Belfast-trained pilot’s torpedo that disabled the Bismarck’s rudder

Lt Cdr John 'Jock' Moffat
Lt Cdr John 'Jock' Moffat

A reader’s e-mail a few weeks ago stated succinctly and somewhat mystifyingly - “The man who sank the Bismarck learned to fly at Sydenham.”

But the Bismarck was sunk on May 27, 1941 by H.M.S King George V, H.M.S Rodney, H.M.S Dorsetshire and H.M.S Norfolk.

However, an explanatory document accompanying the reader’s note told the remarkable story of a Belfast-trained pilot who’d crippled Hitler’s 45,000-ton flagship before the Royal Navy fleet arrived to finish her off.

When Roamer was a child, blissfully unaware of the death and devastation brought about by the historic sea-battle, I regularly stalked the Bismarck with H.M.S. Hood!

These were lovingly-glued plastic models, manoeuvred (with appropriately-mouthed sound effects!) around the kitchen floor.

I’ve often wondered how my mother managed her housework with WWII erupting around her ankles!

I was in awe of the Bismarck because we lived near Lough Erne and I’d often been told that a Catalina flying-boat from Castle Archdale spotted it in the Atlantic.

After Bismarck sank H.M.S Hood and seriously damaged H.M.S. Prince of Wales on 24 May 1941, the mighty German flagship desperately needed to get to occupied France for repairs.

It was a Belfast-trained pilot in an old-fashioned Swordfish Biplane - Lieutenant Commander John ‘Jock’ Moffat - who halted Bismarck’s urgent race to Brest.

Sadly, Jock died just a few months ago on 11 December 2016 in Perthshire, aged 97.

He was the last surviving Swordfish pilot from the heroic team of flyers whose attack successfully accomplished Winston Churchill’s optimistic command - ‘Sink the Bismarck!’

A previous air strike by nine Swordfish aircraft from the carrier H.M.S Victorious hit Bismarck with a single torpedo, but then all contact with the vessel was lost.

Bismark was steaming towards France.

Meanwhile, the Ark Royal, carrying 818 Naval Air Squadron’s Swordfish and pilots, joined the chase with a fleet of other vessels.

One of Ark Royal’s pilots was 21-year-old Sub Lieutenant John ‘Jock’ Moffat.

John William Charlton Moffat, born on 22 June 1919 in Swinton, Scotland, applied to become a pilot at the beginning of WWII and was sent to Sydenham, Belfast, where a training school, set up by Short Brothers, was based.

He learnt to fly in a Miles Magister aircraft - a two-seater, monoplane, basic trainer, affectionately known as ‘Maggie’ - in Sydenham’s Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School, opened on New Year’s Day in 1939.

The Belfast airport was used for training purposes by both the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy.

When the Ark Royal, with Jock on board, set off to hunt Bismarck, the Swordfish pilots had just finished a Malta Convoy run.

“We were on our way back when we were told about the (sinking of) Hood,” Jock recounted to war-aviation historian Mark Barber, “our job was now to search for the Bismarck.”

They flew singly, in search patterns of up to three hours, in open cockpits, with the weather quickly deteriorating.

It was very, very cold.

On the morning of 26 May a Catalina from Lough Erne spotted Bismarck, and knowing her whereabouts the Swordfish started shadowing her.

Weather conditions were terrible.

“When I took off,” Jock told Mark Barber, “the ship’s deck was pitching 60 feet! We wondered if we were going to make it.”

The cruiser H.M.S Sheffield, one of the few warships in the area equipped with advanced radar, was tracking Bismarck, but the Swordfish pilots hadn’t been told there was a British ship in the vicinity.

In hopelessly low visibility they attacked Sheffield by mistake!

Fortunately no damage was done, and the Swordfish returned to their carriers to re-arm and refuel.

The second sortie of 15 planes formed up “in terrible weather beneath a 600-foot cloud base” Jock recounted.

They approached Bismarck through a blaze of thick flack, with Jock and his aimer and observer in one of the first three aircraft.

“All hell broke loose!” he told Barber “They didn’t half open up on us!”

With his plane iced up in dense, freezing wind, Jock dived from the cloud and discovered that his plane was alone.

“I had lost the other two Swordfish in the dive,” he recounted “but on my right, two miles away, was a huge ship, firing its main guns.”

In the chaos and confusion of flack and atrocious weather all of the Swordfish had separated out and were attacking Bismarck from all sides, individually!

The colossal warship opened up with every weapon she had, and in the thick barrage of explosions Jock lined up his flimsy little biplane, just 50 feet above the raging waves.

His observer, Sub Lieutenant John “Dusty” Dawson-Miller,

was leaning out of the cockpit with his head underneath the aircraft, waiting for a trough in the waves before releasing a torpedo.

“We were so close that I could make out people on the deck. It was quite uncanny!” Jock told author Mark Barber.

They turned and climbed, unaware of their bullseye on Bismarck’s rudder, which was irreparably jammed.

All that the stricken vessel could do was go around in circles and on the morning of 27 May, after almost two hours of intense gun and torpedo attacks by the Royal Navy, the order was finally given to abandon ship.

Only 115 men out of Bismarck’s crew of over 2000 survived the sinking.