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Fleet Air Arm Legends: Supermarine Seafire

Reviewed by Jeff Schultz.

Matthew Willis’s Supermarine Seafire offers a brief yet discerning look at the Supermarine Seafire in Fleet Air Arm service from 1942-1950.  Meant to fulfil a desperate need for a modern fighter aboard the Royal Navy’s carrier decks in the chaotic early days of World War II, the Seafire rose doggedly to the occasion and served into the early days of the Korean War with mixed results.

Willis divides the book into fourteen chapters: #1-3 deal with the design, testing and development of the aircraft, chapters #4, 7, 9, 11, and 12 deal largely with various combat operations from 1942-1950 and chapters #5, 6, 8, 10, 13 and 14 discuss challenges operating from carriers, photo-reconnaissance role, modifications/upgrades for the airframe, pilot experiences and finally detailed technical data along with notes and an index. Each chapter is illustrated with photographs, along with a color plate section spanning pages 56-51. Willis is known for previous World War I and II aviation titles such as Blackburn Skua and Roc (2007), Sopwith Pup (2015), Fairey Flycatcher (2016), and Fairey Barracuda (2017).

Willis sets out with an onerous task: to cover the lifespan of the legendary Spitfire’s navalized cousin, the Seafire, in a mere 114 pages. While meant as a cursory introduction to the versatile yet temperamental aircraft, the text provides interesting details backed with strong visuals. While most readers know about the vaunted Spitfire and its role in the Battle of Britain, few may know that its folding-wing doppelgänger served onboard decks of British fleet and escort carriers from the middle of the war until 1950. With the impressive pedigree the Spitfire established as a first-class fighter, albeit short-legged with limited fuel capacity, the Seafire remained a match for contemporaries like the German Me-109 and Japanese Zero. The Seafire itself did not have the overall success of the Spitfire, particularly in accidents and handling characteristics which life aboard ship only intensified. A design that worked well for airstrips did not translate as well to aircraft carriers, producing engine and airframe problems along with many landing mishaps. Seafire pilots felt that a major recurring headache with the aircraft were “deck landing accidents.” [94]  

The Seafire saw action first in Operation Torch during November 1942, supporting the landings against the Vichy French in North Africa. Later the Seafire participated in the 1943 Sicily and Italian invasions and a year later in the epic 1944 D-Day and Dragoon landings in France. Seafire squadrons also served in the Pacific and took part in the later carrier operations against the Japanese, destroying their share of enemy aircraft not only in the European and Mediterranean but also Pacific theaters.

One of the less well-known places the Seafire played a role was in the Dodecanese islands near Turkey, where German forces held territory until war’s end. A photo on page 54 of a Seafire mounted with an American-made 500-lb bomb used against Dodecanese targets serves as testimony to the fighter-bomber role forced on the Seafire as a matter of wartime exigency.

Since the early war defeats in the Indian Ocean the British Eastern Fleet had not dared to challenge the Imperial Japanese yet by 1944 improving war fortunes brought the Seafire to action, although early experience disappointed with accidents and poor results. By 1945 the Seafire continued to disappoint but quickly had to prepare for the rising kamikaze threat. Assigned to combat air patrol (CAP) missions almost exclusively, the Seafires did have some success but their short-range and “fragility” [70] meant they never matched up to the better yet limited number of American-made fighters used by the British such as Hellcats and Corsairs. Even with their best efforts, the British carriers HMS Victorious and Formidable were both hit by kamikazes which caused considerable damage which led to Admiral Philip Vian’s derisive assessment of the Seafire pilots for their inability to stop the incoming attackers.

While World War II remains a very popular era, the postwar exploits of the Seafire require some mention. Besides serving in Malaya and Indochina with the French, the fighter had one major last task to complete. During the early months of the Korean War in 1950 the Seafire made its last combat appearance, flying off the HMS Triumph with support from HMS Unicorn until HMS Theseus arrived and terminated the Seafire career as more modern aircraft took over the role. As Willis stated on page 87, “the Seafire’s distinguished, if sometimes troubled, combat career” ended in September 1950.

Matthew Willis’s Supermarine Seafire details the turbulent career of one of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm’s single-seat fighters with a strong heritage as the Spitfire design, serving not only as a fighter but also as in fighter-bomber and reconnaissance roles. Those interested in aircraft modeling will appreciate the color plates and photographs much as naval aviation enthusiasts interested in the Fleet Air Arm.

While the 120+ color / black and white images are great, the greatest strength of the text is the inclusion of eyewitness accounts of flying the Seafire. Pilot Henry ‘Hank’ Adlam, for example, felt the mishandling of the carrier-based fighters by Admiral Vian during the 1943 Salerno landings showed he “understood absolutely nothing about the capabilities of the aircraft under his command and was completely out of his depth.” [36-37] Another example comes from Lieutenant ‘Mike’ Crosley, who in 1944 successfully strafed several small German vessels in Norway during Operation Begonia using the wing-mounted 20mm cannons: “we emptied our magazines at these most satisfactory targets, and left them on fire and stopped.” [45]

Supermarine Seafire (Fleet Air Arm Legends Series #1) by Matthew Willis, Tempest Books, Horncastle, UK (2020).

Reviewed by Jeff Schultz

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