One of the highlights of the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic events in Liverpool over the weekend 24 -28 May 2013 will be the flypast by the Royal Navy’s historic Swordfish – the open cockpit, fabric biplane that did so much to turn around the deadly Atlantic struggle, protecting convoys from the constant threat of marauding U-boats particularly in the treacherous mid-Atlantic gap.
Swordfish LS326, named the ‘City of Liverpool’ in recognition of the part played by the people of Liverpool in the Battle of the Atlantic and the close ties between the City and the Fleet Air Arm, will fly along the River Mersey and over the Fleet Flag Ship HMS Bulwark just before sunset on Friday 24 May in a poignant and memorable tribute to all those who served in the Battle of the Atlantic.
One the last remaining links with the Battle of the Atlantic, Swordfish LS326 is a rare and remarkable veteran of the campaign and an iconic part of the Nation’s Naval Aviation Heritage. On Sunday 26 May she will also lead the Royal Navy flypast following the Service of Commemoration in Liverpool Anglican Cathedral – as a living memorial to all those who lost their lives in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
Swordfish and their aircrews flew from the improvised decks of converted merchant ships in all that the North Atlantic could throw at them, dense fog, mountainous seas and bitter cold. These converted merchant ships were called Merchant Aircraft Carriers or MAC ships and the Swordfish was the only aircraft available to fly from their short decks. Swordfish LS326 was built in 1943 by Blackburn Aircraft and served with ‘L’ and ‘K’ Flights of 836 Naval Air Squadron embarked in MAC ships Rapana and Empire MacCallum on convoy protection in the North Atlantic.
The contribution made by the Swordfish in the Battle of the Atlantic is little known. They kept the U-boats submerged, restricting their freedom of movement and ability to manoeuvre into optimum positions to attack the convoys. It was a very successful tactic and it was this deterrent effect that helped to turn the tide of the war, dramatically stemming convoy losses. Out of two hundred and seventeen convoys with MAC ship protection only one was successfully attacked by U-boats.
Behind the Swordfish will be a diamond formation of 4 Naval helicopters, all types which are in current front line service either in the UK, Afghanistan or operating world-wide from the decks of Royal Navy ships. They will be the Lynx HMA 8 and Sea King Mk 4, based at Royal Naval Air Station in Somerset and the Merlin HM2 and the Sea King SAR, which are based at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall. The flypast will be followed by a solo aerobatic display given by the Royal Navy Lynx Display ‘Black Cat’, and the ‘Commando’ Sea King Mk4 will demonstrate some of its operational capabilities with Royal Marines roping onto the dockside.
To see the Swordfish flying over Liverpool 70 years on, will be an emotional and moving sight.
Speaking of the importance of the Royal Navy’s Aviation Heritage Sue Eagles, Campaign Director of the Fly Navy Heritage Trust said ” Swordfish crews flew in atrocious conditions, in open cockpits on continuous and gruelling patrols, protecting those who sailed the seas on our behalf. Keeping the Swordfish flying over seventy years later is a living legacy to the spirit, endeavour and selfless commitment of everyone who served in the Second World War and of the great price paid to keep the Atlantic ‘life-line’ open.”
Much of the Battle of the Atlantic was fought and won from Liverpool and pivotal to the campaign against the U-boats was convoy protection provided by escort groups of corvettes, frigates and destroyers and the aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. Over 40 Naval Air Squadrons took part in the Battle of the Atlantic flying from the pitching and rolling decks of escort carriers and merchant ships providing desperately needed air cover. Without the protection provided by the Fleet Air Arm many convoys would not have reached the shores of the UK or Russia with their vital supplies.
A number of Royal Naval Air Stations were established in the North West and although these Air Stations are now gone, Merseyside’s connections with the Fleet Air Arm remain strong. Swordfish LS326 also symbolises the strong historical links between the Fleet Air Arm and the Merchant Navy and the deep friendships forged in the MAC ships in particular. After the flypast there will be a march past including veterans of the Fleet Air Arm and current serving members of the Royal Naval
Reserve Air Branch, direct descendants of the RNVR (Air) aircrews, so many of whom served in the Battle of the Atlantic.