The Fairey Swordfish was a torpedo bomber biplane designed by the Fairey Aviation Company and W.S. Hunt used by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Originating in the 1930s, the Swordfish, nicknamed "Stringbag", was an outdated design by the start of the war in 1939, but remained in front-line service until VE Day, outliving several types intended to replace it. It was initially operated primarily as a fleet attack aircraft; during its later years it was used as an anti-submarine and trainingcraft.
The Swordfish achieved some spectacular successes, notably the sinking of one and damaging two battleships of the Regia Marina (the Italian Navy) in the Battle of Tarantoand the famous crippling of the Bismarck.
Design and development
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 in1936 with the Fleet Air Arm (then part of the RAF), replacing the Seal in the torpedo bomber role.
The Swordfish was also capable of operating as a dive-bomber and in 1939 HMS Glorious used her Swordfish for a series of dive-bombing trials, during which 439 practice bombs were dropped at dive angles of 60, 67 and 70 degrees, against the target ship HMS Centurion. Tests against a stationary target showed an average error of 49 yd (45 m) from a release height of 1,300 ft (400 m) and a dive angle of 70 degrees. Tests against a manoeuvring target showed an average error of 44 yd (40 m) from a drop height of 1,800 ft (550 m) and a dive angle of 60 degrees.
A Fairey Swordfish floatplane being hoisted aboard the battleship HMSMalaya
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.
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, almost 2,400 had been built, 692 by Fairey and 1,699 in Sherburn by the Blackburn Aircraft Company. The most numerous version was the Mark II, of which 1,080 were made.
The primary weapon was the aerial torpedo, but the low speed of the biplane and the need for a long straight approach made it difficult to deliver against well-defended targets. Swordfish torpedo doctrine called for an approach at 5,000 feet (1,500 m) followed by a dive to torpedo release altitude of 18 feet (5.5 m). Maximum range of the early Mark XII torpedo was 1,500 yards (1,400 m) at 40 knots (74 km/h; 46 mph) and 3,500 yards (3,200 m) at 27 knots (50 km/h; 31 mph). The torpedo travelled 200 yards (180 m) forward from release to water impact, and required another 300 yards (270 m) to stabilise at preset depth and arm itself. Ideal release distance was 1,000 yards (910 m) from target if the Swordfish survived to that distance. Swordfish — flying from the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious — made a very significant strike on 11 November 1940 against the Italian navy during the Battle of Taranto, Italy, sinking or disabling three Italian battleships and a cruiser lying at anchor. In the aftermath, Taranto was visited by the Japanese naval attache from Berlin, who later briefed the staff who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. Swordfish also flew anti-shipping sorties from Malta.
Swordfish torpedo bombers on the after deck of HMS Victorious
(24 May 1941). On 25th May, nine Swordfish from Victorious
attacked the Bismark
In May 1941, a Swordfish strike was vital in damaging the German battleship Bismarck, preventing it from escaping to France. At 10pm on the 25 May, HMS Victorious launched six Fairey Fulmar fighters and nine Swordfish against the Bismark; one torpedo hit and caused minor damage.
On the 26th May, two Swordfish strikes were launched against Bismarck from Ark Royal. The first failed to find the battleship. On the second, the Swordfish aircraft scored two hits; one did little damage, but the other jammed Bismarck 's rudders with 15° port helm on, making the warship unmaneuvrable; it sank after intense Royal Navy attack within 13 hours. The low speed of the attacking aircraft may have acted in their favour, as the planes were too slow for the fire-control predictors of the German gunners, whose shells exploded so far in front of the aircraft that the threat of shrapnel damage was greatly diminished. At least some of the Swordfish flew so low that most of the Bismarck's flak weapons were unable to depress enough to hit them.
The problems with the aircraft were starkly demonstrated in February 1942 when, during the Channel Dash, an attack on German battleships by six Swordfish led by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde resulted in the loss of all aircraft with no damage to the ships. Lack of fighter cover was a contributing factor; only ten of eighty-four promised fighters were available. Thirteen of the eighteen Swordfish crew were killed; Esmonde, who had also led an attack on Bismarck, was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. The courage of the Swordfish crews was noted by the commanders on both sides: British Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay later wrote "In my opinion the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed", and German Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax remarked on "the mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day".
RAF, 119 Squadron Swordfish being loaded with 250lb General Purpose bombs, Knokke le Zoute (Knokke-Heist
), Belgium (1944-1945)
After more modern torpedo attack aircraft were developed, the Swordfish was soon redeployed successfully in an anti-submarine role, armed with depth charges or eight "60 lb" (27 kg)RP-3 rockets and flying from the smaller escort carriers, or even Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC) when equipped for rocket-assisted takeoff (RATO). Its low stall speed and inherently tough design made it ideal for operation from the MAC carriers in the often severe mid-Atlantic weather. Indeed, its takeoff and landing speeds were so low that, unlike most carrier-based aircraft, it did not require the carrier to be steaming into the wind. On occasion, when the wind was right, Swordfish were flown from a carrier at anchor.
Swordfish-equipped units accounted for 14 U-boats destroyed. The Swordfish was to be replaced by the Albacore, also a biplane, but outlived its intended successor and was succeeded by the Fairey Barracuda monoplane torpedo bomber.
The last of 2,392 Swordfish aircraft were delivered in August 1944. Operational sorties continued into January 1945 with anti-shipping operations off Norway (FAA Squadrons 835 and 813), where the Swordfish's manoeuvrability was essential.
Towards the end of the war, Swordfish Mark IIIs, fitted with centimetric radar, were operated by the Royal Air Force's 119 Squadron from airfields in Belgium. Their main task was to hunt for German Midget submarines in the North Sea and off the Dutch coast. The radar was able to detect ships at a range of around 25 miles (40 km).
The last operational squadron was disbanded on 21 May 1945, after the fall of Germany, and the last training squadron was disbanded in the summer of 1946.
Origin of the Stringbag nickname
The Swordfish was nicknamed the Stringbag not because of its biplane struts, spars and braces, but because of the seemingly endless variety of stores and equipment that the aircraft was cleared to carry. Crews likened the aircraft to a housewife's string shopping bag, common at the time and which could accommodate contents of any shape. The crews felt that the Swordfish, like the shopping bag, could carry anything.