A Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish Mk. II (serial number LS326) in flight during Air Fete’88, a NATO aircraft display hosted by the U.S. Air Force’s 513th Airborne Command and Control Wing, at RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk (UK).
You only have to look at this plane to think it is from World War One. It’s a biplane with a metal framework covered by canvas. Going flat out, throttle to the firewall, it could make a maximum speed of one hundred thirty-nine miles per hour. Only it can rarely go that fast. Put bombs under the wings (“bombing up”) they called it, or hang an aerial torpedo from its belly and its speed dropped to one hundred ten or even lower if an extra fuel tank were also added. By contrast, a Spitfire could make a maximum speed of 360 miles per hour.
Swordfish on training flight summer 1944. The planes are still wearing their “invasion stripes.” These black and white stripes which were painted on every Allied aircraft shortly before D-Day.
Although obsolete when the war began, the Swordfish became one of the few successful designs produced by the Fairey Aircraft Company. It was manufactured from 1936 to 1944 with 2400 built. The British could not find a replacement until they were able to acquire the US made Hellcat dive bomber, a carrier based dive bomber. And that’s what the Swordfish did, among other things, fly off Royal Navy aircraft carriers functioning as torpedo bombers or dive bombers. And incredibly, they were far more deadly than they looked.
M/V Rapana, an oil tanker converted into a merchant aircraft carrier. MACs were introduced to provide air cover for convoys until sufficient escort carriers became available to replace them. (official Royal Navy photograph).
They were also used on Merchant Aircraft Carriers as pictured above. These were typically grain carriers or similar types of ships which had wooden flight decks placed on them as a war emergency measure and a handful of Swordfish were assigned to every ship.
JAPANESE STUDIED SWORDFISH ATTACK ON TARANTO WHICH PRESAGED PEARL HARBOR
An Italian fleet was peacefully at anchor in Taranto harbor. Six of the ships were swinging at their moorings were battleships. In fact, these were the only battleships in the entire Italian Navy and they were all in the same harbor.
The water in their anchorage was relatively shallow which the Regia Marina thought protected them from aerial torpedoes. At the time, it was thought that aerial torpedoes would not work in shallow waters because they would hit the bottom and explode after being dropped.
Royal Navy carrier HMS Illustrious
THE SWORDFISH ATTACK ON ITALIAN FLEET AT TARANTO
On the night of 11/12 November 1940, twenty-one Swordfish launched from the Royal Navy carrier HMS Illustrious. That was all the Royal Navy could muster for this attack. Several of the aircraft flew at a higher altitude dropping flares and distracting the Italian gunners. By the time these gunners saw the rest of the Swordfish coming in no more than two or three feet above the water they had trouble depressing their guns low enough and even when they did so they risked hitting their own ships.
HMS Illustrious with Swordfish on her flight deck
When morning came nineteen Swordfish had made it back to HMS Illustrious. Three Italian battleships had sunk to the bottom of the shallow harbor — Conte di Cavour, Andrea Doria, and Littorio. The first never returned to active service, the other two required months of repair work before they could again put to sea.
This was the first attack ever by carrier-borne aircraft on an enemy fleet. And no one paid much attention. Except the Japanese. The attack on Pearl Harbor had its genesis at Taranto.