What it took to sink the Bismarck

Naval aviation history

Sue Eagles describes the heroic effort it took by Swordfish crews from HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal, to defeat Nazi Germany’s giant battleship 80 years ago this year

The word ‘epic’ is habitually overused today, but the story of the sinking of the Bismarck is probably the greatest naval epic of them all.

On 23 May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck was on a roll. At the time the largest and most powerful fighting ship afloat, she had broken out into the Atlantic, sunk the battlecruiser HMS Hood and badly damaged the battleship HMS Prince of Wales. Bismarck’s armour-piercing shells had ripped through Hood’s upper deck, causing a huge explosion in her ammunition magazine. The ship broke in two and sank in a matter of minutes. Only three of her 1,418 officers and men survived. It was the Royal Navy’s largest loss of life ever from a single ship.

The loss of the Hood was keenly felt, not just in Britain but around the world, and the prospect of Bismarck roaming the Atlantic unchecked and wreaking havoc on Allied convoys was bleak.  She posed a formidable threat to the vital lifeline that kept Britain alive.

Ninety-six hours later, however, Nazi Germany’s mightiest battleship lay at the bottom of the North Atlantic. The swift reversal of fortune was the result of a huge effort by the Royal Navy to hunt down and sink the Bismarck at all costs in one of the most dramatic chases and battles in naval history.

With every British warship in the Atlantic looking for the Bismarck in a pursuit that covered over 2 million square miles, it was the Swordfish squadrons from HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal that were to bring about the battleship’s end. Although Bismarck outclassed all the heavy capital ships chasing her, naval aviation was another matter.

The Swordfish attacks on the Bismarck, at night and in appalling weather, were to prove the full value of the Fleet Air Arm as a striking force at sea, changing the outcome of the war in the Atlantic.

The attack from HMS Victorious

Bismarck spotted through a gap in the clouds by an attacking Swordfish. Photo: IWM

The first strike force of Swordfish aircraft was launched on 24 May from Victorious. Bismarck had not escaped the fierce encounter with Hood and Prince of Wales unscathed, and oil leaking from a ruptured fuel tank in her bow had given her position away.

It was already dark as Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde, Commanding Officer 825 Naval Air Squadron, led the formation of Swordfish 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.

The aircraft reached Bismarck just before midnight and delivered a courageous attack amid a hail of anti-aircraft fire. The second flight, led by Lt ‘Percy’ Gick, scored a torpedo hit amidships. Petty Officer Les Sayer, Lt Gick’s telegraphist air gunner, described the attack:

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. We dropped our ‘fish’ from 500 yards and at a height of 20 feet. 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, the bottom of the aircraft was torn away. It was a draughty trip back! Three of our pilots had never carried out a deck landing at night before but Victorious turned on her searchlight and, amazingly, we all got back on board!

Miraculously, not one of the Swordfish was shot down or even badly damaged. Although the torpedo hit did not significantly damage Bismarck, owing to her armoured skirt, the evasive action she took in response to the attack ripped apart repairs made in her oil tanks earlier in the day, crucially slowing her down and impeding her escape.

The attack from HMS Ark Royal

Force H: Renown and Ark Royal seen from Sheffield, which thanks to some faulty detonators escaped being sunk in a torpedo attack by aircraft from Ark Royal, which had mistaken Sheffield for Bismarck. Photo: IWM

Two days later, Bismarck was sighted 690 miles from Brest, less than 24 hours from the protection of enemy air cover and the sanctuary of port. Victorious’s Swordfish had slowed her down, but time was now critical. With an anxious world awaiting the outcome, all the hopes of Britain and the Royal Navy now lay in the second aircraft carrier, Ark Royal, and her Swordfish squadrons.

Determined to prevent Bismarck from reaching Brest, on the afternoon of 26 May, Ark Royal launched a second Swordfish strike, 15 strong. The flying conditions were atrocious: low raincloud, gale-force winds, stormy seas and fading daylight. Not expecting another vessel to be in the area, the Swordfish pilots mistook HMS Sheffield for the German battleship and a disaster nearly occurred. Fortunately the torpedoes didn’t detonate properly. Had those faulty detonators been used to attack Bismarck the operation would have failed. The Swordfish returned to Ark Royal and re-armed, this time with older detonators known to be reliable.

Taking off again in the teeth of the storm, aircraft and crews were both operating at the very edge of what was humanly possible. Conditions had worsened, with Ark Royal’s flight deck rising and falling 50 feet, the bows and stern flung from side to side in the angry seas, and driving rain at times blotting out visibility completely.

When the aircraft 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 dived down through the murk, descending like gnats upon Germany’s fire-spitting dragon, and pressing home their attack from all quarters in driving rain, low cloud and winds gusting up to 50 mph.

Just two torpedoes found their target, but given the conditions it was an outstanding feat of flying that any hit at all. One of the blows was fatal: it struck the heavily protected ship at her weakest point, the stern, jamming her twin rudders and crippling her steering gear, leaving her wallowing out of control in heavy seas.

Remarkably, all 15 aircraft returned safely. The weather was still abominable; many of the aircraft had been damaged and three crashed on landing, but no one was hurt. It was a David and Goliath story – an open-cockpit canvas biplane had stopped the most heavily armed battleship in the world; the pride of the German Navy was incapable of manoeuvring, surrounded only by the open ocean and the enemy. After days and nights of almost unbearable tension, Bismarck had been brought to bay and there was immeasurable relief throughout the Fleet. From this moment Bismarck’s end was inevitable.

At daybreak the following morning, 27 May, H Force – HMS King George V and HMS Rodney – approached the crippled battleship and opened fire. Even though Bismarck was unable to manoeuvre, her massive guns were still intact, and fierce barrages were exchanged over the next 90 minutes as the British ships closed in.

Bismarck fought bravely to the last. When her guns fell silent the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire fired three torpedoes into her; Bismarck sank on 27 May 1941 at 10.36, her flag still flying.

The Swordfish attacks on Bismarck were not only extraordinary endeavours of achievement in themselves but were also a defining moment in the history of naval warfare. Without the vision of the two carrier captains using the strike capability of the Fleet Air Arm as a weapon of war, Bismarck would not have been stopped, thus enabling the big guns of H Force to destroy the threat she posed. Together with the Swordfish operation at Taranto six months earlier, the airborne attacks on the Bismarck were the turning point that transferred the title ‘capital ship’ from battleship to aircraft carrier, where it remains today.

Commander Sue Eagles QVRM RD is Communications Director at Navy Wings. For more information, visit: www.navywings.org.uk