The news that reached London on May 24, 1941, could not have been worse for the Admiralty. The German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen had sunk the battlecruiser HMS Hood, and damaged the new battleship Prince of Wales. That the Bismarck had been slightly damaged was cold comfort to a Royal Navy that had suffered its greatest defeat in living memory. British armed forces rallied every resource to avenge the loss, resources that included Ensign Leonard B. “Tuck” Smith of the U.S. Navy, who would have a pivotal role in the sinking of the Bismarck.
If Congress discovered he had also sent pilots to Britain, Roosevelt said, “I will be impeached.”
In 1940 Great Britain purchased 200 PBY Catalina seaplanes, whose long range and flight time made them ideal for anti-submarine patrols. The first batch of PBYs was delivered early in 1941, along with three pilots, one of them Ensign Smith, “on loan” from the U.S. Navy to help train the Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots. The sale of the Catalinas was public knowledge. U.S. Navy pilot help was not. Roosevelt had aroused isolationist ire in still-neutral America with Lend Lease and other aid to Britain. If Congress discovered he had also sent pilots to Britain, Roosevelt said, “I will be impeached.” So the pilots’ presence was a secret. Smith was assigned to the RAF’s 209 Squadron, part of Coastal Command and based in Loch Erne, Northern Ireland.
At the early morning briefing on May 26, 1941, Smith discovered the squadron’s mission that day was to find the Bismarck, which had eluded the ships and aircraft shadowing it. Normally for reconnaissance missions, the Catalinas’ anti-submarine loads of four depth charges were removed. But time was of the essence. The depth charges stayed on.
The weather was foul, with a ceiling as low as 100 feet when, at 0325, Smith’s PBY-5 No. AH545 lifted off the waters of Loch Erne and, along with the rest of the squadron’s Catalinas, headed west in search of the Bismarck. Officially RAF Pilot Officer Dennis Briggs was the pilot and Smith was the co-pilot.
In May of nineteen forty-one the war had just begun
The Germans had the biggest ship that had the biggest guns
The Bismarck was the fastest ship that ever sailed the seas
On her deck were guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees.
—Johnny Horton “Sink the Bismarck” (1960)
Smith’s Catalina reached its assigned sector about six hours later and commenced searching. In his report of what happened next, Smith said, “[A]t 1010 I sighted what was first believed to be Bismarck. . . . I immediately took control from ‘George’ [the automatic pilot]; started slow climbing turn to starboard, keeping ship sited to port, while the British officer went aft to prepare [the] contact report. My plan was to take cover in the clouds, get close to the ship as possible; making definite recognition and then shadow the ship from best point of vantage. Upon reaching 2,000 feet we broke out of a cloud formation and were met by a terrific anti-aircraft barrage from our starboard quarter.”
Buffeted by anti-aircraft bursts that damaged the Catalina, Smith jettisoned the depth charges and conducted violent evasive action as additional contact information, including confirmation that the ship was the Bismarck, was transmitted. Smith and the crew later lost contact with the battleship, but their messages had been received. Air and surface forces converged on an intercept course. Smith’s Catalina landed 18 hours later, at 2130. The next morning the Bismarck was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Smith was interviewed about the mission by naval attaché Capt. Charles A. Lockwood, USN, who filed his report on June 9, 1941. The Navy awarded Smith the Distinguished Flying Cross for finding the Bismarck, though years would pass before he could explain why he received it. Smith’s career spanned four decades and three wars. He retired with the rank of captain and died in 2006 at the age of 90. “Charlie” Lockwood later became the Navy’s submarine fleet commander in the Pacific during World War II, rising to the rank of vice admiral. Inspired by the British movie about the event, in 1960 country music singer Johnny Horton recorded the song “Sink the Bismark” (spelling subsequently corrected) which reached #3 on the Billboard charts for Country singles and #6 in Billboard’s Hot 100.
This story was originally published on May 8, 2011