Tributes to man who sank the Bismarck

AN AIRMAN who played a part in one most famous raids of the Second World War has died at his home in East Anglia.

Dave Gooderham

AN AIRMAN who played a part in one most famous raids of the Second World War has died at his home in East Anglia.

Heroic Les Sayer was a member of the Swordfish torpedo crew which crippled the German battleship the Bismarck - leaving it exposed to the naval bombardment which eventually sank it.

Mr Sayer's plane was the only one on the mission to find its target but it was not without risk for the gunner, who was left looking down into the sea through the metal skeleton of his renowned plane after its body of toughened linen was torn away.

His widow, Valerie, last night paid tribute to her husband, who died aged 93 on November 1, and recalled the epic mission which was later depicted in books and films.

She said: “He would talk about it and indeed he gave talks in later life, but it was not something he would boast about. He said he remembered dropping the torpedo and hitting the Bismarck - causing an oil leak.

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“But as his plane pulled away, they couldn't hit the Bismarck with their guns so they were putting shells into the water. The plane was partly made of fabric and one particular splash caused the fabric to split. So Les sat in this metal structure looking down at the water. When they landed, he complained about his backside being cold.”

Joining the Navy as a signal boy in 1931, Mr Sayer became a Telegraphist Air Gunner during the conflict and was responsible for providing Morse code communications as well as protecting the aircraft with a machine gun.

Mr Sayer was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for his involvement in the mission on the Bismarck and later spent more than 30 years in civil aviation flying with airlines such as British European Airways and eventually becoming a training manager.

He also helped start the Telegraphist Air Gunner Association - a group set up for living members - and was awarded a MBE for his work in 1997.

A spokesman for the North Essex Astronomical Society, where Mr Sayer was president, said: “Les lived a varied and textured life.

“The society owes much to Les. He was a fascinating, unpretentious man who will be sorely missed.”

Before the war, Mr Sayer spent much of his childhood in Bures, near Sudbury, as a Barnardo's boy and later moved back to the village before moving to Wakes Colne, near Colchester, with his second wife.

Mrs Sayer said her husband died at home following a short illness and leaves two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

She added: “Les was a nice, honest and clever man and there wasn't anyone who he didn't get on with. He made a lasting impression on everyone who knew him.”

Naval dignitaries, friends and family also added warm tributes to Mr Sayer with one saying that any Swordfish flight in the future would be a “fitting memorial to Les and his like”.

Mrs Sayer said: “We have had so many lovely cards and letters and they have all been a great comfort. I had such a lovely life with him and met people and went to places I would never have done without Les.”

His funeral will be held today at St Mary's Church, Bures.

FACTFILE:

· The Fairey Swordfish was a torpedo bomber used by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during the Second World War.

· Its most spectacular success was the famous crippling of the Bismarck after the battleship had sunk the HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy.

· On Winston Churchill's order to “Sink the Bismarck”, the Swordfish torpedoed the German ship and jammed its rudder, allowing heavy British units to catch up.

· In the ensuing battle on the morning of 27 May 1941, Bismarck was heavily attacked for nearly three hours before sinking.

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