SEVENTY years on from one of the most famous engagements of the Second World War, the only British surviving veteran from the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck is expected to join members of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm today for a commemorative dinner.
Now in his early 90s, John Moffat can remember the events of May 26, 1941, as if they happened yesterday.
Although he now lives near Dunkeld, John is a native of Swinton and went to school in Earlston.
Today, he is hoping to be at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall – Icelandic volcanic ash clouds permitting – one of the Royal Navy’s biggest helicopter bases and the location of his former wartime unit, 820 Squadron.
It was Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers from 820 Squadron which crippled the Bismarck in a daring attack that signalled the rise of maritime air power.
Two thousand German sailors were killed in the sinking, which came just two days after the Bismarck had destroyed the British battle cruiser HMS Hood, with the loss of 1, 418 crew members. The loss of the Hood prompted Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill to issue his famous order to “sink the Bismarck”.
And it was the single 1,600lb torpedo dropped from John’s biplane Swordfish – nicknamed the Flying Stringbag by pilots – which had dived out of a cloud-filled sky and through a hail of enemy fire that damaged the Bismark’s rudder.
That single devastating blow crippled the 56,000-ton battleship and allowed Britain’s Home Fleet to close in and fulfil Churchill’s orders.
The Bismarck’s captain, Ernst Lindemann, had managed to give the Royal Navy’s chasing pack of vessels, which included the battleships King George V and Rodney as well as the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire, the slip.
With thick cloud making for poor visibility, John and his comrades from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal had been dispatched to find the Bismarck. The German ship was spotted by chance by a Catalan flying boat and John, aged just 21, and two other aircraft from 820 Squadron then shadowed the monster of the North Atlantic for several hours before being ordered to attack as the Bismarck made a desperate run for the safety of the French coast.
John’s crew led the attack: “We dropped our single torpedo from about 1,500 yards and then got the hell out of there as fast as we could,” he recalled.
“I never saw the hit, but the next crew did. The Bismarck had turned and gave us a big target and I got it right up the backside. She was more or less crippled and had lost her ability to steer.”
That allowed Royal Navy ships to move in. Shells and torpedoes from the British warships pounded Bismark.
Returning to the burning ship, which was still afloat despite heavy shelling from Royal Navy warships, John’s squadron had orders to launch further strikes. But just as they arrived, the Bismarck rolled over after, it is believed, Captain Lindemann ordered her to be scuttled, throwing hundreds of men into the water.
Flying overhead at just 50ft, it was a sight John says he will never forget.
“It was a dreadful sight – seeing all those men in the water with no chance of being saved,” John told TheSouthern this week during a break in preparations for travelling to Cornwall for the special anniversary dinner.
“But in the days between the Bismarck leaving port and being sunk, she’d taken the lives of 5,000 sailors so it had to be done.”
Out of a crew of 2,200, just 115 sailors from the Bismarck survived. “Churchill wasn’t kidding when he ordered the Bismarck sunk. The ship was a menace to all allied shipping.”
Although there was no sense of elation from John and his fellow airmen over the deaths of men they considered fellow sailors, there is now a sense of dignified and quiet pride on a difficult job carried out.
And John says the young pilots and aircrew he meets at such events as today’s anniversary dinner always like to hear about the Bismarck mission.
“I always get a very warm feeling when I am in their company – they welcome me back as one of their own, no matter that it’s been such a long time since I was in uniform,” explained John, who finished the war as a lieutenant commander.
John’s dad, Peter, ran a garage. When he was 10, the family moved to Kelso where his father ran a charabanc, operating between Berwick and Galashiels. Peter later became the local manager of the SMT company.
It was in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, that John signed up with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.
Now a grandfather and great-grandfather, the retired hotelier added: “I am supposed to be the guest of honour, but then that could simply be because I’m the only one left from that event!
“I think this will be the last such event I’ll be able to attend. But I’ll never forget the Bismarck. I think you always remember something like that so clearly. I know I will.”
A book written by John, in collaboration with Mike Rossiter, entitled “I Sank the Bismarck”, was published in 2009 by Bantam Press and is still available.