HMS Ark Royal

After the attack by HMS Victorious, Bismarck escaped her pursuers and for the next day and a half there was no sign of her. The hunt was on again and time was now critical.

Finally, at 10.30am on 26 May, Bismarck was sighted 690 miles from Brest less than 24 hours from the umbrella of air cover provided by the Luftwaffe and ultimately the sanctuary of port.

With an anxious world awaiting the outcome, all hopes of Britain and the Navy now lay in the second aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and her Swordfish Squadrons.

HMS Ark Royal was steaming northwards with Force H in storm tossed seas with waves reaching more than 50 feet, to intercept Bismarck heading south and get within striking distance before nightfall.

Victorious’ Swordfish had slowed the enemy down, but it was to be Ark Royal’s Swordfish Squadrons, that at the eleventh hour would move the drama decisively towards its denouement.

Determined to prevent Bismarck from making for the security of Brest, during the afternoon on 26 May, in conditions that bordered on the horrific, HMS Ark Royal launched a fifteen strong second Swordfish strike.

The flying conditions were atrocious, low rain cloud, gale force winds, stormy seas and fading daylight.

Among the brave naval flyers from HMS Ark Royal, Sub Lieutenant John Moffat recounts the moment when he and his young crew, amid a hail of bullets and shells flew directly at the Bismarck dropping their torpedo at close range before turning tail and making a rapid getaway!  

Unfortunately, a vital signal alerting the fleet to the proximity of HMS Sheffield had not been delivered and not expecting any other vessel to be in the area, the Swordfish crew mistook the British cruiser for the much larger German battleship. Eleven torpedoes were dropped against HMS Sheffield, but many exploded prematurely on contact with the water due to being fitted with Duplex pistols.

Seeing immediately that it was a case of mistaken identity, Sheffield’s commanding officer calmly signalled that the enemy was 15 miles north and ordered his guns to ‘on no account fire’. Then calling down to the engine room for full speed he successfully dodged the six torpedoes that came his way averting disaster!

The Swordfish returned to HMS Ark Royal and rearmed for a second attack in the teeth of the storm, this time with torpedoes fitted with older reliable contact pistols.  The conditions had become even worse with the flight deck rising and falling 50 feet, angry seas, cloud at 600 feet and driving rain which at times blotted out visibility completely. The leader of the striking force this time was Lieutenant Commander Tim Coode, Commanding Officer 818 Naval Air Squadron. He and his 43 fellow pilots, observers and air gunners were under no illusions about what lay ahead.

Hopes of getting the second strike away from Ark Royal by 6.30pm were too optimistic. The bows and stern of the ship were being flung from side to side by the following sea, so at times the ship seemed almost out of control. Ironically, the legendary Fairey Swordfish – tough, manoeuvrable, and able to carry a huge torpedo with real punch was the only aircraft able to operate in such conditions.

The tenacity and courage of the aircrews, who when one attack had failed, carried on with the job and re-launched on an almost suicidal second mission was also a hallmark of the Fleet Air Arm. They were operating at the very edge of what was humanly possible both in terms of deck operations and flying.

At 7.10pm the fifteen Swordfish from 810, 818 and 820 Squadrons were ranged on the flight deck, engines roaring and one by one they took off into the stormy sky.

When they arrived over Bismarck she was sailing under a front, a wall of cloud reaching up beyond 10,000 feet and extending down to almost sea-level.  The Swordfish screamed down through the murk descending like gnats upon Germany’s fire-spitting dragon pressing home their attack from all quarters in driving rain, low cloud and winds gusting up to 50 mph.

Most of the striking force became split up in the thick blanket of cloud. Co-ordinating their attacks as best they could, in pairs, threes, fours and even alone, they came in simultaneously and from different angles, forcing Bismarck to divide her fire and making it harder for her to evade torpedoes.

“The run-in was alarming” Lieutenant Commander Stewart-Moore, the Commanding Officer of 820 Squadron would later recount.

Hugging the wave tops and flying into an inferno of anti-aircraft fire with shells exploding all around them, the pilots had to achieve the almost impossible task of getting the critical speed, height, and distance just right to drop the torpedo. Coupled with the appalling conditions, it was a simply outstanding feat of flying that any weapons actually hit.

Two torpedoes found their target. One hit on the port side and the second struck the heavily protected ship at its weakest point – its undefended rudders. The explosion tore a hole in Bismarck’s hull, jamming the twin rudders and wrecking her steering gear. At 2205 the first Swordfish began returning to Ark Royal. Remarkably, all fifteen aircraft returned safely. The weather was still abominable, many of the aircraft had been damaged; one had been hit 150 times and three aircraft crashed on landing, but no one was hurt.

After the attack Lt Cdr Coode had reported ‘Estimate no hits.’ The damage was not at first discernible. It was bitter news.  However, HMS Sheffield plotting Bismarck’s course reported several erratic and improbable changes of course.

While mystifying, it was clear that something serious had happened to Bismarck. Before long it was realised that the ship was turning in vast slow circles, out of control and wallowing helplessly in heavy seas. The gallant and determined attacks by the Fleet Air Arm had crippled Bismarck and after days and nights of almost unbearable tension, there was immeasurable relief. The pride of the German Navy was incapable of manoeuvring, surrounded only by the open ocean and the enemy, and from this moment the end was inevitable.