80th anniversary of Swordfish strike on Bismarck

At 7.10 this evening in 1941, a flight of 15 Swordfish torpedo bombers were ranged on the deck of the carrier Ark Royal in the North Atlantic.

They were the Navy’s last hope. If they didn’t find and slow – or even sink – the Bismarck, there was every chance the pride of Hitler’s Navy would reach the relative safety of a port in occupied France.

Damaged in the encounter with the Prince of Wales and Hood in the Denmark Strait – which saw the new Royal Navy battleship damaged and the Hood blown up – Germany’s flagship abandoned her plan to raid convoys in the Atlantic and make for harbour.

The kernel of the Home Fleet was dispatched to intercept the Bismarck – led by battleships HMS King George V and Rodney – while the RN’s Gibraltar-based task force, Force H, was also sent to the scene.

Late on the stormy twenty-sixth day of May, with Bismarck having been sighted earlier in the day by a long-range RAF reconnaissance aircraft, Ark Royal was in a position to launch an attack with Swordfish.

First they attacked HMS Sheffield by mistake – only for many of the torpedoes to prove defective.

Re-armed and refuelled they set off again for a last-ditch effort at dusk. After nearly 90 minutes in the air, fighting against driving rain, low cloud and a Force 9 gale, in failing light, they struck at the Bismarck.

At times flying in at 20 feet and just 90mph the British torpedo bombers split their attack between Bismarck’s starboard and port beams.

With his crew of observer Sub Lieutenant ‘Dusty’ Miller, and telegraphist/air gunner Albert Hayman, 21-year-old pilot Sub Lieutenant Jock Moffat was among those running the gauntlet of ack-ack fire.

“They fired all kinds of things at us,” Jock remembered. “It was like hail coming at you – you wondered how they could miss.”

Miss they did and, however eager Jock Moffat was to drop his torpedo and turn away, his observer kept telling him “not yet” until the right moment to press the release button: “Let her go.”

As the Swordfish manoeuvred to escape the flak, Dusty Miller reported: “We’ve got a runner, Jock.”

The torpedo their aircraft launched hit the Bismarck. So too did two more. One – perhaps Jock Moffat’s – crippled the German warship, striking and jamming its rudder.

After 9.15pm, despite concerted efforts by engineers and divers, Bismarck was no longer manoeuvrable. It was sailing into the jaws of the Royal Navy.

That night Bismarck signalled Berlin: “Ship no longer manoeuvrable. We will fight to the last shell. Long live the Führer.” Hitler’s response was read to the crew over the battleship’s loudspeakers. “The whole of Germany is with you. What can still be done will be done. The performance of your duty will strengthen our people in the struggle for their existence.”

They fired all kinds of things at us. It was like hail coming at you – you wondered how they could miss

Swordfish pilot Sub Lieutenant Jock Moffat