Bismarck awaits her fate, immobilised following the Swordfish torpedo attacks. At dawn on 27 May two British battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney arrived to finish the task. They opened fire at 9am and a little over an hour later Bismarck’s guns were silent and she slipped beneath the waves.
From the moment on 22 May 1941, when Bismarck made a break for the Atlantic, until she was finally sunk five days later, on the 27 May 1941, the role played by the Swordfish in her destruction was decisive.
In her first engagement on 24 May, after firing for only four minutes, Bismarck sank HMS Hood, once the largest warship in the world and the pride of the Royal Navy.
That night Bismarck escaped her pursuers and for a day and a half there was no sign of her. Every British warship in the Atlantic was looking for her and the pursuit covered over two million square miles. At the eleventh hour, as she tried to make a dash for the coast of France, there remained one last desperate chance to attack.
With darkness falling, Swordfish squadrons took off from HMS Ark Royal’s wildly pitching flight deck into 50mph winds attacking the fearsome battleship from all quarters. One of the torpedoes hit her armoured ‘skirt’ but as Bismarck turned hard to port, a second struck her vulnerable stern, jamming her rudders. With her steering mechanism damaged the great ship could only steam in circles.
At daybreak the following morning 27 May, HMS King George V and HMS Rodney approached the crippled battleship and opened fire. Even though she was unable to manoeuvre, Bismarck’s massive guns were still intact and fierce barrages followed over the next 90 minutes as the British ships closed in.
Bismarck fought bravely to the last and when her guns fell silent, the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire fired three torpedoes into her. Bismarck sank eighty years ago on 27 May 1941 at 10.36 her flag still flying.
The Swordfish attack against Bismarck was the action in which the Fleet Air Arm first demonstrated its full value as a striking force at sea and it changed the outcome of the war in the Atlantic.
With two aircraft carriers involved and the carrier captains exhibiting brilliance in using the carriers and their air groups as weapons of war, the Swordfish attacks on Bismarck were not only extraordinary endeavours of achievement in themselves but a defining moment in the history of naval warfare.
Without the Fleet Air Arm’s strike capability, Bismarck would not have been stopped for the ‘big guns’ of H Force to destroy the threat she posed. Together with Taranto six months earlier, the Swordfish attack on the Bismarck was the turning point that transferred the title ‘capital ship’ from battleship to aircraft carrier where it remains today.
Following Bismarck’s sinking, HMS Dorsetshire picked up 110 survivors before a U- Boat warning caused them to leave the area.
Navy Wings Supporter and former Flag Officer Naval Air Command, Rear Admiral John Roberts CB said “A friend of mine from Dartmouth, Midshipman Joe Brooks was onboard HMS Dorsetshire that day. After the sinking of Bismarck, he saw a German survivor in the water who had lost both arms. With no thought for himself, he dived into the heavy swell to tie a bowline around the German but shortly afterwards the U-Boat alarm sounded, and Joe was pulled back on board. The Germans said later he should have been given a German medal.”
“Someone else I knew, who was there that day, was Frederick Dalrymple-Hamilton Captain of HMS Rodney, who finished off the Bismarck. I know that he didn’t enjoy that part of the business very much, but unfortunately it had to be done. Nearly 4,000 British and German sailors died that week eighty years ago.”
Another Navy Wings Supporter, Commander Mike Norman OBE AFC, whose late wife was the niece of the Captain of Bismarck, Ernst Lindermann said “One of the few remaining family documents of the sinking of the Bismarck is a remarkable and riveting book written by Captain Lindermann’s personal adjutant, one of the survivors picked up by HMS Dorsetshire. The book ‘Battleship Bismarck’ – A Survivor’s Story – by Baron Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg, is a uniquely personal insight into the drama of Bismarck’s short life and violent end.”
The word ‘epic’ is habitually overused today, but the story of the sinking of the Bismarck was one of the most crucial naval engagements of WW2, inspiring many volumes of literature and the gripping 1960 black and white CinemaScope British war film ‘Sink the Bismarck’.
The film famously starred Kenneth Moore and Dana Wynter. The greatest star of the film, however, was Navy Wings Swordfish MkII LS326. Built in 1943, LS326 is still flying today – a lasting tribute to the gallantry and determination of the Swordfish crews and everyone involved in the gruelling six year struggle of the Battle of the Atlantic.