John Moffat: The man who sank the Bismarck

Another man from history who died before Christmas was Lt Cdr John Moffat.

Saturday, 31st December 2016, 6:00 am
Updated Monday, 9th January 2017, 12:40 pm
John Moffat in later life aged 85. PPP-161228-173258001

No doubt, most of you have watched the film Sink the Bismarck at some time during the past 50 years.

In the final scenes there’s a shot taken from the cockpit of a Swordfish biplane as a torpedo is released and the wake can be seen as the explosive hits the Bismarck under the port quarter. The rudder was put out of action and the ship ended up going around in circles. She was eventually caught and sunk by superior naval forces.

In real life, John Moffat was the pilot of that Fairey Swordfish and he died on December 11, aged 97.

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The Bismarck

He was selected for naval training and told to report on board the cruiser HMS Frobisher anchored in Portsmouth Harbour.

A Scot by birth but living in London, he travelled to Portsmouth and after being taken by motor boat to the ship he was immediately given a warrant to return home and await instructions.

On December 4, 1939, Moffat arrived at St Vincent in Gosport for basic training and on completion was then sent to Belfast to train as a pilot. On completion he was sent to Eastleigh to join 759 Squadron.

While test-flying a Gloster Gladiator in the skies over the Solent he managed to reach 29,000ft (more than five miles high) and on descent he was attacked by two Messerschmitt 109s but managed to escape into the clouds. He was later in another unarmed aircraft, a Blackburn Skua when he was attacked by a Heinkel 111. Again he managed to escape with his life.

The Bismarck

After taking off from the carrier HMS Ark Royal on the night of May 26, 1941, and at 9.05 pm, Moffat, along with his observer JD ‘Dusty’ Miller and 14 other Swordfish, they made their attack.

During the next few hours, along with aircraft from HMS Victorious, several attacks were made on the Bismarck but none was successful.

Most missed their target but Moffat still had his torpedo.

Flying at just 50ft and with tracer fire coming towards him like a torrent of hail, at the right moment he released his torpedo which struck the battleship on the port side.

The torpedo put the starboard rudder out of action. It jammed so the ship could only turn in a circle.

Several other attacks took place afterwards but with the Bismarck slowed to just seven knots and with battleships, cruisers and destroyers on a heading to meet the ship, the Fleet Air Arm men were called off.

There was an assertion that Admiral Tovey did not want the men to take a further share in the victory over the Bismarck.

Thanks to Moffat and his brave attack which ended in the sinking of the Bismarck, many hundreds if not thousands of lives were saved.

On retuning to the Ark Royal one of the Swordfish was found to have 175 splinter holes from the close shell burst. Moffat left the navy in 1946 and took up hotel management.

He wrote his memoirs 
of his service days and of the attack on the Bismarck in I Sank the Bismarck, a truly remarkable book 
and still available from Bantam Press.