Torpedo attack on the Bismarck

The Fairey Swordfish biplane in flight with torpedo

The Fairey Swordfish biplane appeared obsolete but scored many notable torpedo hits during the war. The most powerful battleship yet built was among the victims.

After sustaining damage from HMS Hood the Bismarck had reduced speed and range. Yet she had successfully shaken off the Royal Navy ships that had been tracking her on radar and was making for the French port of Brest for repairs. There seemed every prospect that if she remained undetected she could make it to the safety of port.

On the 26th May the hunt for the Bismarck involved every available ship in the Royal Navy. The British Home Fleet under Admiral Tovey led the charge from the North Atlantic ( after a detour north when the probable course of the Bismarck was miscalculated), “Force H” with HMS Ark Royal was coming up from Gibraltar and a large number of other warships had been detached from their Atlantic convoy escort duties and were making their way independently.

But it was a United States Naval Ensign who made the first crucial sighting. The United States, still being neutral at this time, were not taking an ‘active’ part in hostilities. They had attached seventeen airmen to the RAF, partly to assist with the familiarisation with the new Catalina flying boats. Ensign Leonard B. Smith was officially a ‘co-pilot and special observer’. He had taken off from Lough Erne in Northern Ireland at 0325. The long range of the Catalina meant that he was way out in the Atlantic at 1010 when he glimpsed the Bismarck through the clouds. He came round for a closer look – his report shows that he was not taking an entirely, neutral, passive role in affairs:

Upon reaching 2000′ we broke out of a cloud formation and were met by a terrific anti-aircraft barrage from our starboard quarter.

Immediately jettisoned the depth charges and started violent evasive action which consisted of full speed, climbing and “S” turns. The British officer [Dennis Briggs] went aft again to send the contact report. When making an “S” turn I could see the ship was a BB [battleship] and was the Bismarck, which had made a 90 starboard turn from its original course, (This was evident from wake made by his maneuvering), and was firing broadsides at us. The A.A. [anti-aircraft] fire lasted until we were out of range and into the clouds.

It was very intense and were it not for evasive action we would have been shot down. The barrage was so close that it shook the aircraft considerably (one man was knocked from his bunk) and the noise of the burst could be hear above the propeller and engine noise. Numerous bursts were observed at close quarters and small fragments of shrapnel could be heard hitting the plane. The fitter came forward to pilots compartment saying we were full of holes.

As soon as we were well clear of Bismarck we investigated the damage, which consisted of a hole in after port hull (about 2″ in diameter) and one in bottom hull directly below instrument panel (about 1″ in diameter). No other damage was visible at the time. I made short flight test (several turns, checked engines, etc) and finding everything satisfactory returned to area to resume shadow of Bismarck.

The Catalina flying boat that was flown by Pilot Officer Denis Briggs and Ensign Leonard Smith, lying at its base in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland

It was now only a matter of time before other aircraft could join the scene. The Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal very quickly joined the battle. Unfortunately they had not been advised that the cruiser HMS Sheffield was on the scene and in their first attack launched all their torpedoes at her. Only good fortune prevented an epic Royal Navy disaster because the magnetic torpedoes failed to explode. A second attack was soon launched, with torpedoes fitted with contact detonators, and this time found the Bismarck. John Moffat was piloting one of the Swordfish as it came round to attack:

In our briefing in the Ark we had discussed coordinating our attack, the first three flights coming in on the port beam from various bearings, with the second wave doing the same on the starboard side. This would help to confuse the anti- aircraft fire and would also make it difficult for Bismarck to manoeuvre into the torpedo tracks.

But it seemed that we had got badly separated in the high cloud; it was utter confusion. I felt that every gun on the ship was aiming at me. It was heading towards us, the lazily spinning tracer from scores of guns coming at us like hail. I do not know how I managed to keep flying into it: every instinct was screaming at me to duck, turn away, do anything – an impulse that it was hard to fight off. But I held on and we got closer and closer.

I went down, as low as I dared, though even that took an act of will to overcome my fear of hitting the rough sea. At training school I had been taught to assess the speed of the ship and lay off my aim by using a simple marked rod mounted horizontally along the top of the cockpit. But the nearer I got the larger the target became, so I decided to aim for the bow.

Then I heard Dusty Miller shouting in my ear, ‘Not yet, not yet!’ and I thought, ‘Has he gone mad? What is he doing?’ I turned and realized that he was leaning out of the cockpit, looking down at the sea, trying to prevent me from dropping the torpedo on to the crest of a wave, where it would bounce off or dive deep, either way knocked off any course that I might have fired it on.

We were getting closer and closer, the ship was getting bigger and bigger, and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, what are you waiting for?’

Then he said, ‘Let her go, Jock,’ and I pressed the button on the throttle. Dusty yelled, ‘I think we have got a runner.’

John Moffat makes it very clear that he did not sink the Bismarck alone – but the title that the publishers gave his memoir has attracted comment. Nevertheless John Moffat: I Sank The Bismarck is a very good account of the operation.

Whilst he did not think they were making a very co-ordinated attack, the Bismarck crew thought otherwise. The German view of the attack was obtained by subsequent interrogation of survivors:

A first air striking force had been flown off “Ark Royal” at 1500, but had failed to achieve any result. At 1850 a second force of aircraft was despatched for the attack which settled the fate of “Bismarck” and ensured her final destruction.

This attack was made by 15 Swordfish aircraft, armed with torpedoes set to 22 ft., and lasted from 2055 to 2125. It was first reported that the aircraft had scored no hits and it seemed that the remaining chance for the British forces had gone; but at 2130 “Bismarck” suddenly turned north and soon after came the welcome news that one hit, and possibly two, had after all been scored. In point of fact at least two, and possibly three hits were made. One torpedo had struck amidships on the port side, one on the starboard quarter, and possibly a third on the port quarter. The torpedo which struck to port amidships, according to prisoners, exploded without doing damage, against Sections VII and VIII, but that on the starboard quarter wrecked the steering gear jamming the rudders at an angle variously estimated at between 10 and 15 degrees and causing “Bismarck to turn slowly in circles to starboard. This hit was stated by one prisoner to have been outside an unarmoured trimming compartment, below the steering motor compartment on the starboard side, and resulted in Section II being flooded to the main deck.

Throughout this attack a furious anti-aircraft barrage was kept up by the 400 men of the “Flak” first with the 10.5 cm., then with the 3.7 cm., and finally with the 2 cm. guns. This fire was supported by “Bismarck’s” secondary armament, but not on this occasion by the main armament.

This time, however, the defence of the ship proved far less effective. The north-westerly wind had been increasing all day and was now blowing at Force 8; a considerable sea was running, with a heavy north-westerly swell, and the ship had begun to roll making gunlaying difficult. In addition the guns crews, who had been on almost continuous watch since “Bismarck” left Bergen, were becoming exhausted.

It has been stated by one prisoner, that one gun-layer operating a 10.5 cm. A/A gun suffered a sudden nervous collapse and temporarily lost his mind. Practically all remaining A/A ammunition was used up during this action. The method of attack employed by the aircraft in approaching simultaneously from a number of points was most deadly.

Some torpedoes were avoided by turning the ship, but as a surviving officer explained, whichever way the “Bismarck” turned to evade one torpedo, she was constantly exposed to others. Another prisoner stated that the aircraft came down to the attack at an angle of approximately 50° and darted through the barrage like flashes of lightening, and the courage displayed by the pilots in pressing home their attacks in this fashion was beyond praise. This prisoner added ruefully: “If only Germany actually had sunk the ‘Ark Royal’.”

Extravagant claims were again made in “Bismarck” as regards the number of aircraft allegedly destroyed. It was announced that at least seven were shot down. In point of fact no aircraft was lost and only one pilot and one air gunner were wounded. “Ark Royal” reported A/A fire to have been heavy and accurate and was experienced even when the aircraft were in cloud at a height of 3,000 ft. As soon as this attack was over it was recognised in “Bismarck” that the plight of the ship was most desperate.

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