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kgh52

The Bismark vs Fairey Swordfish

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The Bismark's AA is often cited in any discussion about the ship. You're are correct, the AA was not on par with the USN or RN AA. But would it had mattered? Rarely is the Swordfish construction or the type of fusing the Germans had at that time brought into the discussion.

The Swordfish had a metal frame covered in fabric. Most war planes in this era were of all metal construction. The Bismark's AA had contact fuses. The fabric covering did not detonate this type of fuse. All the shells did was poke a hole in the fabric. Remember this was 1941, before laser guided projectiles that could target the engine or other solid part of any aircraft with a high percentage of hitting that spot. 

The proximity fuse made AA fire far more effective but it was late 1943 or 1944 before the proximity fuse was available for the US & British forces. Germany never developed a proximity fuse. As huge a leap the proximity fuse was Japanese & German planes made it through to hit their targets.

 A side note. The Germans dropped their proximity fuse program due to operation Barbarossa. The war would have been different had the German's been able to deploy a proximity fuse in 1943 or earlier.

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The best chance Bismarck had to take down any Swordfish was by firing her main guns at full depression to create huge water columns by the shells hitting the ocean surface and dragging the "Stringbags" down into them.

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This gunna be gud. 

 

zuyKdGV.gif

Get yer popcorn and Dr Pepper right here!

 


Like most things it was a combination of factors.

Weather, weather, weather, weather, training, possibly firing tables, etc.

 

 

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The OP is correct, though a hit to the engine with a couple 20mm or 37mm HE rounds would bring one down.

Accuracy by volume.

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If shooting down Swordfish was too hard as to be impossible, then the same should have applied to the similar Albacore, yet when attacked by 12 of those aircraft in 1942 the Tirpitz evaded all torpedoes and claimed 2 shot down in response and others damaged.

Bismarck did sail with incomplete and poor AA, but upgrades and completion could potentially have made a difference.

 

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Keep in mind the Swordfish attack was done at night AND most importantly in very bad weather.

This was no ideal scenario with open skies and light for the Bismarck to use her AA in fullness. 

Most likely the weather could have covered the noise of the planes and they would appear as if out of thin air. 

 

Edited by warheart1992

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The Bismarck AA  was heavy enough to keep several Swordfish from even trying to attack and several returned heavily damaged. 

Bismark's AA had many flaws though, as the video documents.

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19 minutes ago, mofton said:

If shooting down Swordfish was too hard as to be impossible, then the same should have applied to the similar Albacore....

Perhaps the difference was that the Albacore, although retaining the fabric-over-metal for the wings, had an all-metal fuselage.

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5 minutes ago, Skpstr said:

Perhaps the difference was that the Albacore, although retaining the fabric-over-metal for the wings, had an all-metal fuselage.

That's true, though both the Swordfish and Albacore have a big metal engine in front of that fuselage.

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7 minutes ago, mofton said:

That's true, though both the Swordfish and Albacore have a big metal engine in front of that fuselage.

Which if funny, because you would think that, no matter what the construction of the planes, when they attack with torps, that's what's going to get hit.

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The problem I think is that the Bismarck simply could not produce enough volumne of fire. Without effective proximity fuse the dual purpose artillery cannot deter aircrafts effectively, the 37mm aa guns with their manual loading have a low rate of fire, while the 20mm flakvierling have a small clip magazine of only 20 rounds. I don't think it's as terrible as the Japanease anti aircraft situation, but anti aircraft for world war 2 has always been a matter of tossing sh*t at the wall and hope that enough of them stick, and the Bismarck simply was not capable of tossing enough sh*t.

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1 hour ago, kgh52 said:

The Bismark's AA is often cited in any discussion about the ship. You're are correct, the AA was not on par with the USN or RN AA. But would it had mattered? Rarely is the Swordfish construction or the type of fusing the Germans had at that time brought into the discussion.

The Swordfish had a metal frame covered in fabric. Most war planes in this era were of all metal construction. The Bismark's AA had contact fuses. The fabric covering did not detonate this type of fuse. All the shells did was poke a hole in the fabric. Remember this was 1941, before laser guided projectiles that could target the engine or other solid part of any aircraft with a high percentage of hitting that spot. 

The proximity fuse made AA fire far more effective but it was late 1943 or 1944 before the proximity fuse was available for the US & British forces. Germany never developed a proximity fuse. As huge a leap the proximity fuse was Japanese & German planes made it through to hit their targets.

 A side note. The Germans dropped their proximity fuse program due to operation Barbarossa. The war would have been different had the German's been able to deploy a proximity fuse in 1943 or earlier.

This isn't entirely accurate. The Crew of the Bismarck were not prepared for the slow flying bi-plane, and were unable to train their guns for the proper lead. They were shooting too far forward of the aircraft, that any water column, or even just bullets, rarely ever touched the aircraft.

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I've been researching this somewhat. No one seems to say definitively, but it looks more like Bismarck's AA fire control directors and unfamiliarity with the Swordfish was more at fault than anything else. There is a lot of mention of the slow speed of the Swordfish being the thing that kept them alive. It is a bit hard to understand what that means so I'll explain. Effective AA fire is composed of several things including: 

gun fire control, gun rate of fire, speed of gun traverse, speed and angle of gun elevation, gun range, and fire control systems (this list is not exclusive, it's just the ones I remember off of the top of my head).

Bismarck's AA outfit wasn't up to US standards. For starters it wasted space on low-angle secondaries. However, the 10.5cm were good weapons in land-based AA use. For naval use they built a special stabilizing mount for them and it had a habit of jamming which diminished its value. I have never found any reports of Bismarck's mounts jamming however. The reports that I have seen suggest that the AA gunners were having trouble with the Swordfish because of their slow speed. 

Contrary to what it looks like in the movies, effective AA is really a matter of barrage fire. You aren't aiming at the aircraft because you can't really at those speeds. You are leading the targets and firing ahead of a group of them in a pattern designed for them to fly through and take a maximum hailstorm of flying metal. Most heavy AA guns have a clockwork fuse that has to be set manually to try to get the shell to burst just ahead of the aircraft. Ships have machines to do this for several shells at once to speed the process up. It is labelled on the left on this 5"/38 mount. 

Spoiler

See the source image

 

This process requires good knowledge of the speeds of the planes you facing. The advantage of proximity fusing is you could skip the manual fuse setting because there is a small radar in the shell itself and the radar tells the shell to explode when the aircraft is close so you don't have to guess. This makes heavy AA far more devastating because you don't have to guess and manually set fuses. This plus centralized radar fire control, and fast traversing, firing and elevating gun mounts is part of what made late-war US ships so devastating.

Coming back to the Swordfish. The British got stellar use out of them due to skill, sheer daring, and horrible axis AA but the Swordfish was a pretty abysmal plane even by the standards of early WWII. Biplanes have a lot of drag from their extra wing and that makes them very slow by monoplane standards. The Swordfish was no exception. It was very slow topping out at about 138mph. (http://aviation-history.com/fairey/swordfish.html) There are reports from combat in the Med that Italian CAs and CLs could actually outpace Swordfish in a headwind. It also has no real armor to help it survive damage that would kill the pilot or the engine or set the fuel on fire. They should have been easy kills, except in practice they weren't. At least not in the beginning of the war. 

Going back to setting the AA fuses and the barrage patterns, if Bismarck's AA gunners aren't used to facing biplanes they wouldn't realize how slow they are moving compared to modern monoplanes. The Douglas Devastators torpedo bombers that got slaughtered at Midway weren't considered to be great planes and even they were significantly faster than a swordfish at about 200mph. A Japanese B5N Kate which was top of the line for TBs reached almost 240. That gives you an idea just how much slower Swordfish were than was normal for modern monoplanes. If Bismarck's gunners weren't aware of the speed difference and hadn't practiced barrage patterns and fuse settings for it Bismarck's AA would not fare well.  The barrages will be too far ahead and the clockwork fuses will be set too short.  The end result is that slow planes get through and are nearly untouched. That seems to be what happened from everything I can found. Axis AA was simply not very good early in the war. It wasn't due to quality of the guns, it was largely due to poor information  and bad overall AA doctrine. In the beginning when they were on the offensive they didn't really have much need to practice AA. As they came under air attack more often the Germans got much, much better late in the war. The Japanese oddly never really did, and we'll just not talk about the Italians at all. 

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43 minutes ago, HazardDrake said:

The Bismarck AA  was heavy enough to keep several Swordfish from even trying to attack and several returned heavily damaged. 

Bismark's AA had many flaws though, as the video documents.

Excellent video. I hadn't seen this one. I saw mentions about problems with the AA guns, but I hadn't seen anything saying it was that bad. 

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1 hour ago, kgh52 said:

The Bismark's AA is often cited in any discussion about the ship. You're are correct, the AA was not on par with the USN or RN AA. But would it had mattered? Rarely is the Swordfish construction or the type of fusing the Germans had at that time brought into the discussion.

The Swordfish had a metal frame covered in fabric. Most war planes in this era were of all metal construction. The Bismark's AA had contact fuses. The fabric covering did not detonate this type of fuse. All the shells did was poke a hole in the fabric. Remember this was 1941, before laser guided projectiles that could target the engine or other solid part of any aircraft with a high percentage of hitting that spot. 

The proximity fuse made AA fire far more effective but it was late 1943 or 1944 before the proximity fuse was available for the US & British forces. Germany never developed a proximity fuse. As huge a leap the proximity fuse was Japanese & German planes made it through to hit their targets.

 A side note. The Germans dropped their proximity fuse program due to operation Barbarossa. The war would have been different had the German's been able to deploy a proximity fuse in 1943 or earlier.

Aircraft manufacture in this period, favoured whichever materials were easily sourced, and most easily worked. So aircraft manufacture in the UK privileged wood, composites, cloth and glue! If the famous Spitfire had a stressed aluminium structure, the almost as famous Mosquito fighter bomber was made out of wood and stretched fabric. Likewise, the Hawker Hurricane and the Wellington bombers employed stretched and glued fabric over a frame/

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23 minutes ago, mofton said:

That's true, though both the Swordfish and Albacore have a big metal engine in front of that fuselage.

That's also why I think the fabric issue is a really minor one. Putting lots of holes in the fabric will down a Swordfish as well. The fabric isn't structural. It is there solely for lift. Too many holes and the plane falls. Also unlike metal, it provides no protection for vulnerable parts of the plane (including the pilot). A lot of small factors went into it, but I think the biggest issues were that they weren't really aware of how slow the Swordfish were compared to then-modern aircraft and thus their F/C system wasn't built to engage them effectively. That plus faults with the weapons meant it simply couldn't put enough metal in the air in the right place. If it could, it wouldn't matter what the plane was made of. Fabric planes basically mean that light metal fragments which would not go through a metal-skinned plane become a danger to the plane and the pilot. 

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2 minutes ago, Tzarevitch said:

That's also why I think the fabric issue is a really minor one. Putting lots of holes in the fabric will down a Swordfish as well. The fabric isn't structural. It is there solely for lift. Too many holes and the plane falls. Also unlike metal, it provides no protection for vulnerable parts of the plane (including the pilot). A lot of small factors went into it, but I think the biggest issues were that they weren't really aware of how slow the Swordfish were compared to then-modern aircraft and thus their F/C system wasn't built to engage them effectively. That plus faults with the weapons meant it simply couldn't put enough metal in the air in the right place. If it could, it wouldn't matter what the plane was made of. Fabric planes basically mean that light metal fragments which would not go through a metal-skinned plane become a danger to the plane and the pilot. 

People confuse the material used to build the planes, with armour. Whether an aircraft were skinned with aluminium, fabric or dacron, their skins were not there to provide protection for the pilot. Stressed skin designs (most monoplanes of ww2) were there to provide structural support, not armour, of any kind. 

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27 minutes ago, The_first_harbinger said:

The problem I think is that the Bismarck simply could not produce enough volumne of fire. Without effective proximity fuse the dual purpose artillery cannot deter aircrafts effectively, the 37mm aa guns with their manual loading have a low rate of fire, while the 20mm flakvierling have a small clip magazine of only 20 rounds. I don't think it's as terrible as the Japanease anti aircraft situation, but anti aircraft for world war 2 has always been a matter of tossing sh*t at the wall and hope that enough of them stick, and the Bismarck simply was not capable of tossing enough sh*t.

Your argument is based on a weapon system that wasn’t common for the USN until 1945. 

 

Pilots typically don’t want to die. A typical strike range for Italian trimotori was 4km. As an example. And that was facing mostly barrage fire. 

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I think people need to remember that everyone overestimated the effectiveness of their AA batteries until, IIRC, the very late 1930s.

Developing improved AA batteries takes time and until then you use what you have.

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does it really make any difference at all?

 

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56 minutes ago, Tzarevitch said:

Excellent video. I hadn't seen this one. I saw mentions about problems with the AA guns, but I hadn't seen anything saying it was that bad. 

You are welcome. Always good to help people find good sources of info.

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1 hour ago, LoveBote said:

People confuse the material used to build the planes, with armour. Whether an aircraft were skinned with aluminium, fabric or dacron, their skins were not there to provide protection for the pilot. Stressed skin designs (most monoplanes of ww2) were there to provide structural support, not armour, of any kind. 

That is true. It isn't real armor against bullet hits or large shrapnel fragments, but metal skin will deflect some small fragments that would otherwise go through cloth. It is an incidental side effect. Cloth won't do that at all. 

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3 hours ago, kgh52 said:

The Bismark's AA is often cited in any discussion about the ship. You're are correct, the AA was not on par with the USN or RN AA. But would it had mattered? Rarely is the Swordfish construction or the type of fusing the Germans had at that time brought into the discussion.

The Swordfish had a metal frame covered in fabric. Most war planes in this era were of all metal construction. The Bismark's AA had contact fuses. The fabric covering did not detonate this type of fuse. All the shells did was poke a hole in the fabric. Remember this was 1941, before laser guided projectiles that could target the engine or other solid part of any aircraft with a high percentage of hitting that spot. 

The other thing is that AA crews trained to lead attacking monoplanes properly usually aimed badly at those old slow biplanes.

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1 hour ago, CAPTMUDDXX said:

does it really make any difference at all?

 

Nope, have some popcorn and enjoy. :cap_popcorn:

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I may be the odd man out here, but I'm calling bull on the theory of Swordfish being too slow, and instead I place the blame elsewhere.

Now, just to get the 'too slow' argument out of the way; 

  • AA systems meant for faster targets usually had to sacrifice precision for the ability to rapidly generate firing solutions (especially as the German system took longer than contemporaries to generate solutions). This made more modern AA systems less accurate overall against slower targets, but this did not mean that they would utterly fail to track slower targets and assume they were faster than they were.
  • What is perhaps more valid is that slower aircraft can make much more violent changes of motion that are hard for AA FC to react to. If the swordfish were actively 'sinking' and trying to be hard to hit, it was hard for any AA system to hit them. Of course, being on a torpedo run tends to preclude such maneuvers.
  • Regardless of theoretics, the fact of the matter is that Bismarck's heavy AA (105 flak) did put the hurt on the Swordfish - pretty much all came back damaged. So obviously overall the fire control could not have been the problem 

 

So, what did Bismarck lack that made her so vulnerable to the biplanes?

 

In my opinion, it was the lack of mid-range AA guns. Or rather, the lack of volume of fire generated by them. Being single-shot weapons, The 37mm/83 only fired about ~30 rpm, so overall the Bismarck could only generate about 178.08 kg per minute to a broadside of mid-range AA fire against an incoming target. This left a major gap in what was perhaps the most important AA ring (especially early war) for a warship, as due to how badly the capabilities of heavy AA guns were overestimated pre-war it was usually the mid-range AA that would cause much of the greatest deterrence against incoming aircraft.

 

Now, for our upcoming comparison - let's just note how much was thrown at Bismarck. During the entirety of her maiden voyage, she was attacked by 24 Swordfish overall, shot down none (0%), and was hit by 3 torpedoes.

 

Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean -  the heavy cruiser Gorizia, in 1940 alone, was involved in three battles incidents involving 25 Swordfish (only counting torpedo bombers) targeting her or ships near her. She shot down two aircraft in two separate engagements, the first at Taranto when she downed 1 Swordfish out of a flight of five (seven total in the wave) attacking the battleship Littorio, and then later at Cape Spartivento she downed another aircraft out of nine attacking her division (8-14% depending on how you want to count it). She was never hit.

 

So, what made the difference between the two ships? Overall Gorizia had inferior anti-aircraft firepower, her long-range AA being six 100mm/48's firing barrage patterns, a total of 662.4-828 kg/min to a broadside from those. That's considerably less than Bismarck's eight 105mm/60's with an practical output of 1208-1812 kg/min per broadside. Her close-in AA was four 13.2mm MG's to a broadside, and I don't need to tell you that MG's are inferior to Machine guns - not to mention Bismarck could fire 13 to a broadside, so you're looking at about 102 kg/min versus 383.24 kg/min.

However, this disparity isn't true for mid-range AA generated by 37mm guns. Remember the figure above for Bismarck? 178.08 kg/min from eight 37mm/83's?

Gorizia was equipped with two twin 37mm/54 Breda autocannons per broadside, with a practical rate of fire of 140 rpm. The four barrels could generate 460.88 kg/min, which is about 2.6x greater volume of fire than Bismarck on half the number of barrels.

 

Given the difference in volume of fire of the mid-range AA, and the difference in performance... personally, I suspect what caused the Bismarck's AA to be so ineffective against the swordfish was simply the lack of mid-range AA. Due to the failure of heavy AA guns to live up to their pre-war hype, in the early stages of the war it really feel to the heavy autocannons to pick up the slack, and that's something that the German 37mm/83 was just not well equipped to do.

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