The life and times of the Fairey Barracuda

The bomber that was most well-known for its revolutionary all-metal design and its role in the bombing of the Tirpitz…this is the Fairey Barracuda 

A Fairey and a barracuda. One a magical mythical creature, the other a deadly predator. The two could not be more juxtaposed – and yet the Fairey Barracuda encompassed both completely. With its sleek design and its nimble controls, the bomber proved easy to fly and manoeuvre. But its armament was deadly. Equipped with two 7.7mm machine-guns and either one 735kg torpedo or 726kg of bombs, this aeroplane could do some damage. 

The formidable torpedo/dive bomber was the first aircraft of its type to be completely built from metal instead of the wood-and-canvas biplanes of the past. It entered operation in 1943 with the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. Before this, in 1937, the British Air Ministry had released a design specification calling for a monoplane torpedo bomber. Fairey Aircraft responded with the Barracuda prototype in 1940. Initially, the Fairey Barracuda was designed around the Rolls-Royce Exe 24-cylinder X-type engine. However, early into the production of the design, it was decided that the Rolls Royce Merlin 30 engine was a better fit for the aircraft. As a result, the first prototype took off in December 1940, powered by one of the most legendary aeroplane engines to ever be made. 

One of the Barracuda’s main competitors was the Supermarine Type 322. Supermarine were a daunting rival whose fighter planes were already dominating the skies over Britain and most of Europe – however the Barracuda pipped the Type 322 to the post. With the Type 322 taking over two years longer to get airborne, it was the Barracuda that won the contract. 

The ‘Barra’, as it was fondly known as by those who worked with it, was given its first operation in September 1941. It was to be heavily involved in raids from HMS Victorious on Kirkenes, northern Norway, and Petsamo, Finland. The first squadron to be equipped with the bomber was 827 of the Fleet Air Arm; but eventually a total of 24 front-line Fleet Air Arm squadrons were equipped with them. Across its entire time serving with the Fleet Air Arm, the Barracuda was used for various missions such as attacking surface vessels and conducting anti-submarine patrols. Initially designed as torpedo bombers, like many aircraft of the time, it soon became apparent that the Barracuda was more suited to a different role: dive bombing. Despite being powered by the Merlin engine, it became evident that this engine didn’t have the power to handle the weight of a torpedo during flight. Additionally, the powerful Youngman flaps doubled as excellent air brakes, the usage of which was an integral part of dives. As such, the Barracuda spent most of its operational days as a dive bomber. 

The Fairey Barracuda is particularly known for the integral role that it played during the operation of disabling the battleship Tirpitz on 3 April 1944. Along with 32 Lancaster bombers (who dropped 29 Tallboys on the ship) and a number of Royal Air Force fighters, 21 Barracudas were to assist in the operation. Of 21 Barracudas, seven were equipped with a 1,600-pound bomb, and the remainder carried multiple 500 or 600-pound weapons. The 21 Barracudas began their attack in the second wave at 6:36am, shortly after the arrival of the British fighter aircraft. They hit Tirpitz with a general-purpose bomb, three 500-pound semi-armour-piercing bombs and three 1,600-pound bombs within 60 seconds. One of 829 Squadron's Barracudas crashed shortly after take-off in the second wave, resulting in the deaths of its crew of three, and another aircraft from this squadron was not launched due to engine problems. 

The production of the Fairey Barracuda ceased in 1945 when, following the end of World War II, it was relegated to performing more secondary roles. For the most part, it was being used as a trainer. The type continued to be operated by Fleet Air Arm squadrons up until the mid-1950s, by which time the type was withdrawn entirely in favour of the Grumman Avenger. Over the course of its production over 2,500 Barracudas were delivered to the Fleet Air Arm - more than any other type ordered by the Royal Navy at that date. However, unlike numerous other aircraft of its era, none were preserved for generations to come and as a result, no complete examples of the aircraft exist today.