On 21 September, twelve Fleet Air Arm veterans were honoured at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton, at an event dedicated to the immortal Fairey Swordfish and the men and women who flew and worked on it. Louise Evans of organising charity Navy Wings described the Swordfish Heritage Day as “A special day re-uniting twelve World War Two Swordfish veterans with the oldest flying Swordfish in the World”. The event was also attended by current Navy Wings air crew and supporters of the charity.
Please consider supporting Navy Wings, which does fantastic work maintaining classic naval aircraft and honouring the memory of those who served in the Fleet Air Arm – for more information about the work they do, click here
The veterans included maintenance personnel, such as Maureen Ashcott, an Air Radio Mechanic on Swordfish at Donibristle, pilots, including Lieutenant John Bowden, who ditched a Swordfish with live torpedo fitted, and Peter Jinks, Telegraphist Air Gunner on HMS Archer, which Peter revealed had unreliable engines, making flying operations risky: “If the engines weren’t pumping well, you’d feel your wheels go over the end of the flight deck, and you’d go down… Being in the back seat I had a good view of the deck disappearing, and our slipstream making waves on the water, we were so low.”
Sub Lieutenant Archie Hemsley flew Swordfish with 813 Squadron on convoys to Gibraltar and Russia with 813 squadron on HMS Campania in 1944. He described a game of cat-and-mouse with a U-boat, trying to overcome technology developed by the Germans: “We went out one night and got a radar reading. The Germans had a new ‘H’ radio pickup mast, but we thought if we switched our radar off immediately and timed it to the spot, then we would get it. Unfortunately, we didn’t, and the sub got away. You didn’t have to sink them, you just had to be there. That’s why the losses stopped in the Russian convoys. If you could get the submarines down, they couldn’t race ahead and catch the convoy.”
Sub Lieutenant Hemsley praised the Swordfish’s dependability. “That was the joy of it,” he said. “We had very few engine failures.”
Navy Wings aims to “inspire future generations and create a focus for remembrance by keeping heritage aircraft in the skies”, including Swordfish LS326 and W5686, the oldest Swordfish still flying.
All three of the Navy Wings Swordfish were present – W5686, a Mk I, which is currently undergoing maintenance and was shown with her access panels all removed, allowing a fascinating view of the machine’s internal structure and systems; LS326, a Mk II with a combat history flying from Merchant Aircraft Carriers (‘MAC’ ships) in the latter part of WWII, complete but for her engine, and NF389, which was shown in dismantled condition, showing the tubular steel spaceframe, which was the reason for the Swordfish’s immense strength and maintainability, to good effect.
Many thanks to Paul Beaver for alerting me to the event, and to Louise Evans of Navy Wings
This piece is based on a shorter item that appeared in the November issue of Aeroplane