The Fairey Fulmar was a moderately successful fighter aircraft that served with the Fleet Air Arm from 1940 until 1943, despite suffering from a lack of speed and a poor climb rate, at least when compared to its main opponents. The Fulmar did have good low level speed, which could be important against torpedo bombers, but it suffered from the Admiralty's insistence on two-seat fighters in the pre-war years.
The Fulmar resembled a smaller version of the Fairey Battle, and was indeed developed from that aircraft. On 12 November 1934 the Air Ministry issued Specification P.4/34, for a light bomber to replace the Hawker Hart. The new aircraft had to have a high top speed and be able to carry a 500lb bomb load for 600 miles. It was to be used as a day-bomber, diver-bomber, reconnaissance aircraft and fighter-bomber.
Fairey responded with the P.4/34, designed by Marcel Lobelle, and based on the Battle. The wingspan was reduced by some five feet, and the length by two feet. At this stage weight was also down, and the P.4/34 had a cleaner fuselage and better canopy design. The new Fairey design lost out to the Hawker Henley, although two prototypes were ordered. The first made its maiden flight on 13 January 1937, the second on 19 April. Early tests suggested that the new aircraft was pleasant to fly, but a little too directionally stable.
Early in 1938 the Fleet Air Arm issued a request for a new two-seat fighter. The new fighter was to be able to reach 265mph at 10,000ft and to have an endurance of six hours at 138mph or three hours at 175mph. It was to be armed with eight .303in guns, each with 400 rounds, and to be able to carry two 250lb bombs under each wing. The wing span had to be less than 46ft to allow the aircraft to fit onto carrier lifts. The second P.4/34 prototype, which had been returned to Fairey, became the test bed for this specification. The wings were shortened and the Merlin VIII engine installed. At the same time plans were made to install the eight guns in the wings.
The P.4/34 already had many of the characteristics that would make it a good naval aircraft. It was stressed for dive bombing, which made it robust enough for catapult launches and deck landings, and its wide-track undercarriage made it easy to land, as did the good visibility from the cockpit. It also had the long range required for a good naval fighter. Most changes involved the installation of naval equipment - folding wings, catapult and arrestor hooks, a dinghy and naval radios, as well as the new wings with room for the eight guns. These changes meant that the Fulmar would have the same loaded weight as the Battle, although it remained faster.
Fairey's design was accepted by the Admiralty, and in May 1938 Specification O.8/38 was issued. At the same time 127 aircraft were ordered, although they couldn't be delivered before March 1940. The first and fifth aircraft were selected for tests. The first made its maiden flight on 4 January 1940, then went for tests at Farnborough and with the A&AEE. These tests showed the new aircraft to have light and responsive controls, and to be easy and pleasant to fly.
There were only two production versions of the Fulmar. The Mk.I was powered by the Merlin VIII, while the Mk.II used the Merlin 30. This new engine significantly improved the Fulmar's rate of climb, making it a rather better interceptor. A total of 600 production aircraft were built, 150 Mk Is and 450 Mk IIs. Some of the last Mk IIs had the eight .303in guns replaced with four .50in guns to give the aircraft more stopping power.
The Fulmar was used by twenty one front line Fleet Air Arm squadrons, serving on the Home Front, on the Russian convoys and in the Far East, although its main use was in the Mediterranean. The Fulmar was also used on the early Catapult Armed Merchantmen, or CAM-ships. Most squadrons replaced their Fulmars during 1942 or 1943, although No.835 kept it until April 144 and No.813 until March 1945.
The Admiralty was well aware that a two-seat naval fighter would not be able to match the performance of a dedicated single-seat land-based fighter, but until 1940 didn't believe that its naval fighters would be operating within range of enemy fighters. To a certain extent this view was justified - like the Spitfire the Bf 109 had a very limited range, which meant that would only be found close to the German coast, an area in which the fleet carriers were unlikely to be found anyway.
This belief would be shattered during the spring and summer of 1940. The German invasion of Norway saw the Fleet Air Arm clash with high performance German fighters, although still in a limited theatre. The fall of France was more serious, giving the Germans fight bases across the Atlantic coast, but perhaps the most dangerous development was the appearance of high performance German aircraft in the Mediterranean. The older British fighters, including the Blackburn Skua, were outpaced by the quicker German bombers, and when it entered service the Fulmar would also turn out to be a little too slow, although still a great improvement.
The Fulmar entered service with No.806 Naval Air Squadron in June 1940. The first few aircraft and their crews remained in the United Kingdom while their carrier, the new HMS Illustrious, went on her work-up cruise to Bermuda. They would join the carrier after its return to the UK. No.808 Squadron was second, getting its Fulmars when it was formed in July 1940. This squadron then moved to Scotland, becoming one of only two Fleet Air Arm squadrons to take part in the Battle of Britain (although without encountering the Germans). In October No.808 joined the Ark Royal. No.807 Squadron was third, followed by No.803.
No.806 Squadron, on HMS Illustrious, began its maiden operational cruise on 22 August 1940, entering the Mediterranean on 31 August. The Fulmar's first combat came on 2 September 1940, when four Savoia Marchetti SM 79s were shot down, while a Cant Z501 flying-boat was claimed later in the day. The Illustrious took part in fighting around Crete and an attack on Benghazi after the start of the short-lived Italian invasion of Egypt.
The Ark Royal was next to take her Fulmars into combat, bringing No.808 Squadron to join Force H. Her early clashes were with the Italians, but early in 1941 the Germans appeared on the scene, when X Fliegerkorps was moved to Italy to help Mussolini. The Illustrious was the first to suffer, during a convoy to Malta in January 1941. On 10 January Italian torpedo-bombers were driven away by the Fulmars, but they were followed by 43 German Ju 87s. This time the Fulmars were swept aside and the Illustrious was heavily damaged. The Fulmers had to fly off to Malta, where they were eventually joined by the carrier. No.806 Squadron operated as a shore-based squadron for some time after this, spending one month on Malta before moving to Crete. This early contact with the Germans was not encouraging. The Fulmar didn't have the speed to catch most German aircraft, or to stay with them for long enough to do serious damage with the .303in guns.
Next into the Mediterranean was No.803 Squadron on HMS Formidable. She had a somewhat lengthy journey to Alexandria, starting in December 1940 when she escorted a convoy to Sierra Leone, before sailing around Africa to reach Alexandria via the Suez Canal in March 1941. Once there she was joined by No.806 Squadron. The two squadrons took part in the fighting around Crete and in attempts to get convoys through to Malta. They were faced by large numbers of German aircraft, and were unable to prevent them inflicting serious damage on the Formidable.
More Fulmars arrived with No.800 Squadron in May 1941, but this force was soon dispersed. It arrived as three flights on three carriers, but one soon ended up on Malta, where it flew night intruder missions over Sicily, another returned to the UK after a few weeks and the third was diverted to take part in the hunt for the Bismarck.
The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen left port on 18 May. Six days later came the fateful encounter with HMS Hood, and the two German ships escaped into the Atlantic. The third of No.800 Squadron's flights, on HMS Victorious, took part in the hunt for the Bismarck, helping locating the German battleship before an attack by the Victorious's Swordfish. After the failure of this attack the Victorious fell out of the hunt, and took up a new position blocking the routes into the South Atlantic.
The Fulmar was granted a second wind after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The Luftwaffe withdrew from Italy to support the invasion, leaving the Italians to fight alone. Once again the Fulmars were able to score a series of victories, although were unable to prevent heavy losses being suffered by the Malta convoys.
The Fulmar was used in action by a number of shore-based squadrons. As mentioned above Nos.803 and 806 Squadrons were shore-based after the damage to the Formidable. No.803 kept its Fulmars, and used them during the campaign in Syria and the Lebanon in the summer of 1941. The Fulmar did not acquit itself well against the Dewoitine D.520, although was more successful against Glenn Martin bombers.
1941 also saw the Fleet Air Arm form a RN Fighter Squadron to fight in the Western Desert. Several of the component squadrons had been using the Fulmar, but this squadron was facing the Bf 109, and so no Fulmars were used on the front line.
The Fulmar faced a similar problem on the far north, where it was used to escort convoys to Russia and to support attacks on German positions in northern Norway. The Fulmar was unable to cope with the Bf 109 or Bf 110, leaving the aircraft they were escorting vulnerable to attack.
Nos.809 and 844 Squadrons took part in Operation Pedestal, which saw five carriers escort a convoy heading for Malta. Both squadrons were based on HMS Victorious, but by now the Fulmar was not the Fleet Air Arm's main fighter - that role had been taken by the Sea Hurricane and the Grumman Martlet. The Fulmars scored some victories during this campaign, but suffered equal losses. No.809 returned to the area once more, taking part in Operation Torch from 8 November until 13 November. During this short period the Fulmars acted as army support and tactical reconnaissance aircraft.
The Japanese entry into the war forced the navy to move some resources east to deal with this new threat. HMS Indomitable took her Fulmars to Addu Atoll in March 1942, although managed to avoid a confrontation with the powerful Japanese fleet that raided the Indian Ocean.
Other squadrons were less fortunate. Nos.803 and 806 arrived on Ceylon in March 1942 with their Fulmars, while No.273 Squadron, RAF, was equipped with spare Fulmars, replacing its obsolete Vickers Vildebeests.
On 5 April the Japanese attacked Ceylon. No.273 Squadron was caught on the ground at Ratmalana, and lost four of the six aircraft that got into the air. Things were less uneven during the second Japanese raid on 9 April. This time the defending aircraft received advance warning of the attack, and were in position to intercept the Japanese. Twenty four Japanese aircraft were claimed for the loss of eight Hurricanes and only one Fulmar.
All three squadrons attempted to send fighters to the aid of the elderly carrier HMS Hermes when she was attacked by 85 dive bombers. The first six Fulmars arrived while the carrier was still afloat, but crippled, while another eight arrived after she had sunk. Once again the combat that followed was fairly even, with four Japanese aircraft claimed for two losses. This was the last engagement for the land based Fulmars in the Far East, but a small number were involved in the landings on Madagascar in the autumn of 1942.
Fairey Fulmar Mk.I
Engine: Rolls Royce Merlin VIII
Power: 1,080hp from sea level to 1,000ft
Wing span: 47ft 4in
Length: 40ft 2in
Height: 11ft 6in (tail down)
Empty Weight: 6,915lb
Maximum loaded weight: 10,700lb
Max Speed: 265mph at 7,500ft, 230mph at sea level
Service Ceiling: 21,500ft
Endurance: 4 hours with combat reserves
Armament: Eight .303in machine guns, eight 20lb or 25lb anti-personnel bombs
Fairey Fulmar Mk II
Engine: Rolls Royce Merlin 30
Power: 1,300hp from sea level to 1,000ft
Wing span: 47ft 4in
Length: 40ft 2in
Height: 11ft 6in
Empty Weight: 8,650lb
Maximum loaded weight: 10,350lb
Max Speed: 266mph at 9,600ft; 259mph at 9,000ft; 245mph at 15,000ft
Endurance: 5 hour 30 minutes with combat reserves
Armament: Eight .303in machine guns or four .50in machine guns
Bomb-load: Eight 20-25lb bombs or one 500lb bomb under fuselage