Fleet Air Arm Myths, Number 2: The Swordfish was rugged

10 Fleet Air Arm Myths, Number 2: The Swordfish was rugged

Hero of Taranto the Swordfish pioneered attacking an enemy fleet in harbour over a year before the Japanese gave it a go on easy level, in broad daylight, before the opposition were ready. It was also a rare Fairey success story, especially when compared to its stable mates the Albacore and Barracuda. It even manages to cast Blackburn in a decent light as they took on responsibility for producing the vast majority of them while Fairey struggled with the rest of their workload and attempting to design aircraft that didn’t look like they’d already been in an accident. After the high point of Taranto popular imagination has the Stringbag’s ruggedness and robust landing gear allowing it to remain relevant taking part in the Battle of the Atlantic, in conditions that would defeat lesser aircraft.

This probably seems plausible based on the antiquated design which implies a certain sturdiness. The problem is that it doesn’t really match reality. At best it was easily repairable, certainly on at least one occasion a serviceable Swordfish was assembled onboard ship, from the remains of three that had been damaged serving on a Merchant Aircraft Carrier (MAC) allowing ASW patrols to continue. [4] Try doing that with an F-35. But being easily repairable isn’t the same as being rugged. Being rugged means you’re devastatingly attractive to the other aircraft, and don’t have to go to the engineers when you stub your undercarriage.

Some will argue that this is irrelevant as the Swordfish was better suited than anything else that could have been operated from Escort Carriers (CVE) during the Battle of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, this isn’t borne out by the evidence, as even the Royal Navy knew. In analysing operations by the US and Royal navies in 1943 they came to some disturbing conclusions about their premier ASW aircraft. While both forces were operating from near identical CVEs [5] the USN operating Avengers were suffering a far lower wastage rate. [6] In fact the USN suffered 14 aircraft lost or damaged in 1420 sorties to the RN’s 63 in 880! An accident every 14 sorties to the USN’s once every hundred. Worse, over half the Swordfish accidents were attributed to the undercarriage breaking or causing the aircraft to bounce on landing. Nor could this be blamed on the RN operating more often in bad weather as there was no correlation between the wastage rate experienced and the conditions the ship was operating in. On its own this would be bad enough, but that much lower sortie rate achieved by the RN? That was due to ship’s Captains being unwilling to launch their aircraft unless absolutely necessary in case they got damaged. Conserving their strength for times of emergency, you know, more than just being involved in a global conflict to the death. This had two effects, firstly Swordfish equipped CVE were less likely to spot U-boats as they just didn’t have aircraft airborne as much. Secondly U-boats were generally sunk as the result of a continued aggressive attack with all airborne aircraft converging on the target once it was spotted. For the RN this was only achieved twice in 1943 as the minimum number of aircraft would be airborne to reduce the number of landing accidents. So, despite both navies having almost identical carrier availability in 1943 USN aircraft sank 23 U-boats to the RN’s 3. [7]

Ultimately operating from the same decks in the same theatre, the larger, heavier Avenger had a wastage rate 1/7th that of the experiment in parasitic drag that was the Swordfish. Perhaps more damaging to the Stringbag’s reputation the report’s writers only had two recommendations, one explicitly recommending replacing them with Avengers, the other pointing out doing so would make follow up attacks more effective.

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[4] Achtung! Swordfish! Stanley Brand. Chp 17.

[5] 39 RN CVEs were supplied by the USA to the USN’s design, 3 were built in the UK to a different design, and 3 converted from merchant ships. One of which had been captured from Germany at the start of the war.

[6] Directorate of Naval Operational Studies. ‘Achievements of British and US Escort Carriers’. Admiralty, 12 February 1944. ADM 219/95. The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom.

[7] The USN had 24 carrier months to the RN’s 22. E.g. the USN could have had 4 carriers dedicated to ASW for six months each.

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up.


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  1. Duker

    Yes., had no ability to target a U Boat at all. Maybe drop a depth charge or two to give them a scare, and this was from a time a destroyer/frigate would fire 16 depth charges in a standard attack on a U boat tracked by sonar and underneath them. The forward firing Squid system with bigger depth charges in triple patterns – star of david- with a more accurate sonar giving depth and position ahead was the ideal.

    • skippybing

      Essentially the Swordfish and the Avenger relied on targeting the U-boats when they were still on the surface, or at least being able to attack where they’d dived. To some extent this was enough given a submerged U-boat would be unable to approach a convoy unless it was already in its path. Depending on the period U-boats could try and fight it out on the surface which is where the Avenger had an advantage being exposed to AA fire for a shorter period. This did also allow 60lb rockets to be used in the ASW role with some success. Ultimately the Allies produced wake-homing torpedoes which were employed by both types with some success from mid-43.
      In total the Swordfish sank 23.5 U-boats which wasn’t a terrible record, although the Avenger managed that many in 1943 alone.

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