A dream comes true in Falkirk for hero of Bismarck sinking

John Moffat at the Falkirk Wheel
John Moffat at the Falkirk Wheel

In a lifetime of achievement, visiting The Falkirk Wheel for the first time might not seem that important.

But that’s not how Lieutenant Commander John Moffat viewed it. The man who played a significant role in one of the most famous episodes of the Second World War was thrilled when he was able to visit the landmark last week as a VIP guest of Falkirk Council.

A sprightly 95-year-old who retains a wicked sense of humour, Moffat was keen to see what he described as a “Scottish engineering marvel” before he “snuffed it”.

While touring the Wheel, he was happy to pose for pictures and answer questions from members of the public, all of them eager to hear his memories from May 27, 1941 - the night his actions led to the sinking of the Bismarck.

As far as war stories go, Moffat’s takes some beating. He was a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, the flying squadron of the Royal Navy, when he dropped the torpedo that crippled the most famous warship of Nazi Germany.

The resulting explosion destroyed the ship’s steering, bringing it to a halt in the Atlantic Ocean, 400 miles west off the French coast, where it was then attacked by the pursuing Allies the following day. The Bismarck was fatally holed, and in the heat of the battle her crew took a desperate decision to scuttle her.

It was a significant blow to the Nazis’ maritime power and provided a huge morale boost to the Allies.

Three days before the battle, the Bismarck had been responsible for sinking the battlecruiser HMS Hood, which went down with 1415 British sailors.

It was the Hood’s fate that prompted Winston Churchill to issue his famous order: ‘sink the Bismarck!’.

More than 70 years later, and the man who did just that is enjoying his well-earned retirement. Following his wartime service Moffat, who grew up in the Borders and now lives in Dunkeld, retained a keen interest in flying and engineering, making his last solo flight at the age of 90.

It was these hobbies that led to his wish to visit The Falkirk Wheel, which is famously powered by the Archimedes principle.

“Shall we put it this way – I’m not disappointed,” Moffat told The Falkirk Herald after stepping off the barge that takes visitors up on the boatlift.

“I wanted to see this wonderful Scottish invention before I snuff it. I’ve wanted to see it for the last year, but something always got in the road.

“I’m very glad to have made the trip, and everyone has been so welcoming. It’s an amazing set-up.

“Every school should come here and learn about the Archimedes principle.”

A meeting with Jim Keir, an amateur historian from Reddingmuirhead, led to Moffat’s day out at the Wheel. Keir passed on a message to Baillie Billy Buchanan, who arranged for the visit to take place.

“I just think he’s such a hero, I would rather have met him than any pop star or actor,” said Keir.

“I got his number and called him and asked if I could visit him. During the visit, he asked me where I came from, and when I said Falkirk he mentioned he had always wanted to visit The Falkirk Wheel.

“I know Billy loves history like myself, so when I spoke to him, he said he might be able to set something up.”

Baillie Buchanan said: “As far we’re concerned, everyone that fought in the two wars are heroes. They were fighting for their communities and country at large.

“What this man did went above and beyond the call of duty, so I think we’re all the same – we’re grateful to be able to give him the opportunity to realise one of his dreams.”

While the Wheel turned, slowly bringing the visitor barge back down from the Union canal to the Forth and Clyde, Moffat shared his memories of that fateful evening in 1941 when he piloted one of several Fairey Swordfish biplanes that took off from HMS Ark Royal in search of the Bismarck.

Their orders were simple – seek and destroy. But conditions could not have been worse.

“What you must remember is I had no communication with my ship, there was no electronic communication,” he said.

“When I came out towards the Bismarck, which was about two miles away, I was scared stiff of going into the sea. Bullets were coming so fast it looked like hail. There was no point in trying to dodge, because there was nowhere else to go.

“My theory was, if I could get low enough I would have a chance, because of the terrific up-and-down of the waves.

“When I was about to drop the torpedo, my navigator shouted through the tubes – the Gosport tubes they called them – and he shouted ‘not yet, not yet!’. I realised then he was hanging out under the plane, looking for a place to put the torpedo in – a drop as we called it.

“Once I dropped it, he did say: ‘well done John, you’ve got a runner!’.”

Moffat and his fellow airman were not immediately aware of the damage inflicted on the Bismarck.

“We couldn’t see anything,” he said. “All I could think about was getting the hell out of it! And luckily I did.

“We were sent out the next morning especially to sink that ship, and when we got there, there was a battle going on. We were told to keep clear because of the shelling. We went round the other side and I was about to drop my second torpedo when the ship turned on its side.

“All those thousands of men in that hellish sea, and I mean a hellish sea, and there they were bobbing up and down, with no chance of survival. I thought oh my god, that is terrible that these people can end up there like that. As I said, there but for the grace of God, go I.”