Kieran Lear looks back at the history of the venerable Swordfish as it celebrates its 80th birthday, an outdated design as the Stringbag was it still served valiantly and went on to out live its successor.
When one considers Allied airpower during World War Two, one tends to think of more prominent aircraft of the era, such as the Supermarine Spitfire, North American P-51 Mustang and the De Havilland Mosquito, and, certainly, these all more than proved their worth during the conflict. One aircraft that was a far cry from these potent aircraft went on to spearhead the Royal Navy’s campaign against hostile threats across vast acres of water. Aesthetically, it looked outdated, outclassed and outmanoeuvred, but during the course of war, the ‘Stringbag’ became an icon for British naval oppression and looking back, 80 years since the first flight of the prototype, the Fairey Swordfish was, without doubt, the most formidable weapon of the Royal Navy throughout the course of the Second World War.
The origins of the Fairey Swordfish can be traced back to October 1930. In the years prior, senior Naval commanders believed high-performance aircraft of the day could not be operated from its aircraft carriers, and the six carriers in service with the Navy were lacklustre and uninspiring, with the two battlecruisers Courageous and Glorious being the best the Navy could muster at the time. However, their suitability for the role of operating aircraft was significantly limited due to adaptations taken to shorten the main-flight deck. Ultimately, by 1930, the Air Ministry sought for a new carrier-borne aircraft and a biplane design was chosen.
Fairey Aviation won the contest to design the new aircraft and the prototype was designated S9/30. Whilst designs of the S9/30 started to take prominence, Fairey received an order from the Hellenic Navy which required an aircraft for their torpedo-spotter-reconnaissance role. Throughout 1933, the TSR I as it became known, made several flights powered by a Rolls-Royce Kestrel II in-line engine, which aesthetically, looked quite similar to the Hawker Hart. Several hindrances, such as the inability to successfully flat spin, confined the TSR I to the history books; Marcel Lobelle, Fairey’s chief designer, then endeavoured to combine features from both the TSR I and the S9/30, using the Pegasus III engine and on 17April 1934, Fairey’s chief test pilot, C.S. Staniland, made the aircraft’s maiden flight.
The Air Ministry was ultimately pleased with the design and, thus, ordered 89. By 1936, the Swordfish, as it became known in 1935, trickled into service becoming the fresh mount of 825 Squadron, replacing the Fairey Seal.
By 1940, due to the outbreak of war, restraints on armament and equipment were lifted and Fairey had delivered 692 Swordfish, and had started designing its replacement, the Fairey Albacore. 300 Swordfish Is were delivered. With the arrival of the Swordfish II, this introduced a strengthened lower mainplane for rocket-assisted take off. Whilst later versions didn’t have stronger mainplanes and increased power, they did have the ability to store radio, which aided crews significantly in searching for vessels. Additionally, Mk III Swordfish aircraft lost their weaponry, meaning the aircraft had no fire power against enemy aircraft or shipping, and the open cockpit and outdated instruments made the Swordfish almost certainly made the dated aircraft something of a laughing stock at the time, particularly in light of the rapid advances in military aviation.
By September 1939, Fairey Swordfish were delivered to six of the Navy’s seven aircraft carriers. The Ark Royal bolstered an impressive assortment of four squadrons of Swordfish- 810, 820, 821 and 818. On the outbreak of war, Swordfish was allocated anti-submarine duties and reconnaissance but was kept back in offensive duties until the Norwegian campaign of 1940. Nevertheless, despite being spared of offensive taskings, the Swordfish played a fundamental part in the shooting down of the first German aircraft and this occurred on 26 September. A pair of Swordfish spotted three Dornier Do-18 aircraft whilst patrolling around the Ark Royal which prompted the carrier to send airborne nine Blackburn Skua’s, which shot down one of the German aircraft.
The Swordfish had an unpromising start to its role as an offensive aircraft. Several skewed attempts at attacking German shipping in Norwegian ports left the Swordfish in a bad light with many Navy officers, but as Norway fell and the British switched its attentions, firstly, to Northern France and then to home soil, Swordfish units found themselves based ashore and under RAF Coastal Command. The Swordfish could offer little service to the protection of British Expeditionary Force and French troops against the Luftwaffe, but it could offer support for small ships in the Channel against Axis targets, such as E-boats or submarines, should the opportunity arise. During its tenure under RAF Coastal Command, the Swordfish saw duty mine-laying and also as a platform for bombing invasion barges and oil storage tanks.
It was, in 1941 when the Swordish would start to develop a reputation as a formidable aircraft. In the Mediterranean, Swordfish had wreaked havoc with Italian targets and on 20 July 1940, 824 Sqn Swordfish had found and sunk two Italian destroyers. A month later on 22 August, three 824 Swordfish had gone looking for shipping in Bomba Bay, Libya, but had ultimately found an Italian submarine lying on the surface, oblivious to its imminent danger. The lead Swordfish attacked and torpedoed the submarine, whilst the other two Swordfish found a supply ship and a depot ship with its own destroyer. Using two torpedoes between them, they managed to sink all three ships.
Ultimately, it was Operation JUDGEMENT which proved to be one of the definitive battles that would place the Fairey Swordfish in the history books. “Judgement” was the codename for an attack on Taranto, a hugely important Italian naval base. The plan was for 30 aircraft from two aircraft carriers to be used during the evening of 21/22 October; however, a serious hangar fire destroyed two aircraft, whilst others had to be stripped down and rebuilt. Despite this delaying the operation by a week, the operation still needed the benefit of a full moon, which would not occur until 11/12 November. The opposition to the Royal Navy included an awesome show of arms: six Italian battleships, 27 destroyers and 14 cruisers; therefore, the Royal Navy found it in their best interests to attack the fleet whilst they lay at port.
On 9 November, Illustrious lay in her designated position ready to inflict devastation upon the oblivious Italian naval shipping. During the next day, the Italians had been alerted to the Navy’s positioning, as had Italian Air Force bombers, though their raid had little effect on the Royal Navy. At 2200 on 11 November, Illustrious unleashed the first batch of Swordfish against Taranto. Exactly one hour later, the lead aircraft were over the target and dropping target flares to aid the next batch of torpedo bombers. The Italian battleship, Cavour, took a direct hit from one torpedo.
At 2335, the second wave launched and were commencing attacks by 2350. Oil depots, as well as battleships were well targeted and by 0122, the Italian vessels were doomed and the Royal Navy had gained the victory. Even then, the damage to the Italian Navy could have been greater had it not been for poor weather. Astonishingly, the British lost just two airmen, with another two captured; the Italians had lost 40 sailors in return. David Wragg, author of Stringbag: The Fairey Swordfish at War, states that, “The Fleet Air Arm’s low losses can be put down in no small part to the fact that attacking at such low level gave the Italian anti-aircraft gunners a major problem”.
The search for the infamous Bismarck provided the epitome of the aircraft’s triumph during the war. The feared German battleship and its contemporaries had long been a thorn in the side of the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, having plagued the Atlantic throughout the first few years of war. The battleship had also gained a reputation for disappearing from the sight of Royal Navy warships, but on 26 May, Bismarck was finally located and Swordfish were scrambled from HMS Ark Royal to intercept it. The low speed, nimble Swordfish proved to be a difficult target for the guns that were peppering the Atlantic skies desperately trying to down the large biplanes, as gunners strove to calculate the accurate deflection for each shot. A pair of Swordfish managed to find their mark with, the second torpedo striking the stern area and rendered the battleship’s rudder inoperable. With power restricted, the doomed battleship succumbed to a Royal Navy bombardment throughout the next 13 hours.
Initially, the Swordfish was to be replaced by the Albacore, also a biplane, but this aircraft became a part of the history books long before the Stringbag, and, thus, the eventual successor to the Swordfish was the Fairey Barracuda. The last of 2,392 Swordfish was delivered in August 1944. Operational sorties continued into the early quarter of 1945 with the aircraft winding down flying hours considerably up until 21 May 1945, when the last Swordfish squadron disbanded.
In modern life, there are only a handful of Swordfish remain, with two currently airworthy. The first, Fairey Swordfish II LS326, resides with the Royal Navy Historic Flight at RNAS Yeovilton, and flies at several airshows throughout the season. The second, Fairey Swordfish I W5856, also resides with the Royal Navy Historic Flight and is painted in the pre-war colours of 810 Squadron embarked on HMS Ark Royal. Although not currently flying, the plan is to have the Swordfish flying by the start of the 2014 airshow season to fly as a solo and also with LS326.
Though the Swordfish was frowned upon during its early years of existence, deemed too primitive at a time of rapid advancements in technology, the large, simple biplane design, which first flew only a year before the first British monoplane fighter first took to the skies, maintained an important fixture within the Royal Navy throughout the whole of the campaign. As a result of its outstanding attributes and hugely impressive achievements, the Swordfish managed to see through almost all of the World War Two and it quickly became a fundamental aircraft in the offensive operations for the Royal Navy.
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