Earlier that day, the search for the Bismarck had taken on a new urgency. It was no longer a matter of locating (and neutralizing) Nazi Germany’s most powerful ship, to prevent raids against Allied convoys. The hunt for the Bismarck was now a matter of British pride.
Hours before the pilots, observers and gunners of 825 Squadron learned of their mission, the Bismarck sunk the battle cruiser HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, in a surface battle in the Denmark Strait. Hit in one of her ammunition compartments, the Hood exploded and sank in less than three minutes; only three British sailors survived.
As Britain sought revenge for the Hood, the task of intercepting the Bismarck seemed daunting, if not impossible. The German dreadnought had sustained minor damage in its engagement with the British battle cruiser and its sister ship, Prince of Wales. But Bismarck was making more than 20 knots, steaming east toward the safety of Nazi-occupied France and Luftwaffe air cover. The window for catching Bismarck was already closing.
Against that backdrop, nine Swordfish of 825 Squadron departed Victorious in fading daylight. With their fabric and steel frame construction, the torpedo bombers were vulnerable to a variety of threats, including small arms fire, anti-aircraft guns and enemy fighters. First introduced in 1934, the Swordfish was obsolete by the time World War II began, but it remained in operational service. And on that May evening in 1941, the hopes of the Royal Navy–and all of Britain–rested on nine antiquated biplanes, and the 27 airmen who flew them.
It was a long shot, at best. The Victorious had joined the fleet less than a month earlier, and many of the Swordfish crews were equally inexperienced; some had made their first carrier landing only days earlier. Members of 825 Squadron had never conducted a combat strike, but the unit commander, Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, assured superiors that his men were up to the task.
Still, Esmonde had a couple of factors working in his favor. His Swordfish were equipped with the latest surveillance radar, and Royal Navy vessels were still shadowing Bismarck. Just before midnight, having sighted the enemy vessel visually and on radar, 825 Squadron launched its attack.
Their effort was gallant, but the results were disappointing. Bismarck put up a hail of anti-aircraft fire, and her skipper, Captain Ernst Lindemann, expertly dodged at least seven torpedoes.
But one of the Swordfish pilots was waiting to release his torpedo. Lieutenant Percy Gick, leading an element of three aircraft, launched his attack from starboard, but was dissatisfied with the angle. While the other Swordfish in his element pressed on–and missed–Glick elected to climb back into the clouds and maneuver around to port.
He reappeared as two other Swordfish crews launched their weapons. Gick’s attack surprised the Germans and even the skillful Captain Lindemann couldn’t outmaneuver the last torpedo. It exploded amidships, squarely in Bismarck’s armored belt.
The torpedo inflicted little actual damage, but it did slow the Bismarck, at least indirectly. Lindemann’s efforts to avoid the British torpedoes–and concussion from Gick’s direct hit–loosened collision mats, installed to limit flooding in damaged forward compartments after the Hood engagement.
As a result, Bismarck’s speed dropped below 20 knots, slowing the battleship’s progress toward France, and giving the British more time to close in for the kill. Forty-eight hours later, Swordfish from another carrier, Ark Royal, sealed the battleship’s fate. A torpedo launched by Sub-Lieutenant John Moffat jammed Bismarck’s rudder and steering gear, leaving the giant ship steaming in a circle.
Hours later, the German vessel was decimated by a British surface force, led by the battleships King George V and the Rodney. But contrary to popular belief, Bismarck didn’t slip beneath the waves until she was finally scuttled by her crew. Hundreds of German sailors jumped into the cold water, but the threat of U-boat attack prompted the British to suspend rescue operations. Of the Bismarck’s 2,200 man crew, less than 300 survived.
One of the men who helped sink the Bismarck died this week. Les Sayer was the radio operator-gunner for Percy Gick, the Swordfish pilot whose torpedo slowed the German battleship. As the U.K. Daily Mail recounts, Sayer remembered staring down at the ocean after a shell splash from the battleship ripped the aircraft’s fabric exterior. Sayer won the Distinguished Service Medal for his exploits during the Bismarck mission. After the war, he spent more than 30 years in civil aviation with various European airlines.
Mr. Sayer was also one of the last survivors of 825 Squadron. Three members of the unit were lost on a subsequent sortie to locate the Bismarck, and thirteen others died nine months later, on a mission against two other German capital ships, the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, during their famous dash up the English Channel. Among those lost on that day was Eugene Esmonde, the resourceful commander who found the Bismarck on the May evening, in the gathering darkness of the North Atlantic.