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Back in black

Gary Parsons reports from Duxford on the IWM's refurbished Swordfish

Latest in the pre-AirSpace aircraft restorations at Duxford is Fairey Swordfish III NF370, rolled out to the press on 24 October. The Swordfish, nicknamed 'Stringbag' by its crews, first flew in April 1934 and entered squadron service in July 1936, its primary role being that of a torpedo bomber. It also fulfilled a number of other roles including being an anti-submarine aircraft, a rocket weapons carrier and a minelayer.

It was so successful that it outlasted aircraft that were intended to replace it, serving throughout the Second World War, making it the last British biplane to see active service. The aircraft served mainly with the Fleet Air Arm but some were allocated to Nos. 119 and 202 Squadrons of RAF Coastal Command.

Duxford's Mk III Swordfish, NF370, was delivered on 1 April 1944 from the Blackburn Aircraft Ltd plant at Sherburn-in-Elmet in Yorkshire and is one of only two Mark IIIs left in the world. The Mk III sported a large centrimetric radar unit under the nose, and only seated two (pilot and observer/radar operator). The radar had a range of about 25 miles against ships, and in good conditions also against U-boats, but it would detect a Schnorkel only in very calm seas and at distances below 5 miles.

Lt Cdr Willy Armstrong, DSM, RN Retd.
Willy was a Telegraphist/Air Gunner (TAG) and flew Mk Is and IIs with 835 NAS from HMS Nairana in 1943/44 on the Atlantic Convoys. "We enjoyed flying the Swordfish, it could land on an escort carrier, unlike the more modern machines," he said. The later Albacore and Barracuda aircraft required longer decks than escort carriers such as HMS Nairana could provide. Converted from a New Zealand cargo vessel, Nairana was a twin-screw vessel with enclosed hangars and a relatively long steel flight deck. Built in the UK by John Brown at Clydebank, Nairana was laid down on 20 May 1943 and commissioned on 12 December 1943. After the war she was transferred to the Netherlands on 20 March 1946 and renamed Karel Doorman, eventually being scrapped at Faslane in 1971. Willy also served until 1971, going on to fly Avengers and the Gannett AEW.
Willy's DSM is an interesting tale - it was awarded for being part of the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck in 1941. In May of that year news came that the Bismarck and the cruiser Prinz Eugen had sailed from the Baltic.
Willy was part of the crew of a Maryland flown by Lieutenant Noel Goddard, the Commanding Officer of 771 Naval Air Squadron, with Captain Hank Rotherham as observer.
Despite appalling weather with low cloud and strong winds, sometimes flying as low as fifty feet, the crew navigated the Maryland to landfall and searched the fjords thoroughly that Willy was able to signal on an emergency frequency "Battleship and Cruiser have left".

This signal set in motion the hunt for the Bismarck, which led first to the loss of Hood and then the destruction of Bismarck. Rotherham was awarded an immediate DSO, Goddard the DSC and Willy the DSM.

Blackburn-produced aircraft were known as 'Blackfish', but this has nothing to do with the final colour of Duxford's example! NF370 was allocated to a Fleet Air Arm squadron in February 1944 but transferred to 119 Squadron at Bircham Newton in Norfolk in January 1945, this being the only RAF squadron to operate the Mk III. Surviving the war, it was stored for may years at the Imperial War Museum's main site at Lambeth before arriving at Duxford in early 1986, restoration commencing in 1998. Using mainly a volunteer workforce, it took two years to strip the aircraft to a bare fuselage, before work was diverted to other subjects for another two years. In 2002 work on restoration re-commenced, although the wing ribs had suffered in storage and most of the rear of the fuselage was rotting, being of wooden construction. The restoration has been meticulous, and the aircraft could be fully airworthy with a new engine (the fitted Perseus is a non-working example) and a new wiring loom. The black paint that signified its RAF service was discovered during the restoration process and has now been fully restored.

Veteran Swordfish aircrew attending the presentation of NF370 were universal in their admiration of the aircraft. "I was glad to be on Swordfish rather than the Barracuda, as the latter suffered from hydraulic problems and fumes in the cockpit" said former Telegraphist/Air Gunner Ken Davies, who served in the Mediterranean on anti-submarine patrols from HMS Battler. When asked if he felt vulnerable in the slow and fabric-covered aircraft, he replied "Not at all - the Swordfish could fly low enough that the enemy couldn't bring his guns to bear! We often used to fly around less than fifty feet over the waves." But for Ken, like many Swordfish aircrew, it was a quiet war: "I only saw the enemy once - we spotted a German submarine tanker refueling subs in the Indian Ocean. We later found out that the location had been determined by the cracking of the Enigma code." Ken's passion for the Swordfish has seen him fly twice with the Royal Navy Historic Flight's examples since the war, something he feels very privileged to have done.

A similar story of a quiet war was offered by Lt Richard Temple, a former Observer in 1943 with 836 NAS H Flight at Maydown, Northern Ireland. "We had four aircraft in the Flight, and were lucky to get 25% serviceability on occasions!" Richard served on the North Atlantic convoy routes as escort, but never saw a U-Boat! "That's what we were there for - as a deterrent", he said. "It obviously worked!" This is not to say those that didn't see action weren't heroes in their own way - the cold and loneliness of escort duties in the North Atlantic called for its own brand of courage. Richard later served on HMS Illustrious in the Pacific, where his worst moment was a kamikaze attack. Unusually, he flew with the same crew right through the war, later flying Avengers with 854 NAS in the English Channel.

Also present at the presentation was Albert Pritchard, who as a sixteen year-old in August 1943 installed the original engine on NF370 at the factory at Sherburn. Paid the princely sum of 15 shillings a week, his main task was to remove the interrupter gear from the Pegasus engine as it was delivered from the Bristol factory. "It was a lot of money in those days for a sixteen year-old lad", he said, "but of course it's only about 75p these days!"

 

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