The Fairey Swordfish was a torpedo bomber built by the Fairey Aviation Company and used by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Affectionately known as the "Stringbag" by its crews, it was outdated by 1939, but achieved some spectacular successes during the war, notably the sinking of one and damaging two battleships of the Regia Marina (the Italian Navy) in the Battle of Taranto and the famous crippling of the Bismarck. It was operated primarily as a fleet attack aircraft; however, during its later years, it was also used as an anti-submarine and training craft. Designed in the 1930s, the Swordfish outlived several types intended to replace it, and remained in front line service until VE Day.
The Swordfish was based on a Fairey design for the Greek Naval Air Service, who asked for a replacement of their Fairey IIIF Mk.IIIB's, and on Specifications M.1/30 and S.9/30, issued by Air Ministry, the work having been initiated as a Private Venture (PV). The company informed the Air Ministry of their work on the Greek order (that country's interest eventually waning) and proposed its solution to the requirements for a spotter-reconnaissance plane, spotter referring to observing the fall of a warship's gunfire. A subsequent Air Ministry Specification S.15/33, added the torpedo bomber role. The "Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance" prototype TSR II (the PV was the TSR I) first flew on 17 April 1934. It was a large biplane with a metal airframe covered in fabric, and utilized folding wings as a space-saving feature for aircraft carrier use. An order was placed in 1935 and the aircraft entered service in 1936 with the Fleet Air Arm (then part of the RAF), replacing the Seal in the torpedo bomber role.
By 1939, the Fleet Air Arm (now under Royal Navy control) had 13 squadrons equipped with the Swordfish Mark I. There were also three flights of Swordfish equipped with floats, for use off aircraft catapult-equipped warships. One - from HMS Warspite — spotted fall of shot (i.e., radioed gunnery corrections back to the ship) during the Second Battle of Narvik in 1940 and subsequently sank the U-boat U-64. The Swordfish pioneered the use of Air to Surface Vessel radar ( ASV ), by carrier borne aircraft to locate surface ship targets at night and/or through clouds.
Swordfish flew from merchant aircraft carriers ("MAC ships"), 20 civilian cargo or tanker ships modified to carry three or four aircraft each, on anti-submarine duties with convoys. Three of these ships were Dutch manned, flying Swordfish from 860 (Dutch) Naval Air Squadron. The rest were manned by pilots and aircrew from 836 Naval Air Squadron, at one time the largest squadron with 91 aircraft.
Almost 2,400 had been built, 692 by Fairey and 1,699 in Sherburn by the Blackburn Aircraft Company, which were sometimes dubbed the "Blackfish". The most numerous version was the Mark II, of which 1,080 were made.
The primary weapon was the aerial torpedo, but the low speed of the biplane and the need for a long straight approach made it difficult to deliver against well-defended targets. Swordfish torpedo doctrine called for an approach at 5,000 ft (1,500 m) followed by a dive to torpedo release altitude of 18 ft (5.5 m). Maximum range of the early Mark XII torpedo was 1,500 yd (1400 m) at 40 knots (74 km/h) and 3,500 yd (3200 m) at 27 knots (50 km/h). The torpedo travelled 200 yd (180 m) forward from release to water impact, and required another 300 yd (270 m) to stabilise at preset depth and arm itself. Ideal release distance was 1,000 yd (900 m) from target if the Swordfish survived to that distance. Swordfish — flying from the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious — made a very significant strike on 11 November 1940 against the Italian navy during the Battle of Taranto, Italy, sinking or disabling three Italian battleships and a cruiser lying at anchor. In the aftermath, Taranto was visited by the Japanese naval attache from Berlin, who later briefed the staff who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. Swordfish also flew anti-shipping sorties from Malta.
In May 1941, a Swordfish strike from HMS Ark Royal was vital in damaging the German battleship Bismarck, preventing it from escaping to France. The low speed of the attacking aircraft may have acted in their favour, as the planes were too slow for the fire-control predictors of the German gunners, whose shells exploded so far in front of the aircraft that the threat of shrapnel damage was greatly diminished as did the fact that some at least of the Swordfish flew so low that most of the Bismarck's flak weapons were unable to depress enough to hit them. The Swordfish aircraft scored two hits, one which did little damage but the other jammed Bismarck's rudders with 15° port helm on. making the warship unmanueverable and sealing its fate. The Bismarck was destroyed less than 13 hours later.
The problems with the aircraft were starkly demonstrated in February 1942 when a strike on German battleships during the Channel Dash resulted in the loss of all attacking aircraft, partly because only ten of the promised eighty-four fighters turned up to escort the six Swordfish. With the development of new torpedo attack aircraft, the Swordfish was soon redeployed successfully in an anti-submarine role, armed with depth-charges or eight "60 lb" (27 kg) RP-3 rockets and flying from the smaller escort carriers or even Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC) when equipped for rocket-assisted takeoff (RATO). Its low stall speed and inherently tough design made it ideal for operation from the MAC carriers in the often severe mid Atlantic weather. Indeed, its takeoff and landing speeds were so low that it did not require the carrier to be steaming into the wind, unlike most carrier-based aircraft. On occasion, when the wind was right, Swordfish were flown from a carrier at anchor.
Swordfish-equipped units accounted for 14 U-boats destroyed. The Swordfish was meant to be replaced by the Albacore, also a biplane, but actually outlived its intended successor. It was, finally, however, succeeded by the Fairey Barracuda monoplane torpedo bomber.
The last of 2,392 Swordfish aircraft was delivered in August 1944 and operational sorties continued in to January 1945 with anti-shipping operations off Norway (FAA Squadrons 835 and 813), where the Swordfish's manouvreability was essential. The last operational squadron was disbanded on 21 May 1945, after the fall of Germany; and the last training squadron was disbanded in the summer of 1946.
The Swordfish received the Stringbag nickname not because of its construction, but because of the seemingly endless variety of stores and equipment that the aircraft was cleared to carry. Crews likened the aircraft to a housewife's string shopping bag which was common at the time and, which due to its having no fixed shape, could adjust to hold any shape of packages. Like the shopping bag, the crews felt that the Swordfish could carry anything.