Fairey Swordfish on anti U-Boat patrol

Fairey Swordfish on anti U-Boat patrol

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Business in Great Waters: The U-boat Wars 1916-1945, John Terraine. This is a classic account of the struggle between the German U-boat and the Allied navies during the First and Second World Wars, seen from both sides of the battle, and with excellent coverage of the intelligence and technological aspects of the fighting. [read full review]


The Swordfish evolved from the prototype Fairey TSR.II (Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance), designed by Marcel Lobelle and HE Chaplin of the Fairey Aviation Company Ltd., first flew in 1934 and entered service with No.825 Squadron in 1936. In all, 2391 aircraft were built, the first 692 machines by Fairey Aviation and the remainder under licence by Blackburn Aircraft Company at their works at Sherburn-in-Elmet and Brough, Yorkshire. In service the Blackburn-built aircraft became unofficially known as “Blackfish”. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this very distinguished aircraft was its longevity. Although by all normal standards it was already obsolete at the outbreak of WW2, it confounded everyone by remaining in operational service throughout the whole of the war, and thereby gained the distinction of being the last British bi-plane to see active service. Indeed, it outlasted its intended replacement, the Albacore, which disappeared from front-line service in 1943.

The secret of the Swordfish lay in its superb handling qualities which made it uniquely suitable for deck flying operations and the problems of torpedo or dive bombing attacks. Pilots marvelled that they could pull a Swordfish off the deck and put it in a climbing turn at 55 knots. The aircraft manoeuvred in a vertical plane as easily as it would at straight and level, and even when diving from 1,000ft, the ASI would not rise much beyond 200 knots. The controls were not frozen rigid by the force of the slipstream, and it was possible to hold the dive within 200ft of the water. Even its lack of speed could be turned to advantage. A steep turn as sea level towards an attacker just before he came within range and the difference in speed and tight turning circle made it impossible for a fighter to bring its guns to bear for more than a few seconds. The approach to a carrier deck could be made at extremely slow speed, yet control response remained firm. It is not hard to imagine what that means to a pilot attempting to land on a dark night when the carrier’s deck was pitching the height of a house. Swordfish (or “Stringbags” as they were often nicknamed) in addition to sinking more than 300,000 tons of German/Italian Axis shipping, were responsible for the destruction of over 20 U-Boats. Operating from adapted merchant vessels, the Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC Ships), Swordfish aircraft could be carried with the convoys, providing both a deterrent to submarines and a boost to the merchant sailor’s morale.

Amongst their many battle honours, those which stand out above the rest are the Battle of the Atlantic, the attack on the Italian Fleet at Taranto in November 1940, the operation to seek, pursue and destroy the German Battleship Bismarck in May 1941, and the ill-fated operation against the German Battlecruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Heavy Cruiser Prince Eugen as they made their famous ‘Channel Dash’ in February 1942. But above all, the Swordfish carved its name in the history books by its exploits in protecting convoys. From August 1942 they sailed on the Russian convoys. On one such convoy, Swordfish embarked in the escort carriers Vindex and Striker flew 1,000 hours on anti-submarine patrol in the space of 10 days, and in September 1944 Vindex’s Swordfish sank four U-Boats in a single voyage. Such feats were accomplished despite frequently experiencing the most appalling weather conditions, often at night and with all the additional arctic hazards of snow and ice on the decks. Of the Atlantic convoys, it was Winston Churchill himself who said that “..the Battle of the Atlantic was the only one I feared about losing..”, and the sheer magnitude of this battle can be appreciated by recognising that the Allies lost more than 4,600 ships, and that the Germans lost 785 submarines. It was the introduction of air power at sea which turned the tide in the Allies’ favour, and the contribution made to this battle by Swordfish aircraft was very substantial.

Fairey Swordfish Mk.I W5856

This aircraft, a “Blackfish” built by Blackburn Aircraft at Sherburn-in-Elmet, first flew on Trafalgar Day (21 October) 1941. She served with the Mediterranean Fleet for a year and was returned to Fairey’s Stockport factory for refurbishment. Used for advanced flying training and trials, the aircraft was sent to Canada where it was again used in a training role and stored in reserve after the war’s end. Passing through the hands of at least two civilian operators after disposal, she was purchased by Sir William Roberts and brought to Scotland to join his Strathallan Collection. Bought by British Aerospace for presentation to the Swordfish Heritage Trust, the partly-restored airframe went to BAe Brough for complete restoration to flying condition, the work being completed in 1993.

W5856 is painted in the pre-war colours of 810 Squadron embarked in HMS Ark Royal. The horizontal stripes on the fin denote the Commanding Officer’s aircraft, and the blue and red fuselage stripes are the colours for Ark Royal with the letter code ‘A’ being for the ship, 𔃲’ for the second squadron and ‘A’ for the first aircraft of that squadron. The long yellow fuselage strip identified 810 as Yellow Squadron in the summer air exercises held in 1939.

In September 1996 W5856 was adopted by the City of Leeds and now proudly wears the City’s coat of arms and name on her port side just forward of the pilot’s cockpit.

This aircraft, also a ‘Blackfish’, was built in 1943 at Sherburn-in-Elmet. Later that year she was part of ‘L’ Flight of 836 Squadron (the largest ever Fleet Air Arm Squadron) on board the MAC ship Rapana, on North Atlantic Convoy duties. Following her active service she was used for training and communications duties from the Royal Naval Air Station Culham near Oxford and Worthy Down near Winchester.

In 1947 Fairey Aviation bought LS326 and displayed her at various RAeS Garden party displays. The following year she was sent to White Waltham for storage and remained there getting more and more dilapidated until Sir Richard Fairey gave orders for the aircraft to be rebuilt. The restoration work completed in October 1955 and thereafter she was kept in flying condition at White Waltham registered as G-AJVH and painted Fairey Blue and silver.

In 1959 LS326 was repainted for a starring role in the film ‘Sink the Bismarck!’. In October 1960 she was presented to the Royal Navy by the Westland Aircraft Company and has been flown ever since. For many years she retained her “Bismarck” colour scheme and in 1984 D-Day invasion stripes were also added for the 40th Anniversary celebrations when she overflew the beaches of Normandy. Since 1987 she has worn her original wartime colour scheme for North Atlantic convoys with ‘L’ Flight of 836 Squadron. Following extensive work by BAeS Brough to her wings, LS326 flew again on 1 July 2008 for the first time in nine years.

LS326 was adopted by the City of Liverpool, the name she proudly wears on her port side.

Fairey Swordfish

When British naval intelligence determined that a large number of Italian warships lay at anchor in Taranto harbour in November 1940, an attack was organized, to be carried out by 21 single-engine carrier-based biplanes. The operation was a huge success — three battleships were severely damaged, a cruiser and two destroyers were hit, and two other vessels were sunk. In the space of one hour the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean had been altered forever.

The unlikely cause of this destruction was one of the warplane legends of World War Two, the Fairey Swordfish Mk.1, first flown on 17 April 1934. It was a three-man torpedo-bomber and reconnaissance biplane with a basic structure of fabric-covered metal. The wings folded for storage on the crowded deck of an aircraft carrier. Armament included one forward-firing Vickers machine gun and one swivelling Vickers in the rear cockpit. Primary offensive power took the form of depth charges, mines, bombs or, especially, a torpedo.

Unfortunately, this outstanding plane was too slow to withstand the punishment of German anti-aircraft fire. Long, accurate approaches to the target made the Swordfish very vulnerable when delivering its torpedo. Thus came re-deployment in an anti-submarine warfare role, using depth charges and, later, rockets.

As with many wartime aircraft, Swordfish were produced by more than one manufacturer. Well over half (almost 1700) were built by the Blackburn company in Sherburn in Elmet, UK.

The Mk II model was introduced in 1943, and featured strengthened and metal-skinned lower wings to allow the firing of rockets from underneath. Later that year, the Mk III appeared, which featured a large ASV anti-submarine radar unit mounted between the landing gear legs which allowed detection of submarines up to 40 km away. For operation over the cold waters of Canada, the Swordfish Mk IV was fitted with an enclosed cabin.

When production ended in 1944, the Swordfish had had been introduced into a full range of duties for the fleet: Torpedo-bomber, minelayer, convoy escort, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft and training craft. Today, four Swordfish are airworthy — two in Britain and two in Canada.

Taranto 1940

During the night of 11-12 November, two waves of Swordfish aircraft from the carrier Illustrious had the temerity to attack the Italian Fleet as it lay at anchor in harbour at Taranto, crippling three of its battleships while slightly damaging a heavy cruiser and a destroyer into the bargain. Everyone on the British side was delighted with the results of Operation Judgment, since it appeared to have eased the Allied naval position in the Central Mediterranean, by reducing the risks to their convoy traffic and boosting morale in their own ranks, while complicating the Italian strategic situation and deflating the enemy. Cunningham summed up the cost-benefit analysis of the entire operation perfectly by stating: `As an example of “economy of force” it is probably unsurpassed.’ He was not prone to exaggeration and his enthusiasm for taking the fight to the Italians was infectious.

The first carrier-based aircraft strike against a fleet of warships. Located on Italy’s eastern coast, Taranto was the main Italian naval base in early World War II. The excellent natural harbor comprised two anchorages-Mare Grande and Mare Piccolo. When Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940, its sizeable Mediterranean fleet became a threat to the British, who were fighting alone following the fall of France that May.

The Axis envisioned this fleet controlling the Mediterranean shipping lanes and reducing supplies to British forces in North Africa. Concurrently, the Royal Navy sought to engage and destroy the Italian fleet to limit the resupply of Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps. To this end, Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham, commander in chief Mediterranean, sent British ships near the Italian coast to lure (without success) the Italians into a surface engagement.

British intelligence reported that increasing numbers of large ships were congregating at Taranto. Thus, Cunningham ordered his operational commander to plan an airborne carrier attack for 21 October 1940-Trafalgar Day.

Originally, the HMS Eagle and the new HMS Illustrious were to launch the attack. However, a fire aboard Illustrious delayed the operation until 11 November-Armistice Day. Additionally, Eagle suffered bomb damage and was removed from the operation. Some of its aircraft were transferred to Illustrious.

At 8:40 P. M. 11 November, Illustrious launched 12 old and slow Swordfish biplanes of the Nos. 813 and 815 Squadrons 170 miles southeast of Taranto. Fourteen Fulmer and four Sea Gladiator fighters of No. 806 Squadron flew air cover. Two Swordfish carried flares and four carried bombs. This first group arrived over the target at 11:00 P. M. and illuminated the harbor with the flares the aircraft armed with bombs made a diversionary attack on the cruisers and destroyers.

The last six Swordfish in the first wave, armed with one torpedo each, attacked the six Italian battleships anchored at Mare Grande. A single torpedo put a hole in the Conte di Cavour, which began to sink. A second torpedo tore a hole in the Caio Duilio, which was run aground in shallow water. The first wave lost one plane the crew survived.

Less than an hour later, as Italian crews were fighting fires and searching for shipmates, a second wave of nine Swordfish from Nos. 819 and 824 Squadrons struck. Five of the planes had torpedoes. This time the Littorio was heavily damaged and also run aground. A second torpedo hit the Cavour, sending it to the bottom in deep water. Numerous lesser ships were also damaged. The second wave lost one plane both crew members were killed.

In one night, the British had taken a major step in wresting control of the Mediterranean from the Axis. The remainder of the Italian fleet soon withdrew to Naples on the western coast and out of range of British carrier planes. The Cavour took enormous resources to refloat and never returned to service. The other two were refloated in two months, but it took many more months to make them seaworthy. By that time the Italian navy was less of a factor. Cunningham noted that after Taranto the Italian fleet “was still a considerable force” but had been badly hurt.

Although some historians remain unconvinced, there is evidence that Britain’s Taranto air attack inspired Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to launch the 1941 carrier-based air attack on Pearl Harbor. Regardless, at Taranto a single British carrier and 21 antiquated biplanes crippled the Italian fleet in one nighttime raid, proving the vulnerability of surface vessels to aerial assault.

Stringbags versus Bismarck

Bismarck continued making for refuge at Brest, the only choice she now had with reduced speed and heavy fuel loss, but the Royal Navy wasted time searching in the opposite direction on the assumption that she had probably turned back. She was eventually sighted at 1030 on the 26th by a Coastal Command Catalina, which was driven away by heavy AA fire. However, two Swordfish of No. 810 Squadron had been sent up at 0840 by Ark Royal, which was now on the scene, and at 1114 the enemy was sighted again, ‘2H’, piloted by Sub-Lt(A) J. V. Hanley RN with Sub-Lt(A) P. R. Elias RNVR and L/ H. Huxley, being joined seven minutes later by ‘2F’, flown by Lt(A) J. R. . Callander RN with Lt P. E. Schonfeldt RN and L/ R. V. Baker. These two aircraft then maintained contact until relieved by another pair, landing aboard at 1324. This tactic continued until late that night, despite extremely severe weather.

In terrible conditions fourteen Swordfish took off from Ark Royal at 1450 with instructions to attack, though with some doubt at that time as to whether the enemy warship sighted was in fact Bismarck or Prinz Eugen. What occurred next is described in Ark Royal’s subsequent report

‘The weather conditions were particularly bad over the target area when the striking force took off … reliance was therefore placed in the ASV set carried in one of the aircraft which located a ship 20 miles from the position given the leader on taking off. This happened to be the Sheffield who had been sent to shadow the enemy from astern. On getting over the supposed target an attack through the clouds was ordered and before many of the pilots ‘knew what they had done. 11 torpedoes had been dropped at the Sheffield. Fortunately, in one sense, 50 per cent of the Duplex pistols fired prematurely, the remainder were dodged by the Sheffield who increased to high speed.’

The presence of Sheffield was unknown to Ark Royal owing to a delay in the deciphering of a signal, but fortunately the cruiser’s Captain had skilfully succeeded in evading the torpedoes launched by eleven of the aircraft. The mistake having been recognized, a second strike was launched at 1910 with fifteen aircraft comprising four each of Nos 810 and 818 Squadrons and seven of No 820, led by Lt Cdr T. P. Coode RN, the CO of No 818. They formed up in squadrons of two sub-flights each, in line astern, taking departure over the battlecruiser Renown at 1925. The weather had improved somewhat, and 1 1/2 hours later contact was made first with Sheffield to help locate the target, and also to ensure that she herself did not again become the target. The force then climbed to 6,000ft. Conditions near Sheffield were reported as ‘Seven-tenths cloud from 2,000 to 5,000 feet conditions ideal for torpedo attack’. The force then climbed to 6,000ft but temporarily lost contact with Sheffield while in cloud. Regaining contact at 2035, the crew were told that the enemy was twelve miles away on bearing 110*. Five minutes later they headed for the target in sub-flights in line astern at a ground speed of 110kts, but while the cloudy conditions through which they then climbed greatly assisted surprise, they made it difficult for the sub-flights to keep in contact with each other. Heavy fire was now encountered, forcing some of the aircraft to turn away initially, but all succeeded in dropping their torpedoes.

The final dive and approach began at 2053, and No 1 Sub-Flight was shortly followed by an aircraft of No 3 Sub-Flight which joined them in an attack from the port beam. This aircraft observed a hit two-thirds of the way forward on the enemy vessel. All four aircraft came under intense and accurate AA fire from the moment of first sighting until making their getaway downwind. No 2 Sub-Flight climbed to 9,000ft in cloud but lost contact with No I. Ice began to form on the wings, but the dived down on an ASV bearing. The third aircraft of this sub-flight, ‘2P’, piloted by Sub-Lt(A) A. W. D. Beale RN, completely lost touch in the cloud but returned to Sheffield and obtained a fresh range and bearing, then carried out a solo attack from the port bow under very heavy fire, and he and his crew had the satisfaction of seeing their torpedo hit Bismarck amidships.

Meanwhile No 3 Sub-Flight of two aircraft had gone into cloud, closely followed by No 4. Again, however, contact was lost, but ‘2M’ of No 3 Sub-Flight somehow managed to join up with No 4 Sub-Flight as they dived into a clear patch at 2,000ft, and they circled the enemy astern before diving through a low piece of cloud for a simultaneous attack from the battleship’s port side. As with previous aircraft, they attracted very fierce fire, which continued until they were seven miles away. Aircraft ‘4C’ was hit 175 times, both the pilot and air gunner being wounded though the observer was unscathed.

No 5 Sub-Flight, of two aircraft (‘4K’ and ‘4L’), followed the others into cloud but soon lost them and each other. They continued climbing into cloud until ice started to form at 7,000ft, when they started to descend, but while still in cloud ‘4K’ encountered AA fire. He came out of cloud at 1,000ft, sighted the enemy downwind and went back into cloud to work round to a position on the starboard bow, seeing a torpedo hit the starboard side while doing so. After withdrawing to about five miles, he then came in and dropped his torpedo at a range of just over 1,000yds. Aircraft ‘4L’, having completely lost contact, dived through a gap in the clouds from 7,000ft and, seeing no other Swordfish, made two attempts to close, but he met such intense and concentrated fire that he had no choice but to withdraw, jettisoning his torpedo before returning to the carrier.

Similar conditions were met by No 6 Sub-Flight, which had also returned to Sheffield for a fresh range and bearing: ‘4G’ managed to drop at 2,000yds, but ‘4F’ also had to jettison. Despite damage to many of the aircraft, all returned to the carrier and only two air crew were wounded. Bismarck had been hit aft, and such severe damage was caused to her propellers and rudders that she could only maintain a slow speed and was almost unmanoeuvrable. At 2325 hadowing aircraft reported her turning lowly in circles and. he was subsequently reduced to a burning wreck by gunfire from Royal Navy capital ships. A third air strike took off at 0915 next morning in bad weather. The target was sighted at 1020, but before the crew could launch their missiles they saw torpedoes from the cruiser Dorsetshire hit her and then watched the battle hip capsize to port and founder. The Swordfish jettisoned their own torpedoes and returned to the carrier. Prinz Eugen managed to get through to Brest, where she joined Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and was subsequently subjected to the attentions of RAF Bomber Command.

On 26 May, Swordfish torpedo-bombers from the Ark Royal and Coastal Command’s patrol bomber (PBY) aircraft regained contact with the Bismarck. Late in the day, Swordfish from the Ark Royal attacked, and a lucky torpedo hit jammed the German battleship’s twin rudder system, making her unable to maneuver. With no air cover or help from the U-boats or other ships available, the fatalistic Fleet Commander Admiral Lütjens, remembering the reaction to the scuttling of the Graf Spee and Raeder’s orders to fight to the last shell, radioed the hopelessness of the situation.

At 8:45 A.M. on 27 May, the British battleships King George V and Rodney opened fire. By 10:00, although hit by hundreds of shells, the Bismarck remained afloat. As the heavy cruiser Dorsetshire closed to fire torpedoes, the Germans scuttled their ship. Three torpedoes then struck, and the Bismarck went down. Reports of German submarines in the area halted British efforts to rescue German survivors. Only 110 of the crew of 2,300 survived. Lütjens was not among them.

Nicknames: Stringbag Blackfish (Blackburn-built Swordfish)

Specifications (Swordfish Mk II):

Engine: One 750-hp Bristol Pegasus XXX 9-cylinder radial piston engine

Weight: Empty 4,700 lbs., Max Takeoff 7,510 lbs.

Armament: Two 7.7-mm (0.303-inch) Vickers machine guns (one forward-firing and one one in a Fairey High-Speed Mounting in rear cockpit) plus one 1,600-pound torpedo, or 1,500 pounds of depth charges, bombs or mines or up to eight rockets on underwing racks.

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Variants [ edit | edit source ]

Swordfish I First production series. Swordfish I Version equipped with floats, for use from catapult-equipped warships. Swordfish II Version with metal lower wings to enable the mounting of rockets, introduced in 1943. Swordfish III Version with added large centrimetric radar unit, introduced in 1943. Swordfish IV Last serial built version (production ended in 1944) with an enclosed cabin for use by the RCAF

Fairey Swordfish on anti U-Boat patrol - History

Looking like a relic from the previous war, the Fairey Swordfish proved to be a good weapon for a variety of missions. It served from the first day of World War II to the last and outlasted its replacement.

After the jump, the Royal Navy’s premier Torpedo Bomber.

The Swordfish first flew in 1934, making it one of the very oldest aircraft to be successful during World War II. It was designed to be a Torpedo Bomber, Scout plane, and all purpose naval bomber. With a top speed below 150 mph, there’s no doubt it was vulnerable to interception. But the Royal Navy did not initially consider this a major problem for a couple reasons mainly, Fleet Air Arm (FAA) doctrine expected that carrier based aircraft would operate at sea, away from shore based air power. Second issue was that until just a few months prior to the start of World War II (May of 1939), the FAA was a part of the RAF. And the RAF was not very interested in spending any of its limited development budget on aircraft for the Royal Navy.

The red-brown rudder is fabric dope this rudder has obviously been recently replaced!

So the FAA was stuck with leftovers, at best. Fortunately, the Swordfish proved to have many virtues. Many pilots described as the most aerodynamically perfect machine they ever flew. Its flight characteristics at almost any speed and with any load were docile and predictable. This is ideal for operating in a carrier environment. It also proved adaptable to a variety of load outs and missions from torpedo strike, to tactical support, to anti U-Boat patrols. This last would keep it in business even after bigger, faster types took over the more aggressive missions.

Crew seating. The Pilot has the separate bay in front. Navigator/Radio Operator in the middle, gunner in back. The rear gun is in the stowed position here.

Its low speed handling would also be a huge asset on smaller flight decks. Two responses to the U-Boat threat were MAC ships and Escort Carriers. The MAC ships, 30 of them, were Merchent Aircraft Carriers. That is, a commercial cargo vessal with a flight deck on its upper works. This was good for maybe a dozen aircraft, usually all Swordfish. The Escort Carrier was a true aircraft carrier, converted from a cargo ship or tanker. 130 of these “Baby Flat Tops” were made during the war by the US and Great Britain. They usually carried around 30 aircraft, usually a mix of fighters and patrol bombers. The Swordfish found itself employed on many British Escort Carriers to the end of the war.

The black bar across/above the top of the fuselage is for calculating torpedo drop angles. The forward machine gun is visible just starboard/forward of the pilot’s position. The red circles at the base of the forward wing strut is the release mechanism for the wing fold.

Later Swordfish would carry search radar, depth charges, bombs and rockets. Its affectionate British nickname was “Stringbag”, which is apparently calling it an old woman’s purse. It could carry anything.

Mk XII Torpedo for big game

But this Swordfish is armed for big game. It was based on the HMS Ark Royal in May of 1941 when it participated in torpedo attacks on the German battleship Bismark. Two airstrikes were launched in appalling weather conditions. The second strike managed to put two torpedoes in the Battleship. One of which jammed the rudder at 15 deg port. That meant the Bismark was crippled, and a sitting duck for British Battleships King George V and Rodney the next morning.

If you get a chance, I highly recommend the classic 1960 movie Sink the Bismark starring Kennith More. The main character, Captain Shepard is a composite, but the flow of events is accurate and well done. Some fun trivia after giving the British the slip, the Bismark was re-acquired by a Catalina flying boat. This had recently been lend leased to Britain for the US. So recently, it has been discovered that it was flown by a US Navy pilot (this is while the US was still “neutral”). Second item When Bismark sank Hood, only three of the 1100 men on board survived. One of them, Esmond Knight, plays the captain of the Prince of Wales in this movie.

Then listen to the Johnny Horton classic song Sink the Bismark, and just try to get it out of your head afterwards…

The three major carrier based torpedo bombers of World War II Swordfish, Avenger and Kate.
Lend Leased Avengers would replace the Swordfish on British Fleet Carriers in the last two years of the war (but not most Escort Carriers).

This model is the Tamiya kit, with the separate photo-etch set (mostly for the rigging). The decals are from Aeromaster. This was a fun build. Tamiya kits are always a delight, nicely detailed and perfectly engineered for fit. And the pure complexity of this subject made for a lengthy but fun project.

Terror of UBoats Royal Navy Biplane Swordfish

A FAIREY SWORDFISH IN FLIGHT (TR 1138) Close-up of a Fairey Swordfish Mark II, HS 545 ‘B’, in flight as seen through the struts of another aircraft, probably while serving with No 824 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, 1943-1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205188676

Escort carrier HMS Activity in Firth of Forth 1942

Like a number of escort carriers, HMS Activity was a merchant ship converted to an aircraft carrier. After the war, the landing deck was removed and the ship returned to merchant service. Often these small carriers only carried a handful of Swordfish but aircraft patrolling over convoys proved critical in the Battle of the North Atlantic and the overall war against U-Boats.

While we think of U-boats being sunk by convoy escort ships, almost half of U-Boats sunk in the European Theatre were sunk by U-boats. (Doenitz deployed a handful of U-Boats in and around Singapore).

THE BATTLE OF ATLANTIC, 1939-1945 (A 19718) A batman uses signal bats to guide the landing of a rocket-firing Fairey Swordfish of No. 816 Squadron Fleet Air Arm on board HMS TRACKER in the North Atlantic, September-October 1943. Note the rocket projectiles under the wings. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205186701

Swordfish were usually embarked aboard escort carriers on North Atlantic convoy duty. They made excellent U-Boat hunters once the proper type of radar was installed.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 24986) Three rocket projectile Fairey Swordfish during a training flight from St Merryn Royal Naval Air Station This operational squadron was ommanded by Lieutenant Commander P Snow RN. Note the invasion stripes carried for the Normandy landings on the wings and fuselage of the aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016147

While originally built as a prototype for the Greek Navy, they turned it down in the mid-30s and Fairey Brothers Aircraft offered it the Royal Navy primarily for use on aircraft carriers. After design changes the plane went into production as the famous Royal Navy Swordfish which served multiple roles: patrol and reconnaissance, torpedo bomber, tactical bomber to support infantry and U-boat hunter/killer. The plane was oddly effective in all of these roles and was used operationally for the entire war.

Armourers unload 250-lb GP bombs in front of a line of Fairey Swordfish Mark IIIs of No. 119 Squadron RAF, undergoing maintenance at B83/Knokke le Zoute, Belgium. The Squadron flew anti-shipping patrols, principally against German midget submarines, in the North Sea, and off the Dutch coast.

(Photo CL 2277 IWM. Taken by Flt. Lt. B.J. Daventry, Royal Air Force Official Photographer. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum).

Swordfish torpedo bombers on the after deck of HMS Victorious before the attack on the Bismarck. Date 24 May 1941. This is photograph A 4090 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums now in the public domain.

The Attack on Taranto Naval Base

The most famous of the Swordfish’s exploits and the most important in military terms was the strike on the Italian naval base of Taranto on November 11, 1940. Located in the arch of the Italian boot, Taranto was the home of Italy’s powerful fleet. The harbor was well protected by barrage balloons and antiaircraft guns. The bulk of the Italian fleet lay there apparently safe at anchor. The British Admiralty envisioned a night raid on Taranto using carrier-based planes from HMS Illustrious. The Swordfish was the best and only aircraft for the job.

For this mission, the Swordfish’s third crewman, the rear gunner, was replaced by an extra fuel tank. The extra tank increased the range of the Swordfish from 200 to 900 miles, but it also increased the danger to the two crewmen. If the plane was hit by ground fire or attacked by fighters, the large tank of volatile aviation fuel was not shielded in any way other than the canvas that covered the fuselage.

Two waves of stringbags took off under a full moon. They flew at three different altitudes. The first three planes of the first wave of 12 aircraft carried flares to illuminate the harbor. They flew at 5,000 feet and drew defensive fire upward. A second group attacked from 1,600 feet, and, using dive bomber style tactics, accelerated their limited speed to 200 miles per hour in a power dive before leveling out at 90 feet to make their torpedo runs. The third group attacked at sea level, flying between the defensive balloons and their deadly cables. A second wave followed within the hour.

Two planes were lost during the raid, but significant damage was inflicted on the Italian fleet. When the smoke cleared at the port of Taranto, one battleship was sunk and two others severely damaged. A cruiser and a destroyer were also damaged, and an oil refinery was destroyed. The balance of power in the Mediterranean had shifted in favor of the Allies, helped tremendously in one night by 18 antiquated biplanes.

In Tokyo, the Japanese carefully studied the British plan of attack, which bolstered their belief that a successful surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor was possible. Aerial warfare was changed forever.

The Swordfish also played a leading role in the Battle of Cape Matapan. The skillfully piloted biplanes damaged the Italian cruiser Pola and the battleship Vittorio Veneto.

The Fairey Swordfish

Although Taranto was arguably its finest hour, Swordfish scored many other notable successes, notably damaging the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941, helping sink 23 U-boats in the North Atlantic (including the first ever sunk by an aircraft at night), and stalking Axis merchant shipping off Norway and in the Mediterranean.

The Swordfish was famously nicknamed the ‘String-bag’, not just due to its many struts and wires, but also because of the apparently endless variety of stores and equipment the aircraft was authorised to carry the possible permutations of armament alone included a torpedo, mines, bombs, depth charges, or rocket projectiles. A private venture by the Fairey Aircraft Company, like many British naval aircraft of the time, it was intended to fulfil a bewildering and sometimes contradictory range of roles, from spotting and reconnaissance to dive bombing and torpedo attack.

The final design was a biplane with a fabric-covered metal frame and folding wings for storage on board aircraft carriers. Powered by a Bristol Pegasus IIIM3 engine, the aircraft had a top speed of 246km/h, a range of 1,700km, and a service ceiling of 5,900m. Despite its versatility as a weapons platform, the Swordfish was to all intents and purposes defenceless, with just two machine guns, one firing forwards through the propeller hub, the other mounted in the rear cockpit. It had a three-man crew: pilot, observer, and ‘TAG’ – the telegraphist/air gunner.

Notwithstanding its fragile appearance, slow speed, and poor armament, the Swordfish was a robust aircraft, capable of sustaining enormous punishment. Indeed, in combat with superior German fighter aircraft equipped with cannon, the flimsy fabric-covered superstructure proved advantageous, as cannon shells could pass straight through without exploding.

On 3 September 1939, the Fleet Air Arm had 13 Swordfish squadrons, mostly operating from aircraft carriers, plus three flights of float-equipped aircraft carried by catapult equipped battleships and cruisers. When more advanced torpedo-bombers entered service after 1942, the Swordfish found a new lease of life in the anti-submarine role, equipped with radar and eight 60lb air-surface rocket projectiles. For this purpose, the Mark II version was fitted with specially strengthened, metal-skinned wings, at a small cost in range, speed, and ceiling.

Anti-submarine Swordfish distinguished themselves operating from the famous ‘Woolworth Carriers’, small aircraft carriers designed for convoy escort work, and from MAC ships. The latter were converted merchant ships with a short flight deck but no hangar, the aircraft remaining lashed to the deck in all weathers. In addition, when operating from these small ships with heavy loads, the Swordfish often had to be ‘kicked’ into the air using a brutal method known as ‘rocket-assisted take-off’. The rugged biplanes proved perfectly capable of standing up to the abuse, remaining in production until August 1944. More than 2,000 of all variants were built, and the last operational squadron was not disbanded until May 1945.

A (Fairey) Swordfish tale on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbour attack

A view of HMS Belfast on the Thames. Courtesy of the Historic Naval Ships Association.

Updated 7th December 2014 | Polk City, Florida, USA. Many years ago HMS Belfast rested at a berth along the Thames. Moored immediately to starboard of the Royal Navy (RN) heavy cruiser was a visiting Japanese patrol vessel belonging to what is now the Japanese Coast Guard. Several officers and ratings lined the gangway connecting the ships and politely beckoned aboard the curious. Stepping onto the deck, more than one man recalled that only a few decades previously the United Kingdom and the Empire of Japan had been bitter foes.

Flag of the State of Hawaii.

The onslaught against British and Commonwealth interests opened with the aerial assault on American bases located on a Polynesian island. The grouping it is associated with was known formerly to the British as the Sandwich Islands. The world now knows them collectively as Hawaiʻi, and to this day Hawaiians recall their historic connection to the United Kingdom visually through the canton of the state’s flag.

FOF Swordfish Mk IV at FOF. Photo: John T. Stemple.

An example of the key British player in the precursor to the 1941 Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service assault resides today in central Florida. Inside a Fantasy of Flight warehouse complex, known as Golden Hill, a Swordfish sits silently, out of her natural element, on the concrete floor. The forlorn-looking “Stringbag” patiently awaits restoration and a return to airworthiness. Currently incapable of movement, she nevertheless symbolizes the days her kind revolutionized naval warfar

Swordfish placard at FOF. Photo: John T. Stemple.

Today being the anniversary of Japan’s attack on American military installations on Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi, American and English patrons paused to reflect. Their minds drifted into the pages of previously read military history texts and recalled that the potent and capable Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy) threatened RN operations in 1940. Senior RN leadership, including Rear Admiral Lyster who had served at Taranto during World War I and devised a contingency plan of attack in the middle 1930s, were of the opinion that the Italian fleet had to be neutralized. A decision was taken to raid Taranto and a training program formulated.

HMS Illustrious in 1942 (AWM_302415).

The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious would play a key supportive role. When the warship became available, Illustrious flew on 5 Swordfish from HMS Eagle to supplement her own complement.

A Gloster Sea Gladiator.
Imperial War Museum image MH 5091.

The embarked Fleet Air Arm (FAA) planes were from Nos. 806 (Gloster Sea Gladiators and Fairey Fulmars) 813 (Swordfish and Sea Gladiators), 815 (Swordfish), 819 (Swordfish) and 824 (Swordfish) Squadrons. Rear Admiral Lyster commanded the task force.

During the night of November 11-12 Illustrious launched the attack. The Swordfish detailed primarily for carrying torpedoes had their range extended through additions of petrol tanks in the observers’ cockpits, and those tasked to conduct bombing were equipped with auxiliary tankage beneath their fuselages. Notably, a severe loss rate had been forecast.

Swordfish above HMS Ark Royal. U.S. Navy Historical Center photo h85716.

After flying off in 2 waves the 21 laggardly Swordfish winged their way toward Taranto, the Bristol Pegasas engines laboring under the fuel and armament loads. Amongst them the airplanes toted a mixture of flares for illumination of the harbor, bombs and torpedoes.

At 2300 hours (11:00 pm) flares began dropping from Swordfish. Despite the presence of barrage balloons, anti-torpedo nets and intense anti-aircraft fire of many calibers the pilots determinedly weaved their way through the treacherous sky toward the anchored vessels below. The normally dark airspace was filled with the beams of searchlights, flashes of exploding anti-aircraft shells and strings of colorful and deadly tracer bullets emanating from automatic weapons. The atmosphere was therefore choppy and the Swordfish bounced and skidded. Noting the resistance, the airmen would nonetheless not be deterred from accomplishing their important mission.

The Swordfish crews achieved success. In total 3 Italian battleships suffered severe damage, a cruiser and 2 destroyers were damaged and 2 auxiliary vessels were sunk. Remarkably, only one Swordfish in each wave was lost. David Mondey succinctly summarized (pages 91-92) the results in his book British Aircraft of World War II. He wrote the following: “In the short space of an hour the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean had been irrevocably changed, confirming the belief of prophets such as the USA’s ‘Billy’ Mitchell, by demonstrating the potential of a force of aeroplanes . . . to eliminate a naval fleet . . . .”

Afterward, the Japanese demonstrated intense interest. Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Naito, the assistant naval attaché to Berlin, and others visited Taranto to glean information. It became obvious that aerial torpedoes had been utilized in shallow waters. Naito later conducted a lengthy conversation with aviator Commander Mitsuo Fuchida who was destined to lead the attack on Pearl Harbor. “What is clear . . . is that the action at Taranto convinced the Japanese that the attack on Pearl Harbor was feasible ,” wrote (page 159) David Wragg in Swordfish. Furthermore, the IJN recognized (Wragg, pages ix-x) that the attack persuaded the Italians to relocate their fleet to another port. The recent relocation of the U.S. Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor was a deterrent to Japan’s expansionist policies. It is certainly possible that the IJN hoped its raid would likewise result in the withdrawal of American capital ships.

HMCS Prince Robert in April 1941. Photo: Library and Archives Canada PA151740.

By December 1941 Allied intelligence knew something was about to happen. Many signs of impending action had been noted by both the British and American navies. Even officers aboard one of His Majesty’s warships sensed something afoot. On December 4 HMCS Prince Robert, an armed merchant cruiser of the Royal Canadian Navy, sailed from Pearl Harbor. While steaming toward Esquimalt, British Columbia, her wireless operator “picked up some mystifying signals” (Boutilier, p. 123). However, Prince Robert‘s able seaman lookouts saw nothing of Admiral Nagumo’s striking force. America’s “Day of Infamy” approached unabated.

After the devastation at Pearl Harbor the Congress of Britain’s former American colonies promptly declared war on Japan on the Axis powers. Although the U.S. Navy had been escorting convoys to the “Mother” country for some months, America was now fully and officially engaged in the conflict. Around the time of the United States’ declarations of war, Prince Robert was north of Hawaiʻi and still homeward bound when a received signal advised her captain that Canada was now at war with Japan.

The History Channel documentary Greatest Raids: Royal Swordfish Take Taranto states that the FAA’s raid on Taranto was in some aspects more successful than the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service’s pummeling of installations at and around Pearl Harbor. Regardless, significant physical and psychological damage had been inflicted by both branches.

Obvious to all was the fact that there had been repetitive and effective executions by Swordfish. The ungainly planes damaged the French battleship Richelieu, at the time under Vichy control, on July 8, 1940, struck Taranto in November and on May 26, 1941, wounded the Kriegsmarine battleship Bismark. “In torpedo-plane tactics . . . the British Navy was least backward,” stated (page 35) Captain Donald Macintyre in Aircraft Carrier: The Majestic Weapon.

Swordfish on a training flight in August 1944. Photo: Royal Navy.

Compared to torpedo bombers such as the Douglas TBD Devastator, Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger and Nakajima B5N Kate the Swordfish was undoubtedly inferior. The RN was unfortunately not blessed during the early period of the conflict with competent domestically manufactured aeroplanes. As David Wragg stated (page 177), the “Fleet Air Arm had to make the best of what it had.” Nevertheless, the Fairey Swordfish gamely performed every role required of it.

The importance of Fairey’s product became apparent to all, and the legend of the aircraft justifiably grew. Testifying to her qualities, an affectionate song, which has been preserved within The Fleet Air Arm Songbook, became popular:

The Swordfish fly over the ocean

The Swordfish fly over the sea

If it were not for King George’s Swordfish

Where would the Fleet Air Arm be?

Swordfish Mk IV canopy.

Fantasy of Flight’s Swordfish is a Mk. IV, which is a Blackburn Aircraft Limited variant that was derived from the Mk. II. These planes were built by Blackburn in Sherburn, North Yorkshire. The Mk. IV featured an enclosed cockpit designed for frigid Canadian environs.

/>RCAF ensign flying over Bomber Command Museum of Canada. Photo: John T. Stemple.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) operated many of this type while the RN also made use of Mk. IV machines at No. 1 Naval Air Gunnery School at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Canada received (Batchelor, page 13) at least 105 Mk. II and Mk. III Swordfish in total, but only a percentage were modified to the Mk. IV standard. The Canadian aircraft served in training roles.

The author (John T. Stemple) salutes the U.S. Military personnel who served, and especially those who died, on Sunday, December 7, 1941. He thanks Jeff Nillson of the Historic Naval Ships Association (HNSA) for providing the photograph of HMS Belfast and the staff of Fantasy of Flight for their cooperation.

Readers may be interested in Swordfish pilot Stanley Brand’s book Achtung! Swordfish! Merchant Aircraft Carriers.

*HMCS – His Majesty’s Canadian Ship

*Kriegsmarine – Nazi Germany’s navy

Sources, Suggested Readings & Viewings

Attack on Pearl Harbor: A Day of Infamy (2 DVD set), Timeless Media Group, 2007.

Attack on Pearl Harbor — Wikipedia

Battle of Taranto — Wikipedia

Brand, Stanley, Achtung! Swordfish! Merchant Aircraft Carriers, Horsforth, Leeds: Propagator Press, 2005.

British Attack on Richelieu

David Wragg, Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004.

Donald Macintyre, Aircraft Carrier: The Majestic Weapon, New York: Ballantine Books, 1968, pages 48-71.

Fairey Swordfish — Wikipedia

Fleet Air Arm attack on Italian Fleet at Taranto

Greatest Raids: Royal Swordfish Take Taranto, History Channel DVD Release Date: January 26, 2010.

Ireland, Bernard, Collins Jane’s World War II Warships, Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.

James A. Boutilier, ed., RCN in Retrospect, 1910-1968, Vancouver: The University of British Columbia Press, 1982.

John Batchelor and Malcolm V. Lowe, Plane Essentials: Fairey Swordfish, Dorset: The Minster Press, 2009.

Last Battle of the Bismark

Mondey, David, British Aircraft of World War II, Middlesex: Temple Press, 1982, pp. 91-92.

Pearl Harbor: Beyond the Movie

Princes Three: Navy Part 38

Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Museum Fairey Swordfish II

Thomas P. Lowry and John G. Wellham, The Attack on Taranto: Blueprint for Pearl Harbor, Stackpole Books, 1995.

Watch the video: A. Warship Fires an Anti-Sub Weapon on a German U-Boat


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