If We Didn’t Fly There Would Be No Tomorrow

In this specially adapted extract from the book ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’, by Iain Ballantyne, we ride with Canadian-born Fleet Air Arm aviator Terry Goddard, the Observer of a Swordfish torpedo-bomber sent to try and cripple the famous German high seas raider.

26 May 1941

7.00PMHMS Ark Royal’s Bid

It is time for another set of contenders to climb into the ring for a round with the heavyweight. The battlecruiser HMS Hood tried on 24 May and was blown apart. Three days later aviators aboard the carrier HMS Ark Royal are being called forward, asked to inflict some kind of decisive blow to slow down Bismarck.

The Swordfish is deceptively antiquated looking. Though a biplane that chugs through the air sounding like an aerial tractor, it is not actually that old, having entered Fleet Air Arm service in 1937. It won its spurs in late 1940 by knocking out Italian battleships in Taranto harbour. The first U-boat sunk in the Second World War by the British was courtesy of a Swordfish using bombs but it is as a torpedo-bomber that it will achieve new fame.

HMS Ark Royal in WW2, operating Swordfish. Photo: USH&HC.

Slow, with only a top speed of 138 mph, its two wings give incredible lift. A monoplane needs around 30 knots of wind across the flight deck to take off from a carrier. The Swordfish can take off from a vessel at anchor (and even into the teeth of a gale). Constructed from wood, canvas and metal struts, it can survive hits that will destroy metal-skinned aircraft, for the simple reason that cannon shells and bullets pass right through it.

After the mission briefing for the attack on Bismarck comes the sitting and waiting for take-off. It is inevitable people ponder their mortality and chances of survival. Terry Goddard recognises that dreadful weather conditions will not be a barrier to the mission. ‘We knew perfectly well we were gonna fly, because if we didn’t fly there would be no tomorrow for us. We had to fly and weather be darned.’

 The aircrews feel the weight of expectation, of history itself – the fate of the Navy and the nation, also the Fleet Air Arm’s honour all pressing down on their shoulders. ‘It is the sitting around that gnaws at you. You’re thinking rather than doing, which is worrisome. Once you start doing things the worry disappears. 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. Often. Fortunately he was on my side…’

Fifteen Swordfish are ranged on the flight deck, herring bone fashion, all fuelled up and each armed with a single 18-inch torpedo, ready to go.

7.10PM – Stormy Take-off

With waves crashing over Ark Royal’s bows, the Swordfish are launched, clawing their way into the sky. ‘One by one, the batsman, the deck control officer, leads you forward – and you just sit and wait, look at the island waiting for the green flag and away you go. The ship is steering into wind, actually on this occasion slowed down, so there wasn’t too much wind going over the deck. There’s green water coming over the bow. In my aircraft – Swordfish 5K – Stan Keane was the pilot, I was the Navigator and Milliner was the Air Gunner. He was responsible for working the radio. I’m responsible for getting us there and Stan is responsible for flying the aircraft and carrying out the attack. The ship was taking green water. The bow was going up and down 60ft. It was raining, windy and the ship was rolling and pitching but there was no problem in take off, we were airborne before we passed the island.’

Once in the air, the crew of Swordfish 5K formulates a plan of attack, though communication within the cockpit is difficult, what with a 110-knot wind and roar of the aircraft’s engine. They shout at each other down an interconnecting rubber voice pipe.

Swordfish torpedo-bombers attack battleship Bismarck. Image: Dennis Andrews. www.dennisandrewsart.co.uk

8.47PMFire-spitting Monster

Battling the gale, blown sideways, almost negating their forward momentum, the Swordfish drop from the clouds to make their attack runs. As they sight oncoming aircraft, lookouts aboard Bismarck scream: ‘Alarm!’

Klaxons blare throughout the German battleship. Bismarck takes violent evasive action, her anti-aircraft guns hurling a storm of steel at the British biplanes. Bismarck even fires her main 15-inch guns, the shells sending up tall plumes of spray, hoping to literally knock Swordfish out of the sky. Soon Swordfish 5K will be taking her turn at jousting with the enemy, provided she can find the target.

Terry Goddard looks anxiously over the side of the cockpit for some sign of Bismarck. ‘The whole aircraft shook as if there were a number of express trains roaring by us. We figured Bismarck had opened fire on us. In actual fact she had opened fire on [the nearby cruiser] Sheffield, but…we had found her. So, down we went. Ice was peeling off the wings, couldn’t see a bloody thing. The altimeter is spinning, spinning, spinning and then we break into the clear about 600ft and there’s Bismarck on our starboard bow. She was a fire-spitting monster. Everything was coming at us and she was illuminated…awesome. This ship was just magnificent. It looked exactly like a battleship should, I mean scary and everything but just a beautiful ship.

Once the attack has started it’s all about the pilot. The Observer and the Air Gunner, we just stand by and get really excited watching what is going on. You are not thinking you are going to be killed, you’re thinking you’re going to hit the bastard and that’s it. The more you turn [the aircraft] around, and the more you frig around, the more chance they get to hit you, so we just went straight in. We got as low on the deck as we could and went straight. Bismarck was on the port side and she just got bigger and bigger. The flak is bursting over our head. Well above us. 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. I tell Stan, he grunts – he’s busy doing various manoeuvres on the deck – I give a message to the Air Gunner that we have scored a hit. Milliner thought he’d seen something too. Right after the attack the shooting stopped. We were in the clear. She wasn’t firing at us. Ark Royal requests us to repeat the message. Then we climb back up into the clag and this time it is about 6,000ft that we broke clear. About five minutes later we saw another Swordfish well ahead. We increase speed, join up with him. It’s David Godfrey-Faussett [the other aircraft’s pilot] smoking a big cigar and with a smile on his face. I didn’t like his course so we broke away and we headed off on our own.’

11.30PMMission Failure?

With Swordfish landing back aboard Ark Royal, and their crews filing reports, it is decided the balance of probability is that Bismarck has not been damaged. This is despite claims in the briefing room by some aviators that they managed torpedo hits on the German giant. ‘Command was very reluctant to accept that there were any. I told them three or four times that we had scored a hit and they ignored me. Finally, when Sheffield sent a report that Bismarck was steering north-east, they suddenly realised that something had happened.’

In other words, the enemy vessel is not heading towards the sanctuary of Brest on the French Atlantic coast, but rather back to where the Home Fleet battleships are closing. Bismarck’s change in direction cannot be happening by choice.

‘They ultimately accepted that there were two hits…we had attacked after the torpedo had hit the rudder. We were the last aircraft to attack the Bismarck, then or any other day.’

Now it was down to the rest of British fleet to destroy the German behemoth…

For the rest of the exciting, action-packed story buy ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ (£2.99 ebook/£5.99 paperback) which is published by Ipso Books

 

Swordfish aviator Terry Goddard aboard a Royal Navy aircraft carrier during WW2. Photo: © Goddard Collection.

Commander Terry Goddard, Royal Canadian Navy (Retd) had an extraordinary war and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in 1943 ‘for outstanding bravery & skill’. After the Bismarck Action, Terry remained with 818 NAS for some time before joining 803 NAS. He saw further action, flying in Fulmars from the carrier Formidable during operations in the Indian Ocean. His aircraft engaged in a dogfight with a Japanese fighter, narrowly evading destruction. Switched to the Mediterranean, Terry at one time had command of 821 NAS, equipped with Albacore torpedo-bombers. Flying from North Africa and Malta, 821 NAS carried out anti-shipping and mine laying tasks, path-finding for RAF Wellington bombers and anti-submarine protection of the Sicily invasion force. Post-war Lieutenant Goddard served in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) destroyer HMCS Haida, before promotion to Lt Cdr and taking command of the RCN Fleet Air Arm’s 826 Squadron and the 18th Carrier Air Group flying from the carrier HMCS Magnificent. Cdr Goddard ended his naval career as Staff Officer Operations at NATO’s Commander-in-Chief Eastern Atlantic (CINCEASTLANT). Terry lived for many years in peaceful retirement with his wife Cora, in Ontario, Canada. They were together for more than 30 years. Terry was 96 when he passed away in March 2016. ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ also contains details of Terry’s war service both before and after the May 1941 battle.

Russians Target Ballistic Missile Defence Ship Again

For the second time in two years Russian strike jets have buzzed the US Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook, except in the latest episode not in the Black Sea but in the Baltic.

What makes the Arleigh Burke Class warship so interesting to the Russians – and therefore, Moscow feels, worthy of some close attention – is her status as a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) vessel.

Russian jets buzz USS Donald CookA Russian Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft makes a very low
altitude pass past the USS Donald Cook on April 12. Image: US Navy.

The Donald Cook is one of four forward-based US Navy destroyers (operating from Rota in Spain) that are BMD-capable. They sail European waters to provide NATO nations with a protective umbrella against potential missile attack, but Russia deeply resents the deployment of such warships close to its borders.

The Pentagon claims the patrols by the BMD-capable Arleighs are more about protecting allies and US interests, and forward-based forces overseas, from attack by rogue states than seeing off a Russian threat. The Kremlin views them as a very provocative presence, hence the Donald Cook’s encounters with low-flying strike jets.

Referred to by the US Navy as ‘several close interactions’, the latest incidents also involved a Helix helicopter adopting the Cold War tactic (used by both sides back then) of photographing a NATO vessel up close.

Helix helicopter

The KA-27 Helix flies close to the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic. Image: US Navy.

‘USS Donald Cook encountered multiple, aggressive flight maneuvers by Russian aircraft that were performed within close proximity of the ship,’ explained a US Navy statement on the episodes, which occurred as the destroyer sailed within international waters.

The Arleigh Burke Class destroyer was ‘conducting deck landing drills with an allied military helicopter’ according to the USN, when at 3.00pm European time on April 11, a pair of SU-24 jets ‘made numerous close-range and low altitude passes’.

The decision was swiftly taken to temporarily halt the deck landings (by a Polish naval helicopter). According to the US Navy the situation swiftly became unsafe, especially with one SU-24 Fencer jet passing around 30ft above the Donald Cook. This happened as a helicopter was being refueled on the destroyer’s flight-deck.

RUSSIAN-BUZZ-PAST

Two Su-24 Fencers pass very close to the USS Donald Cook on April 12, 2016. Image: US Navy.

The following day the SU-24s were back, but this time just after the KA-27 Helix had circled the Donald Cook at low altitude, it is believed to enable a photographer to take shots of the warship’s radars and other systems.

‘About 40 minutes after the interaction with the Russian helicopter, two Russian SU-24 jets made numerous close-range and low altitude passes, 11 in total,’ the USN statement revealed. ‘The Russian aircraft flew in a simulated attack profile and failed to respond to repeated safety advisories in both English and Russian.’ The boss of American naval forces in Europe, Admiral Mark Ferguson slammed the Russian actions as “unprofessional and unsafe.”

The episode has generated headlines around the world while diplomatic back channels have been buzzing; with the USA seeking to make sure Russia knows how dangerous such manoeuvres are. “We have deep concerns about the unsafe and unprofessional Russian flight maneuvers,” said a USN source. “These actions have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions between countries and could result in a miscalculation or accident that could cause serious injury or death.”

During the Cold War such incidents were common, with both sides going as close as they dared to test the reactions of the other side’s warships. Photography of exposed systems, in order to try and gain an insight into the opposition’s warfare potential, was a key objective of helicopter flights. Jet passes were also designed to test the reactions of the target vessel’s crew and pick up intelligence on tactics and sensor capabilities. The same dangerous game of using your own surface vessels and submarines to come as close as possible to the other’s side’s equivalent units was conducted for identical reasons.

WIFRBuzzReport2014

The news report on USS Donald Cook’s previous encounter with low flying Russian strike jets, as published in the June 2014 edition of WARSHIPS IFR magazine.

The USS Donald Cook was last subjected to the same kind of jet buzz treatment while on patrol in the Black Sea at the height of Russia’s intervention in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014.

The destroyer was sailing through international waters when a SU-24, possibly from a Russian naval aviation squadron based in the Crimea, came a little too close. The SU-24 made a total of 12 passes, going from near sea level to around 2,000ft – but never flying directly over the warship. A second SU-24 was present but remained at high altitude throughout the provocative 90 minute display.

The aircraft was not visibly armed and did not respond to multiple queries and warnings from the Donald Cook. The episode ended without further incident. The SU-24 had, at its closest, approached to within around 1,000 yards.

At the time Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren observed: “The USS Donald Cook was never in danger.” He added: “The Donald Cook is more than capable of defending itself against two Su-24s.” Warren said he did not think it was a case of a young pilot ‘joyriding’ and suggested: “I would have difficulty believing that two Russian pilots, on their own, would chose to take such an action.”

Episodes of Cold War close calls at sea between NATO and Russian submarines are detailed in Iain Ballantyne’s ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books). More information here.
Visit the Orion Publishing Group web site for more on ‘Hunter Killers’
Iain is also Editor of the global naval news WARSHIPS IFR magazine, which will be providing further analysis in a forthcoming edition. For more naval news information and details on the magazine visit www.warshipsifr.com

The Soviet Spy Who Built British Warships

The Soviet Union’s top spy in America during the 1950s used the cover name Rudolf Abel but was in truth William August Fisher. Born on Tyneside, in the north east of England, in 1903, Fisher worked at Swan Hunter as a teenage apprentice draughtsman when the shipyard was constructing both warships and merchant vessels.

In 1957 the FBI apprehend Fisher in a New York hotel after busting into his room, bringing to an end his bid to set up a spying network seeking out intelligence on American nuclear weapons, including the Polaris Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).

The parents of ‘Colonel Abel’, as he was known in the USA during his trial, were anti-Tsarist political activists who returned to Russia in 1921 after the communists seized power. Fisher worked in signals intelligence for the Soviets during WW2 before utilising his British upbringing to successfully insert himself undercover in the USA in the late 1940s.

At one stage he worked alongside Konon Molody, who, as ‘Gordon Lonsdale’ in the early 1960s would run the notorious Portland Spy Ring in the UK, stealing secrets of the Royal Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought.

Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Bridge of Spies’ begins by masterfully plunging us into ‘Abel’s’ humdrum life in late 1950s USA as he tries to go about his espionage as unobtrusively as possible. The spy, a talented artist, takes an easel and paints with him for some landscape work to cover a visit to a dead letter drop.

Berlin-wall
An East German policeman stands guard over a worker constructing the Berlin Wall, to ensure he does not try to escape to the West. Former US Navy officer turned lawyer James Donovan had to cross from West to East Berlin to negotiate for the spy swap on the so-called ‘Bridge of Spies’, as featured in the Steven Spielberg movie. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

‘Abel’ (Mark Rylance) is later arrested in his underpants back at the hotel and put on trial (fully clothed). He is defended by insurance lawyer, and former US Navy officer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who had also been an advocate at the post-war Nuremberg war crimes trials. Despite public outrage Donovan manages to get Abel sentenced to prison rather than receive the death penalty.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

Fast forward to early 1962, and Donovan plays a pivotal role in springing shot-down U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) from imprisonment in the Soviet Union in exchange for ‘Abel’. The swap takes place on the Glienicke Bridge, which spans a stretch of cold water lying between West and East Berlin. At Checkpoint Charlie – one of the controlled gateways through the newly constructed Berlin Wall – another release takes place simultaneously, of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) earlier arrested by the East Germans for being a spy.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

That, in essence, is the core story of ‘Bridge of Spies’. It does play fast and loose with some of the facts but succeeds in powerfully and movingly conveying the big moral issues of the time as well as plunging us convincingly into the places where it all happened.Despite its simplistic boiling down of a complex story it still presents a multi-layered yarn, never resorting to histrionics or pompous moralising. It never gives in to the temptation of having Hanks’ character indulge in ludicrous action man antics or gunplay.

Mark Rylance’s subtle performance preserves the enigma of ‘Abel’ (who during his trial did not reveal his real British identity) while still conveying the inner paradoxes of a cultured man working for a brutal totalitarian state.

‘Bridge of Spies’ (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) will be released on DVD and Blu Ray formats this spring.

This is a version of a review to be published in the forthcoming March 2016 edition of WARSHIP IFR magazine (due out on February 19). www.warshipsifr.com

Iain Ballantyne is the author of ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books) which tells the story of the Royal Navy’s submariners and submarines during the Cold War.

Among other things, ‘Hunter Killers’ looks at the activities of the Portland Spy Ring and certain aspects of Soviet espionage in the UK that sought to snatch Royal Navy submarine secrets. Iain is currently writing ‘The Deadly Trade’, a history of submarine warfare from Ancient times to today, for the same publisher.

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