That pilot

John Moffat

You may not have heard of John (‘Jock’) William Charlton Moffat. Not enough people have.

"Jock" – Sub-Lieutenant John William Charlton Moffat, RN, pictured aboard HMS Ark Royal in 1940.
“Jock” – Sub-Lieutenant John William Charlton Moffat, RN,  aboard HMS Ark Royal in 1940.

On May 26th, 1941, Moffat and his crew of Fairey Swordfish 5C, L9726, flying off HMS Ark Royal in appalling weather, launched the torpedo that crippled the mighty Nazi battleship Bismarck.

It was already Britain’s last roll of the dice against Bismarck, and arguably the most pivotal single act of the entire western war. Without it, the battleship would have reached the safety of Luftwaffe air cover and port in Brest – before throwing the weight of her eight 15” guns into the finely balanced Battle of the Atlantic.

Moffat’s lifelong passion for flying was awakened by a 1929 ‘flip round the paddock’ in an Avro 504, courtesy of an English barnstormer. He paid 10 shillings for the epiphany.

And a lifelong passion it really was. Moffat survived World War 2 and would celebrate his 90th birthday – June 22nd, 2009 – by flying loops in his own Piper Colt.

His full quote, recalling that very first flight, is:

“As for the experience of flying, I was astounded by it. This was like riding in a locomotive but infinitely more thrilling. There was the noise, the smell of hot oil and high-octane petrol, and the speed seemed immense as we took off into the air, high above the countryside, with the town far below us. It was the stuff of dreams, like a glimpse of another world that made it impossible, once I was back on the ground, to view my surroundings in the same way again…. Now that I think about it, that pilot has an enormous amount to answer for!”

Indeed, Moffat’s life is a testament to the power of sharing the magic of flight.

You can read more about John Moffat and his attack on Bismarck here
Or, for a fully detailed account of the attacks, see The Story of the Torpedoing of the Bismarck

Quote Source: Lieutenant Commander Moffat, John and Rossiter, Mike. I Sank the Bismarck: Memoirs of a Second World War Navy Pilot. Bantam Press, London. 2009. ISBN 978-0-593-06352-1

9 thoughts on “That pilot

  1. Another great find! I’ve never heard of Moffat, but as soon as I saw the name my mind wandered up toward the San Francisco bay, wondering if the Navy facility called Moffett Field was somehow related. Turns out the airport is named after an Admiral of no apparent relation.

    1. Actually, Jock Moffat got nothing. Not even a medal. It wasn’t until years later that anyone worked out it was his torpedo that did the crucial damage.

      1. Moffat never claimed a hit because he didn’t even score one on the BISMARCK. He fired his torpedo at her port side in the 1st attack, but it was the 2nd attack
        with 2 Swordfish flown by pilots Godfrey-Fawsett and Ken Pattisson that fired the fatal shot at her starboard side. James Cameron’s film on YouTube “BATTLESHIP BISMARCK” plainly shows the shot that entered her STARBOARD and not port steering compartment and so jammed the rudder against her central propellor.
        This totally incorrect myth became established because a US amateur historian made a wrong assumption that it was Moffat, publshing to this effect on the world net in 1998, but later confessed his mistake. However, Moffet then sadly and hypocritically capitalised by writing a book that he titled as “I sank the Bisamrck”in 2008. He was then subsequently patronsed by The FLY NAVY HISTORIC TRUST for fund raising, being wined and dined at naval functions for the final 8 years of his life. Even Royal Naval press reviews then began to credit him, not caring that the information was wrong.

  2. No medal because he did not the fatal shot that crippled the Bismarck or even strike her. Read the recent Times Article dated 28th October.

    1. Hi Rodney,
      I am loathe to wade into this debate which has been sparked so long after the events. The Swordfish crews from Ark Royal could barely see at the time of their attack, so how anyone can expect clarity 75 years later escapes me.
      To be fair, I have to agree that Moffat’s book title “I Sank The Bismarck” is an outrageous hyperbole. In reality, no-one ever seriously claimed he did more than cripple the ship’s steering…
      I suspect the title was chosen by his publisher with an eye to sales, rather than accuracy. However as time passed, both Moffat and the Admiralty seemed happy to let the implications take on a life of their own.
      Perhaps the irony here is that Kenneth Pattison did receive a DSC for his part in the attack…
      Anyway, I’d be intrigued to see more detail of the claim on your father’s behalf, and to present the arguments for and against in a future article if you like.
      If you’re interested, please use the Contact link to email me directly.

  3. My evidence is a s follows:
    1. A letter/em in the form of an apology from the amateur historian Mark Horan admitting his wrong assumption in his web article (1998) to both me and a Terry Goddard, alive at the time 2009, who was Lieut Keane’s Observer and whose torpedo most likely hit Bismarck’s port side amidships in the same attack as Moffat’s. It was this article and wrong assumption that started the myth and encouraged Moffat to write his book, lead on by his ghost writer Mike Rossiter and then titled “I sank the Bismarck”, also encouraged by his Publisher.
    2. A statement from Goddard saying that Moffat at the de-briefing on the Ark Royal afterwards and for ever later, never made a claim that he saw any hits and certainly not one of his own.
    3. James Cameron’s dive on the Bismarck in 2002, visible on You-Tube ‘Expedition Battleship Bismarck’ published 3rd August 2015 shows conclusive evidence with footage timed at 1hr 7mins. This shows quite clearly the torpedo hole in her starboard steering compartment and the jammed rudder against her central propellor. So the fatal shot was a fired by one of only two pilots, one my father, who attacked her starboard side, whereas Moffat attacked, from his own admission, her port side.
    My father always claimed he was in by far the better firing position, and also adjusted his sight at the very last minute to allow for Bismarck turning hard to port, her Captain attempting to comb the first strike (including Moffat) against her port side and hence her rudders were jammed hard to port.

    1. Thanks Rodney, there’s clearly a compelling case to answer here and I don’t think readers will have any trouble weighing the evidence. It’s also been a great excuse to pull out Bob Ballard’s book (which I’ve had since it was first released) and to re-watch both his and James Cameron’s documentaries again.

      1. Apart from Cameron’s concllusive film on You-tube, it is well worth watching on You-tube “Nazi Super Ship-The Bismarck” published by Bigdog302V8 containg an interview with my father minute 25 onwards.

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