The Fairey Fulmar was a two-seat fleet-fighter in use by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm between 1941 and 1945. It stood between the multi-role Blackburn Skua, which was quickly exposed as ineffective against modern single-seat fighters, and the large-scale use of high-performance American fighters. Along with the Hawker Sea Hurricane and Grumman Martlet, the Fulmar plugged a vital gap for the Fleet Air Arm. Fulmars destroyed 112 enemy aircraft – more than any other Fleet Air Arm fighter during the Second World War.
A Fulmar Mk.I in flight
Nevertheless, by 1942 it was clear that the Fulmar was too heavy, slow and unwieldy in its primary role. After the high-water mark of Operation Pedestal, The Fulmar’s career as a fleet fighter was at an end, but the big two-seater’s usefulness did not end there. During the second half of 1942 there was a concerted effort to develop Fulmar units in the army co-operation role, as several squadrons trained with the army and the RAF’s Army Co-operation Command during this time.
Soon after HMS Victorious and HMS Indomitable returned home after Operation Pedestal, the Admiralty was determined to equip its fleet-fighter squadrons with the latest single-seaters as rapidly as possible for the planned invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. The Admiralty noted “Approval is required… in order that we may get on with the hooking of these most modern fighters which the recent convoy operation in the Mediterranean has again demonstrated are an absolute essential for the safety of the fleet. The Fulmar is hopelessly outmatched by the far more modern fighters which they have to encounter.” At this time, only 809 NAS retained its Fulmars although several new units were earmarked for Fulmars in the new role.
A Fulmar actually saw service with the Vichy French – the Mk.I force-landed while flying a reconnaissance mission over Senegal in March 1941, then pressed into service with Group de Chasse I/4.
It was not therefore as a fighter that the Fulmar took part in its last major operation but as an army co-operation aircraft. Some two months prior to the invasion, 809 Squadron disembarked from Victorious to train in army support and tactical reconnaissance at Sawbridgeworth. In fact, from at least February 1942, Fleet Air Arm pilots had been detached to squadrons in Army Co-operation Command to learn the business of AC flying. Other Fulmar units were formed with this role in mind, including 879, 884 and 886
In October, 809 Squadron’s ‘B’ Flight broke away and formed the nucleus of 879 Squadron, still equipped with Fulmars for army co-operation. The six remaining Fulmars of 809 Squadron rejoined their carrier and proceeded to the Mediterranean.
During the first day of the operation, HMS Victorious joined the offshore covering force for Algiers and Oran. At daybreak on ‘D-Day’, the carrier moved 20 miles of Oran to give air support to the landings.
A Fulmar tests its guns on an aircraft carrier deck
Employing the Fulmar in the army co-operation role made a certain amount of sense. The additional crew-member helped ensure precise navigation and enabled better communication with forces on the ground. This also helped with reconnaissance as the pilot could concentrate on flying while the second crewman kept an eye out for enemy forces. However, the Fulmars could not carry bombs and their .303in guns were not as effective strafing weapons as .50in or 20mm guns.
During D-Day, the 809 Squadron Fulmars flew seven tactical reconnaissance, or ‘Tac-R’ missions over Algiers area, gathering intelligence on the dispositions and movement of French forces, and reporting them back to forward patrols.
Two aircraft were hit by anti-aircraft fire during these missions, one of which had to ditch near its parent carrier. The following day, the squadron continued army support duties, including dropping supplies to forces at Maison Blanche which had been captured by Fleet Air Arm Martlets. By D+2, the Allies had secured air superiority.
Fulmars of 803 or 806 Squadron lining up to take off from a carrier
This operation marked the last missions undertaken by 809 Squadron on the Fulmar, and therefore ended this unit’s long and eventful association with the two-seat fighter and HMS Victorious.
The new Fulmar squadrons never took part in army co-operation activities, and re-equipped with single-seaters. When further combined operations took place, such as the invasions of Sicily, mainland Italy and France, carrier-based aircraft were not needed to support troops as land bases were well within range. Nevertheless, some of the tasks carried out by the Fulmars of 809 Squadron during the Torch landings were reprised with great success later in the war. For example, the use of close support aircraft to drop food supplies to troops was adopted by A-36As of the 86th and 27th Fighter Bomber Groups during the fighting for Cassino, with great success during that hard-fought campaign.
Only one Fulmar from the 600 manufactured remains. The first production aircraft N1854 is preserved at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton.
Fairey Fulmar N1854 at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton