Battle of the Atlantic 80 – The Crucial Role of the Swordfish

The unsung heroes of the Battle of the Atlantic were the Naval pilots who provided the crucial air cover that helped turn the tide of the War. Many of these pilots joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) at the start of the war, flying the obsolescent Fairey ‘Swordfish’.

These fabric covered bi-planes and their aircrews, with an average age of 21, flew from the pitching decks of merchant ships, in all that the Atlantic could throw at them, including mountainous seas and bitter cold. They flew in open cockpits in the harshest of conditions often crash landing back on deck. Maintenance crews were on hand to work on exposed flight decks in sub-zero temperatures, handling freezing metal by torch light to get the aircraft repaired and ready to take off again at first light.

Telegraphist Air Gunner Robert Lea, described the continual dawn to dusk patrols as gruelling and hard.

“My memory is of constant sea mist, everything was damp and we were always cold. By the time I was 19, I had ditched twice. On both occasions the aircraft sank quickly in the heavy swell and I was lucky to survive."

Telegraphist Air Gunner Robert Lea

They patrolled in an area known as the mid-Atlantic gap, the 500 mile wide gap in the middle of the Atlantic, out of range of land based Allied aircraft. Here the U-boats had almost complete freedom to operate; freedom to surface and recharge their batteries and to communicate by radio with their brother wolves, their home bases and their long range Condor bomber aircraft scouting for convoys.

While obsolete at the beginning of the war, the Swordfish proved remarkably effective in the Anti-Submarine role and the tireless efforts of these unsung heroes slowly and perceptibly helped turn the tide of the war.