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The Fairey Swordfish was a torpedo bomber built by the Fairey Aviation Company and used by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Affectionately known as the "Stringbag" by its crews, it was outdated by 1939, but achieved some spectacular successes during the war, notably the sinking of one and damaging two battleships of the Regia Marina (the Italianmarker Navy) in the Battle of Tarantomarker and the famous crippling of the Bismarckmarker. It was operated primarily as a fleet attack aircraft; however, during its later years, it was also used as an anti-submarine and training craft. Designed in the 1930s, the Swordfish outlived several types intended to replace it, and remained in front-line service through the end of the war in Europe.

Design and development

The Swordfish was based on a Fairey Private Venture (PV) design; a proposed solution to the Air Ministry 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 frame 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.

By 1939 the Fleet Air Arm (now under Royal Navy control) had 13 squadrons equipped with the Swordfish Mark I. There were also three flights of Swordfish equipped with floats, for use off catapult-equipped warships. One - from - spotted fall of shot (i.e., radioed gunnery corrections back to the ship) during the Second Battle of Narvik in 1940 and subsequently sank the U-boat U-64.

Swordfish flew from merchant aircraft carriers ("MAC ships"), 20 civilian cargo 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 Naval Air Squadron.

Almost 2,400 had been built, 692 by Fairey and 1,699 in Sherburnmarker by the Blackburn Aircraft Company, which were sometimes dubbed the "Blackfish". The most numerous version was the Mark II, of which 1,080 were made.

Operational history

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 ft (1,500 m) followed by a dive to torpedo release altitude of 18 ft (5.5 m). Maximum range of the early Mark XII torpedo was 1,500 yd (1400 m). The torpedo traveled 200 yd (180 m) forward from release to water impact, and required another 300 yd (270 m) to stabilise at preset depth and arm itself. Ideal release distance was 1,000 yd (900 m) from target if the Swordfish survived to that distance. Swordfish - flying from the British aircraft carrier - made a very significant strike on 11 November 1940 against the Italian navy during the Battle of Tarantomarker, Italymarker, sinking or disabling three Italian battleships and a cruiser lying at anchor. The successful Taranto attack may have given inspiration or confidence to the Japanese who would later attack Pearl Harbormarker. Swordfish also flew anti-shipping sorties from Maltamarker.

In May 1941, a Swordfish strike from was vital in damaging the German battleship Bismarckmarker, preventing it from escaping back to France. 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. The Swordfish also flew so low that most of the Bismarck s flak weapons were unable to depress enough to hit them. The Swordfish aircraft scored two hits, one which did little damage but another that disabled Bismarck s rudder, causing the ship to steam in circles, thus sealing its fate. The Bismarck was destroyed less than 13 hours later.

The problems with the aircraft were starkly demonstrated in February 1942 when a strike on German battlecruisers during the Channel Dash resulted in the loss of all attacking aircraft. With the development of new torpedo attack aircraft, the Swordfish was soon redeployed successfully in an anti-submarine role, armed with depth-charges or eight "60 lb" (30 kg) RP-3 rockets and flying from the smaller escort carriers or even Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC) when equipped for rocket-assisted takeoff . 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 take-off and landing speeds were so low that it didn't require the carrier to be steaming into the wind, unlike most carrier-based aircraft. 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 meant to be replaced by the Albacore, also a biplane, but actually outlived its intended successor. It was, finally, however, succeeded by the Fairey Barracuda monoplane torpedo bomber.

The last of 2,392 Swordfish aircraft was delivered in August 1944 and operational sorties continued in to January 1945 with anti-shipping operations off Norway (FAA Squadrons 835 and 813), where the Swordfish's manouvreability was essential. 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 received the Stringbag nickname not because of its construction, 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 which was common at the time and, which due to its having no fixed shape, could adjust to hold any shape or number of packages. Like the shopping bag, the crews thought the Swordfish could carry anything.

Variants

Fairey Swordfish in pre-war Fleet Air Arm markings


Swordfish I
First production series.
Swordfish I
Version equipped with floats, for use from catapult-equipped warships.
Swordfish II
Version with metal lower wings to enable the mounting of rockets, introduced in 1943.
Swordfish III
Version with added a large centrimetric radar unit, introduced in 1943.
Swordfish IV
Last serial built version (production ended in 1944) with an enclosed cabin for use by the RCAF


Operators

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Surviving Aircraft

Swordfish LS326
This is an incomplete list.

Two aircraft, Swordfish Mk.I W5856 and Swordfish Mk.II LS326 are in flying condition and form part of the Royal Navy Historic Flight. A third aircraft, Swordfish Mk.III NF389 is being restored to airworthy condition by the Flight.

Swordfish Mk.III, NF370 is displayed at the Imperial War Museum Duxfordmarker. A Swordfish Mk.II, with an unknown serial number, is at the Canada Aviation Museummarker.

A Mk. II Swordfish, converted to Mk. IV, HS469 is on display at the Shearwater Aviation Museum. It was restored to air-worthy condition and flew once, in 1994.

An unrestored aircraft, HS491, is part of the collection of the Malta Aviation Museum and is currently awaiting restoration.

A flying Mk.III, construction number F/B 3527A, registered C-GEVS is operated by Vintage Wings, based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada

Specifications (Swordfish I)

See also

References

Notes

Bibliography

  • Brown, Eric, CBE, DCS, AFC, RN.; Green William and Swanborough, Gordon. "Fairey Swordfish". Wings of the Navy, Flying Allied Carrier Aircraft of World War Two. London: Jane's Publishing Company, 1980, p. 7–20. ISBN 0-7106-0002-X.
  • Harrison, W.A. Fairey Swordfish and Albacore. Wiltshire, UK: The Crowood Press, 2002. ISBN 1-86126-512-3.
  • Harrison, W.A. Swordfish at War. Shepperton, Surrey: Ian Allan Publishing Ltd., 1987. ISBN 0-7110-1676-3.
  • Harrison, W.A. Fairey Swordfish in Action (Aircraft Number 175). Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc., 2001. ISBN 0-89747-421-X.
  • Harrison, W.A. Swordfish Special. Shepperton, Surrey: Ian Allan Publishing Ltd., 1977. ISBN 0-7110-0742-X.
  • Kilbracken, Lord, Bring Back My Stringbag: A Swordfish Pilot At War. London: Pan Books Ltd, 1980. ISBN 0-330-26172-X. First published by Peter Davies Ltd, 1979.
  • Lamb, Charles. War in a Stringbag. London: Cassell & Co., 2001. ISBN 0-304-35841-X.
  • Stott, Ian G. The Fairey Swordfish Mks. I-IV (Aircraft in Profile 212). Windsor, Berkshire: Profile Publications, 1971. No ISBN.
  • Soules, Frank W. Royal Navy, 10 Fairey Swordfish operational flights from Gibraltar
  • Sturtivant, Ray. The Swordfish Story. London: Cassell & Co., 1993 (2nd Revised edition 2000). ISBN 0-304-35711-1.
  • Taylor, H.A, Fairey Aircraft since 1915. London: Putnam & Company Ltd., 1974. ISBN 0-370-00065-X.
  • Thetford, Owen. British Naval Aircraft Since 1912. London: Putnam, Fouth edition, 1978. ISBN 0 370 30021 1.
  • Thetford, Owen. British Naval Aircraft Since 1912. London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1994. ISBN 0-85177-861-5.
  • Wragg, David. Stringbag: The Fairey Swordfish at War. London: Pen and Sword, 2005. ISBN 1-84415-130-1


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