“Upon the Wings of the Wind”
At the beginning of World War II the British fleet had but one modern aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, which had commissioned in December 1938. All six of her predecessors were still in service, but only one of them had been designed and built from the keel up as a carrier. That ship was commissioned in 1924 and had served more as an experimental vessel than a true naval combatant. Of the Royal Navy’s other early carriers, four were re-built capital ships and one was a converted ocean liner. None could carry more than 50 aircraft. Although the Royal Navy had been an original innovator in the field of naval aviation, Japan and the United States had each leaped ahead of it during the 1930s. Two critical areas in which the Japanese and Americans had advantages were in shipboard aircraft capacity and maritime aircraft. It took three British aircraft carriers to operate the same number of planes as just two American or Japanese ships and the aircraft of the latter two navies were newer, faster, and generally superior to their British counterparts.
Due to its subservience to the Royal Air Force, the pre-World War II Fleet Air Arm was burdened with aircraft that were usually old and even obsolescent. Among the planes that flew off of British carriers in the years leading up to the war were the biplane Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber, the monoplane Blackburn Skua dive-bomber, and the Roc, a fighter plane variant of the Skua. The fighter proved too slow and vulnerable so, by 1941, it was no longer a front-line aircraft. The Swordfish’s maximum speed was 140 miles-per-hour and it had a range of about 550 miles when carrying either a torpedo or a 1,500 pound total bomb load. The lumbering Swordfish were only replaced when American war production hit its stride midway through the war. By then the Navy’s preferred torpedo plane was the faster and vastly more powerful US Navy Grumman Avenger. Still, for all the Avenger’s virtues and all the Swordfish’s deficiencies, the venerable bi-plane was never fully replaced. Swordfish served until the very end of the war.
“One of the Crew Fell Out Over the Side”– Remembering the Swordfish Torpedo Bomber
Swordfish pilot Bruce Vibert joined the Royal Navy at age 17 after seeing a newspaper article about the sinking of the carrier HMS Courageous in 1939. His precise ambition was to fly the Swordfish which he recalled as a much better plane than history has given it credit for being.
The Swordfish was the most capable aircraft anywhere in its given role … I’d flown the Blackburn Shark (a torpedo bomber of 1933 vintage that the Swordfish replaced) which handled like a grand piano with wings. The Swordfish was entirely different. Some history books have recorded the Swordfish as ponderous but that simply was not the case. The Swordfish could turn on a pinhead. It was anything but cumbersome … no aircraft is easier to land on a pitching and rolling (carrier) deck. There the Swordfish was easier to land than any other aircraft. Its qualities made it uniquely suitable in those conditions which, at their worst, kept more modern aircraft in the hangar. Performance was agile – it had not one single vice. In my mind only the Japanese Zero was capable of outturning the Swordfish. 1.
During the war Vibert was assigned to a Swordfish squadron that embarked aboard an escort carrier for convoy and anti-submarine duty of which he said,
One did a boring job … unexciting, unglamorous, but useful. Throughout each run (shipboard deployment) each lasting several weeks, one never saw land. But we were saving the lives of merchantmen, and whilst our aircraft is best known for (other, more memorable, actions) I suggest that it was against (U-) boats threatening our convoys that it made its greatest contribution to our war effort.
Starting before dawn, until after dark, patrols of two to three aircraft were flown. Carrying either depth charges or rocket projectiles, these were made ahead of the convoy at no more than 3,000 feet (altitude) and lasted up to three hours. Equipment was the “Mark 1 eyeball,” an air to surface “radar” of very limited range. W/T (radio) silence was kept and communication with the ship or another aircraft was by Aldis (signal) Lamp or hand waving. One watched the wave tops for that which did not break and for white water in the distance which could be a U-boat on the surface. The dusk patrol was (made from) far astern, to put down any (U)-boat aiming to catch up overnight on the surface. The convoy showed no lights and kept (radio) silence.2.
Vibert described the conditions aboard a Swordfish aloft and the duties of its crew,
Apart from local wind and weather (typically provided by the ship’s meteorologist) at the time of departure the observer had little more than a blank sheet of paper, dividers, and rule. Hopefully, also a pilot could fly an accurate compass course. The telegraphist/air gunner kept a listening brief on his W/T (radio) set and watched the waves. In their bath-sized cockpit, he and the observer were more exposed to the elements than the pilot. There was no heater in the aircraft. However, this open cockpit was a contributory factor in us having markedly the best chances of survival in a Swordfish, whether in action or accident. The open cockpit was far easier to vacate in a hurry. 3
An incident involving a Swordfish in flight recalled by Ken Hutchinson provides a perspective on the plane’s open cockpit that Vibert may have overlooked,
During a training air gunnery flight in a Fairey Swordfish, which was an open cockpit aircraft, as the two crew members were changing places for the firing exercise, the pilot banked the plane. One of the crew fell out over the side – which would not have happened had he not released his safety hook too early. I leant out of the cockpit and held on, initially, to the airman’s boots, but as these are looser fitting than shoes, he began to slip out of them. I had to stretch further out and managed to grab his belt, and eventually pull him back in. In those days there was no “mike” contact in a Swordfish, simply a rubber voice pipe, which had to be held to communicate. So the pilot knew nothing until the rescue had been carried out. 4.
“They Put Up a Lot of Flak at Us”– The Raid on Taranto
High on Benito Mussolini’s political agenda were ambitions to reclaim the glory of Imperial Rome for Italy. The rapid success of Germany’s military aggression in Europe led the Italian fascist head of state to believe that the war on the continent would not last long. Eager to capitalize on the opportunity to gain territory from England and France and to strengthen his own colonial holdings in North Africa, Mussolini brought Italy into the war on Germany’s side on 10 June 1940.
The Italian fleet of 1940 included seven battleships, eight heavy cruisers, eight light cruisers, about 60 destroyers, and over 100 submarines. Of the battleships three were modern ones designed in the mid-1930s and four were renovated World War I ships. The cruiser fleet, constructed with control of the Mediterranean in mind, consisted of ships that were mostly designed from the late 1920s through the mid-1930s. A large portion of the submarine fleet was less than 15 years old. Although it had one such ship under construction in 1940, the Italian navy did not have any aircraft carriers. 5.
In order to counterbalance Italy’s navy, the Royal Navy counted on a Mediterranean presence of four battleships, the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, nine cruisers, 25 destroyers, and a handful of submarines. The key British Mediterranean positions were Gibraltar at the sea’s western extreme, Malta occupying a central position, and Alexandria which guarded access to the Suez Canal and the oil fields further to the east. Despite being few in number, aircraft and submarines based at Malta were proving to be a major disruption against Axis shipping bound for North Africa. Until late in 1942 a great deal of Italian and German military energy and resources were to be directed against the island in desperate hopes of neutralizing it.
In November 1940 HMS Illustrious which had commissioned just six months earlier was ordered to execute a surprise air attack against the core of Italy’s naval power at the Taranto naval base. Illustrious was supposed to have been supported by a second carrier, HMS Eagle, but prior combat damage kept the latter ship out of the action. Eagle’s contribution would be limited to the loan of some of her airwing to Illustrious. Six battleships and six cruisers were anchored at the Italian base which the British had thoroughly scouted, studied, and photographed. The chosen time for the attack was mid-month when a full moon would provide illumination for the attacking aircraft.The reliance on darkness was at least in part based on the fact that the attack was to be carried out exclusively by Swordfish torpedo bombers. The plane’s slow speed made it vulnerable to Italian air defenses and darkness had to be counted upon as its best protector.
David Goodwin was an air crewman with one of the incapacitated Eagle’s aircraft on loan to Illustrious. Prior to the carrier’s departure from Alexandria none of the fliers had any idea what their mission was to be. Once the ship was at sea, however, they were briefed by RAF intelligence personnel. The pilots were shown maps drawn from aerial reconnaissance photos which included the exact location of each Italian ship.
According to Goodwin, two waves of Swordfish, each with 10 planes, were launched against Taranto. Eight planes in each wave were to attack with torpedoes. Two from each wave were to act as dive bombers. An additional two Swordfish, laden with flares, accompanied the strike groups. The flares would be dropped to help light up and silhouette the Italian ships for the attack. Goodwin’s plane was one of the dive bombers in the first wave.
… (W)e took off and it was a very dark night. We formed up formation over (an illumination) flare and then climbed and set off for Taranto. There was quite a lot of cloud about and, as a matter of fact, our aircraft and a number of others got separated from the rest. So, from our point of view, we seemed to be flying on alone. Although (eventually) all of the aircraft did arrive over Taranto. The Italians had detected us on their sound locators before the aircraft got there, and, by the time we started to fly over the harbor, the amount of AA flak with tracers was really quite terrific. I had been in quite a number of night bombing raids over other Italian harbors in the Mediterranean and there’s always a lot of flak there, but never so much as I’d seen over Taranto.
My aircraft, with my pilot, was one of those dive bombing the cruisers in the inner harbor whereas the majority of the attack was with torpedoes on the bigger ships (the battleships) in the outer harbor. We, of course, didn’t see any of our other aircraft. One felt rather quite alone … Anyway, we dive bombed the cruisers and we thought we got some hits on them and then my pilot jinked out and we got away. As we went out, we flew over the seaplane base and they put up a lot of flak at us, too. Finally, we set course, all of us individual aircraft, back to the Illustrious some 180 miles to the eastward. In those days, before radar was outfitted … it was purely a matter of (human) navigation to find the ship … Anyway, we did find her without any trouble and my pilot made a perfect landing on Illustrious. And I think all of us, as we counted the aircraft coming in to land, were amazed to find that in our wave there was only one missing. And in the second, later, wave another aircraft had been shot down. 6.
Goodwin added that his emotions were largely of apprehension as his plane was launched from the carrier. Among his worries were those of being able to find the target. After the shipboard briefings the fliers had been given, Goodwin understood the magnitude of the mission. He was more than a little concerned that his efforts at navigating might somehow cause his aircraft to miss Taranto altogether. During the attack, he admitted to a blend of emotions that included fear and exhilaration. The glare from exploding antiaircraft munitions and enemy searchlights seeking targets dazzled the fliers’ vision. Along with his pilot, Goodwin feared that they would not be able to see their targets well enough to hit them. Goodwin worried on the long and steep dive downward that his pilot might somehow not be able to pull out of it. When the Swordfish did, indeed, come out of its dive, however, Goodwin was more than elated. The return flight brought on more anxiety as, lacking radar or even radio signals, it was once again his and the pilot’s responsibilities to find the proper way. While a concerned pilot might request a radio beacon with which to steer his plane, no ship in the fleet would ever provide one. The risk of detection was too great and strategic logic dictated that it would always be better to lose a few aircraft than an entire ship.
Photo analysis from the morning after the raid showed that three Italian battleships had been sunk. Goodwin attributed the raid’s large number of damaging torpedo hits to what was then a relatively new type of detonating device. Traditionally, a torpedo carried a detonator that would cause it to explode on contact with its target. Such a hit often took place against a hull that was protected by armor or blisters. A fair amount of the impact would be absorbed to limit any damage. The new detonator, however, was triggered by the magnetic field created by a target ship’s hull. The torpedo, therefore, could be set to travel at a depth that would bring it beneath the ship. The resulting explosion would produce heavy upward moving shockwaves that could break a ship’s back. 7.
Of the three battleships that sank in the shallow water of Taranto harbor, two, one each new and old, were repaired after about six months and returned to service. The third, one of the older vessels, remained inactive for the duration of the war. The bombing of the cruisers resulted in only two hits by bombs that failed to detonate. 8.
Despite the tactical brilliance of the Taranto raid, the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean remained unchanged. The final analysis has shown that the British objective of eliminating Italian naval power from the Mediterranean in that one blow was not met. Too few aircraft carrying too few bombs and torpedoes did too little damage to the Italian ships. By comparison, the Japanese who studied the raid in detail were to employ all six of its front line carriers and over 400 aircraft at Pearl Harbor. Had the lone Royal Navy carrier at Taranto and its attack wave of a mere two dozen planes been supported by a second, and even a third carrier, the end results of the strike might have been different. They cannot be known, of course, and critics, granted the wisdom of hindsight, have argued that, with a stronger attack force, the damage inflicted against the enemy could have been critical rather than a mere inconvenience. The struggle for control of the Mediterranean continued unabated. 9.
“Dice With Death”– Carrier Takeoffs
Tony Inman a radioman/bombardier described the process by which aircraft were prepared and sent into the air from a moving aircraft carrier.
“Hands to flying stations,”… was the signal for the flight deck party to muster, put the aircraft that were about to fly in their correct places (also called ‘spotting’ aircraft), test engines, and see that everything was ready. In the meantime the crews and pilots who were about to ‘dice’ were briefed (dice was the abbreviation for ‘dice with death,’ the casual throwaway phrase used for flying originally from the RAF). We would then wander out onto the deck and get into our aircraft and make ready. (I don’t remember that we had the American phrase, “Pilots, man your planes!”). When we were ready, strapped in, equipment out of the way … we would tell (the pilot) who would indicate our readiness to the Flight Deck Officer. He was the man in charge of the flight deck, and I mean in charge. When all planes were ready he would signal to the bridge where Commander Flying would have the affirmative flag put out. Flying could now begin. 10.
The ‘affirmative flag’ would have been a green one. Displaying it during flight operations indicated that everything was safe and ready for takeoffs or landings. A red flag was used to indicate a problem. Flight operations would be suspended until the difficulty could be remedied.
The ship now turned into the wind (to provide additional lift to the planes) and engines were started. When … the ship was going full speed (about 17 knots) the Flight Deck Officer brought down his flag (or pointed emphatically forward with his hand) and the first aircraft took off. This was the Avenger, which having a shorter takeoff was always in front of the fighters. Open the throttle wide, stand on the brakes, and, just when you thought everything would shake to bits, release the brakes. The tail was up by the time we passed the bridge and if the wind was strong enough we were just about airborne when we were at the end of the deck, so bank away to starboard to get our slipstream clear of the deck where the next plane was already on its way.
If the wind was less strong we would not be airborne by the end of the deck and would sink down towards the sea. The drill was then to raise the undercarriage and put on less flap which all had the effect of increasing air speed to a safe amount before climbing away .11.
By mid-war aircraft carriers, large and small, had been equipped with hydraulic catapults at which time radioman/bombardier Inman was assigned to the three-man Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber. The other Avenger crewmen were the pilot and turret gunner. Inman described being launched from a carrier by catapult.
(The Avenger was) … “On the ‘Squirter’ (as) … there (was) not enough wind. There she was on the catapult looking unhealthily close to the (front) edge of the deck. The catapult was a slot at the edge of the flight deck probably about 50 feet long, with a hooked traveler in it. The aircraft was placed astride the slot and the tail wheel was attached at the back end. My recollection is that a rod of mild steel passed through the tail wheel and was secured to the deck. On the strut of each wheel (near the base and leading edge of the wings) was a downward facing hook and a steel hawser – looped at each end – was looped over these hooks and round the traveler on the catapult slot. One of the engineering officers was in charge of this contraption and he moved the traveler far enough to take up any slack on the hawser. The crew boarded, strapped themselves in, anchored anything loose, and signaled the pilot. He gave thumbs up to the flight deck officer who, after receiving permission from the bridge, waved his flag round and round his head. This was the signal to the pilot to open the throttle to its full extent, tighten the wing nut so that it would not slip with acceleration, and for the crew to brace themselves … Down came (the flight deck officer’s) flag, the engineering officer pressed his button, and we were off. The catapult went off with a thump that could be heard and felt all over the ship. Great pressure was applied to the traveler until it passed the breaking strain of the mild steel rod. When this broke the plane was free, the traveler shot to the end of the slot, pulling the plane via the hawser and flicked us off the end. As we passed, the end of the loops on the end of the hawser slid off the hooks, and could be recovered for future use as it was tied to the ship by a piece of rope. As the plane went from rest to 65 knots in 60 feet the acceleration was fierce … 12.
“Sometimes They Crashed”– Carrier Landings
The general nature of returning and landing aboard a carrier was described by a former enlisted air crewman Raymond Wills.
(Being trained as an aircraft mechanic) … my job (aboard the carrier) was to inspect the planes. I would check the panels and oils (possibly including hydraulic fluids and engine coolants) before takeoff … The pilots used the runway (flight deck) to practice landings, the batman would bring them in but sometimes they crashed. If the plane was badly damaged it would be taken ashore, we only did small repairs on ship, such as small dents … Some planes crashed into the captain’s tower, the bridge, this caused too big a repair to do on the ship. They seldom burst into flames. Some planes went into the water; we had to be quick to retrieve the pilot because he had heavy gear on. When this did happen we quickly lowered the boat to rescue the pilot. On many occasions the planes got caught … and hung over the sides of the ships. I would have liked to have flown a plane but I was color blind. 13.
A ‘batsman’ was a landing officer. He was usually an experienced naval aviator who would stand on a platform near the after end of the flight deck to provide guidance via hand signals for incoming pilots. He held paddles that he used to inform each plane’s pilot as to his position, angle, and altitude relative to the flight deck for a safe landing. If all was in order and the plane had its wheels down, flaps down, and hook down, he would signal the pilot to cut his engine to complete the landing. If anything were amiss, he would give a wave off signal to tell the pilot to avoid landing. In such a case the pilot would have to instantly apply full power to his engine and circle around for another attempt. It was often the practice to have a destroyer trail behind an aircraft carrier during flight operations. Any pilot who wound up in the water would be rescued by this ship that was called a plane guard.
Air crewman Inman offered his description of landing on a carrier.
(The carrier had) … a wooden deck. Along each side of the deck was a catwalk set a bit lower so that when walking along it the deck was about level with your chest. Several large radio masts were arranged down the sides and these were normally in a vertical position but when flying was taking place they were lowered outboard to a horizontal position … there were six, I think, arrestor wires which, for landing on purposes were raised from each end to about nine inches to catch the plane’s arrestor hook, and pilots were expected to catch the third or fourth wire when landing. If, by some mischance (or poor airmanship) all wires were missed there was a safety device, which, I’m glad to say, I never had to try. This was a barrier further up the deck which consisted of two steel cables stretched across (the width of the flight deck) between two steel stanchions which could be lowered to deck level out of the way. The height of the wires could be varied according to the type of aircraft and were at such a height that the bolting (having missed all arresting wires) aircraft would meet the wires which were joined vertically to stop the wires separating to slide over the engine. (The batsman) … was the man who controlled all the landings. His instructions (given by hand signals) were mandatory! They had to be obeyed. If he raised his arms (it meant) go up; if he lowered them (it meant) come down. And if he waved one arm over his head (it meant) open the throttle and go round again for you were making a right mess of everything.
For the batsman’s benefit there was a safety net out from his platform into which he could fling himself when some pilot drifted (too close to him) when landing and was likely to clip him. The safety net was angled so he would slide down under his steel platform for added protection. This was tested when one pilot drifted over to port when landing and although he caught a wire he ran over the edge of the deck before the hook broke and the aircraft fell into the sea smashing the Captain’s barge on the way. I expect the pilot is still paying for it. The batsman, meanwhile, was probably having a stiff gin to recover his nerve. 14.
The narrow catwalk along the flight deck’s edge was where numerous personnel essential for flight operations were stationed. As soon as a plane caught a wire, the men, each with a specific job that needed to be quickly and efficiently done, would rush onto the flight deck. Among these personnel was the man who manually disengaged the tail hook from the wire. Others unbolted the plane’s wings to push them back to a space-saving folded position (although they were hydraulically operated by the pilot on the Avenger). Still others got behind the plane to push it along the deck and out of the way of the next plane to land. There was also a plane director who gave hand signals directing the pilot and flight deck crew where to park the landed plane. Crashed or damaged planes were lowered, as expeditiously as possible, by elevator to the hangar deck. If severely damaged or hung in a difficult position along the deck edge, a plane would be manhandled over the side. Aboard the carriers, nothing could be allowed to slow the launch and recovery cycle.
“I Enjoyed Life on the Ship More Than on Shore”
Life aboard a carrier – or any ship at sea – was not always as frantic as during flight operations. Air Crewman Wills of the escort carrier HMS Premier remembered some easier times aboard his ship.
Smoking was absolutely prohibited when refueling the ship. It was too dangerous. The tanker would run alongside the ship to fill the tanks … If you were caught smoking you were slapped in jail. My friend was put in jail for smoking; he was in the toilet and did not hear the tannoy. He had to go before the Captain, who proceeded to sentence him to several days in the cells. It was a shame because it went on his permanent record …
… The atmosphere on the ship was pretty good; I enjoyed life on the ship more than on shore. I always felt safe on the carrier. We got American cigarettes, American chocolate, and tinned fruit. These products were short in Britain, but we could get them from the US (when Premier went between Norfolk, Virginia, and England three times in February, April, and May of 1944). I sent the chocolate home to my family in Cranfield. We were well fed on HMS Premier; we had three meals a day … We always had good wholesome food. When the chefs would shout, ‘it’s eggs for breakfast’ everyone would storm the galley because they were so hard to get. I remember spending Christmas on board in 1944, we sang songs and watched films on a pull down screen in the hangar. I remember singing … then someone would shout, ‘ladies only’ and everyone would sing in a high voice. When we were not working, we held services in the hangar and played football on the deck with a rag ball, real footballs would have bounced off the ship. We patrolled the coast and visited Belfast a few times; you could get a bed for one or two shillings a night. I really liked the Guinness. We really did drink a lot of it. I remember when the time came to board the ship again many men could not climb down to the (liberty) boat … The Captain knew of our exploits and instructed the returning crew to climb aboard … by rope ladder instead of the easier means.15.
Torpedo bomber crew member Inman also had good memories of the quieter and more routine days aboard his escort carrier. Many of the aspects of shipboard life that he experienced in World War II endured with him long into the post-war years.
After a couple of days at sea there was no fresh milk, of course, beer had run out, and fresh water was severely rationed. Apart from cooking, fresh water was only on for a very short time in the morning and was not available for showers or baths which were in great demand. We were in the tropics (and) the ship did not have the luxury of air conditioning so there was condensation everywhere and copious sweating. Salt water showers, even with salt water soap, only cooled you for a short time and left you sticky. Occasionally the tannoy would pipe, ‘There will be an opportunity for a fresh water shower in about five minutes’ which meant that a rain squall was approaching that was likely to hit the ship. In no time at all the flight deck would be crowded with near naked bodies clutching a bar of soap and with a towel tucked out of sight where it would not get wet. You then hoped that the squall would hit the ship and that the cool drenching rain would last long enough to get yourself wet, soaped up and rinsed off. 16.
“I Won’t Have My Ship be Shot From Under My Ass!”– Bismarck Meets Hood
In May, 1941 Germany’s newest and most powerful battleship made a move towards the Atlantic shipping lanes. A host of Royal Navy ships was sent after her. On the 24th Bismarck engaged the Royal Navy’s own new battleship Prince of Wales along with the long-time pride of the fleet, battlecruiser Hood. Hood was sunk with all hands save three and Prince of Wales limped off badly damaged. Bismarck was now dangerously close to the open seas.
Bruno Rzonca was assigned to Bismarck in May 1940 while the ship was still under construction. After training, operational readiness preparations, and a surprise inspection visit by Hitler, the new battleship steamed from Gotenhafen (near Danzig on the Baltic Sea) towards the Atlantic for her one and only combat mission. According to Rzonca:
I was at my duty station (below decks) and once they sounded the alarm nobody could go topside. (The British were), I think, 15 miles (away). They started shooting and the shells came closer and closer, and we were wondering in the ship, why we don’t shoot back … This crazy Admiral Lutjens (overall commander of the German force), he wouldn’t give the order to shoot back until we had already received three hits. Then the skipper (Captain Lindemann) got mad and said, “I won’t have my ship be shot from under my ass!” That’s what he said in words, and we were ordered to shoot back. It took us five minutes to sink the Hood. Distance of 15 miles. We could reload the big guns in 20 seconds.17.
One of Hood’s survivors was Robert Tilburn, born in Leeds, the son of a policeman, and a sailor with the Royal Navy since he was 16. He joined Hood, his first ship, as an ordinary seaman at Gibraltar. The young sailor thought that she was “a marvelous looking ship.” He felt special for having been assigned to her. When the war began, Tilburn was apprehensive, but felt confident that Hood would fare well against any enemy and thought her to be practically unsinkable. 18.
On 24 May 1941 Tilburn was at his action station on one of the 4-inch anti-aircraft guns as Hood headed for her encounter with Bismarck. He was anxious but confident that, no matter what, “we would win in the end.”
… at six o’clock or slightly before … in the morning, it was clear with a heavy swell and we sighted the two ships … we’d been at action stations since … the previous evening … we immediately started to close the range and then at approximately six o’clock we opened fire with A and B turrets. The Prince of Wales followed and then we had return fire from the Bismarck and Prinz Eugen. The first shells were over but in our wake. I think they fired two or three. The third shell hit us on the upper deck and started a fire (around) the open ammunition. Most of the upper deck’s guns crews – thinking back to what had happened at Oran (Mers-el-Kebir against the French fleet) – had been ordered to go forward into a space below the bridge … as soon as the ready ammunition started to explode (a) gunner’s mate (named) Bishop came to three of us who had not gone forward (and told us) to put the fire out and we said, ‘wait until the ammunition stops exploding’ … the next shell came and blew the (gun) director away (and) the three of us were laying down next to a u.p … a funny thing that fired rockets and had a blast shield around it. An then, we were hit … a terrific explosion … and suddenly the whole ship – dead silent – maybe I’d been deafened … the (sailor) lying (nearby) had his side cut open as if a butcher had got him … his innards were coming out, and I thought, ‘ooh, I’m going to be sick,’ and I got up and went to the ship’s side and noticed that the water was much closer than it was and the bows were coming out of the water. I went to the forrard end of the boat deck, dropped onto to the foc’sl … I realized the ship was sinking … she was rolling over and the bows were coming up … I stripped off my tin hat, anti-flash gear, overcoat, by then the sea reached me and I was in the water. 19.
Another of the three Hood survivors, Ted Briggs, remembered that,
When the action started it was wildly exciting. But this feeling was quickly taken over by terror. Hood was hit three times and the third hit blew up the magazines.
There was no sense of anything being wrong with the ship that day. We knew two powerful ships were coming, but there was no sense that we were going to get sunk or pounded or anything like that. Gunnery on the Hood was good, but not as good as on the Bismarck. We fired a couple of salvoes at what we thought was Bismarck before Prince of Wales said we were firing on the wrong ship and we changed over. At that distance you could only see the superstructures. We fired about six salvoes before Bismarck answered – we took her by surprise. She’d no idea there were heavy units in the vicinity because of radio silence. We had hit her with one which caused a fuel leakage but it wasn’t all that serious. When she did reply – her first salvo fell short – you could see the splashes. The next went over (long) and you could hear the roar (of the shells flying overhead) like a thousand express trains. The third hit the base of the mainmast causing a fire in the four-inch ready use ammunition lockers. Then there was a fourth and fifth. There was no explosion that I could hear. We were thrown off our feet and I could see a gigantic sheet of flame which shot round the compass platform. The ship started listing to starboard about 10 to 12 degrees, then it started to right itself. The quartermaster (in charge of steering operations) reported that the steering gear had gone and we were to go to emergency conning. But as we did, the ship started to go to port and it kept going. It got to 30 – 40 degrees and we realized the ship wasn’t coming back. There was no panic – it was uncanny but everything seemed to be going in slow motion. We tried to get out the starboard door. The gunnery officer was just in front of me and the navigating officer stood aside to let me through. 20.
“They Came in Flying Low Over the Water”– Swordfish Versus Bismarck
Even with Hood and Prince of Wales no longer present, ships from the Home Fleet and Force H based at Gibraltar continued to chase after Bismarck. Two of the battleship’s pursuers were the aircraft carriers Victorious and Ark Royal.
Newly commissioned on 15 May 1941, Victorious had been scheduled to perform a shakedown cruise with an aircraft delivery mission to Malta. Plans suddenly changed with Bismarck’s move towards the shipping lanes. The carrier detached from her planned club run with crated and unassembled aircraft slated for Malta still stowed in her hangar deck. She had orders to close on the German battleship’s most likely position. The Admiralty was hoping that Victorious’ aircraft would at least be able to slow the German battleship down. The Royal Navy’s big gun ships would than catch up to finish her off. Victorious reached the Denmark Strait on 23 May, just eight days after commissioning and with scores of civilian construction workers still on board. The workers stood side by side with crewmen to show them how the ship’s machinery, equipment, and systems worked. Nine of the carrier’s embarked 825 Squadron Swordfish had been loaded aboard the carrier specifically for the purpose of making torpedo attacks against Bismarck.
The Swordfish were launched at about midnight of the day on which Hood had been sunk. They flew towards where the Bismarck was thought to be. The weather was poor with high winds, heavy seas, and rain. Although the days of May were long in the northern latitudes, visibility was much diminished as the sun began to set. The squadron had yet to practice combat techniques or tactics. Several pilots were so new that their only carrier landing to date was the one they had just made to report aboard Victorious four days earlier. On launch from the carrier the squadron was divided into three plane sections that would attack the battleship by turn. By the mission’s completion only one of all the torpedoes dropped resulted in a hit. Bismarck’s gunners did not down any of the planes, but were effective in making their job as difficult as possible. The battleship’s helmsman alertly and adeptly steered the ship clear of all but the single torpedo that hit the armored belt.
A German report on the attack stated,
They came in flying low over the water, launched their torpedoes and zoomed away. Flak was pouring from every gun barrel, but didn’t seem to hit them. The first torpedo hissed past 150 yards in front of Bismarck’s bow. The second did the same, as did the third. Helmsman Hansen was operating the press buttons of the steering gear as, time and time again, the Bismarck maneuvered out of danger. She evaded a fifth, then a sixth, when yet another torpedo darted straight towards the ship. A few seconds later a tremendous shudder ran through the hull and a towering column of water rose at Bismarck’s side. The nickel-chrome-steel of (the ship’s) side survived the attack …21.
Philip Gick, who would rise to admiral’s rank after the war, was a Swordfish pilot in 1940. His air crew included Telegraphist Air Gunner (TAG) Leslie Daniel Sayer. The two men embarked aboard Victorious with 825 Squadron. With neither 825 Squadron nor Victorious fully worked up to operational standards, it was, according to Sayer, a mission of the blind leading the blind. Just prior to launch, the squadron received a minimal briefing that did not include bearing, range, or speed of the targeted German battleship. The Swordfish crews were merely instructed to keep a sharp lookout and to immediately attack Bismarck if they were to locate her.22.
The Swordfish pilots aboard Victorious had been told that the key factor for a successful torpedo drop was to avoid excessive height and speed lest the weapon bounce off course or break apart upon striking the water. In pre-deployment practices gun cameras had originally been used to record practice drops. Photo analyses made after the exercises allowed for the calculation of the ideal attack parameters. The optimal altitude for a drop had been determined to be 20 feet. Excessive speed, according to Gick, was never a problem as the Swordfish was a painfully slow moving aircraft even at full throttle. 23.
Both Gick and Sayer looked upon the slowness of the Swordfish as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it made the plane and its crew extremely vulnerable to antiaircraft gunfire. On the other hand, a crash landing could usually be managed at just 50 miles per hour. There was a very good chance that such a low speed crash could be escaped with minimal injury. The open cockpit made for extremely cold flying, especially since extra clothing could not be worn because of the tight spaces in which the crew had to move about to perform their jobs. The best they could do was to put on a second pair of socks and constantly wiggle fingers and toes to keep them warm and functional. The men who flew in the Swordfish often complained that, on landing, their limbs would be so stiff that they would barely be able to lift themselves out of the plane.
Following an uneventful takeoff, 825 Squadron, largely by luck, found Bismarck. The German ship was shrouded beneath low patchy clouds in the grey light of dusk. Victorious’ pilots made their attacks. The low altitude used by the Swordfish in their attack approaches helped preserve them from the Bismarck’s guns which could not be depressed far down enough to hit the planes. Also, the ship’s fire control system had not been calibrated to track such unexpectedly slow moving targets. Gick recalled that when he first saw the Bismarck he thought that she was such an “absolutely incredible” and “marvelous” ship that he felt a reluctance to sink her. The pilot also felt that it was “a bloody shame that we couldn’t preserve her; capture her, instead of destroy her.” Despite such misgivings, he also realized that she was a “terrible menace” that would have wreaked havoc among the convoys and that it was “vital to get her.” 24.
While the other planes of the squadron made their attacks, Gick’s plane could not get a satisfactory line on the battleship. He turned wide to circle around for a second run at her. TAG Sayer recalled his dismay as they had already endured and survived the Germans’ intense defensive barrage once. Now they were going to go back for more. Having decided beforehand that he was not likely to survive the war, the TAG forced himself not to dwell on the present danger. Initially, Bismarck’s gunners did not see Gick’s returning Swordfish, so it was able to close unmolested. Once they were sighted, however, the Germans opened up with all available guns. While the plane was not actually hit, the splashes of water caused by the battleship’s shells shredded the underside of the Swordfish’s canvas fuselage. Sayer was certain that the battleship even fired her main battery’s 15-inch guns at his plane. The fliers managed to drop their torpedo and the TAG, facing aft in the aircraft, could see a large column of water spout up against Bismarck’s side. He was convinced that it was a hit. 25. This could well have been the hit against the ship’s side mentioned in the previously cited German report. The damage was not significant, however. It would take a follow up strike by planes from another carrier, Ark Royal, to cause any serious difficulties for Bismarck.
Because the ship and crew were so new to combat air operations, there was not much talk aboard Victorious about the Bismarck action after the torpedo planes had returned to the carrier. None of the pilots or air crewmen could really say that he had seen much of anything once his plane had dropped its torpedo. Most information came from second and third hand stories based on the random comments that were claimed to have been heard from one or another of the pilots. A number of Fulmars and Swordfish were launched over the next several days to shadow Bismarck. Several of these planes were lost due to the difficult flying conditions but Victorious’ part in the action was done. Bismarck would be left to the likes of Ark Royal and the battleships King George V, and Rodney.
“The Torpedo Hit Astern Was the Decisive Blow”– The Pilot Who ‘Sank’ Bismarck
During her engagement against Bismarck, Prince of Wales’ guns had managed a couple of hits that left the German ship leaking oil; a telltale sign that would permit the British to better track her. On 25 May, Ark Royal, already at sea with other Force H ships, was ordered to intensify her search for Bismarck as it was determined that Victorious’ earlier Swordfish strike had not been effective. It was imperative for the British fliers to slow Bismarck down in order to give the pursuing British heavy units a chance to catch up to her.
The following day, Ark Royal launched 14 Swordfish in seas so heavy that water was washing over her flight deck. The planes located a target and were making low level torpedo runs before they realized that they were attacking the shadowing cruiser Sheffield. The cruiser did not shoot at the Swordfish which she recognized as friendly, but made evasive maneuvers that caused all torpedoes launched to miss. Since only 3 planes had not dropped a torpedo, the flight returned to the carrier to rearm. A second strike of 15 Swordfish was launched and they all vectored onto Sheffield so that the radar equipped cruiser could then point them in the right direction. Bismarck was only 12 miles from the cruiser and the planes readily found her. The Swordfish made their attack against both sides of the Bismarck thus forcing her have to turn into a torpedo track if she maneuvered to avoid one from the opposite side. Still, it was a daunting task for the pilots who had to fly low and straight at the very slow maximum speed of which the Swordfish was capable. The longer the time of approach, the longer the attacking planes were exposed to defensive gunfire. All the planes returned but few, if any, of the pilots believed that they had caused any damage to the battleship. In exchange for their troubles, three Swordfish crash landed upon return and several others were so badly shot up that they were no longer flight worthy. Unknown to any of the British at the time, however, was that they had managed two hits, one of which had struck and jammed one of Bismarck’s rudders hard over. The hoped for result of slowing her down could not have been any better. The battleship could only steam in circles. The next morning, Royal Navy battleships King George V and Rodney would arrive to put an end to Bismarck.
According to the official German report written after she had weathered the Ark Royal’s aerial strike:
The torpedo hit astern was the decisive blow; by destroying the steering gear it made the ship incapable of holding a course for our bases. 26.
The pilot of the Swordfish whose torpedo made the “decisive blow” remained unaware of his accomplishment for almost 60 years. Only when the Fleet Air Arm contacted him in 2000 did he finally realize what he had managed to do. He spoke to the Daily Mail which reported the story in 2009. The veteran flier said,
What nobody talks about were the conditions – they were unbelievable … the ship was pitching 60 feet, water was running over the decks, and the wind was blowing at 70 or 80 miles per hour … and nobody mentions the deck hands who had to bring the planes up from the hangars – they did something special. After they brought them up they had to open the wings which took ten men for each wing. And then they had to wind a handle to get the starters working. I only stopped flying nine months ago and there are no other planes in the world that could have done what the Swordfish planes did that day. After take-off we climbed to 6,000 feet to get above the really thick cloud, and we knew when we were near because all hell broke loose with Bismarck’s fire. We got the order to attack and I went down and saw the enormous bloody ship. I thought the Ark Royal was big, but this one, blimey.
I must have been under 2,000 yards when I was about to launch the torpedo at the bow, but as I was about to press the button I heard in my ear, “Not now. Not now.” I turned round and saw the navigator leaning right out of the plane with his backside in the air. Then I realized what he was doing – he was looking at the sea because if I had let the torpedo go and it had hit a wave it could have gone anywhere. I had to put it in a trough. Then I heard him say, “Let it go” and I pressed the button. Then I heard him say, “We’ve got a runner” – and I got out of there. 27.
The pilot, John Moffat, was one of the fliers whose Swordfish was not so damaged that it could not go on a second strike. By the time the planes arrived, battleships Rodney and King George V were already taking care of business. Moffat did not linger, but still saw some of Bismarck’s crew jump off the flaming wreck and into the cold sea. He recalled that the scene below him continued to haunt him practically daily and that he had never ceased to feel terrible that all those men caught in the water had absolutely no chance of being saved. As a sailor at war, Moffat understood that, through the quirks of war and fate, it could very easily have been him in the water. He later wrote a book about his adventures, We Sank The Bismarck which the editors changed to I Sank The Bismarck. Moffat told them that the change was personally embarrassing and would be controversial. Staunchly loyal and extremely proud of the Fleet Air Arm and the men who served in it, he was frustrated that the credit directed only at him detracted from what he firmly believed was a team effort by the Fleet Air Arm and all its airmen. 28.
“They Laid a Charge Against Me For Damaging an Aircraft”– The Pacific Theater
In 1945 the carrier Victorious was attached to the British Pacific Fleet headquartered in Sydney, Australia. Air operations against Japan for Victorious and her air wing mainly involved targeting air fields on the islands leading towards the home islands. The ship’s Avenger torpedo bombers were loaded with 500-pound bombs fitted with delay fuses set for anything from “0” for immediate detonation to six hours. Delayed explosions, unpredictable by the enemy, would make repairs difficult. They would also destroy more aircraft and kill or, at least, demoralize additional enemy personnel. By June or July very little threat remained from ground-based Japanese air defenses or from enemy fighter cover. The diminishing opposition allowed British pilots to destroy practically all of their assigned targets. In the last month of the war, Victorious’ planes were hunting down the scattered remnants of the Japanese fleet and any of the few remaining enemy aircraft.
The BPF carriers normally cruised some 25 – 30 miles off shore. They would launch air strikes for about two days before pulling further out to sea for replenishment. The Royal Navy fleet train included two brewery ships that supplied beer for enlisted ratings but, much to their chagrin, not to the officers. Although all aboard the ships of the BPF understood that Japan was losing the war, they believed that it would take another full year to end it. Their greatest worry was that the end would only come with a full scale invasion of Japan. From what they had seen of the Kamikazes, all knew that the Japanese would have been a formidable and difficult people to fight. The entire population would have sacrificed themselves one after the other to defend their homes.
British pilots were as dedicated and determined as their Japanese enemy in their efforts to win the war. They performed under harsh and frightening conditions in what were often very impersonal circumstances. Unlike their Japanese counterparts, however, British airmen were very strongly disinclined towards suicide. Former Telegraphist/Air Gunner Derek Foster recalled a time during Victorious’ BPF service when his Avenger’s landing system was in danger of failing due to a leak in the hydraulic fluid reservoir. Such an unwelcome failure could have spelled total disaster for Foster, his aircraft, and even the ship.
(The reservoir) would hold hydraulic if you filled it up again. So I remembered that there was a tap on it, a screw type tap, and the instruction was always for the flight mechanics to leave this finger tight. Well, my fingers wouldn’t open it so I was stuck with this thing tightly sealed. The only thing to do was to get the jungle knife that we carried, make a hole in it near the top,(and) get the fluid into there … Of course it wasn’t easy to get the fluid in with the aircraft swinging about so I remember(ed) there was a funnel for the urine tube (the plane’s basic bathroom system) … so I used that for my funnel and got the fluid in and took it out but this big hole (made by Foster) meant that it wasn’t air tight (and) wouldn’t operate … I also carried a pack of chewing gum which I hated (chewing) … anyway I chewed off a large piece … managed to seal this hole and the hydraulics started working again … (the pilot) could get the flaps down and we landed OK (although) we landed with the bombs still in the bomb bay and although I’d armed them ready for being dropped and I’d gone back and turned (them) to disarm, I’d never done this before so I didn’t know if this worked or not, you know! (M)y pilot had to speak up for me quite a bit when the stores officer … got very annoyed that I’d damaged this hydraulic tank and he hadn’t got a spare one so the aircraft was not able to be used until they could get one. They laid a charge against me before the commanding officer for damaging an aircraft but my pilot spoke up for me and I wasn’t punished for that.29.
No aircraft carrier can conduct flight operations without mishaps. Whether at war or peace, aircraft carrier crews remain on full alert for accidents that can occur at any time and in any part of the ship. A good percentage of naval aircraft lost during World War II were due to accidents of one type or another. Such losses were labelled as “operational” as opposed to “combat related.” In the absence of official Royal Navy statistics, US Navy data showed that, during World War II, approximately 47% of its naval aircraft losses, whether carrier borne or land-based, were operational in nature.30. Some of the accidents were tragic and others, once all had been said and done, turned out to be comical. All, however, were generally nerve wracking.
Graham Evans of Indomitable told about an attempted landing by a Hellcat fighter:
Each aircraft had just one attempt to come aboard once committed … there were just half a dozen wires to engage the hook or you would hit the barrier of steel cables raised halfway along the deck to protect the deck park (which) … was the forward deck area where those aircraft that had already succeeded to land-on would be tightly marshalled, if possible with the wings folded. The barrier was not foolproof as aircraft did, on occasion, bounce over the barrier and into the park with dire consequences. One spectacular land-on was presented by a Hellcat returning from combat seemingly unscathed, but later found to have a hook problem that led to its failure to engage. The Hellcat touched down but bounded on across the deck drifting to starboard unchecked. It slammed into the starboard after pom-pom gun emplacement on the edge of the flight deck. The impact shattered the starboard wingtip and broke the fuselage clean in two behind the cockpit rear bulkhead. The tail was flung across the deck and came to rest further aft on the portside near the ship’s arrester gear. The nose, cockpit and wings were sent spinning on partially collapsed landing gear and bent propeller blades into the base of the island. As the rescue crews rushed across to the shattered remains, the pilot amazingly eased back the canopy hood and climbed onto the wing root. The pilot was even in quite a jolly mood as he assured the assembled party that he was alright despite his spectacular arrival and required no further assistance. With that he accidentally trod on a wing flap which dropped away sharply dumping the poor soul unceremoniously onto the armoured flight deck … unfortunately the pilot … broke his arm in the fall. 31.
If a plane wrecked itself on landing during combat operations, air crews were given no more than ten minutes to salvage all that they could of value from the aircraft. The most important items, according to Evans, were gun sights, bomb sights, guns, ammunition, radio, and any useful airframe parts that could be quickly stripped off. In the case of the Hellcat described earlier by Evans, both engine and propellers had been damaged by the collision. Those parts and the rest of the plane were shoved overboard. A second story from Evans involved the landing of an Avenger with an armed bomb stuck in its bomb bay.
After … returning from a raid, an Avenger pilot had called the ship to advise that he had a bomb stuck in the bomb bay and that the bomb bay doors would not close. Standard procedure would normally have been to ditch the aircraft to avoid blowing up the ship but somehow the Avenger had landed-on successfully. With the state of the bomb still in question, I was summoned before the captain, who ordered me to carefully find out the answer. For its mission the Avenger had been armed with a load of 500 pound MC (Medium Capacity or general purpose) bombs. Each had a nose fuse propeller (which) spins in the slipstream of the falling bomb to wind out the detonator thus arming the weapon for explosion on impact. With sufficient opening between the doors, any unreleased or trapped bomb may have been in such a slipstream. As I made my way out towards the abandoned aircraft “clear the flight deck” was piped. This obvious precaution seemed like an omen to me as I made the lonely walk to the abandoned Avenger, and it did nothing for my nerves. The bomb bay doors were ajar sufficiently enough for me to insert my arms between them. The doors were being held open by a 500 pound bomb which now lay on the actual doors and not secured in the top of the bomb bay thus precluding opening the doors further. I carefully looked into and felt around inside the opening to ensure that there were no further surprises. There was only one bomb but that was enough. I felt tentatively around the bomb nose until my fingers finally touched the blades of the arming propeller. Finding it brought no relief as I could feel the screw threads meaning the propeller had unscrewed quite a bit arming the detonator … I began to coax the propeller round … with two fingers slowly completing a whole turn, then another. Intermittently I would feel the threads for any discernible change. I became bolder with the revolutions as the propeller was obviously screwing the detonator back in. Finally I got (it) in a relatively safe handling state … with some assistance the doors were slowly cranked open and the bomb was man-handled onto the deck. The aircraft, I, and the ship all remained intact. I felt this surely warranted some high award but none was received. 32.
Many years later, Evans said that it was very difficult to get an award from the Navy during the war, but if the bomb had exploded he likely would have gotten one posthumously.
When VE Day came in May, Victorious and the other British carriers in the Pacific theater were still fighting off Kamikazes. When they had time to think about things, the men felt that the war was completely unfair. Back home crowds in Trafalgar Square were getting drunk, carousing, and unabashedly enjoying life. The British Pacific Fleet, however, just suffered bad food, crowded living conditions, and a murderous enemy. The men in the Pacific felt as if they had been forgotten. The war was not only over in Britain, but even their recent enemies in Germany and Italy could lay down their arms. The BPF men were “peeved” and ”running out of steam” over the hard life and the ever present threat of death in the Pacific.
In early August, everyone aboard Victorious was puzzled that all ships were ordered to move away from the Japanese coast to positions at least 100 miles out to sea. They only found out by radio broadcasts that something called an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. The news was followed a few days later by reports of a second such bomb being dropped on Nagasaki. Slowly, the magnitude of what had happened began to sink in. The men were grateful that there was no longer a need for the dreaded invasion of Japan. Some of the pilots who had been feeling that the longer they had to fly, the greater were their chances of being killed, were ecstatic. When VJ-Day was announced the men were given an extra tot of rum, but there was no real celebration or outward exhibit of jubilation. All on board knew better than to let down their guard. To a man, they very much appreciated the words of American Admiral Halsey, who encouraged them that, with the war finally over, the only thing to do differently would be, “to shoot Japanese planes down in a friendly manner.” Celebrations were delayed until Victorious returned to Sydney.