The Swordfish was one of the most successful aircraft in the history of naval air warfare. It sits at the heart of the nation’s naval aviation heritage and its importance to the Royal Navy and the nation is profound. Between 1939 and 1945, Swordfish saw active service worldwide, pursuing the enemy afloat and ashore in every theatre of the war, between the Atlantic and Indian Ocean, the Equator and the Arctic Circle. The success of the Swordfish came from its versatility, though it is best known for the major role it played in defeating the U-boat threat in the Battle of the Atlantic. Swordfish aircraft operated from escort carriers, patrolling in the mid-Atlantic gap, helping keep U-boats submerged and providing vital air cover for the convoys.
Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
The Fairey Swordfish evolved from the prototype Fairey TSR.II (Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance), designed by Marcel Lobelle and HE Chaplin of the Fairey Aviation Company Ltd. It first flew in 1934, entering service with No.825 Squadron in 1936. A total of 2391 aircraft were built, the first 692 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 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 World War II, it confounded everyone by remaining in operational service throughout the whole of the war, gaining 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 sailors’ morale.
Swordfish at The Battle of The Atlantic
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 through its critical role of protecting convoys.
From August 1942 Swordfish sailed on the Russian convoys. In one convoy, embarked in the escort carriers Vindex and Striker, Swordfish flew 1,000 hours on anti-submarine patrol in ten 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 ships’ decks.
Of the Atlantic convoys Winston Churchill remarked “..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 indeed.