The Perils of Poor Prognostication

by Dr. Marshall Michel
52nd Fighter Wing historian

As World War II approached, the British Fleet Air Arm, the poor stepchild of the independent Royal Air Force, was desperate for a modern fighter to replace its old biplanes. The Royal Navy turned to the Fairey Aviation Company Ltd. for such a fighter and the company submitted what was essentially a fighter version of its Battle light bomber.

The aircraft, named the “Fulmar,” showed promise, especially since it could be quickly available.

Unfortunately, the Royal Navy’s requirement was based on two flawed assumptions. First, that the Fulmar would not meet land based fighter opposition, since the carriers would not venture close to German territory. Thus high performance or maneuverability was not considered important though long range and heavy armament were for long patrols and destroying enemy bombers.
Second, there was a need for a second crew member, a navigator/wireless operator, to cope with the challenges of navigating over the open ocean.

The result was that the Fulmar was huge. Compared to its American counterpart, the single seat F4F Wildcat, the Fulmar was longer (40 feet to 29 feet), had a longer wingspan (47 feet to 38 feet), was heavier (10,350 pounds to 7,000 pounds) and was much slower (255 mph to 320 mph). It also had a much lower climb rate and was less maneuverable.

Still, the Fulmar had good points. It used the construction of the Battle, which was stressed for dive bombing, so the Fulmar was strong enough for catapult launches and deck landings, and its wide-track undercarriage and good cockpit visibility made it easy to land on a carrier. It also had very long range — an endurance of six hours — and was the first heavily armed Royal Navy fighter with  eight .303 in guns, each with 400 rounds.

Fairey’s design was accepted by the Admiralty and 127 aircraft were ordered. The prototype first flew on Jan. 13, 1937, and the first production model was delivered on Jan. 4, 1940 — a very short period of time.

In July 1940, No. 806 Squadron was the first squadron fully equipped with Fulmars, flying from HMS “Illustrious.” But by then it was clear the Navy’s assumptions about the war and the required performance of the Fulmar were horribly wrong.

The German invasion of Norway in 1940 saw the Fleet Air Arm clash with high performance German fighters and suffer heavy losses, and the fall of France gave the Germans air bases across the Atlantic coast. But the most dangerous development was the need for British carriers to operate in the Mediterranean, where they would have to escort convoys and regularly engage high performance German and Italian land based aircraft.

“Illustrious” and its Fulmars began seeing action on convoy protection patrols in September 1940, and soon they were joined by Fulmar squadrons flying off the carriers HMS “Ark Royal” and HMS “Formidable.”

As long as the opposition was the Italian air force, the Fulmars were reasonably effective, but in January 1941, the Luftwaffe’s X Fliegerkorps arrived in Italy. The Fulmars were unable to stop the Germans from seriously damaging “Illustrious” during a convoy to Malta in late January 1941. A few months later, the Fulmars were again swept aside by German fighters and bombers and “Formidable” was heavily damaged, while “Ark Royal” was sunk by a German submarine.

Some Fulmars went to fly off of land bases in Malta, and they once again became effective in mid-1941 when the Luftwaffe withdrew from Italy to support German invasion of the Soviet Union, leaving the Italians to fight alone. The Fulmars were able to score a number of victories, although they were unable to prevent heavy losses to the Malta convoys.

The Fulmar faced a similar problem on the far north, where it was used to escort convoys to Russia and to support attacks on German positions in Northern Norway. The Fulmar was again unable to cope with the faster German aircraft and the convoys it escorted suffered heavy losses.

When the Japanese attacked in the Pacific, the Fulmar once again proved unable to stand up against modern fighter and bombers, and by late 1942 the Fulmar was being replaced on Royal Navy carriers by single-seat fighters, many of them American.

Six hundred Fulmars were built and, at one time, 21 squadrons of the FAA were equipped with the Fulmar, flying from eight fleet aircraft carriers and five escort carriers. Most of the Fleet Air Arm fighter aces scored at least some of their victories in Fulmars.

The Fulmar did have an unexpected influence on the U.S. Army Air Force’s drive for independence. The independent RAF owned the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, and between World War I and II did not fund modern aircraft for the Fleet Air Arm. The U.S. Navy noted this. When the U.S. Army Air Force made its move to become independent after World War II, one of the U.S. Navy’s strongest arguments against an independent U.S. Air Force was how independent RAF had underfunded the Fleet Air Arm, and they were afraid the U.S. Navy air arm would suffer the same fate.

(For questions, contact Dr. Michel at