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820 Squadron toast heroes who crippled the Bismarck 75 years ago

Shrouded by smoke, these are the final moments of Hitler’s vaunted flagship Bismarck – sunk exactly 75 years ago today after the most dramatic chase in modern naval history.

In despatching the pride of the German Navy to the bottom of the Atlantic, the Royal Navy avenged the loss of the Mighty Hood – blown up by the Bismarck three days earlier – and eliminated a terrible threat to the lifeline across the ocean from the New World to the Old.

Bismarck had sailed with cruiser Prinz Eugen to wreak havoc among convoys and individual merchant ships – but intelligence and aerial reconnaissance spotted their breakout and the two ships were intercepted by the Royal Navy in the Denmark Strait at first light on May 24 1941. After a few minutes’ battle, HMS Hood blew up and the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales was badly damaged, forcing her to break off the pursuit.

The brief encounter did damage Bismarck sufficiently that her foray into the Atlantic was cancelled and the battleship turned for safe harbour in occupied France.

With orders from PM Winston Churchill to ‘sink the Bismarck’, the RN mustered all the forces it could to prevent the leviathan reaching harbour.

We raised a glass to the eternal memory and self-sacrifice of those who did not return from their mission and to the great achievement of 820 NAS on May 26 1941.

Cdr Jon Holroyd

Swordfish from HMS Victorious damaged Bismarck with a torpedo attack the next day – but not sufficiently that the heavy guns of the Home Fleet could catch up.

A final attempt to halt the battleship’s progress was made at last light on May 26 when HMS Ark Royal arrived within range to launch an air strike by 15 Swordfish torpedo bombers.

They scored two hits – the second, possibly dropped by pilot John Moffat, jammed the rudder. Despite the efforts of Bismarck’s divers and engineers, the problem could not be fixed; the ship sailed around in circles.

The next morning, Royal Navy battleships arrived on the scene and avenged the Hood in a two-hour pounding. Of a crew of more than 2,200, little over 100 were picked up.

The 75th anniversary was commemorated by 820 Naval Air Squadron – whose Swordfish had attacked Bismarck back in 1941 – with a gala dinner at Culdrose attended by Rear Admiral Graeme MacKay, the squadron’s former senior observer and now Director Carrier Strike.

“The Squadron is immensely proud of the brave and successful actions of their forebears exactly 75 years ago today,” said 820’s CO, Cdr Jon Holroyd. “The hunt for and destruction of the Bismarck is one of the most famous confrontations on the high seas and one which we, the Fleet Air Arm, can claim to have turned the tide in favour of the Allies.

“We raised a glass to the eternal memory and self-sacrifice of those who did not return from their mission and to the great achievement of 820 NAS on May 26 1941.”

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