Aviation History

Did you know Royal Navy’s Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers were able to damage Bismarck because its guns could not target planes moving so slowly?

Heading for occupied France to effect repairs, Bismarck was attacked by 16 Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal…

Bismarck was the first of two Bismarck-class battleships built for Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine. Named after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the ship was laid down at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg in July 1936 and launched in February 1939. Work was completed in August 1940, when she was commissioned into the German fleet.

In the course of the warship’s eight-month career under her sole commanding officer, Captain Ernst Lindemann, Bismarck conducted only one offensive operation, lasting 8 days in May 1941, codenamed Rheinübung. The ship, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, was to break into the Atlantic Ocean and raid Allied shipping from North America to Great Britain. The two ships were detected several times off Scandinavia, and British naval units were deployed to block their route. At the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the battlecruiser HMS Hood initially engaged Prinz Eugen, probably by mistake, while HMS Prince of Wales engaged Bismarck. In the ensuing battle Hood was destroyed by the combined fire of Bismarck and Prinz Eugen, which then damaged Prince of Wales and forced her retreat. Bismarck suffered sufficient damage from three hits by Prince of Wales to force an end to the raiding mission.

The destruction of Hood spurred a relentless pursuit by the Royal Navy involving dozens of warships. Two days later, heading for occupied France to effect repairs, Bismarck was attacked by 16 Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal; one scored a hit that rendered the battleship’s steering gear inoperable.

‘Bismarck like a lot of German vessels didn’t make it beyond its first outing before it was crippled by a torpedo launched from a Fairey Swordfish biplane. A slow plane from the early 1930s era,’ Andy Lee, an aviation expert, explains on Quora.

‘Next stop?

‘Captain: The seabed.

‘The oversight on the part of the Germans unwittingly exploited by the British?

‘The Bismarck’s gunner crews could not calibrate Bismarck’s guns to target planes moving so slowly [as the video in this post explains]. Bismarck’s timed fire basically kept exploding short of the planes due to its range finders inability to accurately marry target range and altitude with target speed. There was a target speed dial on Bismarck’s guns and it simply didn’t dial down to a speed slow enough to match the Swordfish.’

Lee concludes;

‘Once modified by a torpedo from a Swordfish, Bismarck became great moving target practice for The Royal Navy Ships that engaged [it] to the point in the fire exchange that Bismarck was eventually scuttled by her own crew rather than let the British victors board her.’

Photo credit: The Aviation History Online Museum

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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