This is the second article in a series that I am writing on Operation Rheinubung and the sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck. The first article in the series was written about two years ago and focused on the Bismarck sinking the HMS Hood. This article looks at the attempts by the Fleet Air Arm Squadrons of Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers flying from the HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal to slow down the Bismarck and allow heavy fleet units to catch the the mighty German battleship.
On May 24th 1941 the German Battleship Bismarck had sunk the celebrated Battlecruiser HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait and had seriously damaged the new Battleship HMS Prince of Wales. The news of the disaster stunned the Royal Navy and every warship available began to concentrate on the Bismarck which was being shadowed by the heavy cruisers HMS Norfolk and HMS Suffolk. To the east the ships from the Home Fleet under Admiral John Tovey was moving at the fastest possible speed to intercept the Bismarck while to the far southeast “Force H” comprised of the carrier HMS Ark Royal, Battle Cruiser HMS Renown and light cruiser HMS Sheffield were ordered to leave their convoy escort duties and proceed to the Northwest to join the hunt.
HMS Ark Royal with Swordfish in 1939
With the Bismarck loose the North Atlantic Convoys on which Britain depended for her survival were vulnerable. The previous year the commander of the Bismarck task force Admiral Günther Lütjens with the Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wreaked havoc on the convoys. All of Britain was on edge and when the Mighty Hood, the largest and most powerful ship in the Royal Navy destroyed with the loss of all but three crew members every effort was directed to find and sink the Bismarck.
Accompanying the Home Fleet was the brand new Aircraft Carrier HMS Victorious with 825 Naval Air Squadron embarked under the command of LCDR Eugene Esmond. The squadron, like many in the Fleet Air Arm was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Torpedo Bombers. The squadron had seen action aboard other carriers in the North Atlantic, the Norway Campaign and in the Mediterranean before being assigned to the Victorious. On the night of 24 May 1941, in foul North Atlantic weather the Victorious launched nine Swordfish from a range of 120 miles in a desperate attempt to slow the Bismarck down. Esmond’s squadron scored one hit amidships on the Bismarck which did no serious damage.
825 Squadron Swordfish on HMS Victorious
About 6 hours after the attack Bismarck shook her pursuers and disappeared into the mists of the North Atlantic as her consort, the Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen escaped to the northwest. Not knowing the location or course of the Bismarck the Royal Navy frantically searched for the German Leviathan. Most of the ships nearest to Bismarck’s last reported position were low on fuel and others seemed too far away to be of any importance in the search.
Bismarck, bow on view
However the British were able to intercept and decode some German communications indicating that Lütjens had orders to steam to Brest, in German occupied France for repairs. Although the British had an understanding that the Bismarck could be headed toward Brest it could not be sure and as each hour passed the chances of finding and bringing the might German ship to battle diminished. For nearly 36 hours the British searched in vain for the Bismarck, then at 1030 on the 26th of May a Royal Air Force Coastal Command PBY Catalina piloted by US Navy Ensign Leonard Smith found the Bismarck. Once Smith transmitted Bismarck’s location every available ship converged on her location even though chances bringing her to battle diminished by the hour. The only heavy forces close enough to successfully engage Bismarck, the battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney were too far away unless Bismarck changed course or could be slowed down. Force H to the south did not have the combat power to survive a surface engagement with the Bismarck should they encounter the Bismarck without other heavy fleet units.
820 Squadron Swordfish returning to Ark Royal after the attack on Bismarck
The situation was desperate, if Bismarck could not be slowed down she would be in range of heavy Luftwaffe Air support as well as support from U-Boats and destroyers based in France. Unless something akin to a miracle occurred Bismarck would join the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest and form a surface squadron strong enough to devastate British shipping in the Atlantic.
The aircraft from Ark Royal were the last hope of slowing down Bismarck before she could effect her escape and emerge from the Atlantic after having dealt the Royal Navy a devastating blow. The strike aircraft available on Ark Royal were not what many people would consider capable of completing such a mission. Ark Royal’s 820 Squadron, like Victorious’ 824 Squadron was equipped with Fairy Swordfish Mk 1 Torpedo Bombers. These were biplanes with a crew compartment open to the weather. Introduced to the Navy in 1936 the aircraft was an antique compared with most other aircraft of its day. The Mark XII 18” torpedo carried by the aircraft was smaller or slower and equipped with a less powerful warhead than comparable torpedoes used by other navies. Despite their limitations the venerable Swordfish had performed admirably during the early part of the war sinking or damaging three Italian battleships at Taranto in November 1941 and providing inspiration to the Japanese for their attack on Pearl Harbor.
Bismarck steering erratically after the torpedo hit to her stern
With that in mind Vice Admiral James Sommerville in command of Force H sent HMS Sheffield ahead to shadow Bismarck as his carrier, HMS Ark Royal closed to launch her Swordfish against Bismarck. A first strike, unaware Sheffield had advanced to a location near Bismarck mistakenly attacked the British Cruiser. Thankfully, the new design magnetic detonators failed to detonate causing the torpedoes to miss Sheffield. The aircraft returned to Ark Royal where rearmed with torpedoes equipped with contact fuzes and refueled 15 Swordfish took off for a final attack on Bismarck before night fell and Bismarck would steam into the protection of German air and naval units.
As darkness began to fall 15 Swordfish from 820 Squadron descended through the clouds attacking from all points of the compass. Bismarck twisted and turned and fired at the attacking aircraft with every weapon available, even firing her main battery into the ocean ahead of the Swordfish. Bismarck successfully avoided all but two torpedoes, one which struck her amidships causing minimal damage. However a second torpedo, launched by a Swordfish piloted by Lieutenant John Moffat hit Bismarck in her stern jamming her port rudder enabling Tovey with King George V, Rodney, the Heavy Cruiser Norfolk and Dorchester as well as a number of destroyers to catch up with and eventually sink the Bismarck.
The attacks of the antiquated Swordfish on the Bismarck achieved results that no one in the Royal Navy expected. When reports indicated that Bismarck had reversed course following the torpedo attack Tovey could not believe them. It was only when Sheffield confirmed the reports from the Swordfish that Tovey realized that Bismarck must have been damaged and unable to maneuver. Now with the chance he would take the opportunity presented to sink the Bismarck and avenge the Hood.