The Fairey Swordfish, affectionately known as the ‘Stringbag’ by its crews, was the British Fleet Air Arm’s primary torpedo strike aircraft of the early years of World War Two.
It looked like something left over from the First World War but in fact had only been introduced into service in 1936. In many ways this was a sad reflection of the state of procurement of British naval aircraft pre-war, especially when the US and Japan were producing fast monoplane naval aircraft, and yet the Swordfish would go on to give sterling war service.
1. Its outer skin was fabric
The Fairey Swordfish was a biplane, utilising a steel tube skeleton over which was stretched a fabric skin. Its single Bristol Pegasus engine produced 1065hp. The aircraft carried a crew of 3 (pilot, observer and air gunner/wireless operator) who occupied a cockpit open to the elements.
2. It was armed with torpedoes and later with rockets
The Swordfish could carry either a single 18″ torpedo or a bomb load of up to 1500lbs. It could also carry mines, flares and later on in the war, eight unguided rockets mounted on rails under the wings. Later versions could also be fitted with Mark XI ASV (Air-to-Surface) radar.
3. It could handle all weathers
The rugged and reliable Swordfish was an ideal aircraft for carriers, especially small escort carriers, being able to operate in atrocious weather conditions that would ground more modern aircraft.
4. It was relatively slow
The Swordfish had a maximum speed of 139mph, ‘going downhill’ as some crews described it. Although headwinds might cut this to less than 100mph. Ironically this pedestrian pace made things difficult for enemy fighters as they would rapidly overshoot, and in the hands of a skilled pilot, the slow but highly manoeuvrable Swordfish could be a difficult target.
On 8 May 1940, off the Norwegian coast near Narvik, a lone Swordfish from the carrier Ark Royal successfully fought off attacks by three German aircraft. The aircrew signalled back to their carrier laconically: ‘From Swordfish 4F. Delayed by three Heinkels.’
5. Six Swordfish took on the mighty Scharnhorst in 1942
On the afternoon of 12 February 1942, six Swordfish of 825 Squadron took off in a gallant but ultimately doomed attempt to attack the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the English Channel.
The flight was led by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, a veteran of the attack on the Bismarck. But the attack was hastily put together and Esmonde and his crews knew the odds were against them. Wing Commander Tom Gleave, station commander at Manston airfield, shook hands with Esmonde just before takeoff and recalled later:
“He knew what he was going into. But it was his duty. His face was tense and white.”
Faced by a storm of anti-aircraft fire from the German warships, as well as large numbers of enemy fighters, all six Swordfish were shot down. Just five aircrew survived. Esmonde was later awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
6. They proved themselves at Taranto…
On the night of 11 November 1940, in an attack that would serve as a model for the Japanese at Pearl Harbour, a flight of twenty Swordfish carried out an attack on the anchored Italian Fleet in Taranto harbour that left three Italian battleships out of action.
7. …and outdid themselves against the Bismarck
The German battleship Bismarck sunk the famous British battle cruiser HMS Hood on 24 May, 1941 for the loss of all but three of her crew. Two days later, on 26 May, a strike force of fifteen Swordfish flying from the carrier Ark Royal sealed the fate of this massive warship. Two torpedoes struck home, with one hitting the stern to jam the Bismarck’s rudders and render her at the mercy of pursuing Royal Navy surface ships.
8. A Swordfish made the first sinking of a U-Boat by Fleet Air Arm aircraft
13 April 1940 saw the first sinking of a U-Boat by a Fleet Air Arm aircraft. A Swordfish fitted with floats, catapulted off the battleship HMS Warspite, surprised the U-64 at anchor off Bjerkvik, Norway, and sank her with two anti-submarine bombs.
9. The Swordfish made the first sinking of a U-Boat using rockets
By 1943 Swordfish might have been obsolete as a torpedo strike aircraft, but as a U-Boat killer it was proving very successful. On 23 May, a Swordfish flying from the escort carrier HMS Archer sank the U-752 with rockets, the first operational use of this new weapon.
10. It outlived its successor
The Fairey Albacore was intended to replace the Swordfish but never really did so.
The Albacore was really just a cleaned-up version of the Swordfish with an enclosed cockpit, but it was still a biplane and in some aspects of performance was actually a retrograde step from the Swordfish.
As late as January 1945, 119 Squadron of RAF Coastal Command, having previously flown Albacores on night anti-shipping missions, was re-equipped with Swordfish fitted with surface search radar.
Winton, John 1980 Find, Fix & Strike by John Winton B T Batsford Ltd
Price, Alfred 1973 Aircraft versus Submarine Janes Publishing Co Ltd
Carter, Ian 2004 Coastal Command 1939-45 Ian Allan Publishing
Batchelor, John, Preston, Antony & Caster, Louis S. 1979 Sea Power Phoebus Publishing