A Deadly Game of Catch me if you can

‘Intend to leave convoy now, steer 65, speed 25, to intercept and shadow the enemy.
I have 59% fuel on hand.’ Captain Benjamin Martin, CO HMS Dorsetshire, to the Admiralty

‘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.’  Terry Goddard, Swordfish torpedo-bomber Observer

The early morning of 26 May 1941 saw Bismarck still on the loose after destroying HMS Hood and potentially slipping away to find safe refuge in an Atlantic port in Nazi occupied France. Only placing British warships within range of hitting her within the next 24 hours could avenge the Hood.

Although divine intervention from a greater power might help, in fact trying to stop Bismarck was, from the moment she emerged out of the Baltic and into the Atlantic, down to a wide array of people in the UK, Europe and at sea.

They included: undercover intelligence gatherers, code-breakers, wireless intercept operatives, eagle-eyed RAF and Fleet Air Arm aviators, along with the veteran captains of the RN’s battleships, cruisers and destroyers plus Home Fleet commander Admiral John Tovey.

The Admiralty issued instructions and vital information via its world-wide signals net, but with minimal response from those at sea – maintaining radio silence was golden in the deadly catch me if you can game being played out.

The British sea captains were trusted with bringing their instinct and fine judgement to bear in anticipating where to put the ships, how hard to chase and when to attack. They might send one or two signals to assist the Admiralty’s overall effort, but that was about it.

It was also down to the Germans and whether or not they would make fatal errors, such as Bismarck sending too many tell-tale wireless signals, so enabling the British to pinpoint the general location of the ship and where she was heading.

With Bismarck found again on the morning of 26 May – having eluded her Royal Navy pursuers for 31 hours – the vice began to tighten on the German battleship.

At sea in late May 1941 were several RN Commanding Officers who knew in their bones how to react when the pressure was on and their nation required ‘action this day’.

One of the vessels that departed from escorting a convoy was the heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, commanded by Captain Benjamin Martin. During her high-speed dash north the Dorsetshire battled very heavy seas, straining every rivet to be at the finale of the Bismarck Action.

The dash of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, led by the famous Captain Philip Vian – in the already legendary destroyer HMS Cossack – illustrated the fact that there was a wide array of supremely aggressive talent in the Royal Navy of the Second World War.

Vian and Cossack had won renown for exploits early in the war when they ventured into a Norwegian fjord to rescue British mariners held prisoner aboard the German naval auxiliary Altmark. Cossack also participated in the vicious fight against Kriegsmarine destroyers at the Second Battle of Narvik, which saw the Kriegsmarine’s major escort force eviscerated.

With Vian in command of her and the flotilla, Cossack’s next do or die moment arrived on 26 May 1941 when she and the other ships raced towards where they believed they could find, trail and even attack the mighty Bismarck.

In the end it would all be a matter of kill or be killed for the young men at sea in the ships, and naval aircraft, not least the Swordfish torpedo-bombers from HMS Ark Royal.

To enable British warships to bring Bismarck to action, it was essential Swordfish kept an eye on her after an RAF Catalina flying boat made the initial sighting at 10.30am on 26 May. Ark’s aircraft maintained constant contact, soon supplemented by cruisers in the shadowing role.

Meanwhile preparations were made aboard Ark Royal for a torpedo attack that would, with luck, cripple the enemy vessel, stopping Bismarck’s bid to reach a port in France.

The British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal with some of her Swordfish torpedo-bombers aloft. (Photo: US Naval History and Heritage Command).

On the afternoon of 26 May, Ark Royal launched her first Swordfish strike, which did not go as planned. The aircraft mistakenly attacked the cruiser HMS Sheffield, which was shadowing Bismarck by then.

It was later speculated that they mistook the British cruiser for the Prinz Eugen as they had no idea any RN ship was in that position and did not know the German cruiser had separated from Bismarck. Fortunately no harm was done.

Aside from dropping torpedoes – most of them detonating on hitting the waves due to magnetic warheads, others ‘combed’ – one Swordfish did spray cruiser with machine gun fire. This was all considered deeply unimpressive by Sheffield’s crew.

That evening a new strike was launched from Ark Royal despite horrendous weather, the sort of conditions only a tough customer like the Swordfish could have coped with. This time the torpedo-bombers found the right target and made their attack runs in the face of enemy fire. Upon their success depended the whole venture of destroying the enemy battleship that a few days earlier delivered the heavy blow of sinking the battlecruiser HMS Hood in the battle of the Denmark Strait.

Sub Lieutenant Terry Goddard was the Observer of Swordfish 5K, with Lieutenant Stan Keane as the pilot and Petty Officer D. C. Milliner the Telegraphic Air Gunner. Goddard’s analysis of the mission’s importance was as follows: ‘We had to fly and weather be darned.’

 

• How the Swordfish attack turned out is told by those who were in the thick of the action in ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ – now published in an 80th anniversary expanded edition, details of which can be found here. The story of the dramatic finale to the Bismarck Action on 26 – 27 May 1941 is told in cinematic-style across a variety of vessels and also from the perspective of Bismarck.

 

Main image: A Swordfish from HMS Ark Royal shadows Bismarck on 26 May 1941. (Andy A. Court)