Lieutenant Commander John William Charlton Moffat

Lieutenant Commander John William Charlton Moffat as a RNFAA pilot is generally recognised as responsible for torpedoing the Kreigsmarine (Nazi Germany’s navy) battleship Bismarck.

Flying a Fairey Swordfish biplane, on 26 May 1941, Moffat succeeded in crippling the battleship sufficiently that the Royal Navy could pursue and sink it. Moffat’s bold action formed part of Operation Rheinübung – the Bismarck’s Atlantic manoeuvres.

Moffat was born within the Scottish Borders, in the village of Swinton, on 17 June 1919. In December 1939, he attended a flying school in Belfast. By June 1940, France had fallen, and Moffat had concluded his flying instruction and been posted to No. 759 Squadron, located at Eastleigh.

Moffat’s air combat experience soon began in earnest. The first occurred while he was flying a Gloster Gladiator – a flight that involved testing a new improvised oxygen delivery mechanism. After an ascent to 29,000 feet, Moffat began to descend at which point he was set upon by a number of Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Fortunately, Moffat managed to utilise cloud cover to evade his attackers. Another test flight, this time in an unarmed Blackburn Skua, resulted in a close call with a Heinkel He. 111.

It was his role in the sinking of the Bismarck that earned Moffat a place in military aviation history. On 24 May 1941, after the sinking of HMS Hood (Royal Navy flagship) and the damaging of HMS Prince of Wales by the Bismarck, the Royal Navy were determined to hunt down and destroy the German battleship, which though seaworthy had suffered damage that required its return to the safety of a port.

As part of what was called Force H, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal was ordered to pursue and destroy the Bismarck. Despite high winds and low visibility, on 26 May 1941, just after 21:00 hours, a squadron of Swordfish torpedo bombers (RAF No. 820) from the Ark Royal including that piloted by Moffat alongside his crew – T/S-Lt (A) J. D. ‘Dusty’ Miller, observer, and LA A. J. Hayman, telegraphist/air gunner – spotted the Bismarck. Their squadron of open cockpit bombers attacked the ship receiving concentrated anti-aircraft fire. Two of the launched torpedoes hit the Bismarck – one amidships and the other (from Moffat’s plane) in the rudder-steering area. It was the latter that resulted in the battleship losing its ability to steer.

With the Bismarck directionless despite maintaining good speed, Force H and ships from the Home Fleet pursued and destroyed the battleship. This attack was immortalised in the 1960s film Sink the Bismarck!, which used Moffat’s actual Swordfish (NF389) for the movie’s flying sequence.

Remarkably after a 4-decade hiatus, Moffat began flying again in his sixties going on to be a member of the Scottish Aero Club for 30 years, flying a plane appropriately registered G-ARK. Scone Aerodrome organised a special event for the war hero when he was aged 95. A year later, Moffat was still in the skies. In 2013, Moffat piloted his own plane to Sherburn-in-Elmet, North Yorkshire, where Fairey Swordfish biplanes were built, as part of a Royal Navy ‘Historic Flight Event’.

In an interview to the BBC in 2016, Lt-Cdr Moffat, now ninety-six, recalled his first sight of the giant German warship as he descended through the clouds.

“The first sight I had was over my right shoulder. I could see it belching fire from the side of the ship. It’s guns. They couldn’t fire fast enough.” With his observer hanging out of the open cockpit, communicating with him through their headphones, Moffat flew low towards the Bismarck to keep below its guns. “He kept saying ‘Not yet not yet’. And then eventually he said, ‘Let her go’. “I pressed the firing pin on my throttle and the torpedo dropped into the sea.” And it was him who said, ‘We’ve got a runner, Jock’!

That torpedo disabled Bismarck’s rudder. Unable to flee, it was caught by the pursuing Royal Navy force and shelled before it was scuttled. John Moffat, on a second attack of the giant battleship, saw it happen. He said: “The Bismarck turned on its side, and all the sailors seemed to be in the water. It’s lived with me for a long time.”

I Sank the Bismarck (2010), Moffat’s autobiographical account of his time as a Second World War navy pilot was published in 2010. On 11 December 2016, Lieutenant Commander John William Charlton Moffat who had resided in Dunkeld for several years passed away in Viewlands House care home in Perth, aged 97.


The Scottish Aero Club is the oldest and largest civilian flying association in Scotland.

Local Connections:

The 39 Steps was written by John Buchan (born in Perth) and perhaps the best movie version, well in my opinion was the 1959 version. This starred Kenneth More, who also starred as the butler in 1959 movie, The Admirable Crichton. The same Admirable Crichton that has a plaque on the wall in the South Street, Perth and was written by J. M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) from Kirriemuir. Kenneth More also starred in Reach for the Sky, about Douglas Bader who had a memorial garden in Cupar and was well known for his charity work such as the Bader Braves which offers kids with limb deficiency and other disabilities the opportunity to experience flying in a light aircraft. They use airfields all over the UK and I do remember they were at Scone some time back. Bader is also connected to us through his wingman, Alan Smith who settled in Kinross and ran Dawson International and other enterprises. He died in Perth Royal Infirmary on 1 March 2013. Lastly Kenneth More also starred in the film, Sink the Bismarck in 1960. Our connection to that is, that the Bismarck was crippled while being pursued by the Home Fleet, by a torpedo hitting her rudder. The torpedo was launched from a Fairy Swordfish aircraft from the Ark Royal piloted by John William Charlton Moffat.

The first picture is of the three legendary naval heroes, John Moffat, Lt. Cdr. Edgar Lee who survived the suicidal attack, the “Channel Dash”. When six Swordfish took on the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen in the English Channel. Only 5 Swordfish crew out of 18 survived. The third is the greatest flyer ever, Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown who was born in Leith.

If you ever want to read about a pilot, he is the one to read about. Brown was at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, was on an aircraft carrier when it was torpedoed, was the first man to land a jet on a carrier, interviewed Goring and many other Nazi’s, was at Belsen, should have been the first man to break the sound barrier and was so well loved, that on 3 or 4 occasions when he was recovering from serious injuries, it is said that Winston Churchill was at his bedside. To say that he had an incredible life is no understatement.

Research by Ken Bruce

John Moffat, Edgar Lee, Eric Brown

Bild 193 04-1-26, Schlachtschiff Bismarck