How Richard Fairey’s Swordfish plane changed history

If the Swordfish has lived on among British legends of the Second World War, the man whose name the aircraft bore has not.

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The Fairey Swordfish biplane, as every schoolboy knows, was an oddity of the Second World War, when the skies were dominated by fast and deadly monoplanes. Its obsolescence might have confined it to the historical scrap-heap were it not for the chance encounter one Swordfish had with the German battleship Bismarck as it tried to evade detection and make for a German-controlled port on the French coast. The aircraft did enough damage with its torpedo to slow the great ship down and it was finished off shortly after by Royal Navy warships.

If the Swordfish has lived on among the many British legends of the Second World War, the man whose name the aircraft bore has not. Sir Richard (“Dick”) Fairey was one of the pioneers of the British aviation industry; his career spanned an early apprenticeship before the First World War through to the creation of the Fairey Delta 2, the jet that broke the world speed record in 1956, the year that Fairey died. Adrian Smith, in the first full biography of Fairey, seeks to challenge that neglect. Fairey’s, he argues, was a typical entrepreneurial success story in an industry whose history is now overshadowed by its sudden collapse in the 1960s. One of his targets is the historian Correlli Barnett, who some years ago made the case that compared with the German and American aircraft industry and aviation technology, the British always lagged behind in technical progress and productive efficiency. Smith uses Fairey as an exemplary model to disprove this case.

Fairey began working for Short Brothers before setting up on his own to design and manufacture aircraft intended largely for the infant naval air arm, the Royal Naval Air Service. The close links he established with naval aviators made Fairey the principal supplier of naval aircraft up to the Second World War. He collected about him a panoply of effective engineers and business managers, whose biographies are included at considerable length to show that Fairey did not by any means achieve success on his own.

Fairey was a conventional boss of his age – paternalistic, authoritarian, hostile to organised labour, attracted to the glamorous lifestyle of the British well-to-do. More unusually, according to Smith, he also had a solid technical education and a great fount of engineering curiosity that made him a creative aviation industrialist in his own right. Such a combination of business acumen and technical know-how is used to overturn Barnett’s assumption that poorly educated and short-sighted British businessmen doomed the aircraft industry to flounder in the wake of their American rivals.

Smith uses an extraordinary wealth of archive sources to prove his case. The result is a biography that has more trees than wood. This is not a business history in a conventional sense: there is not a single table of statistics to give some proper sense of production runs, financial performance, the size of the labour force, or measures of productivity. No attempt is made, despite the challenge to Barnett, to put Fairey’s achievements into the wider context of the industry, or to compare them with his American counterparts. Much more could have been made of the relationship with the Air Ministry, the Admiralty, and the Ministry of Aircraft Production to give a sense of how the firm reacted to the demands of the government users in a virtual monopsony.

Fairey’s success depended a lot on decisions, often bad decisions, taken by his major government clients, who then failed to terminate what was a poor deal. If Fairey made the Swordfish, his firm also made the disastrous Battle, a light bomber entirely unsuited to anything the Army needed when war broke out in 1939. The aircraft were shot to pieces in minutes by the Luftwaffe, but 2,200 were produced to fill Fairey’s coffers because the Air Ministry failed to cut it off when it should have done. More than 2,000 Swordfish were produced as well, when what the Navy really needed was the fast monoplane dive-bombers and torpedo bombers that the American and Japanese navies already had when the Swordfish crippled the Bismarck.

Too much of Smith’s account is taken up with Fairey’s private life and enthusiasms: for golf, sailing, hunting, fishing, and spending money. As a biographer he appears caught up in the elite world that Fairey inhabited and he regards his subject not just as an entrepreneurial example but as a thoroughly good chap (a term that is used regularly in an oddly old-fashioned text). A biographer is entitled to his point of view, but it is difficult to make the case for entrepreneurial excellence for a man who spent much of the last decades before his death sailing boats, fly-fishing in his favourite river, playing golf or vacationing in Bermuda. Perhaps Willy Messerschmitt and Donald Douglas had their distractions too, but the problem for the British industrial elite in the first half of the 20th century was the attraction of the upper end of the British class system and the lifestyle it promised.

If Barnett is to be proved wrong and the defenders of British enterprise proved right, a more solid economic history is needed. Not for nothing did so many British industries collapse in the 1960s and 1970s, including Fairey’s own creation, which ceased existence in 1960, four years after its founder’s death. 

Richard Overy’s books include “RAF: The Birth of the World’s First Air Force” (Allen Lane)

The Man Who Built the Swordfish: the Life of Sir Richard Fairey
Adrian Smith
IB Tauris, 445pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit