During the Second World War, RAF personnel regularly described their activities on the radio for listeners of the BBC. These broadcasts described their experiences in their own words and in effect provided the human stories behind the official communiqués. We present one of these narratives, an account selected from over 280 broadcasts which were, at the time, given anonymously. One of those men was Flying Officer Dennis Briggs.
At 03:30 on 26 May 1941, Flying Officer Dennis Briggs took off from Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, at the controls of Consolidated PBY Catalina AH545, coded WQ-Z. Also on board this 209 Squadron flying boat were Pilot Officer Otter, Flying Officer Lowe, Sergeants Edmonds, Burton, Leigh, Dunning and Stenning, and Leading Aircraftman Martin, the wireless operator. The last man in the crew was co-pilot Ensign Leonard B. Smith of the USN, one of 17 American pilots operating with Coastal Command at the time.
After flying for six hours, the Catalina reached its search area. At 10:30 hours, some 700 miles west of Brest, the crew spotted their prey – the Bismarck. Within moments, Martin was transmitting one of the most important sighting reports of the War.
Subsequently speaking on the BBC, Pilot Officer Dennis Briggs gave this account: “We got to the area we had to search at 09:45. It was a hazy morning with poor visibility, and our job was to contact with Bismarck, which had been lost since Sunday morning. About an hour later we saw a dark shape ahead in the mist. We were flying low at the time. I and the second pilot were sitting side by side and we saw the ship at the same time.
“At first we could hardly believe our eyes. We both shouted ‘There she is,’ or something of the sort. There was a 40-knot wind blowing and a heavy sea running, and she was digging her nose right in, throwing it white over her bows. At first, as we weren’t sure that it was an enemy battleship, we had to make certain. So we altered course, went up to about 1,500 feet into a cloud, and circled. We thought we were near the stern of her when the cloud ended, and there we were, above her.
We were surrounded by dark brownish black smoke as she pooped off at us with everything she’d got.
“The first we knew of it was a couple of puffs of smoke just outside the cockpit window, and a devil of a lot of noise. And then we were surrounded by dark brownish black smoke as she pooped off at us with everything she’d got. She’d only been supposed to have eight AA guns, but fire was coming from more than eight places – in fact, she looked just one big flash. The explosions threw the flying boat about, and we could hear shrapnel hit the hull.
“My first thought was that they were going to get us before we’d sent the signal off, so I grabbed a bit of paper and wrote out the message and gave it to the wireless operator. At the same time the second pilot took control, and took avoiding action.
“As the Bismarck saw us she’d taken avoiding action too, by turning at right angles, heeling over and pitching in the heavy sea. When we’d got away a bit we cruised round while we inspected our damage. The rigger and I went over the aircraft, taking up floor-boards and thoroughly inspecting the hull. There were about half a dozen holes, and the rigger stopped them up with rubber plugs. We also kept an eye on the petrol gauges, because if they were going down too fast, that meant the tanks were holed and we wouldn’t stand much chance of getting home. However, they were all right, and we went back to shadow Bismarck.
“We met another Catalina. She’d been searching an area north of us, when she intercepted our signals and closed. On the way she’d seen a naval force, also coming towards us at full pelt through the heavy seas. They were part of our pursuing fleet.
“When we saw this Catalina we knew she was shadowing the ship from signals we’d intercepted. So I formatted on him and went close alongside. I could see the pilot and he pointed in the direction the Bismarck was going. He had come to relieve us – it was just as well, we couldn’t stay much longer, because the holes in our hull made it essential to land in daylight. So we left the other Catalina to shadow Bismarck.
“We landed just after half-past nine at night, after flying for over 18 hours. But one of our Catalinas during this operation set a new record for Coastal Command of 27 hours on continuous reconnaissance.”
It was a great hunt and we are eager and ready for more.
A subsequent Air Ministry bulletin noted that the following signals had been exchanged between the Admiralty and the Air Officer C-in-C, Coastal Command in connection with the Bismarck operations. From Admiralty: “Admiralty wish gratefully to acknowledge the part played by the reconnaissance of the forces under your command, which contributed in a large measure to the successful outcome of the recent operation.”
The reply stated: “Your message very much appreciated and has been repeated to all concerned. It was a great hunt and we are eager and ready for more.”
In his log book Briggs made the following brief entry, an entry that belies the importance of what his crew had achieved: “Spotted and shadowed Bismarck; holed by A/A shrapnel.”