The Little Aircraft That Could

On the evening of Nov. 11, 1940, a small fleet of British warships detached from a much larger task force operating in the western Mediterranean and steamed north into the Ionian Sea toward Salento, the bootheel of Italy. The fleet comprised four cruisers, four destroyers and the newly commissioned aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. Its mission, code-named Operation Judgment, was a presumptuous one: to attack the main Italian fleet, the Regia Marina, in its storied home port of Taranto. At night.

In his memoir War in a Stringbag Royal Air Force Lt. Charles Lamb, who piloted a Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber during the strike, recalled the approach to the Italian port:

For the last 15 minutes of our passage across the Ionian Sea [we] had no navigational problems, for Taranto could be seen from a distance of 50 miles or more because of the welcome awaiting us. The sky over the harbor looked as it sometimes does over Mount Etna, in Sicily, when the great volcano erupts. The darkness was being torn apart by a firework display which spat flame into the night to a height of nearly 5,000 feet.

“I think our hosts are expecting us,” I said.

The matchup between British attackers and Italian defenders seemed almost laughably lopsided. This would not be a ship-to-ship slugfest à la Jutland; the Regia Marina was more than four times the size of the small British fleet. Instead, the attackers would strike by air, in 21 slow and manifestly obsolete carrier aircraft bearing torpedoes and bombs. The fleet in their sights comprised six battleships, nine cruisers, more than two dozen destroyers and numerous other vessels at anchor in one of the world’s best-protected harbors, with submerged breakwaters, submarine nets, barrage balloons dangling steel cables and hundreds of antiaircraft guns. The British might accurately have named its mission Operation David vs. Goliath.

As it turned out, the Italians might well have dubbed it Operation Sitting Duck.

Taranto was home port of the Regia Marina’s main fleet, including battleships, cruisers and destroyers. (Ernesto Burzagli)
Taranto was home port of the Regia Marina’s main fleet, including battleships, cruisers and destroyers. (Ernesto Burzagli)

The British had learned much about naval aviation during the 1930s, and their latest carriers, the Illustrious class, were more than just credible. They were purpose-built, not converted cruisers or freighters with grafted-on flight decks. At 740 feet long, they offered ample space to both launch and recover combat aircraft. Their three steam turbines could propel the ships at speeds up to 30 knots. They boasted a range approaching 11,000 nautical miles. The carriers featured early-warning radar, multiple antiaircraft batteries and, most important, an armored flight deck. Each could carry 36 combat aircraft.

The Royal Navy’s carrier aircraft of choice in 1940 was the Swordfish, a single-engine torpedo/dive bomber. Introduced in 1936, it was an open-cockpit biplane with fixed landing gear. It looked like an antique and by the outbreak of World War II was already considered obsolete, especially when compared to most other Axis and Allied fighters, bombers and torpedo planes.

The Swordfish—or “Stringbag,” as it was nicknamed (a reference to string shopping bags common at the time in Britain), for the variety of items it could carry—had a theoretical top speed north of 140 mph, though many of the Royal Navy aviators who flew it noted the plane rarely topped 100. It was fabric-skinned, thus the crewmen’s flight suits offered the only weather protection. The aircraft carried no navigational gear beyond a compass, an airspeed indicator, a simple radio and an observer’s wristwatch. Its fixed armament consisted of two World War I–vintage .303-caliber machine guns.

Obsolete, yes. But it was Britain’s best operational carrier plane, and it offered some important advantages. Each Swordfish could carry and launch a single Whitehead Mark XII, a proven torpedo weighing just over 1,600 pounds. With a range of 1,500 yards at a speed of 40 knots, the torpedo delivered a warhead packed with 388 pounds of TNT—sufficient to blow a hole the size of a double-decker bus through the plating of a modern armored battleship. Alternatively, the aircraft could carry 1,500 pounds of bombs or a mix of bombs and flares.

The Swordfish had other pluses. It was easy to fly, forgiving (proving difficult to stall) and stout enough to withstand a 200 mph dive and remain controllable. It could also take a lot of punishment—even to its 690 hp Bristol Pegasus nine-cylinder radial engine—and remain airborne. Perhaps most important, the Swordfish could be launched and recovered after dark, while the Italians had no operational night fighters anywhere near Taranto.

Aside from cutting-edge carriers and capable strike aircraft, the British fleet claimed other key strategic and tactical advantages over its Italian adversaries.

On the defensive front was shipborne radar. By 1940 more than a dozen warships in the British Mediterranean Fleet, including Illustrious, were radar-equipped, providing early warning of approaching enemy aircraft. Boosting the fleet’s sense of security was the newly introduced Fairey Fulmar, the mainstay of Illustrious’ combat air patrols. A fast two-seat fighter and dive-bomber, it bore the same eight-gun firepower of a Hawker Hurricane and proved more than a match for any potential Regia Aeronautica attackers.

The British also had planning on their side. As early as 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia in a bid for control of the Mediterranean, Adm. Sir William Fisher, then commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, realized his service someday might have to attack the Regia Marina’s home base and worked out the details of an aerial torpedo assault. Fisher’s successor, Adm. Sir Dudley Pound, made refinements and began training for that eventuality. The Royal Navy shelved the plan until 1938, when war clouds began gathering over Europe. At that point Pound’s successor, Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham, a resourceful and determined commander, reopened the plan and undertook extensive exercises, including practice night launches, attacks and recoveries. Among the beneficiaries of those exercises were the very flight crews that through the summer and fall of 1940 trained for the scheduled Taranto raid. By that November they were virtual veterans of the operation.

Finally, Britain approached the raid with excellent intelligence, including extended surveillance of the Taranto harbor. In the months preceding the raid, British reconnaissance aircraft, mostly ponderous four-engine Short Sunderland flying boats, undertook many risky overflights of Taranto to determine the types, numbers and locations of the Italian capital ships. That reconnaissance took a great leap forward with the arrival in Malta of three new American-built Martin Maryland Mk.Is, twin-engine light bombers with a cruising speed of 250 mph and a ceiling approaching 30,000 feet, rendering them impervious to Italian fighters. Their productive photo runs over Taranto continued up to the very afternoon of the November 11 attack, providing the detailed real-time disposition of the Italian fleet. The Swordfish pilots knew exactly where their target ships were anchored.

Shortly after 8 p.m. on November 11 Illustrious arrived at “Point X” in the Ionian Sea, some 40 nautical miles northwest of the Greek island of Cephalonia and 170 nautical miles southeast of Taranto. Accidents, battle damage to HMS Eagle and operational mishaps had reduced the strike force from two aircraft carriers to one (Illustrious) and 24 Swordfish to 21. Just before 8:30 p.m. on that cool moonlit evening Captain Denis Boyd turned his carrier into the wind as aircrews boarded the dozen Swordfish of the first wave.

Six of the aircraft carried torpedoes, four carried six 250-pound bombs, and two carried four bombs and 16 magnesium parachute flares. The flares were to be dropped from about 5,000 feet in line at intervals just inland from the harbor in order to silhouette the Italian ships for the attacking pilots.

At 8:30 p.m. the leader of the first wave, Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth “Hooch” Williamson, flew his torpedo plane from the deck of Illustrious. The other Swordfish followed at 10-second intervals, forming up on Williamson’s aircraft for the two-hour, twenty-minute flight to Taranto. While the planes usually had a crew of three—pilot, observer and rear gunner—on this mission, the gunners were left behind to accommodate a long-range auxiliary fuel tank. Thus the observer, who doubled as the navigator, was to man the rear machine gun in a pinch. The crews would maintain radio silence during the operation, so he was at least spared that duty.

Flying in loose formation and eventually climbing above cloud cover at 7,500 feet, the thoroughly chilled pilots and observers had time to reflect on what may have seemed a suicide mission: They were approaching a stoutly defended port swept by searchlights and bristling with anti-aircraft guns. Their arrival would be no surprise to the Italian defenders, as ringing the harbor was a string of sound detectors that could pick up approaching aircraft as much as 25 miles nautical miles out. Forced by necessity, the Royal Navy pilots would make their final torpedo runs straight and level at wave-top height.

On the upside, the crews would have no problem spotting their targets. Alerted by the sound detectors a full 15 minutes before the first wave arrived around 11 p.m., the Italian gunners had filled the sky over Taranto with bright explosions and crisscrossing red, green and white tracer bullets. The two Swordfish carrying parachute flares soon dropped their beacons, further adding to the spectacle. It must have looked impossible to fly over the harbor without getting shot down. Indeed, the lead plane, piloted by Williamson, was promptly hit and downed. But not before Hooch had dropped to a height of just 30 feet and dropped his torpedo. The Italian battleship Conte di Cavour lay in plain view, thanks to the bright flares. The torpedo ran straight and true, striking the vessel on the port bow. Water rushed into the massive hole, forcing its helmsman to beach the ship.

As it turned from its attack run, Williamson’s Swordfish was struck by machine-gun fire and dropped into the harbor. Both Williamson and his observer, Lt. Norman Scarlett, were unhurt. Eventually fished out of the water, they were accosted by angry dockworkers before being formally taken prisoner.

The Italians had considered their base untouchable by torpedo attacks, as both the inner and outer harbors were too shallow (at about 40 feet) for attacking submarines. Along that same line of thought, they believed all aerial-dropped torpedoes initially sank to some 90 feet before rising to strike level; were that true, the harbor would again prove too shallow. But the Royal Navy had modified its torpedoes to sink to a maximum of 35 feet before proceeding to the target. The weapons were also equipped with Duplex detonators, which would trigger the warheads either on contact or once within the ships’ magnetic field, whichever came first. The Italians had deployed extensive anti-torpedo netting, but not enough to intercept these torpedoes.

A second and third Swordfish also launched torpedoes at Conte di Cavour but missed. The next two Swordfish attacked the battleship Littorio in quick succession, each of their torpedoes finding its mark. The torpedo from the first plane struck Littorio’s starboard bow, opening a hole some 30 by 50 feet. Dropped from just 400 yards out, the torpedo from the second plane opened a smaller hole in the ship’s port quarter.

The last torpedo plane approached over land and made its final run at the battleship Vittorio Veneto. Its torpedo exploded in the water short of its target. The pilot maneuvered dramatically nearly at mast-height before disappearing into the dark skies of the Ionian.

Though they had spent only a few minutes on target, the six torpedo bombers had seriously damaged two Italian battleships at the cost of one downed aircraft. Slow as they were, the gray-green camouflage-painted Swordfish were difficult to spot outside the beams of the searchlights, and the Italian anti-aircraft gunners were unable to target aircraft flying so close to the water. As it was, many of their projectiles instead struck neighboring ships and shore installations.

The follow-on Swordfish carrying six bombs each were less successful than the torpedo planes. The first two descended below their attack altitude of 8,000 feet but still could not locate their designated targets—the heavy cruisers anchored in the inner harbor. Most of their bombs went astray or failed to detonate, though one plane managed to hit a hangar at a seaplane base, setting it afire and destroying two aircraft. The third Stringbag made two runs but hit nothing. The crew of the fourth claimed to have hit an Italian destroyer with a bomb, but the warhead failed to explode. All four aircraft got away safely. The last two planes of the first wave over the target were the flare-carrying Swordfish, each of which dropped its four bombs on an oil storage depot a mile inland.

By then the second wave of Swordfish, led by Lt. Cmdr. John W. “Ginger” Hale, was about 20 minutes out from Taranto, albeit short two aircraft. The last two of its nine planes had collided while taxiing on Illustrious. The carrier’s flight deck crew got them untangled, but only one appeared airworthy and was able to take off. It had sustained damage, though, and was forced to turn back. Mechanics were able to repair the second plane, which launched late. Meanwhile, the seven other planes—five carrying torpedoes, two flares and bombs—climbed to 8,000 feet and arrived on target just before midnight. Again the sky lit up in a kaleidoscope of antiaircraft fire.

After further illuminating the inner and outer harbors, the two flare-bearing Swordfish dropped their payloads on the oil depot and turned back to sea. Piloting the lead torpedo plane, Hale flew in from the northwest, making an end run around a line of barrage balloons to launch his torpedo at Littorio. It failed to detonate. A second Swordfish flew around the barrage balloons to the south, but as it neared the rows of battleships and cruisers, close-range anti-aircraft fire shot it down, killing pilot Lt. Gerald Bayly and observer Lt. Henry Slaughter.

The next attacker fared better, lining up for a clear run at the battleship Caio Duilio. Its torpedo struck amidships on the starboard side and opened a fatally large hole. As the warship threatened to founder, Duilio’s helmsman turned the ship and beached it.

A fourth Swordfish maneuvered through the balloons and heavy anti-aircraft fire, approached Littorio at wave-top height and launched its torpedo from some 700 yards out. The weapon hit home on the starboard bow of the battleship, which began to list.

The final torpedo bomber, piloted by Lt. John Wellham, circled the inner harbor to approach the battleships from the southeast. Though his Swordfish caromed off a barrage balloon and was hit by anti-aircraft fire, Wellham managed to launch his torpedo at Vittorio Veneto. It missed the battleship but reportedly went on to strike and further damage Conte di Cavour. As Wellham made good his escape, his torpedo bomber sustained damage from flak, but the dauntless pilot kept it in the air.

Fifteen minutes later the straggler Swordfish damaged in the deck collision arrived alone over the harbor and released its payload of bombs on the heavy cruisers. One hit Trento but failed to explode. The time was 12:35 a.m. on November 12, and the attack on Taranto was over.

Once the last aircraft of the second wave had gotten away, Captain Boyd had turned Illustrious back toward Cephalonia and headed to a rendezvous point some 185 nautical miles from Taranto. There he had turned the carrier into the wind and prepared to recover the returning Swordfish. The first touched down at 1:40 a.m., the last at 2:50. Debriefing of the aircrews suggested the mission had inflicted serious damage on the Italian fleet, at a cost of two downed Swordfish, two men killed and two captured. A detailed assessment came later that morning after a reconnaissance flight by a Maryland out of Malta. It reported one battleship sunk (Conte di Cavour) and two beached (Caio Duilio and Littorio), plus damages to other ships as well as to the seaplane base and the oil depot. Forty Italian sailors had been killed.

The original operational plan called for a return attack that night, an idea reportedly met with a heartfelt and memorable protest from one of the pilots: “They only asked the Light Brigade to do it once!” In the end, given the approach of unfavorable weather, exhausted crews and the likelihood of more casualties, the powers that be cancelled the second strike.

The attack on Taranto was considered a decisive victory for Britain, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill touted it as such in a November 13 speech to the House of Commons. Indeed, the Regia Marina had lost half of its battleships. Though Caio Duilio and Littorio were refloated and repaired within six months, the severely damaged Conti di Cavour never returned to service. The Italians promptly moved their three operational battleships to berths in Naples, thus shifting the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean in favor of Britain.

Though Japanese naval observers were well aware of the success of the British attack on Taranto and gleaned what they could from its results, it was far from a blueprint for the far larger strike against Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. It was, however, a useful proof-of-concept for a carrier-based aerial raid on a stationary fleet of surface ships—a potential lesson tragically unheeded by the U.S. Navy.

New York-based writer Michael W. Robbins is a former editor of Military History and MHQ. For further reading he recommends Air Power, by Stephen Budiansky, Taranto 1940, by Angus Konstam, and War in a Stringbag, by Charles Lamb.

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