It’s impossible to look at the Fairey Swordfish, affectionately known as the “Stringbag,” and not say, “You have to be kidding! This was one of the Royal Navy’s most effective weapons of WW II?”
A gigantic, bi-winged personification of the word “anachronistic,” as the saying goes, the Swordfish may have been ugly, but it was really slow besides. Although ugly may be in the eye of the beholder, slow is definitely not. How would you like to be down in the white caps, boring in on a German battleship thatís looming over you while you’re doing barely 100 knots?
Although the Swordfish would have looked right at home with Snoopy in the cockpit, the truth is that what made the Swordfish so far out of place amongst its warrior peers — it’s ungainly, form-follows-function-look and decidedly slow speed — was exactly what made it so lethal. Its solid slow speed handling characteristics made it the perfect platform from which to launch torpedoes while, at the same time, giving the pilot plenty of time to zero in on his target. Of course, the folks he was aiming at had all day to zero in on him too, sometimes with tragic results.
Those working the old bird off of carriers had nothing but praise for it. The controls never lost their effectiveness, even when hanging on the edge of a stall. Plus the airplane’s slow speed made it possible to takeoff and land on decks that were pitching so violently, other, more “modern,” aircraft couldn’t even takeoff. Their landing speed was around 40 knots, which meant they practically hovered onboard a carrier that was making 20 knots into a headwind. On touchdown they were barely moving at a fast walk.
Slow speed can have advantages in combat too, especially when flying low in bad weather or darkness. This was something the Italians found out to their dismay at Taranta in November of 1940. With absolutely no warning, 21 Swordfishes clattered out of the night and nailed three of the Italian Navy’s six battleships, sinking one and so severely trashing the others that the Italian Navy never again posed a serious threat to the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.
Earlier, in Norway, the Swordfish began what was to become another of its specialties, sub hunting, by sinking U-64, the first sub to be sunk from the air by the Royal Navy in WWII. By war’s end, dozens of U-boats were to fall prey to bombs and depth charges laid down by the rattling old biplane.
The Swordfish’s moment of glory, however, came when torpedoes laid down by Swordfish from Ark Royal, disabled the pride of the German Navy, the behemoth battleship Bismark. This allowed the rest of the surface Navy to catch her and reduce her to junk. The Germans claim the crew scuttled her at the end, but the Royal Navy claims their guns did it. Either way the Swordfish was instrumental in sending it to the bottom.
A 1934 design that went into Navy service in 1936 behind an 850 hp Bristol Pegasus engine, the Swordfish was clearly obsolete by the time the war began. Still, when the war was over, there was the Stringbag, still a front line weapon. The phrase that best describes the airplane would have to be “crude, but effective” and she was plenty of both. — BUDD DAVISSON