#Commentary – Biplanes against Battleships: The Fairey Swordfish Biplane and Lessons for Today’s Air Power

#Commentary – Biplanes against Battleships: The Fairey Swordfish Biplane and Lessons for Today’s Air Power

By Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey

The Fairey Swordfish flew just above the sea waves at about 30 feet while anti-aircraft artillery shells exploded around it, the sea waters splashing high due to the impact. The pilot, Lieutenant M.R. Maund, struggled to keep his plane steady to release his torpedo at an Italian battleship.[1] Maund flew a Swordfish biplane: one of the 20 Swordfish aircraft from HMS Illustrious that took part in the air attack on the Italian Navy’s (Regia Marina) battleship fleet in the harbour of Taranto on the night of 11-12 November 1940. The Italians had six battleships, 14 cruisers and 27 destroyers at Taranto.[2] During this night attack, the Swordfish aircraft dropped torpedoes and bombs and managed to sink a battleship (Conte di Cavour) while severely damaging two more (Caio Duilio and Littorio). Only two Swordfish aircraft were shot down. As a result of the attack, half of the Regia Marina’s capital ship fleet was disabled, giving the Royal Navy (RN) some tactical space and time to conduct its maritime operations in the Mediterranean.[3]

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An aerial view showing the aftermath of the raid on Taranto in November 1940. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

More importantly, the Battle of Taranto signalled a change in naval power and the use of air power.  It demonstrated the value of using aircraft to destroy an enemy’s fleet. The lessons of the Battle of Taranto were not lost on those who observed the effects of the operation. The Japanese Assistant Naval Attaché in Berlin visited Taranto and studied the raid. His findings then fed into the planning process for the massive surprise air raid against the US Navy at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The use of precision airstrikes against naval targets rendered the fleet-in-being strategy as a highly risky practice, and subsequent Second World War naval battles with air power serve to highlight this point.

The Swordfish aircraft, which was successfully used in the attack against Taranto, was an obsolete aircraft when the Second World War started. It was a fabric wire biplane first flown in 1934 and became operational in July 1936 with the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Air Force, which was later transferred to the control of the Royal Navy. It had a top speed of just 138 mph; a service ceiling of 10,890 feet; a range of 1,028 miles; and it could carry either a 1,600 lb torpedo or a 1,500 lb load of depth charges, mines or bombs.[4]  For self-defence, it was armed with a .303 Vickers machine gun above its engine and another .303 Vickers machine gun operated by the rear gunner. It had a crew of three – a pilot, a navigator-observer, and a radioman-rear gunner – flying in an open cockpit. Due to its fabric skin-cover holding the aircraft together, it was nicknamed the ‘Stringbag.’

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HMS Illustrious in 1940. (Source: © IWM (FL 2425))

By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the Swordfish was slow and vulnerable to faster and more agile monoplane fighters. Nevertheless, the FAA used it as its primary torpedo and reconnaissance aircraft on the RN’s aircraft carriers during the war. However, its slow speed and crude design allowed it to fly slow and manoeuvre at low altitude. These qualities were crucial to victory at Taranto, when the Swordfish aircraft flew low, almost at sea wave height, enabling them to avoid Italian anti-aircraft artillery. The slow speed also allowed the Swordfish aircraft to fly around some barrage balloons and unleash their ordnance with accuracy. The fabric skin construction of the Swordfish also saved it from light cannon shells armed with contact fuses as the shells shot through the soft fabric.

The anti-battleship feat of the Swordfish was repeated when they took part in the hunt for the German Navy’s (Kriegsmarine) battleship, Bismarck. Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal launched a torpedo attack against Bismarck on 26 May 1941 and managed to destroy its port-side rudder. This caused the Bismarck to turn in circles.[5] The RN’s surface fleet eventually caught up with the Bismarck and sank it the next day. Ironically, the HMS Prince of Wales, which took part in the sinking of Bismarck, was sunk by Japanese air power on 10 December 1941 off the coast of eastern Malaya.

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Close-up of a Fairey Swordfish MkII in flight as seen through the struts of another aircraft, probably while serving with No. 824 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, c. 1943-1944. (Source: © IWM (TR 1138))

The Swordfish continued to be manufactured (2,391 were built) and used by the FAA until the end of the Second World War.[6] Despite its obsolescence at the start of the war, it doggedly flew on and even outlived some of its more modern contemporary aircraft. The Swordfish gained a solid reputation as the most successful British naval aircraft with the highest score of Axis ships sunk during the Second World War.[7] The rugged biplane was finally retired from active service in 1946.

The tactical lessons drawn from the experience of the Swordfish in the Second World War should not be lost on modern observers. Many modern countries are looking to procure the latest technologically superior combat aircraft to equip their air forces, at very expensive prices. For example, there are continued debates today on the viability for some air forces to acquire either the F-35 Lightning II or modernised versions of the F/A-18 Super Hornet or the F-16V Viper. Perhaps it might be prudent to understand that sometimes older platforms if used smartly and asymmetrically to offset their disadvantages, can yield some strategic utility as the humble Fairey Swordfish did during the Second World War. After all, it is not the machines that count, but the tactical effects yielding strategic utility that matter.

Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is an Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. He has a PhD in Strategic Studies from the University of Reading and is the author of two books on military strategy and history, including Killing the Enemy! Assassination operations during World War II published by I.B. Tauris.

Header Image: A Fairey Swordfish Mk.I from the Torpedo Training Unit at RAF Gosport drops a practice torpedo during training in the late-1930s. (Source: © IWM (MH 23))

[1] See David Wragg, Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid (London: Cassell, 2003).

[2] Richard P. Hallion, ‘Dress Rehersal for Pearl Harbor?’, HistoryNet.com, August 2008.

[3] Bernard Ireland, Naval Airpower (London: HarperCollins, 2003), pp.117-8.

[4] Jim Winchester (ed.), Aircraft of World War II (Kent: Grange, 2007), p. 87.

[5] John Moffat, I Sank the Bismarck: Memoirs of a Second World War Navy Pilot (London: Bantam, 2009), pp. 226-7.

[6] Winchester (ed.), Aircraft, p. 87

[7] Justin D. Murphy and Matthew A. McNiece, Military Aircraft, 1919-1945 (Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009), p. 212.

 

#Commentary – The Iran-Iraq Tanker War and the Non-Delta Winged Mirage F1

#Commentary – The Iran-Iraq Tanker War and the Non-Delta Winged Mirage F1

By Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey

The 12 May 2019 tanker attacks off the United Arab Emirates coast in the Persian Gulf by suspected Iranian or Iran-backed saboteurs reminded us of the high-stakes Tanker War during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

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An AM-39 Exocet on a Dassault Super-Étendard of the French Navy. (Source: Wikimedia)

During the Iran-Iraq War, from around 1984, merchant tankers sailing through the Persian Gulf were regularly targeted by both Iraqi and Iranian forces in the Tanker War. The Iraqis frequently used air power to target Iranian oil tankers and merchant ships in an attempt to wage economic warfare against Iran – a strategic move to strangle Iran’s economic lifeline. One of the primary aircraft used by the Iraqis to conduct anti-shipping operations was the Dassault Mirage F1, which was armed with Exocet missiles.

The Mirage F1 was the Dassault’s answer to several technological challenges faced by the famous delta-winged Mirage III. The Mirage III made its mark during the Six Day War when the Israelis used their Mirage IIIs successfully in their opening pre-emptive strikes against its Arab neighbours. The Mirage III, however, had inherent weaknesses – its delta wing meant that the Mirage III had to land with a high pitch at high speeds, often causing accidents with inexperienced pilots. It also required long airstrips for its take-off run and landing, making these large airfields easy to spot and vulnerable to enemy counter strikes. The Mirage IIIs were also unable to operate from robust forward air bases. The Mirage III, with its delta wings, was less agile at low altitude compared with other non-delta winged aircraft and had a short operational radius.

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A Mirage F1BQ of the Iraqi Air Force. (Source: Wikimedia)

All these weaknesses were remedied in the new Mirage F1. The F1 featured a high mounted swept wing and a conventional tail design, dumping the use of delta wings. These changes enabled the F1 to carry 40 per cent more fuel, translating to a longer operational radius, a shorter take-off run and slower landing speed, and all-around better manoeuvrability. The F1 was armed with two DEFA 553 30-mm cannons with 135 rounds per gun with a typical intercept load of two Matra Super 530 and two R.550 Magic anti-aircraft missiles.

The Mirage F1 was a success with the French Air Force, which acquired and used it as their primary interceptor aircraft in the 1970s and 1980s. It was also exported to numerous countries including Spain, South Africa (where it saw combat as a strike aircraft), and Iraq.

The Iraqis acquired the Mirage F1 in the late 1970s, and its first F1s were delivered just in time to participate in the Iran-Iraq War. The Mirage F1s performed remarkably well in obtaining air superiority (shooting down the first Iranian F-14 Tomcat in a dogfight in November 1981), ground attack roles (both close air support and interdiction strikes) and anti-shipping missions. Armed with Exocet missiles, the Mirage F1 made its mark in conducting anti-shipping operations against Iranian-flagged oil tankers and merchant ships during the Tanker War.

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The USS Stark listing to port after being struck by two Iraqi Exocet missiles. (Source: Wikimedia)

Mirage F1s attacked and damaged numerous oil tankers and conducted air raids against Iranian oil terminals at Kharg Island. Their use culminated in the attack on USS Stark (an Oliver Hazard Perry guided missile frigate) on 17 May 1987. The Stark was hit by two Exocets launched from an Iraqi Mirage F1. The attack damaged the Stark and killed 37 US sailors but did not sink it. The Iraqis claimed that the pilot had mistaken the frigate as an Iranian oil tanker.[1] Interestingly, recently, there have been questions raised regarding the type of aircraft that launched the attack.[2]

Iraqi Mirage F1s continued to operate during the First Gulf War. In a desperate attempt to hit back at the US-led coalition forces, two Mirage F1s armed with incendiary bombs took part in an air strike attempting to destroy the Saudi oil refinery in Abqaiq, but both were shot down by a Royal Saudi Air Force F-15.

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A Mirage F1BQ of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. (Source: Wikimedia)

Although the Mirage F1 has mostly been retired from service, limited numbers still serve in a few air forces today, ironically including Iran, which had confiscated 24 Iraqi Mirage F1s that were flown into Iran during the First Gulf War to prevent their destruction. The non-delta winged Mirage F1, although not as famous as the Mirage III, has given extraordinary service for its users and should be given better recognition than it deserves.

Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDISS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. He has a PhD in strategic studies from the University of Reading and is the author of two books on military strategy and history including Killing the Enemy: Assassination operations during World War II (2015) published by IB Tauris.

Header Image: A US sailor scans for mines from the bow of the guided missile frigate USS Nicolas during an Operation Earnest Will convoy mission, in which tankers are led through the waters of the Persian Gulf by US warships, c. 1988. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Sam LaGrone, ‘The Attack on USS Stark at 30,’ USNI News, 17 May 2017. For the report into the circumstances surrounding the attack, see: Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary of Defence, Formal investigations into the circumstances surrounding the attack on USS Stark (FFG31)  on 17 May 1987, 3 September 1987.

[2] See Tom Cooper, ‘In 1987, a Secret Iraqi Warplane Struck an American Frigate and Killed 37 Sailors,’ War is Boring, 27 July 2016.