Thank you to Alex Clarke for his latest article.
World War II (WWII) was predominately a naval war, while some continents managed to escape unscathed, no oceans did. This is reinforced by the critical value placed by contemporaries, such as Churchill and Eisenhower, on what was happening at sea. The Battle of the Atlantic, the Arctic Convoys, the Pacific Island Hopping Campaign, the Battle of Mattapan, the Battle of the River Plate are just a handful of the engagements and operations with names; something which the countless skirmishes did not. Not only was it a naval war though, WWII was a naval aviation war.
In World War I (WWI) operations like the Cuxhaven Raid, or the Battles of Gallipoli and Tsingtao, had only offered a glimmer of what was to come. It was during WWII, with Taranto, Pearl Harbour, Torch, Sicily, Midway and many others, that naval aviation matured into a global force. Surprisingly though a number of those operations depended upon an aircraft which would have not looked out of place in WWI: this was of course the Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance II (TSR) – its designation, the Fairey Swordfish – its official name, the ‘stringbag’ – as those who flew knew it as.
The Swordfish was actively employed throughout its career, during which it achieved many records; for example between May and November 1941, No.830 Squadron sank over 110,000tons of enemy shipping, and damaged over 130,000tons morei. To put this in context, this one squadron sank the equivalent, in tonnage, of (give or take a Type 23 frigate) the entire modern Royal Navy’s escort force in under 7 months. In September 1944, Swordfish from HMS Vindex sank four U-Boats in a single Arctic Convoy runii. Yet, it is of course for the events of November 11th, 1940, that it is remembered for most.
On that night, 21 Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), launched from HMS Illustrious, flew over 150miles with only the moon and the stars to guide themiii. At the end of this journey they successfully attacked the Italian Fleet at Harbour in Taranto – putting three Italian battleships out of action and damaging two cruisers along with other vessels, as well as shore facilitiesiv. 19 aircraft then flew the 150miles back to the find needle in a haystack that was HMS Illustrious, in the middle of Mediterranean, still at night.
Whilst the ships put out of action were not all permanent – they were off the board for a great deal of time, facilitating other successes in the Mediterranean and other theatres. More importantly the RN gained confidence in itself, and its ability to hit the enemy lurking in a hostile harbour, a frustration which had plagued it during WW1v. That is perhaps the reason why the attack, and the aircraft which carried it out is so well remembered; another is that this was a victory, at the time a very much needed unequivocal victory.
What is often ignored about Taranto is that it was an operation which as about more than just hitting the Italian fleet in harbour, it was about the movement convoys, the covering of Malta, and a whole stream of other strategic necessities which were also all achieved. Furthermore, it was a night of vindication for Admiral Henderson, Admiral Lyster and countless other officers who had fought in the corridors of Whitehall to preserve British naval aviation in the face of many bureaucratic threatsvi. All of this success was of course made possible by the attributes and capabilities of Swordfish, which had enabled this operation.
The Swordfish fly over the ocean,
The Swordfish fly over the sea;
If it were not for King George’s Swordfish,
Where the ‘ell would the Fleet Air Arm be?
Sung to the tune of My Bonnie lies over the Oceanvii
This quote taken from the FAA own Songbookviii sums up very succinctly the position of the RN and (what was finally) it’s FAA, in terms of strike aircraft in 1939. When Britain went to war its aircraft carriers, between the six of them, were equipped with thirteen Swordfish squadronsix; this is compared to having just four squadrons equipped with the Skua Fighter Dive Bomberx (and some of the aircraft in these squadrons were actually Blackburn Roc’s, the turret fighter version of the Skuaxi). Swordfish would continue to be crucial, in different ways, for the entire length of the war – out living the Skuas, that were their contemporaries in 1939 but withdrawn in 1941, despite their 1940 success against the Konigsberg in Norwayxii.
The fact is that a little single engine biplane aircraft, which carried a crew of three (a Pilot, an Observer and a Telegraphist Air Gunner) served with distinction the entire length of a conflict, which would see the skies of the world thunder to the whine of jet engines, and rumble to the caged fury of rockets. The reasons for its endurance in service are many, some are complex and some are simple – so simple ones were summed up in song:
The Swordfish relies on her Peggy,
The modified Taurus ain’t sound,
So the Swordfish flies off on her missions
And the Albacore stays on the ground.
Bring Back, bring back
Oh bring back my Stringbag to me, to me
Sung to the tune of My Bonnie lies over the Oceanxiii
The Swordfish out served two domestic and a foreign successor aircraftxiv; while those aircraft did, eventually, replace it in the carrier strike role – the Swordfish carried on in the anti-submarine role, long after their replacements had been themselves superseded. The main reason for its surviving as it did was the shameless functionalism that was worked into every aspect of its designxv. The Swordfish is a beautiful aircraft, but it is beauty of simplicity – even the wires reinforcing the wing struts add to this. It was that simplicity which facilitated the design to be adapted for its changing roles.
The Swordfish was therefore not as it would seem from first glance, a backwards looking aircraft design, it was not a relic of underfunded and conservative inter-war development (a product of the way control of the FAA was split between the RAFxvi and the RN). The RN was able to influence designs (in fact this grew as time went on); influence which it used to try and acquire the aircraft it needed to fit its vision of how naval aviation would be usedxvii. In the case of the Swordfish, this influence produced something which would become a legend; a legend which belies its conceptionxviii.
As has already been said, the Swordfish is remembered primarily for what it accomplished in the raid on the Italian fleet at Taranto; it is remembered as a Torpedo bomberxix. In reality the roles of Spotter and Reconnaissance had been just as import to the design of the Swordfish as the role of Torpedo bomber – possibly more soxx.
These roles required very long range; the RN had a strong belief in attacking the enemy before they could attack them, preferably before the enemy knew where the RN wasxxi. They necessitated the ability to economically loiter for long durations, a naturally stable flight profile. The roles made ease of flying criticalxxii – so that a pilot, who had been airborne for hours, would find landing on aircraft carrier as straight forward as possible; a task that under the best of circumstances is a controlled crash on an ‘runway’ which is moving on about 6 axis. This was all combined with the famed rugged reliability that was a legacy of the methodical evolutionary genesis, something which had been a feature of British naval aviation throughout the 1920s, and 1930sxxiii.
The blend of these attributes made the Swordfish a perfect fit not only for the roles above, but also for the anti-submarine role. With the added bonus that its biplane design enabled it to generate a far greater amount of lift than a contemporary equivalent monoplane could; this enabled the Swordfish to carry great loads, and to operate from minimalist aircraft carriersxxiv. Although from 1941, Rocket Assisted Take off Gear was used to help when loads grew too heavy even for the mighty Swordfishxxv.
So what can be learned from the Swordfish? Well, firstly, that while cutting edge aircraft came and went, as the necessities of the carrier strike role evolved; the older strike aircraft turned ‘auxiliary combat aircraft’, which was cheap, capable and easy to maintain out lasted them. The tenants of the Swordfish were not that it was a flying anachronism, but that it was a flying marvel at doing the work that was needed: jobs which a more ‘modern’ aircraft would have been nice for (something with an enclosed cockpit for example, like the Albacore had), but which were not actually needed for. With this in mind perhaps the lessons of the Swordfish are perhaps more apt, not for manned aviation – the F35s or other new aircraft, but for unmanned aviation; the aircraft which seem more and more to be coming to dominate the auxiliary roles.
From the Swordfish it can be inferred that such aircraft, especially those for the maritime mission should be designed with an emphasis on lift and loitering. Lift, the amount of weight they can carry will have a direct link to how much the design can be upgraded/modified as time goes on, and from a practical mission perspective how much munitions/equipment can be carried. Loitering, is an especially important attribute for maritime patrol, it was the Swordfish’s ability to loiter in the air which made it such a formidable foe for fighting U-boats; and it is just as important for fighting the submarines of today. The final factors which must be considered are its ruggedness and reliability.
As far as its ruggedness goes the Swordfish could take a lot of punishment – both in terms of taking damage from enemy fire, and in withstanding the rigors of carrier operations. The Swordfish’s reliability meant that not only was it an aircraft easy to maintain, it didn’t often go wrong – this was in part thanks to the length of development (as has been described), but also due to the selection of proven systems; which consequently made the overall project less of a risk.
The Swordfish is an example of the utility of ‘good enough’ in enough numbers, as opposed to not enough ‘perfect’; it is the Swordfish which is the ultimate testimony to the maxim “it is not the tools, it’s how it they’re used that makes the difference”, and in this case provided victoryxxvi.
Some Further Reading on Swordfish…
Brown, Eric. 2010. Wings of the Luftwaffe; Flying the captured German aircraft of World War II. Manchester: Crecy Publishing Limited.
—. 1980. Wings of the Navy. London: Jane’s Publishing Company.
—. 2007. Wings on My Sleeve. London: Phoenix.
—. 2010. British Cruisers; Two World Wars and After. London: Seaforth Publishing.
Harrison, William A. 2002. Fairey Swordfish and Albacore. Ramsbury, Marlborough: The Crowood Press Ltd.
John, Rebecca. 1987. Caspar John. London: Collins.
Jones, Neville. 2002. The Beginnings of Strategic Air Power; A History of the British Bomber Force 1923-39. London: Frank Cass Publishers.
Lowry, Thomas P., and John W.G. Wellham. 1995. The Attack on Taranto; Blueprint for Pearl Harbour. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
Marriott, Leo. 2006. Catapult Aircraft; Seaplanes that Flew from Ship without Flight Decks. London: Pen & Sword Aviation.
Meekcoms, K J, and E B Morgan. 1994. The British Aircraft Specifications File. London: Air Britain (Historians) Ltd.
Robertson, Scot. 1995. The Development of RAF Strategic Bombing Doctrine, 1919-1939. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.
Smith, Peter C. 2007. Images of War; Torpedo Bombers, Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Ltd.
—. 2006. Skua! The Royal Navy’s Dive-Bomber. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Aviation.
Sturtivant, Ray C. 1984. The Squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm. Tonbridge: Air-Britain (Historians) Ltd.
Sturtivant, Ray C. 2008. “Below Squadron Status.” FlightGlobal.com. Reed Buisness Information. Accessed June 24, 2010. http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1957/1957%20-%200215.html.
Sturtivant, Ray C., and Dick Cronin. 1998. Fleet Air Arm Aircraft, Units and Ships 1920 to 1939. Tunbridge Wells: Air-Britain (Historians) Ltd.
Thetford, Owen. 1978. British Naval Aircraft since 1912. London: Putnam.
Wellham, John. 2007. With Naval Wings; The Autobiography of a Fleet Air Arm Pilot in World War II. Chalford: Spellmount Limited.
Wragg, David. 2009. A Century of British Naval Aviation: 1909-2009. Barnesly: Pen & Sword Maritime.
—. 2004. Swordfish, The Story of the Taranto Raid. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Cassell Military Paperbacks.
From The Archives…
Churchill Archives – Roskill: 7/163. 1964. “Exercises, Fleet, and Tactical Training (including Sail Training) R.N. and U.S.N.” Rosk: 7/163. Cambridge: Churchill Archives, Churchill College (Cambridge).
TNA – Admiralty: 1/11030. 1941. “Naval Operations and Naval Air Work 1939-1941; Lessons Learnt, notes for information of naval flying personal at training establishments issued by R.A.N.A.S.” ADM 1/11030. London: United Kingdom National Archives (Kew).
TNA – Admiralty: 116/4110. 1928-40. “Harbour Attack Committee.” ADM: 116/4110. London: United Kingdom National Archives (Kew).
TNA: ADM 186/145. 1929. “Exercises & Operations 1929 (C.B. 1769/29).” Admiralty 186/145. Vol. I. London: United Kingdom National Archives (Kew).
TNA: ADM 186/72. 1925. “Battle Instructions.” Admiralty 186/72. London: United Kingdom National Archives (Kew).
TNA: ADM 203/84. 1924. “Admiral Richmond’s report on the Combined Exercise conducted at Salsette Island (Bombay) Combined Exercise.” Admiralty 203/84. London: United Kingdom National Archives (Kew), December.
TNA: ADM 203/90. 1929. “Strategical Exercise MZ – Altantic and Mediterranean Fleets 1929.” Admiralty 203/90. London: United Kingdom National Archives (Kew).
i Brown, Wings of the Navy 1980, p11
ii Thetford 1978, p141
iii First Strike Launched 20:30hrs: Wragg, Swordfish 2004, p104. First Strike Attack commenced at 22:56hrs: Wragg, Swordfish 2004, p115
iv Harrison 2002, p135, & TNA – Admiralty: 1/11030 1941
v TNA – Admiralty: 116/4110 1928-40
vi Friedman, British Carrier Aviation 1988, Wragg, A Century of British Naval Aviation: 1909-2009 2009, & R. C. Sturtivant, Below Squadron Status 2008
vii Wragg, Swordfish 2004, p19
viii Ibid, p19
ix Sturtivant and Cronin, Fleet Air Arm Aircraft, Units and Ships 1920 to 1939 1998, p285-8
x Ibid, p285-8
xi The Roc spent even less time in service and only achieved one confirmed kill…
xii Smith, Skua! The Royal Navy’s Dive-Bomber 2006, pp81-97
xiii Wragg, Swordfish 2004, p191
xiv These were of course the Fairey Albacore, the Merlin engine Fairey Barracuda (based on the fact the Griffon engine versions was very different in terms of performance) 9-and the Vought Chesapeake.
xv Brown, Wings of the Navy 1980, pp7-17
xvi Whilst the RAF was focused upon multiengine bombers above virtually everything else in the 1920s and 1930s – not everyone in it was so obsessed (Jones 2002, & Robertson 1995)
xvii Which it learned from the exercises it conducted, (TNA: ADM 186/145 1929, TNA: ADM 203/84 1924, TNA: ADM 203/90 1929, & Churchill Archives – Roskill: 7/163 1964)
xviii Specifications M.1/30, S.9/30 & S.15/33 (Meekcoms and Morgan 1994, pp145, 150 & 182-3)
xix The subtitle of Wragg’s, 2004 book Swordfish, epitomises this – The Story of the Taranto Raid, the Swordfish was bigger than this one battle, yet it is by it that it is most judged… and in a way that is not unjust, because this was the time when the swordfish was not a part of the attack, it was the attack; it was doing its ‘primary function’, what it had really been concieved to do and there was nothing else there but the Swordfish.
xx Specifications M.1/30, S.9/30 & S.15/33 (Meekcoms and Morgan 1994, pp145, 150 & 182-3)
xxi TNA: ADM 186/72 1925
xxii Brown, Wings of the Navy 1980, p7
xxiii Arguably of course the Swordfish was not a new aircraft, but a slightly upgraded version of the Seal & IIIF, which were themselves slightly upgraded versions of their predecessors – meaning it was the product of a very long term development.
xxiv The willingness of Swordfish to get airborne is testified to by the fact that when the escort carrier HMS Nabob was torpedoed and singing, they succeeded in flying ashore safely even though the carrier’s deck pointing skywards at the bows by about 20 degrees (Thetford 1978, p141)
xxv Brown, Wings of the Navy 1980, p17
xxvi This is of course relative and within reason; twenty HMS Victory style warships vs the brand new HMS Daring would not really be a fight.