I'm reasonably sure it was a Seafire that claimed the last F.A.A. Air To Air Victory of WW-ll.
Quite possibly. Whilst doing a dig on the internet, I came across this:
Britain's top scoring naval fighter of World War II was not what you this it was
As World War II loomed into sight, the Admiralty was desperate for anything approximating a modern fighter aircraft. This need was met by a modified light dive-bomber originally intended for a cancelled RAF requirement. The resulting Fulmar shared the engine and armament with the Spitfire and Hurricane, but there though the similarity ended. With a pathetic flat-out speed of 247mph and a feeble service ceiling of 16,000’ it was far inferior to its contemporaries. More worryingly, it was also 30mph slower than the Luftwaffe’s Heinkel He 111 bombers. Fair to say as a fighter it made an adequate cancelled dive-bomber. So how did it became the top Royal Navy fighter of World War II?
If the Navy had had full control of the Fleet Air Arm prior to 1937, then yes they would have got a better fighter.
During World War II, no aircraft carrier force operated a greater number of types than the Royal Navy. Although partly due to the length of time Britain was involved in the conflict, the Admiralty’s haphazard approach to aviation doctrine and procurement bears a lot of the blame (although nothing can excuse the diabolical Blackburn Firebrand). It is still however something of an anomaly that the Fleet Air Arm’s highest scoring fighter of the war was the relatively slow and staid Fairey Fulmar — with 112 kills (more than double the total achieved by the far more potent Corsair). Despite this, the Fulmar has never really caught the popular imagination. Post-war historians have damned with faint praise by acknowledging that while it was at least capable of taking on torpedo-bombers, the Fulmar’s manoeuvrability was far inferior to Axis dive-bombers. To give some idea of the limited esteem in which it was held at the time, it is perhaps worth reading a verse from 809 Naval Air Squadron’s Fulmar Song (to the tune of ‘Any old iron‘:
‘Any old iron, any old iron,
Any, any, any old iron;
Talk about a treat
Chasing round the Fleet
Any ole Eyetie or Hun you meet!
Weighs six ton,
No rear gun
Damn all to rely on!
You know what you can do
With your Fulmar Two;
Old iron, old iron!’
Fighter Direction is everything
To understand this apparent contradiction, of how such a sluggish machine was the Navy’s best fighter, it is necessary to look at a technology that at the time made the aeroplane look positively middle-aged: radar. The Royal Navy had been at the forefront of developing naval radar, but even so, by 1939 its capabilities were extremely limited. Rather than the top down ‘God’s eye view’ of a modern display, operators would look at a single wiggling line with increases in amplitude indicating a contact. Despite entering the war without a full understanding of what radar could achieve – and after some teething troubles – the Navy soon found ways to make up for the deficiencies of its aircraft. This would allow Fairey’s converted dive-bomber to hold its own in aerial combat through the opening years of the war in a way that belied its poor headline performance. The actions in the Mediterranean to escort convoys to Malta showed time and again the value of Fighter Direction where controllers onboard ship would direct the aircraft to intercept incoming attacks. Often these aircraft would be Fulmars, which were in the front line throughout that period, before being relegated to the role of night fighter. Somewhat ironically, the addition of radar antenna for this role would finally render its performance unequivocally unacceptable. Fighter Direction would give the Fulmar the edge it needed to overcome its shortcomings while engaged in some of the heaviest aerial combat the Royal Navy would face during the Second World War.
The Royal Navy’s inter-war doctrine for the Fleet Air Arm, as described in an Admiralty Memorandum from December 1936, concentrated on the search for enemy shipping, air attack of that shipping, and subsequent observation of the fall of shot for the fleet’s big guns . It was considered that air superiority would be achieved by the immobilisation of the enemy’s carriers no apparent thought being given to air to air combat. The reverse was also true in that it was not considered possible for naval fighters to defend the fleet from air attack, especially when faced with land-based air forces able to deploy heavy bombers . To counter the air threat the Third Sea Lord, Rear Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson, decided that the next class of carrier would feature extensive armour plating turning the hangar into a protective enclosure for the air group able to resist a direct hit from 500lb bombs and 4.7” gunfire . The Dido class cruisers optimised for air defence would then provide the defence against air attack , in addition to the Illustrious classes own extensive outfit of sixteen 4.5” guns. That the doctrine was so un-ambitious can in part be laid at the confused status of naval aviation between the wars, it was, until 1938, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Air Force not of the Royal Navy . In fairness to the Admiralty at the same time despite the Imperial Japanese Navy controlling its air arm its doctrine was also confused and poorly regarded by its air officers perhaps indicating the difficulties inherent in developing high level policy for a new form of warfare. The Royal Navy’s use of fighter aircraft would therefore have to develop as lessons were learnt. A memorandum from January 1940 while acknowledging the need to intercept enemy strikes and scouting aircraft as well as escorting the fleets own strikes still showed a degree of indecision over whether they would still require a second crewmember as the Fulmar did, a confusion that had not been resolved three months later . Ultimately this indecision would lead to both single and two seat fighters being produced for the Royal Navy. Where the Royal Navy had a serious disadvantage was in the actual procurement of aircraft where the Admiralty drew up the specifications for them while the Air Ministry then had responsibility for their design and production.
Due to the lack of air officers at the right level the Admiralty had scant expertise in the specification of aircraft which led to it entering the war with several poorly performing aircraft either in service or on the way. These included the Blackburn Roc, a turret equipped fighter which could barely stay airborne at full power; the Fairey Barracuda which provided panoramic views for the Observer but had a tendency not to pull out of dives , and the Blackburn Firebrand which took longer to develop than the war lasted. Consequently, at the outbreak of war the navy found itself back in control of its air arm, but with limited understanding of the capabilities air power brought, no real thought given to air defence of the fleet by aircraft, and a procurement plan that could best be described as flawed. It was from this background that the requirement for the Fulmar would emerge, to some extent explaining the compromises that were accepted.
Though confusion over the use of naval air power was hampering the acquisition of suitable aircraft, by the late 1930s there was at least an acknowledgment that a new fleet fighter would be required. It was a pressing need, as the Skua it would replace was predicted to be obsolete by as soon as 1940. Consequently, it was a requirement that the chosen aircraft be in production by September 1939 which effectively limited the options to something already in production. The Admiralty’s preference was for a two-seat aircraft, due to the difficulties of navigating over the sea and communicating at long range from the carrier. Outright speed was considered less important as there was an assumption that the carrier-borne fighter would only encounter aircraft of other navies which would be similarly restricted. It is perhaps ironic that at the same time the most likely naval opponent was being designed by Mitsubishi in Japan, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a type which faced neither of these restrictions. The design selected for the Royal Navy was a modification of a design submitted to the RAF as a light dive-bomber. This RAF original requirement had been dropped, but prototypes had already been constructed – which allowed a rapid assessment to be made of their suitability. The Fairey P.4/34 bomber (with minor changes) thus became the Fulmar naval fighter (with a secondary reconnaissance role). The first production aircraft was completed in December 1939, effectively running around three months behind the Admiralty’s timeline.. or ahead of schedule compared to most defence projects. The Fulmar shared an engine, the Merlin, and armament, eight 0.303” guns, with the Spitfire and Hurricane. There though the similarity ended. The early Spitfire’s top speed was 364mph at an altitude of 18,500’ , the Fulmar by comparison had a maximum speed of only 247mph at 9,000’ and a service ceiling of 16,000’ (half that of the Spitfire).
It faired similarly poorly against contemporary German fighters and was even 30mph slower than the Heinkel 111 bomber which it would come to face in the Mediterranean. There was however some method to the Admiralty’s madness, an aircraft engine supercharger optimised for power at high level wastes energy lower down in the atmosphere compressing excess air . With torpedo bombers having to drop their weapons near sea-level it would be logical to optimise a naval fighter to attack such targets. Indeed, when requesting a new engine design from Rolls-Royce for their next fighter the admiralty made low level performance a key requirement and later in the war the majority of Seafires were low level variants. The Fulmar specification also called for an endurance of up to six hours which compared favourably to the Spitfire which could realistically manage about an hour. This would allow a standing air patrol to be maintained while minimising the number of times the carrier would have to turn into wind to launch and recover aircraft. It was similarly well equipped with ammunition, contemporary fighters carried around 250 rounds per gun, enough for 15 seconds or so of sustained firing, the Fulmar carried up to 1000 which would allow it to engage far more targets, assuming it could catch them. The Fulmar then was not an outstanding fighter and opinion of it could at best be said to be divided, with those coming to the Fleet Air Arm from around 1941 considering it ‘an absurd lumbering thing of a so-called fighter’ while those who’d endured earlier aircraft found themselves going ‘nearly twice as fast as I had ever flown before’ and in a state of ‘near panic’ .
Perhaps the best judgement was given by renowned naval aviator and test pilot Captain Eric Brown RN who allowed that it at least had ‘innate soundness and competence’. It was the best the Navy would have until at least 1942, but it would need help if it was to adequately defend the fleet.
The RAF, responsible for the air defence of the UK, led the world in the use of radar for fighter direction, the first exercise in its use taking place in 1936. The Admiralty also developed an interest in the technology and in 1938 HMS Rodney and HMS Sheffield were both fitted with rudimentary sets that could warn of approaching aircraft. Although this would alert the crew to approaching aircraft once conflict broke out it soon became apparent that the planned reliance on the ship’s AA armament as defence against attack was overly optimistic and better use of the information gained would be needed. Due to the general lack of interest in naval air defence the extant ‘doctrine’ essentially relied on the defending aircraft flying a search pattern, which could find them in the wrong place when the enemy approached or waiting above the fleet and then diving down on the attackers with the attendant risk of friendly fire. Alternatively, they could wait on the carrier and take-off in pursuit of the enemy to attack them on their way home, assuming they had the speed advantage to do so.
The first attempts at improving on this uninspired approach took place off the coast of Norway in April 1940 as efforts were made to stem the German invasion. The aircraft carrier Ark Royal was operating in support of the landing forces, although not fitted with radar herself, her escorts Sheffield and Curlew were, and could detect approaching raids around 50 miles away. It was soon realised that this information could be used to direct the Ark’s fighter aircraft to intercept the incoming raids, this initially took a rather crude form worked out on the initiative of the ship’s Air Signals Officer, Lt Cdr Coke. As the Sheffield and Curlew were not fitted with radios capable of talking to the aircraft, the range and bearing of incoming raids had to be passed to the Ark, generally by signal lamp or semaphore due to radio silence being in force. Here Lt Cdr Coke, assisted by his signalman, plotted the positions on a board before relaying the necessary information to the fighter patrol by Morse code. It took around four minutes to pass the position of the enemy to the patrolling Skuas. They would then be left to their own devices to figure out what to do with this information, the process becoming known as the ‘Informative Method’. However, with practice Lt Cdr Coke was able to monitor the position of the Ark’s aircraft as well as the enemy’s and could direct them to their targets. This ‘Directive Method’, gave them a much better chance of executing a successful intercept. The system was however not perfect, there was no filtering process for the information to determine what was high priority, and it took time to develop an efficient way of passing it to the aircraft. Despite Lt Cdr Coke’s best efforts, it was not therefore unheard of for pilots to realise they were being vectored to intercept themselves. Although basic and not always effective, in part due to the lack of height information from the radars, this early Fighter Direction was sufficient to drive a change in the Luftwaffe’s tactics so that they approached above the Skua’s operational ceiling, although this in turn reduced the effectiveness of their bombing. Operations off Norway had shown the effectiveness of Fighter Direction in even an elementary form, some months before the Battle of Britain would showcase its potential to the world. What the navy now needed was to build on this nucleus of experience and introduce better equipment to fully exploit it.