The Swordfish Biplane Helped Sink Germany’s Most Advanced Battleship
Here we present a short history:
During the Second World War, the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm found itself with an aircraft that could only be described as “antiquated” practically from the moment it had been introduced.
While the British military would go on to develop one of the first jet aircraft – the Gloster Meteor – a mere decade earlier, the Fairey Swordfish entered service.
Archaic in appearance even when it first flew, the aircraft was still the Fleet Air Arm’s main torpedo-bomber at the start of the war with thirteen Swordfish squadrons, twelve of which operated from the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers. The last front-line squadron wasn’t disbanded until May 21, 1945, two weeks after the war in Europe ended.
Development and Successes
The fabric and wire biplane was obsolete even as it was developed as the R.S.R.II. It featured fixed landing gear and an open cockpit that offered no protection from the elements. Yet, the aircraft could operate in weather that grounded other aircraft of the era.
It had a top speed of just 139 mph “going downhill,” as Swordfish pilots often joked. In fact, it was so slow that enemy fighters had trouble bringing the lumbering biplane down because they overtook it so quickly. The plane’s 690-hp Bristol Pegasus engine may have labored heavily to keep aloft, but it was very reliable. Early in the war, Swordfish wasn’t equipped with communication radios, and pilots had to rely on hand-held signaling devices.
Despite its limitations, the carrier-based aircraft amassed an impressive combat record.
It was successfully used in the world’s first torpedo attack on a fleet in homeport at Taranto, Italy in November 1940. A total of twenty-one Swordfish attacked the Italian fleet, disabling three battleships and damaging three other vessels. Just two aircraft were shot down. In the short space of an hour, the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean had irrevocably shifted. The raid proved so successful that it was studied and copied by the Imperial Japanese Navy for its attack on Pearl Harbor a year later.
The Swordfish also made the Fleet Air Army’s first U-boat kill of the Second World War when on April 13, 1940 an aircraft launched from HMS Warspite sank U-64, but soon U-boat crews opted to make a stand against the slow-moving biplanes. As a result, by 1942 the Swordfish’s role in hunting the German submarines was reduced, but the aircraft continued to target Axis shipping the Mediterranean and accounted for more than a million tons sunk by the end of the war.
However, it was in May 1941 that the antiquate aircraft – often dubbed the “Stringbag” – proved vital in the war effort as some sixteen lumbering Swordfish helped pursue and then attack the Bismarck, Germany’s ultra-modern battleship. The battleship had managed to evade her pursuers and the only ship close enough to have a chance of disabling her was HMS Ark Royal.
The Swordfish took off an hour before sunset on May 26, 1941, and lumbered toward the German behemoth. British pilot Lieutenant Commander John Moffat was able to get the Bismarck in his sights and released his aircraft’s single torpedo. Against all odds, it struck the battleship near the rudder, which was jammed to port. Bismarck was only one move in an endless circle and became a sitting duck. British naval ships soon arrived and sank the pride of the Kriegsmarine.
The outdated aircraft remained in service for the rest of the war – and were even updated with more modern equipment, including radar and rockets. While some 2,391 Swordfish were produced, just eleven are known to survive today. One of those, a late war Swordfish IV, is now on display at the American Airpower Heritage Museum of the Commemorative Air Force in Dallas, Texas.
Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.
May 27, 2023 at 7:02 pm
“Stringbag” wasn’t derogatory, as it might sound. Per Wikipedia, “Crews likened the aircraft to a housewife’s string shopping bag, common at the time which could accommodate contents of any shape, and a Swordfish, like the shopping bag, could carry anything.”