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The Fleet Air Arm played a pivotal role during World War II – these were some of the Royal Navy’s most formidable flying machines

Grumman Martlet

At the start of the Second World War, the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) acquired the Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat from the United States Navy under the lease-lend agreement, to fulfil its need for a powerful single-seat fighter. Initially renamed as the Martlet, the aircraft was modified for British use by Blackburn, which involved the addition of British gunsights and catapult spools, before entering service in August 1940 with 804 Naval Air Squadron (NAS).

With its reliable radial engine, impressive manoeuvrability, and excellent ditching qualities, the Martlet was an effective fighter support aircraft for Britain. Almost 1,200 examples, including five different variants, were eventually operated by the Fleet Air Arm in various theatres of war including the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Far East.

Maximum speed: 331mph
Range: 830.77 miles
Maiden flight: September 2 1937
Length: 28.75ft
Wingspan: 38.06ft

Fairey Swordfish

Affectionately nicknamed the ‘Stringbag’, the Fleet Air Arm’s Fairey Swordfish was a very dependable and versatile torpedo bomber. Despite being vulnerable to fighter aircraft due to its low speed, the Swordfish was able to sink more enemy vessels than any other allied aircraft during World War Two.

During the infamous Battle of Taranto in November 1940, 21 Swordfish biplanes from HMS Illustrious launched a devastating and crippling attack on the Regia Marina’s fleet, causing extensive damage to three battleships and one heavy cruiser.

Maximum speed: 139mph
Range: 522 miles
Maiden flight: April 17 1934
Length: 35.66ft
Wingspan: 45.51ft

Vought F4U Corsair

Welcomed by the Royal Navy under the lease-lend agreement, the Corsair was a more robust alternative to their cumbersome two-seat Fairey Fulmar and Blackburn Skua fighters. Its unique inverted gull-wing design increased stability and minimised drag, enabling the Corsair to become the first single-seat fighter to exceed 400mph in straight and level flight.

The Corsair was initially plagued by various vices, including bouncy oleos, excessive wear of the arrestor wires, and poor visibility from the cockpit, which resulted in many accidents onboard carriers. By the end of the war, a total of 18 FAA squadrons were operating the Corsair, both in Europe and in the Pacific.

Maximum speed: 446mph
Range: 1,190 miles
Maiden flight: May 29 1940
Length: 33.67ft
Wingspan: 41.01ft

Hawker Sea Hurricane

This aircraft, a naval derivative of the Royal Air Force’s Hawker Hurricane, was the Fleet Air Arm’s first single-seat, monoplane fighter dedicated for carrier-borne operations. The first example of the Sea Hurricane, the Mk IA ‘Hurricat’, was fitted with arrestor hooks and could be launched from catapult aircraft merchantmen (CAM) ships using a rocket-propelled system.

In August 1941, the Sea Hurricane achieved its first aerial victory when Volunteer Reserve pilot Lt. R.W.H. Everett shot down a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor after launching from HMS Maplin. During its short career, the Sea Hurricane provided convoy support over the Atlantic and Gibraltar, until it was phased out in 1944 by the much more capable Supermarine Seafire

Maximum speed: 340.01mph
Range: 500 miles
Maiden flight: March 15 1941
Length: 32.25ft
Wingspan: 39.99ft

Fairey Firefly

On October 1 1943 the Fairey Firefly Mk I entered service with No. 1770 NAS based at RNAS Yeovilton, before embarking on HMS Indefatigable (R10). Although effective in a number of different roles, the Firefly was primarily deployed as a nighttime fighter-reconnaissance aircraft, shadowing and searching enemy targets at sea. Its notably large flaps also gave the aeroplane a wider range of speed to provide the necessary close protection for torpedo bombers.

Maximum speed: 315.97mph
Range: 775 miles
Maiden flight: December 22 1941
Length: 37.60ft
Wingspan: 44.52ft

Grumman TBF Avenger

Initially named the ‘Tarpon’ by the Fleet Air Arm, the Grumman Avenger’s higher top speed, a greater rate of climb, and longer range made it a suitable replacement for the Fairey Albacore. The torpedo bomber was predominantly used in the Far East, operating from HMS Begum and HMS Shah. In July 1945, an Avenger from 848 NAS allegedly became the first British aircraft to perform bombing raids over Japan, attacking shipping vessels, naval bases and airfields.

Maximum speed: 275.02mph
Range: 1000 miles
Maiden flight: August 7 1941
Length: 40.94ft
Wingspan: 54.17ft

Fairey Albacore

During trials at the Aircraft and Armament Experiment Establishment (A&AEE), then based at Martlesham Heath, it was found that the Albacore torpedo bomber suffered from a number of problems including heavy elevators and ailerons, uncomfortable conditions in the cockpit, and engine development issues.

During the peak of its career, nonetheless, the biplane was assigned to 15 naval squadrons, performing anti-submarine patrols over the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. Despite being intended to replace the Swordfish, the Albacore was retired in 1944 – two years before its predecessor.

Maximum speed: 161.12mph
Range: 930.19 miles
Maiden flight: December 12 1938
Length: 39.83ft
Wingspan: 50.00ft

Fairey Barracuda

The carrier-borne torpedo and dive-bomber was the Fleet Air Arm’s first aircraft to be fabricated entirely from metal. The Barracuda’s crew of three were positioned in tandem beneath a single long canopy, with the radio operator or air gunner located at the rear. Although the aircraft was capable of carrying an 18-in torpedo as its primary weapon, only 16 missions required such weaponry and instead, bombs became the preferred type of ordnance.

Maximum speed: 210mph
Range: 1,150 miles
Maiden flight: Dec 7 1940
Length: 39.76ft
Wingspan: 49.18ft

Grumman F6F Hellcat

Named as the Grumman Gannet upon acquirement, the FAA received 1,263 F6Fs under the Lend-Lease Act. The aircraft, however, experienced far less air-to-air combat in comparison to the Wildcat and Corsair. The majority of the Hellcats served in the Far East with the British Pacific Fleet, with 12 squadrons equipped with either the Mk I or Mk II variants. Some examples were also fitted with photographic reconnaissance equipment or converted to night fighters, but these saw limited use during the war.

Maximum speed: 379.78mph
Range: 944.48 miles
Maiden flight: June 26 1942
Length: 33.60ft
Wingspan: 42.85ft

Supermarine Seafire

In December 1941, the first prototype of a Seafire – a Spitfire Mk VB fitted with an arrestor hook – was sent to HMS Illustrious for deck trials. The Mk IIC became the first variant of the fighter to be built as a naval aircraft from the very start and joined No. 807 Naval Air Squadron in June 1942. During the Allied invasion of Italy at Salerno, the Fleet Air Arm lost 44 Seafires mostly through accidents, subsequently exhausting HMS Hunter’s stock of spare propellers.

Maximum speed: 358.97mph
Range: 533 miles
Maiden flight: Jan 7 1942
Length: 30.22ft
Wingspan: 36.81ft

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