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Fairey Swordfish I of No.820 Squadron over HMS Ark Royal
A flight of Fairey Swordfish I from No.820 Squadron fly over HMS Ark Royal
Fairey Swordfish – fluke victor?
An acquaintance who has no small knowledge of military matters put the following to me recently:
‘We all have different perspectives and experiences and mine lead me to say this:
‘I suspect that you have a higher regard for the Swordfish than is justified. Surely the successes on Bismarck and at Taranto are obvious.
‘But second hand knowledge of anti-aircraft weapons present on Bismarck declare that the aircraft were too slow to be properly tracked and thus the defensive patterns were ineffective against the FAA crews.
‘Vastly technically superior aircraft (B5N and TBD) suffered appalling losses in similar attacks. Thus I put to you that successes by type, while not totally circumstantial, must be reviewed and filtered by tactical employments.
‘The Bristol Beaufighter, in its torpedo bomber mark, while twin engined, and not carrier borne, achieved great success in the Med potting lightly guarded cargo ships due to great tactics. Yet the superior Martin B26 and Mitsubishi G4M were shot out of the sky in the pacific as torpedo attack aircraft because they were employed against weapons systems designed to cope them.
‘The Ju88 employed in Norway, and although not carrier borne, achieved great successes similar to the Beaufighters of the Med.
‘It is my observation and conclusion, that tactical employment was the deciding factor on this despite the fluke successes of the Fairey Swordfish. It was simply too slow to shoot down.’
The Royal Navy Historic Flight‘s Swordfish LF326 flying at the Yeovilton Air Day in 2011
It’s true, I have a great deal of regard for the Swordfish. I like to think that much of this regard is not merely based on sentimentality. No piece of military hardware can be considered in isolation – all are part of a package involving personnel, training, tactics, availability, serviceability etc. and even wider considerations such as strategy and supply chain. There are, it is true, a lot of myths about the Swordfish, foremost of which is that it outlasted its successor, the Albacore. This is not strictly correct – yes, the Swordfish remained in frontline service longer than the Albacore, but not in its primary role as fleet torpedo bomber. (In some cases Swordfish lasted long enough to be replaced by the Albacore’s successor, the Barracuda). The longevity of Swordfish, like that of the Hawker Hurricane, was owed primarily to its arguably coincidental suitability for alternative roles once it had become obsolete in its designed role.
I should further qualify that in an ideal world, the Fleet Air Arm would never have gone to war in 1939 with the Swordfish, at least not in its primary role. My blog ‘A Recipe For Obsolescence’ points out the muddled and complacent thinking that left the Fleet Air Arm with such an outdated concept when other major naval air arms were equipping with modern stressed-skin monoplanes. This does not detract from the opinion I hold of the qualities of the aircraft or its crews, or the value of its contribution to the war effort – it’s just that it would have been far better to start the war with something like the Fairey Barracuda.
It’s arguable that the Swordfish was utterly obsolete at the beginning of the war, possibly even by the time it first equipped Fleet Air Arm squadrons. A fabric-covered biplane in an era of stressed-skin monoplanes. A top speed little faster than a WW1 SE5a. How could it have possibly contributed anything to the war effort? How could it possibly survive in a combat environment? How could it have hamstrung the most powerful battleship afloat and knocked half the Italian Fleet out of the war without an almost ludicrous measure of luck? A fluke, in other words.
A Swordfish from 810 Squadron, one of those that attacked the Bismarck, in a relatively rare landing accident
I can understand the assertion that the Swordfish was simply too slow for modern weapons systems to cope with. It is an attractive point of view. The most modern carrier-borne torpedo bombers in service at the time of the Bismarck’s last battle were capable of anything between 60 and 100 mph faster, while land-based torpedo-bombers such as the Bristol Beaufort were faster still.
It is my view though, that the Fleet Air Arm’s successes at Taranto and against the Bismarck can be put down to more than just luck, and even down to more than luck and good tactics (although both played a part). Moreover, at least part of the success can be put down to the qualities of the aircraft, and even good design.
Why did the Bismarck not shoot down any Swordfish?
The Bismarck was attacked twice by Swordfish after the sinking of HMS Hood. Once by aircraft of 825 Squadron, HMS Victorious air group, and once by aircraft of 818 Squadron, 810 Squadron and 820 Squadron, HMS Ark Royal air group.
The first strike, from the Victorious, resulted in one torpedo hit for the loss of no aircraft. The torpedo struck on the Bismarck’s main armour belt – accounts differ as to the extent of the damage it did, some sources suggesting that the strike displaced the armour, loosened the collision mats and exacerbated the flooding caused by the hit from Prince of Wales, reducing the vessel’s speed. Other accounts suggest that the torpedo hit caused only minor damage, and it was the violence of manoeuvring that loosened the collision mats. In any event, the reduction in speed allowed the chasing Ark Royal to approach within the range of her aircraft.
The Ark Royal’s strike managed another three hits, one on the stern which caused such damage to the rudder assembly that the Bismarck was essentially unable to manoeuvre, and could be caught by the chasing capital ships and cruisers.
There are a number of reasons why the Bismarck failed to shoot down any of the Swordfish. Some of those relate to the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft system. In some respects it appears it was indeed ‘too modern’. I am no expert in anti-aircraft armament, but it is often stated that the Bismarck’s flak directors were indeed designed for faster aircraft than a Swordfish. It is not clear how much of a problem this posed. It’s hard to tell why the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft defences were established with this obvious flaw, as when the ship was under construction and being commissioned, the Swordfish remained the chief British carrier-based torpedo bomber, and its planned replacement the only-slightly-faster Albacore. The only likely French carrier-based torpedo bomber was the even slower Levasseur PL.7, which had been in service since 1930.
Inadequate anti-aircraft defence
The Bismarck’s directors having difficulty in tracking low-speed targets would have been reduced by the low deflection of the approaching Swordfish. The lower the deflection, the less the importance of the director’s ability to predict the course of an approaching aircraft. The deflection on the approaching Swordfish, at least when they were on their torpedo run, would have been virtually zero. A Swordfish (unlike later aircraft) did not have a torpedo sight that calculated the ‘lay off, which meant they had to aim the correct amount ahead of the vessel to allow for forward movement. A pilot who flew Swordfish with 810 Squadron described this to me:
“The torpedo sight was a horizontal bar on a level with the pilot’s eye line. This held twelve flashlight bulbs equally spaced. The distance between two bulbs represented 5 knots at 1,000 yards. So if the target was travelling at 20 knots and not turning towards the aircraft, the lay-off was 4 bulbs. There were no aids to assist the pilot in assessing the range from the target or the aircraft height – only the experience of the pilot. We practised constantly on friendly ‘targets’ and we had a camera which recorded our dive and which stopped when we would have dropped the torpedo.”
The ‘office’ of the Swordfish. The aircraft was rudimentary by WW2 standards
The pilot described how the aircraft would attempt to induce the captain of the vessel under attack to commit to a turn before they launched the torpedoes, so they could better judge where the ship would be than if the turn was made after the torpedo was launched. Deflection is the friend of the aircraft when it comes to evading anti-aircraft fire.
A report by the Naval Air Department of the Admiralty in April 1944 compared three methods of attack. These were approaching and escaping parallel to the target ship’s course the traditional method of approaching directly, roughly perpendicular to the ship’s course, and then turning away and approaching directly and escaping by flying over the target ship. The report indicated that the parallel attack was in fact safer in almost all circumstances as the aircraft nearly always presented a higher deflection target. In fact, in the most typical case, the parallel attack was found to be approximately eight times safer than a conventional ‘straight in’ attack as the deflection was highest. (ADM 44/122)
Furthermore, it seems that the Bismarck’s heavy flak mountings tracked too slowly to engage aircraft that were closer than around 3,000 metres, so the issue of the Swordfish being too slow may be academic.
In any case, the speed of the approaching aircraft, this was only one of the problems that affected the heavy flak. The system was fitted out with two different types of mounting due to the non-availability of the preferred type in sufficient numbers, and which were not synchronised with each other. Moreover, the heavy flak had not been tested adequately, and the crews not fully trained. To add to the vessel’s problems, some of the guns had been sited badly, and had limited arcs of fire.
The Bismarck did not have radar-laid guns, although to be fair the first of these were only just being fitted to capital ships. The directors did, however, lack any kind of stabilisation that might have helped them in the rough conditions.
The 3.7 cm SK C/30 guns mounted on the Bismarck were semi-automatic. Rounds had to be hand-loaded individually, and it was a slow-firing weapon for anti-aircraft defence. These guns did have stabilisation, but it never worked very well and was dispensed with in later designs.
In short, while the Swordfish was an obsolete pre-war design, the same accusation could be levelled at the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft defences. This would be remedied on the Tirpitz when it was being constructed, and on other heavy units of the German navy.
It’s also worth noting that the Bismarck had been at action stations for a considerable period of time. The crews were tired, stressed and undoubtedly no longer functioning at the peak of efficiency.
Having said that, it’s not as though the anti-aircraft fire failed to hit any of the aircraft. In fact, aircraft from each of the first five sub-flights in the Ark Royal strike received some hits from cannon shells and shell spinters – one aircraft was perforated 175 times, and two members of its crew of three wounded. The Swordfish reported flying into heavy and seemingly accurate flak as soon as they broke cloud. By the time the sixth sub-flight was in a position to attack, the barrage was so heavy that two of the aircraft could not get close enough to attack, and one launched its torpedo from around twice the recommended distance of 1,000 yards.
The other factor that made life much more difficult for the Bismarck was the conditions. This impacted in several ways. The first was the visibility. The low cloud meant that the Swordfish could approach the Bismarck while hidden until they were relatively close, cutting down the time that the flak would have to engage them. Moreover, the thick cloud enabled some of the aircraft to reposition for a more favourable attack when they found they were not in the optimal position, by simply flying back into the cloud.
Second, the sea state was extremely high, and the pitching and rolling movement this imparted to the Bismarck was considerable, adding further significant difficulties to the gunners’ task.
Third, the attacks were made at night, or in deep twilight – the Victorious’ aircraft attacked at midnight, the Ark Royal’s at 2047 the next day.
Finally, the Bismarck was manoeuvring hard to throw the Swordfish pilots off their aim – which had the same effect in its own gunners.
The crews and tactics
Early-war Royal Navy TBR (torpedo-bomber-reconnaissance) crews were generally very well trained. The aerial torpedo attack was the Fleet Air Arm’s chief weapon, and it was practised incessantly, with fleet manoeuvres allowing more realistic training and evaluation of tactics. Training was carried out first in low flying, then with concrete dummy torpedoes, then with practice torpedoes that were identical to the real thing apart from the lack of warhead (a smoke float was fitted to enable the recovery of the torpedo when its run had finished), and finally with the practice torpedo against a destroyer doing its best to avoid attack. (They would be set to run deeper than the practice vessel). This training would carry on at operational squadrons. Even though 825 Squadron was supposedly inexperienced, being a new unit and not having trained extensively together, the individual crews would have been well prepared.
This is in stark contrast to the torpedo squadrons in the US Navy, which hardly ever trained with torpedoes, simply making dummy runs and dropping smoke bombs to mark the release point. According to Alvin Kernan’s The Unknown Battle of Midway, many of the crews from the torpedo squadrons had never dropped a torpedo in training.
The standard pre-war torpedo attack was composed of several sub-flights attacking from different directions. This was done to split anti-aircraft defences and to help mitigate the defensive manoeuvring of the target vessel – in other words, if the captain attempted to ‘comb’ one torpedo attack by turning into it (making the torpedo pass ahead of the ship), aircraft in a different position would be better placed. This was aided by the poor visibility and low cloud base, meaning aircraft could work into a more favourable position out of sight of the Bismarck’s gunners.
The business end of the RNHF’s Swordfish LF326, showing the dependable Pegasus engine and a dummy 18″ torpedo
The potential benefits of a night attack were well understood in the Fleet Air Arm at the time, especially given the vulnerability of its aircraft in daylight. The attack on Taranto had amply demonstrated the possibilities. This kind of attack could not have been considered in daylight and good visibility by the Fleet Air Arm in 1940-41, whereas a more modern and powerful naval air arm, such as the Japanese one, could. In fairness, those more modern air arms would have found a night or poor weather attack more difficult to carry out.
It’s only fair given the nature of this essay to consider the qualities that the Swordfish itself may have contributed. First of all, it was able to take off, locate the Bismarck (barring one case of mistaken identity with HMS Sheffield), carry out an attack, locate their own carrier (for the most part) and land again, in appalling weather conditions, at night. It’s not at all clear that other, more modern aircraft would have been able to do that – during the Marshall-Gilbert raids in January 1942, TBDs from the USS Yorktown flew into bad weather and four ditched or crashed into the sea. An attempt at night landing on another occasion had similarly poor results.
The Swordfish’s tractable flying characteristics undoubtedly contributed to the ability of the aircraft to operate in rough seas, high winds and poor visibility.
In addition, the manoeuvrability of the Swordfish, even when loaded with torpedo, enabled the pilots to jink and weave while on approach to make the target harder to hit. More heavily-loaded monoplanes could not take such violent evasive action while approaching the target.
Some of the Swordfish were fitted with ASV radar, and this undoubtedly gave them an advantage in locating both the target and the home carriers after the raid. In fact, it gave the Swordfish a distinct area of superiority over its rivals in other air forces, albeit one that was much more appropriate in the poor weather and visibility of the North Sea and Atlantic than the Pacific.
Finally, the Swordfish proved to have excellent ‘survivability’. It had self-sealing fuel tanks, and a construction that meant cannon shells mostly passed through the structure without causing any damage. At the same time, its steel-tube construction was immensely strong – the aircraft was stressed to 9G to give an ample safety factor when landing heavily or manoeuvring.
The rear fuselage of Swordfish LF326 with fairing panels removed, showing the strong but open steel structure
My questioner points to other examples where more modern aircraft fared less well than the Swordfish attacking the Bismarck. The two aircraft cited are the American Douglas TBD Devastator and the Japanese Nakajima B5N ‘Kate’.
The TBD is chiefly known for its role in the Battle of Midway, 3-7 June 1942. On 4 June, three squadrons attacked the Japanese fleet, VT-8 from Hornet, VT-6 from Enterprise and VT-3 from Yorktown. The fifteen aircraft of VT-8 were all shot down, 14 before launching their torpedoes. VT-6 and VT-3 both lost ten aircraft, with four and two aircraft respectively escaping. No torpedo hits were scored.
The Douglas TBD Devastator
The B5N was the most successful carrier-borne torpedo bomber of the first half of the war. However, although it was fast by the standards of its competitors (235 mph) and carried the most effective air-launched torpedo of any major navy, the ‘Kate’ was not invulnerable. Despite the almost total lack of warning before the attack on Pearl Harbor, five were shot down by anti-aircraft defences. During the attack on the Yorktown and Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea, nine ‘Kates’ successfully reached a position to launch their torpedoes, of which three were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and another aircraft was shot down that had not released its weapon. As the war progressed, the ‘Kate’ found it more and more difficult to survive attacks on enemy shipping. During the American attack on the Marshall Islands in December 1943, the task group was attacked by seven B5Ns just as the Yorktown was launching a strike. All the Kates were shot down. Only one launched its torpedo, and that missed.
In each case, these were striking forces that were, superficially at least, technically far superior to the Swordfish forces that attacked the Bismarck and the Italian fleet at Taranto.
These situations are only superficially similar though. The TBDs at Midway were mostly if not all shot down by the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) fighters protecting the fleet, which were not available to the Bismarck. During the Battle of The Coral Sea, the TBDs had fared much better when they had fighter escort or attacked a target lacking fighter protection, such as the carrier Shōhō which was sunk by TBDs and SBDs. Reports from surviving pilots at Midway describe the AA fire as ‘very ineffective’, and suggest that most of the shells burst considerably over range. Furthermore, although the TBDs technically had a much higher top speed than the Swordfish, their approach speed was almost exactly the same. The reason for this was the torpedo used by the TBD, the Bliss-Leavitt Mk.XIII, which was very problematic early in the war. It was fragile and prone to malfunctioning, and therefore the pilots treated it with kid gloves. According to Kernan, (p.48) Lieutenant Commmader John C Waldron, in command of VT-8, instructed the squadron to fly ‘very slow, 80-100 knots, very straight and level’. The after-action report for the Battle of the Coral Sea from the captain of USS Yorktown highlighted that ‘our planes are forced to come in low and slow’, called for the immediate replacement of the TBD with the ‘torpedo planes capable of high speed, long range, ability to dive, and sufficient gun power for their own defense’, and insisted that unescorted torpedo attacks would be likely to be extremely costly.
The TBD had some armour but lacked self-sealing fuel tanks.
Of the ‘Kate’ aircraft that attacked the carrier group in the Marshalls, three were shot down by Lexington’s anti-aircraft guns and the rest by the escorting destroyers. But by 1943, capital ships had much heavier anti-aircraft armament than was common in 1941, and those of the Lexington were radar-laid. The carrier group also had the benefit of a screen of destroyers and cruisers adding their guns to the anti-aircraft barrage.
Nakajima B5N over Pearl Harbor
There are other cases where Swordfish, and comparable aircraft, were certainly not too slow to shoot down. During the Channel Dash (Operation Cerberus, when the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau broke through from the Atlantic to reach Germany), a flight of six Swordfish were shot down, three three by fighters and the other three by anti-aircraft guns on Scharnhorst/Gneisenau and their escort.
On another occasion, two Albacores (which were only marginally faster than the Swordfsih) were shot down by the anti-aircraft batteries on the Tirpitz during an attempted torpedo attack. During the Battle of Cape Matapan, the one Swordfish that scored a hit on the battleship Vittorio Veneto was shot down by its anti-aircraft guns.
It is necessary, I believe, to separate the qualitative aspects of the aircraft from their relative modernity. Some favourable qualities of aircraft tend to increase with modernity – out-and-out performance, for example, including speed, rate of climb and ceiling. Others do not, such as range, turn radius and reliability. Other favourable characteristics may be reduced with modernity, such as landing speed, docility and simplicity. In other cases, the aircraft may be rendered more or less valuable by other factors such as the available equipment and weapons, the efficiency of the crew and the tactics employed.
There have been other occasions when considerably outdated aircraft have proved effective in combat – in an extreme case, the ‘Bedcheck Charlie’ Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes that made night attacks on US air bases during the Korean War. They did considerable damage and proved very difficult to shoot down. This was in part because they flew too slowly for night-fighters to intercept them, and this was no more a fluke than the Swordfish’s successes in 1940-41.
The TBD was, overall, a poor design that did not make the most of its modern features. It sacrificed many of the qualities that a successful torpedo bomber needed, such as the ability to perform a steep dive into the target area to avoid having to spend too long in range of anti-aircraft fire, and to increase speed in the ‘danger zone’. It made sacrifices in range, weapon carrying ability and arguable aerodynamics in order to carry the Norden bomb sight for level bombing, a role the aircraft was never required to carry out. Moreover, the TBD’s poor qualities were exacerbated by the ineffective Mk.XIII torpedo and poor crew training. It may have been technically more advanced than the Swordfish, but it was not superior.
The B5N was in many respects a very good design. It took advantage of its modern features, adding speed but not losing most of the qualities required by a good torpedo bomber. It could approach the target at altitude, and while it could not dive near-vertically like the Swordfish, could easily glide at 30 degrees, and it could launch its torpedo at high speeds. It was even an effective level bomber, without compromising its primary role. However, the ‘Kate’ lacked self-sealing fuel tanks and, like most Japanese military aircraft of the time, was lightly built. This helped with speed, manoeuvrability and range, but meant hits by anti-aircraft fire were much less survivable. In 1941 it lacked radar. It was superior to the Swordfish in many respects (and undoubtedly a better design for the Pacific) but still lacked some of the qualities that allowed the Swordfish to press home an effective attack on the Bismarck and at Taranto.
All of these things taken in the round, the Swordfish was an effective frontline torpedo bomber in 1940-41 in the conditions which it was used. It was tough, manoeuvrable, and could be used in extreme weather conditions and at night. It could be fitted with radar and its torpedo was tough and dependable, if slightly slow. Its crews were well trained and capable of exploiting the strengths of the aircraft and its weapons. It is unlikely that more modern aircraft would have succeeded where the Swordfish did, but this has more to do with the conditions in which the aircraft was capable of operating, the abilities of its crews, and the availability of radar in the aircraft and the shadowing ships.
The design of the Bismarck’s directors in failing to allow for aircraft flying as slowly as the Swordfish may have hampered the ship’s anti-aircraft gunners, but it is by no means clear how much of an effect this had, and in any case there were many other factors at play. The Bismarck’s anti-aircraft defences were inadequate in a number of respects, but even so they were able to make life very uncomfortable for the attacking aircraft. In other episodes, similar anti-aircraft systems were able to shoot down at least some attacking Swordfish and Albacores, so this would not seem to be an insurmountable issue.
Overall, I do not believe the success of the Swordfish in 1940-41 can be considered a fluke – and moreover, the achievements of the aircraft in 1941-45 as an anti-submarine aircraft protecting Atlantic convoys, again operating in conditions that few other types would be able to, are worthy of considerable regard even if the Bismarck and Taranto are removed from the equation.
Second World War
The squadron's first assignment on its formation was to carry out spotter-reconnaissance duties for the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous. They were later re-equipped with Fairey Seals and Blackburn Sharks, eventually receiving Fairey Swordfish in autumn 1937.  The squadron was reassigned in November the following year to the new aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. The squadron operated from Ark Royal for the next three years, initially on anti-submarine duties, but later as surface search and torpedo-attack aircraft. The squadron went with Ark Royal to the Atlantic, and by April 1940 they were supporting allied operations during the Norwegian campaign, where they bombed Vaernes airfield. After the withdrawal from Norway, Ark Royal and the squadron moved to the Mediterranean in June. Aircraft from 820 squadron were involved in attacking the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, and later the Battle of Dakar, as well as attacks at Cagliari. They were also active during the Battle of Cape Spartivento, as well as covering convoys to Malta.
820 Squadron's next major engagement was the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck. Aircraft from the Squadron were able to disable the Bismarck’s steering gear with a torpedo hit, allowing the Bismarck to be engaged and sunk.  In June 1941 the squadron left Ark Royal, and in November that year returned to Iceland aboard HMS Victorious. The Swordfish were then replaced with Fairey Albacores. 820 Squadron then embarked aboard HMS Formidable in February 1942, and sailed with Formidable to serve in the Indian Ocean. The squadron was then active in the Battle of Madagascar, followed by Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa. During these operations, aircraft from the squadron sank the German U-boat U-331, which had earlier sunk the battleship HMS Barham. Formidable and the squadron remained in the Mediterranean to provide support for the Allied landings at Sicily and Salerno. 
The squadron then returned to the UK in November 1943 and disbanded at RNAS Donibristle. The squadron was quickly reformed however, and equipped with 12 Fairey Barracudas was initially based at RNAS Lee-on-Solent as a torpedo bomber/reconnaissance squadron. They were assigned to HMS Indefatigable in June 1944 and saw action as part of Operation Mascot on 17 July and Operations Goodwood in August, the attempts to sink the German battleship Tirpitz in Kaa Fjord, Alta, Norway.  The operations failed to cause significant damage to the Tirpitz. The squadron was re-equipped with 21 Grumman Avengers in September 1944 and sailed with Indefatigable to the Far East in November. They sailed to Ceylon where 820 squadron joined No 2 Strike Wing, which also consisted of 849 Squadron. The Wing attacked the oil refineries at Palembang, Sumatra in January 1945 as part of Operation Meridian, following this up with later strikes on the Sakashima Gunto islands. As the war in the Pacific moved closer to Japan 820 Squadron was assigned to the 7th Carrier Air Group, and carried out a number of raids on Tokyo prior to VJ-Day. After the end of the war, Indefatigable remained in the Pacific for some time, finally returning to the UK in March 1946. 820 Squadron was then disbanded again. 
The squadron was re-formed five years later in July 1951, this time flying the Fairey Firefly. The squadron was embarked alternately aboard the carriers HMS Indomitable and HMS Theseus during 1952 and 1953, spending most of its time on exercises in the Mediterranean.  The squadron operated the Grumman Avenger and then the Fairey Gannet during 1954 and 1956, aboard HMS Centaur and HMS Bulwark, before the decision was made to convert 820 Squadron as a helicopter squadron.  820 disbanded on 2 December 1957 but were immediately re-formed the same day at HMS Vernon, equipped with the Westland Whirlwind MK VII.  They were assigned to HMS Hermes in May 1958 as an anti-submarine and commando support force, remaining aboard Hermes until October 1960, when the squadron was again disbanded. 
The squadron was re-formed in 1964, and equipped with the Westland Wessex HAS.1, with which they served as anti-submarine squadron aboard HMS Eagle.  They were upgraded to the Westland Wessex HAS.3 in May 1969, when they were transferred to the Tiger class helicopter cruiser HMS Blake. They remained aboard Blake until her disposal in 1979, the squadron was then assigned to HMS Hermes for the first quarter of 1980. The squadrons aircraft had been upgraded with the Westland Sea King HAS.1 in December 1972, followed by the HAS.2 version and then the HS.Mk.5 in December 1980.  It was then assigned to HMS Invincible in early 1981 on the 6 March 1981 the squadron suffered a tragedy when two of its aircraft had a mid-air collision, five of the eight crew members were killed.
In April 1982 the squadron remained embarked for the Falklands War. During the conflict the squadron flew over 4700 hours, with Invincible spending 166 days continuously at sea, setting a world record for continuous carrier operations.  The squadron transferred to HMS Ark Royal in late 1985. They were re-equipped in February 1990 with the Sea King MK6 and on board Ark Royal were dispatched to the Eastern Mediterranean on Jan 10 1991, with the intention of transiting the Suez Canal, so they would be in the Red Sea for Operation Granby - UK name for Desert Storm. However, the war started before they could transit the Suez Canal, and instead, Ark Royal, remained in the Eastern Mediterranean for the duration of the War. In January 1993, 820 were dispatched aboard RFA Olwen and RFA Fort Grange to support the British forces in Bosnia as part of Operation Grapple. There the squadron was used to ferry men and supplies. 820 Squadron returned to Bosnia in 1994, this time aboard HMS Ark Royal. With the later decommissioning of Ark Royal, the squadron joined HMS Illustrious and by 1996 was in the eastern Atlantic, followed by a round the world deployment in 1997. 
With Illustrious in refit from 1998, 820 Squadron operated out of Operation Palliser in Sierra Leone.  Further training periods followed, as well as a Search and Rescue effort in October 2004 to aid the stricken Canadian submarine HMCS Chicoutimi, which had been disabled after suffering a fire and flooding off the west coast of Ireland. 
Fairey Swordfish I Of 820 Squadron Over Hms Ark Royal 1939 OLD AVIATION PHOTO
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 Armament and aircraft
Ark Royal’s armament was designed with anti-aircraft warfare in mind, as aircraft were expected to be the main threat ships and submarines could be outrun or dealt with by escorts. [ 14 ] [ 15 ] Her main armament was sixteen quick-firing 4.5 inch anti-aircraft guns in eight double turrets, four on each side of the hull. [ 2 ] The original design placed the turrets low on the hull, but was later altered to locate them just below the flight deck, which increased each turret's field of fire. [ 2 ] Four 8-barrelled 2 pounder (1.5 in) pom-poms were located on the flight deck, in front of and behind the superstructure island, while eight 4-barrelled .50 calibre (12.7 mm) machine guns were installed on small projecting platforms to the front and rear of the flight deck. [ 16 ]
Sixteen Fleet Air Arm squadrons were posted aboard Ark Royal during her career an average of five squadrons at any time. On entering service, most of Ark Royal’s squadrons were equipped with either Blackburn Skuas, used as fighters and dive bombers, or Fairey Swordfishes, for reconnaissance and torpedo bombing. From April 1940, squadrons equipped with Skuas were upgraded to Fairey Fulmars like their predecessors, these were used as fighters and bombers. On occasion, the carrier operated Blackburn Roc fighter-bombers (from April 1939 to October 1940) and Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers (during October 1941) these were replacement aircraft used to boost squadron numbers. [ 17 ] In June 1940, Ark Royal was host to 701 Naval Air Squadron, a training squadron which operated Supermarine Walrus reconnaissance amphibians.
|[show] Squadron||Aircraft operated||Embarked (from - to)||Notes|
|800||Blackburn Skua Mk. II||January 1939 - April 1941||Transferred to HMS Victorious|
|810||Fairey Swordfish Mk. I||January 1939 - March 1941 |
May 1941 - September 1941
|Aboard HMS Illustrious from March to May 1941|
|820||Fairey Swordfish Mk. I||January 1939 - June 1941||-|
|821||Fairey Swordfish Mk. I||January 1939 - April 1940||Removed from operational service following losses against Scharnhorst|
|803||Blackburn Skua Mk. II |
Blackburn Roc Mk. I
|April 1939 - October 1940||-|
|818||Fairey Swordfish Mk. I||August 1939 - October 1939 |
June 1940 - July 1940
|Operated from HMS Furious and land bases between October 1939 and June 1940|
|801||Blackburn Skua Mk. II||April 1940 - May 1940||Transferred to HMS Furious|
|807||Fairey Fulmar Mk. II||April 1940 - November 1941||Embarked at sinking|
|701||Supermarine Walrus Mk. I||June 1940||Training squadron|
|808||Fairey Fulmar Mk. II||September 1940 - November 1941||Embarked at sinking|
|821X||Fairey Swordfish Mk. I||December 1940 - January 1941||Flight assembled from 821 Squadron survivors, later absorbed into 815 Squadron|
|800Y||Fairey Fulmar Mk. I||June 1941||Flight from 800 Squadron|
|825||Fairey Swordfish Mk. I||June 1941 - November 1941||Embarked at sinking|
|816||Fairey Swordfish Mk. I||July 1941 - November 1941||Embarked at sinking|
|812||Fairey Swordfish Mk. I||September 1941 - November 1941||Embarked at sinking|
|828||Fairey Swordfish Mk. I |
Fairey Albacore Mk. I
|October 1941||Redeployed to Malta|
Fairey Swordfish I of No.820 Squadron over HMS Ark Royal - History
Royal Navy Biplanes - (Post WW1) - Part 1
Fairey Swordfish and Albacore
Fairey TSR.1 Swordfish Mk.1, 820 Sqn Fleet Air Arm, RAF North Coates / HMS COURAGEOUS, March 1939
The new- mould Airfix Swordfish really is a fantastic model, accurate, finely moulded and relatively easy to build.
The Swordfish needs little introduction. Slow and agricultural in appearance, the Fairey Swordfish was an immensely robust and stable weapons platform that saw the RN through WW2, outlasting its replacement (the Albacore) and fighting with distinction in every theatre of the war. Easy to fly, perfectly tuned to carrier operations and powered by the faithful and trustworthy Bristol Pegasus engine, it made a significant contribution to the war effort. BAC 2010 - 100 Years of the Bristol Aeroplane Company
The aircraft represented by this model flew with 820 Sqn from HMS COURAGEOUS and from ashore at RAF North Coates, until the squadron was re- assigned to HMS ARK ROYAL at the end of 1939.
Fairey Swordfish Mk.1, 815 Sqn Fleet Air Arm, HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, Taranto, November 1940.
The Swordfish is another unsung Matchbox biplane gem, currently available from Revell and seen here with Aeromaster after- market decals. Far better than the Airfix kit, it can certainly hold its own with the Frog version. Standfast the rigging, it is an easy build, let down only by the very sparse cockpit. As supplied, it comes with the radar fit in the Observer's position to reflect a Mk III, but I have built this up to represent the long range tanks.
This model represents the aircraft flown at Taranto by the CO of 815 Sqn, Lt Cdr K Williamson DSO, with Observer NJ "Blood" Scarlett RN. Williamson led the first attack wave, sinking the Battleship Conte de Cavour.
Williamson's aircraft was subsequently shot down, with he and his observer taken as PoWs. The aircraft was recovered by the italians and a picture of her can be seen here: http://www.fleetairarmarchive.net/aircraft/faacapturedaircrafthomepage.html
Although the Swordfish normally carried a crew of 3, Pilot, Observer and Telegraphist Air Gunner (TAG), for this long range raid, the Observer's normal position was occupied by an auxiliary fuel tank and the TAG was not carried.
Fairey Swordfish Mk.II, 810 Sqn Fleet Air Arm, HMS ARK ROYAL, 26 May 1941.
The old Airfix Swordfish is well past its sell- by date, and the new tooling at the top of this page eclipses it totally. However, it's really not that much worse than the other contemporary 1/72 Swordfish kits (FROG & Matchbox). This is the 2009 Airfix Club issue, which came with a nice set of decals for one of 810 Sqns aircraft, plus a second set for the scheme currently worn by one of the RN Historic Flight aircraft (HMS RAIPANA in 1943).
In May 1941, after the devastating shock loss of HMS HOOD during the Battle of the Denmark Strait, the honour and spirit of the Royal Navy depended on the rapid destruction of the German surface raider BISMARCK. The entire Home Fleet, plus the Gibraltar based Force H were deployed to stop BISMARCK reaching the safety of a French port.
An initial attack in atrocious weather by Swordfish from HMS VICTORIOUS was ineffective, but a follow- on strike the next day by a large force from HMS ARK ROYAL jammed the BISMARCK's rudder, making her unmaneouverable and allowing the British Fleet to catch her and deliver the fatal blow.
The aircraft represented by this model was flown by Sub Lieutenant AWD Beale, with Observer SLt C Friend and TAG L/A K Pimlott, during the critical final action against the BISMARCK on 26 May 1941. Beale became disorientated in the poor visibility and flew back to the shadowing cruiser HMS SUFFOLK for directions. As a result he approached the BISMARCK from a different direction from the other ships, registering a torpedo hit amidships.
Fairey Swordfish TSR2 - 818 Sqn, HMS ARK ROYAL 1940.
This is the MPM enhanced kit, with Cooperativa (ex- Frog) kit, resin and photo- etch parts. Decals in the kit are a (miscoloured) copy of the original Frog ones. These are my own markings, from the spares box (some original Frog!). Rigging was fuse wire. I now know that Lycra is much better and doesn't sag ! The inspiration for this model, was Cdr Charles Lamb's astonishing autobiography "War In A Stringbag" which I thoroughly recommend.
Another of the Swordfish's most famous encounters was the disastrous 1942 Channel Dash
Lt Cdr Eugene Esmonde VC DSO RN, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for leading a desperate attack in a Swordfish aircraft of 825 Naval Air Squadron. Esmonde and his men knew that most of them would die before they took off yet still they went.
"On 12 February 1942 in the Straits of Dover, off England, Lieutenant Commander Esmonde led his squadron of six Swordfish to the attack of two German battle cruisers the Scharnhorst and the cruiser Prinz Eugen, which were entering the Straits strongly escorted by surface craft. Detached from their escorting fighters (just 10 in number) by enemy fighters, all the aircraft of the squadron were damaged, but even after Lieutenant- Commander Esmonde's plane sustained a direct hit he still continued the run- in towards his target until it burst into flames and crashed into the sea. The squadron went on to launch a gallant attack, but none of the six aircraft returned".
. The Fleet Air Arm Historic Flight Swordfish about to take off at Yeovilton 2003
Fairey Albacore - 826 Sqn Dekhelia/Western Desert,1941.
Pegasus manufactured a range of interesting and unusual short run kits in the 1980s. The Albacore builds into a nice replica, but it is not one for the beginner. Kit decals are excellent, however in this case I had just finished reading Lt Cdr Donald Judd's autobiography, "Avenger From the Sky" , so was determined to do one of 826's western desert based aircraft with Black undersides.
The Albacore was intended as a replacement for the venerable Swordfish, but in the end its predecessor outlived it. Nevertheless, it was a reliable and popular aircraft, that achieved notable success in many roles. This was especially true over the Mediterranean and in the Western Desert, where RN Pilots provided close support and Strike missions for the 7th Armoured Division/Desert Rats , operating against Italian and German forces.
Background Picture - a model of Taranto Harbour from the air as displayed at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton
Click on the thumbnail below to go directly to the aircraft model, or simply scroll down
For the rest of my post- war RN Biplanes, click on the “Biplanes 1918- 1946” tab above
Second World War
The squadron's first assignment on its formation was to provide spotter-reconnaissance duties for the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous. They were later re-equipped with Fairey Seals and Blackburn Sharks, eventually receiving Fairey Swordfish in autumn 1937. [ 2 ] The squadron was reassigned in November the following year to the new aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal. The squadron operated from here for the next three years, initially on anti-submarine duties, but later as surface search and torpedo-attack aircraft. The squadron went with Ark Royal to the Atlantic, and by April 1940 they were supporting allied operations during the Norwegian campaign, where they bombed Vaernes airfield. After the withdrawal from Norway, Ark Royal and the squadron moved to the Mediterranean in June. Aircraft from 820 squadron were involved in attacking the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, and later the Battle of Dakar, as well as attacks at Cagliari. They were also active during the Battle of Cape Spartivento, as well as covering convoys to Malta.
820 Squadron's next major engagement was the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck. Aircraft from the Squadron were able to disable the Bismarck’s steering gear with a torpedo hit, allowing the Bismarck to be engaged and sunk. [ 2 ] In June 1940 the squadron left Ark Royal, and in November that year returned to Iceland aboard HMS Victorious. The Swordfish were then replaced by Fairey Albacores. 820 Squadron then embarked aboard HMS Formidable in February 1942, and sailed with Formidable to serve in the Indian Ocean. The squadron was then active in the Battle of Madagascar, followed by Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa. During these operations, aircraft from the squadron sank the German U-boat U-331, which had earlier sunk the battleship HMS Barham. Formidable and the squadron remained in the Mediterranean to provide support for the Allied landings at Sicily and Salerno. [ 2 ]
The squadron then returned to the UK in November 1943 and disbanded at RNAS Donibristle. The squadron was quickly reformed however, and equipped with 12 Fairey Barracudas was initially based at RNAS Lee-on-Solent as a torpedo bomber reconnaissance squadron. They were assigned to HMS Indefatigable in June 1944 and saw action as part of Operation Mascot on 17 July and Operations Goodwood in August, the attempts to sink the German battleship Tirpitz in Kaa Fjord, Alta, Norway. [ 2 ] The operations failed to cause significant damage to the Tirpitz. The squadron was re-equipped with 21 Grumman Avengers in September 1944 and sailed with Indefatigable to the Far East in November. They sailed to Ceylon where 820 squadron joined No 2 Strike Wing, which also consisted of 849 Squadron. The Wing attacked the oil refineries at Palembang, Sumatra in January 1945 as part of Operation Meridian, following this up with later strikes on the Sakashima Gunto islands. As the war in the Pacific moved closer to Japan 820 Squadron was assigned to the 7th Carrier Air Group, and carried out a number of raids on Tokyo prior to VJ-Day. After the end of the war, Indefatigable remained in the Pacific for some time, finally returning to the UK in March 1946. 820 Squadron was then disbanded again. [ 2 ]
The squadron was re-formed five years later in July 1951, this time flying the Fairey Firefly. The squadron was embarked alternately aboard the carriers HMS Indomitable and HMS Theseus during 1952 and 1953, spending most of its time on exercises in the Mediterranean. [ 2 ] The squadron operated the Grumman Avenger and then the Fairey Gannet during 1954 and 1956, aboard HMS Centaur and HMS Bulwark, before the decision was made to convert 820 Squadron as a helicopter squadron. [ 2 ] 820 disbanded on 2 December 1957 but were immediately re-formed the same day at HMS Vernon, equipped with the Westland Whirlwind MK VII. [ 2 ] They were assigned to HMS Hermes in May 1958 as an anti-submarine and commando support force, remaining aboard Hermes until October 1960, when the squadron was again disbanded. [ 2 ]
The squadron was re-formed in 1964, and equipped with the Westland Wessex MK1, with which they served as anti-submarine squadron aboard HMS Eagle. [ 2 ] They were upgraded to the MK3 in 1969, when they were transferred to the Tiger class helicopter cruiser HMS Blake. They remained aboard Blake until her disposal in 1979, having been upgraded with the Westland Sea King MK1 in December 1972, followed by the M2 version and then the MK5 in December 1980. [ 2 ]
The squadron was then assigned to HMS Invincible in April 1982 for the Falklands War. During the conflict the squadron flew over 4700 hours, with Invincible spending 166 days continuously at sea, setting a world record for continuous carrier operations. [ 2 ] The squadron transferred to HMS Ark Royal in late 1985. They were re-equipped in February 1990 with the Sea King MK5, and in January 1993 were dispatched aboard RFA Olwen and RFA Fort Grange to support the British forces in Bosnia as part of Operation Grapple. There the squadron was used to ferry men and supplies. 820 Squadron returned to Bosnia in 1994, this time aboard HMS Ark Royal. With the later decommissioning of Ark Royal, the squadron joined HMS Illustrious and by 1996 was in the eastern Atlantic, followed by a round the world deployment in 1997. [ 2 ]
With Illustrious in refit from 1998, 820 Squadron operated out of RNAS Culdrose on anti-submarine training exercises, followed with periods embarked on ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. They rejoined Illustrious in 1999 and participated in relief operations in Mozambique and for Operation Pallister in Sierra Leone. [ 2 ] Further training periods followed, as well as a Search and Rescue effort in October 2004 to aid the stricken Canadian submarine HMCS Chicoutimi, which had been disabled after suffering a fire and flooding off the west coast of Ireland. [ 2 ]
Print Scale 1/72 Fairey Swordfish Decals
Since there were approximately 2400 Fairey Swordfish built, there are bound to be plenty of marking options for it. Print Scale has realized this and released this set of decals for a 1/72 kit. There is no specific model manufacturer listed, but you can be sure it was probably meant for the ultimate Swordfish kit, put out a little while ago by Airfix. There are eleven aircraft in this release:
The decals appear nicely finished and in register. My only complaint is with the instructions. While there is a four-view profile for an overall camouflaged aircraft, there is no mention at all about what "Scheme 2", "Scheme 3" or "Scheme 4" really is. Plus, the two aircraft labeled as "Scheme 2" are different one has camouflage that runs the entire fuselage, while the other only has camouflage on top of the fuselage with Sky fuselage sides.
If you have references for the Swordfish for how these schemes look, then use them. If you don't, you'll definitely need to find some to help show how these schemes differed and how they were applied. Even with my caveat, I still am glad I have these to use.
Ensimmäisen laivueen palvelus 1933–1943 Muokkaa
Laivue perustettiin 3. huhtikuuta 1933 Gosportissa 450 lentueesta ja puolikkaasta 445 lentueesta kalustonaan yhdeksän Fairey IIIF:ää. Laivue sijoitettiin 5. toukokuuta HMS Courageousille. B-lentue sijoitettiin tammikuussa 1934 HMS Furiousille matkaamaan Gibraltarille. Kuusi Fairey IIIF:ää vaihdettiin kesäkuussa Fairey Sealeihin ja joulukuussa koko kalusto kahteentoista Blackburn Shark -koneeseen. Sharkien moottorien epävarmuus aiheutti A-lentueen kaluston vaihtamisen elokuussa 1935 kuuteen Baffiniin Välimerelle siirryttäessä. Baffinit poistettiin laivueesta sen palattua Englantiin helmikuussa 1936. Laivue vastaanotti joulukuussa kalustokseen kaksitoista Shark Mk II:sta. Laivueen kalustoksi vastaanotettiin syyskuussa 1937 Fairey Swordfish torpedopommittajat.
Laivue määrättiin marraskuussa 1938 palvelukseen saapuneelle uudelle tukialukselle HMS Ark Royalille, minne se siirtyi 11. tammikuuta 1939 ensisijaisena tehtävänään sukellusveneiden torjunta ja vihollisen pinta-alusten etsiminen ja tuhoaminen.
Laivue siirtyi kesäkuussa 1940 HMS Victorious, minä aikana laivueen koneiksi vaihtuivat Fairey Albacoret. Laivue siirtyi HMS Formidablelle helmikuussa 1942. Laivue palasi Englantiin marraskuussa 1943 ja lakkautettiin.
Toisen laivueen palvelus 1944–1946 Muokkaa
Laivue perustettiin nopeasti uudelleen ja sen kalustoksi määrättiin 12 Fairey Barracudaa. Laivue siirrettiin HMS Indefatigablelle kesäkuussa 1944. Laivueen kalustoksi vaihdettiin syyskuussa 21 Grumman Avengeria sen siirtyessä Kaukoitään.
Ceylonille saavuttuaan laivue liitettiin osaksi toista iskulennostoa (engl. No 2 Strike Wing ). Laivue osallistui Brittiläisen Tyynenmeren laivaston mukana taisteluihin, kunnes palasi Englantiin maaliskuussa 1946, minkä jälkeen se lakkautettiin.
Kolmannen laivueen palvelus 1951–1957 Muokkaa
Laivue perustettiin uudelleen heinäkuussa 1951 kalustonaan Fairey Fireflyt. Laivue palveli HMS Indomitablella ja HMS Theseuksella Välimerellä 1952–1953. Laivueen kalusto vaihdettiin 1954 Grumman Avengereiksi ja 1956 Fairey Ganneteiksi. Tuona aikana laivue palveli HMS Centaurilla ja HMS Bulwarkilla. Laivue päätettiin muuttaa helikopterilaivueeksi ja se lakkautettiin 2. joulukuuta 1957.
Neljännen laivueen palvelus 1957–1960 Muokkaa
Laivue perustettiin uudelleen jo lakkautuspäivänään HMS Vernonilla kalustonaan Westland Whirlwind Mk VII -helikopterit. Laivue siirrettiin HMS Hermekselle toukokuussa 1958 toimimaan sukellusveneidentorjuntalaivueena sekä tukemaan erikoisjoukkojen toimintaa. Laivue lakkautettiin lokakuussa 1960.
Viidennen laivueen palvelus 1964– Muokkaa
Laivue perustettiin uudelleen 1964 kalustonaan Westland Wessex Mk 1 ja se liitettiin sukellusveneidentorjunta tehtäviin HMS Eaglelle. Laivueen kalusto vaihdettiin Mk3 versioon 1969 ja se siirrettiin Tiger-luokan helikopteriristeilijä HMS Blakelle. Laivue palveli HMS Blakella, kunnes alus poistettiin palveluksesta 1979. Laivueen kalusto päivitettiin useaan otteeseen joulukuussa 1972 Westland Sea King Mk1, Mk2 ja joulukuussa 1980 Mk3.
Laivue siirrettiin huhtikuussa 1982 HMS Invinciblelle, joka purjehti Falklandin sotaan lähteneen osaston lippulaivana. Taisteluiden kuluessa laivue lensi yli 4700 tuntia. Laivue siirrettiin loppuvuodesta 1985 HMS Ark Royalille ja sen kalustoksi vaihdettiin helmikuussa 1990 Sea King Mk5. Laivue siirtyi tammikuussa 1993 RFA Olwenille ja RFA Fort Grangelle tukemaan brittijoukkojen operaatioita Bosniassa (operaatio Grapple). Laivue palasi Englantiin 1994 HMS Ark Royalin mukana. Laivue siirtyi HMS Illustriousille, kun HMS Ark Royal siirrettiin telakalle.
HMS Illustriousin siirtyessä huoltoon 1998 laivue siirrettiin RNAS Culdroseen sukellusveneentorjuntakoulutukseen. Koulutuksen jälkeen laivue tukilaivoille. selvennä Laivue palasi HMS Illustriousille 1999 ja sen mukana Mosambikin rannikolle ja Sierra Leoneen (operaatio Palliser).
Operation Catapult: Churchill's Plan To Destroy the French Navy in 1940
Firing on the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir was horrific but necessary for British security.
Now, as the day grew hotter, Admiral Somerville could only steam back and forth outside Mers el Kebir and Oran, waiting anxiously for Captain Holland to signal back reports on the progress of his negotiations with the French. Two and a half hours passed while Holland, Admiral Somerville, and the War Cabinet in distant London all waited for Admiral Gensoul’s response. It was a tense, impotent time, particularly for the Force H commander.
“Answer Fire with Fire”
At noon, Somerville signaled the Admiralty that he would give Gensoul until 3 pm to reply to the British terms. Half an hour later, Somerville was signaled that if he thought the French ships were preparing to leave the harbor, he “should inform them that if they moved, he would open fire.” The Force H commander then signaled to Holland and asked if he thought there was now any alternative to bombarding the French squadron. The emissary urged that the French should be asked for a final reply before any hostile action was taken. Holland told Admiral Somerville that his knowledge of the French character suggested “an initial refusal will often come around to an acquiescence.” Holland said he “felt most strongly that the use of force, even as a last resource, was fatal to our object.” So, he used “every endeavor to bring about a peaceful solution.”
At last, around 3 pm, Admiral Gensoul agreed to meet Holland on board Dunkerque, and this encouraged Somerville to again postpone action. “I think they are weakening,” he signaled to the Admiralty. At 4:15 pm, Holland was piped over the side of the French flagship and ushered into Gensoul’s cabin. The admiral was angry and indignant and had come to believe that the British might actually use force against his squadron. He played for time British decrypts of French cipher traffic that afternoon revealed that Gensoul could expect support from other naval units and was to “answer fire with fire.” Passing the intercept on to Admiral Somerville, the Admiralty added, “Settle this matter quickly, or you may have reinforcements to deal with.”
Somerville awaited news from Captain Holland, who was now convinced “we had won through and he [Gensoul] would accept one or other of the proposals.” But Holland was unaware of what London had omitted to pass on to Somerville. Its decrypt of the French Admiralty signal to Gensoul indicated that he believed he had only two options: to join the British squadron or scuttle his ships. The tension mounted as the situation came to a head.
The French take “an Advanced State of Readiness for Sea”
Around 5:15 pm, as Gensoul was deciding to reject the British ultimatum, he received a signal from Admiral Somerville stating that Force H would sink his ships unless he accepted the terms by 5:30. The dejected Holland observed that the French battleships were in “an advanced state of readiness for sea.” Control stations were being manned, rangefinders were trained on Force H, and tugs were fussing round the sterns of the French battlewagons. Action stations was sounded, but there was little bustle among the crews, Holland noted. He took a “friendly” leave-taking from Dunkerque as he made his way back to HMS Foxhound. The officer of the watch aboard the battleship Bretagne saluted him smartly. It seemed to Captain Holland that the French could not believe that they were about to be the targets of British gunners. At 5:55 pm, HMS Foxhound got clear after laying magnetic mines across the entrance to Mers el Kebir harbor.
Then the dreaded hour of reckoning came as the battlecruiser Hood steamed at 17 knots ahead of Admiral Somerville’s line. Her eight 15-inch guns thundered at a range of 17,500 yards, closely followed by those of Resolution and Valiant. It was the first clash of battle fleets in World War II, but hardly the kind of engagement expected by Admiralty planners in the prewar years the enemy was not the German, Italian, or Japanese fleets. By a fateful, tragic irony, Force H was attacking the Royal Navy’s 18th- and 19th-century foe and 20th-century ally.
Destroying the Fleet at Mers el Kebir
Because of haze and smoke billowing from the French ships raising steam, the targets of Force H were obscured. Hood’s target, a Dunkerque-class battleship anchored abeam to the harbor mole, was indistinct. So the three British capital ships had to use the nearby Mers el Kebir lighthouse as an aiming mark and make “a general shoot into the area of the anchorage.” It was difficult for the British crews to observe the results of their volleys, but a Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber from No. 810 Squadron aboard HMS Ark Royal reported from an altitude of 7,000 feet that Hood’s first salvo had exploded in a line across Commandante Teste, Bretagne, and the quarterdeck of Strasbourg.
The second salvo, according to the Swordish crew, “hit the Bretagne, which blew up immediately and enveloped the harbor in smoke.” Hit in her after magazines, the French battleship died at 5:58 pm, with a thick mushroom cloud of smoke rising high behind the breakwater. When the smoke cleared, Bretagne was no longer visible to the Swordfish crew, but they observed a fire aft on the seaplane carrier. Dunkerque appeared to have hit a mine, with the loss of 210 dead, and grounded her bows on the shore opposite her berth. It was learned later that the badly damaged Provence also had beached herself. Meanwhile, a direct hit blew off the stern of the large destroyer Mogador, killing 42 men.
Cornered in confined waters and with limited fields of fire because of neighboring vessels, the French warships fired back as best they could. With a crushing 10-minute bombardment, Force H had struck a grievous blow against Gensoul’s squadron. At 6:04 pm, Admiral Somerville ordered a cease-fire in to give the French sailors an opportunity to leave their ships in the smoking harbor. By this time, more than 1,250 seamen lay dead, 977 of them in Bretagne. The cease-fire was welcomed in the British capital ships, where temperatures in the magazines and shell rooms had risen to more than 90 degrees, adversely affecting the crews.
At 6:20 pm, HMS Hood received a signal from the Ark Royal Swordfish crew saying that the battleship Strasbourg and five escorting destroyers had left the Mers el Kebir harbor and were heading along the coast. When the report was confirmed at 6:30, Admiral Somerville ordered Hood to steer eastward in pursuit. The British battlewagon increased speed to 25 knots in an attempt to challenge Strasbourg, but then veered away to avoid a torpedo attack by the French destroyers. Somerville, who had decided against a night action, reported later that his Operation Catapult instructions “did not make sufficient provision for dealing with any French ships that might attempt to leave harbor.”
But Force H had not finished with Strasbourg, and six lumbering Swordfish torpedo bombers from Ark Royal went after her. At 8:55 pm, they approached the French battleship at a height of 20 feet and loosed their torpedoes into a calm sea. The Swordfish crews believed that they might have scored two or three hits, but Strasbourg was able to steam away in the darkness and eventually reach haven at the big Toulon naval base in southeastern France.
Three days later, early on July 6, 1940, Swordfish planes from Ark Royal flew back to Mers el Kebir to finish off the grounded Dunkerque. Diving out of the rising sun from an altitude of 7,000 feet, the “stringbag” biplanes dropped six torpedoes, sinking the 859-ton auxiliary ship Terre Neuve, berthed alongside the battleship. The supply ship’s cargo of depth charges exploded, ripping open the side of Dunkerque. Another 150 French sailors were killed. Meanwhile, Force H was also battling surface units and submarines of the Italian Fleet elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
Dakar, Alexandria, and the Suez
On July 7, the British turned their attention to the French naval base at distant Dakar in West Africa, where the battleship Richelieu, cruiser Primauguet, a sloop, and destroyers were anchored. Commanded by Captain R.F.J. Onslow, a small force comprising the 10,850-ton carrier HMS Hermes and the cruisers Australia and Dorsetshire stood off the harbor. Onslow was given an Admiralty ultimatum for the French, similar to that given at Mers el Kebir, but the commander of the Dakar squadron refused entry to a sloop carrying a Royal Navy emissary.
During the night of July 7-8, a fast launch from Hermes sneaked through the harbor booms, dropped depth charges under the stern of Richelieu, and escaped. The charges failed to detonate, but three hours later six Swordfish from the British flattop pounced on the battleship. They achieved only one hit but distorted a propeller shaft and flooded three compartments.
At Alexandria, meanwhile, Admiral Cunningham was able to persuade the French squadron there to disarm, avoiding more bloodshed. Its fuel and ammunition were surrendered to the Royal Navy. On July 18, all French merchant ships in the Suez Canal were seized.