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.