12 January 2011

The British Knock Out the Italian Fleet with Biplanes

The Fairey Swordfish as marked/painted for the Taranto attack
The planning for the attack on the Italian fleet at the harbor of Taranto began in earnest in 1938 during the Munich Crisis when it seemed that Europe was headed for war. Though boasting a force of six battleships, five cruisers and twenty destroyers at the start of the conflict that could have caused significant headaches for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, Mussolini rarely ordered the fleet to sail far from the home port of Taranto and they would return at the earliest opportunity, failing to engage the British Mediterranean fleet. With the threat of war looming, captain of the HMS Glorious, Capt. Lumley Lyster, was asked to draw up an attack plan to knock out the Italian fleet while it sat in harbor. Essential to any attack given the strength of the defenses of the harbor would be surprise, necessitating a night attack. By the time 1940 had come around and maintaining the sea links with the British forces in North Africa took added importance, the need to proceed with the attack, codenamed "Operation Judgement", the trained Fairey Swordfish aircrews that trained aboard the HMS Glorious were now serving aboard the HMS Illustrious and under strict secrecy, the attack was planned for 12 October 1940 on Trafalgar Day. Unfortunately, a fire in the hangar deck of the Illustrious resulted in the Swordfish aircraft being drenched in saltwater, necessitating their clean up and repair. Also, the original attack plan called for the HMS Eagle to accompany the Illustrious on the attack, but Eagle had suffered damage from an accidental bomb explosion earlier in the year. As a result, some of Eagle's Swordfish and aircrew were transferred to the Illustrious. The attack was rescheduled for the night of 11/12 November 1940. 

Given the nature of the defenses based on the latest British reconnaissance, the first wave to attack Taranto would consist of twelve Swordfish, only six of which would carry torpedoes while the balance of aircraft carried bombs and flares. At the time, the conventional naval wisdom was that torpedoes were only usable in deep water, but the Royal Navy had modified their torpedoes to run in the shallow water of Taranto Harbor. The photos showed that the battleships were protected by torpedo nets, but they were standard keel-depth nets. The torpedoes used were configured to magnetically detonate below the ships' keels. 

Diagram of the attack on the Italian fleet
At 8:30pm the first wave took off from the HMS Illustrious. The gunners weren't carried, their place being taken by a supplemental fuel tank to allow a two-man crew to fly the 340-mile roundtrip mission. By 9:00pm the twelve aircraft were all airborne and they set off for Taranto. Several of the Swordfish became separated from the main formation and had to make their own way to the target- one pilot arrived at Taranto ahead of the main force and had to await the rest of the aircraft- some references indicate that this may have alerted the Italians. Arriving over the harbor at 11:00pm, the strike force immediately came under fire. One of the Swordfish peeled off from the group and dropped a series of flares at 7,500 feet along the eastern perimeter of Mar Grande, the outer harbor. A second Swordfish followed suit, illuminating the area for the rest of the strike force. Lt. Commander K. Williamson, the CO of No. 815 Squadron, made the first torpedo run against the battleship Conte di Cavour, blowing a hole in the side of the ship but getting shot down in the process. Two more Swordfish that accompanied Williamson then pressed their attack against the battleship Andrea Doria, which was unsuccessful. The last group of the first wave attacked two cruisers and four destroyers as well in Mar Piccolo, the inner harbor. The Swordfish's agility paid dividends as the seemingly archaic aircraft managed to weave around the barrage balloons and jink hard to throw off the anti-aircraft fire. 

HMS Illustrious with a Swordfish on the deck
With the first wave turning back for the Illustrious, the only aircraft shot down was that of their CO, Lt. Commander Williamson, who was taken prisoner along with his crewman. The second wave, under the lead of Lt. Commander J.W. Hale, the CO of No. 819 Squadron, had left the Illustrious thirty minutes after the first wave took off. Of the twelve Swordfish in the second wave, only eleven arrived at Taranto due to technical problem with the twelfth aircraft that forced it to return to the carrier. Arriving over the harbor at midnight, again the flare-dropping Swordfish lit up the area while the bomb and torpedo-armed aircraft set to work on the rest of the Italian battle fleet. Two aircraft attacked the battleship Littorio, but only one scored a hit. Another aircraft despite taking damage pressed an unsuccessful attack against the battleship Vittorio Veneto. The battleship Caio Duilio was also hit, and only one aircraft from the second wave was shot down, the two aircrew being killed. By 240am, the last of the Swordfish landed on the Illustrious. A third wave was planned the following night, but bad weather prevented a final blow to the Italian fleet. 

The attack was a stunning success by an aircraft that was older and slower than many of its contemporaries. Just 11 torpedoes and 48 bombs managed to knock out half of the Italian battle fleet at Taranto and while the defenders fired off over 22,000 rounds, only two aircraft were shot down, quite an impressive feat! The attack followed by the Battle of Cape Spartivento two weeks later and the Battle of Cape Matapan in March 1941 consolidated the Royal Navy's control of the Mediterranean, hastening the defeat of the Axis. The planning staff of the Imperial Japanese Navy, at the time putting together the plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor, studied the British attack at Taranto carefully and managed on 7 December 1941 to knock out more battleships in the process, but unlike the Mediterranean, the attack failed to shift the balance of power in the Pacific as the US Navy had shifted its fleet emphasis to the aircraft carrier as the new capital ship. 

Source: International Air Power Review, Volume 27, Winter 2010/11. "Warplane Classic- Fairey Swordfish- the Fleet Air Arm's enigmatic warrior" by Allan Laws, p125-129.


  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    1. Gerald, thanks for the comments. What is even more sobering is how many advances in technology came from weapons of war. Much of the miniaturization that drove advances in consumer electronics were originally driven by the needs of nuclear weapons programs.

  2. Hello, amongst my fathers belongings I have found an aerial photograph of the Taranto with salvage ships alongside apparently taken after the attack. Most interesting.