Megayacht's mission to uncover WWII battle cruiser's final moments

Story highlights

  • Microsoft co-founder donates personal megayacht to retrieve bell of British cruiser
  • HMS Hood was sunk during World War II by German battleship, Bismarck
  • Recovery team also hope to document wreck and determine why the ship sank

One of the world's largest private superyachts is the latest to set sail on an expedition to uncover the secrets of a British battle cruiser lost during World War II.

Octopus -- a 414 foot megayacht -- was donated to the British Navy by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. Allen will fund the recovery and research expedition, sparing the British government any cost.

A previous expedition by Blue Water Recoveries, a deep sea shipwreck recovery company, located the wreck 11 years ago.

The enduring allure of tall ships

This week the recovery team will return to the wreck site with a two-fold mission: Retrieve the ship's bell and document the remains of the battle cruiser in the hopes of later determining what happened in the Hood's final moments.

David Mearns, director of Blue Water Recoveries, said the ship's bell was "lovingly looked after" by the crew. Its recovery is seen by those who lost loved ones as a way to commemorate those who died.

From the archive: Divers find wreck of HMS Hood

The HMS Hood was sunk during a battle in the North Atlantic with German battleship Bismarck in 1941. The Hood remains the largest Royal Navy vessel to have gone down, and resulted in the largest loss of life suffered by any single warship in British history.

The wreck of HMS Hood is designated under the Protection of the Military Remains Act, meaning the recovery team had to seek permission from the British Navy in order to retrieve the bell.

Shipwrecks from Spain to the Carribean
Shipwrecks from Spain to the Carribean

    JUST WATCHED

    Shipwrecks from Spain to the Carribean

MUST WATCH

Shipwrecks from Spain to the Carribean 02:32
Exploring the wreckage of the Titanic
Exploring the wreckage of the Titanic

    JUST WATCHED

    Exploring the wreckage of the Titanic

MUST WATCH

Exploring the wreckage of the Titanic 08:06
Shipwreck hunters make an unusual find
Shipwreck hunters make an unusual find

    JUST WATCHED

    Shipwreck hunters make an unusual find

MUST WATCH

Shipwreck hunters make an unusual find 04:35
Explorers find shipwreck worth millions
Explorers find shipwreck worth millions

    JUST WATCHED

    Explorers find shipwreck worth millions

MUST WATCH

Explorers find shipwreck worth millions 01:20

The mission was agreed to by the British Government, and the Ministry of Defence say the bell -- if recovered -- will form a tangible and fitting memorial to the ship and the 1,415 men who died when she sunk in the North Atlantic.

Mearns recalls the astonishment of the team when they located the ship's bell, on their first dive, in 2001.

"There was just a miscellaneous pile of twisted and torn metal... most of it was very angled steel but there was this curved shape," Mearns remembers. "We pushed in on the camera and, lo and behold, there was the bell sitting basically unattached, not connected to the ship [and] all by itself on its side."

The team, Mearns recalls, "were just stunned by it."

The 40,000 ton wreck is strewn over two and half kilometers of seabed, and uncovering the bell was a stroke of luck for the recovery team.

"It's a really iconic item and personal symbol of the ship, but we were there conducting this investigation on a 'don't touch' basis. It never occurred to us, even for a second, 'What if we recovered the bell? Should we attempt to?'" Mearns tells CNN.

By the time Mearns and his team had returned to land, news of the bell's discovery had broken. A public debate had erupted over the ethics of disturbing a wreck where so many lives had been lost.

Mearns gained the support of the HMS Hood Association -- whose members include veterans and relatives of those who died -- before seeking financial support to return and recover the bell.

The association's president, rear admiral Philip Wilcocks, said in statement on the mission: "There is no headstone among the flowers for those who perish at sea."

Wilcocks added, "future generations will be able to gaze upon [the Hood's] bell and remember with gratitude and thanks the heroism, courage and personal sacrifice of Hood's ship's company who died in the service of their country."

Read more: Scouring sea for sunken treasures is big business

If recovered, the bell will go on display in 2014, at an exhibition at the Royal Navy Museum in the southern English port of Portsmouth -- where the Hood was based.

Mearns says: "It's been out there as a wish of the association to do this and I've just been looking for the right sponsor to do it in the right way and to get the permission to do it.

"I'd been working with Vulcan, Paul Allen's company, and it just so happened we could combine the availability of Octopus in the region at the right time, because you can only really work in this area two months of the year."

The Octopus, the world's 13th largest megayacht, is a "fantastically capable vessel," Mearns says.

Read more: World's oldest warship to get $25m facelift

Despite being classified as a yacht, the Octopus carries equipment including a deepwater diving ROV [remotely operated vehicle] and survey and navigation equipment. The Octopus, says Mearns, "is very qualified" for the job.

The British Royal Navy has asked the team to place an ensign on the site of the wreck, Mearns added.

The mission also hopes to shed light on the final moments of the battle cruiser, which broke in two during the attack. It was under sustained fire from the Bismarck, but its own ammunition also exploded. The cause of its sinking has never been clarified.

"I think we are going to make a real improvement in the imagery and information that we bring back from the wreck to allow naval architects to look at and come to some firm conclusions about the damage," Mearns added.

"This isn't just a trophy hunt to go get the bell."

British monarchy's long-lasting love affair with the sea

      MainSail

    • Wide shot of a sailboat from a drone

      Drones offer new angle on superyachts

      "Sometimes, I fly the drone with my head in a trash bag so I don't get salt spray from the sea on my equipment," says drone operator Justice L Bentz.
    • Dave Swete and Nick Dana on the bow of Alvimedica for a windy downwind sail change during the team's second trans-Atlantic training session, this time from Newport, Rhode Island, USA, to Southampton, England

      Disney duo's new 'fairytale story'

      Navigate the world's most treacherous seas, crossing 73,000 nautical kilometers in a confined space with stressed-out, sleep-deprived crewmates. 
    • The Triton Submarine.

      Millionaire water toys

      Personal submarines, jetpacks, even 'walking boats.'
      Why the Monaco Yacht Show is a bit like stumbling upon James Bond's secret gadget lab.
    • London's new superyacht hotel, in Royal Victoria Docks.

      Inside $67M superyacht hotel

      London's new superyacht hotel is so enormous, authorities had to lower the water level by five meters just to fit it under a bridge.
    • Thomson hurtles up to the top of the mast aware that the boat can keel at any moment and fling him either onto the deck or the water below

      What next for sailing's daredevil?

      His mast-walking stunts have attracted over 3.5 million hits on YouTube, but Alex Thomson just wants to get back to doing what he does best.
    • Endeavour, a 1934 J-Class yacht, racing during The America's Cup Anniversary Jubilee around The Isle of Wight 21 August 2001. The four entries in the J-Class category represent the oldest remaining class used in America's Cup competition. Over 200 boats, including vintage yachts are taking part in the America's Cup Jubilee to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the first America's Cup race in 1851. AFP PHOTO Adrian DENNIS (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

      Through hell and high water

      Elizabeth Meyer talks to CNN's Mainsail about the "Armageddon battle" to restore the pioneering J-class boat Endeavour.
    • Specatators use a boat to watch as boat crews race on the River Thames at the Henley Royal Regatta on July 2, 2014 in Henley-on-Thames, England. Opening today and celebrating its 175th year, the Henley Royal Regatta is regarded as part of the English social season and is held annually over five days on the River Thames. Thousands of rowing fans are expected to come to watch races which are head-to-head knock out competitions, raced over a course of 1 mile, 550 yards (2,112 m) which regularly attracts international crews to race. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

      'Downton Abbey' on the water

      Like "Downton Abbey," Henley's Royal Regatta reminds its visitors of an England of old. But for how much longer?
    • LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 10: Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge poses next to the America's Cup as she visits the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for the Ben Ainslie America's Cup Launch on June 10, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

      Britain's $134M secret weapon?

      Can a $134 million budget and the royal seal of approval bring the coveted America's Cup back to British shores for the first time in sailing history?
    • Eyos Expeditions offers superyacht journeys to the most remote places on Earth.

      Yachting to the ends of the Earth

      Bored of lounging on your superyacht in the Mediterranean? An increasing number of millionaires are now sailing their luxury vessels to the ends of the Earth, to get their kicks.