Until 1940, the debate continued to rage over the true power of the carrier aircraft. That November, 21 dated biplanes proved the point. This article is taken from a new special magazine from Key Publishing called 'Carrier Aircraft of the Propeller Era'
The Fleet Air Arm’s stunning attack on the Italian battle fleet in port at Taranto on the night of November 11–12, 1940 marked a turning point. It proved that used appropriately and flexibly, even an obsolescent, carrier-launched torpedo bomber could devastate an enemy battle fleet. After Taranto, it was clear that the carrier aircraft had the power to defeat the battleship and become the main naval weapon.
That such a pivotal moment was achieved by an aircraft like the Fairey Swordfish makes it even more remarkable. The success of the Swordfish, which achieved or directly enabled the sinking of five battleships, three cruisers, numerous destroyers and smaller warships, and tens of thousands of tons of merchant shipping, on the face of it makes little sense. As a fabric-covered, strut and wire-rigged, open-cockpit biplane, with a top speed 25% slower than the slowest monoplane in the same class, it is hard to see on paper how it achieved so much.
By any measure, the Swordfish is one of the outstanding naval aircraft of all time, and yet it arose from the lowest point in British naval aircraft procurement. Due to the split responsibility between the RAF and the Admiralty, the authorities responsible for procuring naval aircraft often struggled to decide what they wanted from a carrier aircraft. And often, when they finally agreed what they wanted, the industry could not provide it.
In the 1920s, the Fleet Air Arm had generally been provided with effective, if sometimes pedestrian, aircraft in a timely fashion. The process started to go awry towards the end of the decade. The programme for replacing the Blackburn Ripon torpedo bomber began in 1928, and the aircraft that eventually fulfilled the requirement did not enter service until 1935–36. There was a similar problem with fighters – the Flycatcher replacement programme began in 1926, and the aircraft was not fully succeeded until 1935. The Swordfish arrived in 1936, and by the following year had completely supplanted its troubled competitor, the Blackburn Shark. It was nicknamed ‘Stringbag,’ a soubriquet with more than one potential explanation, but somehow fitting the fabric-skinned, wire braced machine perfectly.
The Swordfish was slow even by the standards of the mid-30s, but it was tough, straightforward, highly manoeuvrable, and would respond willingly to all the demands of even the most ham-fisted pilot without falling out of control or overstressing the airframe. It was built around a steel-tube fuselage with steel-sparred wings, the only light alloys being found in the wing ribs and cowling panels. Its engine was the virtually bulletproof Bristol Pegasus nine cylinder air-cooled radial.
Despite its fine qualities, when World War Two began in 1939, the Fleet Air Arm was soon to begin replacing the Swordfish. It had only been in service for three years, but its protracted procurement and the recent rapid advancement in aircraft design meant it was already considered obsolescent. Swordfish production was due to end in September, and production of its replacement, the Albacore, had recently begun. Likewise, the Albacore’s successor, the monoplane Barracuda, was on the drawing board and a prototype would fly the following year.
As part of the Fleet Air Arm’s expansion, a second production line of torpedo aircraft was due to be set up by Blackburn. Naturally, the newer Albacore was to be the type produced. However, in mid-1939, the British authorities were concerned that going to war just after ending production of the Swordfish, while Albacore supply was still only at a trickle, might leave the FAA dangerously low on aircraft. The gap in supply could be plugged more quickly if the second production line built Swordfish, as the existing jigs and tools could be used. For this reason, the Swordfish ended up remaining in production years after Albacore production ended and was still being manufactured by Blackburn in the penultimate year of the war.
When the war began, therefore, the Swordfish was still the FAA’s sole torpedo aircraft.
On The Back Foot
The first nine months of World War Two were near-disastrous for the Fleet Air Arm. After only a few weeks, HMS Courageous, one of the most capable carriers in the service, was sunk by a U-boat. The FAA performed well in roles for which it was unsuited, over Norway and Dunkirk during the German advance across Europe but suffered high attrition in aircraft and aircrews. Courageous’ sister ship, HMS Glorious, was sunk by the battlecruiser Scharnhorst on June 8, 1940 during the withdrawal from Norway, and then more than half of a force of Blackburn Skuas was lost attempting a retaliatory raid. This left the Royal Navy with only one carrier completed after the early 1920s.
Two days after the loss of Glorious, Mussolini declared war on the UK and France, making the Mediterranean into a war zone. France surrendered 12 days later, leaving Britain as the sole naval power standing against the Axis in the Mediterranean.
It was from this point that the Fleet Air Arm, and the Swordfish squadrons in particular, began to prove their worth. The Italian battle fleet, made up of powerful new and modernised battleships supported by fast, effective cruisers, posed a huge threat. If it could defeat the Royal Navy at sea, it could drive the British from its bases in Malta and Alexandria and seize the Suez Canal. Italy itself effectively divided the Mediterranean in two, preventing the Royal Navy from combining its forces. Instead, they operated in two groups, the Mediterranean Fleet with the small, elderly carrier HMS Eagle, and Force H with the new Ark Royal.
The small complement of aircraft on Eagle was stretched almost to breaking point early in the Mediterranean war, and in the couple of inconclusive naval battles fought in the first few months, they had to provide reconnaissance, anti-submarine, and strike functions for the whole fleet at the same time. As a result, success in open battle was limited but the Swordfish began to find its metier in a different form of warfare – attacks on shipping in port, often at night. This played to the aircraft’s strengths and began to convince the Royal Navy’s leaders that a significant blow might be struck against the enemy that way.
Hitting The Eneny Where He Lives
On July 5, nine Swordfish of 813 Squadron flew a dusk raid to Tobruk armed with torpedoes, sinking the destroyer Zeffiro, damaging the destroyer Euro, which had to be beached, and sinking or severely damaging three merchant ships.
Shortly after this, the Mediterranean Fleet’s Swordfish met the Regia Marina’s battleships at sea in a naval battle, but the clash was inconclusive. The Italian fleet was covering a convoy to Libya, while the Royal Navy was covering convoys between Malta and Alexandria. Two days after the Tobruk raid, a Royal Navy destroyer spotted the two Italian battleships and Admiral Cunningham, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Station immediately moved to try and cut the Italian fleet off from its base at Taranto. The Italian commander, Admiral Campioni, meanwhile, turned towards the coast to draw the British within range of air attack. This engagement would become known as the Battle of Calabria.
It was time for Eagle’s Swordfish to prove their worth in the exact scenario the Fleet Air Arm’s planners had in mind, and a torpedo strike was prepared. But even with this vital job to do, Eagle’s handful of Swordfish still had to maintain the usual anti-submarine patrol and reconnaissance to pinpoint the enemy fleet. At one point Eagle simply ran out of enough aircraft to keep a constant tail on the Italian fleet and this led to its position being temporarily lost.
The Swordfish did eventually find a group of warships and made an attack but failed to score any hits on the rapidly manoeuvring vessels. A second strike was launched when the fleets were closer together, again failing to score any hits.
The lack of results was frustrating and hid what had been impressive performance from Eagle’s aircrews and maintainers. Two squadrons of Swordfish had been operated constantly for a nine-hour period. Being the only carrier present, Eagle’s aircraft had to juggle all of the anti-submarine, reconnaissance, and shadowing duties, as well as muster a strike force. There were simply too few Swordfish to do everything required and guarantee hits on fast warships manoeuvring in open water.
Ships at anchor were a different matter though. On July 10, multiple warships of the Italian fleet were spotted refuelling in Augusta, Sicily, on their way back to Taranto from the Battle of Calabria. Nine Swordfish of 813 Squadron led by Lt Cdr Kennedy were sent to attack. All but a few ships had left by the time the Swordfish arrived, but they torpedoed and sank the large, Navigatori-class destroyer Leone Pancaldo.
Then, on the morning of August 22, RAF reconnaissance reported multiple warships at Ain-El-Gazala on the Gulf of Bomba. Three Swordfish, led by Royal Marine Captain ‘Ollie’ Patch took off at 1000hrs armed with torpedoes. Patch released his torpedo at the submarine Iride at point-blank range and the resulting explosion blew the craft in two. The remaining aircraft split up and attacked the depot ship Monte Gargano from opposite sides, once again seeing a huge explosion and the vessel sinking. Though they were unaware of it at the time, the Fleet Air Arm had just foiled an attack on the fleet at Alexandria with frogmen and ‘human torpedoes’.
These raids and others like them honed Eagle’s Swordfish crews in attacks of this kind and working out the various problems encountered each time. These small raids were eroding the Regia Marina’s strength little by little, but could a bigger success be achieved? In the Autumn of 1940, an audacious plan was formed.
The Italian fleet anchorage at Taranto was a constant threat to the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, in particular the supply line to Malta. It was ideally located for attacks on the sea route between Malta and Alexandria but protected by land-based fighters from conventional bombing raids. The Italian navy, the Regia Marina, considered it safe.
The Royal Navy was not so sure. A bold plan to knock out the battle fleet at anchor had been devised by HMS Glorious’ captain Lumley Lyster when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, in the event that that incident led to war. It was dusted off when Lyster returned to the Mediterranean as an admiral, as Operation Judgement.
Several factors emerged in autumn 1940, making the idea of a raid on Taranto more likely to succeed. First of all, the new carrier HMS Illustrious arrived in September, supplementing Eagle’s hard-worked squadrons and bringing Admiral Lyster to oversee FAA operations. Illustrious was the first of a new breed of armoured carrier, developed to protect against dive-bombing attack with armour plating in the flight deck and around the hangar. She was fast, and would prove incredibly tough, though her complement of aircraft was relatively low.
Another vital addition was long-range fuel tanks, which Illustrious brought with her. These would enable the raid to be flown off from a distance where the carrier would be unlikely to be detected by enemy reconnaissance. The final piece of the puzzle was reconnaissance photographs obtained by Martin Maryland light bombers, recently obtained from the US, and now based in Malta. The Maryland was faster and more manoeuvrable than the existing flying boats and could photograph targets well defended by AA guns and fighters. The Marylands revealed the locations of the ships at anchor and defences such as booms and nets. This intelligence was essential to a successful attack.
An idea that had been germinating since before the outbreak of war was therefore now practicable.
Last Minute Setbacks
The raid was planned for October 21, to coincide with Trafalgar Day. However, a fire broke out in Illustrious’ hangar, destroying several aircraft and damaging others after they were sprayed with salt water. By the time the damage had been put right, the conditions were unsuitable. The FAA decided to take advantage of the hold-up with intensive practice in the use of flares to illuminate the target. One of the problems encountered on earlier night raids was target identification, so using flares to illuminate the scene would ensure the Swordfish could find and identify the ships at anchor.
Then Eagle broke down thanks to months of bombing attacks by Italian aircraft, including some near-misses that had shaken the structure of the carrier severely. Her aviation fuel system was failing, and the old ship needed proper attention in a dockyard. Rather than delay the operation again, eight of Eagle’s most experienced night-flying crews transferred temporarily to Illustrious thanks to their “high state of efficiency.”
Before the date of the operation, another three aircraft were lost thanks to contaminated fuel, reducing the striking force from 30 in the original plan to 21. The number of aircraft was small to start with – any more losses would put the entire raid at serious risk. Instead of 15 aircraft in each wave, there would be 12 in the first and just nine in the second, most armed with torpedoes and targeting battleships, but some carrying flares to illuminate the target, and others carrying bombs to attack the smaller ships.
Now or Never
Illustrious took up station off the Ionian islands on November 11 and launched the first strike wave between 2035hrs and 2040hrs, the second wave following from 2128hrs to 2134hrs. One aircraft was pushed into another Swordfish while they were being arranged on deck and its wing damaged. It needed repairs in the hangar and might have reduced the strike force by yet another Swordfish, but Lt Clifford and his observer Lt Going were determined they would not be left out. By the time their Swordfish was repaired the others were gone – Clifford did not take off until 24 minutes after the second wave had departed, but he hurried to catch up, knowing that if he cut across the ‘dogleg’ in the planned course he could reach the target in time.
The plan was to fly northeast, up the middle of the Gulf of Taranto, to a rendezvous point southwest of the port, then split into flights and approach from pre-arranged directions to confuse the defences. The first wave reached Taranto at 2256hrs, and two illumination aircraft flew along the harbour’s eastern flank, releasing a string of parachute flares to silhouette the warships at anchor. The torpedo aircraft, meanwhile, would attack from the west.
They flew into a port that was quickly waking up and realising it was under attack. Anti-aircraft fire began pumping into the sky from guns on the shore and from the ships at anchor, most of it aimed wildly but still deadly. The pilots swerved and jinked their aircraft, dodging the gunfire while trying to pick out the ships against the glare of the flares, most important of which were the six battleships strung in a north-south line against the eastern shore of the outer harbour.
The first aircraft into the attack was that of Lt Cdr Williamson, the commanding officer of 815 Squadron, followed by two other aircraft. They flew in over San Pietro Island near the entrance to the outer harbour, aiming for the brand new battleship Vittorio Veneto. Williamson’s aircraft was shot down on the approach – the other two could not pick out the intended target, and instead attacked the modernised battleship Conte di Cavour.
Lt Kemp aimed his torpedo at the new Littorio, towards the northern end of the line, and met fierce anti-aircraft fire from cruisers and merchant ships. Kemp hugged the surface and dodged between auxiliary vessels, forcing the gunners to risk hitting their compatriots.
Lt Swayne also aimed at the Littorio, closing to 400 yards before dropping and flying right over the ship to make his escape. Lt Maund, aiming at the same ship, receiving heavy AA fire from the cruisers, but flew low enough that most of it passed overhead.
The remaining aircraft dive bombed cruisers and destroyers in the inner harbour, followed by the flare-droppers once they had finished their illumination work.
The second wave formed up and turned for Taranto at 2145hrs. One of the flare dropping aircraft had to return to Illustrious, but the remaining eight continued, arriving at 2255hrs. Again, the flare-dropping aircraft detached on reaching the harbour, and the rest went in to attack. Lt Cdr Hale, leading, went for the Littorio, as did Lt Torrens-Spence, while Lt Lea dropped at what he thought was the Guilio Cesare but was probably the Duilio. Wellham received an AA hit to his Swordfish while in the dive towards the target and struggled to regain control. He got the aircraft level at the last moment and opportunistically loosed his torpedo at one of the Littorio-class battleships. Other aircraft, including the delayed Lt Clifford, bombed the oil storage depot and smaller warships. Lt Bayly was shot down by AA from the cruiser Gorizia, and his aircraft blew up.
Littorio was hit by three torpedoes, two in the stern and one in the bow. She was only saved from total loss by being beached, though her bows were completely submerged. Duilio, a modernised World War One battleship, had a large hole blown in her bow, and also had to be beached. Conte di Cavour, another modernised World War One battleship, was holed even more seriously, almost capsized and sank before she could be beached, only part of her superstructure remaining above water.
Littorio, as the most valuable of the sunk battleships was the focus of a concerted effort to restore to service but was still out of action for four months. Duilio was not back in service until the middle of May 1941, while Conte di Cavour was not even raised until June 1941, and the damage was so severe she was still not finished when Italy surrendered in September 1943. Little damage was done to cruisers and destroyers – frustratingly, bombs that hit the heavy cruiser Trento and several smaller vessels failed to explode – but fires were set in the dockyard and seaplane base.
Taranto cast a long shadow. It robbed Italy of one battleship for the rest of the war, two more for many months, and delayed the completion of the third and fourth Littorio-class vessels. It made the Regia Marina permanently more conservative about committing its heavy ships, and as a result it missed opportunities to strike blows against the Royal Navy.
While it is often stated that Taranto led to the Italian Fleet being confined to port for much of the rest of the war, this is an exaggeration. Indeed, the Regia Marina sailed with its remaining battleships just days after Taranto in response to an attempt by the Royal Navy to supply Malta with fighters and compromised the British operation severely. Nevertheless, the removal of three battleships from the immediate equation boosted British confidence and freedom of action and hampered the Italian navy to one degree or another for the rest of the war.
Taranto also cemented the ascendancy of the carrier aircraft over the traditional big-gun warship. It would have a significant influence on the rest of the war, notably in the Pacific.
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