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 plane 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 plane for use aboard a carrier.
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. The Swordfish Mk I would be
powered by a 690-hp Bristol Pegasus IIIM radial engine, which enabled a top speed of 139 mph, be able to old a crew of three, featured folding wings, fixed landing gear, although if
required they could be replaced by floats, armament of one 0.303-in machine-gun and either a Vickers 'K' gun or Lewis gun in the rear. Bomb load was either a torpedo, mine or 1,500lb of
bombs and was built to Air Ministry Specification S.38/34.
No. 825 Naval Air Squadron, who at the time were using Fairey Seals, operating from HMS Glorious 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 Squadron, who were also using the Seal, and Nos 811 and 812 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 broke out the FAA 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 when Swordfishes operating from HMS Furious and armed with torpedoes were
involved in action, followed on the 13th April by HMS Warspite Swordfishes scoring the first FAA sinking of a U-boat, U-64. It would also 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 attacked and sank U-752 in the Mid-Atlantic.
The Fairey Swordfish Mk II appeared in 1943 and featured a number of changes, including the ability to be armed with rocket projectiles. As with the Mk I the Bristol Pegasus IIIM was the
engine of choice, although later models would be fitted with the Pegasus XXX. 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 Mk III had ASV (Air-to-Surface Vessel) Mk X radar installed, and this was the final production version.
The highlight of the Swordfish's service with the Fleet Air Arm occurred on the 11th November 1940 when twenty one aircraft 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 Swordfish from HMS Ark Royal 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 Esmonde was posthumously awarded the medal. As a result no further large attacks of
this type were made by the aircraft.
In total 2,391 Fairey Swordfishes would be produced by both Fairey and Blackburn, and 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 Squadron was disbanded on the 21st May 1945 the Swordfish's front line service
ended. Perhaps the biggest compliment to the Swordfish is its durability and that when Nos 415 and 119 Squadron had their Fairey Albacores replaced it was for the Swordfish, the very aircraft
the Albacore had been intended to replace.