The Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber was the glorious ‘Stringbag’ of the Royal Naval Air Service


A flying anachronism when it entered service, the Fairey Swordfish nonetheless helped save Britain in the course of the darkest days of World Warfare II.

The crew of the battleship Bismarck might be pleased with themselves and their nice ship. Two days earlier, on Could 24, 1941, that they had despatched the pleasure of the Royal Navy, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, and all however three of its 1,419-man crew to the underside of the Atlantic. Hit by three shells in return, Bismarck had set course for the port of Brest, in occupied France, to endure repairs. The one warships that would pose a menace had been a whole lot of miles away.

Then, at nightfall, out of a rainsquall, skimming simply above the waves at a leisurely tempo, appeared what should have appeared phantoms from the earlier battle: 9 Fairey Swordfish biplanes from the plane provider Victorious, their crews’ heads leaning out of open cockpits. Bismarck’s Captain Ernst Lindemann ordered the helm put onerous over. He knew that whereas the biplanes is perhaps out of date, the torpedoes they carried weren’t. The battleship’s anti-aircraft weapons unleashed an intense barrage. No planes had been shot down, however just one torpedo scored successful, amidships on the principle armor belt, with negligible impact. Bismarck’s crew in all probability puzzled why, within the third yr of the battle, the Royal Navy had solely despatched a handful of vintage plane towards them. Tomorrow, they’d be near France, protected by the Luftwaffe and a line of U-boats.

For the British there remained one final, determined probability to assault. With darkness falling, one other flight of 15 Swordfish managed to take off from the wildly pitching deck of the provider Ark Royal into 70 mph winds. One in every of their torpedoes once more fruitlessly hit the armor belt, however, as Bismarck turned onerous to port, a second struck its susceptible stern. With its rudder jammed, the good ship may solely steam in circles. The subsequent day, Could 27, the battleships King George V and Rodney, along with a number of cruisers, appeared on the horizon. Bismarck put up a courageous combat, however ultimately joined Hood on the ocean flooring.

Britain pioneered naval aviation. The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) used sea­planes and land-based plane throughout World Warfare I with some notable successes, together with bombing the Zeppelin hangars at Cuxhaven, Wilhelmshaven and Tondern. A Quick 184 seaplane made historical past when it sank a Turkish ship by torpedo in the course of the 1915 Gallipoli operation. In 1918 Britain launched Argus, the primary plane provider with a full-length flight deck, permitting planes to each take off and land. The British had been the primary to start development of a purpose-designed provider, Hermes, commissioned in 1924. It set the sample for future plane carriers: a flush flight deck with command superstructure “island” to starboard. 

The RNAS and Royal Flying Corps had been mixed to type the Royal Air Drive on April 1, 1918—April Idiot’s Day, as some disgruntled RNAS personnel noticed. The weird end result was the Royal Navy working plane carriers with planes and pilots commanded by the RAF.

In widespread with each different naval energy, a battleship mentality dominated on the Admiralty in the course of the interwar years. The prevailing view was that future battles would nonetheless be fought by ships lining as much as slug it out, like at Jutland in 1916. The notion that flimsy flying machines may sink nice warships was thought-about absurd. Huge sums had been spent on new battleships, however solely a trifle for a couple of hybrid carriers based mostly on the hulls of service provider ships or of battleships whose development had been halted by the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. And nothing for creating provider plane.Illustration by John Batchelor

Admiral Lord Chatfield, head of the Royal Navy, known as this “madness” for an island nation whose very existence trusted its sea energy. He threatened to resign until naval aviation reverted to the Royal Navy, which it lastly did in 1939. In the beginning of World Warfare II, Britain had seven plane carriers, greater than some other nation (lowered to 6 when Brave was torpedoed with the battle simply 14 days previous), however two had been 15 years previous and 4 had been launched within the earlier battle. Solely Ark Royal, commissioned in 1938, was fairly updated. The federal government, now with a extra visionary Admiralty, canceled battleship constructing and ordered the development of contemporary carriers, 17 of which might enter service starting in 1940. However the alternative to develop superior carrier-borne fighters and bombers had been irretrievably misplaced.

The Air Ministry had issued a specification for a provider plane in 1930: a biplane with an open cockpit like its RAF contemporaries, such because the Bristol Bulldog. The Fairey Aviation Firm responded with the prototype T.S.R. II (for Tor­pedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance), progenitor of the Swordfish, for which it acquired a contract a couple of months later. Considerably, the Swordfish entered service in 1936, the yr the primary Spitfire flew. Lengthy after different international locations had launched trendy all-metal monoplane provider plane with enclosed cockpits, highly effective engines and retractable touchdown gear, for a lot of the battle the “Stringbag,” because it was affectionately recognized by its crews, was the one efficient torpedo, bombing and anti-submarine plane out there to the Fleet Air Arm. What it achieved in these six years defied all expectations.

Fairey's TSR II (Torpedo-Scout-Reconnaissance) was powered by a 655-690 hp Bristol Pegasus IIIM.3 engine. The airplane first flew on April 17, 1934 and would become the prototype of the Swordfish. (Historynet Archives)

Captain Lindemann and his officers had good motive to respect this obvious relic of a bygone period. Within the April 1940 Battle of Narvik, off Norway, a Swordfish catapulted from the battleship Warspite, piloted by Petty Officer Frederick Rice, noticed 10 destroyers supporting the invading German military’s touchdown. Rice’s radio transmissions corrected the autumn of shot from Warspite’s 15-inch weapons and allowed British destroyers to ambush their German counterparts, seven of which had been destroyed, together with three provide ships. He then dived on the 1,050-ton U-64, and though hit within the tailplane and floats by the submarine’s gunfire, launched two bombs. U-64 sank in half a minute, the primary sub to be destroyed by an unaided plane. Stringbags would go on to sink 15 extra, and share in one other 9.

The Swordfish’s best single achievement got here seven months later. The Italian navy’s fleet of quick, trendy warships—six battleships, 9 heavy cruisers and a number of destroyers—was twice the scale of the British Mediterranean fleet. From its essential base in Taranto it may threaten key British bases corresponding to Malta, Gibraltar and Alexandria; minimize off important oil from the Center East; and jeopardize provides for the British preventing the Italian military in North Africa. Taranto boasted one of many world’s most closely defended harbors, with a whole lot of anti-aircraft weapons in shore batteries and on the warships themselves. Barrage balloon cables encircled the anchorage to snare low-flying plane, and assessments had indicated the harbor waters had been too shallow for aerial torpedoes, which merely plunged into the mud. 

On the night time of November 11, 1940, towards this seemingly impregnable fortress, Illustrious launched 20 Swordfish, armed both with torpedoes (modified for shallow water), bombs or flares to light up the targets. Pilot Lt. Cmdr. John Godley wrote: “It’s onerous to grasp how such a call was ever made. The Cost of the Gentle Brigade…can it actually not have been foreseen that the whole mad enterprise would finish in catastrophe?” 

A post-strike photo of Taranto shows the devastation wrought on the Italian fleet by the aircraft carrier Illustrious’ Swordfish on November 11, 1940. (Imperial War Museum CM 164)

The component of shock was misplaced when one aircraft arrived early, alerting gun and searchlight crews. Within the face of intense anti-aircraft hearth, the Sword­fish torpedoed the battleships Littorio—placing it out of motion for the remainder of the battle—Conte di Cavour and Caio Duilio, plus a cruiser and a number of other destroyers. Conte di Cavour exploded. Caio Duilio took three torpedoes and sank. Regardless of 14,000 anti-aircraft shells being fired, solely two planes had been misplaced, with one crew surviving. 

In March 1941, the Italian navy sought revenge towards the British within the Mediterranean, resulting in the Battle of Cape Matapan. The battleship Vittorio Veneto, eight cruisers and 14 destroyers got down to intercept Admiral Andrew Cunningham’s fleet. British cryptographers, having simply damaged the Italian naval code, alerted Cunningham. The heavy cruiser Pola was delivered to a cease by torpedoes from Formidable’s Swordfish. Vittorio Veneto, hit within the stern and with one propeller smashed, nearly suffered Bismarck’s destiny, however limped again to its harbor, leaving orders for the cruisers Zara and Fiume and two destroyers to face by the stricken Pola. That night time Cunningham’s ships sank all 5. The Italian fleet by no means once more posed a menace to the Royal Navy.

Crewmen aboard the carrier Illustrious load a torpedo onto a Swordfish. (Imperial War Museum A 12872)

Taranto was momentous in its implications. A handful of provider plane had reversed the naval stability within the Mediterranean, actually in a single day. Along with Cape Matapan, it signaled that the times of the battleship as supreme warship had been over, that plane carriers would play the decisive position in future naval battles and {that a} highly effective fleet in a closely defended harbor might be devastated by plane. Taranto’s significance was acknowledged in Japan, however apparently not in the USA. A yr later, the aerial assault was repeated on a grand scale at Pearl Harbor.

In all, 2,391 Swordfish had been manufactured, with manufacturing simplified by their uncomplicated construction—wings of metal spars and duralumin ribs, steel-tube fuselage and cloth masking. The unique 690-hp Bristol Pegasus engine, which Royal Navy check pilot Captain Eric Brown wrote “from appearances appeared to have been added as an afterthought,” was famous for its reliability, an essential consideration to crews flying at night time over water. “The Swordfish ambled alongside lazily at about 85 knots if the wind was favorable,” wrote Brown, however “it was unbelievably simple to fly…no plane may have been extra tractable or forgiving.” 

What the Stringbag lacked in pace it made up for within the multiplicity of armament and gear it may carry, arguably greater than some other plane: torpedoes, bombs, mines, flares, Air-to-Floor Vessel (ASV) radar, Leigh Lights (20-million-candlepower spotlights powered by a 300-pound battery), rocket-assisted-takeoff models (RATO) and rocket projectiles (on a fabric-covered aircraft!). Brown described taking off loaded with a Leigh Gentle, torpedo and eight anti-submarine bombs: “There was actually no logical motive why it ought to ever have flown with this mass of shops, however fly it did.”

The elongated cockpit, holding pilot, navigator and gunner, tended to behave as an air scoop. One check pilot, shedding management of the prototype, bailed out, solely to be blown again into the rear cockpit, from which he lastly exited, turning into the one man in historical past to have bailed out of the identical plane twice. The gunner was initially outfitted with a WWI-vintage Lewis machine gun, however since its utility towards trendy fighters was restricted, the ex-gunner grew to become the radio operator. All had been uncovered to the weather, significantly the bitter chilly of North Atlantic winters and subzero temperatures on the convoys to Murmansk, Russia. That they may nonetheless conduct patrols towards U-boats below such situations, continuously conscious that ditching probably meant demise, was outstanding. Pilot Lt. Cmdr. Terence Horsley wrote of the Swordfish: “[Y]ou know that you simply’ve obtained a good friend. And a good friend, when you’re preventing your approach by means of the darkness in the direction of a lurching flight deck, or are 100 miles out over an empty waste, is one thing price having.” Stringbags sank six U-boats on the Murmansk convoys—three on one alone—and shared within the sinking of 5 extra.

Swordfish Mark Is of No. 785 Squadron from Royal Naval Air Station Crail in Scotland embark on a torpedo training flight in 1939. (Imperial War Museum A 3533)

Meant to function at night time, or if by day hopefully past the vary of land-based enemy fighters, the Swordfish relied on its distinctive maneuverability as its essential protection when intercepted. In a vertical financial institution it may flip round nearly in its personal size. This or a sudden climb—primarily standing the aircraft on its tail—introduced the attacking fighter pilot with an apparently stationary goal disappearing behind him at 300 mph. Trying to gradual and observe these aerobatics would trigger a stall. “It would maneuver in a vertical aircraft simply as straight and degree,” Horsley wrote. “It’s doable to carry the dive to inside 200 toes of the water; a delicate strain on the stick pulls it out shortly and safely.” A number of enemy pilots who tried to observe Swordfish ended up within the sea. However a torpedo assault required flying straight and degree, resulting in a most tragic, gallant and pointless episode.

On account of continuous RAF bombing on the French port of Brest, Adolf Hitler ordered the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen to safer berths in Wilhelms­haven on the North Sea. On February 11, 1942, along with 25 destroyers, and with aerial cowl from a number of hundred fighters, they steamed up the English Channel in daylight. Hitler believed the British can be gradual to react to such an audacious gamble. As a result of ailing luck, foul climate, radar failure at important moments and poor communications, the fleet was solely noticed when midway by means of the Channel. RAF bombers did not find it within the poor visibility, bombed ineffectually or had been shot down by anti-aircraft hearth or fighters. RAF losses totaled 35 plane. Because the ships handed the Straits of Dover, in an act of desperation Lt. Cmdr. Eugene Esmonde was ordered to assault with simply six Swordfish. “He knew what he was going into, however it was his obligation,” wrote Wing Cmdr. Tom Gleave. “His face was tense and white, that of a person already useless.” Escorting Spitfires, battling swarms of German fighters, had been unable to guard them. Though a number of launched their torpedoes, all had been shot down earlier than coming shut sufficient to attain successful. Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Swordfish pioneered the usage of ASV radar to assault ships and surfaced U-boats in 1940. It may detect a submarine as much as 5 miles away and bigger vessels as much as 25. Working from Malta, the RAF and Fleet Air Arm created havoc amongst convoys supplying the Italian and German armies in North Africa. A pair dozen Swordfish alone sank a median of fifty,000 tons of delivery per thirty days, with a report 98,000 in August 1941.

A Swordfish of No. 835 Squadron is lifted onto the flight deck of the escort carrier Battler for convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic on May 1, 1943. (Imperial War Museum A 16651)

In August 1940 on the Gulf of Bomba, Libya, three Stringbags of No. 813 Squadron had the excellence of sinking 4 Axis vessels with simply three torpedoes. One submarine underway was shortly sunk. The aircrews then noticed a destroyer, with one other sub and a depot ship moored on both sides. After the Swordfish torpedoed the outer vessels, the depot ship’s munitions exploded, sinking all three vessels.

Britain’s most important battle, nonetheless, was within the Atlantic. Nearly all of the island nation’s meals and uncooked supplies, and all of its gasoline oil and gasoline, got here by sea. By 1942, U-boats had been sinking half one million tons a month, rising to 700,000 tons in November. Britain confronted an actual threat of being starved into give up. “The one factor that actually frightened me in the course of the battle was the U-boat peril,” Winston Churchill later wrote. A 500-mile hole within the mid-Atlantic, past the vary of land-based plane, allowed the subs to function largely unmolested. From Could 1943, working from small escort carriers or service provider plane carriers (MACs—service provider ships with quick decks constructed above their holds), Swordfish launched by catapult or RATO helped to shut this hole. At night time their ASV radar detected surfaced U-boats shadowing a convoy or recharging their batteries. Immediately illuminated by the Leigh Gentle, they’d be attacked with bombs or depth costs. Because of this, the U-boats had been pressured to floor for battery recharging in the course of the day, after they may at the least see the attacking plane coming. However now they had been prey to the Swordfish’s 30-pound armor-piercing rockets. Fired in pairs or a salvo of all eight, one or two hits often sufficed. 

From Could 1943 till V-E Day, solely one of many 217 convoys escorted by MACs was efficiently attacked. Swordfish would fly 4,177 patrols, sink 10 U-boats and share within the destruction of 5 extra. Already obsolescent when the primary one landed on an plane provider, this ugly duckling, outliving a number of designs meant to exchange it, was the one naval plane in frontline service from the primary day of the European battle to the final. Amaz­ingly, the fantastic Stringbag was chargeable for the destruction of a better tonnage of Axis delivery in WWII than some other Allied plane.  

Nicholas O’Dell served in RAF Bomber Command from 1958 to 1962. For added studying, he suggests: Convey Again My Stringbag: A Swordfish Pilot at Warfare 1940–1945, by Lord Kilbracken; and To Warfare in a Stringbag, by Charles Lamb.

This function appeared within the March 2019 situation of Aviation Historical past. Subscribe right here!

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