THE story of the Fairey Fulmar is one of stop-gap plans, contradictory requirements, fast-tracked production and surprising - if moderate - success.
Historians tend to give scant attention to the important role this fighter played in the development of carrier air group tactics and roles, yet alone its achievements in protecting fleets and convoys operating in the various “bomb alleys” of the Mediterranean.
Perhaps this is because of the comparative performance of 1945 aircraft types such as the Corsair, Hellcat and Seafire. If so, they would do well to compare the Fulmar in the context of its 1940 debut.
Famous World War II test pilot Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown agreed:
“Perhaps the Fulmar lacked the glamour that attached to the single-seat fighters of the day, innate soundness and competence not being the stuff of headlines to set the public’s adrenalin flowing.”
Nine Fleet Air Arm pilots of 806 squadron did make headlines, however – making the ace grade while flying the stoic Fulmar.
Its true contemporaries were the F2A Brewster 'Buffalo' which was never adopted beyond a test squadron aboard the USS Saratoga. The replacement F4F Wildcat did not enter widespread USN service until 1942. Ominously, the significantly superior A6M 'Zero' was to secretly enter service at the same time as the Fulmar - with devastating results for all Allied forces.
Nevertheless, Britain's long range fleet fighter was always a stop-gap measure.
The Fleet Air Arm had suffered seriously under the control by the Royal Air Force. Its land-based sibling was convinced it could handle any threat realistically posed by any land-based aircraft. Any threat beyond this arena was hardly considered a threat at all.
Why it wanted control of an air wing responsible for a theatre it showed so little interest in is a mystery.
For the Royal Navy of the 1930s, the result of this poorly conceived thinking was seriously underperforming and out-classed naval aircraft including the Blackburn Skua and Roc.
Before the realities of war could influence design requirements, the fleet fighter was considered virtually unnecessary by many in light of its perceived limitations.
The RAF felt the restrictions and requirements of carrier operations would stunt fighter aircraft to the point of being incapable of mixing it with land-based opponents. It therefore gave design and development of such an aircraft minimal priority.
This attitude convinced the Royal Navy that operations in hostile waters would require a fleet carrier to defend itself with guns and for the aircraft to be stowed away safely beneath an armoured deck. It did not expect – at least before the arrival of useful air search radar – fighters to be capable of intercepting enemy land-based strike forces.
At one point, the Admiralty seriously considered only arming its new armoured carriers with strike aircraft.
But those in the field recognised the need for a fighter with the range to escort bombers on their strike runs, the speed to chase-down shadowing reconnaissance aircraft and the endurance to cover a reconnaissance role themselves. The Royal Navy needed an aircraft with heavy deck-landing equipment (arrester hooks, catapult stressing) and navigational equipment (radios and direction-finding gear). It also wanted – based on RAF advice – a naval-trained Observer to navigate and operate this equipment.
On the surface, the RAF and RN's disparaging attitudes appeared proven correct by the protracted development problems faced by the new Blackburn naval fighters. Even before these two aircraft – the Skua fighter-dive bomber hybrid and the ill-conceived Roc turreted fighter – entered service it was realised they would be easily outpaced and outmatched by modern German bombers and fighters.
It was also undertood there would be a "capability gap" before the new fleet fighter could be designed and built. For this reason the RAF's "Gladiator" single-seat biplane was chosen for urgent naval conversion. Even here they were not intended for use on the fleet carriers: A handful of Sea Gladiators would only go to sea in an ad-hoc form aboard HMS Eagle. It was only intended to provide air cover for the Royal Naval Air Stations and vital familiarity with fighter-type aircraft for FAA pilots.
Given the realisation of the impending failure of both the Blackburn Skua and Roc, a new fleet fighter quickly became an imperative.
The RAF had no long-range fighter (such as the German Zerstorer Me110). The concept had to be drawn up from scratch.
But it did have a possible design available.
Despite popular disparaging remarks, the Fulmar was not based on the Fairy Battle airframe.
The RAF had issued a requirement – which had since been dropped – for a high-speed light bomber to fly with its Fairey Battle force.
Prototypes had been ordered from Fairey and Hawker, but the program was cancelled before they completed testing. But Fairey's prototype,the P4/34 fast light bomber, proved promising.
The specification appeared to fit the Navy’s requirements nicely given that it was not expected to have the performance or maneuverability of a land-based fighter. Both proposals promised speeds in excess of 280mph and endurance of more than four hours.
The Fairey aircraft was chosen in January 1938 – mostly because Hawker was already committed to building the Hurricane and developing the new Tornado single-seat fighter.
Given Fairey’s P4/34 fast bomber prototype was an already successful design which needed only detail work to adapt it for naval service, it was seen as an opportunity to fast-track an interim aircraft into what was finally being accepted as a significant fleet fighter role.
There were tough new requirements for the stopgap fighter, however: The Navy wanted a six-hour endurance at 138mph for reconnaissance, or three-hours at 175mph for escort duties. Also specified was a top speed of 265mph at 10,000ft. An RAF-style main armament of eight fixed forward 0.303in machineguns with at least 400 rounds per gun was stipulated, but not a rear-facing gun. It was also supposed to carry two 250lb bombs.
A Rolls Royce Merlin VIII supercharged engine – the same as planned for the Barracuda – was chosen for the powerplant. To make carrier operations easier, this engine was to incorporate a cartridge starting system to remove the need for outside assistance while on the deck.
The final proposal had the pilot’s seat raised several inches to improve forward view for deck operations while the (misleadingly) Fairey Battle-style “glass house” was retained for the Observer.
Given the name Fulmar, the first production run for 127 aircraft was scheduled for September 1939, with eight expected to come off the assembly line each month.
The aircraft proved unexpectedly expensive, due in large part to its complexity. Each machine had a unit price of about 8000 pounds, while the Spitfire cost 6000.
Even before the Fulmar entered service the Admiralty had begun a furious search for a replacement, including debate over the advantages and availability of single-seat fighters.
The Navy was sponsoring a new Rolls Royce engine – the Griffon – for its ideal future fighter. With similar design specifications, the resulting aircraft – the FireFly – would share much in common with its predecessor. However, despite appearances, the FireFly would be even more different to the Fulmar than the Fulmar was to the Battle.
Notes by Fifth Sea Lord of fleet air arm meeting held on 4 January 1940
[ADM 1/ 10752] 22 January 1940
A. Long Term Policy:
It was agreed that Fleet Air Arm Fighters were required for the following duties:–
(1) To destroy enemy shadowers.
(2) To intercept enemy striking forces.
(3) To destroy enemy spotters and to protect our own.
(4) To escort our own striking forces to their objectives.
2. Functions 1, 2 and 3 could be met by a Single Seater using the homing beacon as a navigational aid. Function 4 was considered to be problematical but apart from this it was agreed that there would be many occasions when fighters would be required to fly over the sea outside beacon range of their parent ship. It was therefore considered to be a sound policy to develop a 2 Seater fighter having navigational facilities, provided this did not entail a serious reduction in performance compared to a Single Seater.
3. It was, however, agreed that the provision for the second member of the Fighter’s crew should be kept to a minimum of essentials. It appeared feasible to keep the additional structural weight down to 400 lbs., making, with the Observer (200 lbs.), a total additional weight of some 600 lbs.
4. It was agreed that the experience of the present war had shown that Fleet Air Arm Fighters must have sufficient speed to cope with German Aircraft of the following types, which were likely to attack the Fleet in the North Sea:–
(1) Shore Based Anti-Ship Bombers. The most modern German antiship bomber in quantity production likely to be encountered is the Junkers 88 with a top speed in level flight of 285 m.p.h.
(2) Long Range Fighters escorting striking forces. The new Messerschmidt 110 which was likely to be used for this purpose is reputed to have a top speed of 350 m.p.h.
5. It was considered reasonable to suppose that by the time any new Fleet Air Arm Fighter comes into service, which may be a matter of two to three years, the speeds of enemy aircraft which might be encountered will have risen. Speeds of over 300 miles an hour for shore base bombers and 400 miles an hour or more for fighters, were mentioned as being within the realms of possibility.
6. The Director of Air Materiel outlined the tender designs which had been received from various firms to the revised N. 8 (two-seater front gun) specification. These included aircraft with top speeds, as estimated by the firms, of around 380 miles an hour, which compared very favourably with the estimated top speeds of the single seater designs which had also been received; the differences varied between 2 and 25 miles/ hour.
B. Short Term Policy:
8. (1) Fulmar. D.A.M. stated that the Fulmar was three months behind time, and quantity production would not begin before April, 1940. He was satisfied that it could not be accelerated.
9. It was agreed that this Aircraft with its large endurance, powerful armament and speed of 260– 270 m.p.h. should prove a valuable weapon. It could be used for reconnaissance and for the maintenance of patrols at sea which would give it opportunities of attacking faster aircraft.
10. (2) Spitfires or Hurricanes. The meeting took note of the fact that the Fleet Air Arm was now faced with ‘shore based’ tasks not previously envisaged, e.g. the defence of Scapa. Moreover, the Fleet Air Arm might be called upon at any time to undertake the responsibility for the Air protection of other Naval Bases, whether at home or abroad.
11. It was agreed that these new tasks made it desirable to reinforce the weapons of the Fleet Air Arm with a number of high speed single-seater Fighters of the most modern types, if practicable. The use of such Fighters would offer the following advantages.
(1) They would constitute a mobile Fleet Fighter force suitable for shore-based work which could be moved rapidly to any point required, and enable the Navy to undertake the air defence of its bases overseas, months before such defence was likely to be provided by the Royal Air Force.
(2) They could also, if necessary, be used at sea to supplement the Fulmars; the Fulmars carrying out the patrols and these singleseaters being flown off when attack was imminent. Since they would not have W/T, they could not be directed once air-borne, and they could not navigate. They would, therefore, have to rely on themselves sighting the enemy close to the Fleet for making contacts. Within these limitations, their speed should enable them to force combat on a proportion of attackers, and they would have sufficient petrol for a short pursuit.
12. The problems of using either Spitfires or Hurricanes for this purpose were discussed. The main difficulty was that of the embarkation of these types in Carriers. Without folding wings they could be embarked in the GLORIOUS and FURIOUS, owing to the wide lifts fitted in these Carriers, but they could not be embarked in the later Carriers, which had narrower lifts, unless their wings were made to fold. The Firms concerned were already working on designs for modified wings for this purpose and they hoped to be in a position to report upon the possibilities very shortly. It was expected that it would be at least nine months before Aircraft of these types with folding wings would come into production. It had been contemplated that if the designs of folding wings were successful, some 50 Aircraft might be obtained.
13. The meeting argued that a force of this kind would be valuable to the Fleet Air Arm, and they recommend that the possibilities should be pursued with all despatch.
14. (3) Possible use of Foreign Types. This in practice meant U.S.A. Aircraft. The meeting considered that the types available and the possibilities of obtaining them offered no advantages over the Spitfires or Hurricanes, and that there was nothing to be gained by pursuing this suggestion further.
Letter from Secretary of Admiralty1 to Under-Secretary of State, Air Ministry
[AIR 2/ 4255] 29 February 1940
Orders for Albacore, Firefly, Fulmar and Walrus aircraft
4. While appreciating that the Fulmar should prove a valuable weapon for the Fleet Air Arm, My Lords are anxious that a Fighter of higher performance should be brought into service as early as practicable. To this end, they propose that production of the two-seater front gun Fighter to revised Specification N. 8/391 (Firefly) should be undertaken without going through the full prototype procedure.
6. My Lords wish to take this opportunity to inform the Air Council that for operational reasons they consider it important that a number of high speed single seater Fighters should be made available for the Fleet Air Arm in the very near future. My Lords are informed that the possibility of providing some 50 Spitfires with folding wings and arrester hook has already been discussed informally between representatives of the two Departments and by the Technical Sub Committee of the Fleet Air Arm Advisory Committee, and that the matter is being investigated with a view to placing the proposal before the Air Council. My Lords would be grateful if the Air Council would give it favourable consideration. They hope that it may be possible for at least some modified Spitfires to be available by July next.