Swordfish P3991 F


This photo from my father's collection is a bit of a mystery. Does it have a personal connection? Or is it a stray?

Lawrence Barker (see Link below) has suggested to me that the plane is P3991 F, which was with 812 Squadron from April to August 1940.

Its origin is described in the Fleet Air Arm Archive as follows:

"200 Swordfish Mk I ordered under contract No 963679/38 to spec 38/34.

Serial Numbers: P3991-P4279.

Total 176 on charge 9.1939

First: From 6.39 810 sqdn A6A P4010. 8.39 810 sqdn 'A2G' P4009, 9.39 825 sqdn 'G5H' HMS Glorious P3992."

So it seems P3991 was ready for action at the start of the war, in September 1939. 812 Squadron was then based at Dekheila, and after a foray into the Indian Ocean on Glorious, it operated with 825 Squadron from Malta, while Glorious was being refitted there in January 1940. 812 returned home with Glorious in April 1940 to begin a year with Coastal Command at North Coates in Lincolnshire. Lawrence has established that P3991 F was definitely with the squadron from April-August 1940. We don't know where it was before, but possibly still with 812 on Glorious - especially as P3992 was on Glorious with 825 (see above).

In August 1940, P3991 F seems to have left 812, and is not reported again until it flies into Ringway (Manchester) six months later for an upgrade. Around this time, the Fairey Aviation Co received & reconditioned 100 Swordfish biplanes; and P3991 was still being upgraded in March 41, when 812 left for the Malta convoys on Furious. In September the squadron continued its duties on Ark Royal, where it met up again with 825, recently involved in sinking the Bismark. The squadrons also conducted strikes against targets in Pantellaria, Sardinia and Sicily.

In July 1941 six Swordfish from the Ark, led by Bill Garthwaite of 825 Squadron, had left to join 830 at Malta - completing a circle started in January 1940. Another circle formed when Cedric Coxon of 830 became CO of 812 Squadron in June 1944. (By then Dad was refreshing his flying skills with 780 Squadron at Charlton Horethorne and 762 at Dale.) The original 812 had amalgamated with 811 in December 42, and now it reformed under Coxon at Stretton in Cheshire with Barracudas. They were posted to Malta, where they celebrated VE Day in May 1945. Perhaps on that day, Coxon's thoughts will have returned to his last tour in Malta, when victory still hung in the balance. Even to a desperate November night, when he flew for hours in search of his CO and eight friends, who did not return from a mission.

In May 1941, P3991 had completed its upgrade and, after a month at RNAS Ford, joined 821 Squadron for anti-submarine duties off the Orkneys. The last report on the plane shows it was decommissioned in September 1941. A plane's call sign or identity changed when it moved to another squadron, so it is likely that the call sign P3391 F only applied to the period with 812, and became something else with 821.

However, the plane in the photo has a black roundel on it instead of the usual colours. I do not know what this signifies, but Lawrence suggests it may mean out-of-service, especially as there is no squadron number on the fuselage, nor stripes on the fin, and the identity number is curiously on the fin not the fuselage. In which case, as he points out, the photo might have been taken either in Feb 1941 when the plane flew to Ringway, or in May during its subsequent air-test (both dates some time after it had apparently left 812).


P3991 F was definitely in the UK at the time Dad was training - at Sydenham in Belfast, Greenwich Naval College (Aug 40), Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, and Abbotsinch and Arbroath in Scotland. He could have come upon it then. And the plane was associated with Malta through 812 Squadron, quite possibly flying from Dekheila and Hal Far in 1939-1940.

It is not a high quality or professional photo and there must have been better ones of Swordfish at the time. Also it is one of only two photos in Dad's collection without identifiable people - the other being of Naval Mosquitos from his time with 811. Dad was interested in photography and kept a camera with him, which was missing from his personal effects in Malta when he was taken prisoner.

I thought at first the photo might have come from a mission in which Dad was engaged, but if the plane is indeed P3991 F, it was in the Orkneys when Dad was in Malta. It may be a photo from around Malta in 1939-1940, but more likely it is from Dad's training period in the UK - and in particular between February 1941 (or August 40) and May 1941, when the plane was temporarily out of service. The interweaving dates, places and people certainly make possible a personal association of some kind.

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