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How the Swordfish Won the War

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In the 1930s, the speed of the advance in aviation technology was amazing. If you think that, in 2014, the B-52 has been a mainstay of the US bombing force for 60 years, the turnaround in designs during the 1930s was impressive. The Gloster Gladiator, a 250mph biplane fighter, appeared for the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1937. In the same year, the Hawker Hurricane arrived, boasting a sleek monoplane design and speeds over 300mph. Aside from a few isolated units, the age of the biplane was over. Having been at the forefront of technology at the end of World War One, less than two decades later they were outdated and obsolete. Or were they?

After peacetime US tests had shown that even the mighty battleship was vulnerable to attack from the air, there came the question of how best to take on enemy shipping. There were three main ways of attacking:

  • Conventional bombers - these attacked from high altitude and at speed, and were less vulnerable to defenders; however hitting a small, moving target from high altitude was next to impossible, so success was limited.

  • Dive bombers - these improved accuracy no end. By swooping in on ships, they could release their bombs at the last moment and then swing away. While not so vulnerable in a dive, they were vulnerable elsewhere in their mission. As the Germans had found out to their cost with the Junkers Ju 88, trying to adapt a normal, high-speed bomber to be able to cope with the stresses of dive bombing reduced its speed dramatically. What was a 300mph bomber before modifications had a top speed of less than 200mph afterwards.

  • Torpedo bombers - these could be the most devastating, hitting a ship with a huge amount of explosives under the water line, but again, it wasn't easy. A torpedo will break if it hits the water too quickly, so a torpedo run has to come in low and slow, making the bomber easy prey for defenders.

The Swordfish was a torpedo bomber for the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm and for the Royal Air Force.

The Swordfish

Nicknamed the 'Stringbag', the Fairey Swordfish arrived in 1934 already looking ten years out of date. While aerodynamics had got rid of bracing struts and wires from aircraft design in order to increase speed, the Swordfish gave away no concessions to the need for speed. It had wires, it had struts, an open cockpit and it had two sets of wings.

Despite the looks of the plane, there was method in the madness. The big, three-seater plane only had a 690hp Bristol radial engine, about two-thirds the power of the Roll-Royce Merlin engine found in Britain's fighters. Torpedo bombers didn't need to be fast, so the biplane layout wasn't a huge disadvantage. The Swordfish was designed to operate from an aircraft carrier, where landing and take-off was tricky at the best of times. The biplane layout meant that stall and take-off speeds were low so the Swordfish could even operate without the carrier having to be turned into the wind. Being a biplane, it needed a shorter wing span than a monoplane; it needed less space to be stored. In addition, the Swordfish had foldaway wings, further reducing its footprint in a cramped carrier. The biplane arrangement also gave it very good manoeuvrability.

As well as having squadrons based on land and on carriers, some Swordfish, fitted with floats, operated from the Royal Navy's battleships. They would be launched from the ship via a catapult and after a mission they would land next to the ship where a crane would hoist them back on board.

Over two thousand Swordfish were produced, but only 692 by Fairey itself; the remaining 1,699 were built by Blackburn and nicknamed 'Blackfish'.

Battle of Taranto

At the start of World War Two, the Royal Navy not only had to contain the mighty battleships and U-boats of the German navy, but also had to have enough of a presence in the Pacific to deter the expansionist Japanese. The task of controlling the Mediterranean Sea was left to the French.

With the French surrender, the Royal Navy was left in a perilous position. It needed to support the Army's North African campaign, but troop convoys from Gibraltar had to either sneak past the Italian fleet or navigate around the whole of Africa and through the Suez Canal to reach their destination.

The Italian Navy was one of the world's great navies - it was strong, but rarely left port. It was a concept known as 'fleet in being' where the very existence of a powerful fleet is enough to deter the enemy, even if it never sets sail. At Taranto, in the heel of Italy, there were six battleships, 16 cruisers and 13 destroyers, a formidable force in anybody's books.

Despite not having radar, the Italians would be able to mount a vigorous defence of their ships in daylight, and no fleet of surface ships, no matter how strong, would want to risk venturing near six battleships, especially if the Italian Regia Marina had submarines in the area as well. To have a hope of defeating the Italian fleet, a night attack was needed, using torpedo bombers. Only one navy had the ability to launch such an attack - the Royal Navy.

Operation Judgement was originally lined up for Trafalgar Day, but mechanical issues saw it take place a few days later on 11 November, 1940. It saw one aircraft carrier , HMS Illustrious, set out on the attack using the experienced Swordfish group from the carrier HMS Eagle, escorted by two heavy cruisers, HMS Berwick and York, two light cruisers, HMS Gloucester and Glasgow, and four destroyers, HMS Hyperion, Ilex, Hasty and Havelock.

24 Swordfish were used in the attack. Such a small number worried the planners, who were concerned that not enough would get through the defences to be effective. Another major concern was that the Italians would put to sea, leaving the Navy to attack an empty port. A reconnaissance plane was flown over the base prior to the attack. While it confirmed the fleet were still in harbour, it spooked the Italians who were then on the alert for an attack. Without radar, however, they wouldn't know about the attack until it occurred.

Fortunately for Rear Admiral Arthur Lumley St George Lyster, who had drawn up the plan and was commanding the taskforce, it wasn't in the Italian naval philosophy to go out on the hunt for an enemy force, so the Italians sat and waited. Operation Judgement was part of a larger operation aimed at combatting the Italians, which had seen increased naval operation in the Mediterranean. As such, the task force didn't register as anything more than a routine convoy until it was too late.


The first wave of 12 Swordfish launched just before 9pm on 11 November, with the second wave heading off an hour and a half after it. Some were armed with torpedoes, others were armed with bombs. The first wave swooped in, set fire to some oil tanks and torpedoed the battleships Conte di Cavour and Littorio.

The second wave torpedoed Caio Duilio and also hit Littorio with a third torpedo to add to the two from the first wave.

Only two Swordfish were lost by the British, despite tens of thousands of anti-aircraft shells being fired by the Italians.

Conte di Cavour had a 96 square metre hole in her side; despite efforts to repair the damage, she sank. While she was raised again, she was still under repair by the time the Italians switched sides.

Littorio was only saved from sinking by being run aground; she had two holes on one side, and one on the other. Being the newest of the three, repairs were undertaken on her quickly. Caio Duilio was also saved by being run aground; it took seven months for her to come back into service.

In addition to the battleships, a few planes were destroyed and a destroyer was damaged.


One attack of 24 aircraft took out half of the capital ships in the Italian Navy. The Royal Navy had found a way to allow torpedo bombing in shallow water, something that was previously thought impossible, and these old biplanes had handed the Royal Navy the upper hand in control of the Med.

There were some very interested parties who took notice of the exploits of the Stringbags, and came to see the destruction themselves: the Japanese.

Pearl Harbor and the Effects on the War

It was just over a year later that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into the war. They learned from the British attack on the shallow harbour at Taranto, and used similar technologies like break-away wooden noses1 and stabilising fins for their torpedoes.

The obvious consequence was that Pearl Harbor brought the United States and its massive manufacturing power into the war. The factories of America, free from the threat of bombing and invasion, could churn out tank after tank, plane upon plane and ship after ship. In a few short years, a massive military-industrial complex was set up that turned the United States into a world superpower. The entry of the United States into the war marked the beginning of the end for both German and Japanese ambitions.

A second consequence of Pearl Harbor was less well known, but just as vital. On the Eastern Front, Russia was struggling to repel the German invasion of the Motherland. Russia had a huge army to call on, but it was also wary. They had fought a war with Japan at the start of the century. The Battle of Tsushima saw 21 Russian ships out of a fleet of 28 sunk and more captured with over four thousand sailors killed. They lost all their battleships and much of their cruiser force. The Japanese lost around a hundred men and 3 small torpedo boats. The scale of the victory shocked the world. Russians were well aware that, with Japan already having invaded mainland China, they could well be next. As such they had to leave a large proportion of their army to guard against the Japanese.

Once Stalin got wind of the Japanese preparations for Pearl Harbor, knowing Japan could never take on America, Russia and the UK, he was able to pull out his reserve troops and send them to attack the Germans. These troops were fresh, well-armed and with high morale; moreover they were Siberian and trained specifically for winter combat. Their arrival marked the high water mark for the German invasion - from then on their army was pushed back towards Berlin.

Battle of Cape Matapan

The Swordfish continued to haunt the Italian Navy. In March 1941, the battleship Vittorio Veneto along with eight cruisers and nine destroyers went to hunt British shipping off the Greek coast. The battleship attacked some British cruisers, but didn't manage to hit any. In response, the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable launched its Swordfish. The first wave missed, but one plane from a later wave managed to score a hit before being shot down. The torpedo sheared off the port propeller, jammed the port rudder and caused the ship to take in over 4,000 tons of water, leaving her listing. Eventually Vittorio Veneto got underway again and Swordfish came in again to slow her down. They didn't hit the battleship, but managed to leave the cruiser Pola dead in the water. As Vittorio Veneto escaped back to base, two cruisers and some destroyers were left to protect Pola. Three battleships, Valiant, Warspite and Barham then arrived and sank all three cruisers and two of the destroyers. Vittorio Veneto herself was not operational again until August.

The Swordfish showed how vulnerable warships could be to air attacks, even in the open sea. They'd go on to demonstrate this with even more spectacular successes.

Sinking of the Bismarck

The battlecruiser HMS Hood was the pride of the Royal Navy, the most formidable ship in the most powerful fighting force in the world. She displaced over 45 thousand tons and her eight 15 inch guns could fire an 875kg shell over 30km (19 miles). In May 1941 she was tasked to hunt down and destroy the German battleship Bismarck. Even larger than the Hood, Bismarck was the most formidable ship in the Atlantic Theatre of War, and a massive threat to any convoy she encountered.

Bismarck was also quick for a battleship, and few of the Royal Navy's newer big gun battleships would have been able to follow her if she tried to escape, so Hood was ideal for the role. Hood was accompanied by the new battleship Prince of Wales, and between the two, they may well have expected to see off the Bismarck and the accompanying heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen when they met at the Battle of the Denmark Straight. It was therefore a huge surprise when the Hood, closing in on Bismarck, exploded, killing 1,418 of her crew. Only three survived. Prince of Wales scored a few critical hits on Bismarck, but was forced to withdraw.

The country was shocked by the loss of Hood and so the destruction of Bismarck became the top priority. Bismarck was chased into the Atlantic; soon six capital ships (battleships and battlecruisers), two aircraft carriers, 13 cruisers and 21 destroyers were engaged in the hunt. Bismarck did engage some of the chasing ships again, in order to distract them and allow Prinz Eugen to escape. Still damaged, listing slightly and having water contaminating her fuel oil store, Bismarck needed to make port. Even in this state, she could outrun the forces behind her and would be able to make it to safety at Saint-Nazaire. There she would be under the protection of fighters belonging to the Luftwaffe, the German air force, and would also be able to link up with the two German battlecruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were nearby at Brest.

The aircraft carrier HMS Victorious launched an attack with nine Swordfish bombers. The bombers almost attacked HMS Norfolk that was tracking Bismarck, alerting the German ship to their presence. Despite the Germans being aware of the oncoming attack, and even using Bismarck's big guns to create massive splashes in front of the low flying bombers, no Swordfish was shot down during the attack; they flew too low for the anti-aircraft guns on Bismarck to hit them. Many anti-aircraft guns were equipped with some sort of compensation device to take into account the speed of the moving plane, so you aimed at the plane and it fired where the plane should be. Swordfish flew too slowly for this to work! Only one Swordfish scored a hit, causing minor electrical damage to Bismarck.

An error calculating bearings from an intercepted radio message led most of the British fleet to head back towards Germany. When the mistake was found out, there was a massive gap between them and Bismarck, now only a day away from being safe under Luftwaffe protection.

By now the battleship Prince of Wales, battlecruiser Repulse, cruiser Suffolk and carrier Victorious were low on fuel and had to withdraw. The only battleships left in the chase were HMS King George V and HMS Rodney, although they were far behind and Rodney's top speed was much slower than Bismarck's. Steaming up from Gibraltar was the British Force H, consisting of the battlecruiser Renown, the light cruiser Sheffield and the carrier Ark Royal. Bismarck was spotted near to Force H and Sheffield was sent to tail her. Ark Royal then sent its Swordfish off to attack Bismarck.

It seems that nobody told them about Sheffield following Bismarck, because they attacked the British cruiser instead of the German battleship. Luckily, the magnetic detonators on the torpedoes were rubbish, so none of the torpedoes that hit did any damage. Sheffield was about to notify Ark Royal of this (presumably some choice language was also used) when the Swordfish returned. As well as lessons on what a battleship looked like, the crews were given fresh, working, torpedoes.

The next attack did find Bismarck. 15 planes attacked. One scored minor damage amidships, but one torpedo managed to knock out Bismarck's steering system and one of her propellers, and she was left circling helplessly waiting for the rest of the British Fleet to arrive.

With all her guns working, Bismarck was still formidable; her guns drove off Sheffield, and while she was harried by destroyers through the night, she evaded their torpedoes. The end came when King George V and Rodney arrived along with the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire. King George V had ten 14-inch guns and Rodney had nine 16-inch guns; these rained over 700 shells down on Bismarck. A shell from Rodney took out the forward superstructure of Bismarck, killing her commanders. Gradually the Bismarck's gun batteries were put out of use. Despite the gunfire that the four ships rained down on Bismarck, she wouldn't sink, and eventually Rodney torpedoed Bismarck, the only time a battleship has done that to another battleship. While they hadn't inflicted the majority of the damage, the two Swordfish attacks on Bismarck sealed her fate.

With Bismarck gone, Hitler moved all his large surface ships back to Norway. They were no longer a threat to the Atlantic convoys.

Operation Cerberus

As well as those attacks, the Swordfish were busy throughout the war, attacking enemy shipping and U-boats. Under the right circumstances they were lethal, but sometimes things went very wrong indeed.

The sinking of Bismarck led Hitler to call back the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau from France. Together with Prinz Eugen they had been at Brest. There were two ways back - either going north around the British Isles or through the Channel. The Channel was obviously the most dangerous, as they would be easily spotted, and would be in sight of the big guns based in Dover. However the Royal Navy home fleet was based at Scapa Flow in Scotland and, if alerted to the ships making a long run around and into the North Sea, would have been sure to send out a massive force against them. On the contrary, there were no Royal Navy big ships in the Channel and the Luftwaffe was close at hand.

Hitler chose for them to go through the Channel. Meanwhile the crews of the ships in Brest did their best to pretend they were off to the South Atlantic by buying tropical helmets and labelling oil barrels ‘For Use in the Tropics'.

Bizarrely, this ruse worked, and the British Admiralty were caught by surprise when the three large ships and their escorts appeared in the Channel. The British expected the ships to time any attempt to go through the Channel so that they would hit the Straits of Dover, the most dangerous part, at night. The Germans timed it so they would pass during the day. As well as being protected by destroyers and torpedo boats, German aircraft patrolled the skies overhead. Caught unawares, there were few things that the British could throw at these ships. One thing they could throw at them were Swordfish.

Six Swordfish attacked, led by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, who had also led the attack on Bismarck. They were promised 84 fighters to cover their attacks, but only ten arrived. Unwilling to wait for the fighters, the Swordfish pressed home their attack. These slow-moving, venerable planes were opposed by lethal modern fighters and it was no surprise that all six Swordfish were downed, with no damage to the ships. 13 of the 18 crew were lost; both the British and the German commanders praised the bravery of the aircrews that day. Eugene Esmond, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his attack on Bismarck, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in the Channel. The four surviving officers were awarded the Distinguished Service Order, with the enlisted man given the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

The Stringbag

The Swordfish was affectionately known as the Stringbag, not because the plane looked like it was held together by bits of string, but because, like a housewife's string shopping bag, you could put pretty much anything into it.

With its antiquated shape and old technology, the Swordfish never enjoyed any of the glamorous attention that was given to the Spitfire, the Lancaster or the Mosquito of the RAF. With the British domination of the Atlantic, at least on the surface, there were no epic carrier battles for the Swordfish to participate in, as the Americans and Japanese planes did in the Pacific. In its own way, like many unsung heroes, both man and machine, the Swordfish did its part, and more, to help the Allies win World War Two.

The Swordfish was so successful that it outlasted its successor, the Fairey Albacore (nicknamed the Apple Core), and it was only the arrival of the ugly monoplane Fairey Barracuda and the fearsome American Gruman Avenger that displaced it.

1These soften the impact of the torpedo on the water.

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