‘Bismarck was being mercilessly pounded’

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, teenage rating Ken Robinson scanned his surroundings.

Aboard Ken’s 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. This was most likely, so the destroyer men thought, because Bismarck was lurking in a squall and preparing to blow them out of water.

How the brutal final gunfight between Bismarck and the British warships unfolded. Image: Dennis Andrews.

Then the German battleship was spotted 8,000 yards dead ahead of HMS Zulu, so she and the other 4th Flotilla’s ships turned away to loiter at what they hoped was a healthier distance. From Cossack, Captain Philip Vian reported in a signal to Home Fleet boss Admiral John Tovey, at 7.01am, that Bismarck had opened fire, but failed to score any hits.

In the aftermath 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 battleships HMS King George V and HMS Rodney soon arrived and the final battle began as their big guns roared, with Bismarck’s return fire inaccurate and causing no serious damage to any British vessel.

The battleship HMS Rodney closes in on the Bismarck, burning in the distance, during the final battle of 27 May 1941. Image: Dennis Andrews.

After her long dash north through heavy seas, bows plunging into gigantic waves and shaking them off before the ship hurtled on, the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire finally came within range of her quarry. George Bell waited on the Dorsetshire’s bridge to carry messages from Captain Benjamin Martin around the ship. Like every man in the British warship, George knew the task at hand was absolutely necessary: “We closed to open fire, for the last thing we wanted was to allow Bismarck under any circumstances to cause havoc among our convoys.”

Amid the bombardment by the big 16-inch and 14-inch guns of Rodney and King George V, rapid-fire salvoes of 8-inch shells from the Dorsetshire and also cruiser HMS Norfolk hurtled towards the German battleship, ripping her upper works to shreds. Some of the heavy shells, meanwhile, punched holes right through Bismarck, while others tore off parts of the superstructure or inflicted mortal damage.

From one of Rodney’s 6-inch gun turrets Royal Marine Len Nicholl looked on in fascinated horror: “I actually saw the back of the [Bismarck’s] B turret explode when one of the shells hit her. It just flipped up in the air, spinning like a penny.” He added: “I was on the port side of the ship. We’d go up the port side firing at her, turn around and then the starboard side would have a go at firing. We would be in a bit of a lull on the port side. I saw Bismarck burning from stem to stern and she was a beautiful ship, beautiful schooner bows on her.”

As the fight neared its end, Swordfish from HMS Ark Royal appeared overhead and, after being fired on in error by HMS King George V, were told to keep their distance and to not attack Bismarck with torpedoes.

Torpedo retained by its frustrated crew a Swordfish torpedo-bomber flies away from the scene of the Bismarck’s destruction. ++

The young aviators, including Terry Goddard, had launched from Ark Royal with their spirits high but what they saw below took the edge off any triumphalism they may have felt on take-off. “We were at about 2,000ft,” recalled Terry. “Bismarck was surrounded by battleships, cruisers and destroyers. She was being mercilessly pounded. Her A turret was gone. The after turrets were still firing. She was steaming at about seven knots, if that. The bridge was gone…there was just a big black hole billowing black smoke. She was a mess and the gunfire was just ceaseless…”

The final blows from the British were delivered by torpedoes after all, launched by HMS Dorsetshire, which went in close after the Rodney and King George V ceased fire. Bismarck survivors would later claim that they had scuttled the ship and this is what finally put their ship out of her misery, rather than the cruiser’s torpedoes.

The heavy cruiser HMS Dorsetshire launches a torpedo. Photo: Courtesy of the HMS Dorsetshire Association.

Either way, Capt Martin ordered a signal sent from Dorsetshire as ‘Most Immediate’, which told the world of the German battleship’s end and her bravery as she went down: ‘Torpedoed Bismarck both sides before she sank. She had ceased firing but her colours were still flying.’

The aftermath of Bismarck’s sinking saw desperate calls for salvation from hundreds of survivors fighting to stay afloat amid oil and debris in a strength-sapping cold sea. Capt Martin gave the order for Dorsetshire to stop by the biggest group and start rescuing them, despite fears of U-boat attack and the likelihood of a Luftwaffe assault.

George Bell later pondered how there never was any personal enmity for the foe: “When we went to pick up survivors, we did so because they were seamen doing their job of work, just like us. We had done our job, which was to sink the Bismarck and so now we offered them mercy.”

However, it all came to a halt 20 minutes after it started, when there was a submarine scare, Captain Martin giving the order for slow ahead to remove Dorsetshire from peril. The cruiser slid through floating knots of Germans who cried out in despair, faces etched with agony as their only means of survival pulled away.

Horrified British sailors staring over the side knew they were leaving fellow mariners to a slow, excruciating death. George brought orders from Capt Martin for them to throw lifebelts and anything else that would float overboard to give the Germans a chance to stay afloat.

Casting his mind back, Cossack’s Ken Robinson recalled that by the time the fighting was over that day, all he and his shipmates wanted to do was get some sleep. “What we needed above all was to get our heads down,” he recalled. “Cossack was always in the thick of it and it was only the latest episode in an exhausting war.”

• To read more of how a band of brothers took on the German battleship in the final battle of 26/27 May 1941 read ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ published by Agora Books and available via Amazon as a e-book or hardcopy in the UK  and also the USA 
• Iain Ballantyne tells the story of the Bismarck Action from various points of view across three of his books – ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’, ‘Killing the Bismarck’ and ‘HMS Rodney’ (the latter two published by Pen & Sword). All three convey the stories of people in the big ships, along with major twists and turns, while also providing the perspective of destroyer and cruiser sailors, along with aviators. More information on Iain Ballantyne’s books here.
++ A composite image using a Swordfish photo by Jonathan Eastland http://www.ajaxnetphoto.com and the Paul Wright painting ‘The End of the Bismarck’ that features on the cover of ‘Killing the Bismarck’. More details on Paul’s work here http://www.battleshippaintings.com


‘Bismarck had to be stopped’

As the Swordfish torpedo-bombers headed back to the carrier HMS Ark Royal on the afternoon of 26 May 1941 they came across some other warships, which might well be the enemy.

The attention of formation leader, Lieutenant Commander James Stewart-Moore, was drawn to one of his own aircraft, which was equipped with air search radar. Via semaphore flags, a young officer in its crew indicated to his leader that a contact had been picked up, around ten miles away.

Destroyers came into view below, which the aviators at first suspected might be German ships coming out to help escort Bismarck to a French port. However, they flashed a British identification signal.

It was Captain Philip Vian’s 4th Destroyer Flotilla, battling rough weather in poor visibility as it struggled south. Aboard Vian’s flotilla leader, HMS Cossack, was 18-year-old junior rating Ken Robinson, a loader on the ship’s 2pdr pom-pom anti-aircraft weapon. He would recall that one of the biplanes flew “practically alongside as the pilot waved to us before they flew away.”

The torpedo-bombers turned back towards Ark Royal. They were actually returning to the carrier in humiliation, for, prior to encountering Vian’s destroyers, the Swordfish had mistakenly attacked the cruiser HMS Sheffield. The latter was shadowing Bismarck at the time but fortunately, the torpedo attacks caused the cruiser no harm, though her crew were somewhat furious.

With their aircraft rearmed, and determined to make up for their error, Sub Lieutenant Terry Goddard – an Observer in Swordfish 5K – had not actually been on the earlier attack but, come the evening of 26 May, he surely felt the burden of history in the making on his young shoulders.

“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 found and attacked Bismarck, with Terry Goddard’s aircraft the last to go in. “The flak is bursting over our head,” recalled Terry, “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.”

Swordfish torpedo-bombers from HMS Ark Royal attack Bismarck on the night of 26 May 1941. Artwork by Dennis Andrews.

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.

The 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.

HMS Cossack, which led the 4th Destroyer Flotilla during the Bismarck Action. Photo: Courtesy of the HMS Cossack Association.

In the meantime, Capt Vian’s ships 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. 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.

• To read more of the story from the band of brothers who took on the German battleship in the finale, of 26/27 May 1941 read ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’ published by Agora Books and available via Amazon as a e-book or hardcopy in the UK  and also the USA
• Iain Ballantyne tells the story of the Bismarck Action from various points of view across three of his books – ‘Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom’, ‘Killing the Bismarck’ and ‘HMS Rodney’ (the latter two published by Pen & Sword). All three convey the stories of people in the big ships, along with major twists and turns, while also providing the perspective of destroyer and cruiser sailors, along with aviators. More information on Iain Ballantyne’s books here.

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.

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