|Charles Lamb was a Swordfish pilot who
took part in a number of actions including the bombing of the Italian
fleet in Taranto, action from Greece and other activities in the Med.
|I have taken a number of extracts from his
book to describe what it was like flying the old Swordfish. As a
link to one of the ships on the site, in January 1941 Lamb had to ditch,
and was rescued by HMS Juno.
instruments on the early Swordfish were basic. "The
blind-flying panel and artificial horizon had not appeared on the scene,
and all we had to guide us was a Reid and Sigrist Turn-and-bank
indicator, and some red mercury in a small thermometer tube, to tell the
pilot whether he was flying nose-up or nose-down." New panels
were fitted later before they went to the Mediterranean.
|Landing on deck was not easy. "The
Swordfish has a Bristol Pegasus 111 M.3 radial engine which obscures the
flight-deck - and the ship - in the very last stages of a deck
landing. Normally, by approaching in a gentle turn to port, right
down to the deck, it is possible to keep the deck in sight until
straightening up; then it is necessary to look between the engine
cylinders, at 'eleven and twelve o'clock', when the yellow bats come
into view for a split second as the deck swoops upwards at an alarming
rate. This is fine by day, but at night the cylinders are always
red-hot, and glow very brightly, and they can obscure the batsman's
illuminated signals altogether."
torpedo. " Of all its many weapons the most
devastating was the aerial torpedo. This weighed 1610 lb. and was
capable of sinking a 10,000 ton ship within minutes of the moment of
impact. To deliver this weapon in the face of intense opposition
in daylight, pilots were taught to attack from a steep dive, at speeds
of 180 knots and more. They have been known to reach 200 knots in
that dive - in extremis - but there was then a real danger of the
wings folding back, or tearing off. In that headlong rush to sea
level, the pilot had the impression that he was standing on the rudder
bar, looking over the top of the centre-section of the upper mainplane.
His face was only partially screened, so that a helmet and goggles were
a 'must' for all normal individuals. Those dives had to be very
nearly vertical. Any modern clean-surfaced aircraft needs many
thousands of feet to pull out of a dive, but the Swordfish could be
eased out, with a pull-out of less than five hundred feet.
After straightening out and throttling back, the forward speed came
right down to 90 knots very quickly, because of the drag provided by the
fixed undercarriage, and all the struts and wires between the mainplanes.
This violent alteration in speed made the aircraft a difficult target
for the gun-aimer on the ground, or in the ship being attacked, and the
sudden deceleration helped the pilot to deliver his weapon very
accurately. Nevertheless there was never any doubt that the
Stringbag was a very slow machine, and a vulnerable target for all,
especially in daylight."
aircraft. "There were no refinements to bother with,
such as flaps or a variable pitch airscrew, and the undercarriage could
not be retracted; but the aircraft had one very special asset which,
like everything else in the machine, was simple and most effective; its
torpedo sight was foolproof if used with care. Whoever designed it
was as much a genius as Marcel Lobelle (the aircraft designer).
Two rods, one on either side of the front cockpit, fixed to the trailing
edge of the top mainplane, displayed a neat little row of electric light
bulbs, spaced equally apart. The distance between each bulb and
the next represented five knots of enemy speed.
By arriving over the sea at right-angles to the enemy ship at
a range of about two thousand yards, the pilot would steer towards the
ship with the correct light bulb in line with the ship's bow. For
example, a ship doing 20 knots needed four light bulbs between its bow
and the nose of the aircraft. In a daylight attack, because the
aircraft was most vulnerable during this breathtaking run-in, and the
time spent low on the water had to be reduced to seconds if the pilot
was going to be able to deliver his weapon and survive, the assessment
of enemy speed had to be made before the pilot started his dive.
Last minute yawing - by use of rudder - to keep the bulb in line, only
served to throw the torpedo out of true when it was released, and then
it might run in circles."
the weapon. "The torpedo, or magnetic mine, slung
under the fuselage, was released by an electric firing-switch on top of
the throttle, operated by the pilot with his left thumb. Because
the weapon was so heavy, the moment it was released the aircraft's nose
would surge upwards, and so with his right hand the pilot had to hold it
down and keep the aircraft in level flight, otherwise the torpedo would
'porpoise'. If the nose of the aircraft was allowed to rise the
torpedo would be tossed in the general direction of the target so that
it entered the sea with a splash, like a diver doing a belly-flop; but
if the aircraft was kept level and steady, the 'fish' entered the sea at
the correct angle, without a splash, and sped smoothly towards its
All these complications were simplified if the attack could be
made at night. There was then no need for a dive approach, and one
crept towards the enemy ship at half-throttle in a long glide.
Because the Stringbag was a spidery silhouette it was most difficult to
see at night when coming in low on the water, and one could approach to
very short range so that the torpedo was certain to hit the
target. When it did, the first sign to the attacking pilot was a
small puff of smoke bursting upwards from the ship's funnel, as she
belched from this tremendous blow in the stomach. Then it was time
to turn and get to hell out of it in case the ship blew up and took the
Swordfish up with her."
"...the observers had to squat over the camp fire and smoke their
pieces of glass. In strong sunlight, the Swordfish were very
vulnerable to fighter attack from the direction of the sun, and the only
way to spot them when they dived from the pilot's blind side was for the
observer or air-gunner to sit staring into the sun through the smoked
glass. Like our single Vickers gun, forward, and the Lewis gun,
aft, smoked glass had proved very effective in the First World War, but
unlike the guns we found that it was not to be despised in the Second
|The men who flew the
Swordfish were very brave men, and that has caused me to include the
obituaries of any I have seen in the Times or Telegraph, although they
were possibly not involved in Greece or Crete. One such was Lt-Cdr
Pat Kingsmill whose obituary appeared in the Daily Telegraph, 6 Feb,
2003. The following is a lengthy extract describing some of the
action he was involved in.
|"Kingsmill was the pilot of one of the
six elderly Swordfish, each armed with a single torpedo, which aimed to
halt the largest German fleet of the Second World War as it passed
through the Channel on February 21, 1941. Although the battle
cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the heavy cruiser Prinz
Eugen and their escorts had been expected to break out from Brest to
make for Norway, British inter-service liaison had broken down.
Most of Fleet Air Arm Squadron 825, including the 20-year-old Kingsmill,
had no experience of battle.
|Their leader, Lt-Cdr Eugene Esmonde, had
returned the day before from being invested with the DSO at Buckingham
Palace for his part in sinking the Bismark; and Kingsmill was in
a barber's chair when the alarm was given that the Germans were already
off Calais. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, Flag Officer Dover,
pleaded with the First Sea Lord not to send them to a certain death, but
he gave Esmonde, the authority to decide if he had sufficient fighter
cover to attempt an attack.
|With only 10 Spitfires rather than the five
squadrons he had been promised, Esmonde led his men as they took off
from RAF Manston in Kent; the station commander, Wing Commander Tom
Gleave, was so appalled that he stood at the end of the snowy runway and
saluted each aircraft. The Spitfires of 72 Squadron soon became
engaged in dogfights with German fighters and lost sight of the
Swordfish, as 825 lumbered at 90 knots an hour towards their
target. Esmonde was shot down first but, with his dying action,
launched his torpedo. Kingsmill, who was following him, flew so
low that he was hit by ricochets from the surface of the sea as he
pressed on through the smoke and bursting shells. He watched
Esmonde's aircraft erupt in a ball of fire and then his friend Brian
Rose crash into the sea, before he turned towards the Prinz Eugen at a
range of 2,000 yards. Kingsmill had already received the first of
several wounds, a hit in the back. His observer, "Mac"
Samples, had blood running from his boots, and his leading telegraphist
air gunner, Don Bunce, had his seat shot away, so that he had to brace
himself against falling into the sea.
|Swordfish W5907 had one wing fire, there was
engine damage, and the controls were becoming increasingly sluggish as
Kingsmill turned a full circle to avoid enemy fighters, then steadied up
for his torpedo drop. The Prinz Eugen manoeuvred violently to comb
the torpedo track which just missed astern. As Kingsmill turned
away, his Swordfish was hit again, detonating its distress flares.
Training ragged fabric streamers and with gaping holes in virtually
every part of its wings, fuselage and tail, Kingsmill tried to prevent
it stalling before ditching.
|There he calmly climbed from his cockpit,
crawled the length of the fuselage to the tailplane, helped his crew to
escape and slipped into the icy sea. Their dinghy was destroyed by
gunfire. ten minutes later Kingsmill and his crew were rescued by
a motor torpedo boat. Kingsmill had flown at 40ft. underneath the
second flight of Swordfish as they advanced into a wall of fire, and all
were shot down; 825 Squadron had lived up to its motto, nihil obstat;
nothing stops us.
|Afterwards Admiral Ramsay wrote that this
gallant sortie constituted one of the finest exhibitions of
self-sacrifice and devotion to duty that the war had yet witnessed; on
the bridge of the Scharnhorst the navigating officer felt
privileged to witness the pilots knowingly and ungrudgingly flying to
their doom without hesitation. Esmonde was posthumously awarded
the Victoria Cross. The survivors of the second Swordfish,
Sub-Lieutenants Rose and Edgar Lee, were awarded the DSO, as were
Kingsmill and Samples; Bunce received the Conspicuous Gallantry
Medal. The others were awarded a mention in dispatches, all that
was allowed by the rules.
|Kingsmill died New Year's Day, 2003.