The World War One Plane That Wasn’t: The Amazing Swordfish – Part 1

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 it’s 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.

+
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). This aircraft is today operated by the Royal Navy Historic Flight. This aircraft was built in 1943 at Sherburn-in-Elmet. Later that year she was part of ‘L’ Flight of 836 Squadron on board the MAC ship Rapana, on North Atlantic Convoy duties. Following her active service she was used for training and communications duties from the Royal Naval Air Station Culham near Oxford and Worthy Down near Winchester.

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.

They were also used on Merchant Aircraft Carriers which I will discuss in another post and suffice it to say that in the right conditions they could take off from an anchored aircraft carrier.

Take this story which would presage a similar disaster. An Italian fleet is peacefully at anchor in Taranto harbor. Six of the ships swinging at their moorings are battleships. In fact, these are the only battleships in the entire Italian Navy and they are all in the same harbor. The water in their anchorage is relatively shallow which protects them from aerial torpedoes so they think. 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.

On the night of 11/12 November 1940, twenty-one Swordfish launch from the Royal Navy carrier HMS Illustrious. That’s all the Royal Navy can 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. 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.

+
Swordfish torpedo bombers on the after deck of HMS Victorious before the attack on the Bismarck. Date 24 May 1941

[Images courtesy of Wikipedia and Wikipedia.]

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

Leave a Reply