At the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead Esmond took up his duties as a divisional officer whilst welders and riveters hurried to finish work on “Job No. X”, as it was known. Apart from becoming familiar with the ship and his new duties, there was not a great deal to do and the first few months of 1941 were rather dull. But on 31st March Prince of Wales was considered "officially complete" and set sail for the first time, round the coast of Scotland on a series of "shake down" cruises which eventually took her up the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh docks. There, in early May, as Esmond celebrated his 35th birthday, she moored within sight of the pride of the British fleet, HMS Hood, the biggest warship in the world. Although "officially complete", Prince of Wales still had civilian contractors from Vickers-Armstrong on board who were hurriedly trying to sort out teething problems with two of her gun turrets. Meanwhile the less experienced crew members such as Esmond were learning important procedures such as what happens when “Action Stations” is called.
Whilst Prince of Wales was docked at Edinburgh, another actor joined the ship's crew - Robin Kempson, brother of Rachel Kempson and brother-in-law of Michael Redgrave. He too was a lieutenant in the RNVR, though with more experience than Esmond, having already seen active service and indeed a considerable amount of enemy action. Kempson had served onboard HMS Turquoise, picking up soldiers from the beaches during the equation of Dunkirk. He had been injured and suffered a breakdown, and was now returning to duty on Prince of Wales having made a full recovery. Many years later, in the 1960s, Esmond appeared on stage with Robin's niece, Vanessa Redgrave.
HMS Prince of Wales with Lieutenant Esmond Knight
on board; a photograph taken early in 1941 sometime between the ship leaving Birkenhead and engaging
in battle with the Bismarck.
On 18th May, British spies in Norway observed the huge new German battleship Bismarck heading out to sea accompanied by a heavy cruiser, Prinz Eugen, and reported the news to London. This caused great anxiety at the Admiralty. A ship with the firing capacity of Bismarck would cause havoc in the Atlantic amongst allied convoys and endanger supply ships that were already suffering heavily from U-boat attacks. She had to be intercepted and stopped at all costs. Prince of Wales had by now followed HMS Hood up to Scapa Flow and her captain, John Leach, no doubt sensing that something was about to happen and not wanting to miss out, declared to his commanding officer aboard Hood, Admiral Tovey, that his ship was ready to take her place in the Home Fleet as a fighting ship, despite ongoing problems with the two gun turrets. On 21st May, Tovey received confirmation that the German ships were on the move. Prince of Wales was ordered to sea with all haste, accompanying Hood to seek out the German ships. The two gun turrets were still not functioning properly, and the civilian technicians were still on board!
Bismarck and Prinz Eugen were heading for the Denmark Strait, that separates Greenland from Iceland, and aiming to reach the open waters of the Atlantic to wreak havoc amongst British convoys. At midnight on 22nd May, the British ships were ordered to set course to intercept, Hood leading the way with Prince of Wales slightly to stern and to starboard. For two whole days they cruised at full steam in a north-westerly direction.
HMS Hood photographed on 23rd May 1941 from the deck of HMS
Prince of Wales as the two ships steamed at full speed to intercept the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen.
When not on duty Esmond felt constantly on edge, as no doubt did all the crew. He tried to read and to draw and to think about anything other than what they were heading towards. But it was impossible to block out thoughts of what was to come. Late on 23rd May, they were told to expect action before the night was out. In his cabin Esmond wrote two letters (one to Fran, the other to Nora), wrapped pictures and photographs in his bedding to prevent damage, dressed in warm clothes and tried to keep his mind off the forthcoming battle. "All the time there was a persistent little voice crying out from every nook and cranny in the ship that we were to be in action before many hours, and that nothing could avoid it."
In his letter to Nora Esmond wrote:
"Tonight we have received a report from another ship operating considerably to the North that she has spotted the Bismarck and a Hipper class cruiser. The Captain has just addressed the ship's company and we are going flat out in an attempt to intercept. The ship is vibrating like a mad thing and we, in company with Hood and escorting destroyer, are going 'everything wide open in the proper direction' as the Captain put it !! Everyone is very calm but there is a terrific intensity in the air. It is our first time on a real trip after working up so we are inevitably lucky! There seems every possibility that we shall meet! And that is going to be some party I think! As is customary before action stations, people have retired to wash and change into clean underclothes - we expect to be in action in about 2 hours - we shall see. Must away, my dear, and put myself straight. I shall hope to finish this later !!"
In the early hours of 24th May - Empire Day - the paths of the converging British and German ships met. Esmond was dozing on his bunk when Action Stations! sounded for real. Clutching his tin hat and Zeiss binoculars (the souvenir from his pre-war holiday in Austria), he rushed to his action station on the compass platform - or to be precise, above it in an unarmored control position. There he made himself ready, adjusting his lifebelt, binoculars and director telescopes and, along with others, trying to make his tin hat stay on his head on top of the anti-flash hood which was intended to give protection from the effects of a shell blast. Looking up, he saw that the battle flags had been hoisted. At 5am, as dawn broke, Prince of Wales received a signal from Hood - Instant readiness for action - and 45 minutes later, with everyone gazing at the horizon to the north, including Esmond, came a cry from Knocker White, the lad who had been sent aloft up the mast to the foretop with extra clothing and a set of binoculars: "Enemy in sight!".
The German battleship Bismarck. When she appeared on the horizon, Esmond heard someone mutter: "Ye Gods - what a size!"
For a moment nothing could be seen as the foretop was so much higher than the compass platform and the horizon remained unbroken. Then, in Esmond's words:
"After minutes of staring at the blank distance, suddenly - and one could scarcely believe one's eyes - there appeared the topmasts of two ships! .... There they were in dead sharp silhouette on the horizon - Bismarck and Prinz Eugen - steaming in smokeless line ahead, unperturbed and sinister."
The British and German ships were still 17 miles apart which as Ludovic Kennedy points out in his book, Pursuit - The Sinking of the Bismarck, is about the distance between Piccadilly Circus and Hampton Court Palace. However, at a combined speed of 60 miles per hour, they were closing rapidly and were in range within minutes. At 5.52am Hood ordered the signal to open fire on Bismarck. Esmond saw the orange flashes and black smoke as Hood fired her first salvo, then felt the "pulverising crashing roar" as Prince of Wales opened fire seconds later. For a few moments Hood and Prince of Wales were firing at different ships, gunnery officers on Hood having assumed that Bismarck was in the lead, whereas an experienced gunnery officer on Prince of Wales had identified her as the second ship. Having fired two salvos, Hood realised the mistake and turned her attention to Bismarck.
All four ships were now exchanging fire, both German ships concentrating on Hood and both British ships concentrating on Bismarck. The Germans found the range of their enemy quicker than the British, and through his binoculars Esmond saw the British salvos falling short of their target whilst flashes and smoke from Bismarck in particular were producing great spouts of water just astern of Hood.
"Suddenly one became conscious of that unmistakable noise, which produced a horrible sinking feeling inside one - a noise growing in a gradual crescendo - something like the approach of an underground train, getting louder and louder and filling the air .......but at this moment the incredible happened: there had been that rushing sound which had ominously ceased, and then, as I looked, a great spouting explosion burst from the centre of the Hood, enormous tongues of pale red flame shot into the air, while dense clouds of whitish-yellow smoke burst upwards, and gigantic pieces of brightly burning debris were hurled hundreds of feet into the air. I just did not believe what I saw - the Hood had literally been blown to pieces, and just before she was totally enveloped in that ghastly pall of smoke I saw her fire her last salvo. I felt quite sick inside and turned away .... I turned back and looked again, with a weak feeling in my knees - the smoke had cleared, and the Hood was no more; there was nothing to be seen of her."
At exactly 6.00am Bismarck made a direct hit on the Hood's aft magazines. The force of the explosion tore the ship apart and she broke into two pieces. it took just three minutes for her to sink with the loss of 1,417 men, and only three survivors. Remarkably, her forward turrets fired one last time whilst she was actually sinking, as witnessed by Esmond.
Bismarck, having sunk the Hood moments before, fires a salvo
at Prince of Wales - a picture taken by one of the propaganda photographers on board Prince Eugen.
The loss of the Hood was the last thing Esmond Knight saw with perfect sight. With Hood gone, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen immediately turned their attention to Prince of Wales which had had to swerve sharply to avoid Hood's wreckage and was dangerously exposed. Gunnery offices on Prince of Wales had found their range now and managed to fire off two salvos that hit their mark and caused not huge, though significant damage to Bismarck. But Bismarck had also found her range - and it was the next salvo from the German battleship that was to change Esmond's life forever.
"From that moment on everything seems hazy, except that I remember again hearing that great rushing noise, like the approach of a cyclone, and having a quite irrelevant dream about listening to the band in Hyde Park, and then being conscious of a high ringing noise in my head and slowly coming to. I had the sensation that I was dying. It was a strange feeling, and one that made me feel rather sad - no more. There was a lot of water swishing about - I was lying on my side with a great weight on top of me. What on earth had happened?"
What had happened was this - at precisely 6.02am, a 15 inch shell from Bismarck had ripped straight through the compass platform of the Prince of Wales, exploding only when it had passed out of the other side. Almost everyone on the compass platform was killed - 13 men in all. The exceptions were Captain Leach, the Chief Yeoman of Signals, the navigating offer, and Esmond - the latter two both receiving facial wounds from flying debris, including molten metal.
A remarkable picture taken by one of the propaganda photographers onboard Prinz Eugen that captures precisely the moment Esmond was injured. The black smoke on the left is burning debris from HMS Hood which has just sunk, having received a direct hit from Bismarck. The smoke to the right marks the position of HMS Prince of Wales which is now receiving the joint attention of guns from both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. The white splashes are shells from Prince of Wales falling hopelessly short of the German ships. The shell that tore through the compass platform where Esmond had been standing at his action station struck moments before this picture was taken and Prince of Wales, dangerously exposed and with gun turrets malfunctioning, is about to cease firing and turn away, making smoke to screen herself.
As he came round, Esmond could not see, but he could hear - "Stretcher bearers! Clear the way!" and what he described as "the uncanny noise that men make when they are dying". He could smell the blood as dead bodies were lifted off him. He was bundled down to the sick bay where a medical office said: "Hello, what are you doing here?" and "Open your eyes, old boy". Esmond tried to open them but everything was black. He lay there, still in his clothes, with bandages around his face, listening to "great roars which shook the ship as the fight was carried on . . ." until a morphia-induced sleep enveloped him.
Back on deck, Captain Leach, who had suffered no injury and was merely shaken, recovered quickly and Prince of Wales continued to fire at Bismarck. But, alone now that Hood had gone, with guns malfunctioning and further hits from both Bismarck and Prinz Eugen taking their toll (seven in all), he had no choice but to turn his ship away, covering the withdrawal with a smokescreen. Official records show that both Prince of Wales and Bismarck ceased firing at exactly the same moment - 6.09am, as any further salvos would have been a pointless waste of ammunition. Ironically, throughout the brief battle, the crew of Bismarck did not know the true identity of the ship they were firing at alongside Hood. They thought she was HMS King George V, as German intelligence sources were unaware that Prince of Wales had entered service.
The Battle of Denmark Strait had lasted under twenty minutes and almost 1,500 men had lost their lives. Esmond came away from the confrontation with a serious facial injury. He was blind. But when you consider the devastation to Prince of Wales' compass platform caused by the shell from Bismarck and the body count around his action station, he was incredibly lucky to be alive at all.
Another actor fortunate not to have lost his life in the Battle of Denmark Strait was ordinary Seaman Jon Pertwee. He joined the crew of HMS Hood in November 1940 and was onboard Hood on 22nd May 1941 as she and Prince of Wales left Scapa Flow. But at some stage during the two-day race to intercept Bismarck, it was decided to remove sixteen young crew members with officer potential prior to the battle - Pertwee among them. They were told to pack their kit and be over the side in twenty minutes, where a trawler would transfer them to another ship and subsequently back to Portsmouth. Had he stayed on board he would certainly have been killed as his action station was "winding a small wheel in the bowels of the ship". Of the loss of Hood so soon after leaving her, he wrote: "It was a terrible, shocking thing, and I have never really got over it. To have had so many good friends in the time it takes to snap your fingers." After the war, he and Esmond became good friends.