The Blackburn Skua was the first monoplane aircraft to enter service with the Fleet Air Arm, in late 1938. It was still the only monoplane serving with the fleet at the start of the Second World War, and remained the only naval dive bomber in British use for the first two years of the war.
The Skua was designed to satisfy Air Ministry Specification O.27/34, issued before the Navy had regained control of its own aircraft. The poor quality of Fleet Air Arm aircraft in 1939 had often been blamed on the period of RAF control of naval aviation, a period in which naval aircraft were a very low priority. While this did play a part in the limited capabilities of many aircraft, it was not the only factor.
In the pre-war years it was believed that the new generation of high performance fighters then under development would not be able to operate from aircraft carriers. It was also believed that naval aircraft needed two crewmen to cope with the complexity of navigation over water, inevitably increasing the weight of the aircraft.
Finally, there was a tradition of multi-purpose aircraft, designed to make the best use of the limited capacity of each aircraft carrier. In the case of the Skua it was designed to perform as both a fighter and a dive bomber, not entirely compatible roles.
The prototype Skua first flew on 9 February 1937, six months after Blackburn had received an order for 190 aircraft. It was a significant advance on the fabric covered biplanes that then equipped the Fleet Air Arm, featuring metal construction, flaps, a variable pitch propeller and retractable landing gear, all firsts for a British deck landing naval aircraft.
The Skua entered service late in 1938 with Nos. 800 and 803 squadrons, allocated to HMS Ark Royal, replacing Hawker Nimrods and Ospreys. Even at this early date it was hopelessly outdated as a fighter aircraft. The Nimrods it replaced could reach 193mph - the Skua was only 32mph faster, and it achieved its top speed at a lower altitude. At the same time the RAF was introducing the Spitfire Mk I with its top speed of 362mph. The Skua would be very badly outclassed by the Messerschmitt Bf 109, and was slower than the German bombers in use in 1939.
A Skua of No. 803 squadron of HMS Ark Royal became the first British fighter to shoot down a German aircraft during the Second World War. The Ark Royal was based at Scapa Flow from where her aircraft were conducting patrols off the Norwegian coast. On 26 September 1939 they found and shot down a Dornier Do 18 flying boat.
The Skua was responsible for a rather more significant “first”. By April 1940 both Nos. 800 and 803 squadrons were based at Hatston on Orkney, after the Ark Royal was sent to the Mediterranean. On 10 April twenty aircraft from the two squadrons attacked and sank the German cruiser Königsberg at Bergen. This was the first time a major operational warship had been sunk by aircraft.
This success was also the end of the honeymoon period for the Skua. The squadrons suffered heavy losses in an attack on Narvik on 21 April. On 12 June, in the aftermath of the loss of HMS Glorious they were sent to attack the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Trondheim. There they ran into German fighters and heavy flak. Eight out of fifteen aircraft were lost in the attack.
A lack of any alternative aircraft meant that the Skua had to stay in service until August 1941, when it was replaced by the Fairey Fulmer and the Hawker Sea Hurricane.
Specification (Mk. II)
Engine: Bristol Perseus XII radial engine
Span: 46ft 2in
Length: 34ft 7in
Max Speed: 225mph at 6,500ft
Cruising Speed: 165mph at 15,000ft
Range: 760 miles
Armament: Four 0.303in machine guns in wings, one Lewis gun in rear cockpit
Bomb load: one 500lb bomb on fuselage, eight 30lb practice bombs under wings