The story of the torpedoing of the Bismarck by Swordfish Squadrons from HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal in May 1941 is one of great courage, skill and determination. It 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.
From the moment on 22 May 1941, when Germany’s largest and most powerful battleship made a break for the Atlantic, until she was finally sunk on the 27 May, five days later, the role that the Swordfish was to play in the destruction of the pride of the German Navy was vital.
The first strike force of nine Swordfish aircraft was launched on 24 May from HMS Victorious. Led by the Commanding Officer of 825 Naval Air Squadron, Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde, the Swordfish delivered a courageous attack in appalling weather, amid a hail of anti-aircraft fire, scoring a torpedo hit amidships which started a leak from a ruptured fuel tank.
Victorious’ Swordfish had slowed the enemy down but time was running out. Determined to prevent Bismarck from making for the security of Brest, two days later, in conditions that bordered on the horrific and at extreme range, HMS Ark Royal launched a fifteen strong second Swordfish strike. This attack, which was carried out by 810, 818 and 820 Naval Air Squadrons was pressed home from all quarters in driving rain, low cloud and winds gusting up to 50 mph. Two torpedoes hit on the port quarter and a third on the starboard, one jamming Bismarck’s twin rudders, crippling her steering gear and leaving her wallowing out of control in heavy seas. From this moment the end was inevitable.
The contribution of the Swordfish at the critical eleventh hour was decisive. Without the Fleet Air Arm’s strike capability, Bismarck would not have been stopped for the ‘battlewagons’ of H Force to destroy the threat she posed. Together with Taranto six months earlier, the Swordfish attack on the Bismarck began the process which transferred the title ‘capital ship’ from battleship to aircraft carrier, where it remains.