Preparing to take off from his aircraft carrier in atrocious weather, Jock Moffat prayed he would make it into the air and over the mountainous waves breaking on deck.
Earlier that day the 21-year-old had taken to the skies for a recce in conditions in which no aircraft had ever been flown from a carrier: the flight deck had been a rollercoaster, rising and falling more than 50ft and the weather deemed “extremely severe… a great hazard to aircraft”.
Now, back on board HMS Ark Royal, he was facing the same nerve-jangling mission for a second time – piloting his fragile open-cockpit bi-plane, nicknamed the “string-bag”, out over the merciless Atlantic in a vicious gale. The flight deck officer was lashed to the deck to save him being blown overboard, extra ratings helped to hold the aircraft down but Moffat still struggled to control Fairey Swordfish L9726 on deck.
This horrendous battle with the elements was to be matched by the target of his mission – Hitler’s flagship the Bismarck.
The Royal Navy had Germany’s biggest and most powerful battleship in its sights since it sank the British battlecruiser HMS Hood, killing all but three of her crew, two days earlier. Now on 26 May, 1941, Lieutenant Commander Moffat and his Fleet Air Arm colleagues in 818 Squadron were about to strike in one of the most crucial sea battles of the Second World War.
The cloud was at 600ft and Moffat, with his observer Sub Lt “Dusty” Miller and telegraphist/air gunner Albert Hayman, fought turbulence as they headed off alongside two other Swordfish. By the time they reached the target they were alone – with the Bismarck’s guns blazing at them. “The Germans in their big battleship were trying to kill me and it was not pleasant,” he noted drily in his memoirs.
Swooping as close to the waves as he dared, he said: “I felt that every gun on the ship was aiming at me… I do not know how I managed to keep flying into it: every instinct was screaming at me to duck, turn away, do anything – an impulse that was hard to fight off.” Deciding to aim for the bow he heard Miller shout “Not yet”, as his observer leaned out of the cockpit, watching the sea so he would not drop his torpedo on the crest of a wave which would knock it off course.
“We were getting closer and closer, the ship was getting bigger and bigger and I thought ‘Bloody hell, what are you waiting for?’ ” Finally came the signal, “Let her go, Jock”. Unleashing the bomb, he heard Miller confirm “I think we have got a runner.”
Desperate to escape into the clouds, but with a hail of bullets and shells above them, he flew low for 3000 yards before heading for the Ark Royal. On final approach the heaving sea was like a steel wall in front of him, he said. Then he spotted the deck officer, still secured by a line, and felt the thump of the wheels on deck. He survived, sore and exhausted but light-headed with adrenalin.
The Ark Royal claimed two hits on that run and it later transpired it was Moffat’s torpedo that had crippled the Bismarck, putting its rudder out of action. Around 9am the following morning the British battleships the Rodney and King George V finished the job, joined by the Devonshire and Norfolk.
Moffat had been scheduled to take off at 7am in another airborne offensive but was delayed by 50-knot winds. Despite the appalling weather, they took to the air but, due to the battle raging below, were unable to get in range to launch their torpedo. By this time the mighty Bismarck was a blazing wreck. Moffat and his crew watched horrified as men leapt for their lives as she keeled over. Hundreds more were already in the sea. More than 2,000 died that day – only 115 survived.“I saw these hundreds of desperate human beings in the water and I was immediately pierced by the knowledge that they had no hope and, that as I flew just 100ft above them, there was nothing that I could do to save even a single one,” he said.
Moffat, the son of a First World War aeronautical engineer who also served on the Ark Royal, was born in the Borders village of Swinton but lived in Earlston and County Durham before moving to Kelso, where he attended the local High School. His passion for flying emanated from a pleasure flight in an Avro 504 when he was about ten.
After leaving school he had a soul-destroying job as bus company clerk, tried to join the Southern Rhodesian Mounted Police and worked in the parcels department of Harrods, London. He applied in 1938 to join the Naval Air Service Reserve and on the outbreak of war learned to fly in a Miles Magister in Belfast. He was later sent to No 1 Flying Training School at Netheravon, commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve air branch as a sub-lieutenant and moved to the Naval Fighter School at Eastleigh, Southampton, to learn fighter techniques in aircraft including the Gloster Gladiator.
In 1940, while stationed at a Hampshire airbase, he was blown off his feet by an exploding bomb in a raid that killed three colleagues. Later he moved to Sanderling, the Royal Naval air station at Abbotsinch, Glasgow and the following year was serving with the Fleet Air Arm on HMS Ark Royal, stationed at Gibraltar, when the ship was ordered, as part of H Force, to hunt down and sink the Bismarck.
He did not learn until years later that it was his torpedo that had maimed the warship. Moffat also served on HMS Argus, Furious and Formidable with 759, 818, 820 and 824 Naval Air Squadrons. At one point he fell dangerously ill with septicaemia, slipping in an out of consciousness for ten days. While recovering, during a walk near the hospital, he came across a graveyard and prominent headstone engraved “Here lies John Moffat”…
Towards the end of the war he was officer in charge of flying at Royal Naval Air Station Cowdray Park in West Sussex and, as D-Day approached, organised air transport around the country and communications to liberated areas of France.
In 1944 he married Marjorie, whom he had met in Glasgow after her RAF pilot boyfriend was killed. It transpired Moffat had witnessed, and tried to prevent, the crash in which he died at Eastleigh when he took off, unaware that air raid barrage balloons had gone up as he taxied. Moffat desperately fired a flare as a warning to no avail.
He left the Navy in 1946, returning to Glasgow where he gained a business degree and diploma in hotel management and ran a successful hotel before, in retirement, opening an antiques shop in Aberfeldy.
In the 1990s, almost 50 years after he had last flown, he joined the Scottish Aero Club and, during the club’s circumnavigation of Scotland to celebrate the millennium, he terrified a novice pilot accompanying him by re-enacting the Bismarck attack off the North coast. “An event that the pilot in question will not forget!” said club president Mike Ashmole, who had the privilege of flying him on his final flight. Fading eyesight prevented the president allowing him at the controls. “Had I done so, we would have been straight into his party piece, a stall turn. He never lost his appetite for excitement.”
Moffat collaborated with Mike Rossiter on his 2009 memoirs I Sank The Bismarck – a title he detested – in which he acknowledged that he had been haunted every day since by “the image of those poor men struggling in the freezing oily water”.
The last survivor of the Swordfish crews on that mission, in May he helped raise almost £20,000 to keep the Swordfish flying today.
Predeceased by Marjorie, he is survived by their daughters Pat and Jan.