The False Start
The Sea Spitfire Revived
The Supermarine Seafire was the naval version of the Spitfire, but never shared that aircraft's impressive reputation, instead becoming known as a fragile aircraft not well suited to carrier operations. Despite its flaws Seafire squadrons served with distinction in the Mediterranean, on D-Day and against the Japanese in the Pacific.
The Seafire was never an ideal naval fighter. It was not really robust enough for prolonged operations on aircraft carriers, and suffered from more accidents than its more robust American contemporaries. Its narrow-track undercarriage and long nose didn't help, making landings particularly dangerous. Its range wasn't really good enough for naval service, limiting its use as an escort fighter at sea just as it did on land. Low range also meant low endurance, which limited the time the Seafire could stay in the air when on Combat Air Patrol duty.
The Seafire's big advantage was that it was a genuinely high performance fighter, well able to hold its own against its German and Italian opponents.
The False Start
The first attempts to produce a naval Spitfire began in 1938. The Admiralty was worried about delays to the new Blackburn Roc and Skua, and the Fairey Fulmer, and so approached Fairey to see if they would produce a naval version of the Spitfire under licence. Fairey were uninterested, and so the Navy asked for increased production of the Sea Gladiator.
This too was refused, and so the navy turned its attention back to the Spitfire. Supermarine installed an A-frame arrestor hook on an existing Spitfire, and Joseph Smith produced a design for a Griffon powered Spitfire with folding wings, the Supermarine Type No.338. Work on folding wing began in February 1940, and a contract to produce 50 folding-wing Spitfires was agreed. However the project ran into opposition from Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, and on 16 March 1940 the contract was cancelled.
The Sea Spitfire Revived
By May 1940 the Fulmar was six months behind schedule. The Admiralty made another unsuccessful attempt to get Spitfires, and also looked at the Hawker Typhoon and Blackburn Firebrand as alternatives. An order was placed for 181 Grumman F4Fs (81 Martlet Is taken over from a French order and 100 Martlet IIs ordered after the fall of France), which entered service as the Martlet, and performed well. The problem with the Martlet was that it wasn't available in sufficient numbers in 1940 - large scale deliveries didn't begin until 1942, when 220 Martlet IVs were produced under Lend Lease.
This meant that in 1941 the Admiralty still needed to find a source for a large number of naval fighters. Once again it looked to the Spitfire, and this time the Air Ministry agreed to provide a number of Mk.Is and 48 Mk Vbs immediately and 200 Mk Vcs later.
The first two Mk Vbs went to Worthy Down for naval modifications and familiarization during 1941. Catapult and deck trails began early in 1942, and in the spring of 1942 contracts were placed to convert 116 Spitfire Vbs into Seafire Ibs. The Ib was followed by the Seafire IIc, a similar design but newly built for naval use (both entered service at the same time). The final version to see wartime service was the Mk.III, which was also the first to use folding wings.
Work on a Griffon powered Seafire began during the war, but the Mk.XV didn't arrive in time to take part in the fighting. It was followed by a series of Griffon powered Seafires which filled the gap before the arrival of the Hawker Sea Fury.
Eventually over 2,000 Seafires were produced, 1,200 Merlin powered and 800 Griffon powered.
The Merlin powered Seafires were given their own sequence of mark numbers, running from Mk.I to Mk.III. The Griffon powered Seafires were placed in the same sequence as the Spitfire, thus the leap from the Mk III to the Mk XV. The system was modified again for the last three versions, which were given much higher mark numbers - the Mk XVII was originally going to be the Mk.41, and was followed by the Mk.45, Mk.46 and Mk.47. Part of this gap would have been filled by the Seafang, the naval version of the Spiteful (an attempt to produce a replacement for the Spitfire), which used mark numbers in the 30s.
The Seafire Ib was produced by converting 166 existing Spitfire Vbs to naval standards. All were given arrestor hooks, and the 118 aircraft produced by Cunliffe-Owen had catapult spools. None had folding wings. The first aircraft were delivered in June 1942, and the type saw some limited front line service.
The Seafire IIc was the first purpose-built version of the Seafire, and was produced alongside the Ib. Like the Ib it had fixed wings.
The Seafire III was the first version to be given folding wings, and was produced in larger numbers than any other version, with 1,218 being built. The Seafire III was the main service version of the aircraft.
The Seafire XV was the first Griffon powered version of the aircraft, and entered service just too late to be used during the Second World War.
The Seafire XVII was an improved version of the XV, with a bubble canopy as standard, and an improved undercarriage, which made for much safer carrier landings.
The Seafire Mk.45 was the first version to be powered by a Griffon 60 series engine, in this case the Griffon 61. It had fixed wings and suffered from directional instability caused in part by the powerful engine. It was used for training and trials, and was soon replaced by the Mk.46
The Seafire Mk.46 solved some of problems with the Mk.45 by introducing contra-rotating propellers. These cancelled out most of the torque from the engine. However the Mk.46 still lacked folding wings, and so didn't see front line service.
The final version of the Seafire was also the best. It retained the contra-rotating propellers of the Mk.46, but added folding wings, making it suitable for carrier operations. The Seafire Mk.47 saw combat in Malaya and in the first campaigns of the Korean War.
The first squadron to receive the Seafire was No.807, which began to replace its Fairey Fulmars on 23 June 1942. It was soon joined by a small contingent from No.801 Squadron, and in July the two squadrons embarked on HMS Furious, taking part in two supplies trips to Malta during August. No.801 Squadron officially converted to the Seafire in September, and the two squadrons then embarked on the Furious, and sailed for North Africa to take part in Operation Torch.
Eventually the Seafire would be used by 28 regular and reserve squadrons, and serve on more than twenty British carriers. It would see service in the North Sea, the Mediterranean, the India Ocean and the Pacific during the Second World War, and in Malaya and Korea after the war. The peak came in the summer of 1942 when eighteen squadrons were equipped with the Seafire.
Operation Torch - North Africa
The Seafire made its debut during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. Nos.801 and 807 Squadrons on HMS Furious and No.885 on HMS Formidable helped support the landings. The Seafire scored its first victory on 8 November 1942, although sources differ on the exact incident. Some give the credit to Sub Lt. A.S.Long of No.885 Squadron, who shot down a Vichy Martin 167 light bomber (No.885 Squadron saw most action during the invasion). Other sources credit Sub Lt. G.C. Baldwin, who shot down a Dewotine D.520 near Oran.
Operation Torch also saw the Seafire begin to require its unenviable reputation as a fragile aircraft, suffering 40% losses during the campaign. Many of these losses were caused by poor visibility, but there was always an element of truth to this reputation, and the Merlin powered Seafires were not easy to land on carrier flight decks.
Four Seafire squadrons were used to support Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. No.885 operated from HMS Formidable, serving alongside two Martlet-equipped squadrons, while all three of Indomitable's fighter squadrons (807, 880 and 899) were equipped with the Seafire.
The big test came at Salerno, which saw the largest deployment yet of the Seafire, and the largest ever deployment in the Mediterranean. Two fleet carriers, Illustrious and Formidable, the aircraft support ship Unicorn and the escort carriers Attacker, Battler, Hunter and Stalker provided fighter cover for the invasions from 9 to 12 September 1943. The carriers stayed in place for much longer than expected after the land operations failed to capture the expected airfields. This battle also saw the introduction of the Seafire III.
The Seafire squadrons lost seventy aircraft in landing accidents, with most lost either when they hit the barrier after missing all of the arrestor wires, when the undercarriage failed, or when over-braking caused the Seafire to tip onto its nose. These accidents came over the course of a very large number of sorties. On 9 September the Seafires flew 265 sorties, losing 35 aircraft, but deterring around 40 German attacks. By the third day of the campaign there were only 39 of the original 100 Seafires left (many of the other aircraft were under repair). Even so on 11 September the Seafire pilots flew 160 sorties.
Although the overall figure for Seafire accidents was very high, with 42 written off, 32 of them in landing accidents, this figure was distorted by the difficult conditions on HMS Unicorn, which caused 21 of the landing accidents.
The Seafires of Nos.801 and 880 Squadron, on HMS Furious were used to support the Fleet Air Arm attack on Tirpitz on 3 April 1944. By this time the Seafire had been joined in service by large numbers of American Wildcats, Hellcats and Corsairs, each of which had longer ranger than the Seafire. For the attack on the Tirpitz this meant that the Seafires were limited to providing a combat air patrol while the American fighters escorted the Barracudas that made the actual attack. The Furious was then joined by the new carrier Indefatigable, which arred No.894 Squadron's Seafires. More attacks on the Tirpitz followed in July and August, but the great German battleship would eventually be sunk by the RAF>
The Seafire made a minor contribution on D-Day, when some American pilots of the Air Spotting Pool used the type to direct naval gun fire.
During Operation Dragoon, the invasion of the south of France, four of the seven British escort carriers of Task Force 88 operated the Seafire. The force was made up of No.899 Squadron on HMS Khedive, and No.4 Fighter Wing, on Attacker, Hunter and Stalker.
The attack began on 15 August, and was almost unopposed by the Luftwaffe. The carrier force was soon free to withdraw, and after a visit to Alexandria undertook a series of raids in the Aegean between 25 August and 22 October.
The Tirpitz was finally sunk by RAF bombers, freeing the Royal Navy to send strong forces to the Far East. The fleet carriers HMS Indefatigable (Nos.887 and 894 Squadrons) and Implacable (Nos.801 and 880 Squadrons) and four escort carriers operated the Seafire in the Far East.
The escort carriers began with strikes on Japanese targets along the Burmese coastline. HMS Indefatigable took part in attacks on the crucial Japanese oil facilities on Sumatra in January 1945, and then joined Task Force 57 off Okinawa. The Indefatigable was only one of four British fleet carriers in the force, operating alongside the Indomitable, Illustrious and Victorious, but she was the only one to operate the Seafire.
As part of Task Force 57 the Indefatigable and her Seafires took part in the attack on Okinawa, taking up a position around the Sakishima Gunto Islands, to prevent reinforcements reaching the area from Japan or Formosa. The Seafires were used to provide the combat air patrol, while the longer-ranged American fighters supported the attacks on the islands.
In June 1945 the British Pacific Fleet returned to Australia to refit. The Indomitable was withdrawn and in July was replaced by the Implacable with 48 Seafires. The next stage of the advance towards Japan saw the American fleet redesignated as the Third Fleet, and so Task Force 57 became Task Force 37. In late July the British began to attack targets around Tokyo, flying 1,000 sorties in eight days. Operations stopped on 3 August, in preparation for the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. The fleet returned to action on 9 August, although by the time the Japanese surrendered a lack of supplies meant that the Indefatigable was the only British carrier involved. Her last combat mission came on 15 August, and saw a dozen Zeroes clash with a mixed force of Avengers and Seafires. The next day the Seafires fired their last shots of the war in anger, shooting down a Japanese aircraft that had attacked the Indefatigable despite the Japanese cease-fire.
The Implacable arrived in July, and together the two British carriers formed Task Force 37, operating alongside the American carriers of Task Force 38 as part of the 3rd Fleet.
By the time the Seafire was used in action again the wartime Mk.III had been replaced by the Griffon powered FR.47.
By 1949 No.800 Squadron on a new HMS Triumph was the only Seafire squadron still at sea, serving with the Far East Fleet. The squadron was part of the 13th Carrier Air Group, serving in the Far East Fleet, but its first combat experience came as a land-based unit. On 3 October the Triumph's aircraft were disembarked at Sembawang, to take part on the fighting against Communist guerrillas in Malaya. The first stroke came on 21 October when 10 Seafires and 12 Fireflies made rocket attacks on a guerrilla position. A second raid followed on 24 October, and the squadron remained onshore until 1 November, when it re-embarked on the Triumph to return to Hong Kong. A second spell of operations followed, this time from Singapore, and lasting from 19 December to 24 January.
After this short ground-based interlude the Seafires returned to the Triumph for a trip to the Philippines. The Triumph then spent two weeks in Singapore, before setting off for a cruise to Australia and Japan.
On 24 June the trip to Japan ended, and the Triumph set sail for Hong Kong. On the following day North Korean forces invaded the south. The Triumph was immediately ordered to return to Japan. Within a few days the UN had voted to support South Korea, and the Triumph along with the rest of the British Far East Fleet was put at the disposal of the UN Forces. On 1 July the Triumph reached Okinawa, where she joined the US Seventh Fleet, forming part of Task Force 77.5.
The task force reached its position off the Korean coast early on 3 July, and almost immediately launched its first attack, which saw 12 Seafire FR.47s and nine Firefly FR.1s make a rocket attack on Haeju airfield. No aircraft were seen, but the hangers and buildings were attacked. One Seafire suffered engine damage, but was able to return to the carrier. On 4 July the Seafires were used to attack targets of opportunity, before on 5 July the British task force departed for Sasebo and Okinawa to refuel and replenish supplies. While at Okinawa the Seafires and Fireflies were given black and white recognition stripes, as the Americans believed that the British aircraft resembled the Soviet Yak 9 then being used by the North Koreans.
On 16 July the Triumph, with Task Force 77, set sail to support the landings at Pohang on 18 July. Aircraft from the USS Valley Forge supported the actual landings, while the Seafires were used to provide a CAP over the fleet on 18-19 July. A typhoon then disrupted flying, before on 21 July the Triumph was forced to return to Sasebo for repairs. While there she received seven fresh Seafires from HMS Unicorn. A lack of replacement aircraft would soon become a serious problem. The Seafire FR.47 had not been built in large numbers, and not all of those aircraft were actually available in the Far East.
On 24 July the Triumph left Sasebo to rejoin the task force to the north of Gelpart Island. Two days of CAP duty followed, before on 26 July the Triumph was moved to the east coast. While here the Seafires were sent up to investigate a radar trace which turned out to be a formation of Boeing B-29 Superfortresses. One of the B-29s opened fire on the Seafires after they had identified the formation as friendly, shooting down one aircraft, although the pilot escaped safely. On 29 July the Triumph returned to Sasebo, where two damaged Seafires were offloaded.
On 12 August the Triumph returned to the west coast to blockade a number of small inlets. This period saw them attack a number of North Korean ships, and the naval base at Chinnampo. A second spell on the west coast followed on 19-21 August. This was followed by a period flying combat air patrols that saw a freak accident kill No.800 Squadron's commanding officer. Lt.Cdr MacLachlan was in the operations room of the Triumph on 29 August when a Firefly hit the barrier while landing. One of the propeller blades shattered, and part of the blade flew into the operations room, fatally wounding MacLachlan.
On the next day the Triumph returned to Sasebo, where she collected the last six Seafires available in the Far East. Another round of CAP and reconnaissance missions followed from 3-5 September, before the Triumph sailed to the east coast to relieve some American carriers. While off the east coast the Seafires were used to make rocket attacks on the port of Wonsan and other targets.
On 9 September the Triumph was withdrawn to Sasebo to prepare for the landings at Inchon. She returned to sea on 12 September, and the Seafires flew their first sorties on 13 September, attacking Haeju and Chinnampo. A series of armed reconnaissance missions were flown over the next few days, while the main landings at Inchon achieved total success. By 20 September the Triumph only had eleven serviceable aircraft, of which four were Seafires. Only one of these was cleared for combat. The Triumph's replacement, HMS Theseus, was by then close to Korea, so on 21 September the Triumph sailed for Sasebo, ending the front line service career of the Supermarine Seafire. No.800 Squadron itself was disbanded on 10 November 1950, leaving the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as the only operator of the type.