Fairey Swordfish

Introduction and Development

The Fairey Swordfish was the most important British biplane of the Second World War. Despite its outdated appearance, it was a reasonably modern aircraft in 1939, having only entered service in 1936. It was designed to fulfil two of the three main Fleet Air Arm requirements for aircraft, acting as both a torpedo bomber and spotter-reconnaissance aircraft. The “Stringbag”, as she became known, outlived the aircraft designed to replace her and remained in service until the end of the war.

The Air Ministry, who controlled the Fleet Air Arm until May 1939, was interested in the new design, and ordered a prototype. This aircraft, the TSR I (Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance) first flew on 21 March 1933. It crashed on 11 September 1933, having entered a non-recoverable spin. However it had been a promising enough aircraft for the Air Ministry to fund a second prototype, the TSR II, which became the first Swordfish prototype.

The main changes made to the TSR II were designed to prevent a repetition of the spin that had destroyed the TSR I. The fuselage was made two feet longer, the top wing swept back by four degrees and the vertical stabilizer and rudder increased in size. It was powered by the 690hp Bristol Pegasus IIIM3 air-cooled radial engine.

Fairey Swordfish being launched by catapult

The TSR II first flew on 17 April 1934. It took suffered a serious crash, in February 1935, but was later rebuilt. Despite the crash, the Air Ministry ordered three pre-production aircraft for use in their own tests, and then in May 1935 placed an order for 86 Swordfish Mk Is. The Swordfish entered squadron service with No. 825 squadron of the Fleet Air Arm in July 1936. It replaced the Fairey Seal, Blackburn Baffin and Blackburn Shark in Fleet Air Arm service, and by the outbreak of war in 1939 was the only torpedo bomber in use with the Royal Navy.

By the time production ended on 18 August 1944, a total of 2,396 Swordfish had been built, the majority (1,699) by Blackburn, who took over the large scale production of the Swordfish from 1941 to allow Fairey to concentrate on its successors.

Combat Record

In September 1939 the Swordfish equipped thirteen squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm, eleven of them serving on the five fleet carriers HMS Ark Royal, Courageous, Eagle, Furious and Glorious. For the first six months of the war, there were no suitable targets for the Swordfish, but that changed in April 1940 when the Germans invaded Norway. The first important Swordfish sortie came on 11 April 1940, when aircraft from HMS Furious made an unsuccessful attack on German destroyers at Trondheim. Better was soon to come – on 13 April a Swordfish catapulted from the battleship HMS Warspite sank U-64, the first of many U-boats to be sunk by the Fleet Air Arm.

Plans of Fairey Swordfish
Plans of Fairey Swordfish

The Norwegian episode inflicted crucial damage on the German navy, but was not without cost to the British. The Glorious was sunk on 8 June by the German battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Land based Swordfish made an attack on the Scharnhorst, but failed to record any hits on the German ship, and two of the six Swordfish involved were lost. The Swordfish would make another, more famous, but more costly, attempt to sink the same two ships in 1942. On 12 February 1942 the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst made a break along the English Channel, in an attempt to reach safety in Germany. The British response was hampered by poor weather, but six Swordfish of No. 825 Squadron, then based onshore at RAF Manston, were launched against the German fleet. Under the command of Lt. Commander Eugene Esmonde, the Swordfish reached their targets, but the German ships were protected by land based fighters, and all six Swordfish were lost, without being able to inflict any damage on the German ships.

Fairey Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm

Between these two attacks on the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, the Swordfish had played an important role in the sinking of the Bismarck. In May 1941 she was the most powerful ship in the German navy, and so the danger when she attempted to break out into the Atlantic was immense. Every available Royal Navy vessel was diverted to hunt for the Bismarck. Amongst them were the carriers HMS Ark Royal and Victorious. The Victorious launched the first Swordfish attack on the Bismarck, on the night of 24/25 May 1941, under the command of the same Eugene Esmonde. This attack scored one hit, but it was the second attack, launched from the Ark Royal, that inflicted critical damage on the Bismarck, destroying her steering gear and jamming her rudders. Unable to effectively steer, the Bismarckwas doomed. On 27 May she was finished off by surface ships of the Royal Navy.

The Swordfish’s most famous exploit came in the Mediterranean. The entry of Italy into the war posed a major threat to the British position. The Italian navy could boast a significant number of modern battleships, and with the French knocked out of the war the British had to face them alone, at a time when most of the fleet was needed to guard against a breakout by the German capital ships.

Fairey Swordfish from above
Fairey Swordfish from above

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham decided that the best solution to his problems would be to launch a torpedo bomber attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto. Originally scheduled for 21 October 1940, the attack was eventually carried out on 11 November 1940. A force of 21 Swordfish from HMS Eagle and Illustrious attacked in two waves. Of those aircraft, eleven carried torpedoes, six bombs and four flares. Six torpedoes struck Italian battleships, sinking one (the Conte di Cavour), forcing the Caio Duilio to beach and badly damaging the Luttorio. The naval balance in the Mediterranean swung back towards Britain.

Fairey Swordfish on HMS Tracker
Fairey Swordfish
on HMS Tracker

Interested observers were the Japanese, who revised their plans for war in light of the British success at Taranto, leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The significance of the attack on Taranto was that it had been believed that torpedo bombers would be unable to attack ships in the shallow waters of a harbour, but this belief had been proven false.

The Swordfish continued to operate in the Mediterranean through 1941, taking part in the battle of Matapan (28 March 1941) and launching a series of less famous attacks on Italian shipping.

The role of the Swordfish soon began to alter. It was increasingly vulnerable while making its long slow torpedo dropping runs, while the number of good targets for it was dropping. With the appearance of the rocket armed Swordfish Mk III the aircraft gained a new role in anti submarine warfare, operating from a new generation of escort carriers. The first success with the new weapon came on 13 May 1943, when Swordfish launched from HMS Archer sank U-752. The Swordfish proved to be a very effective anti-submarine weapon – memorable achievements including the sinking of three U-boats in 48 hours by aircraft operating from HMS Fencer in May 1944, and of four U-boats during a single convoy by aircraft from HMS Vindex in September 1944.

At its peak the Swordfish was in use with 26 squadrons, and even by 1945 it was still being used by nine first line squadrons. It had outlived the Fairey Albacore, designed to replace it. It had served as a mine layer, torpedo bomber, normal bomber, anti-submarine warfare aircraft and spotter aircraft for the Royal Navy’s capital ships.


Mk I

By the time it entered service in 1936 the Swordfish already looked outdated. Not only a biplane, it also had two open cockpits, one for the pilot and one for the navigator/ observer and telegraphist/ air gunner. Communication between the crewmen was via Gosport Tubes (rubber voice pipes).

Fairey Swordfish being launched by catapult

The Swordfish undercarriage could take wheels (for use from carriers or from land) or floats (for use from capital ships). Performance suffered when the floats were in use, but the Swordfish was hardly a sparkling performer at the best of time, with a top speed of only 135mph! 

The Mk I was armed with one forward firing .303in Vickers gun, and one rear-firing Lewis or Vickers “K” gun, of the same calibre, mounted on a Fairey High Speed Gun Mounting. The Swordfish was not fast enough to need a power operated gun. When not in use the rear gun could be stowed in a slot in the fuselage behind the rear cockpit.

The main weapon for the Swordfish Mk I was the 18-inch torpedo, but it could also carry a range of bombs, mines and depth charges, both under the fuselage and on bomb racks under the wings.


Fairey Swordfish II Diving
Fairey Swordfish II Diving

The success of the basic Swordfish design is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that it took until 1943 for the Mk II to enter service. By that time the Fairey Barracuda was finally beginning to enter service, reducing the need for the Swordfish to operate as a torpedo bomber.

The Swordfish Mk II was modified to allow it to carry a wider range of weapons. Most significantly it was given four rocket rails under each wing, capable of carrying either 60lb high explosive or 25lb armour piercing rocket projectiles. The under side of the lower wings were given a metal skin to protect them against the rocket flame. It could also carry bombs under the inner wings.

To compensate for the increased weight, the majority of Mk IIs were equipped with the 750 hp Bristol Pegasus XXX engine, which gave the Mk II slightly better performance figures than the Mk I.


Somewhat ironically the final version of the Swordfish was actually unable to carry a torpedo. That capacity was sacrificed in favour of more powerful anti-shipping radar, the ASV Mk XI, capable of detecting targets as small as a U-boat's schnorkel, and with a maximum range of 37 miles. The Swordfish now relied on its rockets and bombs for its offensive firepower. Although the removal of the torpedo somewhat reduced the take-off problems seen with a fully loaded Mk II, from 1944 the Swordfish was able to use Rocket Assisted Take-Off Gear, especially useful when the Swordfish was operating from the smaller escort carriers and converted merchant ships later in the war. The Mk III entered service in 1943, and was often used in partnership with the Mk II.


The Swordfish Mk IV referred to a small number of Swordfish Mk IIs given enclosed cockpits to cope with the Canadian winter. They were operated by the Naval Air Gunnery School at Yarmouth in Nova Scotia.


Mk I
Engine: Bristol Pegasus IIIM
Horsepower: 690
Max Speed: 139 mph at 4,750 feet
Ceiling: 12,400 feet
Span: 45ft 6in
Length: 36ft 1in
Defensive Armament: one fixed forward firing .303in machine gun and one rear firing .303in machine gun in rear cockpit.
Offensive Armament: Fuselage: One 18in torpedo, one 1,500lb or two 500lb bombs 
Wings: one 500lb bomb (or a similar weight of smaller bombs) or three 246lb depth charges under each wing.


Engine: Bristol Pegasus XXX
Horsepower: 750
Max Speed: 138mph at sea level (landplane)
Ceiling: 19,250ft
Span: 45ft 6in
Length: 35ft 8in
Range: 546 miles
Defensive Armament: one fixed forward firing .303in machine gun and one rear firing .303in machine gun in rear cockpit.
Offensive Armament: One 18in torpedo, up to 1,500lb of bombs, mines or depth charges or eight 60lb high explosive or 25lb armour piercing rocket projectiles

Torpedo Bombers 1900-1950, Jean-Denis Lepage. Looks at the fairly short history of the torpedo bomber, focusingly mainly on the aircraft themselves, with a series of historical introductions looking at the development of the torpedo and torpedo bomber, and each of the historical periods the book is split into. The book is built around hundreds of short articles on the individual aircraft, each supported by at least one of the author’s own illustrations. Very useful for the earlier period, and well into the Second World War, perhaps less so later on, reflecting the decline of the actual torpedo bomber!(Read Full Review)
cover cover cover

Air War Index - Air War Links - Air War Books

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (25 April 2007), Fairey Swordfish, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_fairey_swordfish.html

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy