For whom the bell tolled: the fate of a warship and the sailor who survived

As divers attempt to rescue the bell from wreck of HMS Hood, Sebastian Oake remembers one of the ship’s three lone survivors – Yorkshire’s Bob Tilburn.

Of all the displays of courage that came out of the Second World War – and there were so many – there is surely little to match the story of Bob Tilburn. He was a Yorkshireman who served on the Royal Navy flagship HMS Hood during the dark days of the early part of the war.

In the largest loss of life on board a Royal Navy ship, the Hood was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck on May 24, 1941. There were 1,418 men on board. Bob Tilburn was one of three who survived.

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Until now, the wreck of HMS Hood has remained on the floor of the North Atlantic in danger of being forgotten but later this summer an expedition is to be mounted to try to recover the ship’s bell. With the blessing of the HMS Hood Association – which represents the memories of those who sailed on the ship – the bell could become the focal point of a display in the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

Bob Tilburn was born in Leeds in 1921, the son of policeman Ernest Tilburn from the East Riding. My mother knew Bob since her own Auntie Florrie had married Ernest after the death of his first wife.

My mother is no longer alive but she used to recall that fateful day when she and her parents were listening to the radio at home when it was officially announced that HMS Hood had gone down. There followed an agonising wait for the family until they heard from Florrie that, miraculously, Bob was safe and coming home. Bob had always been a strong swimmer and it was this, coupled with extraordinary luck, that served him well that day. Battle-cruiser HMS Hood – the “Mighty Hood”as she was popularly known in the Royal Navy – was the largest warship in the world when she was commissioned in 1920 and an icon of British Naval might throughout the inter-war years.

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 mainly anti-aircraft guns. They weren’t, of course, the main armament on board. The Hood had four main gun turrets, each housing a twin-barrelled 15in gun. Each shell fired weighed almost a tonne and could hit a target 17 miles away.

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On May 19, 1941 HMS Hood sailed with the new battleship Prince of Wales to intercept the Bismarck, which was attempting to break out into the North Atlantic to disrupt merchant shipping.

If the Hood was the biggest and best of its time in the 1920s, so was the Bismarck in the early days of the Second World War. It too had eight 15in guns but much thicker armour. It was the most formidable warship afloat in the Atlantic.

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.

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“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.

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“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 felt ill and went over to the side of the ship to be sick. He looked back and saw the Hood’s bows rearing up. It was obvious the ship was going under and rapidly.

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What Bob didn’t know was that the Bismarck’s guns had penetrated the secondary armament magazine. The detonation had spread to the main magazine, resulting in a catastrophic explosion that tore the ship in half. Everything was now happening very quickly.

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.”

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Crippled by Fleet Air Arm aircraft, the Bismarck was then engaged by the battleships King George V and Rodney on the morning of May 27 before finally being sunk with torpedoes. 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.”

Despite his ordeal, Bob’s Navy days were far from over. He served in many more ships, including the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, in which he saw action in the Far East later in the war, and the aircraft carrier HMS Warrior, which was used to ferry troops and aircraft during the Korean War.

He also spent several spells stationed at the static HMS Victory at Portsmouth, Lord Nelson’s 19th century flagship. He left the Royal Navy in 1952 and returned to the north of England.

He worked for the Ministry of Defence at Eaglescliffe near Stockton-on-Tees and later the Inland Revenue until his retirement. His hobbies became reading detective books and making wine, at which he was very good. He was a quiet gentleman who enjoyed holidays abroad in the sun, although one of his favourite places was Whitby. In the mid-1970s, he joined the HMS Hood Association, becoming its second president. Bob Tilburn died in February 1995.

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The HMS Hood Association believes the ship’s bell would be a fitting and appropriate memorial to those who gave their lives on that terrible day in 1941.

Its president Rear-Admiral Philip Wilcocks says: “Despite HMS Hood’s history as the largest ship in the Royal Navy ever lost in action, the largest loss of life in a single action ever and with a global and national aura sustained over years epitomising all that is best about the Royal Navy, there is currently no dedicated memorial to her and the officers and men who served on her.”

Bob Tilburn’s widow, Mary, is now in her 80s and lives in Stockton-on-Tees, where she is cared for by her daughters Christine Welsh and Barbara Petrie. Barbara says: “I believe that retrieving the bell will ensure we have a permanent, tangible memorial to all those who served on the magnificent Hood and to those who lost their lives.”

It’s a shame that Bob, together with Ted Briggs, who died in 2008, and William Dundas, will never see the bell take pride of place in an exhibit dedicated to their bravery and, most of all, the enormous sacrifice of their shipmates. More than 70 years on, we know that sacrifice was not in vain.

An underwater expedition

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The mission to recover the bell of HMS Hood, which will begin later this month, has been made possible thanks to Paul Allen. The co-founder of Microsoft is loaning his vessel Octopus for the operation, which is being sponsored by the HMS Hood Association and the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

The Ministry of Defence is also supporting the expedition, led by Blue Water Recoveries, to prevent the bell being taken illegally by divers.

If successfully recovered, the bell will be placed in the Royal Navy’s museum in Portsmouth to commemorate the 1,415 members of the ship’s company lost in action and the three men who survived the disaster.

President of the Association, Rear Admiral Philip Wilcocks says: “It 
will mean there will be a place where future generations can gaze upon the bell and remember with gratitude the heroism, courage and personal sacrifice of the ship’s company well after the remains of the Hood have long gone.”