John Moffat (Royal Navy officer)

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John William Charlton Moffat
Born (1919-06-17) 17 June 1919 (age 97)
Swinton, Scottish Borders, near Kelso, United Kingdom
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch God's Own Navy Royal Navy
Fleet Air Arm
Years of service 1938–46
Rank Lieutenant Commander
Unit HMS Ark Royal with 759 Naval Air Squadron
HMS Argus with 818 Naval Air Squadron
HMS Furious with 820 Naval Air Squadron
HMS Formidable with 824 Naval Air Squadron

Second World War

John William Charlton Moffat (born 17 June 1919) is a former Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot, famous for crippling the German battleship Bismarck during its Atlantic sortie, codenamed Operation Rheinübung on 26 May 1941, whilst flying a Fairey Swordfish biplane.

Early life and family[edit]

John Moffat was born in the village of Swinton in the Scottish Borders county, to Mary and Peter Moffat. When he was a child his parents moved to Earlston where his father opened the first garage.

John's father, Peter, had served in the Royal Navy during the First World War, joining in 1914 to qualify as an Aeronautical engineer for the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Peter served in No. 2 Wing RNAS under Wing Commander Charles Rumney Samson, the first man to fly an aircraft off a ship. Peter Moffat served in Belgium and was posted to the seaplane carrier, HMS Ark Royal which sailed to the Mediterranean to take part in the Gallipoli Campaign. Peter left the service in 1917 and married Mary in 1918.[1] Mary Moffat was an amateur opera singer. Moffat's mother encouraged him to take up playing musical instruments. Owing to this, John learned to play the violin and piano by the age of 10.[2] During his teenage life Moffat took up equestrianism and followed the riders during the blood sport fox hunting, which "did not go down well with his parents".[3] In 1929 Moffat saw an Avro 504 aircraft fly over Kelso, triggering a lifelong passion for flying.[4] The pilot was offering rides for 10 shillings. Moffat described the pilot as a Biggles look-alike and was impressed by him. Moffat flew that day for the first time. Moffat described his feeling of his first flight:

As for the experience of flying, I was astounded by it. This was like riding in the locomotive but infinitely more thrilling. There was the noise, the smell of hot oil and high-octane petrol [fuel], 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.[5]

Moffat passed the Entrance examination for Kelso High School and finished his preliminary education there. Moffat excelled at Rugby and was selected for the school's first team.[6] Moffat had wanted to go to Edinburgh University but owing to the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Moffats could not afford the University tuition fees.[7] Moffat applied for a bursary, took examinations and attended interviews, but failed to make the grade and was not offered assistance. Moffat had no choice but to leave school at 16, to make his living working for a bus company, which he disliked, and using his musical talents playing at weddings.[8]

By 1938, Moffat was bored with life at the bus depot and decided to apply for a position as a naval pilot in the reserve having seen an advertisement which promised to train him as a pilot while offering him a substantial wage. Moffat had not pursued a flying career earlier, believing it to beyond the aspirations of ordinary people, but now seized the opportunity and applied to join the Fleet Air Arm.[9]

Moffat heard nothing from the Navy and moved to London. After failing to find work in the Rhodesian police force through their High Commission in London, he received a letter from the Navy offering him a part-time job in the reserves. Moffat accepted the Navy's offer and was ordered to report to HMS Frobisher in Portsmouth.[10]

Moffat had been on leave in Kelso on 1 September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. On 3 September 1939 Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. The following day, Moffat was ordered to the St Vincent Barracks Gosport, on the west side of Portsmouth Harbour, which was the Royal Navy Boy's Training Establishment.[11]

Fleet Air Arm[edit]

Early career[edit]

In December 1939 Moffat moved to a flying school in Belfast. By the time of the fall of France in June 1940, Moffat had completed his training and was based with 759 Squadron at Eastleigh. Before the Battle of Britain he had two encounters with enemy aircraft. While test flying a Gloster Gladiator, testing an improvised oxygen system, Moffat reached 29,000 ft. During the descent he was attacked by Messerschmitt Bf 109s but he escaped into clouds without damage. Soon afterwards, he was also engaged by a Heinkel He 111 while test flying an unarmed Blackburn Skua. Moffat reported the event to a Hawker Hurricane unit (not specified) which scrambled to intercept.[12]

In July 1940, Moffat's Squadron took part in the attack on Mers-el-Kébir, although Moffat himself did not travel with the Ark Royal carrier for the attack. Later that autumn, Moffat joined 818 Squadron.[13]

24 May 1941[edit]

On 24 May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck sank the Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Hood, and HMS Ark Royal was ordered, as part of Force H, to hunt down Bismarck and sink her. On 26 May 1941 the Bismarck was nearing the safety of the French port of Saint-Nazaire. A last-ditch attempt to slow the battleship down, so that the British heavy units could catch up with her, was made that night.

At 21:05 hours, Moffat and his Observer T/S-Lt.(A) J. D. "Dusty" Miller, and telegraphist/Air Gunner (TAG) LA A. J. Hayman, flying in the Fairey Swordfish 5C/L9726, crippled the Bismarck with a torpedo strike on her port stern. The explosion jammed Bismarck's rudder 12° to port, which left her unmanoeuvrable and unable to escape. The Home Fleet and Force H duly destroyed Bismarck the following morning.[14]

After the war[edit]

Moffat left the Navy in 1946 and returned to Glasgow. He went to college in Glasgow to get a business degree and also achieved a diploma in hotel management. Moffat had stopped flying after leaving the Navy. In his 60s, after 40 years, he began flying again.[15] He celebrated his 90th birthday in June 2009 by performing aerobatics in a light aircraft.[14] In 2010, his book 'I Sank the Bismarck' (ISBN 9780552159487), co-written with documentary writer Mike Rossiter, was released.



  1. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, pp. 7-9.
  2. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, pp. 16-17.
  3. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, p. 18.
  4. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, p. 19.
  5. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, pp. 19-20.
  6. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, p. 15.
  7. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, p. 21.
  8. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, p. 22.
  9. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, pp. 27-28.
  10. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, pp. 30-31.
  11. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, p. 36.
  12. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, pp. 54, 59, 60.
  13. ^ Moffat and Rossiter 2009, p. 80.
  14. ^ a b Times Article 25 June 2009 When you've faced Bismarck, a loop at 90 is child's play
  15. ^ John Moffat interview