Fairey Albacore; The Under Appreciated Slow Poke

January 10, 2024

The Fairey Albacore is a classic example of an aircraft that has an unfortunate historical reputation. Built to replace its legendary predecessor, the Fairey Swordfish, as the Royal Navy’s principal carrier torpedo bomber, the Albacore is chiefly remembered as having been retired from service earlier than the positively archaic-looking Swordfish, and this fact has thoroughly tarnished its legacy.

The Albacore is also remembered for being slow, having a very short front line service life and essentially being obsolescent when it flew.

I mean look at it! Who was fielding new biplanes as front-line aircraft in 1940, when the Albacore came into service? It certainly looks like an anomaly, especially when compared to contemporary carrier aircraft that were flying at the same time such as the Douglas Devastator and the Nakajima B5N.

Certainly, with its wing set up and fixed undercarriage, the Albacore does appear to be from a previous age.

This, combined with the aircraft’s perceived failure as compared to the still hugely popular Swordfish as a service aircraft, means that the Albacore is barely remembered and what is said of it is often scornful.

But is that really justified? In my opinion, no, and I shall set out why in this article.

The Fairey Albacore was, as said, built as a replacement for the Swordfish, with the specification being set in early 1937 for a new carrier borne Torpedo/Bomber/Reconnaissance aircraft, or TBR as it was classified.

Fairey did actually propose a monoplane design but that was turned down by the purchasing authorities. What was wanted was an aircraft that essentially had a number of improvements over the Swordfish in  terms of crew comfort so as to make them more effective in long overwater operations, principally in the freezing north Atlantic. But what was not really needed were major improvements to either performance or weapon carriage as compared to the old “Stringbag”.

The Fairey Swordfish really did look prehistoric!

This might seem odd, but it is important to remember that the British Fleet Air Arm at this time had a very specific role of supporting the fleet at sea with reconnaissance and gunnery spotting, with torpedo and dive bombing included. The FAA’s job was principally seen as one of fighting in naval actions, and the British at that time were firmly of the idea that naval aircraft shouldn’t be expected to engage in action against land-based air power, which would, in their opinion, always be superior to carrier aircraft.

This would prove shortsighted, but it was this doctrinal thinking that explains the design choices for the Albacore.

The aircraft’s first prototype flew in December 1938, with a production order being placed in 1939. In appearance, the influence of the Swordfish seems obvious.

Indeed, as the video made by the Armoured Carriers YouTube channel points out, which features a range of testimony from those who flew the aircraft and is well worth a watch so I shall link to it at the end, the Albacore was almost like a Rolls Royce version of the Swordfish, as one of the original crewmen puts it.

The Albacore retained the afore-mentioned biplane layout and fixed undercarriage. But unlike the Swordfish, the Albacore utilized a semi-monocoque metal construction for the fuselage, though the wings remained fabric covered. These could, in common with other carrier aircraft, be folded for storage.

Most distinctively the Albacore – or “Applecore” as it was to be nicknamed in service – was fitted with a fully glazed cockpit and heating system, as well as having such unimaginable luxuries as a windscreen wiper.

The pilot’s position was also improved in that it was placed much further forward so that the wing did not obstruct his view, a decided improvement for keeping a eye out for roving enemy aircraft and for landing on a deck.

However, downsides of the new layout compared to the Swordfish were that the crew in the rear compartment had to access the aircraft through small hatches in the fuselage instead of clambering straight in or out, a factor that caused some concern if they had to abandon the aircraft quickly due to a water landing or by parachute. Also, the pilot was now separated from his navigator and radioman by the main fuel tank, meaning they lost the ability to reach over and simply tap the pilot on the shoulder to get his attention and signal him.

But that was the price of progress, and the Albacore also had a lot more power available to it, being fitted with Bristol Taurus radial engines, either Mk.IIs or Mk.XIIs, that produced around 1,100 hp, a marked increase from the Swordfish’s Bristol Pegasus of only 690 hp.

The Taurus initially caused a fair amount of trouble, experiencing a difficult development cycle, but when the teething issues were resolved the engines proved to be reasonably reliable.

Despite the extra horsepower the added weight of the Albacore meant that its performance was only marginally improved over the Swordfish, with the Albacore having a top speed of around 170 mph (274km/h) clean or 160mph with a torpedo (257km/h) as compared to the Swordfish’s 143mph (230km/h) armed the same.

Weapon load was also slightly improved, with the Albacore capable of carrying 2,000lb (907kgs) of bombs or depth charges on its wings compared to the Swordfish’s 1,500lb (680kgs).

For defensive armament the Albacore was equipped with a single .303-calibre machine gun fixed in the wing for the pilot, with the rear gunner/telegraphist having initially a single Vickers K machine gun to cover the rear of the aircraft, which was soon increased to twin guns in service.

The greater weight of the Albacore as compared to the Swordfish also meant that the aircraft was much stiffer and heavier on the controls than its predecessor, with most reference histories of the aircraft stating this was a serious consideration in the aircraft’s short lifespan as compared to the Swordfish. But listening to the opinions of those who flew the aircraft, it seems that how serious an impediment this was for the pilot was very much a subjective matter, with those featured in the aforementioned Armoured Carriers video seeming to be of the opinion that while the Albacore was harder to fly than the Swordfish, the Swordfish was in fact ridiculously easy to handle and in reality the Albacore was actually a pretty good pilot’s aircraft.

Certainly, the old pilots quite often talk about how good the Albacore was as a dive bomber, being able to drop on a target practically in the vertical, as well as being good platform for torpedo attack. Slow, yes, but that was basically the standard for all torpedo bombers of the time, and so the Albacore was hardly unusual in this regard in comparison to its contemporaries.

Another negative factor that histories tend to focus on was the very short service life of the Albacore. First getting into squadrons in March 1940, the Albacore only served as a frontline attack aircraft until 1943 until replaced by the Fairey Barracuda.

So admittedly, there is some justification for this criticism, and the Albacore was very much constrained  by its limited prewar design parameters. But what tends to get overlooked is just how much action and how big an impact the Albacore had in that short period, especially when compared to the praise heaped on the Swordfish.

Let’s compare two notionally similar operations – attacks on enemy ports – that get cited, one bringing glory to the Swordfish, the other an unmitigated disaster for the Albacore; The raid on the Italian fleet at Taranto on the night of the 11-12 November 1940 and the attack on the northern Norwegian port of Kirkenes on 30 July 1941.

The Taranto raid was arguably the most glorious episode in the Swordfish’s career. In a daring night torpedo attack twenty-one Swordfish attacked the Italian battle fleet in the port of Taranto, inflicting damage on three battleships, a cruiser and two destroyers, as well as to the port facilities.

In contrast the attack by Albacores on the port of Kirkenes was little better than a slaughter. Of twenty Albacores and eight Fulmar fighters dispatched for the attack, eleven of the torpedo aircraft were shot down and two of the fighters.

But while this might seem damning for the Albacore, that actually hides the fact that the whole operation was, quite frankly, a cock up from the start. Firstly, the operation was initiated mainly for political reasons, with the British, principally Churchill, desperate to demonstrate support for the Soviet Union, who had suddenly become a new ally after the Germans attacked that country only five weeks before and, let’s be honest, were getting the heck kicked out of them at the time.

As a result, the attack was not, as in the case of Taranto, launched at night against an enemy who did not really imagine such a thing would happen, but during the artic summer where there was no nighttime to allow for a stealthy approach and against an enemy at high alert and conducting operations in the area. Not surprisingly the British taskforce was sighted even before they launched their strike, meaning the anti-aircraft defences at the port were fully manned and alert.

Plus, to top things off the FAA aircraft ran straight into a returning German raid composed of thirteen Messerschmitt Bf 109-and-110 fighters and nine Ju 87 dive bombers, who added to the carnage.

Basically, everything that could go wrong pretty much did, and the Kirkenes raid was certainly the unqualified disaster that it has been called. But it overshadows that the Albacore’s were far from done with raiding the north Norwegian and Finnish shores, and  multiple attacks were conducted in September and October, though with the harsh lessons learnt the FAA would abort if the weather was clear or if there were indications that German fighters were about.

Indeed, these operations typify the sort of largely forgotten fighting and campaigns that the Albacores took part in throughout their brief but surprisingly active careers.

Albacores attacked German-held ports in Northern Europe; mauled Axis shipping in the Mediterranean; endured the grueling campaign defending the strategically critical island of Malta; fought the Japanese at Singapore; bombed German and Italian positions throughout the North Africa campaign and were in action at the second Battle of Alamein that saw the start of the end of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, as well as supporting the invasions of French North Africa, Sicily, the Italian mainland and D-Day itself.

Most of these actions and efforts by the Albacore seem to get lost in the maelstrom of aerial operations that were undertaken in the Second World War, which obscures the fact that Albacore’s would equip fifteen squadrons at their peak usage, hardly an insignificant number.

This contribution does seem to get practically glossed over, again especially in comparison to their illustrious forebear over which so much has been written about.

Now I want to make clear that I am not bashing the Swordfish; a remarkable aircraft that quite rightly deserves a lot of the praise it gets. But it does seem to cast a shadow over the Albacore.

Take the Swordfish’s most famous actions which seem to get the most citation; the previously mentioned Taranto raid and the torpedo attacks conducted on battleships at sea, principally on the Bismarck in May 1941 and on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during the infamous Channel Dash of February 1942.

Of the actions at sea, both episodes are rightly membered; the first for the critical damage the Swordfish torpedo’s did to the Bismarck, slowing it down long enough to allow the British fleet to catch up and sink the fearsome German battleship; the second for the tremendous heroism displayed by the six aircraft crews in the face of overwhelming anti-aircraft fire and German fighter escorts that saw the entire attack force shot down.

By contrast you would be hard pressed to find much written about the attack launched by Albacore’s on the Bismarck’s sister ship Tirpitz in March 1942, though maybe because this led to neither decisive damage on the German battleship as all the Albacore’s involved missed with their torpedoes, nor a glorious catastrophe as only two of the twelve attacking aircraft were shot down.

What tends to get overlooked in this operation is that while it is ranked as something of a failure, in fact it achieved an important goal in making the German navy positively paranoid about sending the Tirpitz out to sea if there was any sign of a British carrier operating in the area, greatly constraining the big battleship’s usage.

Plus, there are some other details when we compare the respective histories of the Swordfish and Albacore that need highlighting.

To return to the Swordfish raid on Taranto, though this was a remarkable operation, it ultimately failed in its expected goal. This was to scare the Italian Navy enough that they would stay bottled up in port not wanting to venture out against the might of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. But they quickly disabused the British of that idea, sortieing their undamaged fleet units within days of the raid and attacking British shipping as well as increasing the number of vessels they sailed to support Axis forces in North Africa.

No, a far more damaging episode for the Italians would occur at the Battle of Cape Matapan, which took place from the 27-29 March 1941 and which would see three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers sunk, plus a battleship and two destroyers damaged…for the loss to the British of a single Albacore.

In the initial actions building up to the fleet battle, Albacore’s successfully torpedoed the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto and the heavy cruiser Pola. Though the battleship was able to escape, the crippled Pola, accompanied by two of her sister ships, was caught by British battleships that night and sunk.

And this would not have happened but for the Albacore, who’s part in the whole affair tends to get overlooked.

Of course, the Albacore was not a perfect aircraft, far from it, and this did lead to its rapid replacement in FAA use by the Barracuda by the end of 1943. And it was indeed seen out of front-line service by the Swordfish, with the final examples of the Albacore in use by the Royal Air Force being ironically replaced by Swordfish in early-1945. But the reasons for this are not simply that the Swordfish was somehow amazing while the Albacore had some terrible flaws, as is what is often implied by histories of the two aircraft.

What the Swordfish had going for it was simplicity, meaning it was a cheap and adaptable airframe that was available for other duties, principally maritime patrol and anti-submarine work. For this sort of work the Swordfish was perfectly adequate and did have a major advantage over the Albacore in that it’s wide splayed and simpler undercarriage could fit a Mk.XI anti-surface radar for hunting U-Boats.

The other point in its favor was that it was still being built. As production of the Albacore had begun ramping up in 1940 the Air Ministry, to take pressure off Fairey, had commissioned Blackburn Aircraft to build a new factory for Swordfish production, and this facility continued to operate throughout the war. When Fairey switched their production line to the new Barracuda in 1942 all Albacore production ceased, meaning that as parts gradually run out the end of the aircraft was very much on the horizon.

And it must be noted that the decision to replace the Albacore with the Swordfish with the crews operating  long anti-submarine patrols over the chilly North Sea was not particularly popular, with many crews lamenting losing their warm and sealed cockpits for the freezing wind chill of the Swordfish.

The last few Albacore’s able to be kept flying bumbled around in communication duties in distant posts until 1946, when they were finally withdrawn completely.

In conclusion, I would say that the Albacore was your classic early-war light bomber and suffered from all the flaws that those aircraft had, irrelevant of the nation that built them. All of the combatants soon learnt that sending these sorts of aircraft against defended targets, especially in daylight, was little better than suicide in terms of the losses that they would take.

And the career of the Albacore correspondingly reflected that of many other attack aircraft of its generation, switching to night operations or else being used more conservatively to ensure that losses were kept to manageable levels. In fact, the Albacore was able to make a valuable and generally overlooked contribution, serving in a range of roles in a number of theaters, being fought bravely by its crews even if it was outclassed in many ways.

This is the fate of a number of the more obscure and less well remembered aircraft of the Second World War, often the earlier designs that were eclipsed by the later, more formidable aircraft that learnt from the lessons gained at great expense by these early types.

What really damns the Albacore is that the aircraft it was supposed to replace, the Swordfish, had both established itself as a legend from its early actions during the war and remained a useful combat aircraft right up until the end of it. And this results in the histories written of both aircraft tending to gloss over the failings of the Swordfish while magnifying those of the Albacore.

Instead, a proper study of both aircraft reveals that the truth is far more nuanced.

Of the eight hundred Albacores built only a single example survivor remains, kept at the FAA Museum at Yeovilton, England.

 

Sources/Related:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairey_Albacore

Fairey Albacore | A failed Swordfish replacement?

https://web.archive.org/web/20040904030659/http://www.fleetairarmarchive.net/rollofhonour/Battlehonour_crewlists/Petsamo_Kirkenes_1941.html

http://www.rathbonemuseum.com/GB/FAA/GPCWilliams.html

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