The Legendary Swordfish - A Dedication



Vintage Wings of Canada and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum to honour the men who flew the Fairey Swordfish into history - June 11th, 2011


Seventy years ago, the shattered, smoking, brave and blood covered hulk of the battleship Bismarck slipped backwards and sank into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. The date was May 27th, 1941.  Bismarck had been unleashed to ravage the convoys – the Allies' vital lifeline – as they made their slow, agonizing way from North America to Great Britain. This massive, heavily armoured, fifty thousand ton juggernaut was the largest and most powerful warship in the world at the time.  In her first few days at sea, she demonstrated her lethal power by sinking the pride of the Royal Navy, the battle cruiser HMS Hood - with the loss of all but three of her fourteen-hundred man crew. 

With Britain’s convoy lifeline in jeopardy, Churchill issued the famous order:  “Sink the Bismarck.”  The intense battle between the Bismarck and ships of the Royal Navy is remembered as one of the most epic events in naval history.  But, it was not one the 2,876 shells of various calibres that rained down upon her from the Royal Navy capital ships surrounding her in those final hours that can claim to be the fatal blow, though it has been estimated that 300 to 400 struck her. Not one of the 80-odd landed blows from the 14 and 16 inch heavy guns of HMS Rodney or HMS King George are celebrated as the crippling strike. These were like the relentless pounding body blows or the final lonely coup-de-grace.  The decisive blow - that ultimately led to the Bismarck’s demise - came two days earlier, with no Royal Navy battle wagons in sight.

The fateful blow - that will continue to be remembered through history - came from a force of Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal.  These slow-moving, seemingly obsolete, fabric-covered biplanes were flown by some of the bravest men to ever fight in the air over the sea. Launching from a heaving deck, in heavy weather, fighting cold and misery, they found their way to the Bismarck, and then proceeded to set up torpedo attacks on the massive, floating, steel mountain.  The brave young men flew through a thundering onslaught of defensive fire, as every gun on the Bismarck – including the massive 15 inch main guns - opened up on the slow-moving biplanes.  Several hits on the Bismarck were reported – resulting in both her rudders being jammed at 12 degrees to port. Efforts to repair the damage were futile, and the great battleship was left turning in a wide circle, unable to steer effectively, and doomed.

Two days later, the main force of the Royal Navy reached the Bismarck as she staggered for home. Despite her massive firepower, her fate was sealed. Hours later she was no more.

The sinking of the Bismarck was only one of the many occasions when Swordfish crews bravely distinguished themselves.  On November 11, 1940 the Royal Navy launched the first all-aircraft naval attack in history; Swordfish were launched in a daring night-time attack on the Italian battle fleet in the harbour of Taranto. The devastation wreaked by these fabric covered biplanes signaled the rise of aviation, over the big guns of battleships – and ultimately was a precursor to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Swordfish crew made history again during the Channel Dash, (codenamed Operation Cerberus) when the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, as well as the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and numerous escorts, ran a British blockade and sailed through the English Channel from Brest to their home bases in Germany.  The Royal Navy’s 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",

There were other less familiar – but no less important - examples of service and sacrifice…  Swordfish were operated from tiny Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MAC Ships).  These converted tankers and grain carriers typically carried three Swordfish – and had flight decks that were less than 500 feet long.  Their crews endured hours of flying in numbing cold, as they struggled to keep the convoys safe from U-boats.

On June the 11th, 2011, Vintage Wings of Canada, in partnership with the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, will commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Bismarck and at the same time pay homage to the men who flew Swordfish biplanes into history throughout the Battle of the Atlantic and indeed the entire Second World War.  The general public, and in particular veterans of the Second World War are invited to participate in this day of remembrance starting at 10 a.m. in the brand new, state-of-the-art main auditorium of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. Stephen Quick, Director General, will conduct the proceedings and introduce presentations by Rob Kostecka and Rob Fleck, both of Vintage Wings of Canada.  Also in attendance and performing, will be members of the Canadian Forces Central Band – Spitfire Brass Quintet  

The highlight of the day will certainly be the attendance of Commander Terry Goddard, DSC, CD.  Ninety-one year old Goddard is a Canadian who served with the Royal Navy – and is one of the few still-living Swordfish airmen who participated in the crippling attack on the Bismarck. This unique opportunity to hear first hand from a naval aviator who participated in one of the most dramatic events of the war, will certainly never be equalled again. 

All Second World War veterans in attendance, no matter the service, are asked to declare themselves in advance by e-mailing Rob Kostecka so that they may be honoured in a roll call of remembrance. Presentations will be followed by guided tours of the Museum's world--renowned collection, including aircraft in their storage not normally on display. Like the day the Bismarck was sent to the bottom, this will be a day to remember for all those in attendance.

Dave O'Malley and Rob Kostecka



A foursome of well-used Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish line up for the camera and for Vintage Wings of Canada's graphic designer – for this photo was the inspiration for the Swordfish Dedication graphic at the beginning of this story. With this image, one gets a real appreciation for the risks and hardships connected with being a Swordfish aviator - sitting in the open cockpit over a rainy and miserable North Atlantic, behind a thundering engine and over a high-explosive torpedo with nothing between you and a mountain of anti-aircraft guns called the Bismarck except a gas tank, hot engine oil and less than a millimetre of fabric.  Photo: Royal Navy

The Swordfish - anachronistic yet highly capable.

The Swordfish was a large, slow biplane with a low wing loading, ideal for operation off carrier decks. The structure was largely metal, covered with fabric. The first machine was powered by a Bristol Pegasus IIM air-cooled, nine cylinder radial, developing 635 hp. These were severely underpowered. The next, much improved, prototype used a Pegasus IIIM3 with 775 hp. First flown in 1934, this aircraft exceeded the government's demands, so an order was placed for the first 86 production examples in 1935. The first deliveries were made in the following year, further orders continuing well after the beginning of the war.

The three seat airplane could easily lift off a carrier deck with a standard 18 inch 1,670 lb. torpedo slung between the wheels under the fuselage. Its ability to carry all manner of ordinance earned it the nickname "Stringbag", after a type of string mesh shopping bag used by English housewives of the time.



The 'Fish drops a fish. A Royal Navy Swordfish practices dropping a single massive 1,670 lb torpedo at low altitude. The torpedo missions were the most dangerous, for they required the lumbering biplane to fly low and slow, directly at the warship it was attacking and hold that course until the right moment to release the torpedo. Climbing away, the Swordfish would have to show its entire surface to gunners. Royal Navy Photo




With tail hook extended, a Swordfish on approach to land on a Royal Navy carrier.  With a strong headwind, a Swordfish pilot often found himself landing with a ground speed of just 30 knots. Royal Navy Photo

The Raid on Taranto - Prelude to Pearl Harbor

Via the Royal Navy Website

'Taranto, and the night of November 11th and 12th, 1940, should be remembered for ever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon.' – Admiral Andrew Cunningham

The Fleet Air Arm's attack on Taranto ranks as one of the most daring episodes in the Second World War. It transformed the naval situation in the Mediterranean and was carefully studied by the Japanese before their carrier-borne strike on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

In mid 1940 the balance of power was tilting against Admiral Cunningham's Mediterranean Fleet. The Italians had no fewer than six battleships and outnumbered Cunningham in every class of ship except aircraft carriers, although they proved unwilling to operate very offensively. Both factors pointed to an air attack on the Italians in Taranto, their main fleet base on the south coast of Italy. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was anxious that Italian strength be reduced before German forces arrived to bolster their ally.

The British had drawn up plans to carry out such an operation if war had broken out during the Munich Crisis of 1938. These were reactivated when the author, Rear Admiral Lumley Lyster, arrived in September 1940 aboard the new fleet carrier Illustrious to reinforce Cunningham's existing carrier, Eagle. Originally it was intended to strike with both carriers on 21 October, Trafalgar Day, but plans had to be changed because of fire damage to Illustrious and action damage to Eagle. Some of the latter's aircraft from 813 and 824 Squadrons were transferred to Illustrious to reinforce her complement of 815 and 819 Squadrons. Twenty-four Swordfish torpedo bombers were available instead of the planned thirty-six.

On 6 November 1940 HMS Illustrious sailed for Operation 'Judgement', to be undertaken on the night of 11-12 November. Accidental losses reduced the actual strike to twenty-one Swordfish, a first wave of twelve but only nine in the second. Eleven aircraft were armed with torpedoes, the remainder carrying flares and bombs. Reconnaissance flights by R.A.F. Glenn Martin aircraft operating from Malta confirmed the presence of the whole Italian fleet.

The Italians possessed no radar, but a patrolling RAF Sunderland flying-boat had alerted their defences before the Swordfish in the first wave arrived at 2258 hours. The leader, Lieutenant-Commander K. Williamson, recalled the terrific if largely ineffective anti-aircraft fire:

'There suddenly appeared ahead the most magnificent firework display I had ever seen. The whole area was full of red and blue bullets. They appeared to approach very slowly until they were just short of the aircraft, then suddenly accelerated and whistled past.'

The aircraft may have been few in number, but their crews were highly experienced and the result was catastrophic for the Italians. Five torpedoes struck three battleships, Littorio Veneto, Caio Duilio and Conte di Cavour. The first two were recommissioned by mid-May 1941, but Cavour was never repaired. The attack immediately halved the strength of the Italian battlefleet and the surviving ships took refuge in Naples, further away from the area of operations.

The Italian fleet had been neutralised, for the loss of two aircraft, a remarkable victory for such a small force. Understandably, the Fleet Air Arm celebrate their victory on 'Taranto Night' to this day. When the Italians seemed to have recovered from this hammer blow in the spring of 1941, the Royal Navy won another decisive victory at the Battle of Cape Matapan. - Wikipedia



Taranto harbour, a year before the Royal Navy Swordfish made their now famous attack. It certainly was a target-rich environment.



A reconnaissance photo taken prior to the raid revealed a half-dozen battleships and cruisers in the harbour and many destroyers. The stains in the water are silt clouds churned up by the ships as they manoeuvre. RN Photo



An 820 Naval Air Squadron Swordfish banks to turn across the bow of HMS Ark Royal. On 26 May, 1941, a Swordfish from the Ark Royal located Bismarck and began to shadow her, while the Home Fleet was mobilized to pursue.

The Sinking Of the Bismarck



820 Squadron Swordfish fly past Ark Royal. It was in a looser formation, but in terrible weather and high seas in May, 1941 that fifteen torpedo-bearing Swordfish bombers were sent to delay Bismarck. The cruiser HMS Sheffield, also shadowing Bismarck, was between Ark Royal and her prey. The aircraft mistook the British cruiser for their target and fired torpedoes. The torpedoes were fitted with unreliable magnetic detonators, that caused most to explode on contact with the water, while Sheffield evaded the rest. After realizing his mistake, one of the pilots signalled 'Sorry for the kipper' to Sheffield. On return to the carrier, the Swordfish were re-armed with contact-detonator warheads, and launched at 19:15 for a second attack; locating and attacking Bismarck just before sunset. Three torpedoes hit the battleship: two impacted forward of the engine rooms, while the third struck the port steering room and jammed her rudder in a port turn. Bismarck was forced to sail in circles until a combination of alternating propeller speeds was found which would keep her on a reasonably steady course which, in the prevailing force 8 wind and sea state, forced her to sail towards the British warships with almost no manouevring capability. The German battleship suffered heavy attack during 26–27 May, and sank at 10:39 hours on 27 May.



Let's do launch! A nice shot of Swordfish ranged on the deck of Ark Royal and warming up for a launch. Judging from the paint schemes and the weather, it is possible that this photo and the two previous were taken on or near the same day. Royal Navy Photo




It doesn't take too much imagination to envisage the destruction the surface raider Bismarck would have wrought should she have broken out into the Atlantic. Here, one of her broadsides creates a massive fireball and certainly a concussive blow - and that is just the delivery system! She was able to dispatch the battleship Hood from miles away, so one can grasp the potential danger to slow moving and basically unarmed convoys like the one Pilot Officer Bill McRae was in at the time Bismarck attempted to break out. One can see that this battleship would simply pick off each and every one of the ships in any convoy. This photo was taken on Prinz Eugen as Bismarck was firing on Prince of Wales, having just dispatched Hood.



Gone in a flash. The crew of His Majesty's Ship Hood, good men and true, vanished in minutes when one of Bismarck's shells ripped through her decks to explode in one of her aft magazines during the Battle of Denmark Strait. The battle cruiser split in two and sank in three minutes with only three of her 1,418 crew members surviving. The blow to the pride of the Royal Navy was devastating and Churchill put all available resources to the task of finding and sinking the Bismarck. Royal Navy Photo

The Channel Dash



German battleships and attendant escorts race up the English Channel

The Channel Dash, (codenamed Operation Cerberus by the Germans), was a major naval engagement during World War II in which a German Kriegsmarine squadron consisting of both Scharnhorst class battleships (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau), and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen along with escorts, ran a British blockade and successfully sailed from Brest in Brittany to their home bases in Germany via the English Channel.

On 11 February 1942, the Kriegsmarine's ships left Brest at 21:15 and escaped detection for more than 12 hours, approaching the Straits of Dover without discovery. As the German ships passed through the straits and on into the North Sea, British armed forces intercepted them, and attacks were made by the Royal Air Force, the Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Artillery. The attacks and bombardment were unsuccessful, and by 13 February all the Kriegsmarine's ships had completed their transit. In support of the German naval operation, the Luftwaffe launched Operation Donnerkeil (Thunderbolt) to provide air superiority for the passage of the ships.

The British commanding officer was Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay of the Royal Navy. Available for him were six destroyers, which should have been on four-hour standby in the Thames Estuary but were not. There were also three Hunt-class destroyer escorts, but they had no torpedo tubes and so posed little threat to the well-armoured German ships, while the 32 Motor Torpedo Boats of the Dover and Ramsgate flotillas under Ramsay's command were counterbalanced by the German flotilla of E-boats. For various reasons, aircraft from the Fleet Air Arm, RAF Coastal Command and RAF Bomber Command were unable to provide an effective level of support.

This was partly because all services expected the Germans to time their dash through the Channel so that the most dangerous point at Dover-Calais (where the ships would need to move within range of British coastal batteries) would be passed by night. However the Germans considered it far more important to maintain the element of surprise for as long as possible by slipping out of Brest unnoticed at night, thus avoiding the 12-hour warning that an early daytime departure would have given the British. The British were wrong-footed by the audacious German move. Night reconnaissance patrols of the Fleet Air Arm did not detect the departure of the ships from Brest because their radars failed. The first indication that something was happening came from RAF radar operators under Squadron Leader Bill Igoe, who noticed an unusually high level of German air-activity over the Channel. The ships were then spotted in the Channel by the pilots of two Spitfires of RAF Fighter Command, but as they were under strict orders not to break radio silence and had not been briefed to look for the German fleet, they did not inform their superiors until they landed.

Fighter Command was not expected to be the first to spot the German fleet in the Channel, and valuable time was lost reporting the sighting up the chain of command and on to the Royal Navy and Bomber Command. Uncoordinated attacks by motor boats and six Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish torpedo biplanes launched from Manston (in an operation formally referred to as "Operation Fuller") failed to inflict any damage. However, the courage of the Swordfish crews was noted by friend and foe. Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde — a veteran of the chase of the battleship Bismarck — was lost along with his entire detachment of torpedo bombers, and was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. Only five crew survived out of eighteen. 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", while 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".

Esmonde led the 825 Squadron of six Swordfish aircraft to attack the German ships. The squadron encountered a hail of fire from the German ships off Calais in their desperate but unsuccessful attempt at least to damage the enemy vessels. Esmonde’s plane sustained a direct hit, just after he had fired its torpedo, he continued the run-in towards his target until his plane burst into flames and crashed into the sea. The attack continued and three of the other Swordfish were also shot down and their crews killed. Five men of Esmonde’s flight survived, four of them wounded. The four officers received the DSO, while the sole rating who survived received the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Admiral Ramsey stated that ‘the gallant sortie of these six Swordfish constitutes one of the finest exhibitions of self sacrifice and devotion to duty that the war has yet witnessed’. Esmonde was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions, which was gazetted on the 3rd March 1942. A memorial to Eugene Esmonde is at Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham, Kent.




A nice shot of a Swordfish crewman handing up equipment to a Swordfish Observer.




Deck ratings on a RN carrier arming up a Swordfish prior to a sortie.



The weapon of choice for attacking battleships was the torpedo. Here we see torpedoes being fitted to land-based Swordfish of the Royal Navy




Slow and lumbering at the very beginning of the war, the Swordfish's unique abilities as a stable platform for bombs, rockets and torpedoes made her a valuable fighting asset right to the end of the war as witnessed by these “Stringbags” with D-Day invasion stripes and under-wing rockets.



Auction of Fairey Swordfish held on Ernie Simmons' field near Tillsonburg, Ontario, Canada back on the Labor Day weekend in 1970. Swordfish No. HS554, the Vintage Wings of Canada airframe, flew for a grand total of 362 hours with the Eastern Air Command based in the Canadian Maritimes. It was sold at this auction for the sum of $1,630 to Bob Spence of Muirkirk, Ontario. After a major restoration, this Swordfish took its next maiden flight on the Labor Day weekend, 1991.

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