One of the most important and effective com- bat aircraft of World War II was an outdated, open-cockpit, biplane—the Fairey Swordfish, called the “Stringbag” by those who flew it. Carrier-based Swordfish torpedo bombers stopped the German battleship Bismarck (enabling British warships to sink her), destroyed the Italian battle fleet in a daring night attack at Taranto, and sank an estimated 20 German U-boats.
The Royal Navy still flies two Swordfish, both more than 55 years old, as part of its Historic Flight. Based at the Royal Navy Air Station Yeovilton in southwest England, the Swordfish are limited to 50 flight hours per year. Most of their flying time is devoted to air shows, where they have been an effective recruiting tool. Periodically, they take VIPs aloft to demonstrate what “real” naval aviation is all about.
The Swordfish, which first flew in 1934, was the principal British carrier aircraft when World War II began in September 1939. While the U.S. and Japanese air forces had monoplanes in their first-line carrier squadrons, the Royal Navy, frustrated by the Royal Air Force in its efforts to modernize, flew the Swordfish from carriers as a torpedo, dive-bombing, antisubmarine, and reconnaissance aircraft. Fitted with twin floats it also flew as a spotting aircraft from surface ships, and the Royal Air Force flew the Swordfish from land bases. Production totaled 2,391 aircraft built by the Fairey and Blackburn firms, the last delivered in December 1944. But they remained in Navy squadrons only until May 1945, a few days after the war ended in Europe.
The two Swordfish at Yeovilton are flown by volunteer active-duty Fleet Air Arm Harrier pilots; the highly qualified ground crews are civilians employed by the Swordfish Heritage Trust.
Also flown by the Historic Flight or undergoing restoration to flight status are a Fairey Firefly fighter, Hawker Sea Fury, and Hawker Sea Hawk, one of the Royal Navy’s first jet aircraft. A third Swordfish also is being rebuilt for flight demonstrations. The flight also has a couple of Chipmunks, small training aircraft to keep the pilots current in piston-engine aircraft.
Although these are historic and rare aircraft, there are other models of each preserved in museums, while some remain airworthy with other organizations and private individuals.