HMS Victorious

80 years ago, on 24 May 1941 the first striking wave of nine Swordfish torpedo bombers took off from HMS Victorious to attack the Bismarck. It was already getting dark as Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, Commanding Officer 825 Naval Air Squadron led the formation of Swordfish biplanes to the unsuspecting Bismarck 120 miles away. As they were swallowed up in the rain squall, everyone in the carrier wondered if they would ever see them again.

In 1941 there were two different schools of thought about ‘how’ naval aviation should be used. Bismarck was the last major example of the ‘old’ doctrine – naval aircraft would ‘find’ and ‘wound’ an enemy, slowing it down for the heavy surface units to close in for the ‘kill’. This was largely the thinking that day, although many senior officers at the time were increasingly realising that battleships were dead, and carriers would become the primary strike weapon in-their-own-right.  But this ‘new’ doctrine did not become viable until a few years later when new more capable aircraft came into service.

The Royal Navy had lost many from its small pool of naval aviators in the losses of HMS Courageous in 1939 and HMS Glorious in 1940 and most of the aircrew involved in the search for the Bismarck were raw. They had, however, been well trained at RNAS Crail in co-ordinated night torpedo attacks.

The three flights of aircraft reached Bismarck just before midnight and delivered a courageous attack in appalling weather, amid a hail of anti-aircraft fire.

Esmonde’s flight came in low on the port beam and skimming the wave tops dropped their torpedoes at close range. The second flight led by Lt ‘Percy’ Gick attacked on the port bow. Gick was not satisfied with his run in, turned and came in again against an inferno of fire, this time scoring a torpedo hit amidships. While Esmonde and Gick were attacking from the port side, the third flight made their attack on the starboard side.

Lt ‘Percy’ Gick later to become a Rear Admiral, played a key part in the HMS Victorious attack. Flying in from an unexpected quarter at low level, he was the only pilot to score a hit. While his torpedo did not penetrate Bismarck’s heavily armoured belt, the explosion damaged the ships oil tanks.

Petty Officer Les Sayer DCM MBE, Telegraphist Air Gunner got out of his aircraft half frozen after the attack: a shell splash from one of Bismarck’s 15-inch guns had knocked the fabric flooring of the Swordfish from under him, so that he was suspended above the sea. Victorious was still 100 miles away but in the finest spirit of the Fleet Air Arm he described the bitterly cold and wet return flight as simply “a bit draughty in the back!”

Petty Officer Les Sayer, Lt Gick’s Telegraphist Air Gunner described the attack.

“We went in. My pilot was Lt Percy Gick, who was the No 1 Torpedo Attack Instructor in the Fleet Air Arm. If anyone, was going to score a hit, it would surely be he. They started throwing everything at us, but we got away with it because the German rangefinders were not calibrated for enemy aircraft approach speeds below 100 knots. We were also flying so low that the German guns could not achieve the necessary depression. At first, I thought our torpedo had got hung up, but as if in answer, back came this Dartmouth voice: “I am not lined up properly. I am going in again.” We therefore wheeled away to a distance, of about fifteen miles.

The Germans must have thought that the attack was over, and that the Swordfish had all departed. They did not see us; they did not know we were there. So, we dropped our ‘fish’ from about 500 yards and at a height of 20 feet. We turned away and by the time the gun crews had woken up we were twenty miles away. They then opened-up with their 15-inch main armament. They did not hit us, but we could not avoid the massive waterspouts thrown up by the shell splashes and when we hit one of them all the fabric at the bottom of the aircraft was torn away. We had a very cold trip back! As we approached HMS Victorious, she had put on her searchlight and amazingly we all got back on board – three of the pilots had never carried out a deck landing at night before. We were probably the least prepared torpedo squadron to do the job required of us, but our No 1 aircraft did hit the Bismarck amidships.”

It was getting on for 2am before the Swordfish returned to HMS Victorious in a squall which reduced visibility to zero. Miraculously not one of the Swordfish was shot down or even badly-damaged. Given that the attack had taken place at night, at extreme range and in appalling weather and sea conditions, it was remarkable that any torpedoes had hit at all. Although the attack did not cause any direct damage, the explosion caused by Percy Gick’s hit, together with the violent zigzagging evasive action taken by the ship to avoid the torpedoes, ripped apart the repairs made in the ship’s oil tanks earlier in the day, crucially slowing her down and delaying her escape towards safety.

From left to right: Lieutenant Percy Gick, RN, awarded DSC; Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, RN, awarded DSO; Sub Lieutenant V K Norfolk, RN, awarded DSC; Petty Officer Telegraphist Air Gunner Les Sayer awarded DSM; Leading Airman Telegraphist Air Gunner A L Johnson, awarded DSM.