The Fairey Swordfish was one of the unsung heroes of the Second World War. With Britain seemingly fighting the world war all on its own, much pressure fell upon its air force and navy branches to produce results. The Swordfish would go on to become a mythical hero in the conflict, partaking in the brave attacks on the strategic Italian port city of Taranto and inflicting the critical torpedo strike against the German battleship Bismarck, paralyzing it until its inevitable destruction at the hands of Royal Navy warships. In the end, this aircraft would become the stuff of legend - sporting a design look more in line with World War 1 and inter-war fighters than the sleek offerings appearing from 1940 and beyond. Despite this antiquated appearance, the Swordfish proved a vital cog in the Allied effort during the largest global conflict in history.
Origins of the Swordfish could be traced back to a private venture (known simply as the Fairey Private Venture or simply "PV") undertaken by Fairey. This aircraft design was developed in response to an Air Ministry need for a reconnaissance aircraft capable of serving as a naval gunfire spotter. Spotters were an essential component in follow-up shots from the big naval guns, often times increasing accuracy of the gun crews dramatically. The follow up S.15/33 specification expanded this role to include the delivery of torpedo munitions to replace the current crop of aged biplanes in service. While the PV took on the designation of TSR I, the revised design became the TSR II (TSR standing for "Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance" to reflect the types intended roles). The TSR II achieved first flight on April 17th, 1934 and was put into production as the Swordfish the following year. 86 Swordfish Mk I systems were contracted in this initial production batch. Deliveries began in 1936 and the aircraft quickly became the standard Fleet Air Arm torpedo bomber, becoming the newest mount of No. 825 Squadron. The Swordfish replaced the aged Fairey Seal in service. By 1939, the Fleet Air Arm was moved away from Royal Air Force control and relocated as a permanent fixture under the banner of the Royal Navy.
Much like its World War 1 predecessors, the Swordfish was designed as a large-area wing, three-seat biplane aircraft. Pictures do not do this machine justice for this was a very large biplane aircraft. Unlike the seemingly meek construction of World War 1 fighters - sporting wooding substructures covered by fabric - the Swordfish featured an all-metal understructure covered in fabric. IN many ways, the Swordfish served as a sort of "bridge" between two distinct aircraft eras. To add to the types throw-back looks, the aircraft still featured an open-air cockpit (remedied in the final production variant with an enclosed cabin) and fixed undercarriage. A crew of three - consisting of the pilot, observer and radio operator/gunner - would man the various positions aboard the aircraft. The straight empennage was braced by a single tail wheel and featured a conventional single vertical tail fin. The radial engine was mounted at the extreme forward of the fuselage and featured a three-bladed propeller. All surfaces were rounded and contoured wherever possible. The slightly uneven-span biplane wing assemblies featured parallel struts with single bays and light cabling. While the lower wing component was relatively level, the upper component sported slight dihedral. Both wing components had the convenient function to fold (hinged at the wingroots) for easier storage aboard the space-strapped aircraft carriers of the time.
Swordfish performance was adequate considering the types origins and role. Power was supplied from radial piston engines made up of the Bristol Pegasus IIIM.3 at one point and later by the improved the Bristol XXX series with and output of 690 horsepower and 750 horsepower respectively. A top speed of 138 miles per hour was possible along with a range of 546 miles. A service ceiling of 19,250 feet was available with a rate-of-climb of 1,220 feet per minute - not exactly a hotrod, though the Swordfish had "it" where it counted.
The standard armament of the Swordfish was something more akin to the fighters of World War 1 than the Second World War. The pilot was afforded a single 7.7mm machine gun, fixed in a forward-firing position and mounted in the engine cowling. The rear cockpit gunner operated a single trainable 7.7mm machine gun to protect the aircraft's vulnerable rear. Where the real bread and butter of the system lay was in its ability to mount a single 1,670lb torpedo running centerline under the fuselage. The torpedo would become the choice armament of the high seas in World War 2 and an aircraft that could capably and accurately deliver such a payload was a god-send to any navy force. Additionally, Swordfish Mk II models (and later) could sport explosive rocket projectiles under the wings. By the time their true wartime worthiness had passed, Swordfish would go on to be armed with a single 1,500lb mine for anti-submarine duty.
Despite its seemingly endless supply of roles the Swordfish excelled at (training, reconnaissance, torpedo bombing, anti-submarine warfare), the aircraft was surprisingly limited to a handful of variants beginning with the Mk I production series. It was not unheard of to see these Mk I models fitted with floats for ship-based operations via a catapult system making them valuable airborne components at a moment's notice. The Mk II followed up in 1943 with an all-new lower wing constructed of metal, perfect for the fitting of rocket armament. Up to 8 x 60lb RP-3 series rockets (four to a side) could be affixed under the wings, increasing the lethality of the biplane. Engines were upgraded to the 820 horsepower Pegasus XXX series by this time, improving performance to an extent. The Mk II proved the definitive production model in the series for some 1,080 examples were delivered.
1943 also saw the introduction of the Mk III variant (also powered by the Pegasus XXX engine series), these featuring ASV radar mounted between the landing gear legs of improved anti-ship operation. The final Swordfish production model became the Mk IV which was very distinct from earlier offerings in that it featured an enclosed cockpit for the crew of three. Mk IV's were fielded by the Royal Canadian Air Force with production ceasing on August 18, 1944.
In all, 2,396 Swordfish aircraft were produced with operators becoming the United Kingdom (RAF and RNFAA), Canada, Netherlands, South Africa (transfer aircraft) and Spain. Britain operated some 17 squadrons of Swordfish in total. Some production was handled by Fairey (at least 692 aircraft) though the Blackburn Aircraft Company produced at least 1,699 examples - these sometimes dubbed "Blackfish" due to their Blackburn factory origins.
In the opening years of the war, the Swordfish was utilized as an convoy protector and fleet escort. Its first direct combat action came in the Norwegian campaign of 1940. Further actions would encompass the Batle of Cape Matapan in 1941, the "Channel Dash" occurring in 1942 (all six Swordfish aircraft were destroyed, awarding Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde a posthumous Victoria Cross) and the famous night-time assault on the Italian port of Taranto.
The Fairey Swordfish's value to the Royal Navy - particularly the Fleet Air Arm - during World War 2 cannot be understated. Swordfish aircraft left one of their many marks in the British assault on Taranto through "Operation Judgment". Taranto served as an important Italian naval base in the Mediterranean. Once France fell so too did her naval capabilities in the northwest Mediterranean, thus this sea - for all intents and purposes - came under control of the Axis powers. Taranto was set up as a major port to serve the bulk of the Italian Navy, including the few yet powerful battleships she maintained. In a move seemingly mimicked by the Japanese Navy over a year later at Pearl Harbor, the British Navy unleashed Operation Judgment in an attempt to knock out Italian naval supremacy in these waters.
On October 21st, a British fleet of 4 battleships and battlecruisers, 10 cruisers and 4 destroyers - along with the aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious and HMS Eagle - moved into position to activate Operation Judgment. Carrier Eagle began suffering from mechanical problems forcing her Swordfish aircraft onto the HMS Illustrious. A fire aboard the Illustrious compounded issues and the attack was delayed for some time, though this set up an opportunity for the Royal Navy to conduct some daring reconnaissance flights against Taranto and her heavy flak defenses. The opposition included up to 6 Italian battleships, 27 destroyers and 14 cruisers - not to mention ground-based flak teams, no fewer than 90 barrage balloons and a torpedo net spanning the mouth of the harbor. The decision for the Royal Navy was essentially made - the attack would take on these Italian vessels while they still lay in port with little to no room to maneuver out of the way of bombs and torpedoes.
Luck, it would seem, was on the side of the English this day. A previous storm earlier in the week had destroyed or put out of operation commission up to 63 of the 90 barrage balloons. Any Italian air force patrol aircraft - these usually in the form of lumbering flying boats - were dealt with quickly by the Royal Navy, containing the element of surprise a while longer. British assault could now count on this element in its attack - a tacticians dream come true. On November 9th, the HMS Illustrious had moved into her assigned position. The next day, the Italian air force was alerted to the approaching fleet and launched an attack with bombers though, fortunately for the Allies, this attack had little effect on the fleet and the Italians lost one bomber.
At 10:00PM on November 11th, the HMS Illustrious, now near the Greek island of Cephalonia, unleashed the first wave of Swordfish torpedo bombers against Taranto. An hour later, the Swordfish were at their targets with lead planes dropping targeting flares. The Italian battleship Cavour took a single direct hit from a torpedo while the Doria was hit twice at the bow. The Littorio was also struck at her starboard bow and then again at her starboard stern. The Libeccio was hit but the torpedo failed to detonate.
At 11:35PM, the second wave of Swordfish torpedo bombers were airborne, commencing attack by 11:50PM. The oil depot was targeted and attacked by lead Swordfish flare aircraft but with little damage to show for it. A single torpedo struck the bow of the battleship Mar Grande. The burning and sinking Littorio was struck once more while the Trento was hit with a drop bomb that failed to explode. The battleship Vittorio Veneto somehow managed its way - unscathed - out of the harbor in the early morning hours. By 1:22AM, the all-clear at the harbor was sounded and the attack on Taranto was officially over.
At the cost of just two Swordfish to three Italian battleships, the Royal Navy enacted a brazen operation to knock out Italian dominance of the Mediterranean in one swoop and they did so with astounding success. It bears note that three other Swordfish were lost before the attack due to engine failure though these losses were later attributed to contaminated aviation fuel supplies. In the end, the Swordfish had completed a hard day's work with much progress to show for it, showcasing the resilience of this "little" aircraft and the bravery of her crews throughout.
If there were one singular event in the history of the Swordfish that would bear mention, it would be its involvement in the hunt for the German battleship KMS Bismarck. The Bismarck and her German surface counterparts were charged with the destruction of Allied shipping in the North Atlantic. Even Winston Churchill realized the important of the ability to resupply his island and muttered the phrase "without ships, we cannot live". As such, the Royal Navy was called upon once again to hunt down the Bismarck and deal an ultimate logistical blow to the Kriegsmarine and ultimately Hitler's ego itself.
The Bismarck proved something of an anomaly for a time, able to seemingly disappear from Royal Navy warships charged with shadowing her and from reconnaissance aircraft meant to relay her exact location. This all changed on May 26th, however, as the Bismarck's location was pinpointed and followed up by Swordfish aircraft launching from the carrier HMS Ark Royal that afternoon. Despite fierce anti-aircraft fire the slow-moving, low-flying Swordfish aircraft proved a hard target to hit for the Bismarck's advanced gunnery systems. Flak itself was relatively useless at extremely low altitudes. Two Swordfish torpedoes managed to find their mark with the second torpedo proving to be fatal for the grand warship. This torpedo managed to strike the stern area and render the Bismarck's rudder inoperable. The rudder was locked in such a way that the large vessel was restricted to making an infinite turn as its engines pushed the vessel forward. This debilitating blow would be the death warrant for the battleship and her crew for the Bismarck was to sink under heavy Royal Navy bombardment in a short 13 hours. Only 115 German sailors would be rescued from the vessel.
The Fairey Swordfish managed an important existence throughout the whole of the war. Combat squadrons lasted until 1945 while trainer groups were utilized as late as 1946 - a true testament to design and durability of this fine aircraft. The Swordfish series was inevitably replaced in its roles by the much improved Fairey Barracuda - this a monoplane wing design. The Fairey Albacore biplane was introduced during the early 1940's in an attempt to replace the Swordfish but the Swordfish somehow managed to outlive her competition to fight on a bit longer. The Alabacore became history before the Swordfish.
The Fairey Swordfish gained the affectionate nickname of "Ole Stringbag" during its operational run. Though one might assume to associate this nickname to the design and construction of the seemingly archaic biplane, the name was actually derived from the ability of the Swordfish to mount a plethora of munition options. This versatility fared comparatively well with a contemporary housewives "string" shopping bag, having the same uncanny ability to shape itself into whatever was placed inside. Hence the nickname "Ole Stringbag" was in fact a compliment to the aircraft.