Lt. CommanderJohn Moffat

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When World War II broke out, Moffat (a Scotsman) did what his father did in World War I: he joined the Royal Navy. He trained as a pilot, flying the already-obsolete Fairey Swordfish — a torpedo bomber biplane. On May 24, 1941, the German battleship Bismarck sank the Royal Navy’s flagship, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, killing all but three of its crew of more than 1,400 men. The Royal Navy got orders direct from Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “Sink the Bismarck.” In all, 42 ships were dispatched to do the job, including the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, with Moffat and his Swordfish aboard. “We knew we just had to stop her trail of devastation at all costs,” Moffat said years later. The Bismarck was quickly found — almost safe in port. Moffat in his Swordfish had to take quick action.

“The first sight I had was over my right shoulder. I could see it belching fire from the side of the ship” — the ship’s guns. “We dived in through the murk, into a lethal storm of shells and bullets,” he said. “I thought the closer we were to the water the better chance we had of surviving so we flew in bouncing off the tops of the waves, and it worked. The great thing about the Swordfish was that the bullets just went straight through. After all, it was only made of canvas!” To see the Bismark, Moffat’s navigator Dusty Miller leaned out the window and directed him. “I heard in my ear ‘not now, not now…’” as they got closer. “Then I heard him say ‘let it go!’ and I pressed the button” to drop the torpedo. “Then I heard him say ‘we’ve got a runner’ and I got out of there.” The Bismark was disabled, and sank the next day, just three days after it sank the Hood; its survivors were picked up by other Royal Navy ships. Moffat modestly disclaimed credit for sinking the Bismark, saying it was a team effort, in part because he didn’t know absolutely for sure whether it was his torpedo that was the decisive blow — until the year 2000, when the Fleet Air Arm wrote him to confirm it. “It gave me a sort of satisfaction,” he said. After the war, Moffat returned to Scotland for his degree in hotel management. After retiring, he took up flying again. John W.C. “Jock” Moffat died December 11, at 97.

From This is True for 11 December 2016