Swordfish

A biplane operated by the Royal Navy prior to and throughout WWII and now a significant national asset which has come to represent the very essence of both the Fleet Air Arm and wider naval ethos of the 'can-do, will-do' attitude. Its superb handling qualities made it uniquely suitable for flight deck operations.

Leading Particulars

  • Engine: Bristol Pegasus, 9-cylinder radial, 27 litres delivering 750 hp
  • Speed: 130 knots (maximum), 90 knots (cruise)
  • Endurance: 167 gallon fuel tank giving approx 4 hours endurance
  • Armament: One Torpedo (1600 Ib) or two 500 lb bombs, mines or depth charges.  Fixed forward firing Vickers gun and movable .303 Lewis gun in the rear cockpit. Eight 60 lb HE rockets or armour piercing rockets on rails under the main plane
  • Ceiling: 12,400 feet 
  • Crew: Pilot, Observer and Telegraphist Air Gunner (TAG) - WWII crew composition
  • Marks: Mk I, Mk II (Mk II differed from Mk I by having a metal skin on the underside of the lower wing so that rockets could be launched without damage to the linen skin), Mk III (differed from the Mk II in that it was a two seater with the Observer sitting in the TAG position able to monitor a bulky Air to Surface Vessel Mk XI radar that was fixed between the main undercarriage legs), Mk IV (was a Mk II with an enclosed cockpit operated by the Canadians)

RNHF

Background

The Swordfish evolved from the prototype Fairey TSR.II (Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance), designed by Marcel Lobelle and H.E. Chaplin of the Fairey Aviation Company Ltd. It first flew in 1934 and entered service with No.825 Squadron in 1936.  In all, 2391 aircraft were built, the first 692 machines by Fairey Aviation and the remainder under licence by Blackburn Aircraft Company at their works at Sherburn-in-Elmet and Brough, Yorkshire.  In service the Blackburn-built aircraft became unofficially known as "Blackfish". Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this very distinguished aircraft was its longevity.  Although by all normal standards it was already obsolete at the outbreak of WWII, it confounded everyone by remaining in operational service throughout the whole of the war, and thereby gained the distinction of being the last British bi-plane to see active service.  Indeed, it outlasted its intended replacement, the Albacore, which disappeared from front-line service in 1943.

The secret of the Swordfish lay in its superb handling qualities which made it uniquely suitable for deck flying operations and the problems of torpedo or dive bombing attacks.  Pilots marvelled that they could pull a Swordfish off the deck and put it in a climbing turn at 55 knots.  The aircraft manoeuvred in a vertical plane as easily as it would at straight and level, and even when diving from 10,000ft, the ASI would not rise much beyond 200 knots.  The controls were not frozen rigid by the force of the slipstream, and it was possible to hold the dive within 200ft of the water.  

Even its lack of speed could be turned to advantage.  A steep turn at low level towards an attacker just before he came within range and the difference in speed and tight turning circle made it impossible for a fighter to bring its guns to bear for more than a few seconds.  The approach to a carrier deck could be made at low speed, yet control response remained good.  It is not hard to imagine what that means to a pilot attempting to land on a dark night when the carrier's deck was pitching the height of a house.  

Swordfish (or "Stringbags" as they were often nicknamed due to their ability to carry a wide range of weapons, much like a the ability of a string shopping bag to carry any goods) in addition to sinking more than 300,000 tons of German/Italian Axis shipping, were responsible for the destruction of over 20 U-Boats.  Operating from adapted merchant vessels, the Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC Ships), Swordfish aircraft could be carried with the convoys, providing both a deterrent to submarines and a boost to the merchant sailor's morale.

Amongst their many battle honours, those which stand out above the rest are the Battle of the Atlantic, the attack on the Italian Fleet at Taranto in November 1940, the operation to seek, pursue and destroy the German Battleship Bismarck in May 1941, and the ill-fated operation against the German Battlecruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Heavy Cruiser Prinz Eugen as they made their famous 'Channel Dash' in February 1942.  Above all, the Swordfish carved its name in the history books by its exploits in protecting convoys.  

From August 1942 they sailed on the Russian convoys.  On one such convoy, Swordfish embarked in the escort carriers HMS Vindex and HMS Striker flew 1,000 hours on anti-submarine patrol in the space of 10 days, and in September 1944 Vindex's Swordfish sank four U-Boats in a single voyage.  Such feats were accomplished despite frequently experiencing the most appalling weather conditions, often at night and with all the additional arctic hazards of snow and ice on the decks.  Of the Atlantic convoys, it was Winston Churchill himself who said that "..the Battle of the Atlantic was the only one I feared losing..", and the sheer magnitude of this battle can be appreciated by recognising that the Allies lost more than 4,600 ships, and that the Germans lost 785 submarines.  It was the introduction of air power at sea which turned the tide in the Allies' favour, and the contribution made to this battle by Swordfish aircraft was very substantial. 

Swordfish Mk I, W5856, operated by the Royal Navy Historic Flight

RNHF

This aircraft, a "Blackfish" built by Blackburn Aircraft at Sherburn-in-Elmet, first flew on Trafalgar Day (21 October) 1941.  She served with the Mediterranean Fleet for a year and was returned to Fairey's Stockport factory for refurbishment.  Used for advanced flying training and trials, the aircraft was sent to Canada where it was again used in a training role and stored in reserve after the war's end.  Passing through the hands of at least two civilian operators after disposal, she was purchased by Sir William Roberts and brought to Scotland to join his Strathallan Collection. Bought by BAE Systems (known then as British Aerospace) for presentation to the Swordfish Heritage Trust (now the Fly Navy Heritage Trust), the partly-restored airframe went to BAE Systems Brough facility for complete restoration to flying condition, the work being completed in 1993 when she was presented to the RNHF and brought back onto the Military Register of aircraft. 

Following extensive work by BAE Systems at Brough to her wings, W5856 flew in 2015 for the first time since being grounded in 2003.

Between 1992 – 2013 she was painted in the pre-WWII colours of 810 Naval Air Squadron embarked in HMS Ark Royal.  W5856 now sports the colours of 820 Naval Air Squadron of HMS Ark Royal, representing an aircraft that took part in the Bismarck action in May 1941.

In September 1996 W5856 was adopted by the City of Leeds and now proudly wears the City's coat of arms and name on her port side just forward of the pilot's cockpit.

Swordfish Mk II, LS 326, operated by the Royal Navy Historic Flight

RNHF

This aircraft, also a 'Blackfish', was built in 1943 at Sherburn-in-Elmet. Later that year she was part of 'L' Flight of 836 Naval Air Squadron (the largest ever Fleet Air Arm Squadron) on board the MAC ship Rapana, on North Atlantic Convoy duties.  Following her active service she was used for training and communications duties from the Royal Naval Air Station Culham near Oxford and Worthy Down near Winchester. 

In 1947 Fairey Aviation bought LS326 and displayed her at various RAeS Garden party displays.  The following year she was sent to White Waltham for storage and remained there getting more and more dilapidated until Sir Richard Fairey gave orders for the aircraft to be rebuilt.  The restoration work was completed in October 1955 and thereafter she was kept in flying condition at White Waltham registered as G-AJVH and painted Fairey blue and silver.

In 1959 LS326 was repainted for a starring role in the film 'Sink the Bismarck!'. In October 1960 she was presented to the Royal Navy by the Westland Aircraft Company and has been flown ever since.  For many years she retained her "Bismarck" colour scheme and in 1984 D-Day invasion stripes were also added for the 40th Anniversary celebrations when she overflew the beaches of Normandy.  Since 1987 she has worn her original wartime colour scheme for North Atlantic convoys with 'L' Flight of 836 Squadron.  

Following extensive work by BAE Systems at Brough to her wings, LS326 flew again in 2008 after a nine year absence.

LS326 was adopted by the City of Liverpool, the name she proudly wears on her port side.

Swordfish MK III, NF389, in storage with the Royal Navy Historic Flight 

Delivered to the Royal Navy in April 1944, NF389 spent the majority of its life with the Aircraft Torpedo Development Unit at RNAS Gosport.  Relegated to flying display use at Lee-on-Solent in March 1953 nominally on 781 NAS charge, she later flew with LS326 during filming of the film "Sink the Bismarck", shortly thereafter being grounded and used as spares for LS326.  

In 1994 she was refinished as 'D' of 816 Naval Air Squadron for D-Day commemorations as a static aircraft.  She remains in storage providing spares for Swordfish LS 326 and W5856, with the aspiration to rebuild her if and when the opportunity arises.

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