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Fairey Swordfish

Swordfish number LS326 in flight in 2012
Role Torpedo-bomber
Manufacturer Fairey Aviation
First flight 17 April 1934
Introduction 1936
Retired 21 May 1945
Primary users Royal Navy
Royal Air Force
Royal Canadian Air Force
Royal Netherlands Navy
Produced 1936–1944
Number built 2,391 (692 by Fairey and 1,699 by Blackburn)

The Fairey Swordfish was a biplane torpedo bomber designed by the Fairey Aviation Company, used by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during World War II. Originating in the 1930s, the Swordfish, nicknamed "Stringbag", was an outdated design by the start of the war in 1939, but remained in front-line service until V-E Day, outliving several types intended to replace it. It was initially operated primarily as a fleet attack aircraft; during its later years it was used as an anti-submarine and training craft.

The Swordfish achieved some spectacular successes, 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.


  • Design and development 1
  • Operational history 2
    • Origin of the Stringbag nickname 2.1
  • Variants 3
  • Operators 4
  • Surviving aircraft 5
  • Specifications (Swordfish I) 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Design and development

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 aircraft, and on specifications M.1/30 and S.9/30, issued by the Air Ministry, the work having been initiated as a private venture (PV). Fairey informed the Air Ministry of their work on the Greek order (that country's interest eventually waned) and proposed its solution to the requirements for a spotter-reconnaissance plane, "spotter" referring to observing the fall of a warship's gunfire. Air Ministry Specification S.15/33 subsequently 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.

The Swordfish was also capable of operating as a dive-bomber and in 1939 HMS Glorious used her Swordfish for a series of dive-bombing trials, during which 439 practice bombs were dropped at dive angles of 60, 67 and 70 degrees, against the target ship HMS Centurion. Tests against a stationary target showed an average error of 49 yd (45 m) from a release height of 1,300 ft (400 m) and a dive angle of 70 degrees. Tests against a manoeuvring target showed an average error of 44 yd (40 m) from a drop height of 1,800 ft (550 m) and a dive angle of 60 degrees.[1]

A Fairey Swordfish floatplane being hoisted aboard the battleship HMS Malaya in October 1941

By 1939, the Fleet Air Arm (now under Royal Navy control) had thirteen 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 and 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 ships at night and through clouds.[2]

Swordfish flew from merchant aircraft carriers ("MAC ships"), twenty 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 others were manned by pilots and aircrew from 836 Naval Air Squadron, at one time the largest squadron, with 91 aircraft.

When production ended on 18 August 1944, almost 2,400 had been built, 692 by Fairey and 1,699 in Sherburn by the Blackburn Aircraft Company. The most numerous version was the Mark II, of which 1,080 were made.[3]

Operational history

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 feet (1,500 m) followed by a dive to torpedo release altitude of 18 feet (5.5 m).[4] Maximum range of the early Mark XII torpedo was 1,500 yards (1,400 m) at 40 knots (74 km/h; 46 mph) and 3,500 yards (3,200 m) at 27 knots (50 km/h; 31 mph).[5] The torpedo travelled 200 yards (180 m) forward from release to water impact, and required another 300 yards (270 m) to stabilise at preset depth and arm itself. Ideal release distance was 1,000 yards (910 m) from target if the Swordfish survived to that distance.[4] 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.[6] Swordfish also flew anti-shipping sorties from Malta.

Swordfish torpedo bombers on the after deck of HMS Victorious (24 May 1941). On 25 May, nine Swordfish from Victorious attacked the Bismark

In May 1941, a Swordfish strike was vital in damaging the German battleship Bismarck, preventing it from escaping to France. At 10pm on 25 May, HMS Victorious launched six Fairey Fulmar fighters and nine Swordfish against the Bismark; one torpedo hit and caused minor damage.[7]

On 26 May, two Swordfish strikes were launched against Bismarck from Ark Royal. The first failed to find the battleship. On the second, the Swordfish aircraft scored two hits; one did little damage, but the other jammed Bismarck‍ '​s rudders with 15° port helm on,[8] making the warship unmaneuvrable; it sank after intense Royal Navy attack within 13 hours. 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. At least some of the Swordfish flew so low that most of Bismarck's flak weapons were unable to depress enough to hit them.[9]

The problems with the aircraft were starkly demonstrated in February 1942 when, during the Channel Dash, an attack on German battleships by six Swordfish led by Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde resulted in the loss of all aircraft with no damage to the ships. Lack of fighter cover was a contributing factor; only ten of eighty-four promised fighters were available. Thirteen of the eighteen Swordfish crew were killed; Esmonde, who had also led an attack on Bismarck, was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. The courage of the Swordfish crews was noted by the commanders on both sides: British Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay later wrote "In my opinion the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish aircraft constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty the war had ever witnessed", and German Vice-Admiral Otto Ciliax remarked on "the mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day".[10]

RAF, 119 Squadron Swordfish being loaded with 250lb General Purpose bombs, Knokke le Zoute (Knokke-Heist), Belgium (1944-1945)

After more modern torpedo attack aircraft were developed, 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, unlike most carrier-based aircraft, it did not require the carrier to be steaming into the wind. On occasion, when the wind was right, Swordfish were flown from a carrier at anchor.[11]

Swordfish-equipped units accounted for 14 U-boats destroyed. The Swordfish was to be replaced by the Albacore, also a biplane, but outlived its intended successor and was succeeded by the Fairey Barracuda monoplane torpedo bomber.

The last of 2,392 Swordfish aircraft were delivered in August 1944. Operational sorties continued into January 1945 with anti-shipping operations off Norway (FAA Squadrons 835 and 813), where the Swordfish's manoeuvrability was essential.[12]

Towards the end of the war, Swordfish Mark IIIs, fitted with centimetric radar, were operated by the Royal Air Force's 119 Squadron from airfields in Belgium. Their main task was to hunt at night for German Midget submarines in the North Sea and off the Dutch coast.[13] The radar was able to detect ships at a range of around 25 miles (40 km).[14] One of the aircraft operated by 119 Squadron in this role survives and is part of the collection of the Imperial War Museum (see Surviving aircraft).

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.

Origin of the Stringbag nickname

The Swordfish was nicknamed the Stringbag not because of its biplane struts, spars and braces, 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, common at the time and which could accommodate contents of any shape. The crews felt that the Swordfish, like the shopping bag, could carry anything.[15]


A Swordfish III of RAF 119 Squadron being refueled at Maldegem, Belgium, (1944-1945). The fairing of the aircraft's centimetric radar can be seen below the engine
Swordfish I
First production series.
Swordfish I
Version equipped with floats, for use from catapult-equipped warships.
Swordfish II
Version with metal lower wings to enable the mounting of rockets, introduced in 1943.
Swordfish III
Version with added large centrimetric radar unit, introduced in 1943.
Swordfish IV
Last serial built version (production ended in 1944) with an enclosed cabin for use by the RCAF



Swordfish 4A was first to fall into Italian hands in the aftermath of the Battle of Taranto, in poor condition. Swordfish K8422 of HMS Eagle was shot down and captured during a raid on Maritza airfield, Rhodes on 4 September 1940. Evaluated at Guidonia Test Centre and kept serviceable until mid-1941 with spare parts coming from captured Swordfish K8422 (4H). Swordfish P4127 (coded 4F) of 820 squadron on HMS Ark Royal, involved in bombing raid on Cagliari, Sardinia. Hit by ground fire, it force-landed on the enemy airfield at Elmas on 2 August 1940. The crew were taken POW and the aircraft captured intact. Caproni repaired it locally and fitted it with an Alfa Romeo 125 engine. It was taken to the Stabilimento Costruzioni Aeronautiche in Guidonia on 27 February 1941. It was still listed as being there 6 April 1942.[17]


Swordfish W5843 of 813 squadron at North Front, Gibraltar, lost its bearings during an anti-submarine sweep and force landed between Ras el Farea and Pota Pescadores, in Spanish Morocco, on 30 April 1942. The crew were all interned. The final fate of the aircraft is not known.

Swordfish P4073 of 700 squadron of HMS Malaya ran out of fuel whilst shadowing the German battleship Scharnhorst on 8 March 1941.[18][19] Aircraft and crew were interned in Spain. The Swordfish was put on the strength of the Spanish air force as HR6-1 on 6 December 1943 with 54 Escuadrilla, Puerto de le Cruz, Tenerife, Canary Islands. Retired March 1945 at Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.[17]

 United Kingdom

Surviving aircraft

Swordfish LS326 (2012)
Swordfish NF370, Imperial War Museum, Duxford (2011)
  • Swordfish Mk.I W5856, Swordfish Mk.II LS326, Swordfish Mk.III NF389
These three aircraft form part of the Royal Navy Historic Flight; W5856 and LS326 are in flying condition; NF389 is being restored to airworthy condition by the Flight.
  • Swordfish Mk.II, HS618
Displayed at the Fleet Air Arm Museum.[21]
  • Swordfish Mk.II, NS122
This aircraft is at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Note that "NS122" is a fictitious identity.
  • Swordfish Mk.III, NF370
Displayed at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, this aircraft was built in 1944. it was operated by No. 119 Squadron RAF, which was given the task of patrolling the North Sea in search of German torpedo boats and midget submarines. It has been at the Imperial War Museum Duxford since 1986. In 1998, a restoration project began that returned the airframe to an airworthy condition, although was fitted with a non-functional Pegasus engine.[14]
  • Swordfish Mk.III, HS554 construction number F/B 3527A
This aircraft is in flying condition and is registered as C-GEVS. It is operated by Vintage Wings of Canada, based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada
  • Swordfish Mk.IV, HS469
Originally a Mk.II, but converted to a Mk.IV, this aircraft is on display at the Shearwater Aviation Museum in Nova Scotia. It was restored to airworthy condition and flew once, in 1992.
  • Swordfish Mk.IV, HS491
This is part of the collection of the Malta Aviation Museum and is currently awaiting restoration.
  • Swordfish Mk.IV, HS503
This aircraft is stored in Staffordshire awaiting Restoration.
  • Swordfish Mk.IV, HS517
This aircraft is preserved in London, Ontario, Canada.

Specifications (Swordfish I)

Data from Fairey Aircraft since 1915.[22]

General characteristics
  • Crew: Three (pilot, observer, and radio operator/rear gunner)
  • Length: 35 ft 8 in (10.87 m)
  • Wingspan: 45 ft 6 in[23] (13.87 m)
  • Height: 12 ft 4 in (3.76 m)
  • Wing area: 607 ft² (56.4 m²)
  • Empty weight: 4,195 lb (1,900 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 7,580 lb [24] (3,450 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Bristol Pegasus IIIM.3 radial engine, 690 hp (510 kW)


  • Maximum speed: 143 mph with torpedo at 7,580 lb (230 km/h, 124 knots) at 5,000 ft (1,450 m)
  • Range: 522 mi (840 km, 455 nmi) normal fuel carrying torpedo[25]
  • Endurance: 5.5 hr
  • Service ceiling: 16,500 ft at 7,580 lb[24] (5,030 m)
  • Rate of climb: 870 ft/min (4.42 m/s) at sea level at 7,580 lb. (690 ft/min (3.5 m/s) at 5000 ft (1,524 m) at 7,580 lb)
  • Guns:
  • Rockets: 8 × "60 lb" RP-3 rocket projectiles (Mk.II and later)
  • Bombs: 1 × 1,670 lb (760 kg) torpedo or 1,500 lb (700 kg) mine under fuselage or 1,500 lb bombs under fuselage and wings.

See also

Related development
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
Related lists


  1. ^ Smith, p. 66.
  2. ^ Harrison 2001, p. 9.
  3. ^ Bishop, Chris, 2002, The Encyclopedia of Weapons of World War II Metrobooks ISBN 1-58663-762-2 (p. 403)
  4. ^ a b Emmott, Norman W. "Airborne Torpedoes". United States Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1977.
  5. ^ Campbell 1985, p. 87.
  6. ^ Lowry and Wellham 2000, p. 92.
  7. ^ Garzke & Dulin, pp. 229–230.
  8. ^ Kennedy 2002, p. 166.
  9. ^ Kennedy 2002, pp. 112, 165.
  10. ^ Kemp pp.199&200
  11. ^ Wragg 2003, p. 142.
  12. ^ Wragg 2005, pp. 127–131.
  13. ^ "ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945.". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 9 January 2015. 
  14. ^ a b Parsons, Gary (2005). "Back in Black". air-scene uk. Retrieved 7 January 2015. 
  15. ^ Lamb 2001
  16. ^ ADF-Serials RAAF Fairey Swordfish Mk.I
  17. ^ a b "Fleet Air Arm Archive 1939-45: Capture Fleet Air Arm Aircraft." Retrieved: 16 August 2010.
  18. ^ HMS MALAYA - Queen Elizabeth-class 15in gun Battleship including Convoy Escort Movements
  19. ^ Sturtivant, p. 65.
  20. ^ Thomas 1998, pp. 73–77.
  21. ^ Fleet Air Arm Museum: Fairey Swordfish II (HS618)
  22. ^ Taylor 1974, p. 259.
  23. ^ Folded Span: 17 ft 3 in (5.26 m)
  24. ^ a b Taylor 1974, p. 259
  25. ^ Taylor 1974, p. 260: 1,030 mi (1,660 km,896 nmi) reconnaissance with no bombs and extra fuel
  • Brown, Eric, CBE, DCS, AFC, RN.; William Green and Gordon Swanborough. "Fairey Swordfish". Wings of the Navy, Flying Allied Carrier Aircraft of World War Two. London: Jane's Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 7–20. ISBN 0-7106-0002-X.
  • Campbell, John. Naval Weapons of World War II. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1985. ISBN 0-87021-459-4.
  • Harrison, W.A. Fairey Swordfish and Albacore. Wiltshire, UK: The Crowood Press, 2002. ISBN 1-86126-512-3.
  • Harrison, W.A. Fairey Swordfish in Action (Aircraft Number 175). Carrollton, Texas: Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc., 2001. ISBN 0-89747-421-X.
  • Harrison, W.A. Swordfish at War. Shepperton, Surrey, UK: Ian Allan Publishing Ltd., 1987. ISBN 0-7110-1676-3.
  • Harrison, W.A. Swordfish Special. Shepperton, Surrey, UK: Ian Allan Publishing Ltd., 1977. ISBN 0-7110-0742-X.
  • Kilbracken, Lord. Bring Back My Stringbag: A Swordfish Pilot At War. London: Pan Books Ltd, 1980. ISBN 0-330-26172-X. First published by Peter Davies Ltd, 1979.
  • Lamb, Charles. To War in a Stringbag. London: Cassell & Co., 2001. ISBN 0-304-35841-X.
  • Lowe, Malcolm V. Fairey Swordfish: Plane Essentials No.3. Wimborne, UK: Publishing Solutions (www) Ltd., 2009. ISBN 978-1-906589-02-8.
  • Lowry, Thomas P. and John Wellham.The Attack on Taranto: Blueprint for Pearl Harbor. London: Stackpole Books, 2000. ISBN 0-8117-2661-4.
  • Kemp, P.K. Key to Victory: The Triumph Of British Sea Power In World War II. New York: Little, Brown, 1957.
  • Kennedy, Ludovic. Pursuit: The Sinking of the Bismarck. Bath, UK: Chivers Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7540-0754-8.
  • Smith, Peter C. Dive Bomber!. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1982. ISBN 978-0-87021-930-6.
  • Stott, Ian G. The Fairey Swordfish Mks. I-IV (Aircraft in Profile 212). Windsor, Berkshire, UK: Profile Publications, 1971. No ISBN.
  • Sturtivant, Ray. The Swordfish Story. London: Cassell & Co., 1993 (2nd Revised edition 2000). ISBN 0-304-35711-1.
  • Taylor, H.A, Fairey Aircraft since 1915. London: Putnam & Company Ltd., 1974. ISBN 0-370-00065-X.
  • Thetford, Owen. British Naval Aircraft Since 1912. London: Putnam, Fourth edition, 1978. ISBN 0-370-30021-1.
  • Thetford, Owen. British Naval Aircraft Since 1912. London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1994. ISBN 0-85177-861-5.
  • Thomas, Andrew. "Light Blue 'Stringbags': The Fairey Swordfish in RAF Service". Air Enthusiast, No. 78, November/December 1998, pp. 73–77. Stamford, UK: Key Publishing. ISSN 0143-5450.
  • Wragg, David. The Escort Carrier in World War II. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Books, 2005. ISBN 1-84415-220-0.
  • Wragg, David. Stringbag: The Fairey Swordfish at War. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Books, 2005. ISBN 1-84415-130-1.
  • Wragg, David. Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2003. ISBN 0-297-84667-1.

External links

  • Swordfish Story of the Torpedoing of the Bismarck
  • "Stringbag Plus" a 1946 Flight article on flying the Swordfish
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