The Fairey Albacore was a biplane torpedo bomber, designed to replace the earlier Fairey Swordfish. While the Albacore successfully supplanted the Swordfish on the large fleet aircraft carriers, it was not as adaptable as the Swordfish, and was withdrawn from front line service in 1944, one year before the Swordfish.
The Albacore was developed in response to Air Ministry specification S.41/36. Like the Swordfish it was a single engined biplane, but unlike the Swordfish it had a comfortable enclosed and heated crew cabin, hydraulic flaps, a more powerful engine and a variable-pitch propeller.
The prototype, powered by a 1,065hp Taurus II engine, made its maiden flight on 12 December 1938. It was followed in 1939 by a second prototype, and then by the first of 798 production aircraft, powered by the 1,130hp Taurus XII. All 800 Albacores were produced at Fairey’s Hayes factory, and were delivered between 1939 and 1943.
The Albacore entered service with No.826 Squadron in March 1940, and made its operational debut on 31 May 1940, during the German blitzkrieg in the west. Although it had been designed as a carrier based torpedo bomber, in the desperate circumstances of May 1940 its first raid was a conventional bombing attack on German road and rail communications at Westende, combined with an attack on E-boats at Zeebrugge. For the rest of the year the squadron carried out a mix of night time bombing raids and convoy escort missions. Two of the remaining three Albacore squadrons formed during 1940 were also used as land-based aircraft.
The Albacore operated as a land based aircraft into 1943. As well as anti-submarine patrols and anti-shipping strikes, they were used during the fighting in North Africa, both to attack German and Italian supply convoys, and to drop flares in support of the RAF night bombers. They were also used as artillery spotters during naval bombardments of North Africa ports during and after Operation Torch. The Albacore was also used as a conventional bomber during the operation. The Albacore also operated from Malta.
On 26 November 1940 the Albacore finally went to sea, when Nos.826 and 829 Squadrons embarked on the carrier HMS Formidable. Over the next year the Albacore gradually replaced the Swordfish on the larger fleet carriers, serving on HMS Ark Royal, HMS Formidable, HMS Furious, HMS Illustrious., HMS Indomitable and HMS Victorious. Carrier based Albacores took part in the battle of Cape Matapan (March 1941), the attack on Kirkenes and Petsamo in July 1941, and an attack on the Tirpitz during 1942. However most of their duties were less glamorous (if no less important), and included convoy protection for the Russian convoys.
At its peak the Albacore equipped fifteen Fleet Air Arm squadrons, but during 1943 it was phased out in favour of the Fairey Barracuda. The last carrier-based squadron to use the Albacore was No.820 Squadron on HMS Formidable, which retained them until the end of the year, using them to support the invasion of Italy.
One of the best known facts about the Albacore is that it was withdrawn from front line service in 1944, a year before the Swordfish, despite having been designed to replace the earlier aircraft. Like so many well known facts, this is a little misleading. The Albacore had indeed replaced the Swordfish on the larger fleet aircraft carriers, before itself being replaced by the Fairey Barracuda and American Avengers. The Swordfish then went on to serve on escort carriers, which were often too small to cope with the faster, heavier Albacore.
The Albacore was also used in limited numbers by the RCAF and RAF. No.841 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm had been operating the Albacore from Manston against German shipping in the Channel and North Sea, operating under the command of RAF Fighter Command. In November 1943 No.841 Squadron was disbanded, and its Albacores passed on to No.415 Squadron, RCAF. This squadron continued to operate the Albacore against German shipping, until in July 1944 it was transferred to Bomber Command. The Albacores were then used to reform No.119 Squadron. This squadron used its Albacores against German E-boats and R-boats on operating along the Dutch coast, before in October moving to Belgium. The squadron was also used during the D-Day invasion, as part of the air effort to prevent German ships from attack in the invasion convoys. In something of an ironic twist, in this case at least the Albacore was replaced by the Swordfish, for in January 1945 the squadron converted to radar-equipped Swordfish IIIs, using them against German midget submarines and the few remaining E-boats.
Engine: Bristol Taurus XII
Wing span: 48ft 11in
Length: 39ft 11in
Height: 12ft 6in or 15ft 3in
Normal loaded weight: 10,365lb
Maximum weight: 12,500lb
Max speed: 161mph
Service ceiling: 20,700ft or 18,800ft
Normal range: 710 miles
Maximum range: 930 miles
Armament: One 0.303in machine gun in starboard lower wing plus one or two 0.303in guns in rear cockpit
Bomb load: 2,000lb of bombs or one torpedo or four Mk.VII depth charges