It was standard proceedure, particularly during the general European re-armament of the 1930s, for nations to begin the search for a replacement for a new bomber, fighter or reconnaissance aircraft almost as soon as a new type entered front-line service. Types were becoming obsolete faster and faster as the pace of aeronautical development picked up.
Fairey had produced the much loved and very versatile Swordfish to a ‘TSR’ (torpedo/spotter/reconnaissance) requirement, for the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. It was envisaged that the Swordfish would be used to engage enemy fleet units with the standard British 18″ torpedo, and also perform reconnaissance from British carriers. By 1936, the Admiralty were about to decide on a replacement for the Swordfish, and the Air Ministry (who issued specifications for the FAA and RAF), promulgated Spec. S.41/36 for a new aircraft to replace the Swordfish. Their Lordships of the Admiralty were an extremely conservative group, and the winning design, again from Fairey, was yet another biplane, with fixed undercarriage. Admittedly, there were some slight concessions to modernity such as an enclosed heated cockpit for the three crew (pilot, observer and telegraphist/air gunner) rather than the incredibly draughty open ‘bathtub’ of the Swordfish, and a new all-metal monocoque fuselage, which was most unusual in a biplane. The Swordfish’s Pegasus radial was supplanted by a more powerful Bristol Taurus II, a twin-row, 14-cylinder sleeve-valve radial of 1,065 hp – later aircraft had the Taurus XII of 1,130 hp, driving a constant-speed propeller.
The equal-span, single bay wings were equipped with hydraulically actuated flaps, which allowed the Albacore to be used for dive-bombing; the war-load for this mission was either 6 x 250 lb or 4 x 500 lb bombs. The first flight of the prototype of the Albacore took place in December 1938, when the RAF still had operational control of the Royal Navy’s aircraft (the RAF did not hand the FAA back to the RN until May, 1939). A trials unit, No. 826 Squadron, FAA was formed, and took the Albacore into service in May, 1940. Armed with the standard British 18″ torpedo (weighing 1,610 lbs) 1 x Vickers .303 machine gun in the starboard wing, and 2 x Vickers ‘K’ machineguns in the rear cockpit, the Albacores were initially operated from shore bases in the south and east of England in strikes against enemy naval units and coastal targets in the English Channel.
The type went to sea with Nos. 826 & 829 Squadrons, embarked in HMS Formidable in November, 1940. The Albacore had better take-off performance from its smooth Taurus sleeve-valve engine, and had increased top speed compared to the Swordfish (161 mph vs 139 mph), but some pilots did NOT like the fact that it was much less manoeuvrable than their beloved ‘Stringbag’. That, along with a dramatically reduced range, 710 miles vs 1,030 miles (range being extremely important in a naval aircraft) meant that the Albacore simply supplemented the Swordfish but did not replace it.
The Albacore had some successes, including strikes on Petsamo (at the time in Finland, now Russia) and Kirkenes, Norway in July, 1941, and torpedo strikes against the Italian Fleet in the Battle of Cape Matapan (Eastern Mediterrenean), March, 1941, but it began to be used as a specialist dropper of flares during night reconnaissance operations soon afterwards. This it was to do with some effect in the Western Desert, especially before the Battle of El Alamein, and even over Normandy in 1944, providing illumination for night attacks by RAF de Havilland Mosquito FB.VI aircraft on German forces.
The Albacore began to be replaced as a dive bomber and torpedo-carrying aircraft by yet another Fairey product, the Fairey Barracuda, in 1943. This time their Lordships relented, and allowed a monoplane to be built – unfortunately it turned into another marginal design! Albacores turned up in odd places; some supplemented other biplanes – Vickers Vildebeestes – with No 36 Squadron, RAF in Singapore (they were over-run by the Japanese). Others served with the Aden Communications Flight at an RAF base near that city from July, 1944. Probably the last operational Albacores were those of No. 415 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, which was re-formed as No. 119 Squadran, RAF in July, 1944. These aircraft were used to make attacks on Kriegsmarine midget submarines which were operating in the Scheldt Estaury, and other enemy-held coastal waters in Europe. These sorties were carried out from newly liberated bases in Belgium, until the Albacores were withdrawn in early 1945, and replaced by – radar and rocket-equipped Swordfish. The replacement had been replaced!
There is just one example of the Albacore left, out of the 800 aircraft built. On the 30 July, 1941, FAA aircraft from the carrier HMS Formidable made a strike against two targets on the vital Murmansk Front. One was against the Luftwaffe airfield at Kirkenes, Norway and the other against Petsamo (which was, at the time, in Finland, but is now in Russia). No less than ten Albacores – plus two Fulmar fighters – were lost from the Kirkenes strike, and one Albacore, one Swordfish and one Fulmar from the Petsamo attack. One of the aircraft lost from the Kirkenses strike (N4389 from No. 828 Squadron) was recovered post-war by the Royal Navy, and using parts from another Albacore, N4172, a fully restored, composite aircraft is now on display in the Fleet Air Arm Museum, Yeovilton. You can see it here, alongside a sectioned example of its principal armament, a British 18″ torpedo of WW2 vintage.
The Albacore was not particularly popular, and had some disadvantages, but its crews were valiant, and pressed on regardless. That it was ultimately outlasted by the aircraft it was intended to replace does not reflect on the Albacore, rather on the magnificent utility of the Swordfish!