The Navy designed British carrier aircraft with a specific purpose in mind, resulting in a different design to many other navies. The Royal Air Force encouraged the idea that naval aircraft should attack targets at sea, rather than land, therefore retaining its prominence in the forces. In the Admiralty this meant the aircraft characteristics such as take-off and landing speed became more important than maximising flying performance. The Fleet Air Arm’s role was to find the enemy battle fleet, to damage it enough to slow it down and therefore allow the fleet to attack.
Planes would then also help in reconnaissance and spotting as part of a large fleet gun battle. This would include them being used to stop reconnaissance by the enemy fleet’s aircraft. The interwar aircraft reflected the Admiralty and Air Ministry’s mindset. The Fleet Air Arm did carry out these roles during the Second World War but their role would grow far beyond any interwar planners could have foreseen.
The Fairey Swordfish would go on to be one of the most successful aircraft of the Second World War but in 1939 it was seen by many as antiquated. The Biplane with canvas covered metal frame came into service in 1936 with the Fleet Air Arm. Pilots used it as a torpedo bomber to attack fleets and later submarines. It quickly acquired the nickname “stringbag” and was involved in the attacks on Taranto and the sinking of the Bismarck.
The Blackburn Skua was the Royal Navy’s first operational monoplane and was conceived as a dual-purpose fighter and dive-bomber, seeing combat in Norway, over Dunkirk and Dakar. It had an enclosed cockpit at a time when most were open. The Fleet Air Arm introduced the Skua in 1938 and although only stayed in front-line service until 1941 it heralded many firsts seen in later aircraft design. During the Second World War on April 10th 1940, an attack by Skuas sunk the German warship Konigsberg in Norway. This was the first major warship ever to be sunk by dive bombing, indeed the first major warship ever sunk in war by air attack.
The Supermarine Walrus came into service in 1936 as a reconnaissance seaplane. Technicians launched the plane with a catapult and it became the first amphibious aircraft in the world to be launched in this way with a full military load. They served deep into the Second World War and claimed some submarine sinkings although it was primarily a reconnaisance aircraft.