All material is © FAA SIG and Mark E. Horan, 2000
The Story of the Torpedoing of the Bismarck
by Mark E. Horan
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Copied in its entirety from: http://www.faasig.org/colors/bismarckattack.htm (With permission)
On 18 May 1942, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder set in motion the most dramatic test of the Royal Navy';s ability to defend the North Atlantic shipping lanes to date. Operation "Rheinebung" would see the first use of the Kriegsmarine newest warships, the schlachtschiffe KMS Bismarck (Kapitan zur See Ernst Lindemann), and the schwere kreuzer KMS Prinz Eugen (Kapitan zur See Helmuth Brinkmann). Command was vested in the Vice-Admiral Gunther Lutjens, recently returned from commanding the highly successful Atlantic sortie by the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Based on his earlier experience, as well as the separate operations of panzerschiffe Admiral Scheer and schwere kreuzer Admiral Hipper, great things were expected. Raeder's timing would appear to have been impeccable, for the strength of the Royal Navy's Home Fleet, under Admiral Sir John Tovey, KCB, DSO, RN, was at a low ebb. Though Admiral Tovey theoretically controlled the Royal Navy's three most effective battleships, the venerable H.M.S. Hood, the largest warship afloat, H.M.S. King George V the new fleet flagship, and H.M.S. Prince of Wales, still fitting out, the fleet currently contained not a single aircraft carrier.
The newest edition to the Royal Navy's carrier force, H.M.S. Victorious, having been commissioned on 15 May 1941 under Captain H. C. Bovell, RN, was currently at Liverpool preparing for her shakedown cruise. There being a war on even shakedowns involved a mission. Plans had already been set in motion for Victorious to deliver 48 RAF Hurricane IIs to Gibraltar and hence to the beleaguered island of Malta. At the same time, Victorious embarked two Fleet Air Arm organizations to handle fighter and anti-submarine defence of the ship en-route: 800Z flight with six Fulmar II fighters, and 825 Squadron with of nine brand new Swordfish Is, three of which were equipped with the newest in strike technology, Anti-Surface-Vessel (ASV) radar. Bigger things were on tap in the Mediterranean for 825 Squadron, which was slated to replace the long serving 820 Squadron as one of H.M.S. Ark Royal's Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance squadrons. For 800Z Flight, the job was much more mundane; they were simply ferrying new replacement fighters for Ark Royal�s two fighter squadrons, after which the pilots were scheduled to lead the RAF fighters on to Malta.
H.M.S. Victorious actually embarked 800Z Flight on 11 May. Eight days later, as she moved into the Clyde, 825 Squadron flew aboard. On the 20th the final preparations seemed to be in place when she embarked the 48 RAF fighters. Then fate intervened. Early on the 21st, RAF reconnaissance aircraft had placed the two German warships at Korsfjord near Bergen, Norway, and all indications were that they intended to break out momentarily. As such, Captain Bovell was ordered to disembark the RAF fighters and proceed to Scapa Flow forthwith to join the Home Fleet. On arrival, Admiral Tovey personally interviewed the commander of 825 Squadron, Lieutenant-Commander (A) Eugene Kingsmill Esmonde, RN, as to his squadron�s ability to deliver a torpedo attack. Only after Esmonde satisfied him that the squadron's training level was satisfactory did Tovey consent to add Victorious to his force, which consisted of BB H.M.S. King George V (F), Rear Admiral A. T. B. Curteis, CB, RN's 2nd Cruiser Squadron (CLs H.M.S. Galatea (F), H.M.S. Aurora, H.M.S. Kenya, H.M.S. Hermione), and DDs H.M.S. Active, H.M.S. Punjabi, H.M.S. Nestor, H.M.S. Inglefield, H.M.S. Intrepid, and H.M.S. Lance. Along the way he would be joined by BC H.M.S. Repulse as well.
The spectacular events of the next 72 hours were to prove to be a nadir for the Royal Navy. The RAF confirmed the breakout on 22 May, followed, less than 24 hours later by the dramatic discovery of the force in the Denmark Strait by H.M.S. Suffolk and later H.M.S. Norfolk, flying the flag of the commander of the 1st Cruiser Squadron, Rear-Admiral W. Frederick Wake-Walker, CB, OBE, RN. On the morning of 24th, Vice-Admiral Lancelot E. Holland, CB, RN's Squadron, consisting of BC H.M.S. Hood (F), BB H.M.S. Prince of Wales, as well as the DDs H.M.S. Electra, H.M.S. Anthony, H.M.S. Echo, H.M.S. Icarus, H.M.S. Achates, and H.M.S. Antelope managed to "corner the fox", but soon found that the this fox had teeth. At 0600, only minutes into the fight, the great flagship blew up. Minutes later, at 0613, Captain J. C. Leach, MVO, RN was forced to withdraw Prince of Wales under the cover of smoke.
Prelude - H.M.S. Victorious
Throughout the remainder of the morning and afternoon, while Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker shadowed the Bismarck with his own cruisers and Prince of Wales, Admiral Tovey strove to cut off the German squadron with the remainder of the Home Fleet. As the morning turned into afternoon, he decided to hold Esmonde to his word and, at 1509, detached Victorious, escorted by Rear-Admiral Curties' four cruisers, to forge ahead, close on Bismarck, and deliver a torpedo attack in a further effort to slow the quarry down. Although Victorious' Commander Flying, Commander H. C. Ranald, RN, desired the distance closed to 100 miles before launch, Victorious could not get inside 120 miles in the high-seas, and finally, at 2210, all nine Swordfish of 825 Squadron set off on the mission assigned, organized in three sub-flights thus:
As soon as they were airborne the Swordfish disappeared into a rain squall and were lost to view, but the squadron was able to form up without too much difficulty and set off on a course of 225o. Meanwhile, at 2300, three Fulmars of 800Z Squadron followed with orders to observe the attack and then maintain contact at all costs so that, if necessary, another strike could be flown off the next day at dawn. The faster Fulmars soon overtook the lumbering Swordfish, and the combined force continued towards Bismarck at 85 knots.
Realistically, the prospects for the attack were not good. The squadron was ill-prepared for its assignment, several of the pilots having only made their first carrier landing on the 19th, and they had not made even a single squadron attack in training. Under the prevailing weather conditions, eight-tenths cloud cover at 1,500 feet with intermittent rain squalls, a visual search was like looking for the proverbial �needle in a haystack�, but the squadron�s new ASV radar was expected to make the difference. At 2327 ASV contact was established on a contact some 16 miles ahead of the formation and Bismarck was sighted briefly through a gap in the clouds only to be lost again seconds later. Descending below the clouds with his squadron, Esmonde located the cruisers still shadowing, and H.M.S. Norfolk directed the aircraft towards their target some fourteen miles ahead on the starboard bow.
At 2350 hours a further ASV contact was made and Esmonde again led his squadron below the cloud cover to begin his attack. Unexpectedly, the contact proved to be the United States Coast Guard cutter Modoc, peacefully pitching and rolling in the heavy Atlantic swell. Unfortunately Bismarck, then only six miles to the south, spotted the aircraft and the vital element of surprise was lost. When the Swordfish finally closed to deliver their torpedo attack, they were met by a 'very vigorous and accurate' barrage of heavy and light AA, which tagged Esmonde's Swordfish (5A) at a range of four miles. Though Swordfish 5M lost contact in the dense cloud covering the area, the remaining eight aircraft pressed home their attack with elan.
At exactly midnight Esmonde led the first sub-flight into a simultaneous attack. His starboard lower aileron was hit almost immediately, and he abandoned his original intention to attack from starboard, deciding to drop there and then, whilst he was still in a good position on the target�s port beam and Bismarck was nicely silhouetted against the glove of the setting sun. Both he, and Sub-Lieutenant(A) Thompson, in 5C, released on Bismarck�s port bow from an altitude of 100�. The third member of the flight, Lieutenant(A) MacLean, in 5B, got separated in the descent through the clouds and attacked separately, but also on the port side. Proving that his ship handling skills were superb, Kapit�n Lindemann artfully dodged all three of the "fish".
The three Swordfish of the second sub-flight were led in by Lieutenant Gick. Approaching from starboard, he was not satisfied with the approach angle, and elected to pull back into the clouds and work his way round to a better position. The remainder of his flight continued on however, Lieutenant (A) Garthwaite in 5G dropping on Bismarck's starboard bow and Sub-Lieutenant Jackson, in 5H/V4337 from her starboard quarter, but again Lindemann avoided the deadly missiles.
Moments later, the two Swordfish remaining in the third sub-flight appeared on the Bismarck's port quarter, and amid a hail of AA fire, Lieutenant Pollard, in 5J, and Sub-Lieutenant Lawson, in 5K released form a good angle but, again, to no avail. Meanwhile, Percy Gick, in 5F, now appeared low down on the water on the enemy's port bow. His sudden appearance caught the Germans by surprise, and there was no avoiding his torpedo, which ploughed into Bismarck amidships, exploding on her armour belt.
As the aircraft turned away, the air gunners sprayed Bismarck�s superstructure and gun positions with .303 machine gun fire at almost point blank range. As one of the air gunners remarked later: "It didn�t sink the Bismarck, but it certainly kept their heads down and in any case, it relieved our feelings." As the Swordfish departed, Petty Officer Airman Parker, Esmonde�s TAG, signalled "Have attacked with torpedoes. Only one observed."
A German account of the attack is summarized from an eyewitness report and states:
The single hit was confirmed by a shadowing Fulmar who, just after midnight, reported a "great, black column of dense smoke rising from the starboard side", and also that "the battleship's speed was reduced." At this point, relief was in order for the three Fulmars over Bismarck, 0100, Victorious launched a further pair to relieve those on duty and continue shadowing Bismarck until dawn. The crews of these two aircraft were:
Sunset was at 0052 hours, and the returning strike force had to make most of their journey back to H.M.S. Victorious in the dark. With the homing beacon aboard the carrier unserviceable, Captain Bovell, risking the danger from enemy submarines, shone his searchlights vertically upwards onto the clouds to guide the aircraft, until ordered to put them out by Rear-Admiral Curteis. Stubborn to the last, Bovell then signalled his acquiescence with his brightest 20-inch signal projector! None the less, all nine Swordfish found the carrier and landed on safely between 0200 and 0230, the returning crews all stating that they had not seen the searchlight display, but had easily sighted and followed the low-intensity signal lamps used by the cruisers. At 0306, just after the last aircraft had landed aboard Victorious, and following a brilliant manoeuvre by L�tjens, the two shadowing cruisers, H.M.S. Norfolk and H.M.S. Suffolk lost contact with KMS Bismarck. For the next thirty-six hours a vast network of airborne and surface ship searches attempted to locate the elusive enemy.
While Victorious� strike role was now over, 825 Squadron�s Swordfish were part of the search effort. In the mid-morning of the 25th, three Swordfish were put up, but they had no luck. While two managed to return to Victorious, 5H/V4337 was not so lucky, and at 1315 was forced to land at sea. Struggling into their raft, things looked bleak for the crew, Lieutenant(A) P. B. Jackson, RN (P), Sub-Lieutenant D. A. Berrill, RN (O), and Leading Airman F. G. Sparkes (TAG), especially when an aerial search came up empty. However, lady luck kept her eye on the trio; eight days later, on 3 June, they were found by the Icelandic steamer SS Largufoss 50 nautical miles E of Cape Farewell.
A further effort on the 26th, again by three aircraft, proved more costly. This time the missing Swordfish simply disappeared. Lost with it were three of the men that attacked Bismarck 30 hours earlier: Lieutenant(A) Henry Charles Michell Pollard, DSC, RN (Page 24), Sub-Lieutenant(A) David Musk Beattie, RNVR (Page 24), and Leading Airman Percy William Clitheroe, DSM, RN (Page 25).
Thus ended H.M.S. Victorious' role in the hunt for the Bismarck.
As a final footnote, 24 May did not mark the last time 825 Squadron would attack a German battleship. Some nine months later, on 12 February 1942, during the Channel dash, six Swordfish of a reformed 825 Squadron, still led by the indomitable Esmonde, would fly on a one-way mission to destiny. Among the 13 airmen killed that day were six of the 24 survivors of the Bismarck attack:
Seven months later, on 17 September, 1942, the survivors were reduced yet again when Sub-Lieutenant(A) Valentine Kay Norfolk, DSC, RN (O), was killed in Swordfish DK776 while a member of 816 Squadron. As far as I have been able to determine, the remaining seventeen survived World War II, all members of an extremely unique fraternity.
Finale - H.M.S. Ark Royal
Even before the Bismarck crisis had begun, important events were transpiring in the Western Mediterranean. On 12 May, H.M.S. Furious had departed Greenock under the protection of H.M.S. London, and sailed for Gibraltar carrying 40 RAF Hurricane IIs and nine FAA Fulmar IIs of the new 800X Flight, the lot being destined for Malta. Arriving on the 18th, the 19th was spent transferring 21 of the Hurricanes and all of the Fulmar IIs (exchanged for worn out Fulmar Is) to H.M.S. Ark Royal. On the 20th, Force H, commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir James F. Somerville, KCB, DSO, RN, sortied into the Western Mediterranean to begin Operation "Splice". Joining the two carriers were BC H.M.S. Renown (F), CA H.M.S. Sheffield, and DDs H.M.S. Faulknor, H.M.S. Foresight, H.M.S. Forester, H.M.S. Foxhound, H.M.S. Fury, and H.M.S. Hesperus.
On the 21st, amid significant confusion, seven Fulmars and 48 Hurricane I/IIs departed for Malta. While two Fulmars and one Hurricane were lost en-route, the rest reached Malta safely. Turning about, Force H returned to Gibraltar on the 22nd. For the next 48 hours, the news about the Bismarck�s break out captured the world�s imagination. Then, just before the Victorious� attack commenced, at 2331 on the evening of 24th, the Admiralty signalled Vice-Admiral Somerville to again take Force H to sea and "Steer so as to intercept Bismarck from southward. Enemy must be short of fuel and will have to make for an oiler. Her future movements may guide you to this oiler."
Leaving Furious behind (as she carried no aircraft), Somerville led Force H into the Atlantic. H.M.S. Ark Royal was carrying five Fleet Air Arm Squadrons, believed to total 23 Fulmar II fighters and 27 Swordfish I TSRs:
As British forces combed the most likely routes open to Bismarck, an official Admiralty communiqu� told an anxiously waiting world the outcome of events thus far:
Vice-Admiral L�tjens was obviously impressed by the fact that British radar had enabled the two cruisers to keep contact with her for a night and a day, in darkness and very bad weather. At 0401 on the morning of the 25th, unaware that at last he had in fact given them the slip, he proceeded to send a long signal to Group West to outline his view of events thus far:
Unable to interrupt the transmission, it was not until 0846 that Group West was able to signal L�tjens that it was their belief that contact had been lost some six hours earlier! L�tjens immediately resumed radio silence, but the damage had been done. All through the 25th and 26th Victorious continued to fly off her Swordfish on anti-submarine patrols and air searches, but nothing was found. At 1625 on the 25th Adolf Hitler sent a personal message to Vice-Admiral L�tjens offering, �Best wishes on your birthday�. It was not acknowledged as Bismarck kept silent, steaming at a reduced speed of 20 knots for the safety of a French West Coast port. She was running short of fuel due to the hit on her oil tanks and at one point, was reduced to 12 knots to allow for repairs to the damaged forecastle. (Had Bismarck travelled at her full capability of 28 knots throughout, there is little doubt that she would have made that port she sought). At 1924 the Admiralty informed all ships their belief that Bismarck was making for western France.
That night, Force H steamed northwards into an increasingly heavy sea and a rising wind. With waves reaching more than 50 feet, Somerville was forced to reduce his speed; first to 23 knots at 2115, to 21 knots at 2340, 19 knots at 0000, and finally to 17 knots at 0112. At dawn on 26th, even H.M.S. Ark Royal, with her deck 62 feet above the water, was "taking it green", and the wind over the flight deck had reached 50 knots.
Dawn saw Coastal Command renew the aerial search with vigour. At 0835 Ark Royal joined the effort by launching 10 Swordfish to search the western semicircle, covering the 180o arc from south-southwest through north-northeast. At half past ten that morning, Pilot Officer D. A. Briggs, RAF, flying Catalina Z of 209 Squadron from Lough Erne, Ireland, on the southernmost of the Bay patrols, sighted Bismarck. Although Bismarck immediately engaged the stranger with heavy and accurate fire, the Catalina was able to get off a fairly accurate sighting report before losing the battleship in the weather. His position report placed Bismarck 690 miles to the west-northwest of Brest and gave the pursuers less than 24 hours in which to intercept, after which she would reach friendly umbrella of protection afforded by the Luftwaffe, and ultimately the sanctuary of port. Admiral Tovey�s only hope was to slow her down with yet another air strike, and the only carrier within striking distance was H.M.S. Ark Royal coming up from the south.
Copying Briggs contact report, the two closest Swordfish altered course to intercept. At 1114, 2H (Sub-Lieutenant(A) J.V. Hartley, Sub-Lieutenant P. R. Elias, Leading Airman N. Huxley) sighted what they believed to be a German cruiser. Seven minutes later 2F (Lieutenant(A) J. R. Callander, Lieutenant P.B. Schondfeldt, and Leading Airman R. Baker) joined 2H and identified Bismarck. Meanwhile, Ark Royal fitted two ASV-equipped Swordfish with long-range tanks and sent them off at 1200 to maintain contact until relieved. At 1154 Bismarck broke her long silence, reporting that she was being shadowed by an enemy 'Land plane'. Thereafter, and until 2320 that night, Ark Royal�s Swordfish, working in pairs, maintained a vigil over Bismarck, keeping her under continuous observation.
Beginning sometime after noon, Ark's search planes began fluttering home; the last two were 2F and 2H, coming aboard at 1324. With the search planes safely aboard, the flight deck personnel began the daunting job of preparing the critical torpedo striking force to hit the enemy in conditions that bordered on the horrific. Eventually, fourteen Swordfish from all three TSR Squadrons, each armed with a 18" torpedo, were spotted. Meanwhile, in a further effort to maintain contact, Vice-Admiral Somerville ordered H.M.S. Sheffield to close Bismarck and to shadow her with radar. In what would turn out to be a glaring omission, H.M.S. Ark Royal was not informed of this action.
At 1450, after a meticulous briefing during which the strike commander, Lieutenant-Commander J. A. Stewart-Moore, was specifically informed that only Bismarck was in the target area, the 820 Squadron CO led the strike off. At 1520, the strike group detected a target on ASV radar; some twenty miles closer than expected. Knowing that only Bismarck herself was in the target area, Stewart-Moore began his attack approach and, at 1550, the Swordfish burst out of the bottom of the cloud cover and commenced their attack. It was readily apparent that they had totally surprised their foe, as there was quite literally no AA fire. With devastating swiftness the Swordfish descended from all points of the compass dropping their deadly cargoes. Only after 11 had released did the true reason for the lack of defence fire become apparent; they were attacking H.M.S. Sheffield!
Realizing that it was a case of mistaken identity and to his eternal credit, Sheffield's commanding officer, Captain C. A. A. Larcom, RN, ordered his guns to "on no account fire". Then, ringing down to the engine room for full speed, he calmly conned the ship through the dangerous waters, successfully dodging the six torpedoes that came his way. Of the other five torpedoes, two exploded when the entered the water and three exploded in Sheffield's wake.
One Swordfish, recognizing Sheffield after dropping, made a signal to her, 'Sorry for the Kipper', as they turned for home, still facing the challenge of returning safely whence they had come. Landing conditions had become even worse than before, and the Deck Control Officer had to attach a rope to his waist before he could stand back to the wind, holding up the �bats�. Three aircraft crashed on the flight deck as they came on, the rising stern smashing their undercarriages, and the wreckage had to be cleared away before the others could be taken on. Fortunately, there were no crew casualties, and all were aboard by 1720. None the less, they were a crestfallen band.
Although it was immediately questioned whether further air operations were even possible in the steadily worsening weather, the aircrews were adamant in their desire to have another go. Over the next 90 minutes the flight deck personnel again struggled to get the available aircraft armed, fueled, and onto the pitching flight deck. By 1900, Ark Royal began turning into the 50 knot wind, the last fifteen airworthy Swordfish, four from 810, four from 818, and seven from 820 were ranged on deck and the aircrews began manning their planes.
Flight Sq. Aircraft Pilot Observer TAG Result
1st 820 4A LtCdr. T. P. Coode, RN; Lt. Edmond S. Carver, RN; PO W. H. Dillnutt - port beam
1st 820 4B+ S-Lt.(A) S. Dixon-Child, RNVR; S-Lt.(A) G. R. C. Penrose, RN; LA R. H. W. Blake - port beam
1st 820 4C/L9726 S-Lt. J. W. C. Moffatt, RNVR; S-Lt.(A) J. D. Miller, RNVR; LA A. J. Hayman - port beam, hit stern
2nd 810 2B+ Lt. D. F. Godfrey-Faussett, RN; S-Lt.(A) L. A. Royall, RN; PO V. R. Graham - starboard beam
2nd 810 2A+ S-Lt.(A) K. S. Pattisson, RN; S-Lt.(A) P. B. Meadway, RN; NA D. L. Mulley -starboard beam
2nd 810 2P S-Lt.(A) A. W. D. Beale, RN S-Lt.(A) C. Friend, RN LA K. Pimlott - port bow - hit amidships
3rd 820 5K Lt.(A) S. Keane, RN; S-Lt.(A) R. I. W. Goddard, RN; PO L. C. Mulliner - with 1st sub-flight
3rd 810 2M S-Lt.(A) C. M. Jewell, RN; LA G. H. Parkinson - with 4th sub-flight
4th 818 5A Lt. H. de G. Hunter, RN; L-Cdr. J. A. Stewart-Moore, RN PO R. H. McColl - port side
4th 818 5B S-Lt.(A) M. J. Lithgow, RN; S-Lt.(A) N. C. Manley-Cooper, RNVR; LA J. R. Russell - port side
4th 818 5C/V4298+ S-Lt.(A) F. A. Swanton, RN; S-Lt.(A) G. A. Woods, RNVR; LA J. R. Seafert - port side; a/c jettisoned
5th 818 5K Lt.(A) A. S. L. Owensmith, RN S-Lt.(A) G. G. Topham, RNVR PO J. Watson starboard side
5th 818 5L S-Lt.(A) J. Gardner, RN; S-Lt.(A) J. B. Longmuir, RNVR - jettisoned
6th 818 5F S-Lt.(A) M. F. S. P. Willcocks, RN; S-Lt.(A) H. G. Mays, RN; LA R. Finney - jettisoned
6th 818 5G S-Lt.(A) A. N. Dixon, RN; S-Lt.(A) J. F. Turner, RNVR; LA A. T. A. Shields - starboard
This time the air staff had put together an improved plan of attack. First, because of the premature explosions of virtually half the torpedoes on the previous attack, the new magnetic exploders that had been used were discarded and replaced by older, but reliable, contact exploders. Second, the new strike commander Lieutenant-Commander T. P. Coode, CO of 818 Squadron, was briefed to led the group directly to Sheffield, maintaining her vigil some 12 miles astern of Bismarck, get a fresh bearing to the target, and then attack. The crews realized the importance of their task. They, and they alone, could stop the Bismarck from reaching the safety of Brest, for it was certain that the Fleet could not possibly catch up if the Fleet Air Arm Swordfish did not slow the battleship down.
One can imagine that scene: the fifteen Swordfish ranged on the pitching flight deck, wing-tip to wing-tip; the tumultuous roar of the exhausts; the flurries of spray beating on the linen covered fuselages; the aircrews bundled in their wool-lined flight suits damp with spray; the ratings at the chocks bracing their bodies against the drive of the wind; the lead plane taxies into the centre of the deck; the Pegasus engine roaring at full power as the brakes strain too hold airframe stationary. Then, at 1910, the Flight Deck Officer waves his green flag, the pilot lets off the brakes and shifts he feet to the rudder pedals and the first Swordfish begins moving forward, racing down the deck and rising into the gale.
The group formed up over Somerville's flagship and took their departure at 1925. A little more than a half hour later Sheffield was sighted, and she blinkered them to proceed on a bearing of 110o, distance 12 miles. Conditions were less than ideal, with seven-tenths cloud cover extending from 2,000-5,000 feet and as Coode climbed for altitude he lost Sheffield. The group was forced to orbit the area, slowly decreasing altitude, looking for a break in the clouds to relocate the cruiser until finally, at 2035, Coode relocated his guide. Armed with a new fix, the group completed its climb to 6,000 feet and, at 2040, disappeared into the grey mist at 110 knots, in sub-flights in line astern formation.
Lieutenant-Commander Coode (5A) had planned a coordinated attack with the sub-flights coming in simultaneously from different angles, forcing the Bismarck to divide her fire and making it harder for her to evade torpedoes. With no sign of a break in the cloud cover - down to 2,000 feet - the chances of reforming were slender, so each sub-flight was ordered to return independently.
Thirteen minutes after leaving Sheffield, Coode estimated that they should be in a good position and started the dive. Coode later reported 'Visibility was limited - a matter of yards. I watched the altimeter go back. When we reached 2,000 feet I started to worry. At 1,500 feet I wondered whether to continue the dive. At 1,000 feet I felt sure something was wrong, but still we were completely enclosed by cloud. I held the formation in the dive, and at 700 feet only we broke cloud, just when I was running out of height.' The time was 2055.
Most of the striking force became split up in the thick blanket of cloud, and they went in to the attack as best they could; in pairs, threes, fours, or even alone. The Commander-in-Chief stated afterwards that the attacks were pressed home with a gallantry and determination which cannot be praised too highly.'
Coode found he was four miles ahead and to leeward of the target. Realizing that a slow approach against the wind would be suicidal, he re-entered the cloud to close in and try another angle. This left the second sub-flight, to 'open the ball'. Lieutenant(A) D. F. Godfrey-Faussett, RN (2B) having lost Coode in the clouds, led the second sub-flight up to 9,000 feet where they ran into some icing problems before descending on the ASV's attack bearing. He and Sub-Lieutenant(A) K. S. Pattison, RN (2A) were both caught in an intense AA barrage that hit both aircraft as they made their run in from the Bismarck's starboard beam, but both survived the storm of 'shot and shell'. Meanwhile, Sub-Lieutenant(A) A. W. D. Beale, RN (2P) having lost touch with the other two, returned to Sheffield to get a new range and bearing to the enemy. Of him and 2P we�ll hear more later.
The third and fourth sub flights managed to stay together in the descent until they hit 2,000 feet, then they separated. As they cleared the clouds, four, Lieutenant H. de G. Hunter, RN (4A), and Sub-Lieutenants(A) M. J. Lithgow, RN (4B), F. A. Swanton, RN (4C), and C. M. Jewell, RN (2M) reformed in a clear patch of sky as they popped out of the underside of the cloud layer, and forged in from the port side at the same time as the second sub-flight came in from starboard. The German AA was extremely accurate, and followed them until they were seven miles from the target. Bismarck�s gunners seemed to be particularly attentive to 4C, which tallied no less than 175 holes in it. Both the pilot, Sub-Lieutenant(A) Swanton and his TAG, Leading Airman J. R. Seager were wounded, while the observer, Sub-Lieutenant(A) G. A. Woods, RNVR weathered the storm unscathed.
Separated from the others, Lieutenant(A) S. Keane, RN (5K), leader of the third sub-flight tagged on to Coodes sub-flight as they closed in. They popped out on the target's port side beam and immediately came under intense and accurate AA fire which hit, but did not bring down 5B, piloted Sub-Lieutenant(A) S. Dixon-Child, RN. As they withdrew, Keane's crew reported that they saw a hit on Bismarcks starboard side near the funnel. While the actual location was considerably further aft, they were apparently eyewitnesses to one of the most decisive blows in modern history as, at 2105, the torpedo released by Sub-Lieutenant(A) J. W. C. Moffatt, RN (5C) struck the extreme stern of the target.
The fifth sub-flight lost each other in the clouds. As the leader, Lieutenant(A) A. S. L. Owensmith (4K), descended through the clouds at 3,000 feet he found himself the subject of intense AA fire, apparently controlled by radar. Breaking out at 1,000 feet, he found himself badly placed astern of the target, and so began to work around into a more favourable angle on her starboard side. While doing so, he saw a large plume of water rise up right aft from Bismarck's starboard side. Left with the impression that he was 'flying through a wall of smoke and water' Owensmith noted that Bismarck was swinging around to port which seemed to be an extremely odd form of avoiding action to be taking given his angle of approach. Meanwhile Sub-Lieutenant(A) J. Gardner, RN (4L) made two separate attempts to close, but was met with such a concentration of fire that he was forced to withdraw.
Meanwhile the sixth sub-flight climbed to 7,450 feet where they broke the clouds. Disorientated, they too returned to H.M.S. Sheffield, received a new range and bearing, and forged ahead again. Diving to attack from the Bismarck's starboard side, they found themselves subjected to the combined fire of her entire AA battery. Sub-Lieutenant (A) A. N. Dixon, RN (4G), was forced to release some 2,000 yards out. His leader Sub-Lieutenant (A) M. F. S. P. Willcocks, RN (4F), having thoughts of making another approach, retained his.
While all this was transpiring, 2P, flown by the indomitable Sub-Lieutenant (A) A. W. D. Beale, RN reappeared ahead of Bismarck on her port bow, and attacked alone. In spite of the very intense and accurate fire they were rewarded by an enormous column of smoke and water that rose up on the port side of Bismarck's deck as, at 2115, their torpedo hit home.
By this point, all the Swordfish had had at least one go at the target and 13 were on their way home. This left two, Gardner in 4L and Willcocks in 4G still striving to get in close enough to make a reasonable drop. However, as the remainder withdrew, they found themselves under extremely accurate AA fire at every turn, even when they lost sight of the their quarry. Finally, both were forced to face the realization that further attempts were simply suicidal and they too turned about, jettisoned their torpedoes, and headed home. By 2125, the attack was over.
Such were the difficulties of observation that Coode reported immediately after the attack that he did not think the Bismarck had suffered any significant damage. As the Swordfish streamed home, H.M.S. Sheffield's radar plot noted that Bismarck was manoeuvring erratically, and began to close in an effort to ascertain if Bismarck had, if fact, been damaged. At 2140 she poked out of the broken mist and found herself subjected to six well aimed salvos of 15" shells. Humbled in the extreme, Captain Larcom hastily withdrew having determined that her fighting efficiency had not diminished!
At 2205, the first Swordfish began returning to Ark Royal. As the observers made their individual reports, it became clear that the results were more successful than first supposed, and it was first established that the Bismarck had been hit on the port side, then on the starboard quarter. Later still a possible hit on the port quarter was reported.
At 2300, the last of the strike planes was recovered. It had been an interesting recovery. The weather was still abominable, and five of the attacking Swordfish had been hit by the AA fire. Swanton managed to get 4C back on to Ark Royal in one piece, but on closer inspection was found to be damaged beyond repair and it was jettisoned. Three others crashed on landing, but miraculously, no one was hurt. Only six of the Swordfish remained serviceable and, expecting the possibility that another attack would be necessary, they were re-armed and ranged for yet another strike.
Even as the last of the aircrew headed for the ready room for debriefing, the damage was confirmed by a signal from the shadowing Swordfish that Bismarck had made two circles at slow speed and was staggering off to the north-north west. The impossible had really occurred. Unbelievably, at the proverbial eleventh hour, those gallant young airmen, the Fleet Air Arm's own dashing 'few', had actually crippled Germany's great battleship!
At 2320, after nearly five hours in the air, the two Swordfish shadowing Bismarck were recalled. With Bismarck steering back on her pursuers, apparently unmanageable, and with the destroyers of Captain Phillip Vian, DSO, RN's 4th Destroyer Flotilla on hand, the Fleet Air Arm�s role in the hunt was coming to a close. They came aboard at 2345, just before nightfall.
By dawn on the 27th, the weather was, if anything, worse. Admiral Tovey closed in with H.M.S. King George V and H.M.S. Rodney and, at 0847, the final battle began. Realizing that further torpedoes would probably be needed to actually sink Bismarck, Ark Royal's Flight Deck personnel strove to range a strike group made up off all of her serviceable Swordfish.
At 0900, sounds of heavy gunfire could be heard, even over the cry of the wind. Twenty minutes later Ark turned into the wind and, with a 56 knot wind over the deck, launched the twelve plane strike. They sighted the foe, now but a battered hulk, at 1020, but were unable to attack as the shells from the British battleships were falling all around her. Then, as they circled overhead, H.M.S. Dorsetshire closed in and circled Bismarck, firing torpedoes from both sides. Finally, at 1036, the great ship capsized and sank. Having had a "ring side seat" for one of history�s great events, they turned and headed home, the hunt over.
As a final footnote, although the war raged for four more years, for most of the 43 men from Ark Royal that torpedoed the attacked Bismarck the war seems to have been kind; 35 were destined to survive the war. However, eight were to lose their lives.
On 1 August 1941, after 810 Squadron delivered an attack on Alghero airfield, one of the returning Swordfish crashed while landing on H.M.S. Ark Royal, detonating a 40 pound bomb that had hung up in its rack. Included in the five fatalities caused were Lieutenant (A) Clive Morton Jewell, RN, age 25 and the Sub-Lieutenant(A) Lionel Arthur Royall, RN, age 21.
On 22 September 1941, Leading Airman Kenneth Pimlott, RN, was a Telegraphist Air Gunner in Swordfish L7660 of 830 Squadron returning to Hal Far after an attempted night strike on a convoy when the aircraft crashed from 500 feet, detonating the torpedo it was still carrying, killing the pilot and fatally injuring Pimlott.
On 24 January 1942, Lieutenant (A) Murry Francis Sanders Peake Willcocks, RN was killed piloting Swordfish V4708 of 812 Squadron out of North Front on an Anti-Submarine Patrol when it suffered an engine fire and crashed in the sea off Gibraltar. He was 26.
On 11 March 1942, Lieutenant David Frederick Godfrey-Faussett, DSC, RN was piloting Swordfish L2772 as a member of 767 Squadron operating from H.M.S. Condor (Arbroath) when it flew into the sea off Easthaven on a night formation flight. He was 28.
Less than a month later, on 5 April 1942, Sub-Lieutenant (A) Anthony William Duncan Beale, DSC, RN was a member of 788 Squadron from China Bay. Flying in line astern formation through the balloon barrage North of Columbo, Ceylon the formation was attacked by IJN A6M2 Zero fighters of the Hiryu kansen Buntai. His Swordfish, V4371 was shot down into the sea. He was 21.
On 5 November 1942, Lieutenant (A) Hugh de Graaff Hunter, DSC, RN was killed piloting Albacore N4357 of 786 Squadron out of H.M.S. Jackdaw (Crail) when it crashed in the Firth of Forth while making an practice torpedo attack. He was 26.
Finally, on 25 January 1943, Commander Trevenen Penrose Coode, DSO, RN, the strike commander on the Bismarck attack, was piloting Martlet AX746 out off H.M.S. Kipanga (Kilindini) when it caught fire flying low at night and crashed. He was 35.
Copied in its entirety from: http://www.faasig.org/colors/bismarckattack.htm
All material is © FAA SIG and Mark E. Horan, 2000
In a television programme I watched tonight, May 22nd 2010, a rerun of a 2001 expedition to the Bismarck, they spoke to an officer who was the one who hit the rudder with a torpedo, thus disabling Bismarck. But his name was not that of the officer named above (Moffat?) so I am now a little puzzled as to who actually fired the fateful torpedo. Also on board the Russian search vessel were three survivors from Bismarck who, with the experts, watched live highly detailed video from the sea bed 4700 metres down. It was for them very emotional. A plaque was laid on the Bismarck and one of the survivors was able to follow his escape route on video when he was able to jump ship back then. Another of the survivors also confirmed that the sea cocks had been opened. According to some experts this only hastened, by some 30 minutes, the sinking of the Bismarck, as she was a blazing inferno and taking on water anyway. So a compromise, yes she was scuttled, but she would have sunk anyway but later. The Bismarck was reported as being approx 1 nautical mile from the position given by Ballard, the original discoverer of the wreck.