Thursday, 16 January 2020

The Story of the Swordfish

Of Bicycles, Bombs and Torpedoes
Philip Gregory
BA History
If someone told you that a biplane considered obsolete in 1936 would cripple the pride of the Kriegsmarine, help turn the tide of naval power in the Mediterranean and sink more Axis shipping than any other Allied plane you would consider them delusional. Incredibly, however, this is exactly what the Fairey Swordfish, an antiquated biplane known affectionately as the ‘stringbag’ by its crews, did during World War Two.

In 1933 Fairey (the company behind the design and early production of the Swordfish) started designing what would eventually be the first variant of what would ultimately become the Swordfish. In 1935, upon successful completion of testing, the  Air Ministry put in an order for 3 T.S.R IIs. It was at this point that the aircraft was christened ‘Swordfish’. The Swordfish came to be known as the ‘stringbag’ by its crews. Not because of its design, but because of the seemingly endless payloads and cargos - from bombs and torpedoes, to bicycles - that is was cleared to carry.
Upon the outbreak of the war, 13 naval squadrons possessed operational Swordfish bombers. The first time the Swordfish experienced real combat was in the Norwegian campaign of 1940, during which Britain failed utterly in preventing the Nazi invasion and occupation of Norway. During the Battle of Narvik, a Swordfish piloted by Petty Officer F.C. Rice managed to sink the U-boat U-64 and a destroyer. This was the first U-boat to be destroyed by a Royal Navy plane in WW2.
The Swordfish proved its worth on multiple occasions throughout WW2. For instance, in the Mediterranean, the Swordfish was a constant thorn in the side of the Axis. Whilst based on Malta (an island integral for Britain to maintain dominance in the Mediterranean), 27 Swordfish are recorded to have sunk an average of 50,000 tonnes of Axis shipping over a nine month period. During one record month, it is claimed that 98,000 tonnes of shipping was lost to Swordfish. This was made especially impressive by the fact that the vast majority of these raids were made during the night as Malta was surrounded by German fighters for virtually nearly all daylight hours. Incredibly, these Swordfish were not equipped with night flying equipment, so the low losses recorded during these raids are surprising to say the least. The Swordfish is thought to have sunk about 1 million tonnes of Axis shipping throughout WW2.
The finest moment of the Swordfish in the Mediterranean came during the Battle of Taranto where 20 Swordfish crippled the Italian fleet whilst it was anchored in port. In June of 1940, Italy’s main battle fleet consisted of six battleships, approximately five cruisers and twenty destroyers, which were also based at Taranto. On the night of the attack around 6 battleships were in Taranto as well as 3 cruisers.
The attack upon Taranto commenced when 2 Swordfish dropped flares from a height of about 2000 metres and dived through heavy anti-aircraft flak upon an oil refinery, which they then bombed causing it to explode. The sight must have been spectacular with tracer rounds combining with the blaze of the oil refinery to light up the harbour. The first wave of Swordfish scored a couple of hits upon some of the battleships before retreating. However, the second wave was much more successful scoring multiple hits upon cruisers and battleships and causing yet more damage to the oil refinery. It is said that during this attack one aircraft managed to survive coming in so low that’s its landing gear touched the water creating a tremendous spray.
Fig. 1: Fairey Swordfish on a training flight in Scotland,
1940 (image: S.J. Beadell,
Overall, Italy’s serviceable battleship count was reduced from six to two. The Italians also lost two cruisers, two destroyers as well as numerous support and auxiliary vessels. All this was achieved for the loss of just 2 Swordfish. This attack helped to preserve British naval superiority in the Mediterranean and proved that aircraft were capable of immobilising entire fleets if deployed correctly. A similar sort of attack, inspired in part by Taranto but on a much larger scale, would occur around a year later. Except, it would not be the British attacking. No, this time it would be the Imperial Japanese Navy annihilating much of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour.
However, the finest moment of the Swordfish whilst it was in active service came during May 1941 where it made a critical strike upon the Bismarck, which was vital in enabling the Royal Navy to sink one of the largest battleships ever built. To fully understand the enormity of the task the Swordfish was forced to undergo when attacking the Bismarck, one must remember that the Bismarck was a 50,000-ton behemoth of a battleship that had sunk the pride of the Royal Navy HMS Hood. The sinking of Hood was a brutal affair of which only 3 British sailors out of the 1418 crew survived. The ship sank in just 3 minutes after a lucky shot detonated the ship’s magazine. After such a crushing blow the Royal Navy was understandably keen to sink the Bismarck. However, through a series of superb manoeuvres and various missed opportunities, it became clear that the Swordfish was the last hope for the Royal Navy to slow the Bismarck and allow it to be caught and sunk by the pursuing British forces.
The scene on the day of the raid was grim. The aircraft carrier from which the Swordfish were launched, the HMS Ark Royal, was pitching up and down in 60 feet waves and the wind was blowing across the ship at speeds between 70 mph and 80 mph. Due to these bad conditions it took 10 men to lock each of the Swordfish’s folding wing into place, whilst he pilots were already damp with sea spray. When they were lined up, each Swordfish lumbered down the carrier and managed to get airborne. The visibility while in the clouds was abysmal. According to Lieutenant- Commander Coode of Swordfish 5a, ‘Visibility was limited - a matter of yards’ and the cloud cover only broke at 700 feet from sea level. This led to the carefully planned coordination going out the window as the Swordfish were split up, making them even easier targets for the anti-air batteries on the Bismarck than what would have been expected.
Slowly advancing toward the Bismarck all of the Swordfish were engulfed in a hail of many differing sorts of anti-air flak. Incredibly, despite this extremely accurate barrage, not a single Swordfish was shot down and not a single crew member lost during the raid (this was despite Swordfish 4C receiving no less than 175 hits). This statistic is made all the more remarkable when one considers that Swordfish pilots reported still being accurately engaged when they were 7 kilometres away from the Bismarck while retreating.
Although a few Swordfish managed to score hits and cause minor damage to the Bismarck, it was thanks to Sub-Lieutenant John Moffatt and his navigator that the raid is considered such a success and one of the most surprising underdog stories in history. As Moffatt describes in his 2009 book I Sank the Bismarck:
‘I must have been under 2,000 yards when I was about to launch the torpedo at the bow, but as I was about to press the button I heard in my ear ‘Not now, not now!’ I turned round and saw the navigator leaning right out of the plane with his backside in the air. Then I realized what he was doing—he was looking at the sea because if I had let the torpedo go and it had hit a wave it could have gone anywhere. I had to put it in a trough. Then I heard him say, ‘Let it go!’ and I pressed the button. Then I heard him say, ‘We've got a runner’ and I got out of there.’
Moffatt’s torpedo hit jammed the Bismarck’s rudder in a 12 degree turn towards port, effectively crippling the ship. This led it to eventually be scuttled by its crew once it had been almost completely incapacitated by the Royal Navy task force that was able to catch up directly thanks to the Swordfish raid. There can be no doubt that without the intervention of the Swordfish the Bismarck would have escaped to France and caused massive casualties raiding Allied merchant shipping in the Atlantic.
The Channel Dash incident of 1942, however, demonstrated how obsolete the Swordfish was becoming in some capacities. Six Swordfish were intercepted and annihilated by an organised Luftwaffe attack while trying to torpedo the German battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen. Of the 18 crewman who partook in this attack only five survived. The bravery of these men, however, is worth mentioning as even German Vice Admiral Otto Ciliax noted ‘…the mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day.’ The leader of this valiant, but ultimately futile attack, Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, received the Victoria Cross posthumously.
After this, the Swordfish was moved from torpedo bombing into less demanding roles of submarine hunting. It proved capable of incapacitating 14 U-boats, including one of the rocket U- boat kills of the war. There were some startling efforts by Swordfish while hunting submarines: for example, in September 1944, a Swordfish from the HMS Vindex sank four U-boats in one voyage.
In a way, the shortcomings and weaknesses of the Swordfish may have been its greatest strengths. The Swordfish employed a metal airframe covered in fabric which meant that, quite often, shots would simply pass straight through the fabric of the Swordfish without causing any damage. This was no doubt a big reason why the Swordfish had relatively low losses despite the hazardous missions they often partook in. In the case of the Bismarck, many of the anti-aircraft batteries were unable to depress to a sufficient extent, so the low flying Swordfish were able to avoid being hit the lower and closer they flew towards the Bismarck.
The Swordfish was extraordinarily slow. Its top speed was 130 mph while completely unloaded, and while fully loaded the plane could barely exceed 92 mph. Yet, even this was an advantage in some ways for the Swordfish. The extremely low speed with which a Swordfish could take-off and land from an aircraft carrier made it extremely useful. In fact, a Swordfish could take-off from an aircraft carrier whilst the carrier was anchored. This was a feat beyond most carrier-eligible planes during this period. The low stall speed and its ability to make downright ridiculous manoeuvres (an experienced pilot could turn a Swordfish 180 degrees within the plane’s own wingspan) at absurdly low altitudes often made it an exceptionally frustrating target to engage for early Axis monoplanes. It is claimed that a Swordfish piloted by Flt. Lt. Charles Lamb managed to cause two Italian fighters to crash into one another while attempting to shoot him down.
The armament, however, of the Swordfish was antiquated to say the least. A vintage World War I Vickers gun was mounted on the front and fired through the propeller. A rear gunner could shoot an old-fashioned Lewis gun. One amused pilot referred to the guns as ‘One stage above the bow and arrow.’
Incredibly the Swordfish was not fitted with a radio for much of the war and its crews were forced to communicate with handheld lights using code. Internal communication among the plane’s aircrew was accomplished by a speaking tube, which proved amazingly effective.
The Swordfish was an incredible aircraft that achieved far more than its creators could ever have envisioned. By VE day, the obsolete ‘stringbag’ had sunk 1 million tonnes of Axis shipping and it could claim to have incapacitated or sunk 23 warships and at least 16 U-Boats. As if that was not impressive enough, the Swordfish outlived its intended successor the ‘Fairey Albacore’ and was in service for almost all of WW2; one of the very few planes to achieve such a feat.

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