11 Nov 15. 91 years since the term Fleet Air Arm was first used, 36 years since our last large aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal 1V was decommissioned, it is right today that we should recall with pride and honour the 75th anniversary of what was to be a profoundly important and very successful Royal Navy mission. It was one that took place on 11th November 1940 and is known as the Attack on Taranto.
As a mission Taranto was brilliantly effected by the Fleet Air Arm. This was to be the first time that aircraft, in this case 21 Fairey Swordfish bi-planes based on the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, had been used to destroy enemy ships with devastating effect. Each bomb carrying aircraft had up to six 250 lb bombs or, if carrying flares, four bombs. Others carried Torpedoes that were equipped with duplex pistols, or detonators, that would ignite either on contact or on passing under a steel hull. The Torpedoes required to be dropped level and at slow speed from an altitude of 150 feet or less. That meant the aircraft had to fly straight and level meaning that they were a perfect target for antiaircraft gunners. To succeed the Swordfish aircraft would need to navigate through almost invisible barrage balloons without hitting balloon cables that were estimated to be about 900 feet apart and from a pure navigational aspect it is worth recalling that in 1940 this was still very much a manual skill.
Not surprisingly and with every justification Taranto is considered as a truly great event in the history of the Royal Navy and particularly that of the Fleet Air Arm. It is an event that is celebrated each year at various Royal Navy and in some Royal Air Force establishments as well. Last year I had the honour of giving the annual Taranto dinner address and toasting the ‘Men of Taranto’ at Britannia Naval College at Dartmouth, an event that I will always recall with very great pleasure.
Taranto was a very special mission and one that was carried out on the direct orders of Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. It was a mission that by the time the Fleet Air Arm had done what it set out to achieve had left the Italian battleship Conte di Cavour sunk together with two others, the Littorio and Caio Duilio plus one heavy Cruiser very badly damaged. The scene at Taranto after the Illustrious Swordfish had completed their mission was one of utter devastation.
As we remember, celebrate and toast the men of Taranto we should not ignore that the success of the Taranto mission had been made possible with air power technology that, even by the standards of 1940, was already considered obsolete. To me this made the achievement and success all the more remarkable. Swordfish aircraft or Stringbags if you prefer, did the job spectacularly well and Fleet Air Arm losses were just two aircraft. Today we honour not only the aircraft, the pilots, the observers who I would remind were also the commanders of the aircraft, those working in the Air Intelligence Office who took a vital role planning the mission from HMS Illustrious that day and all who carried out the two wave mission.
In just one single night, the Royal Navy and the Fleet Air Arm had succeeded in halving the Italian battleship fleet. Hear and remember the words of the great one, Admiral Cunningham who is reported to have said:
“If they won’t come out of Taranto we shall blast them out”.
So what did occur at Taranto and specifically at the two anchorages of Mare Grande and Mare Piccolo and that are regarded as probably the best harbours in the Mediterranean on the evening of 11th November 1940? On that day, shortly before the Fleet Air Arm attack commenced, there lay at anchor in Mare Grande six Italian battleships with several cruisers and destroyers. Shortly before 2100 hours a first batch of 12 Fairey Swordfish took off from the HMS Illustrious. Six of them carried torpedoes, four carried a total of six 250lb bombs and 2 aircraft carried four bombs together with heavy illuminating flares. All carried extra fuel tanks either in the rear cockpits or slung on the outside.
By 2250 Hours, as they approached Taranto, heavy anti-aircraft and machine-gun fire rose to meet them. Just off Cape San Vito, the two aircraft carrying flares swung away to starboard as the first wave of aircraft lined up to attack from the east through a line of Barrage balloons. As they flew in across the bay, in front of them lay the battleship Cavour. The second wave Swordfish arrived an hour later and they swung in over Cape Rondinella to do their work.
By 0300 hours, all except the two Swordfish aircraft that had been lost, were safely back on-board Illustrious. They had left Taranto in absolute chaos. As already mentioned, the Italian battleships Cavour, Littorio and Duilio had all been successfully torpedoed; Cavour was put permanently out of action as were the other two ships for a great many months. Behind Mare Grande an aircraft hanger had been left blazing and another cruiser close by had also been damaged by bombs. Of the crew of the two Swordfish that failed to return, one had been taken prisoner and two were killed during the attack.
Taranto is a reminder if ever it were needed of the vital need for air superiority. In terms of combined demonstration of air and maritime combined this really was the art of the possible. As has been rightly said very many times, there is nothing that cannot be achieved if you have control of the air. But there was far more to the Taranto achievement than the visible tactical success – it was the strategic success too and of what this enabled that mattered to Winston Churchill. The success of the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm at Taranto on that night 75 years ago gained the British a tremendous advantage in the Mediterranean for a crucial period of time. As a direct result of the Taranto strike, the Italians were to withdraw the bulk of the surviving fleet further north to Naples.
It is said that the Taranto raid changed naval experts’ thoughts in regard to air-launched torpedo attacks and that is undoubtedly true. The old belief that deep water (100 ft.) was needed to successfully drop torpedoes was proven to be obsolete. And as Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, Admiral Cunningham said at the time, “Taranto, and the night of November 11/12 1940, should be remembered for ever as having shown once and for all that IN the Fleet Air Arm. the Royal Navy has its most devastating weapon”. Soon, when the Royal Navy has commissioned its two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales that are currently under construction at BAE Systems Glasgow shipyards and Babcock International yard at Rosyth, we will be able to re-interpret such words as having true carrier strike capability.
How wonderful it must have been for Prime Minister, Winston Churchill to rise from his seat in the House of Commons on the afternoon of November 13th, bubbling with excitement, to confirm what had occurred on the night of the 11th/12th. As he began to read his speech, as always very carefully and fully prepared, he apparently read it so fast that he left reporters in the Press Gallery gasping. Almost halted by a storm of cheering he said “I have some news for the House”, “It is good news. The Royal Navy has struck a crippling blow on the Italian Fleet.” He went on to say ““As a result of a determined and highly successful attack which reflects the greatest honour on the Fleet Air Arm, only three of the Italian battleships remain effective. This result, while it affects decisively the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean, also carries with it reactions upon the naval situation in other quarters of the globe.”
There is little doubt that the strategy and tactics used by the Fleet Air Arm at Taranto were a blueprint used by the Japanese in the devastating air attack on Pearl Harbor one year later.
The Fleet Air Arm today is still a very potent force whether it is 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons and the Commando Helicopter Force, the Sea Kings of 849 Naval Air Squadron, the Sea King AsaC training squadron that is based at RNAS Culdrose and employed on airborne early warning and situational awareness in support of ground operations that I have had the great pleasure of flying with in the past .
It is of course hard to imagine that at its peak in 1945 the Fleet Air Arm had no fewer than 78,000 personnel, 3,700 aircraft, 59 aircraft carriers and 56 Naval Squadrons! How times have changed but so too has technology removed the need for mass on that scale. Even ahead of carrier strike capability being stood back up again with two aircraft carriers and the STOVL variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter it is true to say that the Royal Navy today still has significant and important air power capability in the form of the much expanded fleet of EH101 Merlin and Wildcat Helicopters, the Sea King mentioned above and for just a few more months, the fleet of Sea King helicopters engaged in search and rescue.
For the Royal Navy the future is indeed bright and as we move closer toward commissioning the two new aircraft carriers, the three additional Offshore Patrol Vessels being built, Astute submarines and we being to move forward on Trident submarine replacement and the hugely important Type 26 frigate programme there can be little doubt that in the Royal Navy Britain will once again hold its head high in terms deterrent and maritime force capability.
I wonder what the pilots who flew the Swordfish airplanes at the Battle of Taranto seventy-five years ago today would make of the new generation of equipment that is either already in service or planned for the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Navy. Awesome would be my best guess.
CHW (London 11th November 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS