The Swordfish played a vital role for the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War and took part in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. Nicknamed the 'Stringbag' the aircraft would go
on to outlive a number of types which had been intended to replace it. The Fairey Swordfish is, perhaps, best known for its raid on the Italian fleet at Taranto and its role in the 'Channel Dash'.
The Swordfish had its roots in a private venture biplane known as the T.S.R I designed by Fairey and this aircraft had showed promise for future development that, despite being written off
during September 1933, Fairey were working on the T.S.R. II. It would be this improved design that Fairey submitted to the Air Ministry in response to Specification S.15/33 calling for a
torpedo-spoter-reconnaissance aircraft for use aboard a carrier and would be developed into the Swordfish. The following year saw the Fairey Swordfish prototype fly for the first time on
the 17th April 1934 with eighty six Swordfish aircraft being ordered the following April.
Eight months after being ordered, and built to Air Ministry Specification S.38/34, the 31st December 1935 saw the first production version of the Fairey Swordfish Mk I fly. Able to hold a crew of
three, featuring folding wings, fixed landing gear, although if required they could be replaced by floats, the aircraft was powered by the 690-hp Bristol Pegasus IIIM3 engine. This gave the
Swordfish Mk I a top speed of 139 mph, range of 546 miles with a service ceiling of 10,700 ft. Armament consisted of one forward firing 0.303-in machine-gun and one 0.303-in machine-gun in
the rear. Bomb load was either a torpedo, mines, depth charges or 1,500lb bombs.
No. 825 Naval Air Squadron, who at the time were using Fairey Seals, operating from HMS Glorious (77) were the first to be equipped with the type during July 1936, a further three squadrons had their
aircraft replaced by the end of the year. These were No. 823 Naval Air Squadron, who were also using the Seal, and No. 811 and 812 Naval Air Squadron who at the time were using Blackburn Baffins, and by the end of
1938 the Swordfish was the Fleet Air Arms only torpedo-bomber.
By the time the Second World War (1939 - 1945) broke out the Fleet Air Arm had a total of thirteen Fairey Swordfish squadrons of which twelve were operational aboard carriers, but it wasn't until the Norwegian
campaign began on the 9th April 1940 that the type saw major involvement in hostilities. This was two days later on the 11th April 1940 when Swordfishes operating from HMS Furious (47) dropped the first
torpedoes by the type operationally, followed on the 13th April 1940 by HMS Warspite (03) floatplane Swordfish scoring the first Fleet Air Arm sinking of a U-boat, U-64.
The Fairey Swordfish Mk II featured a number of changes and as with the Swordfish Mk I the 690-hp Bristol Pegasus IIIM3 was the engine of choice although later models would be fitted with the
750-hp Bristol Pegasus 30 engine. The top speed, range, service ceiling and armament were identical to the Swordfish Mk I but could also be armed with rocket projectiles. As the war progressed the
types vulnerability began to become more prevalent and the Swordfish moved into an anti-submarine role and this meant the Swordfish Mk III had Air-to-Surface Vessel Mk X radar installed.
Its top speed, range, service ceiling and armament was identical to the Swordfish Mk II. It would be the Swordfish that would use rocket spears operationally for the first time when
on the 23rd May 1943 an aircraft from No. 819 Naval Air Squadron flying from HMS Archer (D78) attacked and sank U-752 in the Mid-Atlantic.
The highlight of the Swordfish's service with the Fleet Air Arm occurred on the 11th November 1940 when twenty one aircraft aboard HMS Illustrious (87) attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto and succeeded in destroying
one battleship and damaging two others. The following May the type played a vital role in the sinking of the Bismarck, when on the 26th fifteen Swordfish from No. 820 Naval Air Squadron aboard
HMS Ark Royal (91) attacked and jammed the rudder of the battleship. However, the following year on the 12th February 1942 a disastrous attack as part of 'Operation Fuller', also known as the Channel Dash, saw all six Swordfish aircraft flying
from RAF Manston shot down trying to attack the Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen as they tried to escape through the English Channel. Of the 18 aircrew only 5 survived. It was during this
attack that the first Victoria Cross was awarded to a member of the Fleet Air Arm when Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde was posthumously awarded the medal. As a result no further large attacks of
this type were made by the aircraft.
At its height at least twenty six squadrons used the type, fulfilling a variety of roles with the Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command. This included mine laying, convoy protection and training, and
when No. 836 Naval Air Squadron was disbanded on the 21st May 1945 the Swordfish's front line service ended and during the Second World War it was credited with sinking fourteen U-boats. Perhaps
the biggest compliment to the Swordfish is its durability and that when No. 415 and 119 Squadron had their Fairey Albacores
replaced it was for the Swordfish, the very aircraft the Albacore had been intended to replace.
In total 2,391 aircraft would be produced by Fairey and Blackburn, with the 18th August 1944 seeing the last of the type to be delivered, a Swordfish Mk III.