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BLAINSLIE, Scotland (Reuters Life!) - John Moffat's sparkling eyes grow dim when he remembers the 2,000 sailors swallowed up by the Atlantic after his torpedo bombers consigned the German battleship Bismarck to its doom nearly 70 years ago.
"That still haunts me. It was a terrible sight. All these heads bobbing up and down in the huge waves, and not a chance in hell of being saved," Moffat, 91, told Reuters in an interview.
Moffat is one of the last survivors from the biplane bombers that on May 26, 1941, crippled what was then the world's biggest warship, enabling the British Navy to destroy the Bismarck.
The sinking showed battleships could not match air power and put an end to Hitler's dreams of challenging British superiority on the Atlantic, forcing Germany to focus on submarine warfare.
Moffat's tales of his career as a pilot are peppered with laughter and smiles, and the retired Scottish hotelier is still amazed that he survived his date with the Bismarck. Only when recalling the human cost does he become somber and serious.
Two days before Moffat's raid, the ship shook Britain by destroying the pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Hood, prompting Winston Churchill to issue his order to "sink the Bismarck."
A hit from Moffat's force of Fairey Swordfish planes then jammed the Bismarck's rudder, allowing the British to catch it.
"The weather was horrendous. To get an aircraft carrier pitching 60 feet, you need big seas, huge waves," said Moffat. "And you need a gale force wind. And that's just what we had."
Conditions were so poor that when the bombers took off from aircraft carrier Ark Royal to intercept the Bismarck as it sped for port, they first attacked a British ship, HMS Sheffield.
Narrowly averting disaster, the Swordfish set off again, and soon came under heavy fire from the Bismarck in thick clouds.
"All hell broke loose. We hadn't seen it. There were shell bursts all around us," Moffat said. "They put up a barrage so that when the shell exploded it brought a wall of water up."
Cut off from the remaining Swordfish, Moffat began his attack run and was about to release his torpedo when the voice of his navigator John "Dusty" Miller rang out: "Not yet!."
"I looked to my right and all I could see was his backside up in the air. He was over the side of the airplane," he said.
"He realized that if I dropped the torpedo into that sea it would go anywhere but in the direction you wanted. He was making sure I put mine into a trough so it would run."
An eternity seemed to go by before Miller gave the all clear for Moffat to launch the only torpedo he ever fired in combat.
"Years passed. I was sure we were going to get hit," he said. "I was very close when I dropped the torpedo."
Debate has long raged over who fired the torpedo that disabled the Bismarck, and Moffat said he was upset when publishers decided to change the title of his 2009 memoir to "I sank the Bismarck" from "We sank the Bismarck."
"I told them it was the most controversial thing they could do, and I find it most embarrassing. As far as I'm concerned, it was the Fleet Air Arm that stopped that ship," Moffat said.
With its rudder jammed to port, the Bismarck was a sitting duck, and the British Navy moved in. But despite being reduced to a smoldering ruin by hours of shelling, it refused to sink.
So Moffat's bombers were sent back in. They arrived just in time to see the ship roll over and hundreds of sailors cast into the Atlantic. Only 115 of its 2,200 crew were saved.
"When we got back nobody said hooray. They were sailors, the same as we were," said Moffat. "Most of us were thinking that but for the grace of God, that could have been us."
Editing by Paul Casciato