Fairey Swordfish on the flight deck

Fairey Swordfish on the flight deck

Fairey Swordfish on the flight deck

Fairey Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm

Taken from Fleet Air Arm, HMSO, published 1943, p.18


FAIREY SWORDFISH

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.


Contents

The Swordfish was based on a Fairey design for the Greek Naval Air Service, who asked for a replacement of their Fairey IIIF Mk.IIIB aircraft, and on specifications M.1/30 and S.9/30, issued by the Air Ministry, the work having been initiated as a private venture (PV). The company informed the Air Ministry of their work on the Greek order (that country's interest eventually waned) and proposed its solution to the requirements for a spotter-reconnaissance plane, spotter referring to observing the fall of a warship's gunfire. A subsequent Air Ministry Specification S.15/33, added the torpedo bomber role. The "Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance" prototype TSR II (the PV was the TSR I) first flew on 17 April 1934. It was a large biplane with a metal airframe covered in fabric, and utilized folding wings as a space-saving feature for aircraft carrier use. An order was placed in 1935 and the aircraft entered service in 1936 with the Fleet Air Arm (then part of the RAF), replacing the Seal in the torpedo bomber role.

A Fairey Swordfish floatplane being hoisted aboard the battleship HMS Malaya in October 1941

By 1939, the Fleet Air Arm (now under Royal Navy control) had thirteen squadrons equipped with the Swordfish Mark I. There were also three flights of Swordfish equipped with floats, for use off aircraft catapult-equipped warships. One from HMS Warspite spotted fall of shot and radioed gunnery corrections back to the ship during the Second Battle of Narvik in 1940, and subsequently sank the U-boat U-64. The Swordfish pioneered the use of air to surface vessel radar (ASV), by carrier-borne aircraft to locate surface ships at night and through clouds. Ώ]

Swordfish flew from merchant aircraft carriers ("MAC ships"), twenty civilian cargo or tanker ships modified to carry three or four aircraft each, on anti-submarine duties with convoys. Three of these ships were Dutch-manned, flying Swordfish from 860 (Dutch) Naval Air Squadron. The others were manned by pilots and aircrew from 836 Naval Air Squadron, at one time the largest squadron, with 91 aircraft.

When production ended on 18 August 1944, ΐ] almost 2,400 had been built, 692 by Fairey and 1,699 (sometimes called the "Blackfish") in Sherburn by the Blackburn Aircraft Company. The most numerous version was the Mark II, of which 1,080 were made.


The Royal Navy Historic Flight stands down

Today marks the end of an era. The Royal Navy Historic Flight, charged with celebrating and commemorating the heritage of the Fleet Air Arm by maintaining historic examples of the service’s aircraft, will stand down. This vital task will continue in the capable hands of the ‘Navy Wings’ charity, which has been working with the RNHF for several years now, but as of today, the Royal Navy’s direct running and funding of a unit equipped with historic aircraft will end.

I’ve been lucky enough to see the work of the Flight on numerous occasions over the years, visiting their base of operations several times, seeing maintenance and test flying, and interviewing personnel and volunteers including two Commanding Officers, Lieutenant Commander Ian Sloane and Lieutenant Commander Chris Gotke, for the aviation media. I’ve been able to attend events, including the recent celebration of the Fairey Swordfish, and a night photoshoot with the Flight’s aircraft. I’d like to thank all those from the Flight who have been so welcoming and helpful, including Chief Engineer Howard Read and especially Katie Campbell, the Flight’s display manager.

It’s difficult to encapsulate the work of the Flight in words, so I’ll let pictures do the talking. The first are some of the Flight’s leaders over recent years

RNHF Chief Engineer Howard Read

Former Flight CO, Lt Cdr Chris Gotke, in front of the Flight’s last hangar at Yeovilton

Former Flight CO Lt Cdr Ian Sloane at the Flight’s old hangar at Yeovilton

The next set are from my visit at the Flight’s old WW2-era blister hangar in October 2012

Fairey Swordfish LS326, the Flight’s original aircraft, in the RNHF’s old blister hangar

Swordfish LS326 with Flight maintainers working on its radio in 2012

Swordfish LS326 in the Flight’s old hangar in October 2012

Engineers work on the Bristol Centaurus of Hawker Sea Fury VR930

Lt Cdr Chris Gotke fires up the Centaurus of Sea Fury VX281

Lt Cdr Gotke running up the engine of Sea Fury VX281 before a test flight

Lt Cdr Gotke folds the wings of Sea Fury VX281 as he returns from a test flight

The following photographs are from a visit to the RNHF in 2016, when they had moved to a new, modern hangar with much more space

Sea Fury VR930 in the RNHF’s new hangar

Fairey Swordfish W8656, having been restored since my last visit

Black and white shot of VR930

Night photoshoot of the Flight’s aircraft organised by Navy Wings at RNAS Yeovilton in 2017

Swordfish W5686 under the lights

Sea Fury VR930 demonstrating its hydraulic wing-folding

DH Chipmunk, which the Flight uses for tailwheel training

…And finally from the Navy Wings Fairey Swordfish event in 2018

Swordfish W5686 with panels removed to undergo maintenance

A rare chance to see the Flight’s spare Swordfish NF389

Fleet Air Arm veterans with Royal Navy Historic Flight aircrew and maintainers

Please consider supporting Navy Wings so they can continue the work begun by the RNHF. Their website can be found here


HISTORY

The Fairey design for the Swordfish began as a private venture to satisfy a need to replace Greek Fairey IIIF aircraft. The original was known as the TSR1 (Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance), but was not too successful and was significantly re-designed as the TSR2 and re-engined with the Bristol Pegasus before being regarded as satisfactory. This aircraft first flew in 1934 and was taken into Royal Navy service in 1936 as the Swordfish Mk.I. By the start of WWII, technology had moved on apace and it was already regarded as obsolete, but with a large number already in service it was nonetheless put to good use. It earned its nickname ‘Stringbag’ because, like the shopping bags of the day, it could accommodate practically anything. It could carry a 1,610lb torpedo or a variety of depth charges, bombs, mines, rockets or flares.

Despite the Pegasus being the cutting edge of engine technology in 1934 it only managed to propel the ‘Fish at a stately 90 knots cruise when lightly laden and 82 knots with a torpedo underslung, though it did prove to be a very reliable engine. The crew of three were not afforded too much comfort, there being no heater and the fabric covering and open cockpit affording little shelter from the cold in winter. Highly manoeuvrable, not many disparaging remarks have been recorded except perhaps its lack of speed. This facet did however work in its favour because enemy guns found it difficult to off-set their sighting on such a slow target!

As with most Naval aircraft the wings fold to minimise the room taken up in a ships hangar. The undercarriage was designed to absorb a ‘firm’ arrival on the heaving flight deck of a ship at sea and she was fitted with an arrester hook to make a short landing, having caught a ‘wire’ on the carrier deck. Latterly some Swordfish were fitted with RATOG, a series of rockets that were fired to boost the aircraft to take off speed in a very short distance. The Observer navigated from the centre cockpit using stopwatch, compass and a considerable amount of intuition! The Telegraphist Air Gunner sat facing aft in the rear cockpit and operated the HF W/T radio set and the rearward facing .303 Lewis gun.

The type is famous for the attack on Taranto in November 1940, where 21 Swordfish effectively stopped the Italian battlefleet taking any aggressive part in WWII, (and which proved the blueprint for ‘Pearl Harbour’). The famous chase after the very fast and dangerous battleship ‘Bismarck’ ended when a Swordfish put a torpedo through the steering gear and the home fleet were able to sink her with gunfire. In February 1942, six Swordfish attempted to stop ‘Prinz Eugen’, Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’ from moving up the English Channel in what is now known as the “Channel Dash”. The ships were very heavily defended by destroyers, E boats and a huge air armada and all six Swordfish were shot down. However, the bravery and fortitude of the crews in pressing home their attacks earned high praise and their Commanding Officer, Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde was posthumously awarded the VC, one of only two such awards to Fleet Air Arm aircrew in WWII.

Probably the most important role the Swordfish played in the conflict was that of protection of the Atlantic and Arctic convoys. A large proportion of the war material needed came from North America, in convoys of ships which were being savaged by German submarine packs. Three types of shipping were employed: Naval Aircraft Carriers, Escort Carriers (merchant hulls modified to be dedicated aircraft carriers) and finally Merchant Aircraft Carriers (working oilers or grain ships with a flat deck welded above the hull known as MAC ships). Swordfish had the essential low speed handling characteristics to operate from these often small flight decks and yet still boasted a 4 hour endurance in the air. With constant daylight air cover, the submarines were kept below the surface where they were unable to move at more than 7 knots, thus rendering them less effective. Swordfish actually sank 21 submarines over the course of the war, most whilst escorting Arctic convoys to north Russia, and were responsible for the highest tonnage of enemy shipping sunk by any allied aircraft type.

The aircraft was incredibly versatile and has the distinction of being one of the few aircraft that remained in operational service throughout WWII, even outlasting its intended replacement the Albacore.

Swordfish development continued throughout its lifetime and can be broadly categorised as follows:

MKI – First production series
MKII – Metal lower wings to enable mounting and firing of rockets, introduced in 1943
MKIII – Added Centimetric radar unit underneath the fuselage, introduced in 1943
MKIV – Last serial built in 1944 for RCAF and featured an enclosed cabin.


HISTORY

The Fairey design for the Swordfish began as a private venture to satisfy a need to replace Greek Fairey IIIF aircraft. The original was known as the TSR1 (Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance), but was not too successful and was significantly re-designed as the TSR2 and re-engined with the Bristol Pegasus before being regarded as satisfactory. This aircraft first flew in 1934 and was taken into Royal Navy service in 1936 as the Swordfish Mk.I. By the start of WWII, technology had moved on apace and it was already regarded as obsolete, but with a large number already in service it was nonetheless put to good use. It earned its nickname ‘Stringbag’ because, like the shopping bags of the day, it could accommodate practically anything. It could carry a 1,610lb torpedo or a variety of depth charges, bombs, mines, rockets or flares.

Despite the Pegasus being the cutting edge of engine technology in 1934 it only managed to propel the ‘Fish at a stately 90 knots cruise when lightly laden and 82 knots with a torpedo underslung, though it did prove to be a very reliable engine. The crew of three were not afforded too much comfort, there being no heater and the fabric covering and open cockpit affording little shelter from the cold in winter. Highly manoeuvrable, not many disparaging remarks have been recorded except perhaps its lack of speed. This facet did however work in its favour because enemy guns found it difficult to off-set their sighting on such a slow target!

As with most Naval aircraft the wings fold to minimise the room taken up in a ships hangar. The undercarriage was designed to absorb a ‘firm’ arrival on the heaving flight deck of a ship at sea and she was fitted with an arrester hook to make a short landing, having caught a ‘wire’ on the carrier deck. Latterly some Swordfish were fitted with RATOG, a series of rockets that were fired to boost the aircraft to take off speed in a very short distance. The Observer navigated from the centre cockpit using stopwatch, compass and a considerable amount of intuition! The Telegraphist Air Gunner sat facing aft in the rear cockpit and operated the HF W/T radio set and the rearward facing .303 Lewis gun.

The type is famous for the attack on Taranto in November 1940, where 21 Swordfish effectively stopped the Italian battlefleet taking any aggressive part in WWII, (and which proved the blueprint for ‘Pearl Harbour’). The famous chase after the very fast and dangerous battleship ‘Bismarck’ ended when a Swordfish put a torpedo through the steering gear and the home fleet were able to sink her with gunfire. In February 1942, six Swordfish attempted to stop ‘Prinz Eugen’, Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’ from moving up the English Channel in what is now known as the “Channel Dash”. The ships were very heavily defended by destroyers, E boats and a huge air armada and all six Swordfish were shot down. However, the bravery and fortitude of the crews in pressing home their attacks earned high praise and their Commanding Officer, Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde was posthumously awarded the VC, one of only two such awards to Fleet Air Arm aircrew in WWII.

Probably the most important role the Swordfish played in the conflict was that of protection of the Atlantic and Arctic convoys. A large proportion of the war material needed came from North America, in convoys of ships which were being savaged by German submarine packs. Three types of shipping were employed: Naval Aircraft Carriers, Escort Carriers (merchant hulls modified to be dedicated aircraft carriers) and finally Merchant Aircraft Carriers (working oilers or grain ships with a flat deck welded above the hull known as MAC ships). Swordfish had the essential low speed handling characteristics to operate from these often small flight decks and yet still boasted a 4 hour endurance in the air. With constant daylight air cover, the submarines were kept below the surface where they were unable to move at more than 7 knots, thus rendering them less effective. Swordfish actually sank 21 submarines over the course of the war, most whilst escorting Arctic convoys to north Russia, and were responsible for the highest tonnage of enemy shipping sunk by any allied aircraft type.

The aircraft was incredibly versatile and has the distinction of being one of the few aircraft that remained in operational service throughout the WWII, even outlasting its intended replacement the Albacore.


An Effective Weapon Against Enemy Shipping

Meanwhile, in Malta the Swordfish was used continuously as a night bomber. In the summer of 1941, the planes were fitted with radar for detecting surface vessels. Now able to “see” at night, the biplane pilots were highly effective at sinking Italian transport ships en route to North Africa. In the dark, even with an agonizingly slow airspeed, the torpedo plane was invisible.

During a seven-month period, the stringbags accounted for 50,000 tons of Axis shipping each month. The damage done to the Italian merchant marine convinced Rome to stop trying to supply Italian troops by sea. General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, German units sent to bolster the Italians in North Africa, also suffered supply shortages. By war’s end the Swordfish collectively accounted for a million tons of enemy shipping sunk.


How many Fairey Swordfish survive flyable?

Two questions: How many Swordfish are currently flying? I know that Vintage Wings of Canada just got one into the air and that the RNHF has one flying again, but does the Historic Flight actually have -two- that are flyable?

Also, I read here and there that the nickname "Stringbag" came not from the biplane's appearance but that, like a housewife's stringed grocery bag, it could carry just about anything you could fit aboard it. Is that true?

At least one: A Swordfish bimbled over this bit of England on Saturday, a fine sight and sound it was too.

*bimbled To amble without real aim, yet in a friendly and harmless manner

Well, yes, but a "Swordfish" is still a Swordfish, generally speaking, just as a Wildcat/Martlet is a Wildcat whether built by Grumman or GM.

But let me rephrase the question, then: How many large, two-seat, biplane, fixed-conventional-gear torpedo bombers with Bristol Pegasus engines are currently flying?

There are only four flying Swordfish in the World - one is in Canada, one in America and the other two are owned and operated by the RNHF with a third currently in storage awaiting an opportunity to rebuild.

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, '2' 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.

Fairey Swordfish Mk.II LS326

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.


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.


Forgotten Fights: Strike on Taranto, November 1940

The British torpedo bomber strike on the Italian naval base of Taranto in November 1940 changed the balance of power in the Mediterranean, and set the stage for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

On the evening of November 11, 1940, 21 obsolete biplanes took off from the British aircraft carrier Illustrious. The aircraft were lumbering Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm their target: Italian Navy warships anchored at the port of Taranto. The events of the next few hours would change the balance of power in the Mediterranean, and set the stage for the world-shaking events of December 7, 1941, on the other side of the world at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Italy declared war on Great Britain on June 10, 1940. In doing so, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini opened a dangerous new front. Nazi Germany, with no overseas possessions and no significant surface navy, was a major land power in Europe but posed no serious threat to the British empire. Italy, though, changed the equation. Although the Italian Army was not very formidable, aircraft operating from mainland Italy and Sicily could strike at the strategically vital island of Malta. More important, the Italian Navy possessed a potent collection of modern warships that, if deployed properly, could dominate the Mediterranean Sea and close the Suez Canal, Britain’s best route to India and the rest of Asia.

British planners had been considering an attack by carrier-based aircraft on the base at Taranto for several weeks before reconnaissance on November 9 confirmed that Italy’s entire battleship strength was based there. This included the battleships Littorio, Vittorio Veneto, Giulio Cesare, Caio Duilio, Andrea Doria, and Conte di Cavour, the first two of those being brand new, along with several cruisers and destroyers. The opportunity was too good to pass up.

On November 10, two British naval convoys from Gibraltar and Egypt converged on Malta, offloaded supplies, and then split again. This movement masked the departure of a task force, centered on the Illustrious, which veered off toward Taranto on the afternoon of November 11. The ensuing attack was dubbed Operation Judgment. At 8:35 that evening, the first wave of twelve Swordfish, half of them carrying torpedoes and the rest with bombs and flares, took off. The second wave of nine planes began taking off just under an hour later. Unfortunately, two of the planes collided on deck and one, damaged, had to abort.

The Fairey Swordfish, lovingly called the “Stringbag,” was one of aerial warfare’s unlikeliest heroes. Designed in the early 1930s and entering service in 1936, it looked like a relic from World War I. In an era of all-metal monoplanes, it was a two-seater biplane with a fabric skin. With a top speed of 139 mph “going downhill,” as its’ pilots joked, the Swordfish was incredibly slow—so slow, in fact, that enemy fighters had trouble bringing the lumbering biplane down because they overtook it so quickly. The plane’s 690-hp Bristol Pegasus engine may have labored heavily to keep aloft, but it was very reliable. Pilots found the Swordfish a delight to fly. Said one test pilot, “it was unbelievably easy to fly . . . no aircraft could have been more tractable or forgiving.”

And the Swordfish proved spectacularly successful in taking out naval targets. In April 1940, a Swordfish operating off Norway sank a U-boat with bombs—the first successful attack of its type and one of many to follow. In May 1943, a Swordfish sank another U-boat with rockets—the first successful attack using that kind of weapon. In May 1941, Swordfish would play a critical role in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck.

The first wave of 12 Swordfish reached Taranto in formation despite low visibility on the cloudy night of November 11, 1940. Italian anti-aircraft gunners spotted the approaching planes and opened fire immediately, lighting up the night sky and helping to guide the bombers to their targets. Some of the pilots dropped flares, illuminating the ships in the harbor for the torpedo bombers, which swooped in low over the water. Three of their six torpedoes hit two of the Italian battleships, although bombs dropped by other Swordfish caused no serious damage. Only one of the aircraft was shot down—the two-man crew survived—and the others returned safely.

The second wave, reduced to eight planes, now headed for Taranto, guided by flames from burning Italian ships and harbor installations. This time, three of the five torpedoes dropped hit their targets—again the bombs were ineffective. One of the Swordfish was shot down, killing the crew, and the rest returned to the Illustrious. Back on the aircraft carrier, the pilots prepared to rearm for further attacks, but approaching bad weather forced the British to withdraw.

In two small attacks, however, the British had inflicted major damage on the Italian fleet. For the loss of two planes, the Swordfish had severely damaged the Littorio, Caio Duilio, and Conte di Cavour, inflicting almost 700 casualties. Hurt and shaken by this attack, the Italian Navy would never summon the resolve to challenge British naval power in the Mediterranean.

The Taranto attack made front page news across the world. The US Navy, both in Washington, D.C. and on station in the Pacific and Atlantic, studied the attack carefully, and suggestions were made to install torpedo nets at Pearl Harbor, which was recognized to be vulnerable. No action was taken, however, thanks to bureaucratic inertia. Japanese planners also studied Taranto, however. And they would take action on December 7, 1941.

Forgotten Fights: The Battle for Guadalcanal's Mount Austen, 1942

The fight for Mount Austen witnessed some of the hardest fighting on Guadalcanal. Its successful capture ensured the security of Henderson Field from Japanese artillery fire and infiltrators.

Ed Lengel, PhD

Edward G. Lengel is Senior Director of Programs for the National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.