Fairey Fulmar: How ‘an absurd lumbering thing’ became Britain’s top-scoring naval fighter

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As World War II loomed into sight, the Admiralty was desperate for anything approximating a modern fighter aircraft. This need was met by a modified light dive-bomber originally intended for a cancelled RAF requirement. The resulting Fulmar shared the engine and armament with the Spitfire and Hurricane, but there though the similarity ended. With a pathetic flat-out speed of 247mph and a feeble service ceiling of 16,000’ it was far inferior to its contemporaries. More worryingly, it was also 30mph slower than the Luftwaffe’s Heinkel He 111 bombers. Fair to say as a fighter it made an adequate cancelled dive-bomber. So how did it became the top Royal Navy fighter of World War II?

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer, current Air Safety Officer and struggling Naval History MA student.  He also has some great offers on his internal organs now Seafire PP972 is up for sale.  

During World War II, no aircraft carrier force operated a greater number of types than the Royal Navy. Although partly due to the length of time Britain was involved in the conflict, the Admiralty’s haphazard approach to aviation doctrine and procurement bears a lot of the blame (although nothing can excuse the diabolical Blackburn Firebrand). It is still however something of an anomaly that the Fleet Air Arm’s highest scoring fighter of the war was the relatively slow and staid Fairey Fulmar —  with 112 kills (more than double the total achieved by the far more potent Corsair). Despite this, the Fulmar has never really caught the popular imagination.  Post-war historians have damned with faint praise by acknowledging that while it was at least capable of taking on torpedo-bombers, the Fulmar’s manoeuvrability was far inferior to Axis dive-bombers. To give some idea of the limited esteem in which it was held at the time, it is perhaps worth reading a verse from 809 Naval Air Squadron’s Fulmar Song (to the tune of ‘Any old iron‘:

‘Any old iron, any old iron,
Any, any, any old iron;
Talk about a treat
Chasing round the Fleet
Any ole Eyetie or Hun you meet!

Weighs six ton,
No rear gun
Damn all to rely on!

You know what you can do
With your Fulmar Two;
Old iron, old iron!’

Fighter Direction is everything

To understand this apparent contradiction, of how such a sluggish machine was the Navy’s best fighter, it is necessary to look at a technology that at the time made the aeroplane look positively middle-aged: radar. The Royal Navy had been at the forefront of developing naval radar, but even so, by 1939 its capabilities were extremely limited. Rather than the top down ‘God’s eye view’ of a modern display, operators would look at a single wiggling line with increases in amplitude indicating a contact. Despite entering the war without a full understanding of what radar could achieve – and after some teething troubles – the Navy soon found ways to make up for the deficiencies of its aircraft. This would allow Fairey’s converted dive-bomber to hold its own in aerial combat through the opening years of the war in a way that belied its poor headline performance. The actions in the Mediterranean to escort convoys to Malta showed time and again the value of Fighter Direction where controllers onboard ship would direct the aircraft to intercept incoming attacks. Often these aircraft would be Fulmars, which were in the front line throughout that period, before being relegated to the role of night fighter. Somewhat ironically, the addition of radar antenna for this role would finally render its performance unequivocally unacceptable. Fighter Direction would give the Fulmar the edge it needed to overcome its shortcomings while engaged in some of the heaviest aerial combat the Royal Navy would face during the Second World War.
The Royal Navy’s inter-war doctrine for the Fleet Air Arm, as described in an Admiralty Memorandum from December 1936, concentrated on the search for enemy shipping, air attack of that shipping, and subsequent observation of the fall of shot for the fleet’s big guns . It was considered that air superiority would be achieved by the immobilisation of the enemy’s carriers no apparent thought being given to air to air combat. The reverse was also true in that it was not considered possible for naval fighters to defend the fleet from air attack, especially when faced with land-based air forces able to deploy heavy bombers . To counter the air threat the Third Sea Lord, Rear Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson, decided that the next class of carrier would feature extensive armour plating turning the hangar into a protective enclosure for the air group able to resist a direct hit from 500lb bombs and 4.7” gunfire . The Dido class cruisers optimised for air defence would then provide the defence against air attack , in addition to the Illustrious classes own extensive outfit of sixteen 4.5” guns. That the doctrine was so un-ambitious can in part be laid at the confused status of naval aviation between the wars, it was, until 1938, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force not of the Royal Navy . In fairness to the Admiralty at the same time despite the Imperial Japanese Navy controlling its air arm its doctrine was also confused and poorly regarded by its air officers perhaps indicating the difficulties inherent in developing high level policy for a new form of warfare. The Royal Navy’s use of fighter aircraft would therefore have to develop as lessons were learnt. A memorandum from January 1940 while acknowledging the need to intercept enemy strikes and scouting aircraft as well as escorting the fleets own strikes still showed a degree of indecision over whether they would still require a second crewmember as the Fulmar did, a confusion that had not been resolved three months later . Ultimately this indecision would lead to both single and two seat fighters being produced for the Royal Navy. Where the Royal Navy had a serious disadvantage was in the actual procurement of aircraft where the Admiralty drew up the specifications for them while the Air Ministry then had responsibility for their design and production.41_803_sdn_fulmar_take_off.jpg

Due to the lack of air officers at the right level the Admiralty had scant expertise in the specification of aircraft which led to it entering the war with several poorly performing aircraft either in service or on the way. These included the Blackburn Roc, a turret equipped fighter which could barely stay airborne at full power; the Fairey Barracuda which provided panoramic views for the Observer but had a tendency not to pull out of dives , and the Blackburn Firebrand which took longer to develop than the war lasted. Consequently, at the outbreak of war the navy found itself back in control of its air arm, but with limited understanding of the capabilities air power brought, no real thought given to air defence of the fleet by aircraft, and a procurement plan that could best be described as flawed. It was from this background that the requirement for the Fulmar would emerge, to some extent explaining the compromises that were accepted.

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Though confusion over the use of naval air power was hampering the acquisition of suitable aircraft, by the late 1930s there was at least an acknowledgment that a new fleet fighter would be required. It was a pressing need, as the Skua it would replace was predicted to be obsolete by as soon as 1940. Consequently, it was a requirement that the chosen aircraft be in production by September 1939 which effectively limited the options to something already in production. The Admiralty’s preference was for a two-seat aircraft, due to the difficulties of navigating over the sea and communicating at long range from the carrier. Outright speed was considered less important as there was an assumption that the carrier-borne fighter would only encounter aircraft of other navies which would be similarly restricted. It is perhaps ironic that at the same time the most likely naval opponent was being designed by Mitsubishi in Japan, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a type which faced neither of these restrictions. The design selected for the Royal Navy was a modification of a design submitted to the RAF as a light dive-bomber. This RAF original requirement had been dropped, but prototypes had already been constructed – which allowed a rapid assessment to be made of their suitability. The Fairey P.4/34 bomber (with minor changes) thus became the Fulmar naval fighter (with a secondary reconnaissance role). The first production aircraft was completed in December 1939, effectively running around three months behind the Admiralty’s timeline.. or ahead of schedule compared to most defence projects. The Fulmar shared an engine, the Merlin, and armament, eight 0.303” guns, with the Spitfire and Hurricane. There though the similarity ended. The early Spitfire’s top speed was 364mph at an altitude of 18,500’ , the Fulmar by comparison had a maximum speed of only 247mph at 9,000’ and a service ceiling of 16,000’ (half that of the Spitfire).

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It faired similarly poorly against contemporary German fighters and was even 30mph slower than the Heinkel 111 bomber which it would come to face in the Mediterranean. There was however some method to the Admiralty’s madness, an aircraft engine supercharger optimised for power at high level wastes energy lower down in the atmosphere compressing excess air . With torpedo bombers having to drop their weapons near sea-level it would be logical to optimise a naval fighter to attack such targets. Indeed, when requesting a new engine design from Rolls-Royce for their next fighter the admiralty made low level performance a key requirement and later in the war the majority of Seafires were low level variants. The Fulmar specification also called for an endurance of up to six hours which compared favourably to the Spitfire which could realistically manage about an hour. This would allow a standing air patrol to be maintained while minimising the number of times the carrier would have to turn into wind to launch and recover aircraft. It was similarly well equipped with ammunition, contemporary fighters carried around 250 rounds per gun, enough for 15 seconds or so of sustained firing, the Fulmar carried up to 1000 which would allow it to engage far more targets, assuming it could catch them. The Fulmar then was not an outstanding fighter and opinion of it could at best be said to be divided, with those coming to the Fleet Air Arm from around 1941 considering it ‘an absurd lumbering thing of a so-called fighter’ while those who’d endured earlier aircraft found themselves going ‘nearly twice as fast as I had ever flown before’ and in a state of ‘near panic’ .

Perhaps the best judgement was given by renowned naval aviator and test pilot Captain Eric Brown RN who allowed that it at least had ‘innate soundness and competence’. It was  the best the Navy would have until at least 1942, but it would need help if it was to adequately defend the fleet.

 

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The RAF, responsible for the air defence of the UK, led the world in the use of radar for fighter direction, the first exercise in its use taking place in 1936. The Admiralty also developed an interest in the technology and in 1938 HMS Rodney and  HMS Sheffield were both fitted with rudimentary sets that could warn of approaching aircraft. Although this would alert the crew to approaching aircraft once conflict broke out it soon became apparent that the planned reliance on the ship’s AA armament as defence against attack was overly optimistic and better use of the information gained would be needed. Due to the general lack of interest in naval air defence the extant ‘doctrine’ essentially relied on the defending aircraft flying a search pattern, which could find them in the wrong place when the enemy approached or waiting above the fleet and then diving down on the attackers with the attendant risk of friendly fire. Alternatively, they could wait on the carrier and take-off in pursuit of the enemy to attack them on their way home, assuming they had the speed advantage to do so.

The first attempts at improving on this uninspired approach took place off the coast of Norway in April 1940 as efforts were made to stem the German invasion. The aircraft carrier Ark Royal was operating in support of the landing forces, although not fitted with radar herself, her escorts Sheffield and Curlew were, and could detect approaching raids around 50 miles away. It was soon realised that this information could be used to direct the Ark’s fighter aircraft to intercept the incoming raids, this initially took a rather crude form worked out on the initiative of the ship’s Air Signals Officer, Lt Cdr Coke. As the Sheffield and Curlew were not fitted with radios capable of talking to the aircraft, the range and bearing of incoming raids had to be passed to the Ark, generally by signal lamp or semaphore due to radio silence being in force. Here Lt Cdr Coke, assisted by his signalman, plotted the positions on a board before relaying the necessary information to the fighter patrol by Morse code. It took around four minutes to pass the position of the enemy to the patrolling Skuas. They would then be left to their own devices to figure out what to do with this information, the process becoming known as the ‘Informative Method’. However, with practice Lt Cdr Coke was able to monitor the position of the Ark’s aircraft as well as the enemy’s and could direct them to their targets. This ‘Directive Method’, gave them a much better chance of executing a successful intercept. The system was however not perfect, there was no filtering process for the information to determine what was high priority, and it took time to develop an efficient way of passing it to the aircraft. Despite Lt Cdr Coke’s best efforts, it was not therefore unheard of for pilots to realise they were being vectored to intercept themselves. Although basic and not always effective, in part due to the lack of height information from the radars, this early Fighter Direction was sufficient to drive a change in the Luftwaffe’s tactics so that they approached above the Skua’s operational ceiling, although this in turn reduced the effectiveness of their bombing. Operations off Norway had shown the effectiveness of Fighter Direction in even an elementary form, some months before the Battle of Britain would showcase its potential to the world. What the navy now needed was to build on this nucleus of experience and introduce better equipment to fully exploit it.

Blood in the Mediterranean 

In September 1940, the first of the armoured aircraft carriers, HMS Illustrious, arrived in the Mediterranean. It brought with her the Fulmars of 806 squadron in the type’s debut operational deployment. Illustrious was also the first carrier to be fitted with radar, which eased the job of the Fighter Director. He was now able to take the plot directly from the radar, considerably speeding up the decision-making cycle. It was not all plain sailing however: due to initial trials that had shown how easily a radar transmission could be followed back to its source there was a policy in place that restricted its use to one sweep every hour until contact was made. Although just about tolerable for use in tracking surface contacts, which would be hard pressed to approach undetected with closing speeds of around 30 knots, against air contacts it rendered the system almost irrelevant. It would also be some time before the Fighter Direction officer would have a purpose-built home rather than making space for himself in a corner of the ship’s island.

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Despite these initial handicaps the Fulmar was soon proving itself. It was shooting down shadowing aircraft, denying the enemy information on where to send their strike forces, and then breaking up any subsequent raids that did occur. During this initial period of operations against the Italian air force, the aircraft could play to its strength: its endurance. This allowed standing patrols to loiter at altitude, waiting for direction from the carrier. By loitering at 18000 feet, well above their nominal service ceiling, the Fulmars could utilise their dive-bomber heritage to gain a speed advantage by diving down on, typically low-flying, enemy aircraft. Thanks to the relatively lightweight, often wooden, construction of the Italian aircraft, a single firing pass from the Fulmars eight guns was generally sufficient to significantly damage or destroy them altogether. This was fortuitous, as having made their pass, the Fulmar would rapidly run out of speed, leaving it exceptionally vulnerable.

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It would have to laboriously climb back up to altitude if it was to repeat the trick. With the arrival of the Luftwaffe’s anti-shipping experts, the Fliegerkorps X, in the January of 1941, the Fulmar faced a more daunting prospect. As well as outperforming the Fleet Air Arm’s fighter the German aircraft were more strongly built than those of Italy and were able to survive attacks that would have downed their Axis partners. The deliberate targeting of Illustrious and her Fulmars that same month saw the Fighter Direction system overwhelmed, leading to extensive damage to the ship that saw her out of the war, for over a year . Despite this setback the value of Fighter Direction had been shown and work was in hand to improve the information flow and better equip the Fighter Director to carry out his role. In the meantime, HMS Formidable with her two Fulmar squadrons joined the Mediterranean fleet via the Red Sea and would continue to disrupt attacks sufficiently to prevent them having a significant effect on allied shipping and the vital convoys to Malta. Work was also being done to enable Fighter Direction from ships other than aircraft carriers, initially to streamline the process for aircraft operating from Ark Royal with Sheffield being fitted with suitable radio equipment to direct aircraft . This would pay dividends when they entered the Mediterranean in June 1940 and ultimately lead the way to Fighter Direction Tenders, essentially Landing Craft with a radar and basic communications fit, that would play a crucial role in the Normandy Landings and other amphibious operations.

Between them Ark Royal and Formidable’s Fulmar squadrons claimed 86 aircraft shot down in the Mediterranean, their most successful day probably being 8 May 1941 when 6 Italian and 8 German aircraft fell to their guns for the loss of 2 Fulmars to enemy fire.

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The Fulmar had shown that as a naval fighter her strengths of endurance and firepower, could make up for her disadvantage in outright performance when coupled with an effective method of control. In fact, the performance of the aircraft was praised by no less than the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean, Admiral Cunningham who singled out their effective work during Operation Substance, a Malta convoy, and noted that ‘It is evident that the enemy hold our Fleet Air Arm fighters in higher esteem than do our own Fulmar pilots’ after an Italian pilot claimed to have been shot down by a Hurricane.

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The greatest test Allied Fighter Direction would face in the Mediterranean was probably Operation Pedestal, the all-or-nothing convoy to Malta of 1942. It would also be a swan-song for the Fulmar as a day fighter. With the lessons learnt through 1940 and 1941 the Fighter Directors in the fleet carriers, Indomitable and Victorious had a much-improved working environment with assistants, long and short-range plots, and dedicated communications facilities. The 16 Fulmars on Victorious carried out low level patrols with the new Sea Hurricanes and American supplied Wildcats providing point defence and high-level patrols respectively. The Fulmars gave a good account of themselves despite their age, downing nine enemy aircraft for three loses . However, what is more telling is that prior to the detachment of the carrier escort on the evening of the 12th August, no merchant shipping had been lost to air attack. Worse still with the loss of the Fighter Direction capable Nigeria to a torpedo attack that same evening the supporting RAF fighters from Malta were almost incapable of successfully intercepting enemy forces, despite stretching their endurance beyond what was sensible. Consequently, four vital merchant ships, over a quarter of the convoy, were sunk in subsequent air raids while a fifth, the Ohio, entered Grand Harbour with her decks awash and never sailed again . The two stages of Pedestal illustrate the crucial advantage radar and Fighter Direction gave the Royal Navy as without it the far more capable Spitfires and Beaufighters from Malta achieved far less than even the obsolete Fulmar had in defending the fleet. This lesson was also recognised by the United States Navy, who observing its success had started sending officers to the Royal Navy’s Fighter Direction School run by Lt Cdr Coke.

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Lost without a guiding hand 

Nor could it be said that the Fulmar had some unique hidden advantage that would have made it successful even without the benefit of a guiding hand. Shortly after the outbreak of war with Japan, a Royal Naval carrier force was sent to the Indian Ocean. At the same time two Fulmar squadrons that had been operating in North Africa, 803 and 806, were sent to Ratmalana airfield near Colombo Ceylon. Without advanced warning, the aircraft were caught on the ground when the Japanese navy attacked on April 5th. In the ensuing fight, four Fulmar were lost for only one of the attacking aircraft. Subsequent combat did not see the tide turn in the Fulmar’s favour. On the 9th of April the Japanese mounted an attack on Trincomalee, the Royal Navy base on the east coast of Ceylon. Responding to a radio call 273 Squadron the only RAF Fulmar unit flew to the aid of the light carrier Hermes under attack by 80 dive-bombers, which had been expecting to find the whole British fleet.

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Although later assisted by the two Colombo based squadrons the Fulmars did not fare well, claiming four aircraft shot down for three lost . To add insult to injury two of the Fulmars were shot down by the attacking Aichi D3A1 ‘Val’ bombers which proved faster and more manoeuvrable than the Fulmar after they had released their payload. Hermes herself was sunk along with her escorts . The Fulmar then performed as well as its detractors might have expected when operating without the benefit of Fighter Direction. A coda to this encounter is the subsequent high-level bombing attack on the Japanese fleet by Blenheim bombers. Without the benefit of radar the Japanese were unaware of the attacking aircraft until they released their bombs directly overhead, highlighting the value of this emerging technology.

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The outstanding question then is why none of the Fleet Air Arm’s more capable aircraft from the second half of the war scored so highly, they too having the advantage of Fighter Direction. Primarily this appears to be due to timing, the Fulmar serving throughout the heavy fighting of the Malta convoys, Operation Pedestal was the high-water mark in the Mediterranean after which the Axis forces started to diminish as other theatres called for their attention. Other Royal Navy operations in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean faced far less air opposition and it wasn’t until the British Pacific Fleet was off Sakishima Gunto during the Okinawa Campaign that it would face an equivalent aerial assault. By this stage the war was almost over and so the Fulmar, whose last front line sortie ended with a crash on deck, remains the Royal Navy’s highest scoring fighter aircraft.

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Credit: Tim Prosser

Timing, luck and direction 

The Fairey Fulmar then was a modestly performing aircraft that achieved more than could have been reasonably expected of it. Born of a desperate need by the navy to obtain a modern monoplane fighter to equip its carriers, its availability so soon after it was needed was due almost to pure luck, as the requirement for which it had originally been designed was cancelled. It was also fortuitous that despite no official guidance, Ark Royal’s air group started to develop the fundamentals of Fighter Direction at sea in the opening stages of the war. That the Admiralty recognised the advantage Fighter Direction could give them and rolled the capability out to its carriers and cruisers relatively rapidly perhaps belies some of the popular criticism of their lack of air mindedness. Without the ability to intercept incoming raids far from the ships it was defending the Fulmar (or indeed any aircraft) would have fared poorly in its primary role of defending the fleet. Fighter Direction allowed the Fulmar the intelligence needed to overcome its deficiencies, while operating against the almost overwhelming odds prevalent in the Mediterranean during the first half of the war provided it with an opportunity to prove itself that no other Royal Navy fighter would have.

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Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer, current Air Safety Officer and struggling Naval History MA student.  He also has some great offers on his internal organs now Seafire PP972 is up for sale.  

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11 comments

  1. kimmargosein

    Two items First, it seems the FAA started out with a big handicap. The combination of RN ships carrying aircraft left carrier aviation the stepchild of both services. Were there any carrier admirals like there were in the USN to advocate and lobby for the FAA? I rather doubt there were any Air Marshals that were carrier enthusiasts. Reading the article, it’s like the RN had carriers but didn’t quite know what to do with them.

    Secondly, the RN had this fixation on two seat fighters, with the on board RTO/Navigator. Why? The USN and IJN saw no real need for them.

    • Barry Larking

      “Were there any carrier admirals like there were in the USN to advocate and lobby for the FAA?”

      Sir Casper John (one of Augustus John’s many children …). Before World War II I rather gather all the Washington Treaty navies planned for a sort of Jutland style slugging match. Only during the conflict were these ideas radically altered by experience.

      The article is one for the ‘toys for boys’ types to ponder on. It’s not true that bigger faster in every way is better. But my thoughts are with the other boys, the ones who flew these aircraft and never returned.

  2. Tim Prosser

    Would you please be so kind as to either give proper credit to, or remove, that last colour photograph? It is mine.
    Thank you.

  3. yorksranter

    The really interesting question is why the RN had to reinvent fighter direction independently when the RAF already had operational sector, group, and command-level control.

    • skippybing

      I think this really goes to the pre-war argument, advanced by the Air Ministry, that naval aircraft would never match the performance of land based ones. This meant no work was done on naval defensive counter air, the idea being the air group would shelter on the carrier while the fleet’s guns held any attackers off. So when they found themselves off Norway being attacked by the Luftwaffe they had to invent things on the spot.
      Again the Hobbs book I mention above gives more on this.

      • chrisawilliams

        That bothers me also — I think I have an answer, which is to do with the fact that RAF (unlike LADA before them) were essentially interested in area defence, a very different problem to point defence. Also, Chain Home radars were something that definitely worked and thus they could construct a control system around. Not until 1939 could radar get aboard ship: given that, the RN moved _faster_ than the RAF to implement control. Also whereas RAF info was being fed into the centre of their processing system (Group and sector ops rooms), at sea they needed to create a whole other parallel process, alongside Transmitting Stations, to process it.

        Random fact: the RN replicated the pre-1914 control room structure of the Midland Railway. The RAF modelled the one of the Lancs and Yorks Railway. They probably didn’t realise that overtly though.

        Random fact: CAMship fighter controllers were trained using a big field, heavily blinkered delivery tricycles pretending to be Hurricanes, and other delivery tricyles pretending to be Fw200. Metronomes provided pedal cadence.

        [reposted without the hashtag in case that was what was keeping it in moderation]

  4. Duker

    One of the operational advantages of the USN that wasnt used by the RN, was the carrier remained at the centre of its protective naval screen. If the carrier changed direction to the wind for plane launching its whole screen changed direction with it. The RN would send its carrier off with a small escort force for launch into the wind who would then return to its larger group. Illustrious was caught by german dive bombers while lightly defended in the Med.

  5. nzaircraftfan

    I have just read a great book on this subject called they Gave me a Seafire. A pilot who flew through the war on Sea Hurricanes and of course Seafires even ended up in the pacific at the end of the war.

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