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Battleship Assassin Fairey Swordfish : Why Was The Fairey Swordfish So Good?

Battleship Assassin Fairey Swordfish : Why Was The Fairey Swordfish So Good? 

World War 2 / Aviation

A Swordfish I during a training flight from RNAS Crail, circa 1939–1945

The Fairey Swordfish and her fascinating history and career in the Fleet Air Arm, you will hear oh she was outdated, obsolete,needs fighter cover (what torpedo bomber doesn’t) she’s often famous for just crippling the Bismarck but not many people realise the swordfish actually sank more tonnage of shipping than any other allied aircraft in World War 2 and being the first aircraft to have success in many instances with weapons and targets.

The Fairey Swordfish was designed as a medium-sized biplane torpedo bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. The Swordfish employed a metal airframe covered in fabric. It had folding wings as a space-saving measure, which made her useful onboard aircraft carriers and a floatplane on battleships. 


In service, it had the nickname Stringbag, some modern historians claim it was due to its biplane struts, spars, and braces, but it was actually a reference to the seemingly endless variety of stores and equipment that the type was cleared to be able 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, and that a Swordfish, like the shopping bag, could carry anything.

The primary weapon of the Swordfish was the aerial torpedo.
A Fairey Swordfish floatplane being hoisted aboard the battleship HMS Malaya in October 1941

However, 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 around 5,000 feet followed by a dive to torpedo release altitude of 18 feet. Maximum range of the early Mark XII torpedo was 1,500 yards at 40 knots and 3,500 yards at 27 knots. The torpedo travelled 200 feet forward from release to water impact, and required another 300 yards to stabilise at preset depth and arm itself. Ideal release distance was 1,000 yards from target.

The Swordfish was also capable of operating as a successful dive-bomber. 
Ground crew moving the folding wing of a Swordfish into position for flying

During 1939, Swordfish on board HMS Glorious participated in 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 only 49 yards from a release height of 1,300 ft and a dive angle of 70 degrees, tests against a manoeuvring target showed an average error of only 44 yd from a drop height of 1,800 ft and a dive angle of 60 degrees.

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” RP-3 rockets and flying from the smaller escort carriers, or even merchant aircraft carriers (MACs) when equipped for rocket-assisted takeoff (RATO). Its low stall speed and inherently tough design made it ideal for operation from the MACs 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 unlike most aircraft flown from a carrier at anchor.

Entering Service

A formation of three Swordfish IIIs of No. 119 Squadron RAF over the North Sea, 1939–1945

In July 1936, the Swordfish formally entered service with the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), which was then part of the RAF 825 Naval Air Squadron became the first squadrons to receive the type.The Swordfish began replacing both the Fairey Seal in the spotter-reconnaissance role and the Blackburn Baffin in the torpedo bomber and the Blackburn Shark in the combined role.Initially, the Shark replaced the Seal in the spotter-reconnaissance squadrons and the Swordfish replaced the Baffin in torpedo squadron, after which the Shark was quickly replaced by the Swordfish. For nearly two years during the late 1930s, the Swordfish was the sole torpedo bomber aircraft equipping the FAA.

At the start of the war in September 1939, the FAA, which had been transferred to Royal Navy control, had 13 operational squadrons equipped with the Swordfish I. There were also three flights of Swordfish equipped with floats, for use with catapult-equipped warships. After the outbreak of the Second World War, 26 FAA Squadrons were equipped with the Swordfish. More than 20 second-line squadrons also operated the Swordfish for training. During the early months of the conflict, the Swordfish operated in mostly uneventful fleet protection and convoy escort missions.

The Swordfish first saw combat on the 11th April 1940, during the Norwegian Campaign. Several Swordfish aircraft were launched from the aircraft carrier HMS Furious to torpedo several German vessels reported to be anchored at Trondheim. The Swordfish found only two enemy destroyers at Trondheim, scoring one hit in the first attack of the war by torpedo-carrying aircraft.

On 13th April 1940, a Swordfish launched from HMS Warspite was used for spotted fall of shot and radioed gunnery corrections back to the ship during the Second Battle of Narvik. Eight German destroyers were sunk or scuttled without any British losses. The German submarine U-64 was also spotted by the Swordfish, which dive-bombed and sank the submarine. This became the first U-boat to be sunk and destroyed by an FAA aircraft in the war.

After the Second Battle of Narvik, Swordfish continually bombed ships, land facilities, and parked enemy aircraft around Narvik. Anti-submarine patrols and aerial reconnaissance missions were also flown despite difficult terrain and inhospitable weather, which proved harsh for aircrew in the Swordfish’s open cockpit. For many of the Swordfish crews, this harsh campaign marked their first combat missions and nighttime landings upon aircraft carriers, all successful.

On the 14th June 1940, soon after the Italian declaration of war, nine Swordfish of 767 Naval Air Squadron stationed in Hyeres, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, France took off for the first Allied bombing raid upon Italian soil. Four days later, 767 Squadron relocated to Bone, Algeria before being split, the training elements returning to Britain while the operational portion proceeded to RAF Hal Far on Malta, where it was re-numbered as 830 Naval Air Squadron. On 30 June, operations re-commenced with an opening successful night raid upon oil tanks at Augusta in Sicily.

On 3 July 1940, the Swordfish was one of the main weapons during the famous Attack on Mers-el-Kébir, by the Royal Navy upon the French Navy fleet stationed at Oran, French Algeria carried out to prevent the vessels falling into German hands. Twelve Swordfish from 810 and 820 Naval Air Squadrons launched from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and conducted three sorties of attacks upon the anchored fleet. The torpedo attack, which crippled the French battleship Dunkerque and damaged other vessels present, demonstrated that capital ships could be effectively attacked while in harbour; it was also the first time in history that the Royal Navy had won a battle without the use of gunfire.

A Swordfish taking off from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, with another passing by astern, circa 1939

Shortly after the Mers-el-Kébir attack, a detachment of three Swordfish were sent to support British Army operations in the Western Desert, in response to a request for torpedo aircraft to destroy hostile axis naval units operating off the coast of Libya. On 22 August, the three aircraft destroyed two U-boats, one destroyer and a replenishment ship in the Gulf of Bomba, Libya, using only three torpedoes.

On 11 November 1940, Swordfish flying from HMS Illustrious achieved one of their greatest successes in the Battle of Taranto. The main fleet of the Italian Navy was based at Taranto in southern Italy, seeing the success of the earlier attack upon the French Navy at Mers-el-Kébir, members of the Admiralty sought another victory under similar conditions. The Royal Navy had conducted extensive preparations, with some planning having taken place as early as 1938, when war between the European powers had already seemed inevitable. Regular aerial reconnaissance missions were flown to gather intelligence on the positions of specific capital ships and Swordfish crews were famously intensively trained for night flying operations, as an undetected aerial attack during the night raid had been judged to be the only effective method of overcoming the defenses of the well-protected harbor and to deliver a heavy strike at the fleet anchored there.

Originally scheduled for 21 October 1940, the Taranto raid was delayed until 11 November to allow for key reinforcements to arrive.

For further reading see our piece: Battle of Taranto 1940 : The Emergence of the Carrier in Naval Combat

The aerial attack started with a volley of flares being dropped by Swordfish aircraft to illuminate the harbour, after which, the Swordfish formation commenced bombing and torpedo runs. Due to the presence of barrage balloons and torpedo nets restricting the number of suitable torpedo-dropping positions, many of the Swordfish had been armed with bombs and made a synchronised attack upon the cruisers and destroyers instead. The six torpedo-armed Swordfish inflicted serious damage on three of the battleships.

Two cruisers, two destroyers and other vessels were damaged or sunk.

The high manoeuvrability of the Swordfish was attributed with enabling the aircraft to evade intense anti-aircraft fire and hit the Italian ships. The Battle of Taranto firmly established that naval aircraft were independently capable of immobilising an entire fleet and were an effective means of altering the balance of power in warfare. The Japanese assistant naval attaché to Berlin, Takeshi Naito, visited Taranto to view the consequences of the attack; he later briefed the staff who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor.

On 28 March 1941, a pair of Swordfish based at Crete contributed to the disabling of the Italian cruiser Pola during the Battle of Cape Matapan. In May 1941, six Swordfish based at Shaibah, near Basra, Iraq, participated in the suppression of a revolt in the region, widely known now as the Anglo-Iraqi War. The aircraft conducted dive bombing attacks upon Iraqi barracks, fuel storage tanks and enemy bridges.

The Swordfish also flew many high-level anti-shipping sorties in the Mediterranean, many aircraft being based at Malta. Guided by aerial reconnaissance from other RAF units, Swordfish would time their attacks to arrive at enemy convoys in the dark to elude German fighters, which were restricted only to daytime operations. While there was never more than a total of 27 Swordfish aircraft stationed on the island at a time, the type succeeded in sinking an average of 50,000 tons of enemy shipping per month across a nine-month period. During one record month, 98,000 tons of shipping were reportedly lost to the island’s Swordfish strike force. The Swordfish losses were low, especially in relation to the high sortie rate of the aircraft and in light of the fact that many aircraft lacked any blind-flying equipment, making night flying even more hazardous.

In May 1941, Swordfish famously helped pursue and sink the German battleship Bismarck.
Swordfish on the after deck of HMS Victorious, 24 May 1941. The next day, nine Swordfish from Victorious attacked Bismarck.

On 24 May, nine Swordfish from HMS Victorious flew a late-night sortie against the Bismarck under deteriorating weather conditions. Using ASV radar, the flight was able to spot and attack the ship, resulting in a single torpedo hit that only caused minor damage. Bismarck’s evasive maneuvers, however, made it easier for her enemies to catch up.

On 26 May, Ark Royal launched two Swordfish strikes again against Bismarck. The first failed to locate the ship. The second attack scored two torpedo hits, one of which jammed the ship’s rudders at a 12° port helm. This made Bismarck unmanoeuvrable and unable to escape to port in France. She would later be sunk after a Royal Navy attack within 13 hours. The low speed of the attacking aircraft some believe may have acted in their favour, as they 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 lowered. Some of the Swordfish flew so low that someone of Bismarck’s flak weapons could not depress enough to hit them.

Throughout 1942, the Swordfish progressively transferred away from the Royal Navy’s fleet carriers as newer strike aircraft, such as the Fairey Albacore and Fairey Barracuda, became introduced.
A Swordfish III of RAF 119 Squadron being refueled at Maldegem, Belgium, (1944–1945). The fairing of the aircraft’s centimetric radar can be seen below the engine

In the submarine-hunter role, the Swordfish massively contributed to the Battle of the Atlantic, detecting and attacking the roaming U-boat packs that preyed upon merchant shipping between Britain and North America and in support of the Arctic convoys which delivered supplies from Britain to Russia. Swordfish attacked submarines directly and guided destroyers to their locations. During one convoy battle, Swordfish from the escort carrier HMS Striker and Vindex flew over 1,000 hours on anti-submarine patrols in only 10 days.

One of the more innovative uses of the Swordfish was its role with merchant aircraft carriers (the MAC ships). These were 20 civilian cargo or tanker ships modified to carry three or four aircraft each on anti-submarine duties with convoys. Three of these vessels were Dutch-manned, and several Swordfish of 860 (Dutch) Naval Air Squadron were typically deployed on board. The others were manned by aircrew from 836 Naval Air Squadron. At one time this was the largest squadron operating the type, with 91 swordfish aircraft in total.

In 1942, Swordfish of 810 & 829 Squadrons on HMS Illustrious took part in the Battle of Madagascar. They dropped dummy paratroopers in support of the initial landings causing confusion. And they later conducted anti-ship and anti-submarine operations in Diego Suarez Bay and bombed land targets in support of land operations during Operation Ironclad. Swordfish  next were put ready to support the attack on Tamatave, but the town surrendered before they were needed.

During early 1940, Swordfish aircraft of 812 Squadron under RAF Coastal Command started a campaign against enemy ports along the English Channel. The aircraft routinely sortied to drop naval mines near the harbours. To increase range, additional fuel tanks were installed in the crew area and the third crew member was left behind. RAF fighters often provided aerial cover where possible and occasionally counterattacked enemy air bases.

The intensity of Coastal Command’s Swordfish operations was drastically increased after the German invasion of the Low Countries, expanding to involve four Swordfish-equipped squadrons, Swordfish crews were dispatched to strike strategic targets off the coasts of Netherlands and Belgium in daylight raids, during which they braved anti-aircraft fire and interception by Luftwaffe fighter aircraft. Night time bombing raids were conducted against oil installations, power stations, and aerodromes. After the Allied defeat in the Battle of France and the signing of the French Armistice of 22 June 1940, Swordfish focused their activities against  French ports that might be used for a German invasion of Britain. This included security patrols and spotting for naval bombardments.

Workers carrying out salvage and repair work on a wing of a Swordfish

In February 1942, the shortcomings of the Swordfish were starkly demonstrated during a famous German naval fleet movement known as the Channel Dash. Six Swordfish led by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde sortied from Manston to intercept the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau as they traversed the English Channel towards Germany. When the Swordfish formation arrived and commenced an initial attack run coming astern of the ships, the Swordfish were intercepted by roughly 15 Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter aircraft with the aerial battle was extremely one-sided with no fighter cover, quickly resulting in the loss of all Swordfish while no damage was achieved upon the ships themselves. 

The lack of fighter cover was the main contributing factor for the heavy losses experienced, only 10 of the 84 promised fighters were available. Thirteen of the 18 Swordfish crew involved were killed. Esmonde, who had previously led the famous attack on Bismarck, was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for his bravery.

The courage of the Swordfish crews was noted by both sides.

British Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay 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”.

The German Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax remarked:

“the mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day.”
Three rocket-armed Swordfish on a training flight, August 1944. The aircraft are painted with Invasion stripes

However, as a result of this incident, Swordfish were quickly withdrawn from the torpedo-bomber role in favour of more anti-submarine duties. Armed with depth charges and rockets, the aircraft became some of the best submarine killers.

In the anti-submarine role, the Swordfish was the first to use the naval use of air to surface vessel (ASV) radar, for submarine hunting, allowing the aircraft to effectively locate surface ships at night and through clouds. Swordfish were flying missions with the radar by October 1941. In December 1941, a Swordfish based in Gibraltar located and sank a U-boat, the first such kill to be achieved by an aircraft during nighttime. On 23 May 1943, a rocket-equipped Swordfish destroyed German submarine U-752 off the coast of Ireland, the first kill achieved with this new weapon.

119 Squadron RAF Swordfish being loaded with 250 lb general-purpose bombs, Knokke-Zoute Airfield, Belgium, circa 1944–1945

Towards the end of the war, No. 119 Squadron RAF operated Swordfish Mark IIIs with centimetric radar from airfields in Belgium. Their main task was to hunt at night 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. By 1945, nine front-line squadrons were still equipped with Swordfish. Overall, Swordfish sank a minimum of 14 U-boats and contributed in many more. The Swordfish was intended to be replaced by the Fairey Albacore, but it outlived its intended successor. 

Operational sorties of the Swordfish continued into January 1945. The last active missions are believed to have been anti-shipping operations off the coast of Norway by FAA Squadrons 835 and 813, where the Swordfish’s manoeuvrability was essential. The last operational squadron, 836 Naval Air Squadron, which had last been engaged in providing resources for the MAC ships, was disbanded on 21 May 1945, soon after the end of World War II in Europe. In the northern summer of 1946, the last training squadron equipped with the type was disbanded, after which only a few examples remained in service to perform small duties at a few naval air stations.

Battleship Assassin Fairey Swordfish : Why Was The Fairey Swordfish So Good? 

Historian Harry Gillespie : Collected Works

Harry Gillespie is a writer who resides in the UK with his family. His work focuses on Naval & British history with a specific look at 20th century warfare and ships. From World War 1 to The Falkland Islands Campaign.

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