of Wales at 0031.35 This seems a sensible action; if Bismarck had stayed on the same course, or one similar, the two sides were liable to meet as part of Holland’s original plan. After all, Bismarck had been out of sight before and been found on a similar course. Bismarck has also not altered course radically for over 4 hours of being shadowed by the cruisers.36 Furthermore, if Holland had himself changed course radically, and Bismarck did not, he would miss her and action altogether. Even if Bismarck had shaken off her shadowers with a radical alteration of course Holland’s turn north would have allowed him to cut Bismarck off if she had headed to the east or west of him providing she was sighted.37 If Bismarck had remained on the same course he would still have been able to engage, and if she had altered course he would have been able to alter course to counter the German moves. Holland had decided on a course of action quickly after losing contact, showing he had made preparations for such an eventuality, to try to ensure that Bismarck was found again and cover all possible eventualities.38

Contact was not regained by 0200 and Holland stuck to his plan. He kept a cool head here, as it was clear Bismarck had not done as he had intended. This turn of 180 degrees to the west was a brave decision because Lütjens could have cut past him from the south, or the southeast, where just hours steaming away were conveys HX126 and SC31.39 However, this turn allowed Holland to maintain bearing if Bismarck had indeed turned south, as to continue north would have lost him bearing.40 It was this 180 degree turn that put Holland back on a reciprocal course with Bismarck, although Holland did not know it at the time. This seems to vindicate his decisions after the loss of contact. Furthermore, whilst this was going on Holland was also trying to make progressive efforts to find Bismarck, but his attempt to use Prince of Wales’ Walrus failed because it was too dark at that period of the night.41 Holland made an astute manoeuvre with his 180 degree turn that ultimately brought him the chance to intercept Bismarck after contact was regained.

Contact was regained by the cruisers at 0247 which proved that Holland had lost his bearing on the enemy. His original plan of crossing Bismarck’s ‘T’ was now inoperable, but it was not a disaster. Holland still had a heavy gun advantage of eighteen heavy guns to Bismarck’s eight, and even if Holland attacked bow on (as he did) the advantage was nine to eight, as one of Prince of Wales’ forward guns was known to have a defect.42 Initially, Stephen Roskill is right to say Holland lost his biggest advantage of heavy guns,43 but these would be brought to bear later and the advantage would be greater again. In fact, Holland had accomplished two of his other objectives. Lütjens would be forced to fight; as there was ice to the west, cruisers to the north and Holland in the east. Furthermore, the German Admiral was still unaware he was being stalked by heavy units of the British Home Fleet: Prinz Eugen loaded her main armament with high explosive shells usually used against smaller ships.44 The most serious problem Holland faced was that the Germans had the weather gauge; meaning that the British would be steaming into the weather which upset gunnery. Holland had gone through the period of uncertainty - relocated Bismarck and was still in position to attack. In the days of dead reckoning navigation this was no mean feat.

There has been heavy criticisms of Holland’s action’s around midnight; none more so than Bernard Ash. His arguments that: ‘although Bismarck knew she was being shadowed she was completely unaware of the presence of the Battle-Cruiser Squadron, so would not be trying to avoid it.’ And that: ‘Bismarck had superior fire power and speed to fight her way out, therefore she stayed on the same course - Holland’s turn lost him bearing putting his gunners and ship in peril.’45 This is unfair.  It does not take into account for the fact that the turn north was designed to do the opposite of what Ash accuses, which was for Bismarck and Holland’s squadron to meet at around 0200 as planned; thus giving the British gunners the advantage. The criticism from Bercuson and Herwig that Holland should have waited until morning for the attack, and that he bowed to pressure for fear of Churchill is also unfair.46 Holland was under pressure to force action, but only because he knew that this was a golden opportunity to sink a very dangerous ship. This chance would either not come again, or, if he did not act quickly and decisively Bismarck could escape and cause a huge amount of damage to British shipping. Additionally, as mentioned above, there were lots of tactical advantages to Holland’s plan for an early morning attack.

The turn north had undoubtedly weakened Holland’s position in the long run, but at the same time it was a sensible assessment designed to bring on action. However, Holland’s turn at 0200 had rectified the situation and enabled Holland to bring Bismarck to battle. Ultimately: ‘Holland viewed the situation with the eye of a seaman determined to bring the enemy into action at the earliest possible moment. His conduct did not leave anything to be desired.’47

Holland’s Use of the Escorting Destroyers:

The distribution of the squadron’s destroyers has also brought about debate. Holland sent them north at 0220 as he turned to the west, thus they were unable to weigh in with their torpedoes during the battle. This has been deemed an oversight by Holland in some quarters.48 It was true they were unable to take part in the battle which could have helped Holland, but this assessment does not represent Holland’s complicated situation. Sending the destroyers north at the time was a very prudent move. Firstly, Bismarck was not located and the assumption that she may have altered course radically, although wrong, was a possibility. If Bismarck had altered course the destroyers may well have located her and shadowed, thereupon solving Holland’s problem of relocating Bismarck. Furthermore, the destroyers could have slowed her down with torpedoes.49 Holland’s main priority at that time was to find Bismarck again, so using the destroyers to do this made good sense. In fact, the destroyers passed within sixteen miles of Bismarck, but poor visibility kept Bismarck’s position from them.50 Coles’ and Brigg’s comment that in sending the destroyers north it ‘demonstrated Holland had a lack of confidence in himself and his staff’ is very harsh.51 All Holland was doing was using all the tools at his disposal to find Bismarck.

The Naval Staff Histories puts Holland’s decision into context. Firstly, there was high importance of finding Bismarck; Prince of Wales’ Walrus could not be used, and we know radar would have given Holland’s position away, or may not have detected Bismarck. So, the destroyers were the next option open.  Secondly, after Holland’s turn at 0200 an action was not really on the cards until full daylight, so the destroyers, for all Holland knew, may have been able to re-join his squadron. Thirdly, the weather at the time of the battle would have made it difficult for the destroyers to get an accurate position for launching torpedoes anyway. Finally, as mentioned before, the destroyers had a good chance of finding Bismarck and potential of slowing her. In any case Bismarck would have been definitely located.52 Holland again demonstrates astute command in accordance with his objective which was to first find, then destroy, Bismarck when distributing his destroyers.

Vice-Admiral Lancelot Holland had a very difficult task to perform. It is clear that he dealt with the approach to battle in an astute manor. The situation changed several times with the loss of contact and the regaining of contact. Although he lost bearing on the enemy, which was a hindrance in the later battle; he did not lose the element of surprise, and eventually brought a ship of the German navy to battle, which was not easy throughout the Second World War. All Holland’s decisions were based on common sense and contained reasonable assessments of his situation. By engaging Bismarck Holland had been successful in forcing her to fight which was essential if she were to be destroyed.

The Battle

End On Approach

After regaining contact Holland waited until daylight before engaging Bismarck at 0537; the time of HMS Prince of Wales’ enemy report. Holland’s attack was to begin with an end on approach with a turn to 280 degrees at the same time.53 This approach has since been denounced as foolhardy. However, these criticisms do not take into account the situation Holland found himself. Holland seems to have adopted an attack that was within Admiralty regulations, and made the best of the situation.

The criticism of Holland’s end on approach centres around the fact that in rushing towards Bismarck ‘like an enraged bull;’54 he could only engage Bismarck with the forward guns of both his ships. Additionally, this handicap was worsened as the German squadron could engage the British ships with their full main armament: the ‘British superiority was thrown away.’55 To make matters worse Holland’s end on approach meant that the British were heading into the weather which affected the accuracy of his gunnery with spray coving the rangefinders.56 Holland, being a gunnery expert, must have also realised that Hood’s Dreyer control table would not give very good results to a target directly ahead, so the chances of scoring hits on Bismarck was significantly reduced.57 On the face of it Holland seems to have made tactical mistake.

Yet there is more to the approach than meets the eye. Both squadrons were on a slowly converging course, and Holland’s turn from 240 degrees to 280 degrees at 0537 would close the quickly. Holland did have cause to close the range quickly. Firstly, not engaged Lütjens could use Bismarck’s slight speed advantage to get away from Holland’s ships and into the Atlantic, or even back home. Secondly, there may have been a slight navigational error working against Holland, which was not surprising in the days in dead reckoning navigation. Sean Waddington points out (Based on a comment from Graeme Rhys Jones’s ‘The loss of the Bismarck’ and notably HMS Suffolk’s charts.) that ‘the German force was 14 miles further to the east, on a bearing of 110 degrees, than it really was,’ and, that when Bismarck was ‘finally sighted at 05:37 [she was] just abaft the beam of Holland’s force, but further west than he [Holland] expected.’58 This would make Lütjens closer to escaping. This would mean that Holland needed to act quickly and decisively, hence the end on approach.

James P. Levy also points out that the other two options open to Holland at this time were less than satisfactory. Firstly, to avoid action and shadow with the cruisers was ‘contrary to the traditions of the navy’ and would allow the German time to escape, and at the same time, greatly lessen the chance of bringing Bismarck to heal as fuel would be used up.59 It would also evoke memories of Ernest Troubridge and the shame and embarrassment that surrounded Escape of the Goeben in 1914. Secondly, a long range action, would have been ill advised due to Hood’s poor deck protection. In this respect Holland’s end on approach was the logical option.

This brings us to Hood’s weakness in deck armour which was important. Holland needed to close the range quickly to ensure his flagship was less vulnerable to plunging fire and the end on approach would achieve this. Gunnery had improved so that shells would come in at a steeper angle and crash onto ship’s decks because they were fired at longer ranges. HMS Hood’s horizontal protection was weak by the standards of the day. In fact, an Admiralty document of the immune zones of British capital ships indicates that HMS Hood had no immune zone to German 15 inch shells.60 Holland must have been aware of this and needed to close the range to ensure the enemy would fire on a lower trajectory, so any shell would be likely to hit Hood’s side armour, which was considerably thinker than her deck armour, therefore less likely to do serious damage to the vitals of the ship.

At the same time getting in close would also help the gunnery of the British squadron. Firstly, Prince of Wales was a brand new ship and had no time to work up properly, so any advantage for her gun crews would be beneficial; Prince of Wales did indeed hit the Bismarck during the action. Secondly, the sea spray covered the range finders of both ships which obscured visibility and the closer the target the easier it would be to hit. Holland’s end on approach was based on the situation he found himself. It would protect his ships and made sure action would occur with his guns being at their most effective.

It has been suggested that Holland should have approached on a finer angle so that he could close the range but use all of his main armament.61 However, we know that Holland needed to get in close to be certain of battle, to protect Hood as her side armour would bear the brunt of any hits, and to improve his chances of his own guns of scoring hits. Approaching in that manner would have slowed the approach and left Hood in a vulnerable position to German fire; it may also have allowed the Germans time to escape with their superior speed, and also left the chances of the British squadron scoring hits slight, as Prince of Wales’ crew were raw.

The end on approach was also advocated by the Commander in chief of the Home Fleet Sir John Tovey; further vindicating Holland’s use of it. He was said to have recommended this approach to all the commanders under him.62 This list of commanders also included Hood’s previous Admiral who had left just weeks earlier, William Whitworth; who, a month earlier, planned to make a similar approach if Bismarck were to be met in battle.63 The idea behind this was that in approaching bow on a commander would leave a smaller target to the enemy rather than being side on, which was believed to be worth the sacrifice in a ship’s after turrets. This was also recommended in the Fighting Instructions. They state that: ‘a short range action should be aimed at...[so] the fighting qualities and stamina of the British race should tell.’ They go on: ‘it must be remembered that in closing the range an end on approach is difficult to hit...64 The Fighting Instructions of the day were also very vague for battle - cruisers and fast battleships. They left most decisions to the commander’s judgement and were tailored to a large fleet action.65 So, from this we can deduce that Holland’s approach would have been conducted by other Admirals in the fleet, and was advocated by the Fighting Instructions.  In which case, if there is criticism to be made, it is the Fighting Instructions, not Holland, that should take the blame.

Holland has also been criticised for not approaching directly bow on: his approach was 30 degrees off it. The criticism points to the fact that Tovey only recommended an approach up to 20 degrees off bow on, and anything more would be ‘worst of both worlds.’66 This meant that whilst Holland approached he was showing more of a target to the enemy, and at the same time, was not able to use his entire main armament. But, again this does not take into account that Holland needed to get in close quickly for various reasons. In fact, the ‘fine angle of Holland’s approach contributed to the German confusion, as they could not identify the ships.’67  Holland’s end on approach was indeed the best option open to him within the constraints of his situation.

Holland’s decision for an end on approach may also have had its roots in the Battle of Spartivento on 27th November 1940. It was in this action when Holland had commanded the 18th Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean. Where, despite his five ships being loaded with RAF personal and stores, he gave a good account of himself. But, crucially, he did not concentrate the squadron’s fire, or operate it as one fighting unit, because they had no practice of fighting together.68 He also regarded the convoy he was given to cover as more important than engaging the Italian Fleet. In the Board of Enquiry into the Escape of the Italian Fleet Holland was asked why he did not give chase. He replied: ‘his ships were out gunned and he did not think it was a good principle.’69 The Italian Fleet soon withdrew. Holland’s actions seem prudent due to his handicapped Cruiser Squadron, but the Admiralty report conclusion stated otherwise:

‘The Board of Enquiry suggests... that the time chosen to give up the chase was slightly early... The Board of the Admiralty cannot emphasise enough that in all cases especially when dealing with an enemy who is reluctant to engage in close action, no opportunity must be allowed to pass of attaining, what is in fact, the ultimate objective of the Royal Navy – the destruction of main enemy naval forces when and whenever they are encountered. Only thus can control of the sea communications be properly secured.’70

From this conclusion we can deduce Holland was under pressure to rectify these criticisms from the admiralty, and it is likely this was on his mind during the battle of the Denmark Strait. It would appear that Holland seemed to have followed Admiralty directives, so any criticism should be laid at the Admiralty’s door. 

Just before Hood’s destruction Holland made three more alterations of course after his original turn to 280 degrees. The first turn at 0549 could well have to get in close as quickly as possible, as this would make the approach steeper, and this would also mask more of his ships. The second turn at 0555 might well have been to maintain an angle on the German ships to enable Holland eventually to deploy all his main armament whilst still closing the range, as Hood had been hit by a shell from Prinz Eugen and it was clear the enemy had found their range, therefore, it was more pressing to use the British advantage in heavy guns. In addition, there was a need to prevent the Germans from escaping, and this course was the only way to combat the German speed advantage. Holland’s final turn at 0600, that we now know occurred because of the examination of the Hood’s wreck, was just as the fatal shell struck. It has two possible motives. One, that he was in the ideal place to fight the battle - he had indeed got close enough to give his guns chance to score hits and was close enough for Hood’s sides to take the brunt of any hits. If this is the case Holland must have been aware that to get too close to Bismarck would result in British shells not hitting at a steep enough angle to cause Bismarck critical damage, through hits on her weaker deck armour or below the waterline – a problem Tovey encountered just days later. Two, he could have wanted to bring all his armament to bear because he was conscious the Germans had found his range. Both may have had an effect, but it appears as though Holland was turning into the ideal position to fight the battle when the fatal shell struck. It is also worth pointing out that Holland’s alterations of course, three alterations in twenty two minutes, is also in accordance with the Admiralty Fighting Instructions: ‘risk of damage from enemy gunfire will be reduced if small alterations of course are made while steering towards the enemy.’71 Clausewitz commented that: ‘together with chance, the accidental, and along with it good luck, occupy a great place in war;’72 Holland was a good commander who had little luck.

Disposition of Holland’s Ships:

Admiral Holland had decided to fight his ships in close order and many historians have highlighted the drawbacks to this approach. Firstly, it allowed the Germans to switch targets very quickly after the Hood had been sunk; Schneider, Bismarck’s Gunnery officer, did not need to change any of his gunnery data, thus putting Prince of Wales in a difficult position from which she suffered significant damage forcing her out of the action.73 If the squadron had been further apart it would have made this more difficult. Secondly, if she ships were spread out they may also have been able to split the enemy’s fire, as the British Cruisers had done against the Graf Spee in the Battle of the River Plate to great effect. Thirdly, both ships would have been able to report each other’s fall of shot. Fourthly, the disposition of ships also limited the initiative of Captain Leach of Prince of Wales. It was a waste of his skill.74 In contrast, Tovey allowed Captain Dalrymple- Hamilton of HMS Rodney freedom to manoeuvre against Bismarck, however, this was when Bismarck had been crippled by the Swordfish strike – she was a different animal by then.  Finally, smoke from Hood, being in such close proximity to Prince of Wales, would indeed make it difficult for her observers to monitor the target, so her gunnery would suffer. These elements were all significant limitations to Holland’s tactics, but there were significant advantages in other areas.

These advantages centre around the ships working as one unit concentrating their fire on Bismarck, thereupon using their advantage of heavy guns.  This was something Holland had been criticised for not doing at the battle of Spartivento, so again Holland seems to be following Admiralty instructions in adopting this approach.75 Close line tactics also limited confusion that a battle inevitably causes. The ‘fighting unit’ made sure that the ships did not mask each other’s fire. Furthermore, this formation was also useful so the Admiral would have no problem signalling instructions, a problem the British had identified at Jutland.76  The Admiralty Fighting Instructions also advocated close line tactics, so Holland had not done a lot wrong. In fact, most of the Pre-war battle doctrine centred on battle line and control from the Commander in Chief.77  So, Holland’s decision was based on the Admiralty doctrine, and the idea that it would give him greater control and firepower. If the battle had lasted longer his close formation might have paid dividends.

It has been suggested that the Holland’s ships should have covered each other, with Prince of Wales standing off to allow Hood to get in close.78 This, however, would have been difficult considering Prince of Wales’ guns were known to be prone to malfunction and her crews were untrained. It was also assuming that Bismarck was certain to give battle. What if this manoeuvre had been executed and Bismarck has made for escape? Holland would have split his force and the British response would have been disjointed; possibly allowing Bismarck to return home, or get into the Atlantic, for which Holland would have undoubtedly been criticised.

Admiral Tovey also reveals he nearly signalled to Admiral Holland that HMS Prince of Wales should lead the attack (he did not because he felt Holland was too senior).79 This is an interesting suggestion because in theory it could have worked with Prince of Wales having armour up to modern standard. Coupling this with the fact the Germans thought they were engaging HMS Hood and HMS King George V;80 Prince of Wales might have drawn German fire. In fact, Prince of Wales did assume guide of the fleet at 0450, but at 0505 Hood resumed guide, which suggests Holland may have considered the idea.81 So, why did Holland not take this approach? It would have looked terrible for him if Prince of Wales, being as she was a brand new ship with a partially worked up crew and known to have defects, were to suffer heavy damage and casualties because Holland had put her in the firing line whilst he was behind.82 It may also have crossed Holland’s mind that he could use Hood’s reputation to strike fear into the Germans if they saw Hood coming at them; it might have shaken them. The Germans also may not have attacked the leading ship and shot at the older Hood in the hope of disabling her. Whilst it made sense to put Prince of Wales at the front of squadron on the basis that she had sufficient armour, it is understandable why Holland may have been unwilling to do so.

The failure to get the shadowing cruisers, HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk, into the action from the start of the battle has also brought scathing reviews Holland’s way. It does seem a missed opportunity, as their support could have split the German fire. The presence of the cruisers was defiantly on Lütjens’ mind, as von Müllenheim-Rechberg had been designated, as Fourth Gunnery Officer, to observe the movement of the cruisers should they attack.83 However, it is clear that Holland had realised this opportunity. We know that Holland planned for Norfolk and Suffolk to deal with Prinz Eugen, as that intention was signalled to Captain Leach.84 Not to communicate with the cruisers in line with Holland’s refusal to use radar was understandable, as he did not want to alert the German ships, but it is not clear why it was not communicated to the cruisers once battle was joined. One suggestion could be that Holland planned to use them later, as they would have been in great danger if Bismarck, or Prinz Eugen, (due to the latter’s size) were to attack them. Holland may have wanted to soften the targets up first- not wanting his cruisers to become casualties. Furthermore, Holland may also have wanted to wait to see how Lütjens would react to battle, so he could deploy the cruisers to influence Bismarck’s movements if he could not. Holland planned to use his cruiser arm, but the battle did not last long enough for the chance to effectively deploy them.

Limitations of the British Ships:

On top of HMS Hood’s protection issues, there were other deficiencies on both ships in Holland’s squadron which significantly handicapped the Admiral. These deficiencies cover the most important parts of his ships: the guns and their ranging equipment. Take his flagship for example; HMS Hood’s fire control system was very old with only the director crew in the control tower and no control officer present, most modern ships had an all gun control in a trainable control tower. Furthermore, the system was based around the outdated Dreyer control table and confusion was likely due to the fact the control officers were separated from the laying and shooting.85 The Dreyer table could not compensate for cross roll, so could give accurate data for targets ahead; exactly the direction Hood was shooting during the battle. Moreover, the speed at which the ship was travelling made for rapid range changes that the table could not cope with.86 This problem was exacerbated because the spotting top, where the gunnery personal would be trying to counter the Dreyer table’s deficiencies and feed it accurate information, would vibrate excessively at speed.87 This would make the task of range taking and spotting more difficult. Chaos must have been caused when, unfortunately, the spotting top was hit killing its personal, thus depriving the ship of the best vantage point for directing the ships guns.88 HMS Hood was further limited because she was relying on the 30 foot armoured director situated just forward of the bridge superstructure, as the 15 foot range finder on the spotting top was removed in 1940. This armoured director was very close to sea level and would not have been able to cope with the amount of spray that was being thrown up, thus decreasing the gunnery performance still further.89 Both British ships were also had optics in their gun turrets but these would also have been covered with spray and were not at sufficient height to be of benefit in this situation. This was a problem for Holland, as obviously hitting the enemy was important, as was shells that fell close to the target. This would put the enemy gunnery officer off his stride and affect his accuracy. If Hood’s gunnery was awry then it would mean Bismarck’s fire control officers were not being distracted.  Ageing technology on his flagship, and poor fortune with the spotting top, both out of Holland’s control, deprived him of top gunnery, which could have been decisive.

The situation on Prince of Wales was the opposite: her systems were too new, but this carried similar consequences. These problems were added to because, as mentioned earlier, her guns themselves were prone to teething problems. Organisational problems due to the crew not being worked up properly meant that, although radar ranges on Bismarck were obtained, the information was not used properly.90 Although Prince of Wales did eventually hit the Bismarck, at the start of the battle her shots were going over the target; more importantly those shots were not distracting Bismarck’s gunnery officer making the task of targeting Holland’s squadron easier.91 Prince of Wales’ problems were again no fault of Holland’s; he had to do the job with what he had. At the same time German gunnery optics were excellent.92 German stereoscopic apparatus enabled achieving early accuracy, which combined well with gunnery radar and the German fire control console ‘Ortungsgerat,’ and contributed to German success during the action, according to Paul Schmalenbach, Prinz Eugen’s gunnery officer.93 It is also worth mentioning here that, although the German gunnery was excellent, some of the shells failed to explode. One shell was found inside Prince of Wales when she was in dock for repairs. What would have happened if the shell that caused the explosion in Hood been a dud? We will never know, but it appears that events outside of Holland’s control had decided his fate.  

In some quarters it has been said that Holland’s squadron was not fit enough to face Bismarck in the first place. This perhaps is going too far, but it does demonstrate the limitations Holland had to deal with. Another example is that, Prince of Wales, in addition to her gunnery defects, had a maximum speed of 28.5 knots which slowed the squadron, as Hood by 1941 could make around 30 knots.94 Another advantage the German ships enjoyed was that they were harder hitting being split into smaller compartments. German crews slept in barracks when in port and their ships only realistically had to operate in the Atlantic. Contrast this with British ships that had to be habitable anywhere in the world.95 This gave the German ships a higher punishment rate, as it proved at Jutland, and Bismarck’s own destruction.  Holland had no control over the weaknesses of British ships. That must be a question to put to pre-war Admiralty planners, or the Treasury who controlled Admiralty spending, not the Admiral himself.

Selection of the Wrong Target:

One element that was within Holland’s control was target selection. We now know that Hood targeted the wrong ship from the outset of the battle, as Prinz Eugen had taken the lead because the concussion of Bismarck’s guns had knocked out her forward radar. What is not known is whether the target was ordered to be switched; Ted Briggs claims the mistake was rectified on the bridge,96 but did this order reached the gunnery control position? We will never know. What is clear is Prince of Wales did engage the correct target but it took her gunnery a while to settle down. On the face of it Holland had made a mistake that had cost Hood’s main armament time to score hits, as the range had to be recalculated.

However, as with many mistakes, there is another side to this apparent clear-cut blunder. The poor state of British gunnery systems made identification difficult. Hood’s rangefinders were inferior to the more modern ones on Prince of Wales – she also had two sets, one mounted on a higher position than Hood’s. The vibrating spotting top again was a hindrance and we cannot discount potential errors from Hood’s crew. The considerable distances, accompanied with poor weather conditions also added to the difficulties.  Furthermore, although ‘Bismarck was many times larger than Prinz Eugen, both ships had similar silhouettes.’97 The angle of the British approach, governed by so many other factors, also made the German ships hard to identify, so it is unsurprising that targets were confused. It would also be a safe bet to assume that the heavier German ship would lead. Holland was not to know they had switched places, after all, the shadowing cruisers gave no inkling of this change. There is a suggestion that if Holland had used radar when the ships were sighted this mistake would not have been made,98 but if the cruisers radar had failed to pick this up why should Holland’s? Whilst a mistake was made here it was not directly Holland’s, and it is easy to see why this mistake occurred, as the ships grew closer it could be clear which ship was which, and as the battle developed this mistake would count for less. Unfortunately the battle did not last that long. However, if Hood had hit Prinz Eugen it might have been interesting, as this would have left Lütjens in a quandary of whether to protect the cruiser or run himself. 

It is clear that Holland had major restrictions placed upon him. The choice of his interception course was governed by a whole host of factors out of his control. Having said this, his actions can be traced to other Admirals in the Royal Navy, and the Fighting Instructions of the day; this indicates astute command in a challenging situation. Even the failure to engage his cruisers and the identification mistake can be accounted for. During the battle Holland seemed to do little wrong – fate was not with him.


Admiral Holland’s actions during the Denmark Strait have been examined and this research has brought issues forward that have not been heavily discussed before. The limitations of radar at the time have been highlighted in more detail than previous works. The ramifications of the battle of Spartivento in 1940, and the contemporary Fighting Instructions influence on Holland’s decision making, have also been key issues vindicating his actions to a large degree that have been largely ignored until now. Ultimately this research indicates that long standing criticisms of Vice Admiral Holland are misplaced.

On the night of the 23rd/24th of May 1941 Admiral Holland seems to have conducted his approach to the battle in an acceptable manor considering the constraints and uncertainty surrounding the situation. Firstly, Holland grasped the fact that radar could give his position away and had the potential to alert the Germans to his presence; potentially driving Bismarck away. He also recognised that the early radar sets had deficiencies and were liable to be misread, especially when multiple sets were being used, which justified his radar silence. Secondly, Holland’s original plan when he had the cruisers to guide him in was a sound one. This would have cut Bismarck off crossing her T, thus giving him gun advantage and the advantage of the weather, as Bismarck would have been silhouetted against the sky. Thirdly, Holland’s decision to turn north was made before the loss of contact was firmly established and was designed to bring on action quickly in an effort to limit the opportunity Bismarck had to escape. It was not, as many historians have suggested, a search for Bismarck. Fourthly, Holland’s turn at 0200 put him back on a reciprocal course to Bismarck and that ultimately brought about the action. This was particularly commendable because it was clear at 0200 that Lütjens had not done as Holland had intended, so here he displayed good judgement. Finally, Holland used his destroyers in a sensible way. He sent them north, and although he could not use them in the battle, finding Bismarck at that time was of greater importance. It has also been suggested that weather may have prohibited their operations during the battle anyway.

Once battle was joined Holland again seems to make sensible decisions based on the restraints placed upon him by things out of his control. Firstly, the end on approach’s advantages were that it brought on action sooner, again limiting the chance of Bismarck escaping, and would minimise the vulnerability of Hood to plunging fire due to her protection weaknesses. Furthermore, it would improve the gunnery of the squadron as the range decreased. Additionally, the approach was recommended by senior officers in the Admiralty. Secondly, the disposition of Holland’s squadron was based on sound tactical thinking, on the Admiralty Fighting Instructions, and the criticisms from Spartivento Board of Enquiry. Holland had his two ships close together so they could act as one unit- able to respond together to Bismarck’s movements. The closeness of ships also made signalling easier, stopped the ships masking each other’s fire, and would make the most of Holland’s advantage of heavy guns. As for the failure to engage Norfolk and Suffolk in the battle; it is known that Holland planned to engage them, and one can only assume the battle did not last long enough for this to develop. He was probably waiting to weaken the Germans ships in order to limit the damage that could be done to the cruisers, whilst also using them as an insurance policy, so Bismarck could not get away. The cruisers were no use to him sunk.  Thirdly, Holland’s ships suffered from severe limitations. Hood not only has weaknesses in protection but had an old gunnery system. Prince of Wales was brand new and had not the time to work up to full efficiency, especially in terms of gunnery. Prince of Wales’ speed was also inferior to that of Hood’s, which reduced the top speed of the squadron. All these handicaps were out of Holland’s control. Fourthly, Holland’s selection of the wrong target can be explained due to the distances involved, the fact weather conditions were not ideal, and the angle of the British approach, all made identification difficult. Radar had also failed to pick up the change from the cruisers, so it is unsurprising Holland made this error. Although this was corrected on the bridge, the battle did not last long enough for this issue to be ironed out: the unfortunate nature of war.

Both before and during the battle Vice Admiral Holland made educated decisions based on the situation he found himself. These decisions were shrewd and catered for all the responsibilities and limitations that he carried on his shoulders. He brought Bismarck into a battle she could not avoid, and his battle tactics, considering what he had to work with, seem sound. Most of the criticisms aimed at him are very much based on hindsight and are rather unfair. With a little more luck the battle may have ended differently. Whilst Holland was not perfect he acted professionally. He was not a bad commander, and was justifiably mentioned in dispatches for determination and skill during the Bismarck action.99  

Timothy James Woodward (University of Exeter MA) [2011]

BA Contemporary Military History and International Relations - The University of Salford 2011.


1. ADM 196/51 Record of Lancelot Holland.
2. http://www.kbismarck.com/genedata.html - Battleship Bismarck Website. (13/10/2010)
3. John Roberts, The Battle-Cruiser Hood – Anatomy of the Ship, Conway Maritime Press, (2001.), p 15.
4. Roberts, The Battle-Cruiser Hood, p 9.
5. Stephen Roskill, The War at Sea 1939-45 Volume 1, Edited by JRM Butler, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, (1954), p404.
6. Derek Howse, Radar at Sea, Macmillan Press LTD, (1993), p26.
7. ibid, p11.
8. ibid., p54.
9. Stephen Roskill, The War at Sea 1939-45, VOL 1, p399.
10. Howse, Radar at Sea, p26.
11. Bernard Ash, Someone Had Blundered: The story of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, (1960) p 60.
12. Alan Coles, and Ted Briggs, Flagship Hood, (1985), p 243.
13. Letter from Colin McMullen to Ludovic Kennedy. (HMS Hood Website)
14. ibid., (HMS Hood Website)
15. Howse, Radar at Sea, p102-103.
16. ibid., p32.
17. Ash, Someone had Blundered, p 59.
18. Roskill, War at Sea, VOL 1, p401-402.
19. Bruce Taylor, The Battle-Cruiser HMS Hood – An Illustrated Biography 1916-1941, (2008), p 216.
20. Graham Rhys-Jones, Bismarck an Avoidable Disaster, (1999), p 115.
21. Coles and Briggs, Flagship Hood, p 204.
22. Burkard Baron von Müllenheim-Rechberg, Battleship Bismarck – A Survivors Story, (1980), p 104.
23. David. J Bercuson, Holger. H Herwig, Bismarck, (2003), p 138-139.
24. Roskill, War at Sea, VOL 1, p400.
25. ADM 116/4352. Captain Leach’s Narrative of the Action, p393.
26. ADM 234/509. HMS Suffolk’s log, p 158.
27. Andrew Norman, HMS Hood, (2009), p 100.
28. Naval Staff Histories, German Capital Ships and Raiders in World War 2, Volume 1, (2002), p 52.
29. ibid, p 52.
30. ADM 234/509. HMS Suffolk’s log, p 158.
31. Rhys-Jones, An Avoidable Disaster, p 116.
32. ADM 53/114888- HMS Prince of Wales’ Log for the Action.
33. ADM 234/509. HMS Suffolk’s log, p 159.
34. David Mearns and Rob White, Hood and Bismarck, (2002), p 95.
35. ADM 116/4352. Captain Leach’s Narrative of the Action, p393.
36. ADM 234/509. HMS Suffolk’s log, p 158.
37. Ernle Bradford, The Mighty Hood, (2005), p 146.
38. Mearns White, Hood and Bismarck, p 95.
39. Sean Waddingham, Holland to blame? p 4.
40. Bradford, Mighty Hood, p 147.
41. Ash, Someone had Blundered, p 59.
42. Norman, HMS Hood, p 106.
43. Roskill, War at Sea, VOL 1, p 402.
44. Ludovic, Kennedy, Pursuit: The Sinking of the Bismarck, (2001), p 81-84.
45. Ash, Someone had Blundered, p 59.
46. Bergson and Herwig, Bismarck, p 138-139.
47. Naval Staff Histories: German Capital Ships, p 52.
48. Ash, Someone had Blundered, p 60.
49. Bradford, Mighty Hood, p 149-50.
50. Kennedy, Pursuit, p 72.
51. Coles and Briggs, Flagship Hood, p 242.
52. Naval Staff Histories: German Capital Ships, p 52.
53. ADM 116/4352. Captain Leach’s Narrative of the Action, p394.
54. von Müllenhiem-Rechberg, Battleship Bismarck, p 105.
55. Russell Grenfell, The Bismarck episode, (1974), p 63.
56. Bradford, Mighty Hood, p 170.
57. Norman Friedman, Naval Firepower, (2008), p 154.
58. Sean Waddingham, Holland to blame? p 9.
59. James P. Levy, The Royal Navy’s Home Fleet in World War II, Palgrave Macmillan, (2003), p 92.
60. ADM 239/268, Armour Protection, 1939, Table 5, p 11.
61. Coles and Briggs, Flagship Hood, p 240.
62. ibid., p 240.
63. Taylor, The Battle-Cruiser, p 216.
64. ADM 239/261,  Admiralty Fighting Instructions 1939-1941, Clauses 15-20, p6.
65. ADM 116/4712 , Tactical Instructions for the Home and Mediterranean Fleets. Clauses 300-310, p 62.
66. Bradford, Mighty Hood, p 169.
67. Bergson and Herwig, Bismarck, p 145. 
68. ibid, p 102.
69. ADM116/4309- Battle of Spartivento Board of Enquiry, p 44.
70. ADM116/4309- Battle of Spartivento Board of Enquiry, Conclusion.
71. ADM 239/261,  Admiralty Fighting Instructions 1939-1941, Clauses 15-20, p6.
72. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, (1982),  p116.
73. von Müllenhiem-Rechberg, Battleship Bismarck, p 113.
74. Grenfell, Bismarck Episode, p 62.
75. Bergson and Herwig, Bismarck, p 103.
76. Waddingham, Holland to blame? p 13.
77. Peter Padfield, The Battleship Era, (1975), p 278.
78. Coles and Briggs, Flagship Hood, p 241.
79. Ash, Someone had Blundered, p 58.
80. von Müllenhiem-Rechberg, Battleship Bismarck, p 107.
81. ADM 116/4352, Captain Leach’s Narrative of the Action, p394.
82. Coles and Briggs, Flagship Hood, p 241.
83. von Müllenhiem-Rechberg, Battleship Bismarck, p 107.
84. ADM 116/4352. Captain Leach’s Narrative of the Action, p393.
85. Mearns and White, Hood and Bismarck, p 99.
86. Friedman, Naval Firepower, p 154.
87. Taylor, The Battle-Cruiser, p 219.
88. Mearns and White- Hood and Bismarck, p 100.
89. Taylor, The Battle-Cruiser, p 219.
90. Howse, Radar at Sea, p 95-96.
91. Padfield, Battleship Era, p 277.
92. Peter Padfield, Guns at Sea, Hugh and Evelyn: London, (1973), p297.
93. Padfield, Guns at Sea, pp, 282, 258, 286.
94. Padfield, Battleship Era, p 276.
95. Bradford, Mighty Hood, p 122-123.
96. Coles and Briggs, Flagship Hood, p 241.
97. Ash, Someone Had Blundered, p 63.
98. Coles and Briggs, Flagship Hood, p 243.
99. ADM 196/51 Record of Lancelot Holland.



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