Superior in performance and firepower to its predecessor, the Fulmar, the Firefly only entered operational service towards the end of the war. Designed around the contemporary FAA concept of a two-seat fleet reconnaissance/fighter, the pilot and navigator/weapons officer were housed in separate stations. The design proved to be sturdy, long-ranging and docile in carrier operations, although the limitations of a single engine in a heavy airframe reduced overall performance. The Fairey Firefly served in the Second World War as a fleet fighter but in postwar service, although it was superseded by more modern jet aircraft, the Firefly was adapted to other roles, including strike operations and anti-submarine warfare, remaining a mainstay of the FAA until the mid-1950s. About 1,700 aircraft were produced.
Development of the Firefly began at a Tender Design Conference held on 5 January 1940, where a pair of Air Ministry Specifications were combined to form N.5/40F, calling for a two-seat naval fighter. This came about because a dramatic change in Admiralty policy towards naval aircraft had taken place. After only a short spell at war, the Royal Navy had recognised that the performance of ﬁghters operating from carriers would only be enhanced if the amount of equipment carried by these aircraft was drastically reduced. Performance would be paramount in the new range of aircraft being ordered and destined for introduction with front-line units within two years. The aircraft then in service were for the most part unsuitable and/or obsolete, often being adaptations of RAF aircraft. British naval aircraft in 1940 left much to be desired.
The original specifications of 1939 had called for a two-seat ‘front gun’ ﬁghter (i.e., with Forward-ﬁring guns) and for one with a turret, like the Blackburn Roc or Boulton Paul Defiant. The turret ﬁghter was a non-starter, considering its weight and recent RAF combat experience of the Deﬁant. The ‘front-gun ﬁghter’ (N.8/39) eventually became the Firefly, while N.9/39 was revised to become a single-seat version of the two-seater, with the turret deleted.
Fairey submitted a design that could be adapted to ﬁll both specifications, which were then combined as the two-seat N.5/40F, written around what was to become the Fireﬂy.
In order to get the new aircraft into service within two years, it was recognised that the usual process of testing prototypes and development aircraft would have to be revised. After various submissions, the new Rolls-Royce Griffon engine was selected to power the new ﬁghter. The Griffon had been given the go-ahead in December 1939 and was designed from the beginning to provide high power at low altitude ~ ideal for a naval ﬁghter. Initially, it gave 1,735 hp (1295 kW) at sea level but later versions were capable of over 2,100 hp (1567 kW).
Initial Fireﬂy production centered around 200 aircraft - two prototypes, 11 development machines and 187 production aircraft, though in the event, the two prototypes became four and at least 15 other Fireﬂies were used to speed development. The ﬁrst works drawings to enable production to begin at Fairey’s Hayes, Middlesex factory were issued to shop floor staff in March 1941. The Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) followed the ﬁrst order for ZOO with an additional 100, and then in May 1942 added a further 300. The MAP was looking for_50 Fireﬂies per month until, at least, the end of 1944. There were many changes to the numbers of the different marks ordered as the war progressed; for instance, on 28 April Fairey was informed by the MAP that the programme was 300 Mk ls, 100 NF.Mk lls and 200 Mk llls. By August this had been changed to 500 Mk ls, ZOO NF.Mk lls and 100 Mk Ills, and by October it was 350 Mk ls, 350 NF.Mk lls and 100 Mk Ills.
The test programme began with the initial flight of the first prototype, Z1826, by Chris Staniland on 22 December 1941, followed by the second, Z1827, on 4 June 1942, and the third, Z1828, which was subsequently used for trials aboard HMS Illustrious, on 26 August.[N 1]
Such were the plans for the Fireﬂy that a whole new range of squadron numbers was allocated, the ﬁrst one, No. 1770, forming up at Yeovilton on 1 October 1943. The second unit, N0. 1771, was formed at Yeovilton on 1 February 1944, followed by No. 1772 at Burseough on 1 May 1944. Plans to equip three others - Nos 1773, 1774 and 1775 - were scrapped after VJ-Day.
No. 1770 Sqn, embarked in HMS Indefatigable, Was the ﬁrst to see action, in strikes against the Tirpitz in mid-July 1944. The unit was given the task of ﬂak suppression, a difficult one in the conﬁnes of a fjord, and at least one aircraft was lost to AAA.
The squadron then sailed to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to join the British Pacific Fleet. On 1 and 7 January 1945, No. 1770 attacked the ]Japanese-held oil reﬁneries at Pangkalan Brandan, Sumatra using rocket projectiles (RPs). Lt D. Levitt shot down a Ki-43 on 4 January, drawing ﬁrst blood For the Fireﬂy in air-to-air combat. Another was shot down and shared by Sub-Lts Stott and Reclding. Two more Hayabusas fell to the 20-mm cannon of No. 1770 on 24 January when RP strikes were made against reﬁneries at Palembang. The Fireﬂies, leading the strike, had to ﬂy through balloon barrages and intense ﬂak. It was to prove an excellent debut for the new ﬁghter and on 29 January three more Hayabusas were shot down by the Fireﬂies of No. 1770 Sqn.
Moving up to the Admiralty Isles as part of Task Force 57, the Fireﬂies were to the fore in strikes on Japanese airﬁelds on Miyako, only 230 miles (370 km) southwest of Okinawa. On one occasion, Four of the squadron’s Fireﬂies escorted a USN Martin Mariner ﬂying-boat to pick up ditched aircrews near the Sakashima Gunto islands. Spotting ﬁve Mitsubishi Ki-51 ‘Edna’ dive-bombers heading for Okinawa, the Fireﬂies set off in pursuit, shot down four and left the other smoking.
Further strikes were made before the BPF withdrew to Australia to replenish. No. 1770 Sqn was disbanded. In the mean-time, No. 1771 in HMS Implacable carried out air strikes against targets in the Caroline Islands and its Fireﬂies became the ﬁrst FAA aircraft to ﬂy over the Japanese mainland. It was joined in July by No. 1772, which had replaced No. 1770 aboard Indefatigable. With the end of the war in sight, No. 1772 was given the task of locating POW camps and dropping Red Cross supplies.
- FI: Main World War 2 variant, widely used in all theatres from 1943, with 429 built by Fairey and General Aircraft.
- FR I: Modified F I design with ASH radar - 349 built.
- NF 2: Night fighter version - 37 built.
- Mk III: More powerful version of F I
- FR 4: Redesigned version based on Mk III - 160 built, of which 40 were passed to the Netherlands. The remainder served in Korea.
- Mk 5: Multi role version designed to carry out FR, NF and AS duties - 352 built.
- Mk 6: Specialised Anti Submarine version - 133 built.
- Mk 7: Three seater AS version with new tail unit and beard radiator - 151 built.[N 2]
- ↑ By this point, the programme had suffered a setback, with the death of Chris Staniland on 26 June 1942, when Z1827 crashed after the tail unit failed at low level, due to elevator over balance.
- ↑ During the 1950s, over 400 examples were rebuilt as two cockpit, dual control T.1 (unarmed) or T.2 (armed) trainer aircraft, or remotely piloted U.8/U.9/U.10 drones.
- ↑ Gunston, Bill - Illustrated Directory. Page 34
- ↑ Aeroplane Magazine Company Profile - Fairey 1915-1960. Martyn Charlton (Editor). Kelsey Publishing. 2012. ISBN 978 1 907426 60 5 Page 78
- ↑ World Aircraft Information Files Aviation Partwork. Midsummer Books Ltd. File 106 Sheet 1 (World Military Aircraft:Fairey Firefly - Robust FAA fighter)
- ↑ Gunston, Bill. The Illustrated Directory of Fighting Aircraft of World War II. Salamander Books Ltd. 1988. ISBN 0 86101 390 5 Page 35