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Poignant Reminders - the story of John Moffat and the Bismarck Engagement

 Poignant Reminders

Above: A close look at the pages from
John Moffat’s log book reveal three powerful lines of simple text. In the simple matter-of-fact brevity of a fliers log, he records three missions against the German battleship Bismarck. Four words only - “Torpedo Attack on Bismarck” - but between the lines lies history, tumult, fear, heroism and sacrifice. Books, movies, games, essays, songs - all were created after the fact, but the man who made this history chose to sum it up in four words.

The Vintage Wings hangar holds many treasures. When you walk into the hangar, some of these artifacts immediately catch your eye… and your imagination. The sleek and shiny Spitfire personifies airborne grace. Together with the more robust Hurricanes, they are reminders of the Battle of Britain; that unforgettable summer of grim determination, and the Few. The diminutive Tiger Moth and growling Harvard represent Canada’s tremendous contribution to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The Fox Moth, Waco Taperwing and Beech Staggerwing remind us of the golden age of flight. The list of notables includes the elegant Mustang, the brutish Corsair, and the ungainly-looking Lysander, as well as several other unique aircraft. Each of the aircraft in the collection is an engineering and technical marvel. More importantly, each aircraft is a reminder of the sacrifices and contributions made by the people who built Canada’s unique aviation heritage.

Looking almost forlornly in the corner is an airplane that might initially look quite out of place – especially in this stable of streamlined thoroughbreds. With its many struts and wires, its wings folded and missing an engine (which is in England being overhauled), the Swordfish is not often described as beautiful. She is a large airplane, especially for a bi-plane. With her wings unfolded, her wingspan stretches to no less than forty-five feet. Unlike the other biplanes in the collection, she is not resplendent with bright yellow, red or glossy black paint. Instead, her somber grey and green camouflage hints at her arduous history and the subtlety reminds us of those that courageously flew her in harm’s way.

The Swordfish pilots, observers and telegraphist air gunners, or TAGs, took this slow moving, fabric covered, open cockpit biplane into some of the most dangerous skies of the Second World War. Swordfish crews distinguished themselves during the November 1940 raid on the Italian fleet at Taranto when the Royal Navy launched the first all-aircraft naval attack in history and dealt the Italian fleet a decisive blow. The success of this attack had long ranging effects; it inspired the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor and foreshadowed the rise of naval air power.

Poignant Reminders

One such Swordfish pilot was Commander John Moffat. Today, like many of his generation, he is a humble but broadly smiling man with the same fire in his eyes. In the hangar display at Vintage Wings you will see a photo of him flying a Swordfish with a torpedo hanging centreline. Photo via John Moffat

In February 1942, Hitler ordered two battlecruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, as well as several other smaller vessels, to sail through the narrow English Channel from Brest, to their home bases in Germany. This powerful naval force was attacked by six torpedo-carrying Swordfish that pressed home their attacks despite the ships’ powerful anti-aircraft defences and ferocious Luftwaffe fighter opposition. All six aircraft were lost and Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Esmonde, who led the attack, was awarded the Victoria Cross. The commander of the British forces, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, said of these crews: "In my opinion the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed"

Swordfish crews also served valiantly under exceptionally difficult conditions when operating from tiny merchant aircraft carriers on convoy duty. These merchant aircraft carriers were converted bulk grain carriers or tankers. They were equipped with minuscule flight decks that were less than five hundred feet long and less than seventy feet wide. These carriers had no catapults, hangars or other aircraft support facilities; their Swordfish aircraft were carried out in the open – lashed to the flight deck. Swordfish crews flew their anti-submarine patrols from these postage-stamp-sized carriers over the open ocean for hours in bone-chilling, numbing cold; returning to land on a tiny, pitching, heaving deck.

Poignant Reminders

Admiral Günther Lütjens’ Worst Nightmare. In this wonderful photo now in the Swordfish display case, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot John Moffat stands before a Blackburn Skua on the deck of a Royal Navy carrier. A simple, proud and youthful Scotsman, he would be instrumental in bringing about the destruction of the pride of the Kriegsmarine. At left we see the stern Teutonic face of Lütjens, the Chief of the German Surface fleet for which Bismarck was flagship. He, along with most of his crew, lasted a short six days on the open Atlantic.

Perhaps the most famous incident involving Swordfish crews was the sinking of the Bismarck. This formidable battleship was equipped with no less than eight 15 inch main guns. At the time that she was commissioned, the Bismarck was the largest warship in the world. She was also one of the fastest; capable of reaching speeds of nearly thirty knots. Protected by thick welded-armour and numerous anti-aircraft guns, Bismarck was intended to serve as a commerce raider. If not stopped, Bismarck would have decimated allied convoys and tightened the Kriegsmarine’s stranglehold on Britain’s vital supply lifeline. On her first cruise, shortly after breaking out into the Atlantic, Bismarck sank the pride of the Royal Navy, the battlecruiser Hood, with the loss of all but three crewmembers. Swordfish crews from the carriers Victorious and Ark Royal played a decisive role in the sinking of the Bismarck during the Battle of the Denmark Straight. Flying under blistering anti-aircraft fire, Swordfish crews pressed home their attacks and inflicted serious damage. Although their torpedoes did not directly sink the Bismarck, they crippled the mighty battleship’s rudder, which made it vulnerable to the guns of the battleships King George V and Rodney.

Poignant Reminders

Swordfish torpedo bombers flying over the King George V on the morning of 27 May 1941, the day that Bismarck went to the bottom. Moffat’s historic torpedo hit was on the 26th, but he also led a flight of Swordfish from Ark Royal against Bismarck on the 27th. Ark Royal had launched twelve Swordfish in order to attack Bismarck but due to the heavy fire from the British warships stayed away. Inset: Another photo from the display of Moffat back on terra firma.

Vintage Wings believes that future generations must learn about the tremendous courage and sacrifice of the men who flew the Swordfish. All of our veterans are important to us. Sharing the aircraft in our collection with veterans and their families is a tremendous privilege. We were very fortunate to have been able to contact no fewer than nine Swordfish veterans and their families. All of them have been invited to visit the collection and have generously shared their stories with us. We will continue our efforts to search for more of the Swordfish veterans; pilots, observers and TAGs.

Amongst our treasures in the hangar are some poignant reminders of the men that flew the Swordfish. Tucked in next to the wing of the Swordfish is a small display case, which holds valuable artifacts from two Swordfish pilots: Commander John Moffat and Pilot Officer Bert Joss. Cdr John Moffat flew Swordfish from the Ark Royal. He launched the torpedo that disabled the Bismarck’s rudder. This decisive event – which Cdr Moffat and his crew accomplished despite a withering hail of antiaircraft fire - led to the Bismarck’s being dispatched, and ultimately saved the lives of many allied seamen. Cdr Moffat has generously given Vintage Wings a signed photocopy of the logbook pages that record his two flights against the Bismarck. He has also given us three signed photos that we are also honoured to display. A few months ago, we had the great privilege of speaking to Cdr Moffat, by telephone from his home in Scotland. His incredible story, which he humbly shared with us, will be described in an upcoming article.

Bert Joss flew Swordfish as a staff pilot at No. 1 Naval Air Gunners School in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. We were delighted when Bert recently became a Vintage Wings volunteer. He wrote about his wartime activities in a great article, entitled, School of Swordfish, which appears on our website. We also have the privilege of displaying Bert’s logbook and a piece of the wreckage from the Swordfish that Bert force-landed after a defective fuel selector caused an engine failure.

Poignant Reminders

The Swordfish awaits her Bristol engine presently on rebuild in Great Britain. To keep her company while she waits are two display cases with artifacts from pilots who flew the type. On the left are the John Moffat memorabilia and on the right a display case with Bert Joss’ logbook. Photos: Rob Kostecka

Other display cases have also been prepared. They also contain treasures that are symbolic of our veterans’ service and sacrifice. These display cases contain the precious reminders of ‘Pappy’ Dunn, a Canadian fighter pilot who flew during the invasion of Normandy… of Frank Strachan who flew Spitfires in the Pacific theatre… and of Moe Fraser, a flight instructor who was denied his desperate desire to get into the fight, and was one of the unsung heroes of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

In the months to come, more of our hangar’s display cases will be filled with priceless treasures from our heroic veterans and more of their timeless stories will be told.

Our contacting Commander John Moffat was made possible because of a lead provided by Patrick McDougall; Patrick, a subscriber to Vintage News, met Moffat several years ago. Reading the biography of Vintage Wings pilot Rob Kostecka (who will be flying the Swordfish), prompted him to get in touch with us. For this introduction we are grateful.

The complete Warbird U Calendar for 2012
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