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2013 sees the Fly Navy Heritage Trust, amongst several other organisations, commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic. Whilst often overshadowed by more ‘glamorous’ or fast paced campaigns, the Battle of the Atlantic was no less vital to the survival of Great Britain than any other event during the entire war; indeed, Winston Churchill would later claim that “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”
Whilst the Allies struggled to pit every weapon at their disposal against the Kreigsmarine’s U-boats and surface warships, it was aircraft that would ultimately prove to be the one of the greatest direct threats and certainly the most effective deterrent. Of these aircraft, only one operated in direct action against U-boats for the entire duration of the war: the Fairey Swordfish.
It is no exaggeration to describe the Swordfish as one of the most iconic naval aircraft in history. However, despite its qualities the Swordfish was often seen as archaic; an anachronism from a bygone era struggling to complete in the age of high performance monoplanes. The truth was that whilst the Swordfish incorporated many older features it was a relatively modern aircraft, having entered service only two years earlier than the Supermarine Spitfire.
Originally developed from the Fairey TSR1 of 1933, the Swordfish itself was a response to the Air Ministry’s call for a carrier based Torpedo Spotter Reconnaissance aircraft as detailed in Specification S.15/33. In April 1935 the first contract for 86 aircraft was placed by the Air Ministry, and the Swordfish would go on to serve operationally for the entire duration of the Second World War from theatres as varying as the tiny, frozen decks of Merchant Aircraft Carriers in the Atlantic, through to improvised airstrips behind enemy lines in the deserts of North Africa. The Swordfish even replaced its intended successor, the Fairey Albacore..
The reason for this, as described by Swordfish pilot Bruce Vibert, was simple:
“The Swordfish was the most capable aircraft anywhere in its given role.”
Vibert joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve – the standard entry route for naval aircrew for the majority of the war – in 1941.
“My interest in the Fleet Air Arm,” Vibert recalls, “began when, aged 17 and thirteen days after we declared war, I was returning to the UK from the Balkans. I had to change trains in Milan. While waiting I saw on a newsagent’s board the front page of a newspaper and a lurid depiction of an aircraft carrier sinking, biplanes toppling off her flight deck. This was HMS Courageous, torpedoed by a U-boat two days before, off Ireland. There, and then, I determined to join the Fleet Air Arm and to fly those same aircraft. I achieved both aims.”
Initially joining as a Naval Airman 2nd Class, Vibert’s instruction commenced with seven weeks naval general training at HMS St Vincent, Gosport, before being promoted to Leading Airman and moving on to Elementary Flying Training. Flying Training took place at various locations across the world, courtesy of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan; for Vibert, flying training took place in Canada and the UK, initially on Tiger Moths before then proceeding onto Harvards. Having been selected for the Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance role and now commissioned as an officer in the RNVR, Vibert’s first impressions of the Swordfish were positive, to say the least:
“I’d flown the Blackburn Shark which handled like a grand piano with wings. The Swordfish was entirely different. Some history books have remembered the Swordfish as ponderous and that simply was not the case. The Swordfish could turn on a pinhead. It was anything but cumbersome. While the easiest of aircraft to land on a runway, no aircraft is easier to land on a pitching and rolling deck. There, the Swordfish was easier to land than any other aircraft. Its qualities made it uniquely suitable in those conditions which, at their worst, kept more modern aircraft in the hangar. Performance was agile – it had not one single vice. In my mind only the Japanese Zero was capable of out turning a Swordfish.”
Whilst fighter evasion was a part of Vibert’s training in Scotland, he fortunately would never have to practice this in anger. However, the perils of Vibert’s war would take a different form entirely; joining 842 Naval Air Squadron on completion of training, Vibert would spend his Swordfish years guarding the vital convoy routes in both the Atlantic and the Arctic.
842 NAS was formed at Lee-On-Solent in March 1943, with Taranto veteran Lieutenant Commander Charles Lamb as CO. After working up, 842 NAS embarked aboard the Anti-Submarine Warfare carrier HMS Fencer in August. “One did a boring job,” Vibert described the monotony of long, often uneventful ASW patrols, “unexciting, unglamorous, but useful. Throughout each run, each lasting several weeks, one never saw land. But we were saving the lives of merchantmen and whilst our aircraft is best known for Taranto, Bismarck and The Channel Dash, I suggest that it was against boats threatening our convoys that it made its greatest contribution to our war effort.”
Whilst the flying may have been mundane for long periods, life onboard the escort carrier was sometimes far from dull. If the constant and very real threat of being torpedoed by U-boats was not enough, the ship’s company also had to survive the elements.
“I remember one storm where a ship roll of 44 degrees was recorded. Those in their bunks had to tie themselves in. Welded down wardroom fittings such as tables broke adrift. Similar chaos in other spaces. The ship’s hull, only 1 inch welded, developed a short split at hangar level. There all aircraft and other gear was triple lashed with bottle screw lashings. Nothing shifted.”
With just shy of 2000 hours logged in his career, over half of which were on the Swordfish, Vibert describes his wartime flying as of ‘average experience’ for a naval aviator. In his time guarding the merchant fleets which were the lifeblood of the UK and Soviet Russia, Vibert and his crew executed attacks on four U-boats, with one of these certified as destroyed. He described how the crew of three worked together to protect their vital convoys:
“Starting before dawn, until after dusk, patrols of two or three aircraft were flown. Carrying either depth charges or rocket projectiles, these were made ahead of the convoy at no more than 3000 feet and lasted up to three hours. Equipment was the Mark 1 eyeball and air-to-surface radar of very limited range. W/T silence was kept and communication with the ship or another aircraft was by Aldis lamp or hand waving. One watched the wave tops for that which did not break and for white water in the distance which could be a U-boat on the surface. The dusk patrol was far astern, to put down any boat aiming to catch up overnight on the surface. The convoy showed no lights and kept W/T silence.”.
Vibert goes on to describe the roles of his observer and Telegraphist Air Gunner:
“Apart from local wind and weather at time of departure the observer had little more than a blank sheet of paper, dividers and rule. Hopefully, also, a pilot could fly an accurate compass course. The Telegraphist Air Gunner kept a listening brief on his W/T set and watched the waves. In their bath sized cockpit he and the observer were more exposed to the elements than the pilot. There was no heater in the aircraft. However, this open cockpit was a contributory factor in us having markedly the best chances of survival in a Swordfish, whether in action or accident. That open cockpit was far easier to vacate in a hurry.”
On May 2nd, 1944, Vibert and his crew would see themselves not operating as a deterrent for their convoy, but in direct action against the enemy. Whilst on patrol, the Swordfish’s observer detected a U-boat on his ASV set. Vibert was given headings to steer to intercept and guided through cloud before given the instruction to dive.
“We came out of cloud expecting to see a U-Boat,” Vibert recalls, “but found two. They were sailing in company, signaling to each other no doubt enquiring as to the location of our convoy. After stalking through the cloud we had emerged in a dive at some 25-30 degrees. Correct drill then required to aim short and ahead, releasing rockets in pairs. On entering the water the projectile levels out and gives the best strike angle. Actually, any hit, by this drill or direct, was usually final.”
In this case, the Vibert’s rockets proved just that, sinking U-674 with the loss of all 49 hands onboard.
Often the Swordfish would launch carrying a payload of depth charges, which Vibert described as potentially a more hazardous and difficult method of attacking.
“If you are downwind,” he describes, “it is tricky. The U-boat will be steaming away from you with everything she’s got.”
Closing slowly in from astern and presenting the U-boat’s AA gunners with a zero deflection shot was a risky tactic – for all its qualities, the Swordfish was not a fast aircraft and flying into wind only amplified the problem and Vibert credits the U-boat gunners as being “notoriously accurate.
Most of the boats we sighted submerged before we could close.
Those that did not used 20mm shell, close enough to smell.” U-boat gunners proved to be a persistent hazard of the job, with Vibert remembering returning to his carrier at 1500 feet on one occasion, when the sky was suddenly filled with “ack ack.”
Whilst his aircraft was not hit on this occasion, he remembered fellow 842 NAS Swordfish pilot Leslie Cooper - himself credited with two U-boat kills with depth charges – returning to the carrier to find an unexploded 20mm shell lodged in the wing of his Swordfish: “one of the benefits of the Swordfish was canvas,” Vibert remembers fondly.
The Murmansk runs presented entirely new problems to the Swordfish crews of 842 NAS – the environment. Whilst embarked operations in the Atlantic were unforgiving to say the least, the Arctic circle was an entirely new theatre. After a long sortie in freezing conditions, the pilots were given a Benzedrine tablet to take just before landing.
“The cold would hit between the goggles and helmet, and numbed the senses. The pilot took a little blue pill for returning to the carrier, to concentrate the mind for landing,” Vibert recollects, “it worked.”
Vibert briefly flew the Swordfish’s replacement, the Fairey Albacore, but was not as impressed by this supposedly superior aircraft:
“The Albacore had poor handling qualities and wasn’t up to what the Swordfish was capable of doing.”
So much so was this view shared by the crews of Albacores that this unfortunate aircraft suffered the ignominy of being replaced by the very aircraft it was designed to succeed: the Swordfish.
After a successful career on Swordfish and Albacores, Vibert embarked onboard HMS Glory as a Deck Landing Control Officer to see out the remainder of the war in the Pacific Theatre. Post war he served two short service commissions with the Royal
"This article was originally published in FlyPast magazine in April 2013 and is reproduced with their kind permission. www.flypast.com"