Dear reader, it is customary, in the opening paragraph of one of my articles, to remind you of something you may know, as a springboard to letting you know about something that I think you don’t, but may find mildly interesting. Today differs only in that I have inserted this paragraph before that usual first paragraph, which is now the second.
You are, dear reader, most likely aware of Pearl Harbour, the US Navy base in Hawaii that was attacked on the 7th December 1941 by aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy, taking the US forces by surprise and putting a serious (though as it proved, rather short term) dent in the naval capability of the United States. This attack brought the United States into the war, and is thus considered quite important. What you may not know is that the Japanese plan was based on the success of an attack just over a year earlier – by the British, on the Italians.
Let us take a step back and consider for a moment why Britain was attacking Italy in 1940. The war had begun in 1939, with the invasion of Poland by Germany. Poland had quickly succumbed, and then in early 1940, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and then France were all conquered by Germany in quick succession, leaving just Britain on the allied side. Following a victory in the summer of 1940 in the Battle of Britain, the UK continued to fight.
Meanwhile, Germany’s ally Italy had not been idle, and was already engaging the British in British Somaliland and then Egypt. While the Italian army was not up to the same standards as the British, the advance continued and the British were pushed back as September progressed. It was immediately obvious that the Mediterranean sea would also become a battleground, as both the British and Italians needed to send supplies using it.
Here there arose a problem – the Royal Navy may well have been one of the most powerful navies on Earth at the time, but it had ships all over the place, to guard the Empire (which was still rather large). Increasingly, there was a need to protect convoys of supply ships from America to the UK, and so ships had been diverted. If that wasn’t enough, there was still the threat of German invasion of the British Isles, so ships had to be kept at home.
It became clear that the British would not be able to gain control of the Med simply by having a naval battle with the Italians – they would have to get sneaky. And so they decided to use aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm (the arm of the Navy whose job it is to fly aircraft, generally from aircraft carriers) to sink the Italian fleet in port at Taranto. The attack was codenamed Operation Judgement.
Originally, the force was to have comprised 36 aircraft from both HMS Illustrious and HMS Eagle, but in the end since Eagle was battle damaged she had to retire, leaving only 21 aircraft from Illustrious. I should explain that these were not cutting edge, fast mono-planes, but instead slow, rather outdated Swordfish bi-planes, from the delightfully named Fairey Aviation Company. They could, however, carry a torpedo and they were very durable.
Nonetheless, on the night of the 11th November 1940, 21 of the brave little Swordfish took to the air from the deck of Illustrious. 11 of them carried torpedoes, the remainder armed with flares and bombs. The plan was rather simple – light the Italian ships up with flares, and then send in the torpedo bombers to put nice big holes in the sides of them.
At around 2300, the first wave arrived, minus one aircraft that had turned back (possibly due to engine trouble, but they were in complete radio silence so none of the others would find out why). Italian ships were duly lit up and the torpedo-armed Swordfish began their attack. Over the next 10 minutes, and despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, 7 Italian ships would be crippled, including the battleships Littorio (she suffered 3 torpedo hits), Caio Duilio (she suffered one torpedo hit) and Conte di Cavour (she was sunk in harbour, having suffered multiple hits).
The second wave of Swordfish began their attack around midnight. The Italians, now realising what was going on, had 800 anti-aircraft guns awaiting them, and these opened up as the flares once again lit up the night. It is surprising that these guns had little effect, although to be entirely fair, the second wave was formed of just 8 aircraft, and it was, as previously stated, the middle of the night.
As the time reached 0120 on the morning of the 12th, the first Swordfish returned to Illustrious. Over the next 90 minutes, 17 more would land safely on her flight deck, leaving only 2 aircraft shot down. Tragic though this sounds, it must be remembered that this was an extremely low casualty rate for an operation of this kind. 2 of their crew were killed and 2 taken prisoner. It must also be remembered that this pales in comparison with the severe damage to 3 battleships and 2 cruisers of the Italian navy, along with oil stores and other shore facilities destroyed or badly damaged by bombs.
Though the Italians had detected the aircraft sent on reconnaissance for the attack, they did not have good radar with which to detect the Swordfish, and were thus caught almost completely off-guard. Their vigilance was also poor.
What did the world learn? Well, this was the first time a fleet had been defeated without ever sighting the opposing ships, and proved what some had already begun to suspect – that aircraft, not battleships, would be the weapons of the future. Admiral Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet at the time, would say: “Taranto and the night of 11 November 1940 should be remembered forever as having shown once and for all, that in the Fleet Air Arm, the Navy has its most devastating weapon”.
Alas, this topic should really be given a much more thorough perusal, so if you are interested, I would highly recommend looking into it – I am sure there are many more interesting details than revealed here. If not, you can at least pass this article on to someone else who might enjoy it.