Torpedo Attacks amid Shrapnel and Shell Splashes

Come the evening of 26 May 1941, Sub Lieutenant Terry Goddard felt the burden of history on his young shoulders when it came to the vital matter of bringing the fugitive German battleship to a halt.

“I think we were well aware that Bismarck had to be stopped and we had to stop her,” Terry would recall. “I am not sure that we felt that we were going to sink her but I think when we took off we all had the feeling we certainly were going to damage her…”

Fortunately, that night the Swordfish torpedo-bombers launched by HMS Ark Royal successfully located and then attacked Bismarck. Terry Goddard’s aircraft, Swordfish 5K, of which he was Observer (navigator) and whose pilot was Lieutenant Stan Keane – with Petty Officer D. C. Milliner as the Telegraphic Air Gunner (TAG) – was the last to go in.

“The flak is bursting over our head,” Terry would recall, “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.”

It isn’t the key hit – that has already been delivered via another Swordfish, in Terry’s view by Ken Pattisson’s Swordfish 2A. With Bismarck’s steering so badly damaged she stands no chance of reaching safety in Brest on the French Atlantic coast.

The British naval aviators could feel well satisfied. There was now a solid chance for the Royal Navy to avenge the loss of 1,415 shipmates killed just over two days earlier when Bismarck’s gunnery blew apart battlecruiser Hood.

For many of the men in warships scattered across the Atlantic – all heading towards a showdown with the Nazi high sea raider – it was a deeply personal mission. Many of them had known sailors and marines serving in Hood. A good few of them had at one time even served in Hood themselves. Now, crippled following a torpedo hit courtesy of the Ark Royal strike, the Bismarck was a mortally wounded beast that needed to be finished off.

On the night of 26 May battleships of the Home Fleet – HMS King George V and HMS Rodney – were still steaming hard for the scene and, along with the RN’s heavy cruisers, would make their attack in the morning, secure in the knowledge that their quarry could not get away before then.

In the meantime, Captain Philip Vian’s 4th Destroyer Flotilla would harass and seek to further damage the German giant, with HMS Cossack leading the way for the destroyers’ attacks on the night of May 26. Junior gunnery rating Ken Robinson recalled: “We went in head to sea and fired a spread of torpedoes. At the time, we thought one of them had hit.”

Having tried her luck, Cossack did not hang around, Ken remembering that his ship “turned and with the sea up our stern, sped away at what seemed to be the fastest we ever went, the sea throwing us all over the place.” German heavy shells plunged in around her, their approach seen on the destroyer’s radar but the Cossack got away without being obliterated.

As the sun peeped over the eastern horizon on 27 May 1941, to reveal a storm-tossed seascape, from his upper deck position aboard HMS Cossack, Ken scanned his surroundings. Aboard his ship and other destroyers in the 4th Flotilla, tired, red-rimmed eyes studied the horizon, trying to sight the enemy, who must be nearby but was not yet visible. Bismarck was likely lurking in a squall and preparing to blow them out of water.

Then the German battleship was spotted 8,000 yards dead ahead of HMS Zulu, and that morning HMS Maori would make a solo torpedo run that proved unsuccessful while the Polish destroyer ORP Piorun also made a lunge but did not get in a good enough position to launch torpedoes.

From Cossack, Capt Vian reported in a signal to Home Fleet boss Admiral John Tovey, at 7.01am, that Bismarck had had just opened fire, but failed to score any hits – this must have been at Maori and Piorun during their cheeky forays. Cossack and the other 4th Flotilla ships loitered at what they hoped was a healthier distance.

In the aftermath of the early morning burst of energy, an eerie calm settled over the scene. The weather cleared to present what an officer in Zulu described as ‘a bright blue sky and a clear horizon had taken the place of the grey mists and driving clouds.’ In the German battleship, there was no pleasure taken in the same vista, for it meant the approaching enemy would have a good view to a kill.

• The veterans quoted in this blog feature prominently in ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom


Main image: A Swordfish, with torpedo  – Jonathan Eastland.