A Maldon sailor served on HMS Hood before the war disaster

It has been described as “one of Britain’s worst naval disasters”.

On May 24, 1941, at the start of the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the Admiral-class battlecruiser HMS Hood was hit by several German shells, exploded and immediately sank with the loss of all of her 1,418 crew. except three.

Unfortunately, even the three survivors are no longer with us.

Midshipman William Dundas tragically died in a car accident in 1965 aged 41, Able Seaman Bob Tilburn in 1995 aged 74, and Signalman Ordinary Ted Briggs the October 4, 2008, at the age of 85.

The rest of the crew was confined in a watery grave. So you can imagine my surprise when I spotted a Commonwealth War Graves headstone in Maldon Cemetery dedicated to someone from HMS Hood.

The inscription reads; “PO/X3436. Navy AE Wilkins RM. HMS Hood. 13 January 1941. Aged 21.

How is this possible, I wondered?

I made contact with the HMS Hood Association and so began a fascinating exchange of correspondence and a journey of genealogical research.

As the association points out, it must be remembered that no less than 18,000 men served on the ship during its 21-year operational career – from its construction in 1920 to its destruction in 1941.

Among them was at least one Maldon man – the late Chris Wenlock (senior), founder of the Wenlock Clothiers at 85-87 High Street.

Some of these personnel, like Chris, were transferred to different ships, while others died in service before she sank and it would appear from the date on Maldon’s grave that Marine Wilkins was the one of them.

However, the association didn’t know much about him, so I decided to do a bit of investigation myself.

The man in question was, in fact, Arthur Ernest Wilkins, who was born, not here in Maldon, but in Hoxton, in the East End of London, on August 14, 1919.

He was the son of Alfred Ernest Wilkins (1894-1964), a merchant, and Amy Wilkins (née Long) (1895-1981).

Arthur was baptized at Christ Church, Hoxton on 31 August 1919, and the family home at this point was 1 Rushton Street, New North Road.

A sister, Doreen Helen Wilkins, was born in 1922 and it is believed the family moved to Maldon between the completion of the National Register in 1939 and Arthur’s death in 1941. The ‘PO’ in the service number of Arthur indicates that he was a member of the Portsmouth Division of the Royal Marines and had probably enlisted for the duration.

  • Arthur Wilkins’ grave clearly assigns him to HMS Hood

The Marines ensured the safety of the ship’s officers and supported their maintenance of discipline in the ship’s crew. In combat, they engaged enemy crews, whether firing from positions on their own ship or fighting in boarding actions.

Marine Wilkins served in that same role on HMS Hood, but by May 1940 he was ashore – hospitalized with “aberrant pneumonia”.

Interestingly, a month earlier, in April 1940, a group of 250 Marines and Sailors from Hood took part in Operation Primrose (a plan to occupy part of Norway) and all but three of that landing force returned to the ship on May 6.

We do not know if Arthur was part of this mission, but the following report tells us that he died, here in Maldon, the following January 13th of “sarcoma of the lung”.

The same day Arthur died, HMS Hood sailed from Scapa Flow for Rosyth.

On May 22, 1941, following a report that Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had left Bergen, she headed for the Denmark Strait.

On May 23, south of Iceland, Hood approached the German ships. At 05:52 on 24 May she opened fire on the Prinz Eugen, but at 06:00 Hood was hit after a volley of return fire, exploded and sank within four minutes.

The three survivors were picked up by the destroyer Electra and survived to tell their story.

Arthur Wilkins, meanwhile, died not knowing what would happen to his ship.

However, her parents reportedly read all about it in the press – “The HMS Hood Tragedy”, as The Star’s headline described it, on the front page of their May 28 edition.

Maldon artist Charlie Tait, another navy man, mentions him in his memoir The Reluctant Sailor (published 2022).

“The news of the sinking of the Hood was very depressing. Many of our crew members had naysayers or mates on her. Several men wept openly.”

One way or another, Arthur’s grave at Maldon is not only a remembrance of one young man’s brief wartime service and life, but of all his shipmates.

Wars result in the loss of lives and loves and in various sad circumstances.

In a last twist of fate, not far from Arthur’s grave, you will find another military grave.

Here rests Lance Bomber Ernest Clegg, of the Royal Artillery’s 70th Anti-Tank Regiment. He died on July 3, 1945, at the age of 26. A married man, his wife (of only three years) was Doreen Helen Clegg (née Wilkins) – Arthur’s sister.