Upholding Nelson’s historic watchword of “humanity after victory,” sailors on Britain’s biggest warship paid their respects to one of the Royal Navy’s greatest 20th Century foes.
HMS Prince of Wales paused over the wreck of the Bismarck, Hitler’s flagship, to remember more than 2,000 German sailors lost when the battleship was pounded to a watery grave by the guns of the Royal Navy in May 1941.
The act of remembrance some 500 miles west of Brest concludes the tribute made by the crew of the Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier to the 3,500-plus sailors and aviators of both sides who were killed in the Bismarck chase.
The carrier sailed over the wreck of HMS Hood in April last year on her way to Reykjavik and remembered the 1,415 souls killed when the Bismarck’s shells penetrated the battle-cruiser’s armor plating and detonated a magazine.
The then brand-new battleship HMS Prince of Wales was damaged in the same action – hit by shells from both Hitler’s flagship and the escorting cruiser Prinz Eugen – which killed 13 men.
With his ship damaged, his guns malfunctioning and outmatched by his foe, the battleship’s Captain John Leach broke off the battle.
He had, however, thwarted Bismarck’s plans to raid shipping in the Atlantic. Leaking fuel thanks to a shell hit from HMS Prince of Wales, the German battleship made for the safety of port in occupied France.
It would have made it but for the bravery of Swordfish crews who threw themselves at the battleship, crippling its rudder and causing Bismarck to steam in circles.
On the morning of May 27 1941, the Home Fleet closed in for the kill.
The Bismarck action is one of only two battle honors earned by the King George V-class battleship during her short career.
Repaired, she would cross the ocean that summer with Premier Winston Churchill aboard for a meeting with President Roosevelt – resulting in the signing of the Atlantic Charter, which laid the foundation for the post-war world, including the United Nations.
After another battle honor for taking part in the Malta convoys, the battleship was lost at the hands of Japanese aircraft in company with HMS Repulse in the South China Sea in December 1941.
Eighty-two years later, her namesake carrier is making her maiden crossing of the Atlantic for extensive trials off the Eastern Seaboard of the USA involving crewed (F-35 stealth fighters, MV-22 Ospreys) and pilotless (Mojave drones) aircraft.
Echoes of 1941 resonate strongly with the aircraft carrier. A fragment of one of Bismarck’s shells which struck her predecessor can be found in the captain’s cabin while the battleship’s bell is also aboard for the crossing. It survived the shell strike which wiped out most of the bridge team, witnessed the signing of the Atlantic Charter and was recovered from the wreck site by Royal Navy divers – to save it from grave robbers – 20 years ago.
Today’s HMS Prince of Wales is taking it back across the Atlantic as a symbol of the joint history with the US.
“HMS Prince of Wales and 820 Naval Air Squadron have a shared history as we share the same battle honor – Bismarck 1941,” explained the carrier’s navigator Lieutenant Commander Chris Poulson.
“But this is not just their story, because we are living the HMS Prince of Wales and 820 stories. We are turning the page, we are living and writing the next chapter in the story. This is not their bell that we are taking to America; it’s our bell we’re taking back to America.”
HMS Prince of Wales will be deployed in the USA until she returns to Portsmouth shortly before Christmas.