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Light cruiser Muzio Attendolo showing the substantial damage caused to her bow by a torpedo from HM Submarine Unbroken on 13 August 1942. She lost her entire bow forward of ‘A’ turret. The damage looked worse than it actually was, with the shattered bow plating folded back along the ship’s side. She remained afloat to be towed to Messina and Naples, where she was fully repaired in three months.
The rebuilt dreadnought Conte di Cavour, sunk at Taranto in the Fleet Air Arm Swordfish attack of 11/12 November 1940. In this daring action, obsolescent Swordfish biplanes launched eleven torpedoes in the shallow water of Taranto harbour, torpedoing three Italian capital ships. Conte di Cavour, rebuilt at vast expense from a Great War dreadnought, put on an impressive show with her much higher top speed, thanks to new engines. But her armour protection remained far too weak, as was the case with her Pugliese anti-torpedo system which failed completely.

The tiny Royal Hellenic navy suffered its first casualties, to an Italian submarine’s torpedo, two months before the Italians formally declared war on their Mediterranean neighbours. In a deliberate act designed to provoke the Greeks, the old, small Greek protected cruiser Helle was sunk by the submarine Delfino off the island of Tinos on 15 August 1940, while the crew were celebrating a saint’s day. Nine petty officers and sailors were killed, and twenty-four injured. Parts of the torpedo were recovered and markings proved their Italian origin, but Greece was unprepared for war.

One of the set of victory commemorative stamps issued by Greece in 1946 showed the torpedoing of the cruiser. And at the same time the Italian navy transferred the light cruiser Eugenio di Savoia to Greece as compensation for the loss of the Helle.


Bismarck had escaped from Admiral Holland’s trap in the Denmark Strait, having sunk HMS Hood and driven off the new battleship Prince of Wales. Her consort Prinz Eugen had been successfully detached, and now the giant battleship was running for safety in occupied France, to lick her wounds. Nine rookie Swordfish crews from the new aircraft carrier HMS Victorious launched a torpedo attack on Bismarck in bad weather, scoring one hit under her bridge, but the battleship’s TDS shrugged off the torpedo damage and her speed was unaffected. Twice she slipped the British net, and twice she was found. But it seemed she would be within range of Luftwaffe air cover before the British could bring her to battle.

Force H was coming up from Gibraltar; Admiral Somerville’s lightweight battlecruiser Renown, no match for the Bismarck, was ordered to stand clear and not risk an engagement. But his cruiser Sheffield took over shadowing Bismarck, and his aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal was ordered to send her Swordfish crews to try to slow down the escaping German. The first Swordfish strike force mistook the shadowing Sheffield for Bismarck, and put in attacks on her. Luckily their torpedoes’ magnetic influence detonators malfunctioned and exploded prematurely. Recognising their own cruiser at last, the final crews broke off the attack.

The second strike went in with fifteen Swordfish carrying torpedoes fitted with traditional impact fuses. A low cloud base and Bismarck’s fierce anti-aircraft fire and manoeuvring at speed disrupted any notion of a coordinated attack from both sides, and each Swordfish pilot had to press an individual attack as best he could, so the planes came in singly from every direction. At their loaded airspeed of only some 90 knots, they completely threw out the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft gunnery controls, the Germans being unwilling to believe their attackers would be approaching so slowly. Accordingly, they fused their AA shells to burst too short, at the range where a more modern torpedo plane would have reached. They missed the Swordfish but the planes still had to fly through the enormous waterspouts thrown up by the exploding shells. Pilot John Moffat remembered his observer hanging over the side of the rear cockpit calling out instructions, to ensure that their torpedo would drop into the trough of a wave and not porpoise by striking a wave crest. No planes were lost, and this time the Bismarck was hit with three 18in torpedoes. Two of the hits were amidships and again did little to stop or even slow the giant battleship. But one torpedo coming from Bismarck’s starboard quarter had hit at her most vulnerable spot, the rudders.

When a warship is manoeuvring at speed to evade a torpedo attack, the last order should always be to put the rudder amidships. Then if a torpedo puts the steering gear out of action, at least the inline rudder has no adverse effect on the ship’s handling, and her commander can proceed to manoeuvre her using the propellers alone.

At the moment the torpedo hit, Bismarck was under port helm — Lieutenant Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechburg in Bismarck’s after fire control position reported having looked at the rudder indicator and seen that it read ‘left 12 degrees’. The explosion not only disabled the steering gear but jammed both rudders to port. Previous trials in the Baltic of trying to steer Bismarck by using the propellers alone had been far from successful. Hampered by jammed rudders, the ship now became unmanageable.

Attempts to free the rudders were unsuccessful. The sea surging in through the torpedo hole prevented any divers from entering the steering compartment. In desperation, it was proposed to blow the damaged rudders off the ship using explosive charges, but this was rejected because of the risk of damaging the propellers. It should be noted that the stern areas of Kriegsmarine warships proved weak on more than one occasion: Lützow had almost lost her stern on her return from Norway in 1940, the torpedo from HMS Spearfish blowing off both her propellers. Prinz Eugen was to suffer similar damage on 23 February 1942 to a torpedo hit from HMS Trident, and when Dr Ballard’s team first found the wreck of Bismarck they were surprised to find the hull basically intact, but with the complete stern section detached.

Throughout the night of 26/27 May Bismarck had been kept under the threat of torpedo attack by the ships of the 4th Destroyer Division, HMS Cossack, Maori, Zulu and Sikh, plus the Polish Piorun, which had pressed home their assaults in atrocious weather conditions and in the teeth of Bismarck’s impressive secondary armament of 5.9in (15cm) turret guns. The destroyers scored no known torpedo hits, but they did ensure that Bismarck’s crew had no respite during the whole of the night before their final battle.



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