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Linklater’s Scotland:

the heroism of John Moffat

Magnus Linklater

Columnist, Scotland on Sunday

This article, which was originally published in the Spectrum section of Scotland on Sunday
on 22nd May 2005, is reproduced on Land-Care with the kind permission
of the author and the newspaper

Filed 24 May 05

JOHN MOFFAT eased his Piper Colt off the runway at Scone airport last week, en route for Wick. Clearance given, he set his course in clear weather and headed north. The next day he would be flying out to Oban, and then the Hebrides, before returning to Perth and his home in Dunkeld. Nothing remarkable about that, save for two small details. Moffat is 86, a fairly advanced age for a pilot. He also happens to be a man whose flying experience was gained in rather more demanding circumstances.

On the late evening of May 26, 1941 - 64 years ago this week - flying a fragile Swordfish biplane, and bouncing 50 feet above the waves in a force-nine Atlantic gale, Sub-Lieutenant Moffat of the Fleet Air Arm released a single torpedo which ploughed through the sea towards the Bismarck, the greatest ship in the German navy. The officers gathered on its foredeck could not believe what they were seeing. “It was incredible to see such obsolete-looking planes having the nerve to attack a fire-spouting mountain like the Bismarck,” said one of them later.

Moffat's torpedo struck, to fatal effect. The Bismarck, its rudder disabled, was mortally wounded. Unable to manoeuvre, it was at the mercy of the gathering British ships. Next day, Moffat returned to the fray to witness a terrible scene - the vast ship, pouring smoke, had heeled over, spilling its crew into the sea. More than 2,000 perished that morning; only 115 survived. It was the most critical naval encounter of the war.

Last week, I listened as Moffat recounted the events of that day. His was a gripping account of wartime daring, but told with such a lightness of touch that it belied the almost unimaginable dangers he confronted. The Swordfish planes that he and his fellow pilots flew - known affectionately as Stringbags - were more like First World War flying machines, all metal struts and canvas.

Moffat took off from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal. His observer, or navigator, was Dusty Miller. The conditions were appalling. This is how he described it. “Taking off from the deck of a carrier in a force-nine gale is quite something. The deck can tip by 55 feet. We managed it because of the Stringbag. No other aircraft could have done it. It was so stable. It had great lifting power and design. It carried a three-man crew and a 1,600lb torpedo.

“Timing was everything, and the deck officer - or "bats" - was crucial; he knew exactly the roll of the ship and when you could get off. Ours was Pat Stringer. He was brilliant, 6ft4in tall, and because of the gale he had to be tied down to the deck. When he said go, you just went. The Swordfish could lift off at 60 knots.

“We took off in formations of three. I was the wing man flying beside the CO, Tim Coode. We flew just below cloud level, at 600ft, until we spotted HMS Sheffield, which signalled to us with an Aldis lamp, giving us the bearing and the distance of the Bismarck. The CO gave us a hand signal to show that we had to climb up into the clouds to over 6,000ft.

“Then the Bismarck spotted us on its radar and opened up with its big 15in guns. That really put the wind up us. Number three got a clip on his wings, but carried on. Then the CO gave us the order to go line astern - one-two-three. He signalled to us to dive. He dived. We followed. That got the wind up us again, because we couldn't see where we were going, we were just diving through the cloud. We got to about 600ft above the sea, and we were diving at 45. I thought, "How the hell am I going to pull out of this in time?"

“Then we came through the clouds and pulled out of the dive. We were about 100ft above the sea. And then I saw the Bismarck. It was on my right, a massive thing, about two miles away. The CO, ahead of me, turned in towards it. Bang went the big guns again. They fired different kinds of shell, which exploded in front of us, sending up great sheets of water. How we got through them I just don't know, but the good old Swordfish did it.

“Then their smaller guns erupted. They were coming at us like hail, with tracers and so on. It was just uncanny. I thought the closer we were to the water the better chance we had of surviving, so we flew at just 50ft above the sea. It must have worked, because I'm still here. I can't understand why that hot stuff wasn't battering us to death. But the great thing about the Swordfish was that the bullets just went through it - after all, it was only made out of canvas.

“Then we approached the dropping range of about 2,000 yards. On the aircraft you had a calibrated bar in front of you that allowed for the speed of the ship and the distance. Now, I don't know why I did this, but I ignored all that and thought I would drop my torpedo straight at the nose of the ship. It was coming towards me at about a 30 angle, showing its starboard side, and I thought it was bound to hit it somewhere. But Dusty Miller was shouting, "Not yet! Not yet!"

“He was hanging over the side of the plane, with his backside up in the air. He had realised the sea was so bad, and the waves were so high that if I put the torpedo down too early it would go into the sea at too steep an angle and it would simply 'porpoise' - that is, it would dive down and be wasted. All this was happening in split seconds, but I realised what he was up to. It felt like years to me. We got closer and closer, and then he said, "Let it go!" And boy, did I let it go.

“We were about 1,000 yards away. All I thought of was keeping us down, because when you let a torpedo go, the release of the weight makes the plane bounce up, and I had to offset that. Also I couldn't bank and turn because that would show the belly of the aircraft and make us a bigger target, so I did a flat turn - that means you just skid round, as if you are skiing.

“And then we headed off just above the water as fast we could. I looked back and the Bismarck, instead of turning towards the torpedoes, as it should have done, was turning away, exposing its stern.

“Later, I heard that one torpedo had hit the rudder and put its steering out of action. Of course I didn't know whether my torpedo had hit, and for years I didn't claim anything, but the official record now gives me the hit. It seems that, because of my position, the only person who could have hit the rudder was me. All Dusty said was, "By God, that was something!"

“When we got back, it was Stringer who got us down on to the deck. It was ten o'clock at night, but there wasn't much chance of a rest. Next day we were sent out again at seven. When we reached the Bismarck, a full-scale battle was taking place. We went round the blind side and came in low, at 100ft. There wasn't quite such a big gale. At 1,000 yards, we were ready to drop the torpedoes again, but then the ship just turned on its side, and of course we didn't drop them. What we saw wasn't funny. There were hundreds of heads bobbing in the sea. They had no chance of survival.

“When we got back there was no euphoria. We just thought, "There but for the grace of God go I.”

©Magnus Linklater

This article:

Earlier articles in the series

1. Linklater, Magnus (2005). Linklater's Scotland. Scotland on Sunday 20th March 2005
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 24 Mar 05, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

2. Linklater, Magnus (2005). Linklater's Scotland - Easter in Easterhouse. Scotland on Sunday 27th March 2005
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 31 Mar 05, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

3. Linklater, Magnus (2005). Linklater's Scotland - Farming. Scotland on Sunday 3rd April 2005
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 07 Apr 0505, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

4. Linklater, Magnus (2005). Linklater's Scotland - Pitlochry. Scotland on Sunday 10th April 2005
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 15 Apr 05, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

5. Linklater, Magnus (2005). Linklater's Scotland - Supermarkets. Scotland on Sunday 17th April 2005
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 19 Apr 05, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

6. Linklater, Magnus (2005). Linklater's Scotland - Kelvingrove. Scotland on Sunday 24th April 2005
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 29 Apr 05, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

7. Linklater, Magnus (2005). Linklater's Scotland - Scottish regiments. Scotland on Sunday 1st May 2005
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 05 May 05, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

8. Linklater, Magnus (2005). Linklater's Scotland - Pete Irvine, impresario. Scotland on Sunday 8th May 2005
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 13 May 05, www.land-care.org.uk Click Here to View

9. Linklater, Magnus (2005). Linklater's Scotland - once a nation of adventurous entrepreneurs. Scotland on Sunday 15th May 2005
Click Here to View