Sometimes actions with little apparent chance of succeeding can have dramatic consequences, as witness the epic battle that lead to the sinking of the Bismarck in WWII. Had the Bismarck, the biggest battleship of its time, succeeded in getting to the North Atlantic, it would have devastated the crucial supply lines from the US to Britain. The Brits tried to intercept the Bismarck in the Straits of Denmark, but instead the battleship Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, took a direct hit in its munitions and exploded. The Bismarck escaped, with some damage. Churchill then issued the famous order, “Sink the Bismarck.” After a few days, a spotter plane found the Bismarck. The Brits moved in.
As it turned out, one action with seemingly little chance of success, changed everything.
Taking off in atrocious Gale 9 weather and facing heavy enemy anti-craft fire, a Fairey Swordfish piloted by John Moffat fired its sole torpedo and hit the Bismarck’s rudder, disabling the ship.
The 818 Squadron Fleet Air Arm history, sent to Mr Moffat only in 2000, records that Lieutenant AS Keane and his team [in the plane behind Moffat] were “eye-witnesses to one of the most decisive blows in modern history as at 21:05 the torpedo released by Sub-Lieutenant JWC Moffat RN struck the extreme stern of the target”.
The Bismarck was crippled. British battleships closed in the next day, and were soon firing at point blank range. Even with that, it took two hours to sink the Bismarck.
[Moffat said] “When we got back [after flying out the next day and seeing the Bismarck sinking] no one was shouting hurray or celebrating. We hardly said a word. Don’t forget, we were sailors. I flew a plane, but primarily I was a naval officer. We all knew it could have been us struggling in that terrible sea.”
1,414 went down with the Hood, 2,085 with the Bismarck. Only 3 survived the sinking of the Hood, 115 German sailors were rescued by the British Navy after the Bismarck was sunk.
Moffat celebrated his 90th birthday in June 2009 by doing acrobatics in a Cessna.