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Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history

Two heroes of British naval aviation together at the Fly Navy 100 launch a decade ago: Eric Brown (left) and John Moffat.
DENIS J. CALVERT

“John Moffat asked if I would take a photo of him ‘and his mate’. He scuttled across the hall and came back with Eric Brown”

Almost exactly 10 years ago ‘as I write’, I attended the press launch of Fly Navy 100, the Royal Navy’s celebration of 100 years of naval aviation that started with the service’s first airship — HMA No 1 Mayfly of 1909.

The event was held at the Royal Aeronautical Society in Mayfair and was attended by a glittering array of speakers.

Following the formal proceedings, I got talking with Lt Cdr John Moffat, the Fairey Swordfish pilot generally credited with launching the torpedo that disabled the German battleship Bismarck’s steering gear. The vessel was subsequently heavily damaged by gunfire from Royal Navy warships and was scuttled the following day. John was a supremely humble man, explaining straight away that he was less than happy with the title of his book I Sank the Bismarck (Bantam Press, 2009), since “nobody can be sure who launched that torpedo.”

We discussed the engagement of May 1941, which pitched a small force of Royal Navy Swordfish from HMS Ark Royal against the battleship, at the time the pride of the German Kriegsmarine. John recalled, “the hellish weather. A force 8 gale, the height of the clouds 600ft, and a carrier deck that was going up and down 60ft. I didn’t think they’d allow us to take off. Our CO persuaded the captain. To let us get off, he had to reduce the speed of his ship to 5kt because of the waves.”

Like many men of his mettle, John freely admitted to being frightened. “Scared? I was scared stiff. You have no idea.

They put up these big shells and walls of water about 50ft high. When we got through that they changed to different weapons — smaller arms. That and the tracers started coming at us. Absolute sheets of it.

They left me in no doubt who they were firing at. No doubt at all. Then, I was just about to drop my torpedo. I got in to less than 2,000 yards and was still flying, when a voice in my ear said, ‘Not yet, John’. And I thought to myself, ‘What the hell. Not yet?’ I knew it was my observer, but I couldn’t think why he was saying, ‘Not yet’.

All the time, we were getting nearer to this huge ship. I turned around and there he was outside the aircraft, with nothing but his backside showing. He was head down, underneath — and then I realised what he was up to.

When you drop your torpedo, you mustn’t hit the top of a wave — and they were enormous waves — or it risks being knocked off course. You have to get into a trough. So, after he said, ‘Let her go’, I always remember his saying, ‘We’ve got a runner’, to which I replied, ‘I’m doing a runner’. I didn’t hang around to see where my torpedo had gone. I just kept going.”

We spoke for maybe 15 minutes, after which he asked me — yes, he asked me — if I would take a photo of him ‘and his mate’. I signalled willing agreement, following which he scuttled across the hall and came back with Eric Brown. The two of them posed in front of a large poster of a modern-day Royal Navy Lynx, and the photo was taken.

Sadly, neither of these great men is still with us. Eric Brown died in February 2016 and John Moffat later that same year; they were two of the truest of true heroes. Talking with both in the course of a morning was an occasion I shall never forget.