In 1941, Royal Navy Biplanes Crippled the World’s Most Powerful Warship
Iain Ballantyne’s new book recounts daring air raid
In Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom, historian Iain Ballantyne lays out in an almost cinematic style how the German high-seas raider met her match during a contest of steel versus struts and canvas.
It was the most unlikely of tales — fragile, supposedly obsolete Swordfish biplanes against the modern battlewagon Bismarck, at the time the most powerful warship in the world.
In this specially-adapted extract from the book, we ride with Canadian-born Fleet Air Arm aviator Terry Goddard, the observer of a Swordfish torpedo-bomber sent to try and cripple Bismarck on the evening of May 26, 1941.
This inside account of the attack was created using the transcript of hours of on-camera interviews filmed for a project by Iain Ballantyne. It documents the last testimony of a small Band of Brothers who experienced combat against Bismarck.
by IAIN BALLANTYNE
May 26, 1941–7:00 PM
It is time for another set of contenders to climb into the ring for a round with the heavyweight. The battle-cruiser HMS Hood tried on 24 May and was blown apart. Three days later aviators aboard the carrier HMS Ark Royal are being called forward, asked to inflict some kind of decisive blow to slow down Bismarck.
The Swordfish is deceptively antiquated-looking. Though a biplane that chugs through the air sounding like an aerial tractor, it is not actually that old, having entered Fleet Air Arm service in 1937.
It won its spurs in late 1940 by knocking out Italian battleships in Taranto harbor. The first U-boat sunk in the Second World War by the British was courtesy of a Swordfish using bombs. It is as a torpedo-bomber that it will achieve new fame in May 1941.
Slow, with only a top speed of 138 miles per hour, its two wings give it incredible lift. A monoplane needs around 30 knots of wind across the flight-deck to take off from a carrier. The Swordfish can take off from a vessel at anchor (and even into the teeth of gale).
Constructed from wood, canvas and metal struts, it can survive hits that will destroy metal skinned aircraft, for the simple reason that cannon shells and bullets pass right through it.
After the mission briefing for the attack on Bismarck comes the sitting and waiting for take-off. It is inevitable people ponder their mortality and chances of survival. Terry Goddard recognizes that dreadful weather conditions will not be a barrier to the mission.
“We knew perfectly well we were gonna fly, because if we didn’t fly there would be no tomorrow for us. We had to fly and weather be darned.”
The aircrews feel the weight of expectation, of history itself — the fate of the Navy and the nation, also the Fleet Air Arm’s honor all pressing down on their shoulders.
“It is the sitting around that gnaws at you. You’re thinking rather than doing, which is worrisome. Once you start doing things the worry disappears. It must be tough on God. In war there aren’t any atheists — both sides are asking God for help. Most of us say prayers for him to help us. I know I did. Often. Fortunately he was on my side.”
Fifteen Swordfish are ranged on the flight-deck, herring bone fashion, all fueled up and each armed with a single 18-inch torpedo, ready to go.
With waves crashing over Ark Royal’s bows, the Swordfish are launched, clawing their way into the sky.
“One by one, the batsman, the deck control officer, leads you forward — and you just sit and wait, look at the island waiting for the green flag and away you go. The ship is steering into wind, actually on this occasion slowed down, so there wasn’t too much wind going over the deck. There’s green water coming over the bow.
“In my aircraft — Swordfish 5K — Stan Keane was the pilot, I was the navigator and Milliner was the air gunner. He was responsible for working the radio. I’m responsible for getting us there and Stan is responsible for flying the aircraft and carrying out the attack.
“The ship was taking green water. The bow was going up 60 feet and down. It was raining, windy and the ship was rolling and pitching but there was no problem in take off, we were airborne before we passed the island.”
Once in the air, the crew of Swordfish 5K formulates a plan of attack, though communication within the cockpit is difficult, what with a 110-knot wind and roar of the aircraft’s engine. They shout at each other down an interconnecting rubber voice pipe.
Battling the gale, blown sideways, almost negating their forward momentum, the Swordfish drop from the clouds to make their attack runs.
As they sight oncoming aircraft, lookouts aboard Bismarck scream, “Alarm!” Klaxons blare throughout the German battleship.
Bismarck takes violent evasive action, her anti-aircraft guns hurling a storm of steel at the British biplanes. Bismarck even fires her main 15-inch guns, the shells sending up tall plumes of spray, hoping to literally knock Swordfish out of the sky. Soon Swordfish 5K will be taking her turn at jousting with the enemy, provided she can find the target. Terry Goddard looks anxiously over the side of the cockpit for some sign of Bismarck.
“The whole aircraft shook as if there were a number of express trains roaring by us. We figured Bismarck had opened fire on us. In actual fact she had opened fire on [the nearby cruiser] Sheffield, but … we had found her. So, down we went. Ice was peeling off the wings, couldn’t see a bloody thing.
“The altimeter is spinning, spinning, spinning and then we break into the clear about 600 feet and there’s Bismarck on our starboard bow. She was a fire-spitting monster. Everything was coming at us and she was illuminated … awesome.
“This ship was just magnificent. It looked exactly like a battleship should, I mean scary and everything but just a beautiful ship. Once the attack has started it’s all about the pilot. The observer and the air gunner, we just stand by and get really excited watching what is going on. You are not thinking you are going to be killed, you’re thinking you’re going to hit the bastard and that’s it.
“The more you turn [the aircraft] around, and the more you frig around, the more chance they get to hit you, so we just went straight in. We got as low on the deck as we could and went straight. Bismarck was on the port side and she just got bigger and bigger. The flak is bursting over our head. Well above us. The small arms fire is pretty well all around us — and hitting us every once in a while — but we get in to drop the torpedo … do a quick turn away.
“Looking back shortly after the turn I see a large black and white explosion on the Bismarck. It is high and wide. Obviously it is a torpedo hit. There is no other aircraft anywhere near us and there is no doubt it was the torpedo we had just dropped. I tell Stan, he grunts — he’s busy doing various maneuvers on the deck — I give a message to the air gunner that we have scored a hit. Milliner thought he’d seen something too.
“Right after the attack the shooting stopped. We were in the clear. She wasn’t firing at us. Ark Royal requests us to repeat the message. Then we climb back up into the clag and this time it is about 6,000 feet that we broke clear. About five minutes later we saw another Swordfish well ahead. We increase speed, join up with him. It’s David Godfrey-Faussett [the other aircraft’s pilot] smoking a big cigar and with a smile on his face. I didn’t like his course so we broke away and we headed off on our own.”
With Swordfish landing back aboard Ark Royal, and their crews filing reports, it is decided the balance of probability is that Bismarck has not been damaged. This is despite claims in the briefing room by some aviators that they managed torpedo hits on the German giant.
“Command was very reluctant to accept that there were any. I told them three or four times that we had scored a hit and they ignored me. Finally, when Sheffield sent a report that Bismarck was steering northeast, they suddenly realized that something had happened.”
In other words, the enemy vessel is not heading towards the sanctuary of Brest on the French Atlantic coast, but rather back to where the Home Fleet battleships are closing. Bismarck’s change in direction cannot be happening by choice.
“They ultimately accepted that there were two hits … we had attacked after the torpedo had hit the rudder. We were the last aircraft to attack the Bismarck, then or any other day.”
Thanks to their sheer guts and the peculiarly tough characteristics of their aircraft, the Royal Navy’s young aviators brought the German behemoth to heel. On the morning of May 27, the battleships and cruisers of the Home Fleet finished the job and destroyed Bismarck.
Therein lies a lesson for today, when big ships on the so-called cutting edge of war-fighting technology once again, apparently, rule supreme. Even the mightiest craft can be vanquished by pluck and a few lucky shots by people operating allegedly antiquated equipment or finding asymmetric means of attack.
Cmdr. Terry Goddard enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a naval aviator, seeing further action in the Second World War and playing a key role in post-war Royal Canadian Navy maritime aviation. He passed away in March 2016 at the age of 94.