World War II History: “Steel Versus Struts and Canvas”

Bismarck

In Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom, historian Iain Ballantyne lays out in an almost cinematic style how the German high-seas raider met her match during a contest of steel versus struts and canvas. It was the most unlikely of tales — fragile, supposedly obsolete Swordfish biplanes against the modern battle-wagon Bismarck, at the time the most powerful warship in the world. In this specially-adapted extract from the book, we ride with Canadian-born Fleet Air Arm aviator Terry Goddard, the observer of a Swordfish torpedo-bomber sent to try and cripple Bismarck on the evening of May 26, 1941. This inside account of the attack was created using the transcript of hours of on-camera interviews filmed for a project by Iain Ballantyne. It documents the last testimony of a small Band of Brothers who experienced combat against Bismarck.

May 26, 1941–7:00 PM

It is time for another set of contenders to climb into the ring for a round with the heavyweight. The battle-cruiser 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 downBismarck.

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 harbor. The first U-boat sunk in the Second World War by the British was courtesy of a Swordfish using bombs. It is as a torpedo-bomber that it will achieve new fame in May 1941.

Slow, with only a top speed of 138 miles per hour, its two wings give it 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 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 recognizes 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 honor 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 fueled up and each armed with a single 18-inch torpedo, ready to go.

Read the Remainder at War is Boring

 

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