48 NAVY NEWS, MARCH 2009
Archaic. Sluggish. Legend.
IT IS hard to imagine today’s generation
had the feeling that if I did something wrong, she torpedo then turned away, flying directly over the recorded in his diary in October 1943.
of aircraft inspiring lyricists (there’s not
would simply give a sigh of resignation and keep last German destroyer in the line. “After they had “You realise just what sort of hope you have of
a lot you can rhyme with JSF...), but
flying straight and level.” given us a stream of lead, we were looking like a ever being picked up if you have to ditch.”
The pilot was joined in the cockpit by an flying colander.” Many did ditch – one of Pennington’s comrades
the Swordfish provoked The Stringbag observer and by the telegraphist/air gunner or Thr flying colander ditched about half a mile vanished on a routine patrol shepherding a
Song (to the tune of My Bonnie Lies
TAG. from the German ships. Lee managed to get his convoy to the Azores.
Over The Ocean...):
TAGs were lower deck. Pilots were officers. pilot into the dinghy, but not the body of the TAG, Amid such hardships, the daily prangs, aircraft
The two only ‘mixed’ when in the aircraft. They who went down with the Swordfish as it sank. overdue, comrades missing, it’s hardly surprising
My Stringbag flies over the ocean
inhabited different parts of a ship, did not hip, did not p, TheThe two men wer two men e eventually rescued by a that aircrew lived life to the full.
My Stringbag flies over the sea
mingle when they went ashore, and never nnd never mmotor boat – obviously British because “it otor boat – o– When Bill Pennington arrived in the Azores,
If it weren’t for King George’s Swordfish
really got to know each other. was was flying the Jolly Rogerflying the t , something that I there was plenty of beer, dancing, fresh food,
Where the hell would the Royal Navy be?
“At the time I thought this wrong,” g,” ccalculated would be beyond the German alculated wd more beer, some local firewater, wine, and plenty
The lyricist had a point.
writes Payne. “Sixty-five years sesense of humour”.nse off hu of curious locals.
Without the Swordfish, the Italian Navy would
later, I still think it wrong. We IIt was only back at Manston that t wasw But after a few days the men were itching for
have been free to roam the Middle Sea.
all flew in the same aircraft. We EEdgar Lee rdgaar ealised he was the only action.
Without the Swordfish, the Bismarck would
were chilled by the same winds, mman in his squadran a on left; the rest There was talk of an impending U-boat battle.
have reached port in France.
bludgeoned by the same seas, , wwere dead or wounded. “Sounds exciting.” It proved to be more of the
Without the Swordfish 350,000 tons of enemy
fired at by the same ack-ack.” Life at sea aboard carriers same: prangs, missed opportunities, Atlantic
shipping would not be lying on the ocean bed.
They were and they paid a heavy eavy ooffered little protection from the storms, the odd glimpse of a U-boat.
Without the Swordfish, guns, fuel, shells, food,
price. Of the 2,000 or so TAGs in the in the hhorrors of war. And yet for all its shortcomings, for all the
engines would have reached Rommel and allowed
Fleet Air Arm (most of them in Sworordfish) IIn the spring of 1943, 816 NAS tedious patrols, the Stringbag inspired air and
him to drive on Cairo.
nearly 450 were killed. –– largely Swor larga dfish with a sprinkling ground crew like no other machine in the first 100
All of which – and more – is evident in Donald
Almost 300 TAGs were decorated, among ed, among oof Seafirf Seafira es – was working up off Arran, years of naval aviation.
Payne’s very human Swordfish: From the
them the late Les Sayer who earnened the DSM ed the DSM readeady to escort a convoy with the Battle of y to esc “I have a lot to thank this aircraft for,” writes Lt
Cockpit No.10 (Ad Hoc, £19.99 ISBN 09469-
for attacking the Bismarck in May 1941.y 1941. the Atlantic apthe Atlantithe Atlantic apprc oaching its climax. Cdr John Moffat, veteran of the Bismarck chase.
58689), a beautifully-produced, wonderfully-
Sayer’s unit, 825 NAS was “pr“probably the Many of the aMany of the aircrew were enjoying a cuppa “I know of no other aircraft that would have
illustrated homage to the Stringbag.
least-prepared torpedo squadron” afloat, he”flth itin the warh ddroom when there was a thump-like survived taking off and landing in the Force 8
Payne’s book is a mix of anthology, history
conceded. noise, the lights went out and all sound of gale, and with the deck pitching 60ft.
and photographic tribute. His 210-page work
Sayer was its chief air gunner – and one of machinery running ceased. “I have experienced flying the aircraft with
is crammed with excellent images (mostly from
the few experienced TAGs in 825; many of his Lt Cdr Brian Bennett donned his life jacket and most of the lower wing and under fuselage
private collections and hence unseen) charting
shipmates were fresh out of training. headed for the flight deck with smoke billowing canvas in tatters and with a self-sealing tank that
the Swordfish’s decade-long career, plus page
825 had an ace up its sleeve – Lt Philip ‘Percy’ through the ship and Dasher increasingly sinking had a large piece of shrapnel embedded in it.”
upon page of illustrations of the aircraft in its
Gick, the leading torpedo attack instructor in the by the stern. Donald Payne agrees.
Fleet Air Arm. On deck, he found the ship’s company jumping “Other aircraft may also have been fun – and a
numerous liveries and variations.
Gick made two passes at Bismarck, the second over the side – a good 60ft to the Firth of Clyde. lot more comfortable to fly – but if it is pitch dark,
There was a lot not to like about the
caught Hitler’s flagship by surprise. The torpedo Bennett waited, preferring to float off Dasher as sleeting and blowing a gale and the deck
struck the battleship amidships, while her guns she went under – which he did. of the carrier is rising and falling like
It was horrendously sluggish (a cruising speed
vainly tried to engage the Swordfish. All they did “The last I saw of her was the bow passing over a dummy horse on a roundabout,
of 85kts – just 98mph). The cockpit was exposed
was throw up huge spouts of water which ripped my left shoulder,” he recalled. the only aeroplane in which I
to the elements (although a modified enclosed
away the fabric on the fuselage. “Puffs of black smoke began appearing in the would ever wish to be in
version appeared later in life), the forward
With typical British understatement, Sayer water and shortly the sea was ablaze.” is a Stringbag.”
machine gun had a “pitiful” rate of fire.
observed: “We had a rather cold trip back.” Of the 116 men in NAS, 91 died – mostly
It began life in the mid 1930s as a ‘private
Understatement characterises most of the ground crew or ‘troops’.
venture’ – an aircraft offered to Whitehall by
many first-hand accounts which pepper this fine For all the drama, for all the excitement/
industry. While Hawker and Supermarine were
book. horror, of combat, most Swordfish sorties were
working on monoplane designs, Fairey hoped
Observer S/Lt Edgar Lee recalled being “in a tedious, cold, numbing anti-submarine patrols
to win over the Admiralty with a biplane spotter
pickle” during the Channel Dash. and convoy escort duties.
aircraft which could also deliver “a sting in its The ‘pickle’ Lee describes was an umbrella of “Flying over miles and miles of ocean
tail”. Focke Wulf 190s and Me109s swarming around with no friendly points of land to
They did, although anyone involved in naval the obsolete Swordfish trying to attack the show where you are is an
aviation conceded that this new biplane, the Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen. awesome experience in
Fairey TSR (Torpedo-Spotter-Reconnaissance) – Lee’s gunner was killed, his pilot was badly poor visibility,” Lt
subsequently renamed Swordfish – was “archaic”, wounded by shrapnel, the aircraft in front plunged Bill Pennington
“outdated”, an “anachronism”. into the Channel before his Swordfish began the
That said, the Swordfish was also “a wonderfully run-in on the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.
forgiving aircraft,” writes the author. “I always From 1,200 yards the aircraft dropped its
● Three rocket projectile Fairey Swordfi sh during a training
fl ight from RNAS St Merryn in the summer of 1944. Note the
invasion stripes on the aircraft’s wings and fuselage.
Picture: Imperial War Museum A 24983
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