"FAIREY SWORDFISH HS554" ©2000, enhanced photo by Lance Russwurm


While it isn't unusual for a lumbering, outmoded anachronism to continue in service (such as fifty year old B-52's soldiering on in U.S. service), few of these had as successful a career as the Fairey Swordfish.


The design dated back to the early thirties when the British Air Ministry issued specification S.9/30 for a "fleet spotter reconnaissance aircraft". The Fairey Aviation Company submitted a privately financed design. Later design improvements led to the designation "Torpedo spotter reconnaissance".


It was a large, slow biplane with a low wing loading, ideal for actions 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 governments 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 seater airplane could easily lift off a carrier deck with a standard 18 inch 1,610 lb. torpedo slung between the wheels under the fuselage. It's ungainly looks gave it the nickname "Stringbag", after a type of shopping bag used to carry all manner of things by old English ladies.


In spite of it's seeming lack of sophistication, the Swordfish was to prove excellent in its intended role. Although highly vulnerable to attack by fighter planes, it's low speed and stable stance made it easy to line up for a torpedo attack, coming in from abeam of a hostile vessel, while staying below the level the enemy ships could fire their guns. It's slow flying speed made landings much safer on carriers.....into the wind, the closing speed could be as little as 30 knots.


Because they were helpless against fighters, these airplanes were usually only operated far out sea, where land based opposition could not reach. Swordfish based at Malta were operated at night and were all but invulnerable to the opposition. Starting in 1940, squadrons of Swordfish stationed here had sunk more than a million and a half tons of enemy shipping....a record never to be equaled. Maintenance was a breeze on such a simple design.



Swordfish were used tentatively for escort duty at the very beginning, until they had a chance to prove themselves. This soon came to pass, when a floatplane version, flown by W.M.L. Brown  off the HMS WARSPITE was used to spot for the guns of that ship, resulting in the destruction of seven German destroyers. (Brown dealt the finishing blow to one of these with a bomb from his aircraft). Shortly afterwards, the same pilot executed the first dive bombing attack by the Fleet Air Arm, resulting in the sinking of a U-boat.

The Swordfish became legend when they made naval history at TARANTO, Italy. The modern Italian fleet was anchored here on the night of November 11, 1940. That evening, two strike forces of twelve aircraft each, were launched from the aircraft carrier HMS ILLUSTRIOUS.  Under a full moon, with total tactical surprise,  they evaded heavy fire and barrage balloons around the port, came in low and sank one battleship and crippled two others.   A heavy cruiser and a destroyer were also severely damaged. This strike reduced Italian naval power by half, for a loss of only two Swordfish (one crew). 

The Japanese envoy in Italy took a great interest in this attack, studying its execution carefully. The Taranto raid, by proving the vulnerability of closely moored ships to aerial attack from aircraft carriers, showed the way to the future of air power.  He was shortly recalled to Tokyo and was instrumental in planning the attack on Pearl Harbor against the Americans. This, of course, had an immense effect on world events and the course of the war.

The other fabled exploit by Swordfish involves their part in the sinking of the famous BISMARCK.

After a long cat-and-mouse sea chase by the Royal Navy, it was  two torpedo hits from Swordfish of 818 Squadron,  operating off the carrier HMS ARK ROYAL,  that finally succeeeded in damaging the steering and crippling the German ship. This allowed other fleet ships to catch and destroy her with gunfire and surface torpedoes.

Swordfish assembled in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia were used on merchant ships with hastlly added flight decks to guard convoys in the Atlantic. These were known as MERCHANT AIRCRAFT CARRIERS or MAC ships, for short. 

Special Canadian closed cockpit versions were used throughout the war in Naval Air Gunner and torpedo training out of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  They were even used by Canada briefly after the war, until being replaced by Fairey Fireflies and Supermarine Seafires. (the navalized Spitfire)

A total of 2, 396 Swordfish were built.

After being withdrawn from service, seven were bought as scrap for $50 each by ERNIE SIMMONS, an eccentric Tillsonburg collector. There they languished, severely deteriorating,  exposed to the elements, until Mr. Simmons death in 1970.

One of these aircraft was purchased at auction by Bob Spence, of Muirkirk, Ontario. Mr. Spence undertook  the huge task of a private restoration and finally, in 1992, the aircraft was flown again. It is now a much loved fixture on the airshow circuit, and is one of only two flying examples in the world. The other is in Britain. 

article by Lance Russwurm





MANUFACTURER: Fairey Aircraft Co. Ltd./ Blackburn Aircraft Co. Ltd.

TYPE: two or three seat, carrier based, or floatplane equipped torpedo bomber, spotter, reconnaissance naval aircraft

POWERPLANT: one 690 hp. Bristol PegasusIIIM.3 or one 750hp. Pegasus XXX


DIMENSIONS: WING SPAN: 45' 6" (17' 3" with wings folded), LENGTH: 36' 4", HEIGHT: 12' 10", WING AREA: 607 sq. ft.

PERFORMANCE: MAXIMUM SPEED: 139 mph., CRUISING SPEED: 104-129 mph., CLIMB TO 5000 FT: 19 minutes, 0 seconds, RANGE: 350 nm, SERVICE CEILING: 15,000 feet

ARMAMENT: one fixed .303 Browning mg and/or one flexible .303 Lewis or Vickers mg aft. OFFENSIVE: one 18" 1,650 lb under slung torpedo, or, one 1,500 lb mine, or, three 500 lb bombs, or, two 550 lb and two 250 lb bombs, or, three Mk. VII depth charges, or, eight 60 lb rockets.