Operation Pedestal gets under way

Photograph taken from the after end of VICTORIOUS’ flight deck showing HMS INDOMITABLE and EAGLE. A Hawker Sea Hurricane and a Fairey Albacore are ranged on VICTORIOUS’ flight deck.

The business of trying to get a [permalink id=20162 text=”convoy through to Malta”] continued. The Mediterranean island was standing up to the daily assault by Italian and German bombers, and now that [permalink id=21147 text=”Spitfires”] formed part of its defence, giving a very good account of itself. But without fuel, ammunition and food the island could not hold out for ever.

The Royal Navy now mounted its most ambitious convoy escort operation ever. Fifteen merchant ships were escorted by five aircraft carriers; INDOMITABLE, VICTORIOUS, EAGLE, FURIOUS and ARGUS, two battleships; NELSON and RODNEY, seven cruisers and thirty destroyers.

Arming a Hawker Sea Hurricane fighter on board HMS INDOMITABLE.

Hugh Popham was flying a Sea Hurricane from HMS Indomitable. He describes the first day as the fleet crept into the Mediterranean hoping to avoid detection until the last possible moment:

During the night of August 9th, the convoy and its escorts entered the Mediterranean.

From first light the following morning four fighters were kept at immediate readiness; engines warmed up, pilots strapped in. The day broke fine and clear; all round us the ships moved easily over the sea in a profound and tranquil dream.

From time to time, Albacores took off on A/S patrol, others landed – on, and hardly disturbed the serenity. The aerials of the radar sets turned steadily through their 360 degrees, sweeping the empty skies. Submerged beneath the surface inaction, men pored over their sets, listened intently to the crackle of their headphones, peered through their binoculars in the look-out positions, with unblinking, rapt vigilance. and nerves.

Sooner or later the peace would be shattered; jumping at every pipe, at every change in course or revs, screamed out for it to happen and be done with. All morning the ships steamed on in undisturbed calm.

Then, suddenly, in the afternoon watch, two Wildcats from Victorious went tearing into the air. We moved nearer the island, hoping for tit-bits of news. The Tannoy crackled. It was the Commander: “Victorious has scrambled two fighters after a suspected shadower. That’s all for the moment.”

We waited, nerves prickling. That was how it would start, with a shadower picked up on the radar, lurking low down on the horizon or at a great height, and sending sighting reports back to base. But not yet.

This was not a shadower but a Vichy French flying-boat, probably about its lawful business, a routine trip from Toulon to Morocco. But Admiral Syfret was taking no chances. Without enthusiasm, it was shot into the sea. When it sighted our fighters, it would know that there was a fleet in the vicinity; its course would have taken it within sight of us; if it was left in peace, the news would be out.

One day’s less grace might make all the difference, to us, to the convoy, to Malta at the far end of the line, already on starvation rations and almost out of petrol for her lighters and ammunition for her guns.

That was the key. What happened to us, the forty fighting ships deployed on this smooth sea, was unimportant so long as the little knot of merchantmen in the centre reached their destination. To ensure that, we were, if need be expendable.

See Hugh Popham: Sea Flight: Fleet Air Arm Pilot’s Story

The convoy to Malta, with its huge escort, about to enter the Mediterranean. Fifteen merchant ships were escorted by five aircraft carriers; INDOMITABLE, VICTORIOUS, EAGLE, FURIOUS and ARGUS, two battleships; NELSON and RODNEY, seven cruisers and thirty destroyers.

Japanese cruiser Mikuma sunk, USS Yorktown torpedoed

SBD "Dauntless" dive bombers from USS Hornet (CV-8) approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the early afternoon of 6 June 1942. Mikuma had been hit earlier by strikes from Hornet and USS Enterprise (CV-6), leaving her dead in the water and fatally damaged. Photo was enlarged from a 16mm color motion picture film. Note bombs hung beneath these planes.

The Battle of Midway had yet to be fully played out. The toll on the pilots and airmen of the bombers and torpedo planes had been heavy, only a minority would live to see the victory they had won.

The Japanese cruiser Mikuma had been attacked the previous day, during that fearless assault Captain Richard E. Fleming had won the Medal of Honor :

Captain Richard E. Fleming, Medal of Honor recipient

For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty as Flight Officer, Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron TWO FORTY-ONE during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Battle of Midway on June 4 and 5, 1942.

When his squadron Commander was shot down during the initial attack upon an enemy aircraft carrier, Captain Fleming led the remainder of the division with such fearless determination that he dived his own plane to the perilously low altitude of four hundred feet before releasing his bomb. Although his craft was riddled by 179 hits in the blistering hail of fire that burst upon him from Japanese fighter guns and antiaircraft batteries, he pulled out with only two minor wounds inflicted upon himself.

On the night of June 4, when the Squadron Commander lost his way and became separated from the others, Captain Fleming brought his own plane in for a safe landing at its base despite hazardous weather conditions and total darkness.

The following day, after less than four hours’ sleep, he led the second division of his squadron in a coordinated glide-bombing and dive-bombing assault upon a Japanese battleship. Undeterred by a fateful approach glide, during which his ship was struck and set afire, he grimly pressed home his attack to an altitude of five hundred feet, released his bomb to score a near-miss on the stern of his target, then crashed to the sea in flames.

His dauntless perseverance and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma, photographed from a USS Enterprise (CV-6) SBD aircraft during the afternoon of 6 June 1942, after she had been bombed by planes from Enterprise and USS Hornet (CV-8). Note her shattered midships structure, torpedo dangling from the after port side tubes and wreckage atop her number four eight-inch gun turret.
A diagrammatic representation of the damage sustained by USS Yorktown on the 4th June.

The USS Yorktown had been abandoned on the 4th June. When it became apparent that she was not going to sink she was re-boarded and attempts made to bring her under control. The destroyer the USS Hammann came alongside to assist in these operations. It was at this point, with the carrier lying dead in the water that Japanese submarine I-168 struck. One torpedo was to hit the Hammann causing catastrophic damage that quickly sunk her. Two others passed under the Hamman and proved to be the fatal blow for the Yorktown.

USS Hammann (DD-412) sinking with stern high, after being torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-168 in the afternoon of 6 June 1942. Photographed from the starboard forecastle deck of USS Yorktown (CV-5) by Photographer 2nd Class William G. Roy. Angular structure in right foreground is the front of Yorktown's forward starboard 5-inch gun gallery. Note knotted lines hanging down from the carrier's flight deck, remaining from her initial abandonment on 4 June.
A diagrammatic representation of the damage sustained by USS Yorktown on 6th June 1942 when the destroyer USS Hamman was alongside her

Carrier planes clash in Battle of the Coral Sea

USS Yorktown (CV-5) operating in the vicinity of the Coral Sea, April 1942. Photographed from a TBD-1 torpedo plane that has just taken off from her deck. Other TBD and SBD aircraft are also ready to be launched.

After many months of apparently unstoppable Japanese advances a joint American-Australian naval force finally hit back decisively. In the first naval engagement in which the two sides never saw each others ships the carrier based aircraft from USS Lexington and USS Yorktown engaged the Japanese invasion force heading for Port Moresby on New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Bombs burst near the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku as she was attacked by USS Yorktown (CV-5) planes in the morning of 8 May 1942. Note anti-aircraft shell burst in left center, with fragments splashing below and further left.
Lieutenant Powers won the Medal of Honor for his determined attacks on Japanese ships.

The nature of the fighting can be understood from the citation for the Medal of Honor won by Lieutenant John Powers. The determination of the carrier based bombers to press home their attack in the face of sustained anti-aircraft fire was to be crucial to this type of battle:

For distinguished and conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, while pilot of an airplane of Bombing Squadron 5, Lt. Powers participated, with his squadron, in 5 engagements with Japanese forces in the Coral Sea area and adjacent waters during the period 4 to 8 May 1942.

Three attacks were made on enemy objectives at or near Tulagi on 4 May. In these attacks he scored a direct hit which instantly demolished a large enemy gunboat or destroyer and is credited with 2 close misses, 1 of which severely damaged a large aircraft tender, the other damaging a 20,000-ton transport.

He fearlessly strafed a gunboat, firing all his ammunition into it amid intense antiaircraft fire. This gunboat was then observed to be leaving a heavy oil slick in its wake and later was seen beached on a nearby island.

On 7 May, an attack was launched against an enemy airplane carrier and other units of the enemy’s invasion force. He fearlessly led his attack section of 3 Douglas Dauntless dive bombers, to attack the carrier. On this occasion he dived in the face of heavy antiaircraft fire, to an altitude well below the safety altitude, at the risk of his life and almost certain damage to his own plane, in order that he might positively obtain a hit in a vital part of the ship, which would insure her complete destruction. This bomb hit was noted by many pilots and observers to cause a tremendous explosion engulfing the ship in a mass of flame, smoke, and debris. The ship sank soon after.

That evening, in his capacity as Squadron Gunnery Officer, Lt. Powers gave a lecture to the squadron on point-of-aim and diving technique. During this discourse he advocated low release point in order to insure greater accuracy; yet he stressed the danger not only from enemy fire and the resultant low pull-out, but from own bomb blast and bomb fragments.

Thus his low-dive bombing attacks were deliberate and premeditated, since he well knew and realized the dangers of such tactics, but went far beyond the call of duty in order to further the cause which he knew to be right. The next morning, 8 May, as the pilots of the attack group left the ready room to man planes, his indomitable spirit and leadership were well expressed in his own words, “Remember the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a hit if I have to lay it on their flight deck.”

He led his section of dive bombers down to the target from an altitude of 18,000 feet, through a wall of bursting antiaircraft shells and into the face of enemy fighter planes. Again, completely disregarding the safety altitude and without fear or concern for his safety, Lt. Powers courageously pressed home his attack, almost to the very deck of an enemy carrier and did not release his bomb until he was sure of a direct hit.

He was last seen attempting recovery from his dive at the extremely low altitude of 200 feet, and amid a terrific barrage of shell and bomb fragments, smoke, flame and debris from the stricken vessel.

The crew of USS Lexington abandon ship. The destroyer alongside is taking off the sick and wounded while the able-bodied are sliding down ropes and being picked up by small boats. Not a man was lost in abandoning the ship. U. S. Navy.

Although the USS Lexington was sunk by bombs and torpedoes, and the USS Yorktown seriously damaged, the engagement is regarded as a victory for the Allied forces, leaving them with a strategic advantage. The invasion of Port Moresby was prevented and the Japanese position for future operations was significantly weakened by the loss of the Shokaku and the loss of most of the planes from the carrier Zuikaku .

For battle summary and more images see Naval History.

Doolittle raiders bomb Japan

A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bomber, one of sixteen involved in the mission, takes off from the flight deck of the USS Hornet for an air raid on the Japanese Home Islands, on April 18, 1942.

On 18th April 1942 sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and headed for Japan. The unprecedented use of medium bombers from an aircraft carrier enabled the surprise attack on the Japanese homeland. Even with modifications and extra fuel the bombers were at the limit of their range and would not be able to return to the carrier. Instead, after bombing, they were to continue their flight over Japan and attempt to land in China or Russia.

When the USS Hornet was spotted by a Japanese patrol vessel the mission was brought forward, and the margin of error in the range was reduced even further. The crews all took off in the knowledge that they were very likely to have to crash land or ditch in the sea.

A crew member checks the lashings on his bomber aboard the USS Hornet, while behind him other crews check their planes in preparation for the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942.
American B-25B bombers rest on the flight deck of the USS Hornet, approaching the spot where the planes were launched on their raid on Tokyo, April 13, 1942. Escort ship in left background.
A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B bomber leaves the deck of the USS Hornet, for the historic raid on Tokyo under Maj. Gen. James Doolittle, on April 18, 1942. Each aircraft carried three 500-pound high-explosive bombs and one incendiary bomb.

The raid was led by Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, his post action report was completed in May 1942, by which time he had been promoted:

The first enemy patrol vessel was detected and avoided at 3:10 a.m. on the morning of April 18. The Navy task force was endeavoring to avoid a second one some time after daylight when they were picked up by a third. Although this patrol was sunk it understood that it got at least one radio message off to shore and it was consequently necessary for us to take off immediately. The take-off was made at Latitude 35° 43’N Longitude 153° 25’E approximately 824 statue miles East of the center of Tokyo. The Navy task force immediately retreated and in the afternoon was obliged to sink two more Japanese surface craft. It is of interest to note that even at this distance from Japan the ocean was apparently studded with Japanese craft.

Final instructions were to avoid non-military targets, particularly the Temple of Heaven, and even though we were put off so far at sea that it would be impossible to reach the China Coast, not to go to Siberia but to proceed as far West as possible, land on the water, launch the rubber boat and sail in.

Upon take-off each airplane circled to the right and flew over the Hornet lining the axis of the ship up with the drift sight. The course of the Hornet was displayed in large figures from the gun turret abaft the island. This, through the use of the airplane compass and directional gyro permitted the establishment of one accurate navigational course and enabled us to swing off on to the proper course for Tokyo. This was considered necessary and desirable due to the possibility of change in compass calibration, particularly on those ships that were located close to the island.

All pilots were given selected objectives, consisting of steel works, oil refineries, oil tank farms, ammunition dumps, dock yards, munitions plants, airplane factories, etc. They were also given secondary targets in case it was impossible to reach the primary target. In almost every case primary targets were bombed. The damage done far exceeded our most optimistic expectations. The high degree of damage resulted from the highly inflammable nature of Japanese construction, the low altitude from which the bombing was carried out, and the perfectly clear weather over Tokyo, and the careful and continuous study of charts and target areas.

The best information available from Army and Navy intelligence sources indicates that there were some 500 combat planes in Japan and that most of them were concentrated in the Tokyo Bay area. The comparatively few fighters encountered indicated that home defense had been reduced in the interest of making the maximum of planes available in active theaters. The pilots of such planes as remained appeared inexperienced. In some cases they actually did not attack, and in many cases failed to drive the attack home to the maximum extent possible.

The anti-aircraft defense was active but inaccurate. All anti-aircraft bursts were black and apparently small guns of about 37 or 40 mm size. It is presumed that the high speed and low altitude at which we were flying made it impossible for them to train their larger caliber guns on us if such existed. Several of the airplanes were struck by anti-aircraft fragments but none of them was damaged to an extent that impaired their utility of impeded their progress.

The successful bombing of Tokyo indicated that, provided the element of surprise is possible, an extremely successful raid can be carried out at low altitudes with great damage and high security to equipment and personnel.

Brigadier General, U.S. Army

The full report, detailing the experiences of each of the aircraft taking part can be found at Doolittle Raiders.

Above Tokyo, smoke rises from strikes on the Japanese mainland as the bombs dropped by Doolittle's raiders hit their targets on April 18, 1942. Unable to land the huge aircraft back on the USS Hornet, and running low on fuel, the bombers continued westward attempting to land in a friendly area in China.
Four unidentified Doolittle Raid crewmen, who bailed out over China from Aircraft #14, are escorted in a Chinese village before being reunited with other airmen in April of 1942. Most of the crew members made it to China, either crash landing, or bailing out over land. The assistance given by the Chinese to the airmen spurred the Japanese Imperial Army to carry out a retaliatory action called the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign -- over the course of four months, entire villages were destroyed, and an estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians were killed.

‘Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships’

A heavy sea breaking over the bows of the battleship HMS RENOWN.

In an annex to the weekly Naval Military and Air Reports on the progress of the war, there was was a brief summary of the huge serviceability issues that arose from from warships being at sea for extended periods of time:

Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships.

Capital Ships.

Between the outbreak of war and 31st December, 1941, H.M.S. Renown was at sea 390 days and during this time she steamed 137,000 miles.

HMS RENOWN at anchor in Hvalfjord, Iceland (Photograph taken from the aircraft carrier HMS VICTORIOUS) during the search for the TIRPITZ. The battleship aft of RENOWN is possibly USS TEXAS, which arrived in Iceland in late January to escort a convoy back to British waters.

Aircraft Carriers.

H.M.S. Victorious. Steamed 41,378 miles in the first 8 months of her service. 13,000 miles of this distance were steamed in the first 5 weeks of her service.

An aerial view of HMS VICTORIOUS at sea. Steam can be seen venting from the catapult towards the front of the flight deck.


H.M.S. Cumberland. Steamed 195,876 miles from the outbreak of war to 31st December, 1941. From 18th November, 1940, to 18th May, 1941, H.M.S. Cumberland was at sea for 206 days out of a total of 213.

HMS CUMBERLAND in Grand Harbour, Malta.


H.M.S. Forester. Steamed 172,000 miles during the war up to 31st December, 1941, and was at sea for 601 days during that period. One destroyer flotilla consisting of eight ships passed the million mile mark steaming during the war in June 1941.

The destroyer HMS Forester had a very busy war, she participated in sinking U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic and would soon move to escort duties with Arctic convoys.


One of our submarines covered a distance of 25,800 miles in five months, of which only 40 days were spent in harbour, and these mostly without a depot ship. During that time this submarine went from 660 N. latitude to 260 S. latitude. Another of our submarines spent 251 days at sea in one year of war.

The crew of HM Submarine THUNDERBOLT display their 'Jolly Roger' on the Submarine Depot Ship HMS FORTH in Holy Loch, Scotland, after a successful patrol in the Mediterranean, 27 March 1942.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet 19th March 1942, see TNA CAB66/23/9.

U.S. Navy dive bombers strike the Marshall Islands

A SBD-2 Dauntless dive bomber of either VB-6 or VS-6 on the carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) prepares for takeoff during the 1 February 1942 Marshall Islands Raid.

The U.S.S. Enterprise had been [permalink id=15118 text=”prepared for war”] even before Pearl Harbour. Now she was in at the start of offensive operations against the Japanese. Now two Task Forces mounted assaults on the Japanese naval garrisons in the Marshall Islands. The raids were a huge boost to U.S. morale and played a part in provoking the Japanese into seeking a major naval confrontation with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

Planes from the U.S.S. Enterprise took off before dawn and hit the Japanese bases after 0700. One of the official Action Reports summarises one of the attacks:

As Scouting Squadron Six commenced its attack on Roi, Bombing Squadron Six proceeded southward down the center of the lagoon searching for ships. At 0705 Enterprise Air Group Commander ordered Bombing Squadron Six to attack enemy carrier at Kwajalein Island. At 0725 the squadron arrived Kwajalein Area at 14,000 feet altitude. No carrier was present, but several large ships among the many that were present could easily have been mistaken for carriers in the early morning twilight.

As the squadron approached the target area an umbrella barrage of 3″-5″ A.A. fire was sent up, fuze setting 10,000. This barrage was directly over the anchorage and was not directed at the approaching planes. At the same time heavy machine gun fire was noticed which, of course, was an utter waste of ammunition. Although there was some large caliber A.A. fire from shore guns the greatest volume of fire came from an anti-aircraft cruiser in a central anchorage position. This cruiser was armed with twelve or more large caliber and numerous small caliber A.A. guns, and at least one multiple pom-pom was observed.

As the squadron was cruising in a three division attack formation and squadron doctrine thoroughly covered the situation, a single signal was all that was necessary to launch the attack. This signal was given at 0727, divisions separated, and each section choose a target. Normal dive bombing approaches were used and 500 lb bombs were dropped.

In several cases individual pilots, not satisfied with their dive, or observing previous hits on target selected pulled up and chose another target. As radical evasive action was required to escape the great volume of machine gun fire planes became separated and each pilot made his subsequent attacks individually. In the subsequent attacks 100 lb glide bombing and strafing were employed against smaller ships, large sea planes and shore installations. No enemy aircraft was encountered in the air.

The damage inflicted upon the enemy as observed by pilots and gunners of the squadron are as tabulated herewith.

One 2500 ton submarine sunk.
Large cargo ship fired.
Large cargo ship damaged.
A.A. cruiser damaged.
Two four-engine patrol seaplanes sunk.
Four buildings on Gugegwe Island destroyed.
Two small store houses on Kwajalein Island destroyed.
Three submarines, several ships, radio installation and shore facilities were strafed. A motor launch full of men was strafed. All hands jumped into the water leaving the motor launch running about in circles.

The full Action Report and much, much more can be read at USS ENTERPRISE CV-6.

Crewmen wheel bombs to planes on the Big E's flight deck, during the 1 February 1942 Marshall Islands Raid: the first U.S. offensive of the Pacific War. Courtesy: William T. Barr CV6 org

USS Enterprise prepares for war

The USS Enterprise, sometime known as 'the Big E', pictured in 1939, put to sea on the 28th November, prepared for war.

A confidential memo sent to US military commanders on the 27th November had warned them that Japanese hostile intentions were suspected. Prompted by alarming decoded Japanese signal intercepts, the following war warning was sent by the US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, to all commands:

Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot be avoided, the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act. This policy should not, repeat not, be construed as restricting you to a course of action that might jeopardize your defense….Should hostilities occur you will carry out the tasks assigned in Rainbow Five so far as they pertain to Japan

Some commanders took this warning more seriously than others.

When Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey took his carrier group to sea on the 28th, some of his fellow officers thought he was ready to start a war. Many of the men were only prepared for routine overnight operation and a quick return to base. They were quickly advised otherwise:


At Sea

November 28, 1941


1. The ENTERPRISE is now operating under war conditions.

2. At any time, day or night, we must be ready for instant action.

3. Hostile submarines may be encountered.

4. The importance of every officer and man being specially alert and vigilant while on watch at his battle station must be fully realized by all hands.

5. The failure of one man to carry out his assigned task promptly, particularly the lookouts, those manning the batteries, and all those on watch on the deck, might result in great loss of life and even loss of the ship.

6. The Captain is confident all hands will prove equal to any emergency that may develop.

7. It is part of the tradition of our Navy that, when put to the test, all hands keep cool, keep their heads, and FIGHT.

8. Steady nerves and stout hearts are needed now.

G. D. MURRAY, Captain,
U.S. Navy Commanding

HMS Ark Royal sunk

The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal had survived many attacks including being bombed by Italian aircraft following the Battle of Cape Spartivento.
After being torpedoed on the 13th November 1941 HMS Ark Royal rapidly developed a severe list.

The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal had been reported sunk many times by German propaganda and had survived many near misses, including a bombing attack following the [permalink id=9268 text=”Battle of Cape Spartivento”]. She had played a crucial role in the [permalink id=11461 text=”sinking of the Bismarck”]. There were huge risks involved in operating in the Mediterranean, with the almost constant threat of aircraft and U-boats. These risks had been accepted for the latest operation – when Ark Royal had been engaged in flying off more aircraft to re-inforce Malta.

It was on the return journey when she was within sight of Gibraltar that she was finally torpedoed by U-81 at 1534:

When the torpedo struck most of the ship’s company were below decks, working in the hangars, or on watch in the machinery spaces and other compartments. Men off duty were in their messes having tea. Everything was as it had been hundreds of times before. Without any warning the ship was shaken by a violent convulsion. Decks seemed to whip like springboards.

Some of the lights went out and in places near the seat of the explosion smoke gushed from the ventilating trunks. After a very short pause the ship began to heel to starboard, so quickly that at first she seemed to be turning right over.

The torpedo had exploded abreast of the bridge on the starboard side. Here, many decks down and below the waterline, four men were on watch in the lower steering position, main switchboard room and main telephone exchange. The concussion was extremely violent.

The lights went out, oil gushed in, and fumes half choked them as they groped in pitch darkness, up to their waists in a mixture of fuel and water, for the hatch leading to the compartment above. Three men escaped, but Able Seaman E. Mitchell was never seen again.


Captain Maund was on the flight-deck when he felt his ship shudder violently and saw smoke pouring from the bomb-lift doors. As he made for the bridge he thought at first there might have been an internal explosion, as none of the seven screening destroyers had reported a contact. In the very short time it took him to reach the bridge the ship had already listed some ten degrees to starboard, or rather more than the heel of a particularly heavy roll.

His first thought was to take the way off the ship (she was steaming at twenty-two knots), so as to avoid spreading the damage unnecessarily, and to send his crew to action stations; but all communications between the bridge and the rest ofthe ship were severed-no telephone would work, the broadcaster was silent and the engine-toom telegraphs jammed.

Action stations were soon ordered by bugle and word of mouth, but some minutes elapsed before a verbal order passed to the machinery control-room reversed the engines and brought the ship to rest.

See War at Sea 1939-45: S.W Roskill

The destroyer HMS Legion came alongside and took off almost 1500 men whilst a group stayed on board attempting to prevent her sinking.

A valiant battle to control the flooding was fought below decks in order to bring Ark Royal to a state where she might be towed back to Gibraltar. It was a losing battle and all the men who stayed on board were evacuated the following day just before Ark Royal sank.

Force H departs Gibraltar with convoy

Loading a 16" shell on board HMS Rodney

Getting a convoy through to Malta was a major undertaking in 1941. Principal responsibility for these operations fell to ‘Force H’ operating out of Gibraltar under Admiral Somerville. This was the largest Royal Navy force operating at the time and was almost continuously in action. They had been called out into the Atlantic in the hunt for the Bismarck where the Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal had played a crucial role.

In the Mediterranean they faced the continuous threat of attack from aircraft almost as soon as they ventured east of Gibraltar. The careful marshalling of resources was essential but deception also played its part. On the evening of the 24th Admiral Somerville’s flag was raised on HMS Rodney and the band played on the quayside as if the battleship were departing for home. She then sailed westward with an escort of destroyers. Admiral Somerville had in fact remained on HMS Nelson and would lead the main force into the Mediterranean after dark. Those watching from Spain and Algeciras in North Africa were duped for a time. HMS Rodney joined the merchant ships of the convoy and came back through the straits of Gibraltar.

Force H now comprised one aircraft carrier, three battleships, five cruisers and twenty destroyers. The nine merchant ships in WS 11 (Winston Special- the designation given to the most vital convoys) had the most formidable protection available.

HMS Nelson the flagship for Admiral Somerville, commanding Force H.
HMS Ark Royal and one of her Swordfish aircraft, operating in the Mediterranean during 1941.

Courtesy MaritimeQuest which has a fine collection of images of Royal Navy ships.

HMS Prince of Wales had just returned from her voyage to Nova Scotia with Winston Churchill for the Atlantic Conference.

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.