Key point: History does not repeat, but it sure rhymes.
On the evening of November 11, the flight deck of HMS Illustrious had become a very busy place. Aircraft were being raised to the flight deck, aircraft handlers were attending to their tasks, and on the command deck there was an air of anxiety. Illustrious was preparing to launch an unprecedented mission. The final order to carry out a full, airborne, torpedo and dive-bomber attack on the Italian fleet had come down at 7 o’clock that evening. The battle of Taranto was about to begin.
All Quiet at the Italian Port
In the deepening twilight, aircraft were being lined up, fully fueled and armed. The air crews, heavily swaddled in their fur-lined “Irving Jackets,” clambered into the open cockpits of their planes. Despite the fact that this was 1940, the flight deck was covered with anachronistic aircraft that resembled veterans of 1918. These were Fairey Swordfish biplanes, Model K4190 Mark II.
At the Italian port, all was quiet both in town and aboard ship. This was November 11, the anniversary of Italy’s participation in the victory of 1918. Traditionally, this date was celebrated with fireworks. This year, it was different—the Italian government thought it might be unseemly to hold a fireworks display celebrating its victory over a former enemy who was now an ally. The crews were engaged in their customary recreational activities ashore, but they seemed to hold an air of disappointment over the lack of a celebratory fireworks display. They were about to get one of a different sort.
The Fairey Swordfish, with its engine going flat out, could reach a top speed of 137 mph. But carrying an externally mounted torpedo, it was almost at its maximum load and could barely reach 120 mph. Allowing for headwinds, covering the 170 miles to target would take the best part of two hours. That put the arrival time at about 10 pm, the height of the customarily late Italian dinner hour.
Night Turned Into Day
The first aircraft to arrive were the pathfinders droning in from the west at an altitude of 5,000 feet. They tossed out their flares, which made a mild popping sound. Then the flares’ brilliant magnesium light turned night into day as they drifted down over the harbor beneath their small parachutes. The brilliant light cast by the flares initially transfixed the Italians; they were astonished into immobility.
With tremendously fortunate timing, the first torpedo plane arrived at the same time the first flare was ignited. Following one behind the other were the remainder of the first wave—it was too dangerous to attempt formation flying at night, and in any event the dearth of defensive armament made formation flying for Swordfishes superfluous. As the first wave came droning in, each plane maneuvered for its torpedo run. In the bright light of the flares, the pilots were able to discern the predicted locations of the ships and also the cables dangling from the barrage balloons.
Three Battleships Sunk
The Italians believed they had adequately protected their ships with torpedo nets that hung down to the level of the ships’ keels. They were in for a surprise; the British torpedoes had been altered to compensate for this defense. They were set to run below the keels of the target ships and, thanks to internal devices called Duplex Pistols that could detect the massive steel hulls, explode directly beneath.
Each Swordfish in turn lined up on a target and descended to torpedo-dropping height. Because of their moderate speed, there was little chance of fouling a torpedo setting when the explosive cylinder hit the water’s surface. With its torpedo on its way, each aircraft—significantly lightened—turned and rose to make its escape. Three battleships, the Conte de Cavour, Caio Duilo, and Littorio, were hit by torpedoes with devastating results. The Conte de Cavour sank to the shallow bottom of the harbor, and the other two were severely damaged.
The British Second Wave
The second wave then arrived and moved to the attack. Some of the planes in this wave were equipped as dive-bombers and acted as such. A Swordfish, in fact, was a tractable dive-bomber. Unlike most dive-bombers, it was not necessary to throttle back the Swordfish’s engine during the dive. Since the plane did not require dive brakes or a pull-out mechanism—on account of an aerodynamic profile cluttered with struts, wires, landing gear, and so forth—it never exceeded a graceful dive speed. As a matter of fact, a pilot had to bring the engine up to full rpm when going into the dive in order to acquire a reasonable speed. After releasing the bomb load, the pilot then throttled down and the Swordfish would begin to lose speed, permitting a gentle pull out.
That night the British dive-bombers were murderously effective. Two cruisers were badly mauled, two auxiliaries were sunk outright, and the fuel tank farm and repair depot sheds were savaged.
Alight With Burning Ships
The port was soon lighted by burning ships and oil tanks and fires in town, and the 19 surviving Swordfish biplanes began to reassemble and head for home. Three British crewmen from downed planes were taken prisoner; the fourth crewman had been killed. Other than these casualties, it was a near-perfect coup. The surviving planes showed little flak damage, and the Italian Navy was given a severe reversal.
In fact, the Royal Navy had greatly alleviated the surface menace of the Italian fleet. Not only had they sunk ships and damaged others, but they forced the Italians to recognize that Taranto was not safe for their fleet. They would have to move it to a more secure base northward—to Naples—but by doing so would be even less of a menace to British naval operations.
The fight at Taranto made front-page news. But arguments persisted over whether or not the air strike there had been a fluke. In The New York Times of November 15, 1940, U.S. Rear Admiral Clark H. Woodward, commandant of the Third Naval District, wrote that he “still held emphatically to the opinion that no battleships, old or new, of any navy, in active service, have ever been destroyed by aerial bomb.” Like many other high naval officials, Woodward was unable to believe what had taken place.
Originally Published January 30, 2019
This article by William Scheck originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.