Obsolete it may have been, but the Fairey Swordfish remained in front-line service throughout the Second World War, distinguishing itself as the last biplane in the world to see active service.
Although Taranto was arguably its finest hour, Swordfish scored many other notable successes, notably damaging the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941, helping sink 23 U-boats in the North Atlantic (including the first ever sunk by an aircraft at night), and stalking Axis merchant shipping off Norway and in the Mediterranean.
The Swordfish was famously nicknamed the ‘String-bag’, not just due to its many struts and wires, but also because of the apparently endless variety of stores and equipment the aircraft was authorised to carry; the possible permutations of armament alone included a torpedo, mines, bombs, depth charges, or rocket projectiles. A private venture by the Fairey Aircraft Company, like many British naval aircraft of the time, it was intended to fulfil a bewildering and sometimes contradictory range of roles, from spotting and reconnaissance to dive bombing and torpedo attack.
The final design was a biplane with a fabric-covered metal frame and folding wings for storage on board aircraft carriers. Powered by a Bristol Pegasus IIIM3 engine, the aircraft had a top speed of 246km/h, a range of 1,700km, and a service ceiling of 5,900m. Despite its versatility as a weapons platform, the Swordfish was to all intents and purposes defenceless, with just two machine guns, one firing forwards through the propeller hub, the other mounted in the rear cockpit. It had a three-man crew: pilot, observer, and ‘TAG’ – the telegraphist/air gunner.
Fairey Swordfish II at Duxford 2002 Air Show
Notwithstanding its fragile appearance, slow speed, and poor armament, the Swordfish was a robust aircraft, capable of sustaining enormous punishment. Indeed, in combat with superior German fighter aircraft equipped with cannon, the flimsy fabric-covered superstructure proved advantageous, as cannon shells could pass straight through without exploding.
On 3 September 1939, the Fleet Air Arm had 13 Swordfish squadrons, mostly operating from aircraft carriers, plus three flights of float-equipped aircraft carried by catapult equipped battleships and cruisers. When more advanced torpedo-bombers entered service after 1942, the Swordfish found a new lease of life in the anti-submarine role, equipped with radar and eight 60lb air-surface rocket projectiles. For this purpose, the Mark II version was fitted with specially strengthened, metal-skinned wings, at a small cost in range, speed, and ceiling.
Anti-submarine Swordfish distinguished themselves operating from the famous ‘Woolworth Carriers’, small aircraft carriers designed for convoy escort work, and from MAC ships. The latter were converted merchant ships with a short flight deck but no hangar, the aircraft remaining lashed to the deck in all weathers. In addition, when operating from these small ships with heavy loads, the Swordfish often had to be ‘kicked’ into the air using a brutal method known as ‘rocket-assisted take-off’. The rugged biplanes proved perfectly capable of standing up to the abuse, remaining in production until August 1944. More than 2,000 of all variants were built, and the last operational squadron was not disbanded until May 1945.