I Sank The Bismarck Paperback – 4 Feb 2010
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A fascinating account from the last surviving pilot who took down the largest warship of its time - the Bismarck.
From the Back Cover
May 1941, the pilots of fifteen canvas-covered biplanes struggled to hold their Swordfish aircraft steady as they aimed towards the German battleship Bismarck. They flew low over a wind-wracked ocean, aiming their torpedoes, totally vulnerable in their open cockpits. If they failed now Bismarck would escape to safety.
Among these brave flyers was a young Sub-Lieutenant in the Fleet Air Arm, John Moffat. Only years later was John told that it was his torpedo that had prevented the Bismarck from outrunning her Royal Navy pursuers.
I Sank the Bismarck is a personal story of a carefree young boy, raised in the Borders, growing up to join a fledgling Fleet Air Arm. It's the story of a young pilot, living for the moment, facing war, and taking part in one of the most important battles at sea ever fought by Britain and the Royal Navy.
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With that gripe out of the way let me say what a splendid read it is. It's packed with anecdotal and personal experiences of the naval war in the Mediterranean culminating (as the title suggests) in the north Atlantic with the Swordfish attacks on the Bismarck. But there is plenty to ponder on before we reach the Bismarck. It's packed with all the little details that won't be found in an historians account. Did you know that the Scharnhorst & Gneisenau were referred to as the Ugly Sisters by the Ark Royal's crew as they attempted to hunt them down? I just love things like that. Only first-hand accounts can flesh out history for subsequent generations and we should be grateful to those who have taken the trouble to record it. Anyone with an interest in military first-hand accounts will not find anything to complain about with this book.
Oh dear...before submitting this to the ether I took a look at the other reviews and could scarcely believe what I read. Some one has written...`could have been an excellent book with a little less self praise.' It's an incomprehensible comment as the author is self effacing in the extreme.
Here's to you Mr Moffat...we all owe you one!
This is one of the best books I have ever read, I found it totally gripping and really placed you at the point of time in the book.
Very highly recommended indeed!
As an adolescent I read "Pursuit, the sinking of the Bismark" by Ludovick Kennedy and only realised towards the end that the author had been a witness to the final tumultuous battle serving on the one of the destroys as the pride of the Kreigsmarine endured its death throes.
I found this memoir of a Swordfish pilot in a second hand book shop and picked it up as an 80th birthday present for my dad. The joy of second hand books is you don't feel so bad about read in them yourself before you wrap them up.
This is the third book by a second world war torpedo bomber pilot's book that I've read this year. Thomas Moffat - with the assistance of Mike Rossiter - is an engaging raconteur delivering a different kind of memoir. It opens with an account of a plane crash and its aftermath, though the crash happened in September 2000 when the author - then 80 years old - was piloting a single engined aircraft with his 9 year old grandson as the only passenger. It makes for a more dramatic opening than many. The aftermath of the crash provides a prompt for the author to reflect on his early life and the conspiracy of events that built up to that appointment with destiny on a stormy May night in the Bay of Biscay.
Having begun with a bang - or at least a crash - Moffat goes back to the beginning with his very early life. The taleleaps engagingly from anecdote to anecdote with the agility of a mountain goat, keeping em so enthralled that, although I only bought the book at 1.30 pm on the Monday, I'd finished it by 5 pats midnoght on the Tuesday - and that's a high indication of readbility.
Moffat's story begins as an independent minded four year old growing up with a dog called wiggy and a rare wanderlust in the Scottish borders between the wars. There isn't much war at this point, but it is interesting nonetheless. Moffat illuminates those distant simpler - maybe more primitive - times with anecdotes of life and work and love. Yes - as a rugby player and musician of some accomplishment Mr Moffat seems to have attracted attention in various quarters and, without going into any sordid details, challenges my preconceived ideas of the 1930s as an entirely chaste and sober period.
Moffat's halting efforts to get a worthwhile job and/or an education drive him through the decade of the depression and lead him ultimately into a frustrating pursuit of a place in the Royal Naval Airforce Reserve and training to fly carrier borne torpedo bombers.
While aware of its limitations, he speaks fondly of the antiquated Fairey Swordfish - and less so of its successor the Albacore. There was power and manouverability in those old stringbag as well as an ability to take enormous punishment, as Moffat finds in several dangerous scrapes.
Moffat's work - even the routine - was dangerous. Hazardous navigation, deck landings, tested in all weathers, bombed at aerodromes. Men died all around him, victims of fickle fate. He makes the point that the solution was to live in the now, not to think too much of tomorrow or of death.
He offers a contemporary historian's insight into events he did not himself participate in - such as the raid on the Italians in Taranto Harbour. He also draws interesting contrasts in styles of leadership - Admiral Lutjens of the Bismark's depressing speech about death and glory as the Bismark strove to escape, Captain Lindemann's upbeat riposte of success and imminent relief to try and raise morale. It out me in mind of Theoden's battle cry at the Pelennor Fields (as shown in the Lord of the Ring's Film) - clashing spears and shouting out with deep foreboding about Death seems more a Lutjens than a Lindemann approach. It is a reminder that what makes inspiring reading or watching from the comfort of an armchair witnesses, doesn't make so much for inspiring living or fighting for those at the sharp end of war.
Moffat has many kind words and fond memories of Admiral Somerville a seaman's admiral. There is a point where Somerville orders the ship turned at night to go back and look for one lost pilot - it reminded me of a story of Nelson, pursued by a more powerful French force when Lieutenant (later Captain) Hardy fell overboard. Nelson, crying out, "I'll not lose Hardy" stopped his own ship and surprised the French so much they stopped too allowing Nelson to recover his officer and still escape. Somerville seems to have inspired and delivered the same kind of loyalty that Nelson did.
Moffat also tells of other less well known parts of the war. I have just seen the film Dunkirk and heard how some on the other side of the channel have expressed distaste for the slight reference it made to the sacrifice of the French. Our allies did so much to enable the evacuation by holding of the Germans and yet benefited relatively little from it in terms of numbers lifted from the beaches. But there were worse days in those dark days of 1940. Moffat talks frankly of the attacks the Royal Navy made to destroy the fleet of their erstwhile allies at Oran and Dakar - ships that could not be allowed to fall under German control through Vichy France. We read of French planes attacking British ones, of French sailors killed and their ships sunk by British torpedoes. I'll bet you never see a war movie about that!
Moffat also gives insights into life on the most famous carrier of the war - the Ark Royal and you can see how he became part of a truly elite unit.
They had to be, because when you read how they had to launch that attack on the Bismark - you can believe just getting in the air was a feat of airmanship to rival any achievement of 617 squadron (the Dambusters).
Reading Moffat's account, I am struck more so than ever before, by what a close run thing it was. How nearly the Bismark escaped and would in time have charged up the channel with Scharnhorst Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen to home and safety.
Moffat's flight was the last possible attack, his one of the last possible torpedoes. If they had not crippled Bismark then her escape was certain, after they had wrecked her rudders her fate was only a matter of time. The desperate chaos of that last attack was like the scrabbling and then pushing over for the winning try in the last seconds of a close game of Moffat's favourite sport rugby - only this was infintely more dangerous.
War was no game, victory meant success in a job, not a triumph. Moffat and his colleagues flew over the end of the battle and witnessed the great battleship roll over taking 2000 men to their deaths, that image stuck with him throughout his life.
But the voices of those who were there must be heard, and in this book, history has found a most articulate witness.
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