Short Decks and Swordfish

Britain’s desperate response to U-boats.

Called “Bats” after the disks he used to signal pilots, a landing officer says “Lower!” to an approaching airman. The air-to-surface vessel radar dome is visible between the airplane’s gear struts. (Courtesy Robert Powell)
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Barely two hours after Great Britain declared war on Germany at the start of World War II, a U-boat torpedoed the British ocean liner SS Athenia, killing more than 60 of the 1,500 aboard and beginning the long, harrowing Battle of the Atlantic. From that sinking on September 3, 1939, until three weeks before the German surrender in May 1945, the U-boats struck. The worst year was 1942, when more than 1,000 Allied ships were lost, along with their cargoes of fuel, food, and materiel on which Britain depended for survival.

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The British had a shocking answer to the submarine menace: a 1934 open-cockpit biplane with fixed landing gear and a cruise speed of around 100 mph. The bigger shock: It worked.

The Fairey Swordfish prototype bore the initials TSR for torpedo, spotter, reconnaissance. It had a crew of three: pilot, observer (navigator), and telegraphist–air gunner. A load hauler for the time, it could carry a 1,600-pound torpedo or 1,500 pounds of depth charges, rockets, or mines. So various were the stores loaded on the airplane that it got the nickname “Stringbag” for the British housewife’s shopping sack, which could expand to carry almost anything. But its chief virtue was its easy handling. The landing approach speed of about 65 mph made it ideal for the small carriers from which many had to operate: merchant ships rigged with flight decks, called merchant aircraft carriers, or MACships.

“There was a well-worn jest amongst Swordfish pilots that the enemy had no speed settings on their gunsights as low as the Stringbag’s cruising speed of 90 knots,” writes pilot Charles Lamb in To War in a Stringbag, “and therefore a Swordfish could only be hit by shells aimed at a flight astern. This was an exaggeration, of course, yet there was an element of uneasy truth in the statement.”

The biplane’s sluggishness was beneficial in other circumstances. During his training as a pilot in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, Jack Thomas was practicing a night rocket attack on a dummy U-boat target when the engine on his Swordfish failed. At an altitude of 1,000 feet over a dark English bay, he shouted, “The engine’s stopped!” to which his new observer replied, “That’s your department.”

It was a moonless, starlit night and the sea could just be seen as a dark shining surface. Thomas slowed and tried to ditch as close to the shore as possible. His observer had started to say they had 300 feet to go, when they hit the water—all one-half inch of it. The wheels ripped off, then the wings in a cloud of spray and mud. The rest of the Swordfish slid for 200 feet before coming to a halt in the wet sand of a tidal flat. Realizing they were safe, the crew broke into a fit of giggling.

Landing a Swordfish on a MACship in the Atlantic could be almost as violent an experience, with every trap accompanied by the same sense of giddy relief.

In his book Achtung! Swordfish! Stanley Brand recalls his experience as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. On patrol to find stragglers that had become lost during a storm so he could lead them back to the convoy, he had been flying for three hours—the final one spent struggling against gale-force winds to get back to his ship. In the open cockpit of the Swordfish, Brand was numb with cold and fatigue. As he flew closer to his small carrier, he could see the batsman, or deck landing control officer, on his tiny platform with his arms raised, disks in his hands, ready to signal him aboard. The ship was pitching and rolling in the heavy Atlantic swells. It would take all of the batsman’s skills, all of Brand’s flying ability, and a dose of good luck to land safely.

Timing was everything. The aircraft had to be descending steadily to arrive as the stern of the ship was sinking to about three feet above the ship’s lowest point. There was usually a steady moment at the lowest point before the stern started to rise again; it was then that the “cut” signal was given: Pull the engine to idle and drop the nose. The uphill slope of the deck helped bring the aircraft to a halt and reduced the load on the arrester wire. It would have been very difficult at this point to go around because the Swordfish was at its lowest, and obstructions forward were highest. The ship’s roll also had to be considered. The best touchdown coincided with the middle of a roll from starboard to port so that the left side was going down and an escape route free from obstruction—except for the batsman on his platform—was available to the pilot who could swing violently left over the side of the ship, gun it, and with luck stay airborne.

Brand landed safely. Months later, his aircraft emerged from heavy fog just in time for him to see his ship and, in the same instant, the batsman waving him off. With no time to react, he bore down on the batsman, who hurled himself over the side to land in the safety net, hanging just below his station. More than one batsman had to leap for the net, according to pilot John Beresford. The Swordfish’s radar antenna hung from the lower wingtip, “like a carving knife about 18 inches long,” he says. “You couldn’t duck if it came too close. You had to jump into the net.”

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