Book: The Cross in the Sky


The Life and Adventures of Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton
Soldier – Pioneer Aviator – Pathfinder for Global Peacekeeping.

by Charles Stuart Eaton

Foreword by Dick Smith AO
In Retrospect Air Commodore Dr Mark Lax OAM, CSM

The Cross in the Sky is the remarkable story of Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton. As a soldier, pioneer aviator and pathfinder for global peacekeeping, Charles emerges as a trail-blazer in many realms. His story is intertwined with tectonic world events and a 65-year romance with Beatrice Rose Godfrey.

Eaton served every day of both world wars, starting with the Royal West Surreys and finishing with the Royal Australian Air Force. He was a prisoner of war and twice court-martialled by the German Army. After the Armistice, he ferried delegates to the Paris Peace Conference. In 1920 he flew in the first aerial survey of India, after which he lived amongst the Khond people of Orissa.

In Central Australia, following the disappearances of Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross and Lasseter’s Golden Quest, he led rescue missions into the Tanami and Great Sandy deserts before establishing and then participating in the air defences of north-west Australia and West Papua during World War Two. As the Australian Consul in East Timor, he assisted the post-war reconstruction of that war-torn land.

In the midst of the Indonesian War of Independence, his life-long experience culminated in initiatives that led to the first United Nations venture to monitor conflict resolution. As Australia’s first diplomatic representative to the new nation of Indonesia, Charles Eaton laid the foundations of Australian–Indonesian bi-lateral relations.

The Cross in the Sky is the story of an extraordinary man, told by his younger son—and witness to some of these events—Charles Stuart Eaton.




Marston Moor

When English Civil War resumed in spring 1644 the country lay evenly divided between Roundheads and Cavaliers. Wales, the West Country and northern England remained in royalist hands while southern and central England were under parliamentary control. Yet with the help of their new Scottish allies, the Roundheads were beginning to put pressure on the King’s forces in the north. With Alexander Leslie and his Covenanter army marching south and the father–son partnership of Lord and Sir Thomas Fairfax pushing north, the King’s commander in the north, the Earl of Newcastle, was forced to seek refuge in York. The Roundheads had him trapped. On 22 April 1644, a combined Roundhead and Covenanter force of some 28,000 soldiers gathered around the sturdy city walls to lay siege to this solitary royalist outpost.

King Charles was desperate not to lose York. The city was crucial if he wanted to maintain a strategic presence in the north. He sent an urgent letter to his nephew, Prince Rupert, who was then conducting a highly successful campaign in the north-west.


… I must give you the true state of my affairs, which, if their condition be such as enforces me to give you more peremptory commands than I would willingly do, you must not take it ill. If York be lost, I shall esteem my crown less, unless supported by your sudden march to me, and a miraculous conquest in the South, before the effects of the northern power can be found here; but if York be relieved, and you beat the rebel armies of both kingdoms which are before it, then, but otherwise not, I may possibly make a shift (upon the defensive) to spin out time, until you come to assist me: wherefore I command and conjure you; by the duty and affection which I know you bear me, that (all the new enterprises laid aside) you immediately march with all your force to the relief of York; but if that be either lost, or have freed themselves from besiegers, or that for want of powder you cannot undertake that work, you immediately march your whole strength to Worcester, to assist me and my army; without which, or your having relieved York by beating the Scots, all the successes you can afterwards have most infallibly will be useless to me. You may believe nothing but an extreme necessity could make me write thus to you; wherefore, in this case, I can noways doubt of your punctual compliance with

Your loving uncle and faithful friend,

            CHARLES R.

Despite the studied ambiguity of the letter (was he being ordered to York or to rush back to fight with Charles at Worcester?), Rupert abandoned his conquering of Lancashire and headed east to relieve the embattled Earl of Newcastle. He took with him the notoriously brutal royalist commander, Lord Goring.

By mid-June Newcastle’s Cavalier army had been under siege for two fretful months. Their daily ration of a pint of beans, ounce of butter and penny loaf had dwindled dangerously low. There was also the constant fear of an enemy incursion. On 16 June, the Roundheads almost broke through after detonating a series of mines under the city walls. For the trapped Cavaliers, Prince Rupert’s reinforcements could not arrive too soon. On 30 June it was reported that they had reached Knaresborough. The following day, the Roundhead–Covenanter army marched out to Long Marston, a small village five miles west of York, hoping to confront the Cavalier army head-on, but Rupert was too clever for them. He used a small decoy of royalist cavalry to trick the enemy into lining up for battle – then quickly sprinted north, crossed the tributaries of the River Ouse, and circled behind the Roundheads to relieve York.

Mindful of the King’s impatience for his speedy return, Rupert decided to cement his advantage and finish off the Roundhead–Covenanter army the following day. He spent the night outside York’s city walls, sending Goring in to tell Newcastle that he expected his troops ready for battle the following morning. After two months of siege warfare and selflessly defending the King’s interests in the north, Newcastle was indignant at such peremptory demands from this precocious general. He had no intention of jumping to Rupert’s orders.

With only 18,000 men at his disposal, some 10,000 fewer than the enemy, Rupert’s only hope of victory lay in speed and surprise. He rose at 4 a.m. on 2 July and marched his men out to Long Marston. The Roundheads had assumed Rupert would attempt to retreat after his relief of York and had begun to march to Tadcaster in the hope of cutting him off. When their rearguard scouts saw the Cavalier army draw up at Long Marston, the vast army had to perform a desperate about-turn. In this disarrayed state, it was essential that Rupert charged them then and there, but maddeningly, he had not been joined by the Earl of Newcastle’s men. The siege-weary troops had spent the day plundering the discarded Roundhead camp, drinking liberally and arguing over wage arrears. When they finally appeared at 4 p.m., Rupert greeted Newcastle coolly: ‘My Lord, I wish you had come sooner with your forces. But I hope we shall have a glorious day.’ Yet still the Cavaliers didn’t attack the disorganised Roundheads and instead fell to squabbling over tactics. Apart from a little cannonfire, the two armies merely glared at each other across the moor in a day-long stand-off. A Roundhead scout master, Lion Watson, describes the scene:

About two of the clock, the great Ordnance of both sides began to play, but with small success to either; about five of the clock we had a general silence on both sides, each expecting we should begin the charge, there being a small ditch and a bank betwixt us and the Moor, through which we must pass if we would charge them upon the Moor, or they pass it, if they would charge us in the great corn field, and closes; so that it was a great disadvantage to him that would begin the charge, feeling the ditch must somewhat disturb their order, and the other would be ready in good ground and order, to charge them before they could recover it.

In this posture we stood till seven of the clock, so that it was concluded on our sides, that there would be no engagement that night, neither of the two Armies agreeing to begin the charge.

By 7 p.m., Rupert decided it was too late to fight and announced he was off for supper. The Earl of Newcastle’s wife recalls her husband’s reaction:

My lord asked his Highness [Prince Rupert] what service he would be pleased command him; who returned his answer that he would begin no action upon the enemy till early in the morning; desiring my lord to repose himself until then. Which my lord did, and went to rest in his own coach… Not long had my lord been there, but he heard a great noise and thunder of shooting, which gave him notice of the armies being engaged.

On the other side of the moor, the Roundhead and Scottish commanders had no intention of retiring for the evening. After a day of endless troop marshalling, their army was now fully in place. On the left wing stood a brilliant young cavalry commander from East Anglia, Oliver Cromwell; on the right wing the leader of Roundhead troops in the North, Sir Thomas Fairfax; and in the middle the mass of infantry led by Major-General Crawford and Lieutenant-General Baillie. Through their ‘perspective glasses’ they saw the smoke rising from the Cavalier cooking fires and decided this was their moment. As the sky darkened and a summer hailstorm broke, the Roundheads lit their cannons and under a mist of cannonsmoke the infantry charged through the thick rye fields. Lion Watson was in the first wave:

About half an hour after seven o’clock at night, we seeing the enemy would not charge us, we resolved by the help of God, to charge them, and so the sign being given, … We came down the Hill in the bravest order, and with the greatest resolution that was ever seen: I mean the left Wing of our Horse lead by Cromwell, which was to charge their right Wing, led by Rupert, in which was all their gallant men: they being resolved, if they could scatter Cromwell, all were their own.

Cromwell’s cavalry, labelled the ‘Ironsides’ after Rupert’s generous nickname for Cromwell, smashed into the Cavalier right wing and sent them scurrying back. When Rupert realised what had happened, he threw down his supper, mounted his steed and shouted at his fleeing troops: ‘Swounds! Do you run? Follow me.’ And in he went with what Watson recalls as a fearsome counterattack:

Cromwell’s own division had a hard pull of it: for they were charged by Rupert’s bravest men, both in Front and Flank: they stood at the swords point a pretty while, hacking one another: but at last (it so pleased God) he brake through them, scattering before them like a little dust…

It was the bravery of the Scottish infantry supporting the Roundhead cavalry that crucially halted the Cavalier attack. In the melee, Cromwell was injured in the neck and briefly retired from the field. Rupert too was forced to retreat after his horse was killed from under him. He ignominiously hid in a nearby bean-field. While the Cavaliers fled the field, Cromwell’s Ironsides displayed their superior discipline by remaining on the battlefield to support the infantry rather than pursuing the retreating enemy or plundering baggage trains.

On the Roundhead right wing, the situation was nowhere near as rosy. Sir Thomas Fairfax’s cavalry charge had been brought to a grinding halt by a volley of musketshot, and now a royalist cavalry counter-attack led by Lord Goring and supported by the Earl of Newcastle’s troop of Whitecoats (so-called because of their undyed woollen cloth outfits) sliced through the Roundhead troops. Fearing the battle was lost, many Scots and Roundheads simply deserted the battle. Arthur Trevor, a royalist messenger searching for Prince Rupert, was overwhelmed by the number of deserters he met:

The runaways on both sides were so many, so breathless, so speechless, and so full of fears, that I should not have taken them for men, but by their motion which still served them very well; not a man of them being able to give me the least hope where the Prince was to be found; both armies being mingled, both horse and foot; no side keeping their own posts.

In this horrible abstraction did I coast the country; here meeting with a shoal of Scots crying out Weys us, we are all undone; and so full of lamentation and mourning, as if their day of doom had overtaken them, and from which they knew not whither to fly: and anon I met with a ragged troop reduced to four and a Cornet; by and by with a little foot officer without hat, band, sword, or indeed anything but feet and so much tongue as would enquire the way to the next garrisons, which (to say the truth) were well filled with the stragglers on both sides within a few hours, though they lay distant from the place of fight 20 or 30 miles.

Seeing his fellow Roundheads in trouble on the right wing, Oliver Cromwell led his Ironsides along with a troop of Covenanter cavalry across the field of battle to take on the victorious Goring. Under the glimmering light of a harvest moon, Cromwell’s men slammed into the Cavaliers. Lion Watson recounts the vital moment:

Just then came our Horse and Foot…seeing the business not well in our right, came in a very good order to a second charge with all the enemies Horse and Foot that had disordered our right wing and main battle. And here came the business of the day (nay almost of the kingdom) to be disputed upon the second charge….The enemy seeing us to come in such a gallant posture to charge them, left all thoughts of pursuit, and began to think that they must fight again for that victory which they thought had been already got. They marching down the hill upon us, from our Carriages, so that they fought upon the same ground, and with the same front that our right wing had before stood to receive their charge…our Foot and Horse seconding each other with such valour, made them fly before us, that it was hard to say which did the better out of Horse and Foot….To conclude, about nine of the clock we had cleared the Field of all enemies recovered our Ordnance and Carriages, took all the enemies Ordnance and Ammunition, and followed that chase of them within a mile of York, cutting them down so that their dead bodies lay three miles in length.

In the wake of this Roundhead onslaught, only Newcastle’s Whitecoats stood firm. Despite sustained musket fire, they would:

Take no quarter, but by mere valour for one whole hour kept the troops of Horse from entering amongst them at near push of pike; when the Horse did enter they would have no quarter, but fought it out till there was not thirty of them living; whose hap [fate] it was to be beaten down upon the ground, as the troopers came near them, though they could not rise for their wounds, yet were desperate as to get either pike or sword or a piece of them, and to gore the troopers’ horses as they came over them or passed them by… every man fell in the same order and rank wherein he had fought.

As Cromwell wiped up the remnants of Goring’s cavalry, the rest of the Cavalier army retreated to York. There Rupert and the Earl of Newcastle had a full and frank exchange of views concerning the conduct of the battle, after which the Prince headed north to Richmond while Newcastle fled to Scarborough and then abroad to Holland. He could not bear to endure ‘the laughter of the court’. With some 4,500 dead (as well as Prince Rupert’s infamous dog, Boy) and 1,500 taken prisoner, Marston Moor was a calamity for the royalist cause. The commander who had done so much to crush the Cavaliers offered up his thanks to God. In the wake of the battle, Oliver Cromwell wrote a letter to one Colonel Valentine:


It’s our duty to sympathise in all mercies; that we may praise the Lord together in chastisements or trials, that so we may sorrow together.

Truly England and the Church of God hath had a great favour from the Lord, in this great victory given unto us, such as the like never was since the war began. It had all the evidences of an absolute victory obtained by the Lord’s blessing upon the godly party principally. We never charged but we routed the enemy. The left wing, which I commanded, being our own horse, saving a few Scots in our rear, beat all the Prince’s horse. God made them as stubble to our swords, we charged their regiments of foot with our horse, routed all we charged. The particulars I cannot relate now, but I believe, of twenty-thousand the prince hath not four-thousand left. Give glory, all the glory, to God.

Sir, god hath taken away your eldest son by a cannon-shot. It broke his leg. We were necessitated to have it cut off, whereof he died.

Sir, you know my trials this way; but the lord supported me with this: that the Lord took him into the happiness we all pant after and live for. There is your precious child full of glory, to know sin nor sorrow any more. He was a gallant young man, exceeding gracious. God give you His comfort.

… few knew him, for he was a precious young man, fit for God. You have cause to bless the Lord. He is a glorious saint in heaven, wherein you ought exceedingly to rejoice. Let this drink up your sorrow; seeing these are not feigned words to comfort you, but the thing is so real and undoubted a truth. You may do all things by the strength of Christ. Seek that, and you shall easily bear your trial. Let this public mercy to the church of God make you to forget your private sorrow. The Lord be your strength; so prays

Your truly faithful and loving brother,

Lend-Lease Soviet P-47

While it is commonly known among war bird enthusiasts that the Soviet Union received large numbers of P-39 Airacobras and P-40 Warhawks, planes that many American pilots deemed to be inferior to the P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs that were flown over the Western Front,  the VVS also received approximately 200 Republic P-47 Thunderbolts- heavy duty fighters armed with eight 50 caliber machine guns that were capable of flying more than 440 miles per hour at 29,000 feet. With a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine complete with a supercharger, the Thunderbolt was an extremely effective escort fighter and very capable of taking on any German aircraft both at high-altitude and low-altitude. Indeed, the USAAF’s top two aces in Europe, Francis “Gabby”Gabreski and Robert Johnson, flew P-47s.

In which role did the VVS use the P-47? Why weren’t more delivered? Unfortunately, very little is known about the Thunderbolts that arrived in the Soviet Union. Most of them were delivered to the 255th IAP of the Northern Fleet, where they were put into the high-altitude air defense role. While the Thunderbolt pilots of the US 8th Air Force did not have to look too hard to find a high-altitude dogfight, the aerial action over the entire Eastern Front was fought at a significantly lower altitude.

Whereas British and American bombers engaged in high-altitude bombing runs against German cities and industrial targets, requiring fighter escorts equipped with superchargers (P-47, P-51, P-38), the VVS focused more on low-level close air support, integrating the movements of their ground attack aircraft (IL-2 Sturmoviks) with ground forces. Consequently, while escorting the IL-2 “flying tanks”, Soviet escorts rarely found themselves in situations in which they would have to engage the enemy at high altitudes.

The Luftwaffe similarly used the Ju-87 and Ju-88 in close air support roles on the Eastern Front, meaning the VVS had little use for high-altitude interceptors.

Information from the archives of the General Staff of the Air Force of the Soviet Army does not differ much – 190 P-47 fighters were received in 1944 and five – in 1945. Apparently, the Soviet archive did not take into account one more aircraft – P-47D-10-RE Serial number 42-75202 Purchased with funds raised by US Senators, this aircraft received its own name “Knight of Pythias”. It was he who was tested in mid-1944 at the Air Force Research Institute and LII.

“Thunderbolt” disappointed Soviet test pilots. One of the best flight engineers at LII, Mark Lazarevich Gallay, recalled the flight on the P-47 this way:

– Already in the first minutes of the flight, I realized that this is not a fighter! Stable, with a comfortable spacious cockpit, comfortable, but not a fighter. “Thunderbolt” had unsatisfactory maneuverability in the horizontal and especially in the vertical plane. The plane accelerated slowly – the inertia of the heavy machine affected. The Thunderbolt was perfect for a simple en-route flight without harsh maneuvers. This is not enough for a fighter.

The opinion of the Soviet aviation engineers about the Thunderbolt was not much different from the pilots. Despite the sleek shape of the fuselage and the apparent perfection of aerodynamics, the Thunderbolt’s Cx coefficient turned out to be less than that of the main German Bf.109G and Fw-190A fighters. Interest was not aroused by the aircraft itself, but by the turbocharger (first of all!), the engine, and aviation equipment. The plane was disassembled to pieces and carefully examined at the Bureau of New Technology of the People’s Commissariat of the Aviation Industry (BNT NKAP). BNT specialists have published a complete technical description of the P-47 fighter in Russian. Engineers also drew conclusions regarding the quality and manufacturing methods of components and assemblies of the American fighter, noting that in terms of technology, the Soviet aviation industry lags behind the American one.

Combat pilots of the Red Army Air Force also did not appreciate the overseas miracle. The Soviet Union did not have the slightest need to escort heavy bombers in 1944 – the front-line aviation bore the entire burden of the war. Air battles on the Soviet-German front were fought at altitudes below 6,000 m, exactly at those altitudes where the Thunderbolt most resembled a flying target. At low altitudes, the P-47 lost in all respect to any Soviet or German fighter of the 1944 models. An interesting fact is that it is possible that the Americans tried to improve the maneuverability of the “Soviet” Thunderbolts by supplying them with removed external machine guns. In fact, the Thunderbolt repeated the story of the Soviet MiG-3 fighter – an excellent air fighter at high altitude and clumsy at the ground. Such an aircraft in the Red Army Air Force during the war years turned out to be unclaimed. Of course, it should be borne in mind that the opinion of Soviet pilots and engineers was formed on the basis of assessments of the P-47D-10-RE fighter. Under Lend-Lease, the P-47D-22-RE and P-47D-27-RE aircraft equipped with more powerful R-2800-59 engines were supplied.

In the West, it is widely believed that the Russians simply tested the wrong car, and the P-47D-22 and P-47D-27 arrived too late. That is unlikely. The entire course of the air war on the Eastern Front suggests that heavy high-altitude fighters did not take root here. Even the Fw-190, a fighter that was famous for its maneuverability on the Western front, turned out to be heavy and awkward. In the Red Army, all high-altitude fighters were “floated” into the air defense regiments. First, such a fate befell the MiG-3, then the Lend-Lease Spitfires, and finally the Thunderbolts. The only place where they appeared a year earlier, “Thunderbolts” could still show themselves, was in the aviation arm of the navy. Most of the Thunderbolts arrived in the Soviet Union via a 26,000 km southern route (the journey took 42 days) from New York to the Persian port of Abadan. In Abadan, the planes were assembled under the supervision of military representatives of the Red Army Air Force, then flew around, after which the pilots of the 6th Ferry Fighter Aviation Regiment drove Thunderbolts along the Abadan-Tehran-Kirovobad route. In Kirovabad, the 11th reserve bomber aviation regiment took over the aircraft. On the 1,450 km route, the pilots had to overcome two mountain ranges. With a stopover in Tehran, the length of the non-stop flight to Kirovobad from Iran was reduced to 754 km.

The first Thunderbolt fighters arrived at the airfield of the 11th ZBAP on August 24, 1944. On this day, the regiment received Order No. 30, which noted the adoption of the P-47D fighters equipped with R-2800-59 engines. -22-RE with serial numbers 42-25611 and 42-26633. Large-scale deliveries began a little later. According to orders No. 36, 38 and 39 of December 22, 1944, the unit entered service with P-47D-22-RE aircraft with serial numbers 42-25541, 543-7, 552, 553, 555, 557, 559, 560- 564, 566-568, 570, 574, 576-580, 582, 583, 586, 591, 594, 595,600-610, 612,614-617, 619-628, 631, 634, 636-638 – 62 aircraft in total. At the same time, 47 P-47D-27-RE fighters with serial numbers 42-27015, 018, 019, 021, 0222, 025-029, 031-033, 037, 038, 042-044, 050, 052-055 were adopted, 058, 061, 116, 117, 123, 129, 130-132, 134, 140, 141, 144, 149, 150, 154, 156, 157, 159, 160, 162 and 163. Thus, the 11th ZBAP received 111 Thunderbolts.

In 1945, the Thunderbolts arrived at the location of the 11th ZBAP in two batches, on April 21 – two P-47D-27s produced at the Fairmigdale plant (serial numbers 42-27136 and 42-27146) and on April 27 – four more similar fighters (serial numbers 42-25S51, 587, 590 and 593).

All stories about the delivery of “Thunderbolts” to the Soviet Union by northern convoys through Murmansk or along the Alaska-Siberia highway are pure fiction. The P-47 fighters arrived in the USSR only by the southern route through Iran. The technical specialists of the Red Army Air Force modified (or even changed) the Thunderbolt radio equipment to match the frequencies used in Soviet aviation; transponders of the “friend or foe” radar identification system were removed as unnecessary. The identification marks on the P-47D-22-RE were repainted in the Soviet Union – red stars with a white-red border were applied. On the P-47D-27-RE intended for delivery to the USSR, red stars were applied directly at the Ripablik plant. As a rule, they were applied in the same dreams and the same sizes as the US Air Force insignia, often a red star was painted in a white circle. The 11th ZBAP consisted of four squadrons – on the basis of the 1st and 2nd, training of bomber crews was conducted, on the basis of the 3rd and 4th – training of fighter pilots, mainly for P-39N / Q aircraft. In the official documentation of the 11th ZBAP, the P-47 fighter is called “Thunderbolt”. The number of pilots trained in the regiment for flights on “Thunderbolt” is small: 12 pilots in 1944 and 15 in 1945. In addition to the high-altitude air defense role, it has also been suggested that the Soviets used P-47s as reconnaissance aircraft, due to their range that was far superior to other aircraft available to the VVS.

While undoubtedly one of the finest American aircraft of World War Two, the P-47 simply did not fit into the conditions of the Eastern Front.

China’s FC-31 “Gyrfalcon” fighter jet

Observers spotted China’s FC-31 “Gyrfalcon” fighter jet at a naval aviation training facility.

    The FC-31 has been around for nearly 10 years without securing a role in the Chinese military.

    The jet will likely replace China’s current carrier fighter, the Shenyang J-15.

A fighter jet that China’s military once considered a white elephant appears to have finally secured a role as the country’s newest carrier fighter.

Observers recently spotted the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation FC-31 Gyrfalcon (formerly known as the J-31), which has been in development since the early 2010s, at a naval aviation training facility in Wuhan. The fighter bears a strong resemblance to American fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The fighter was parked on an enormous, landlocked model of an aircraft carrier near a pair of mockups of the Chinese Navy’s current strike fighter, the J-15 “Flying Shark,” as well as a mockup of a Z-8 carrier-based helicopter.

The FC-31 first appeared in 2012 with the designation J-31; in time, the F-31 designation (initially applied to export models) overtook the name. The fighter kept a low profile throughout the last decade, with observers believing the Chinese Air Force and Navy weren’t particularly interested in the design and its reportedly weak engines.

Nine years is a long time in the world of the Chinese military, and now, the FC-31 may finally be nearing production. In 2020, Pop Mech reported there were indications the FC-31 could enter service with the Chinese Navy as a carrier-based fighter, now called the “J-35.”

The new fighter’s emergence at the Wuhan test facility is a clear sign the plane is headed to sea, but we don’t yet know if the fighter’s designation is really J-35. For now, we’ll keep calling it the FC-31.

The front end of the FC-31 resembles the F-35, while it has the flat tail and twin engines of the F-22. The Chinese fighter also features internal weapons bays, and the robust tricycle landing gear with two wheels up front suggests it’s designed for carrier use.

China’s existing carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, fly the J-15 “Flying Shark” strike fighter. The J-15 is derived from the fourth-generation Sukhoi Su-33, one of Russia’s two carrier-based fighters. The fifth-generation FC-31 would be a definite upgrade, boosting the air wings of both carriers with a stealthy fighter.

The FC-31 will also probably fill the flight decks of China’s third carrier under construction, tentatively named 003, from the outset. Ultimately, China might operate as many as six carriers, with FC-31s flying from the decks of at least four, if not all of them.

The FC-31 fighter probably isn’t the F-35’s equal, but it’s a significant upgrade from the J-15, and that will make the Chinese Navy happy. China is taking a pragmatic approach to the dangerous—and expensive—world of naval aviation. Instead of rushing to match the U.S. Navy from the outset, it’s learning to crawl, and then walk, and then eventually run. It’s an approach that’s likely to pay off for decades to come.

It is very likely that the J-31 will be inducted as a carrier-based naval fighter. In an interview with China’s state-run media, FC-31’s chief designer Sun Cong expressed that the aircraft would follow his J-15 onto China’s aircraft carriers. However, officials from AVIC only said that the aircraft was intended for export as a competitor to the F-35. There has also been reports that the PLAAN has urged Shenyang to develop a carrier-compatible version of J-31.

In 2015, Jiangsu A-Star Aviation Industries Company marketed its EOTS-86 infra-red search and track as a possible addition to the J-31. An improved prototype, with modifications to the vertical stabilizers, wings, and airframe, an electro-optical targeting system, a larger payload, improvements in stealth, and upgraded electronics, made its maiden flight in December 2016.

In November 2018, an Aviation Week article stated that the FC-31 program has received government funding and is being sought after by both the PLANAF and PLAAF, according to official sources. In June 2020, reports surfaced that a third variant of FC-31, albeit a more production-ready version with smoother lines, bigger radome for bigger radar, and a closer alignment of control surfaces for reduce radar signature, has been developed. The “new fighter’ has been referred to by some as J-35.

Recent updates (2020)


The maximum take-off weight of this J-31 increased from 25,000 kg to 28,000 kg.[53]


Shenyang Aircraft Corporation has officially confirmed that J-31 is installing WS-19 engine, which has a maximum thrust of 12 tons, compared to WS-13 whose thrust is 9 tons. The total thrust of the jet has been increased from 18 tons to 24 tons. The maximum range of this jet was also extended to 1250 km. It can also cruise at supersonic speed.


The J-31 is now using stealth coatings instead of “baked in” fiber-mat stealth.

Specifications (estimated)

Because the aircraft is in development, these specifications—based on available imagery—are approximate and preliminary.

General characteristics

    Crew: one (pilot)

    Length: 17.3 m (56 ft 9 in)

    Wingspan: 11.5 m (37 ft 9 in)

    Height: 4.8 m (15 ft 9 in)

    Wing area: 40 m2 (430 sq ft)

    Max takeoff weight: 28,000 kg (61,729 lb)

    Powerplant: 2 × WS-19 afterburning turbofans, 110 kN (24,000 lbf) thrust each

    Maximum speed: 2,200 km/h (1,400 mph, 1,200 kn)

    Maximum speed: Mach 1.8

    Combat range: 1,250 km (780 mi, 670 nmi) on internal fuel, or 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) with external tanks


    Hardpoints: 6 x external, and internal bay with a capacity of up to 8,000 kilograms (18,000 lb), including 2,000 kilograms (4,400 lb) internally


        Air-to-air missiles:

            12 x medium-range

        Air-to-ground missiles:

            8 x supersonic


        8 × 500 kg deep-penetration bombs

        30 x smaller bombs


    KLJ-7A AESA radar

    Distributed aperture system (DAS) optical early-warning system

    Electro-optical targeting system (EOTS)

Navy’s Stingray Drone

Watch the Navy’s Stingray Drone Refuel a Fighter in Midair for the First Time

The MQ-25 passed gas to a Super Hornet in a crucial test.

    The MQ-25A Stingray tanker refueled another aircraft in the air for the first time.

    The MQ-25A passed gas to an F/A-18F Super Hornet.

    The Stingray is designed to refuel other aircraft operating from aircraft carriers.

The new Boeing MQ-25A Stingray drone just passed a key test: refueling a manned aircraft, an F/A-18F Super Hornet, in midair.

The MQ-25A is designed to act primarily as an aerial refueling tanker, allowing other aircraft based on U.S. Navy carriers to fly longer and farther—and freeing up much-needed Super Hornet fighters from the same task.

On June 4, both aircraft flew from MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois. The MQ-25A, carrying an aerial refueling store (ARS) pod on an external pylon, unspooled an aerial refueling drogue and trailed it behind the unmanned aircraft. The Super Hornet moved up to a position behind the drone and then plugged its refueling probe into the drogue, beginning the refueling process.

There are two methods of aerial refueling. The “flying boom” method involves a large tanker—like the KC-135 Stratotanker, KC-10 Extender, or KC-46 Pegasus—lowering a long, fixed-length probe from the rear of the aircraft. The receiving aircraft typically has a receptacle port in its nose or wing. Once it’s in position behind the tanker, the receiving aircraft moves in and plugs into the boom. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, who use aircraft like the F-15 and F-16, primarily follow this method.

But U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aircraft can’t fly planes equipped with long fixed booms from aircraft carriers, so they use the “hose and drogue” system instead. The MQ-25A uses hose and drogue, as does the buddy refueling system employed by the Super Hornet. The method is also popular with many air forces that fly European aircraft.

The X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) conducts touch-and-go maneuvers aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, November 2013.

The Navy first flew drones from aircraft carriers in 2013, when the Northrop Grumman X-47B practiced takeoffs and landings from the USS Bush. The landmark event, however, seemed to go nowhere, as the Navy dithered about how to field uncrewed planes from aircraft carriers. One obvious choice was a long-range uncrewed strike plane, which could strike targets on land far enough away that U.S. carriers were safe from anti-ship ballistic missiles like the Chinese DF-21D and DF-26.

While a strike drone would have undoubtedly been useful, it also would have resulted in just 10 aircraft—out of an air wing of about 63—with long-range capabilities. But the MQ-25A can refuel the 44 Super Hornets aboard a typical carrier, as well as the five EA-18G Growler electronic attack planes and four E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft.

The Stingray’s ability to refuel Hawkeyes is particularly critical, as the E-2D is the eyes and ears of the carrier strike force, peering out and detecting threats far beyond radars on surface ships. The longer a Hawkeye can stay on patrol, the better protected the carrier is from low-altitude threats.

The MQ-25A will also be able to take over the aerial refueling mission from Super Hornets. Right now, Super Hornets fitted with “buddy system” aerial refueling pods carry out tanking on aircraft carriers. The problem? A Super Hornet outfitted for the tanking mission can’t carry missiles or bombs, reducing the number of aircraft available for actual combat missions.

The tanking mission is also adding a lot of flight hours to the Super Hornet fleet, while reducing the number of hours pilots train for actual combat. A dedicated tanker will alleviate these problems.

Flight testing

In late April 2019, the first MQ-25 test aircraft (T-1 or “Tail 1”) was taken by road from Boeing’s technical plant at St. Louis’s Lambert International Airport across the Mississippi River to MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, which is conjoined to Scott Air Force Base. Following taxi tests, the Federal Aviation Administration certified the aircraft and granted airspace for flight testing. The MQ-25 took its first flight on 19 September 2019.

In December 2020, Boeing released video showing the first flight of the MQ-25 with Cobham aerial refueling store externally mounted.

On 4 June 2021, the first refuelling test was conducted, with the MQ-25 providing fuel to a F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The test had the MQ-25 originate at MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois, and the F/A-18 was from the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron VX-23 which is based at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. The mission lasted about 4.5 hours, and the two aircraft were connected for dry or wet connects numerous times for a total time of more than 10 minutes, with a total of 325 pounds of fuel passed.

Specifications (MQ-25A)

General characteristics

    Length: 51 ft (16 m)

    Wingspan: 75 ft (23 m) extended, 31 ft (9.5 m) folded

    Height: 11.1 ft (3.4 m) wings extended, 15.7 ft (4.8 m) folded,

    Powerplant: 1 × Rolls-Royce AE 3007N[26] turbofan, >10,000 lbf (>44 kN) thrust


    Range: 500 nmi (580 mi, 930 km) when delivering 15,000 lb of fuel[27]


    Hardpoints: 2 × under-wing stations


        Cobham Aerial Refueling Store (ARS

The Great War in the East Opens, August 1914

In the west, Imperial Germany launched the still debated Schlieffen Plan invasion of Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, a blueprint for a rapid victory on which all the hopes of the German general staff rested.

This encompassed a vast turning movement through Belgium that was to strike France in a “great right wheel” to concentrate all German forces in the west. This left the German east less well defended, in hopes of a quick victory against the western Allied armies that included a British Expeditionary Force that the Kaiser unwisely, but infamously, denigrated as “A contemptible army!”

The generals of this same staff had duly calculated upon East Prussia being invaded by the Russians, but they did not foresee at all the swiftness and massive strength with which it was done.

The German defensive forces in East Prussia that had already long been deployed to meet this expected Russian thrust was the 8th Army of fourteen divisions commanded by Gen. Maximilian von Prittwitz, who, as fate would have it, was a first cousin of von Hindenburg. Opposed to him were two full-sized and vaster Russian armies, both numerically stronger than his. Thus was East Prussia laid bare on August 15, 1914 to the advancing legions of the Tsar of All the Russias, the Kaiser’s own royal cousin, Nicholas II. Noted one military affairs commentator somewhat dramatically: “All Germany was bewailing the fire and sword that was sweeping East Prussia, and Wilhelm II’s pride was deeply stung.”

Although the Kaiser well knew that the Schlieffen Plan demanded utter concentration on the far more martially important Western Front, he nevertheless complained indignantly of the violation “Of our lovely Masurian Lakes!”

In the face of this great challenge, von Prittwitz hesitated in his immediate response, while his senior staff officer, Lt Col. Max Hoffmann, and two of his own corps commanders, Gens. August von Mackensen and Hermann von François, were champing at the bit to close with their eastern enemy in combat, but the nervous von Prittwitz held back.

On August 20, 1914, he telephoned von Moltke—with the suggestion of himself and his own staff chief—that, perhaps, the 8th Army should retreat en masse away from the oncoming Russian armies that might destroy his smaller command. This angered the Kaiser, and it put the count in a quandary as well. Both agreed that their two reluctant soldiers in the east would be replaced, but who by? That was the question.

Meanwhile, unknown to all of them, the Russian High Command had its own problems simultaneously.

Unquiet Allies! Gens. Rennenkampf and Samsonov

General of Cavalry Pavel (Paul) Karlovich Rennenkampf (April 17, 1854 to April 1, 1918)

Ever since Tannenberg, historians generally have seen him as that epic battle’s real loser and not the man blamed for it, Samsonov; the reason is that the former did not aid his colleague in need, thus allowing him to lose. Reportedly, the bad blood between them began during the earlier lost Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, when there occurred a similar incident following the Battle of Mukden. The slight rankled, unforgotten, almost a decade later.

Because he was a favorite of the Tsar, the errant Gen. Rennenkampf managed to survive both martial blunders, however, continuing to lead his army well into 1915 no less.

Having beaten von Mackensen at the Battle of Gumbinnen, stumbling badly during Tannenberg, and being beaten himself at the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes and at Łódź also—all in the summer of 1914—Rennenkampf was fired on October 6, 1915, over a year after the events.

Arrested and imprisoned after the February 1917 Revolution that overthrew his patron, the Tsar, Gen. Rennenkampf was charged with both embezzlement and mismanagement. His luck held again, however, and he was freed after the October 1917 Revolution that brought Lenin to office.

Then his luck ran out for good when he was executed on April 1, 1918 by the Reds for refusing to fight for the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War.

General of Cavalry Alexander Vasilyevich Samsonov (November 14, 1859 to August 30, 1914)

A veteran horse commander during both the Boxer Rebellion in China and then the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria afterwards, Gen. Samsonov suffered the greatest defeat of any C.O. of any armed force of the Great War right at its very outset.

By August 29, 1914, his Russian 2nd Army was surrounded by the Germans in a forest situated between Allenstein and Willenberg in East Prussia, and the next day, he shot himself near the latter, his body—pistol in hand and bullet in head—being found later by a German patrol.

The International Red Cross arranged for his body to be returned to his widow in 1916.

General of Infantry Hermann von François, Disobeyer of Orders

Gen. Hermann Karl Bruno von François (January 31, 1856 to May 15, 1933) stands out in the early history of the Great War as the premiere disobeyer of orders of several superior commanders running. As such, he was staying true to one of the cardinal rules of all German officers: use your initiative at all times. This he did, in the very first triad of major battles on the Eastern Front: Stallupönen, Gumbinnen, and the all-important Tannenberg/Christmas Mountain.

Born in Luxembourg a Huguenot, von François began the war as commanding officer of the German 8th Army’s 1st Corps, tasked with defending the East Prussian frontier against any Russian Army invasion headed for the provincial capital of Königsberg, site in 1861 of the coronation of King Wilhelm I of Prussia, the last such ever held anywhere.

On August 15, 1914, East Prussia was suddenly and surprisingly invaded by the right wing of a double-pronged thrust of Russian Gen. Pavel Rennenkampf’s 1st Army. As von François dealt with this, his 8th Army commander, Gen. von Prittwitz, two days later ordered him to retreat in front of the Russian advance.

Col. Gen. Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron: First Fired!

Maximilian Wilhelm Gustav von Prittwitz und Gaffron (November 27, 1848 to March 29, 1917) has the distinction of being the very first commanding general of any army on either side of the Great War to be fired from his post; in this case, for being willing to abandon East Prussia to the invading Russian Army via a speedy retreat west of the Vistula River. Neither the Kaiser nor von Moltke accepted this, so von Prittwitz was replaced by the later-styled von Hindenburg, then Beneckendorff.

Prittwitz, like his cousin, had also fought in both the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and, unlike the then-retired von Hindenburg, in 1913 was both promoted full general at four stars as well as CO of the 16th Army Corps at Metz, opposite the French Army.

He commanded the German 8th Army defending East Prussia a mere three weeks to the day—August 2–23, 1914—but allowed himself to be spooked by the rapid invasion of his charge by a pair of Russian armies under veteran generals on August 15, 1914.

Alarmed by the near defeat at Stallupönen and the actual rout of von Mackensen at Gumbinnen, von Prittwitz decided on a complete withdrawal but was stopped in his tracks by the Kaiser and his CGS.

The cast-down commander lived in retirement at Berlin in the vast, dark, cold shadow of Tannenberg, dying of a heart attack at the age of sixty-nine, nicknamed “Fatty” by his detractors. His martial reputation has not yet recovered.

German 8th Army East Prussian Headquarters: Castle Marienburg at Malbork

Gen. von Prittwitz’s former military headquarters in East Prussia was in the famous Malbork red brick Castle Marienburg, built in the thirteenth century by the Knights of the Teutonic Order as their command center in what later evolved into Royal Prussia, completely abolished by the Allies in 1945.

Known as Marienburg in German when founded in 1274, the town was named for the order’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary, and remains today Europe’s largest Gothic-style fortress. The town and the fort were destroyed by the Red Army on March 9, 1945, and that June became part of today’s Poland as Malbork.

Von François Wins the Battle of Stallupönen, August 17, 1914

Overall, the Russians fielded ten full armies versus the Germans’ lesser eight for their projected march on Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia, which they duly invaded in force on August 15, 1914.

Stallupönen (today’s Nesterov in Russia) was the very first conflict fought by the armies of Imperial Germany and Tsarist Russia on the newly opened Eastern Front on August 17, 1914, just two days later.

Von François pluckily and successfully waged an attack with his German 1st Corps against four full Russian infantry divisions, even creating a gap between two of them in what proved to be a minor victory, but one that made no dent in the enemy’s advance afterwards. Ordered by his superior, von Prittwitz, to break off this fight, François told his adjutant to reply thus: “Report to Gen. Prittwitz that Gen. von François will withdraw when he has defeated the Russians!”

True to his boast, the plucky François then withdrew 15 miles westward, and three days later, he engaged Rennenkampf again at the Battle of Gumbinnen that was a rout for German Hussar Gen. August von Mackensen—his first and only.

The Battle of Gumbinnen, August 17–23, 1914

Gen. von Prittwitz—emboldened by von François’s pluck at Stallupönen—attacked too soon at Gumbinnen, however, causing it to instead become a Russian victory, their first over the hated and arrogant German Army at what is now Gusev, Russia. Samsonov’s Russians defeated Mackensen’s Germans, despite the fact that the victors suffered 18,839 losses in all to the “beaten” foe’s 14,607 according to 2016 statistics. The German 8th Army numbered 148,000 men versus their enemy’s superior force of 192,000 soldiers.

Still fuming that von François had disobeyed his orders in engaging the Russians at Stallupönen just days before, now von Prittwitz disobeyed his own orders from Moltke not to give battle until the campaign in the west was won. He rashly decided to follow up his subordinate’s successful fight with one of his own at Gumbinnen, where Russian cavalry encountered German infantry on August 19, 2014.

This time, von François was given an order to advance against the Russians that night, his cavalry backing up the German infantry, but the resulting battle stalemated when the Russians ran out of artillery ammunition. Until that happened, though, their gunfire halted Mackensen’s advance against Rennenkampf and led to the German’s flank being turned, thus precipitating a rout to their own lines at Insterburg–Angerburg to the rear, with 6,000 POWs being bagged by the victorious Russians.

According to Brownell in First Nazi: “The uncharacteristic sight of defeated German soldiers streaming moblike to the rear really unnerved von Prittwitz,” who feared that his own army would be completely sandwiched, and thus destroyed between those of Rennenkampf and Samsonov: “Prittwitz panicked and—with a decision out of all proportion to the severity of the situation—ordered a general retreat to the Vistula River, leaving East Prussia to the Russians.”

Back at KHQ Koblenz, both His Majesty and von Moltke had visions of Russian Cossack horses trotting down the boulevards of Berlin itself, as had occurred during the Seven Years’ War that Frederick the Great almost lost to the Russian Army. Their solution had been to send the duo east, but they also wrongly detached a trio of infantry corps plus a cavalry division from the marching wing of the German Army in the west to march eastward, where they arrived too late to have any effect whatever on the Battle of Tannenberg, thus being useless on fronts both east and west simultaneously.

Despite his surprise victory against both Mackensen and von François, Gumbinnen caused Gen. Rennenkampf himself to pause and take stock of the aggressive German commanders to his front. By then, von Moltke had replaced the retreating von Prittwitz, and von François was on his way via rail to take on yet another Russian force. This was the 2nd Army of Gen. Samsonov, and, despite his disobedience at Gumbinnen, the new commander Beneckendorff entrusted the scrappy von François with the decisive aspect of the approaching Battle of Tannenberg as well.

How Tannenberg Evolved from the German Defeat at Gumbinnen

By now, the duo had reached their new command and jelled with the savvy Hoffmann as well. Meanwhile, a note had been found on the body of a dead Russian officer that changed the entire strategic picture overall.

Recalled Hindenburg in his postwar memoirs: “It told us that Rennenkampf’s army was to pass the Masurian Lakes on the north, and advance against the Insterburg–Angerburg line … to attack the German forces presumed to be behind the Angerapp, while Samsonov’s Narew Army was to cross the Lötzen–Ortelsburg line to take the Germans in flank.”

Thus forewarned, the duo stopped the German retreat, reversed course, and decided to attack instead their Russian foes, thus setting the stage for the Battle of Tannenberg, acknowledged by all martial historians as “One of Germany’s greatest victories.”

This saw von François as the spear point of the attack against Samsonov on August 27, 1914, plunging deep into the penetrated Russian rear. This led the new Chief of Staff Ludendorff to fear a counterattack from Rennenkampf to aid Gen. Samsonov, so von François was ordered to halt his advance. This the latter again refused to do, thus breaking orders for the second important time within days, continuing his own encirclement of a much larger force, that of Samsonov.

The new commander and his chief of staff got the majority glory for the victory, but they never forgot who had really earned it: Hermann von François.

Hermann von François

When Hindenburg and Ludendorff went south to lead the 9th Army in Russian Poland, François remained with his corps in East Prussia and led it with much success in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes the following month. When General Richard von Schubert, the new commander of the 8th Army, ordered him to retreat, he dispatched a telegram to the OHL describing his success and stating “the Commander is badly counselled.” The telegram impressed the Kaiser so much that he immediately relieved Schubert and, on 3 October, gave von François the command of the 8th Army. He did not hold it for long. When Hindenburg and Ludendorff prepared their counter-attack from Thorn in the direction of Łódź, François was reluctant to send the requested I Corps, sending the badly trained and ill-equipped XXV Reserve Corps instead. That was too much for his superiors. In early November 1914 von François was removed and replaced by General Otto von Below.

After some time spent “on the shelf”, François received the command of the XXXXI Reserve Corps on 24 December 1914, and after a spell in the West, he returned to the Eastern Front in April 1915 where he took part in the Spring Offensive that conquered Russian Poland. He continued to distinguish himself. He won the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military decoration, on 14 May 1915 for his performance in the breakthrough at Gorlice, and had the Oak Leaves attached to it in July 1917, for outstanding performance during the Battle of Verdun. In July 1915 he was transferred back to the Western Front to take command of the Westphalian VII Corps in France, and in July 1916 Meuse Group West in the Verdun sector. However he never received any further promotion or serious commands under Ludendorff, and gave up his command in July 1918 and was placed on the standby list until October 1918 when he retired.

Gothaer Waggonfabrik AG Gotha

One of the most famous German aircraft of the First World War was the twin-engined Gotha bomber built by the Gothaer Waggonfabrik Company. The origins of the company went way back before the war, when one of the first aircraft they built was of Taube (Dove) design and given the designation LE.3. Originally built for the civilian market, a number of these aircraft saw service as scouts at the beginning of the First World War after being requisitioned by the German Army. Powered by a 100-hp Mercedes D.I engine, the LE.3 had a wingspan of 47 ft 7 in, a fuselage length of 32 ft 9½ in, a top speed of 60 mph and a climb rate of 2,000 feet per minute. Only a small number of these aircraft were built.

Another of Gotha’s aircraft that saw service at the beginning of the war was the LD.1a, which was developed from the civilian version, the LD.1. Manufactured specifically as an unarmed scouting and reconnaissance aircraft, the LD.1a was powered by a 100-hp Oberursel U.I engine, giving the aircraft a top speed of 71 mph. The aircraft had a wingspan of 47 ft 7 in, and a fuselage length of 24 ft 4 in. An unknown number were built.

Gotha also introduced a seaplane version of the reconnaissance aircraft, the WD.1. It was fitted with twin floats, with a small single float mounted under the tail section. Powered by a 100-hp Gnôme engine, the WD.1 had a wingspan of 46 ft 3½ in, a fuselage length of 33 ft 9½ in, a top speed of 61 mph and a maximum operating ceiling of 8,200 feet. Five WD.1s were supplied to the German Navy.

The development of the Gotha LD.2 in August 1914 brought another unarmed reconnaissance aircraft to the Gotha stable. Although similar in design and with almost the same specifications, it was powered by a 100-hp Mercedes engine with the radiators fixed either side of the fuselage, just in front of the cockpit. A small number were built and were used for a very short time at the Front, before being replaced by an improved model, the LD.6a. Just prior to the appearance of the LD.6a, Gotha produced a diminutive scout aircraft, the Gotha LD.5, which was almost half the size of the other models. Powered by a 100-hp Oberursel U.I engine, the aircraft was intended to be a fast reconnaissance model, but after testing it was realised that there were a number of stability problems and it was not a practical or viable proposition. Only one was built.

The LD.6a, on the other hand, was a standard size, long-distance reconnaissance aircraft, capable of carrying a small bomb load. It had balanced tail surfaces and was of the traditional wood and fabric construction. It was powered by a 150-hp Benz Bz.III engine that had the radiators mounted either side of the fuselage in front of the observer’s cockpit. The LD.6a had a wingspan of 40 ft 8½ in, a fuselage length of 27 ft 7 in and a top speed of 78 mph.

At the beginning of March 1915, the last of the LD series was produced, the Gotha LD.7. Like all the previous LD models, this too was designed specifically for reconnaissance duties. Its specifications were almost identical to that of the LD.6a, with the exception of the engine, which was a 120-hp Mercedes D.II. An unknown number were produced, but it is thought that they numbered less than twenty.

A second seaplane version appeared during 1915, the Gotha WD.2. It was very similar in design to the LD.6a, and eleven of them were supplied to the Navy. The WD.2 was fitted with a 150-hp Benz Bz.III engine, which gave the aircraft a top speed of 70 mph and an operating ceiling of 9,840 feet. It had a wingspan of 51 ft 2½ in, a length of 34 ft 5½ in and carried no armament.

One version of the WD.2, however, was sent to Turkey, and was one of the first reconnaissance aircraft to be fitted with a machine gun, which was mounted on top of the centre section. To operate the gun, the observer had to stand up in his cockpit. A limited number were sent.

A radical new design, the Gotha WD.3, appeared in July 1915. It was a twin-boomed aircraft with a central nacelle that housed not only the 160-hp Mercedes D.III engine with a pusher airscrew, but also contained cockpits for the pilot and observer. The observer’s position was in the extreme front of the nacelle and was fitted with a manually operated Parabellum machine gun. The WD.3 was also one of the first seaplanes to have a radio transmitter installed. With a wingspan of 51 ft 2½ in and a wing area of 583 square feet, the aircraft presented an unusual sight. A number of problems were discovered during tests and only one was built.

Another experimental seaplane was built at around the same time, the Gotha WD.5. This model was not a new variation, but a modified WD.2. The 150-hp Benz III engine was replaced with a 160-hp Mercedes engine that had the two narrow strip radiators attached to the front centre-section struts. This model was sent to the Haltenau Naval Air Station for tests, but was declined as a reconnaissance aircraft. The Commanding Officer, Kapitänleutnant Langfield, decided that he would keep the aircraft and use it as his personal transport.

A unique design by Oskar Ursinus was developed by Gotha at the beginning of 1915, the Gotha Ursinus GUH G.I. This was a landplane forerunner of what was to be a seaplane the following year. The design was unique, inasmuch as the fuselage was raised above both wings and engines. The aircraft carried a crew of three: pilot, observer and gunner. The gunner’s position in the nose of the aircraft gave him an uninterrupted field of fire. The engines, two 150-hp Benz Bz.IIIs, were mounted so close together that the tips of the propellers were almost touching. The idea was that, should there be an engine failure on one of the engines during asymmetric flight, control of the aircraft could be maintained easily. Several of the land version models were built, but information on them is almost non-existent.

At the end of 1915, a twin-engined torpedo seaplane was built and designated the Gotha WD.7. Powered by two 120-hp Mercedes D.II engines, the WD.7 had a wingspan of 52 ft 6 in, a fuselage length of 37 ft 1 in, and a height of 11 ft 9½ in. It had a top speed of 85 mph and an operating ceiling of 13,120 feet. Eight of the aircraft were built and assigned to flying schools for training pilots and observers prior to their moving on to larger operational aircraft.

Another aircraft appeared at the same time, the Gotha WD.8. This, in reality, was a single-engined version of the WD.7, and was fitted with a 250-hp Maybach Mb.IV engine which gave the aircraft a top speed of 81 mph and an operating ceiling of 14,760 feet. It had been designed as an armed reconnaissance aircraft and was fitted with a manually operated Parabellum machine gun in the observer’s rear cockpit. Only one was built.

In February 1916, Gotha constructed another armed reconnaissance seaplane, the Gotha WD.9. Only one of these aircraft was supplied to the German Navy and that was fitted with a 160-hp Mercedes D.III engine. A similar version, fitted with a 150-hp Benz engine, was supplied to the Turkish Government. The aircraft had a wingspan of 49 ft 2½ in, a fuselage length of 32 ft 2 in, a height of 12 ft 5½ in and a top speed of 85 mph. Both aircraft carried a manually operated Parabellum machine gun in the observer’s rear cockpit.

With the relative success of the WD.7 model, Gotha produced another twin-engined torpedo-carrying reconnaissance aircraft, the Gotha WD.11. This model was considerably bigger and had a wingspan of 73 ft 10½ in, a fuselage length of 44 ft 1 in and a height of 15 ft 2 in. It was powered by two 160-hp Mercedes D.III engines, which drove two pusher airscrews and gave a top speed of 75 mph with a climb rate of nearly 300 feet per minute. The WD.11 carried one torpedo and had a manually operated Parabellum machine gun mounted in the observer’s cockpit in the nose. Thirteen of these models were delivered to the German Navy.

Gotha continued to build seaplanes, and in 1916 produced the WD.12. This was an unarmed reconnaissance aircraft powered by a 160-hp Mercedes D.III engine, with a fuselage length of 32 ft 9½ in, a top speed of 88 mph and a flight endurance of 5½ hours. Only one WD.12 was supplied to the German Navy, although six were supplied to Turkey.

The seaplane version of the Gotha Ursinus GUH, the UWD appeared in 1916. It was almost identical, except that it was powered by two 160-hp Mercedes D.III engines and the undercarriage was replaced with floats. Only one of this model was built, and was not as successful as the land version.

The first of the prototype Gotha bombers appeared in 1916, the G.II and G.III. Both versions were identical externally and in specifications, the only difference being internal ones. They had a wingspan of 77 ft 9½ in, a fuselage length of 38 ft 8 in and a wing area of 967 square feet. They were powered by two 260-hp Mercedes D.IVa engines, which gave a top speed of 92.5 mph. Only a small number were built and flown on the Western Front, one unit being Boghol III based at Ghent, Belgium.

In September 1916 the first Gotha bomber appeared, the Gotha G.IV. Trials had earlier been carried out with the G.II and G.III, and the results that came back brought about the development of the bomber. There was one very unusual feature incorporated into the Gotha G.IV, known as the ‘sting in the tail’. The rear gunner’s position in the aircraft enabled him not only to fire upwards and backwards, but downwards as well. This was achieved by the gunner firing through a specially designed tunnel in the bottom of the fuselage. This defensive method was extremely effective, as a number of Allied fighter pilots were to find out to their cost.

The G.IV bomber arrived just as the German military hierarchy were about to phase out the use of Zeppelins for bombing raids. The Zeppelin had serious limitations. Because of their size they were easily spotted, they were slower and when hit with incendiary bullets invariably caught fire dramatically, unlike the Gotha G.IV.

In April 1917, thirty of the G.IV bombers were delivered to No. 3 Heavy Bomber Squadron, based at St Denis Westrem and Gontrode, which was under the command of Hauptmann Ernst Brandenburg. The first series of raids, carried out between 25 May and 22 August 1917, were relatively successful and the squadron suffered very few casualties. One of the reasons for their success was that the Gotha G.IV’s Mercedes engines meant it was able to operate at a height of 15,000 feet. This allowed them to drop their bombs and, because of the inadequate British early warning system, be on their way back before Home Defence fighters could scramble and reach the Gotha’s operating height.

The Gotha G.IV had a wingspan of 77 ft 9½ in, a fuselage length of 38 ft 11 in and a wing area of 966 square feet. Powered by two six-cylinder, in-line, water-cooled 260-hp Mercedes D.IVa engines, the G.IVa had a top speed of 87 mph with an operating ceiling of 21,320 feet and a range of 350 miles. Its armament consisted of two manually operated Parabellum machine guns mounted in the front and rear cockpits, and a bomb load that varied from 660 lb to 1,100 lb depending on the mission and whether it was a daylight or night time raid. The Gotha G.V, which followed shortly afterwards, was almost identical.

Another export model was the Gotha WD.13, an armed patrol seaplane which was an upgraded version of the WD.9. Although the German Navy carried out a series of trials with this aircraft, none were acquired; in 1917, however, the Turkish Government purchased over eight of the aircraft. Powered by a 150-hp Benz Bz.III engine, which gave the aircraft a top speed of 82 mph, it was armed with a manually operated Parabellum machine gun fitted in the observer’s rear cockpit.

Of all the seaplanes designed by Gotha, only the WD.11 and the WD.14 were built with production numbers in mind. Thirteen WD.11 reconnaissance seaplanes were built, while sixty-nine models of the WD.14, which had been designed and developed as an attack torpedo aircraft, were produced. Developed from the WD.7 and WD.11 prototypes, the WD.14 had a wingspan of 83 ft 8 in, a fuselage length of 47 ft 4 in, and a height of 16 ft 5 in. It was powered by two 200-hp Benz Bz.IV engines which were mounted on the lower wings

The fuselage of the WD.14 consisted of a basic, rectangular braced box girder, made up of spruce longerons and spacers. The torpedo was slung beneath the fuselage and between the floats. The pilot’s cockpit and the torpedo-man’s cockpit were one and the same, and were situated under the wings. It was of a side-by-side configuration, with access available to the nose cockpit for the torpedo-man to enable him to aim and release the torpedo. Once the torpedo had been released, the torpedo-man’s role reverted to that of gunner. There were two manually operated Parabellum machine guns mounted in the rear and nose cockpits.

Torpedo attacks using the WD.14 were carried out, but because the aircraft was substantially underpowered, the weight of the torpedo and the armament carried made it an extremely difficult aircraft to handle and only some of the top pilots were able to use it to its full capability. The attacks bore no fruit, and so the decision was made to use the aircraft for long-range reconnaissance missions over the North Sea in place of vulnerable airships. In place of the torpedo, jettisonable fuel tanks were fitted which enabled the aircraft to stay aloft for up to ten hours. Initially they were reasonably successful; then it was discovered that in the event of one of the engines failing, the WD.14 was unable to fly on one engine, and having to carry out emergency landings on rough seas proved disastrous. The aircraft were relegated to the role of minesweepers, but even at that they proved to be inadequate and ended up escorting coastal convoys.

Toward the end of 1917, another variation of an earlier model appeared, the Gotha WD.15. Derived from the WD.12, the WD.15 was an enlarged version with a plywood covered fuselage and fin. Only two of the aircraft were built, and both were powered by a 260-hp Mercedes D.IVa engine. The aircraft had a wingspan of 56 ft 5 in, a fuselage length of 36 ft 9 in, a top speed of 95 mph and an operating ceiling of 13,780 feet. These two WD.15s were the last single-engined aircraft that Gotha delivered to the German Navy.

The results acquired from using the Gotha WD.14 as a long range reconnaissance aircraft were put to use with the development of the Gotha WD.20. Only three of these aircraft were constructed and they were developed purely as long-range reconnaissance aircraft with additional fuel tanks in place of the torpedo carried by previous aircraft. The WD.20 had a wingspan of 73 ft 8½ in, a fuselage length of 47 ft 5 in, a top speed of 80 mph and a flight endurance of 10 hours. Its only armament were two manually operated Parabellum machine guns, one mounted in the nose, the other in the observer’s cockpit just aft of the wings.

As the production of the G.V bomber series came to an end, a number of modified versions suddenly appeared. The G.Vb was a modified version of the G.Va, and was fitted with additional wheels on the undercarriage and a compound tail assembly. It was powered by two 260-hp Mercedes D.IVa engines that drove two pusher airscrews, giving the aircraft a top speed of 84 mph. A small number were built, but they were not successful. This was followed by a prototype model, the G.VI, probably the world’s first asymmetric aircraft.

The G.VI’s fuselage was offset to the portside and had a 260-hp Mercedes D.IVa engine mounted in the nose which drove a tractor airscrew. Another 260-hp Mercedes D.IVa engine, driving a pusher airscrew, was mounted in a nacelle in the starboard housing. A number of test flights were made but the aircraft crashed attempting to land and was destroyed. No more were made.

At the same time as the G.IV was making its test flights, another prototype came off the production line, the Gotha G.VII. This was a small twin-engined aircraft that had been developed for ultra-long-range photo-reconnaissance missions. When a special photographic unit, named the Reihenbildzug was formed, four of these aircraft were supplied. A month later, a production model based on the G.VII prototype was launched. The G.VII production model bore little or no resemblance to the prototype and was supplied to the military at the end of 1918, too late to make any significant difference to the outcome of the war. With a wingspan of 63 ft 3 in, a fuselage length of 31 ft 7½ in, and a wing area of 689 square feet, the G.VII had ailerons at all four wingtips and slightly swept wings compensated for the removal of the nose section.

Another version of the G.VII, the G.VIII, was built. The only difference was a longer wingspan of 71 ft 3½ in. There were a further two models built, the Gotha G.IX, which was built by LVG, and the Gotha G.X. The G.X was another twin-engined photo-reconnaissance aircraft but was powered by two 180-hp BMW (Bavarian Motor Werke) engines. Little is known about either aircraft as no details were made available.

Later, in 1918, a long-range reconnaissance aircraft was built, the Gotha WD.22. Similar in design and construction to the WD.14, the WD.22 was powered by four engines, two 160-hp Mercedes and two 100-hp Mercedes D.Is. The engines were mounted in tandem in twin nacelles, the two forward engines driving tractor airscrews and the two rear engines pusher airscrews. With a wingspan of 85 ft 3½ in, a fuselage length of 47 ft 3 in, a wing area of 1,588 square feet and a top speed of 82 mph, the WD.22 promised a lot but delivered very little.

Not to be deterred, Gotha, in 1918, came up with three of the largest aircraft built during the First World War, the Gotha WD.27. They were so large that they came into the category of the R aircraft, the Riesen-Seeflugzeug (Giant Seaplane). With a wingspan of 101 ft 8½ in, a fuselage length of 57 ft 9 in and a wing area of 2,084 square feet, the WD.27 was a giant of a seaplane. It was powered by four 160-hp Mercedes D.III engines, which were mounted in tandem in twin nacelles that turned spinnered pusher and tractor airscrews. The giant aircraft had a top speed of 84 mph.

Taranto 1940 Part I

Taranto, an ancient town of something like 150,000 inhabitants, had so far been troubled less by war than by foul weather. During the first days of November heavy storms had damaged or destroyed many of its protective ring of balloons and it had not been possible to repair or replace them to anything near the usual numbers. Such as were still serviceable, twenty-seven in all, were kept permanently aloft at a uniform height of about 1,000 feet. The Mar Grande, anchorage for many merchant ships in addition to its naval facilities, is roughly circular with a diameter of something over 3 miles and carefully contrived means of entrance. The western, seaward, entrance is blocked at its middle by the large island called San Pietro; from it extend submerged breakwaters in both north-east and south-east directions; at the extreme south-east of the harbour entrance, beyond the gap where three AA gun batteries were moored, a mole named Diga di San Vito connects with the mainland. Entry points for surface vessels of all kinds were narrow and commanded by fire.

Around the circumference of the Mar Grande or mounted on pontoons within it stood twenty-one batteries of 4-inch guns, eighty-four heavy and 109 light machine guns and twenty-two searchlights, ‘mostly modern type, long range, placed on shore and on pontoons’, as the Italian Commander-in-Chief’s report on the defences puts it. These, of course, were merely the fixed defences. The ships had guns and lights of their own, at least doubling the volume of fire that could be turned on any visiting aircraft. The heavy cruisers mounted eighteen large-calibre machine guns apiece, the Cavour class battleships twice as many and the Littorios both carried a dozen medium-sized AA guns along with forty heavy automatics, all specifically designed and placed to take on enemy aircraft. On a cold calculation of probabilities it did not seem very likely that machines as slow and vulnerable as the Swordfish could hope to escape destruction when plunging into such a concentration of bullets and shells in so small a space. Nor was there any real hope, however pleasant it might be to imagine it, that the Italian Navy might be caught napping. The report mentioned before by the Italian Commander-in-Chief afloat, which fell into British hands later on, is quite clear about it: ‘AA artillery. All in working order in accordance with plans which had been prepared for some time, with the addition of numerous machine guns recently arranged to deal with torpedo aircraft’. All ships were, so it said, in a state of complete readiness, with watchfulness at night and at dawn being intensified. ‘Ships’ main armaments were half-manned; AA guns fully so.’ The orders to ships were clear enough: ‘No barrage fire at the same time as that of shore batteries. Machine guns to be manned and fired with the main armament against aircraft visible to the naked eye or illuminated by searchlight.’ The gunners were experienced and their weapons good.

Diving into this lethal goldfish bowl was going to be a desperately dangerous business and with nothing like certainty of success. All the same, the sudden eruption of noise as a dozen Pegasus engines roared into their dives could be expected to unsteady the strongest of nerves. It was the only factor to be counted upon apart from the skill and dexterity of the pilots. Knowing nearly all about this as they did, it was still a prospect regarded by the aircrews and their acolytes with the highest of spirits.

The Royal Navy was, so far, the only one to have used aircraft carriers in war and, though more than a year had passed, save in Norway, they had done nothing spectacular. Keeping roofs over convoys did not amount to anything exciting to people not concerned with seafaring matters. In addition, war with Italy was not the same as the fight to the death with Germany. It could almost have been said that Italy’s war was of Italy’s life a thing apart but it was Germany’s whole existence. Young English gentlemen, as a matter of course, learnt Latin; few of them learned German. Italy, never an enemy since the Legions had left Britannia, posed no threat to the homeland. It was the purest coincidence that Mussolini, that same night, was planning to send his bombers to help out the Luftwaffe over London. They did not come well out of it since the RAF shot them all down, and the gesture was not repeated. Nevertheless it was known that the Italians were housetrained, in spite of all the Fascist windbaggery, and when not up against such as the Abyssinians, would fight clean. Those unlucky enough to fall into their hands as prisoners could count on civilized treatment. To bomb Berlin would have been a pleasure, especially to those who had seen London, Coventry, Liverpool and a score of other such places as the Luftwaffe had visited. Nobody wanted to bomb Rome.

The RAF alone had earned all the glory going so far by thrashing the German Air Force in English skies. The Army, neglected until the last minute as always, was still waiting for an opportunity to fight its battles with something better than the equivalent of a sharpened stick. Now it was the turn of the Senior Service to put on a performance more effective than that of Keyes at Zeebrugge and give the country a demonstrable victory. It needed one very badly. November is a horrible month at the best of times and during this one the war could hardly have been going worse.

In accordance with Rear-Admiral Lyster’s orders, Illustrious ‘adjusted course and speed to pass through “Position X”, [270° and 40 miles from Kabbo Point], at 20.00, when course will be altered into wind and speed adjusted to give a speed of 30 knots.’ Four cruisers and the same number of destroyers mounted guard over her. It was a fine night, with a bright three-quarter moon but a lot of low cloud at about 8,000 feet.

By the prescribed time all the dozen Swordfishes, extra tanks crammed in (or, with the bombers, fastened between the wheels) so that their usual range might be doubled, were drawn up on the flight deck. By 20.40 all of them were airborne; by 20.57 they had formed up in ‘Vics’ as a squadron 8 miles from the ship and set a course for Taranto Bay, Williamson and Scarlett leading the torpedo-droppers in L4A. At best they had a flight of five or six hours, broken by a battle, to look forward to. Should any Italian aircraft of almost any fighting capacity put in an appearance the Stringbags, lacking their gunners, would have been cold meat. There was too much to do in plotting and keeping a course of 170 miles to worry about such things. By 21.15 the formation had become ragged with at least one aircraft gone adrift in the clouds. All, listening keenly to the notes of their Pegasus engines, pressed steadily on. Taranto Bay was not hard to find. An American Professor with the US Geological Survey has recently produced a paper asserting its regular shape to be the work of a meteorite 35 million years ago. It was about to experience a night probably the most animating since that event; certainly, with Sword-fishes dancing like mosquitoes round a pressure lamp, the most spectacular.

The RAF had been a good friend to the Navy by making constant visits to the neighbourhood in order to take photographs and generally see what was going on. It had indeed suggested that the entire job might be done by Wellingtons from Malta; as Wellingtons knew nothing of torpedoes the idea did not catch on. What actually took place on the night of the raid was not wholly according to plan. It appears that a Sunderland flying-boat, unconscious of what the Navy was doing, had blundered across the sky half an hour before the arrival of Williamson’s raiders and had triggered off the Italian sound detectors. So began the most important naval engagement in the Mediterranean for a very long time.

Charles Lamb flatly denied the official version of the Italian awakening by a peccant Sunderland. He had come to the FAA as mentioned earlier, by devious ways, first from the Merchant Navy and then, unable to find a sea-going berth, by way of the RAF. By the time of the Taranto strike he was 26 years old and a highly experienced practitioner. Because he had been given one of the less important tasks, second flare-dropper, he had a grandstand view of the first strike. His account of the matter is that ‘Almost as soon as we were airborne we had to climb through heavy cumulus cloud, and when we emerged into the moonlight at 7,500 feet only nine of the twelve aircrafts’ lights were in sight. When the others were unable to find their leader they flew direct to Taranto. One of them was Ian Swayne, who flew at sea level and reached the target area fifteen minutes before anyone else. He had no wish to be the first uninvited guest of the Italian Navy in Taranto, and for a quarter of an hour he flew to and fro, keeping the harbour in sight waiting for the main strike. There was nothing else he could do but, of course, his presence had been detected by the Italian listening devices, and as a result all the harbour defences and the ships had been alerted.’

Whichever plane had been the marplot, the damage was done. For Lyster’s plan to have any chance of success surprise was absolutely necessary and now this essential was gone. No participant, of course, seriously expected to swoop down upon a sleeping ship, release his torpedo and disappear into the night listening for the sound of a satisfactory explosion. The complicated web of agents built up by Italy over many years around the whole Mediterranean littoral meant that their Intelligence must have a pretty good idea of the Navy’s plans and of its capability. It is more than likely that the 1935 plan, even in its improved form, existed in copy somewhere in Mussolini’s Admiralty. The best that could be hoped for, and it was enormously important, was the gift of the first couple of minutes in which to get the work done before the anchored ships and their crews realized what was afoot. It would have been beyond anticipation that the countrymen of Rizzo and Rossetti would be caught off guard simply by a form of attack never tried before. As matters stood the Stringbag torpedo pilots had no choice but to dive into the maelstrom, pick out their targets as best they could, go through the drills they had practised so often and hope for the best.

The bombers, now without the slightest chance of catching the smaller ships, the seaplane base or the oil installations in unguarded postures, must set about them quickly before making themselves scarce. Once Taranto was in sight everything depended upon the skill and determination of each individual pilot. The observer had his work cut out in navigating the machine to the target and, with luck, in navigating it back to the carrier. During the attack his only function was to cling grimly on in his gyrating canvas box, making quite sure of being properly strapped in, watching and, if he felt like it, praying. Nobody envied the observer, for he could see everything and do nothing. It was the quality of the men at the controls that would settle the business and determine whether the Mar Grande was to be decorated with sunken battleships or wrecked Swordfishes. In a cramped area littered with wide-awake gunners manning pieces of every size and half-dazzled by the flashes they must somehow combine perfection of delivery of their weapons with the avoidance of destruction until at least that had been accomplished.

The official account remarks, on the subject of considerations in the minds of the planners, that ‘The AA fire likely to be encountered at Taranto was not considered a serious deterrent’.* It certainly did not deter but it was not a factor to be lightly dismissed. Again it is the official version which asserts that ‘Not until the flares had been dropped to the East of the MAR GRANDE at 2300 did the batteries open a barrage fire against the strike, the light AA weapons on the ships joining in as the torpedo attack was delivered some minutes later’. Lamb remarked something different: ‘For the last 15 minutes of our passage across the Ionian Sea Scarlett 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 harbour 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. “They don’t seem very pleased to see us,” said Grieve. As he spoke “Blood” Scarlett’s dimmed Aldis light flashed the breakaway signal to Kiggell and me, telling us to start adding to the illuminations over the crowded harbour.’ It seems hard to contradict the man who writes that ‘for an unforgettable half hour I had a bird’s eye view of history in the making’. For that Charles Lamb certainly had.

This appears to have been the sequence of events. The Italian gunners in the San Vito area, away to the south-east, opened barrage first at about 22.50 as the first aircraft arrived. Fortunately it was aimed in the wrong direction, away from Williamson and the rest. Two minutes later the flare-droppers were detached and made their way eastward, either through or over the balloon barrage. By 13.02 Kiggell and Janvrin in L4P had laid their line of parachute flares, 4,500 feet up and half a mile apart, neatly silhouetting the battleships for the torpedo-droppers. Each flare had a delay action of 1,000 feet before it ignited and the high-angle guns, more interested in bagging these than in anything else, hit nothing. Their tracer shells, known still by the First War name of ‘flaming onions’, gave fair warning of approach to anything as agile as a Swordfish.

From his position of advantage Lamb saw the entire performance by the first strike, and a fearsome sight it was. ‘Before the first Swordfish had dived to the attack, the full-throated roar from the guns of six battleships and the blast from the cruisers and destroyers made the harbour defences seem like a side-show.’ Into this volcanic eruption of flame and steel the Fleet Air Arm had to descend. It seemed to the observers above beyond belief that anything could not be ripped to shreds by the sheer volume of the fire, however ill-directed it might be.

The leader arrived at the harbour entrance precisely as Kiggell’s first flare burst into a cloud of yellow light, so brilliant that it turned the blue-grey camouflage of Williamson’s aircraft into a shining white. Lamb watched it dive from 5,000 feet to sea level, below the flak, and quickly lost sight of what came next. Along with Sparke and Neale in L4C and Macaulay and Wray in L4R Williamson and Scarlett came in over the batteries at 4,000 feet and instantly went into a dive. Their target was Cavour and to come within torpedo range of her it would have been necessary to fly between the cables of the balloons to the south-west of the battleship anchorage, over the mole named Diga di Tarantola followed immediately by releasing. Then their luck ran out. In the words of the official report, after explaining how they had flown to the centre of the Mar Grande, ‘This was the last seen of L4A by the British. The aircraft was sighted in the path of the moon diving at high speed with the engine cut out at 23.14 by the destroyer Fulmine, which at once opened fire at about 1,000 yards range. L4A’s torpedo, dropped from a height of about 30 feet, narrowly missed the Fulmine and hit the Cavour. The aircraft then crashed near the floating dock. Both officers were rescued by the Italians and made prisoners of war.’

That is the official version. Scarlett did not put it in quite the same way. He was not wholly convinced that whilst turning in the middle of the harbour in order to make their getaway they had been shot down at all. ‘We put a wing-tip in the water. I couldn’t tell. I just fell out of the back into the sea. We were only about 20 feet up. It wasn’t very far to drop. I never tie myself in on these occasions. Then old Williamson came up a bit later on and we hung about by the aircraft which still had its tail sticking out of the water. Chaps ashore were shooting at it. The water was boiling so I swam off to a floating dock and climbed on board that. We didn’t know we’d done any good with our torpedoes. Thought we might have, because they all looked a bit long in the face, the Wops.’

They had, indeed, hit Cavour fair and square, the only aircraft in the strike to achieve a result so lethal. Cavour died of wounds. A hole 40 feet by 27 on the port bow was fatal. Though beached and abandoned immediately, she was firmly on the bottom by breakfast time on the following day. One has to hope that Scarlett was satisfied. He was a reluctant aviator, press-ganged in 1937 as an observer when, as he said, ‘I wanted to be in destroyers, not bloody aeroplanes’. By the time approval came through for his transfer back to general service, following an application made in the old Glorious days, ‘Blood’ Scarlett was busily engaged in being a model prisoner of war. He developed such a talent for infuriating guards that he was turned over to the Germans. In 1945 he was the instigator of an attempt to escape from a camp at Lübeck for which he was Mentioned in Despatches. The ducking probably saved his life; few of the forty who flew to Taranto lived for long afterwards.

The two other aircraft in the sub-flight could not be expected to repeat such a success. L4C, piloted by Sub-Lieutenant (A) P.J.D. Sparke, and L4R with Sub-Lieutenant A.S.D. Macaulay at the controls both crossed the Diga di Tarantola at about the same 30 feet as their leader had done and looked for victims. This was not as easy as it may sound. Sparke was after the flagship Vittorio Veneto, moored a little to the north of the point at which the two survivors of Williamson’s sub-flight loosed their torpedoes and swung 180 degrees round to return by the same way that they had come. Much nearer, almost underneath them as they made the turn and firing with every machine gun she possessed, was the recently arrived and not yet hit Cavour. Sparke, under the impression that he was aiming for the flagship, let slip his torpedo at Cavour from a range of about 700 yards. Macaulay followed suit. Neither torpedo found a mark. The watch aboard Andrea Doria, a little to Cavour’s north-east, reported two bombs as having exploded near her at 2,3.15. Since no bombs were dropped at or near that time and place it seems a safe assumption that the noises came from the wasted torpedoes of L4C and L4R. Both crews were back on the flight deck of Illustrious a little before 01.30, touching down within five minutes of each other. Only three torpedoes remained of the six with which the First Striking Force had set off.

The other flight of torpedo-bombers occupied themselves with ships in the northern half of the Mar Grande. Swayne’s L4M, as you know, had been hanging about the harbour mouth for a quarter of an hour waiting for their turn. On seeing Kiggell’s flares beginning to light the place up at 23.02, Swayne and Buscall crossed the submerged breakwater at 1,000 feet and streaked across the centre of the Mar Grande losing height all the time. At 23.15 they made out the shape of a large battleship, Littorio, and turned sharply to port, bringing her into the torpedo sight. L4M’s missile needed no Duplex pistol. It struck Littorio on the port quarter and exploded satisfactorily. This was not Littorio’s only misfortune, for she was as unlucky as her sister Vittorio Veneto had been the reverse. Almost at the same moment as Swayne struck her aft another torpedo hit the starboard bow. This came from L4K, the Swordfish of Lieutenant Kemp. He had steered a course well to the north of the others, following the coastline of the Mar Grande to the entrance to the inner harbour; there he had made his swing southwards, under intense AA fire of all kinds, and let drive at a range of about 1,000 yards.

Eagle’s aircraft, E4F, Lieutenants Maund and Bull, came in from an even further northerly direction but soon picked up and followed Kemp. E4F was the unlucky one. Her torpedo, dropped very near to Kemp’s ‘grounded short and exploded harmlessly’. Thus were all six torpedoes of the First Striking Force accounted for. All the Swordfishes made their ways safely home, Bailey noting carefully that he had seen several shells from the anchored cruisers hitting their own merchantmen.

These aircraft had survived not merely a very heavy bombardment by AA guns of all shapes and sizes but they had run the risk, by no means negligible, of entangling themselves in the forests of balloon cables. A conversation, possibly apocryphal but still credible, has passed into folklore. Pilot to observer: ‘Where’s that bloody balloon barrage?’ Observer to pilot: ‘We’ve been through it once and we’re just going through it again.’ Another conversation, firmly attributable, survives also. Charles Lamb and his observer, Lieutenant K.C. Grieve, were making their way back each seriously believing that their L5B might well be the only Swordfish to have come through. Lamb, having said through the Gosport Tube what they were both thinking, added that ‘All the top brass will want to know exactly what happened and whether the attack was a success and how many hits were scored and so on, and if we are the only survivors they will expect us to know. Frankly, I saw nothing, apart from the flak which covered the whole harbour. I couldn’t see beyond it. Did you see whether Neil Kemp and company got any hits?’ Grieve, plainly not a great talker, answered, ‘You were throwing the aircraft about like a madman half the time, and every time I tried to look over the side the slipstream nearly whipped off my goggles! The harbour was blanked out by ack-ack and I had to check with the compass to see which way we were facing.’ In all probability every observer might have said something like it.

Lamb, the excitement over, meditated for a moment. ‘On the way back from these parties I always breathed a small prayer of thanks that I was not an observer,’ he wrote many years later. ‘Their responsibilities ended at the target until it was time to go home again, and then they had to be very cool-headed and accurate and do difficult sums. When the excitement was at its height all they could do was sit tight and pray.’ There can hardly be room for two opinions about that; but observers might well have had something much the same, though with obvious variations, to say about their pilots.

Time was soon to show that the understandable feelings of gloom were based on no foundation. The first striking force was not doing at all badly. The torpedo carriers were, of course, the heavy cavalry but there was work enough for the others. The bombers were badly let down by their equipment, but that they had as yet no reason to know.

Three aircraft, E5A, E5Q and L4H, had been given the secondary task of bombing such ships as they could find and, for good measure, the unmissable oil fuel depot. There was no shortage of targets. On the Italian Navy’s own official figures, the Mar Grande housed six battleships, three heavy cruisers and eight destroyers; in the Mar Piccolo there were two more heavy cruisers moored to buoys, two more along with two smaller ones lying bow and stern to the wharf like yachts on the riviera; twenty-one more destroyers, five torpedo boats, sixteen submarines, nine tankers and a good many smaller fry shared what should have been the safety of this enclosed basin. The Italian fleet in Taranto was far from negligible.

The most experienced pilot was Captain ‘Ollie’ Patch of the Royal Marines. At 26 and already with a DSO for his part in the Bomba Bay affair, he was one of the senior men and his observer, Lieutenant Goodwin, was even older. E5A arrived over San Pietro island a couple of minutes after the flare-droppers, having become separated on the way. On arrival Patch was conscious of some disappointment, for ‘there was nothing much happening’. Such account as he gave to posterity, in the same way as Scarlett, was preserved in his obituary. Before very long he was ‘diving down through a hail of anti-aircraft fire and a wonderful Brock’s benefit of tracer and searchlights’. These last probably came from the ships in the Mar Piccolo in which he was interesting himself. The multiplicity of targets was confusing, a confusion not helped by the volume of fire from heavy machine guns that all seemed to be directed at him as the Swordfish crossed the inner harbour from north-west to south-east. The two heavy cruisers at buoys – they would have been Trieste and Bolzano – looked the most deserving and Patch set about dive-bombing them. It does not seem that any of the bombs connected with their targets; probably this was no great matter for, according to the Italians, few of the bombs dropped that night exploded anyway. Once they had been dropped, however, Patch and Goodwin had to make their escape from the furthest point reached by anybody. The evasive action needed was violent, so much so that ‘his observer sitting behind him was thrown out of his seat and but for the “monkey’s tail” wire that secured him to the aircraft, would have gone straight overboard’. Patch, having evaded one battery by dodging behind a hill, rather cleverly took his machine low down over the roofs of the citizens of Taranto, ‘unmolested except for one horrid little man firing at us’. E5A then steered a highly individual course eight miles to the east of the town and arrived safely home at 01.35.

As the other two bomber crews were less fortunate in their obituarists they have less corroborative detail. Their bravery went unrewarded. Consider L4H, the Swordfish of the young Sub-Lieutenants Forde and Mardel-Ferreira, one of the four RNVR officers there. They too attacked heavy cruisers in the Mar Piccolo and hit nothing; but read slowly this bald statement: ‘First bomb fell in water short of the two 8-inch cruisers. During the dive intense AA fire was suffered. The pilot was not sure that his bombs had dropped, so turned round in the western part of the Mar Piccolo and repeated the attack’. ‘Best traditions of the Navy’ can be a joke expression; not always.

The last bomber, Eagle’s E5Q, had good cause to grumble. The aircraft, manned by Lieutenant Murray and Sub-Lieutenant Paine, arrived to the eastward of Cape San Vito just as the flares were beginning to burn. Then they carried out a systematic attack with their four bombs along the line of moored ships at the wharf-side, maintaining a steady height of 3,000 feet. By good luck, excellent judgment or both they dropped one of their 250-lb semi-armour piercing bombs squarely on the destroyer Libeccio. The next sentence almost writes itself. The bomb failed to go off and two disgusted naval officers flew back to their carrier.

Kemp’s observer, Bailey, had mentioned seeing a fire burning in ‘the vicinity of the seaplane base’. This would have been the work of the most junior combatants of all, Sub-Lieutenant Sarra and Mr Midshipman Bowker in L4L. Their approach had been made at a much higher level, for they were bombers not torpedo-launchers. L4L came in over Cape Rondinella – it means ‘little swallow’ – at about 8,000 feet, dived over the Mar Grande down to 1500, hotly pursued by every sort of gunfire, and looked to see what they could most profitably bomb. Hardly surprisingly Bowker found himself unable to choose between such a multiplicity of targets and, being a sensible young man, he directed his driver to the seaplane base. The result was more satisfactory than with most of the bombings. All of them exploded and the hangar and slipway were hit as well as ‘a storehouse which blew up with a loud explosion’. These were, presumably, the buildings and installations so carefully put up by the RNAS in 1917. The young men had more than their share of luck. On landing, they counted seventeen bullet holes in their Stringbag, more than any other had suffered save only for Wellham, whose turn was yet to come.

The second pair of flare-droppers were amongst the last away. Lamb, astern of Kiggell and Janvrin and with little to do, persuaded himself that he was in no danger but that every one of the torpedo-droppers must have been smashed to pieces. Having obediently bombed the oil installations, with about as much success as the others, he defiantly and rudely excreted his flares one by one in order to give the Italians something more upon which to waste ammunition. He and Grieve flew unhappily back to Illustrious firmly convinced, as has been already told, that they were the only survivors.

So ended the foray of the First Striking Force. All save the leader were back on board by 02.00 with not so much as a burst tyre between them. The damage inflicted consisted of two torpedo hits on Littorio, one on Cavour and a heavy piece of pig-iron and explosive dropped on Libeccio. The cost was one Swordfish and two officers, missing believed killed.

After the various mishaps to aircraft already related, it can hardly come as a surprise that the Second Striking Force was smaller than originally planned. It came close to being smaller still. L5F had very nearly lost her observer before the operation began. Early on the morning of the nth, when on a routine patrol, the Swordfish then carrying him had force landed in the sea some 20 miles distant from Illustrious. Going and his telegraphist-airgunner had been shot over the nose, head-first into the water, picked up by the cruiser Gloucester and flown home in her ‘Shagbat’ – Walrus amphibian. The ducking was no deterrent, though it did once more make the point that open-cockpit aircraft still had their advantages. Going remarked that ‘it was a most comfortable way to ditch, no pain being suffered by anyone’. The observation suggests meiosis. Going had no intention of being left out of the main business, as later events were to show.

The second flight began to take off at 21.23, as Williamson’s squadron was somewhere near the half-way mark. All that could be mustered was five machines carrying torpedoes, two bombers and two more doubling as bombers and flare-droppers. As the Swordfish’s bomb load counted six apiece for the bombers proper and two for the flare-droppers they did not add up to anything very formidable on that score. Once more the torpedo launchers were the grandees of the operation. There could be no question of a second surprise attack. Even if the defenders were not expecting to be hit a second time they would have recovered from the first shock and been very ready to open up with every weapon they had. No member of the second strike crews could have thought otherwise. It was not a deterrent.

The nine aircraft detailed for the task looked like being reduced to eight even before becoming airborne. Lieutenant Going, you will remember, had already had one watery experience that day. When he and his pilot, Lieutenant Clifford, were told that something had gone amiss with one of the 250-lb bombs their Swordfish was carrying they could quite honourably have taken no part in the operation. They took another view of the matter. Speaking, one may fairly infer, unkindly to those whose fault it had been, Clifford and Going insisted on the damage being put to rights even if it would mean their being late for the fair. Work was instantly put in hand. Hardly believably it was all finished within 25 minutes.

The remaining eight took off at 23.50, almost exactly a quarter of an hour after the last machine of the first strike had left the scene of action. The outward-bound adventures were not over yet. A short distance from Illustrious, while still jilling about awaiting the march off in formation, L5Q, the aircraft of Lieutenant Morford and Sub-Lieutenant Green, met with misfortune. The external overload petrol tank, badly secured in some fashion, fell off. The fittings began to bang against the fuselage. With fuel only for half the journey and unknown damage done the crew had no choice but to return. It was not a contingency for which plans had been made. On approaching Illustrious Green fired a red Very light. Those on board plainly regarded this as a hostile act; Illustrious opened fire, soon to be joined by Berwick. It was no more effective than usual. A two-star identification light made all things clear, the firing stopped and two crestfallen young officers climbed down on to the carrier’s deck. To compensate for their loss, for L5Q had also been a bomber, Clifford and Going, faint but pursuing, caught up with the others after a loss of 24 minutes’ flying time just as the battle was beginning.

The torpedo-carriers flew in to the north of cape Rondinella, keeping well away from the batteries on San Pietro island. The design was for each to cross the Mar Grande along its northern shore diving sharply from 5,000 feet to about 30, loosing the torpedoes at the battleships and returning to sea on a parallel course to the south. The flare-droppers would have arrived from a diametrically opposite position, over Cape San Vito and once more coming between the battleships and the moon. The two Swordfishes involved, L5B (Lieutenant Hamilton and Sub-Lieutenant Weekes) and L4F, (Lieutenant Skelton and Sub-Lieutenant Perkins) experienced no great difficulty in carrying out their share. That done, with lines of brightness burning along the east and south-east of the Mar Grande, they followed the examples of their precursors and set about the oil installations with bombs; ‘it was thought unsuccessfully,’ Perkins honestly reported. They could, however, stake a claim to a small fire.

Moments later the torpedo launchers swept over Cape Rondinella and dived over the merchant ship harbour under an intense barrage. The leader, Hale and Carline in L5A, in close company with L5H, (Lieutenant Lea and Sub-Lieutenant Jones) and E4H (Lieutenants Bayly and Slaughter), all went for the Littorio, still suffering from the first strike’s attentions. E4H suddenly veered to starboard, across the path of the other two, and either exploded in mid-air or crashed into the sea. It is the general belief based on the official Italian account that the aircraft was attempting to hit not the battleship but the cruiser Gorizia; a torpedo was later found floating in the outer harbour with its striking head crushed but the warhead undetonated. It can hardly have come from anywhere else. Slaughter and Bayly were never seen alive again.

Hale and the team led by his L5K enjoyed better fortune. Michael Torrens-Spence had been described by a brother officer as one of the Navy’s most accomplished aviators. ‘Tiffy’, as his friends called him, was an Ulsterman, a maintenance test pilot and second in command of 819 Squadron. Charles Lamb had written that, during the Greek campaign, he was to bring the Italian cruiser Pola to a standstill with his single torpedo. When the Italian captain was rescued from his sinking ship by the destroyer Jervis he observed, with emotion, that ‘Either that pilot is mad or he is the bravest man in the world’. It was well known in the wardroom, says Lamb, that Torrens-Spence, by reason of an innate nervousness, would push home any attack almost to the point of suicide. On the night of Taranto he and his leader swooped down together round the northern line of the balloons and inside the nets. Their torpedoes dropped almost simultaneously from a point about 700 yards north of the anchored and already wounded Littorio. Both observers told of intense AA fire of all kinds from battleships, cruisers and the shore batteries. One torpedo scored a palpable hit on Littorio’s starboard bow, the time of the explosion being exactly logged as 00.01. Nobody will ever know, nor probably now care very much, whether this one or another torpedo found stuck in the mud under the battleship’s keel came from the leader. Just this once the Duplex pistol seems to have failed.

The Italian flagship Vittorio Veneto came through the whole affair without a scratch. It seems, though certainty is not possible, that the torpedo released during the First Strike by Williamson’s wingman, Lieutenant Sparke in L4C, was intended for her even though it is recorded simply as having missed Cavour. The flagship’s luck held out through the Second Strike even when she became the target of one of Eagle’s best pilots, Lieutenant (A) J.W.G. Wellham, DSC, in E5H. Like the others, he flew in over Cape Rondinella at about 8,000 feet and followed his leader down through the flak. As he did so the first of the flares burst out to the eastward and the fire from the ground grew even more fierce. Wellham, having lost sight of the other aircraft, chose what seemed a hole in the pattern of red, yellow and green tracer that streamed around his aircraft and dived steeply with speed building up to 170 knots. Then E5H met with misfortune. Having escaped damage from every sort of gunfire she collided with a masterless barrage balloon that had been cut adrift by some means or other. As E5H began to plunge down into the middle of Taranto city, almost unmanageable from the damage she had taken, Wellham fought with the controls in order to make sure that his machine would survive and his torpedo would do something useful. Over his right shoulder loomed the bulk of a great ship – Vittorio Veneto herself – and she in turn had seen E5H. Through fire even greater than anything before, since the battleship’s guns of all kinds were setting about him, Wellham managed to make a turn of 180 degrees and, with one wing dragging, let drive with his torpedo, made a vertical turn to starboard, and sped off almost across the water.* Later investigation showed that the rod connecting the ailerons on the port side upper and lower wings had been smashed and the jagged ends were grinding together, leaving one aileron up and the other down. Add a large hole in the lower main plane on the same side and one may understand why the Fleet Air Arm insists so firmly that no other aircraft could stand such knocking about. Nor was the quality of pilots behind; only men of Wellham’s skill, experience and doggedness could have brought his Stringbag home in such a state. If any aircraft deserved to have scored a torpedo hit it was E5H. But none was recorded. Pat Humphreys, the observer, exhibited a sang-froid worthy of the occasion and of himself, bringing them home to a spectacular landing on Illustrious at a few minutes before 3 a.m.

There were to be further victims to the second striking force. Lieutenant Lea and Sub-Lieutenant Jones, the last of the torpedo men, brought L5H over Cape Rondinella between the two aircraft which were to go for Vittorio Veneto. Peeling off at about the same spot, hard by the Mar Piccolo entrance, they launched their torpedo at the battleship Duilio from about 600 yards. It struck her on the starboard side, abreast No 2 turret, at a depth of 29½ feet. It was not the moment to enquire further about the damage caused. Lea and Jones were off across San Pietro pursued by ‘violent fire from cruisers, destroyers and shore batteries’. They, too, were untouched.

Lastly came the laggard L5F of Clifford and Going. They had set a slightly different course and arrived from the far, or eastern, side of the harbour. After circling around the Mar Piccolo entrance they were rewarded with the sight of all the neatly parked cruisers and destroyers lined up against the wharf like cigarettes in a case. Their gunners in turn had seen L5F and set about making life difficult for her. It does not appear that they hit anything; the British armament factories saved them. A bomb hit the cruiser Trento very satisfactorily. It failed to explode. Other bombs narrowly missed destroyers, near enough to have damaged their thin plating had they gone off. The official account observes it to have been ‘a poor reward for his [Clifford’s] bravery’. Possibly he and Going put it in other words. By about 3 o’clock in the morning all but the two casualties were home, unscathed but very tired. They had little enough idea of what they had achieved and were not able to give any detailed account of the damage done. Until fresh photographs came in from the RAF it was possible only to wonder whether or not the whole business had been as Lamb said on the way to the briefing room: ‘It looks as though we made a complete cock of it tonight, which is why we’ve got to go back again. But I don’t see how it can be any better on a second attempt. Rather the reverse.’

Certainly it looked as if Admiral Cunningham was going to insist upon another try. Orders had been given for the fitters and riggers to have their machines ready for a second assault and it all sounded deadly serious. One officer was heard to remark that even the Light Brigade hadn’t been told to do it again. This may well have been near the mark. How could anything worth while be done without a large butcher’s bill? The Light Brigade had been almost wiped out; the Fleet Air Arm had had no more casualties than were sustained on a Bank Holiday Monday on the Brighton road. The weather scotched any attempt at repetition.

There are confused signals about the proposed second run-in. Admiral Cunningham in his Memoirs asserts that ‘The aircrews were in a state of great jubilation. They clamoured to repeat the operation the same night. I agreed at first when Rear-Admiral Lyster made the suggestion, though I rather felt that when the excitement wore off and the strain of their ordeal began to tell upon the aircrews it would be unfair to send them in again. I therefore felt somewhat relieved when a bad weather report automatically put a stop to a second venture.’ Lieutenant Lamb and his brother officers would have found this surprising. When he made his remark about not seeing how it could be done better at a second attempt, ‘Grieve answered my words with a look of sickened dismay’.

The Paymaster Commander, having fortified Lamb with an enormous whisky and soda and asked what he thought of the ‘Welcome Home’ sign put up by the stewards, received the answer, ‘I shall be more pleased to see it this time tomorrow’. The Paymaster Commander, plainly a man of excellent judgment, replied, ‘Drink that and you’ll feel better. Then have another. I’ve got a feeling in my water that none of you will be going back. Want to take a bet on it?’ Lamb took it. ‘That was one bet I was very relieved to lose.’ Sir Andrew did acknowledge the bravery, skill and determination by a signal to Illustrious that has become history: ‘Manoeuvre well executed’. One can not avoid the feeling that Admiral Riccardi would have phrased it better.

The photographs taken by the faithful RAF as soon as the light thinned brought strong evidence that no second attack would have been needed. The results of the first looked very satisfactory indeed.

Consider for a moment the gauntlet that the aircrews had had to run. Taranto was a naval base of the first order, equivalent in its own way to Portsmouth or Wilhelmshaven. Naturally enough it was furnished with guns of all shapes and sizes in profusion. There were batteries on San Pietro island, where the harbour entrance was partially blocked, floating batteries along the submerged breakwaters on either side of the island, at intervals around the harbour perimeter and, just to make sure no gaps had been left, on pontoons moored at four points in the Mar Grande. The returns of ammunition expended on this November night fell into the hands of the Royal Navy after the Italian surrender. They give a total figure of 13,489 rounds, roughly two-thirds being shells from cannon of more than 3” calibre and the remainder dispensed by machine guns of all sizes.

The Italian records are confined to shore batteries alone but contain the remark that ‘Ships’ gunfire was confined to machine guns; expenditure is unknown’. This sounds less than likely. The battleships and cruisers alone carried many heavy weapons – the Cavours carried eighteen AA guns of more than 3″ calibre and the Littorios a dozen each – and Charles Lamb was quite firm that it was the ships’ guns that contributed most to the volume. It is improbable that any exact figure of rounds blazed away will ever be put together now, certainly in the tally of small arms ammunition; nor does it greatly matter. There were enough projectiles covering the harbour to have shredded every Swordfish had they been better directed. Not unreasonably the heavier pieces were turned on the flares. Bring them down and the aircraft would be blinded. The time lag between the dropping and the ignition was, however, too great for artillery successes. Neither flare nor dropper was touched.

Other guns began by firing lines of shells so low that they seemed to be hitting each other. That discovered, they lifted their sights and provided an umbrella of flame and steel under which the Swordfishes flew unscathed. Had the gunners continued to fire low, at water level, they could hardly have failed to hit some or all of the torpedo-droppers. All of these, save of course Williamson and Bayly, made their way back scarcely at all above the level of the sea; Michael Torrens-Spence actually bounced off the water as he came through the harbour entrance with wheels partly submerged. The reason for firing barrages at that altitude was obvious. At any other, many shells would have hit the town and probably as many would have found their targets on Italian ships. Kemp, of L4K, says firmly that ‘Several shells from the cruisers were seen to hit merchant ships in harbour’.

It would have required something exceptional in the way of gunnery procedures to have achieved much against the torpedo-droppers once each had finished its run-in. The lower a ‘fish’ can be dropped the better, and performance is much improved once the weight of nearly 2,000 lbs has gone. The attacks made by Williamson’s flight lasted only five minutes from arrival to departure, except only for Williamson’s L4A. The bombers, higher up and there for longer, would have made more rewarding targets.

Then comes the matter of searchlights. No pilot reported having encountered any. The concensus of opinion on their return was that the Italians had thus deprived themselves of a possibly good bag. Ian Swayne is quoted by Lamb as having expressed the opinion that, had they used their lights, they would have shot down every single aircraft. Lamb, from his position of advantage, disagreed vehemently: ‘From above I could see that the opposite was the case; because the aircraft were only a few feet above sea level, the use of searchlights would have floodlit the six battleships and the harbour defences, and greatly assisted the attacking aircraft in selecting their target.’ He adds that ‘From my position astern of Kiggell and Janvrin I was in no danger whatever and could watch proceedings at leisure. I have never been in less danger in any attack than I was that night, when the rest of the squadron were flying into the jaws of hell. I was convinced that none of the torpedoing aircraft could have survived.’

Whatever the benefits or otherwise of searchlight activity for the defenders, it seems that the failure to use them was caused by consternation rather than fire plan. The report of the Italian Commander-in-Chief Afloat to the Chief of Naval Staff, compiled after the attack, is specific enough. Under the heading ‘Defence of Anchorage’, it reads:- ‘Defence of outer anchorage from air attack was arranged as follows:-

Shore batteries (4.09-inch, 4.02-inch and 3.05-inch).

Stations ashore and afloat, of machine guns (0.8-inch and 1.6-inch) were specially detailed to engage torpedo aircraft. ‘Photo-electrics’, ashore and on pontoons, could intercept on moonlight nights either bombers or torpedo aircraft, according to arrangements made by Central Control.

The part to be played by ships at anchor was as follows:- No barrage fire at the same time as the shore batteries.

Machine guns to be manned and fired with the main armament against aircraft visible to the naked eye or illuminated by searchlight.

On moonlight nights two searchlights a ship to work with those of the shore batteries in previously defined sectors, for defence against torpedo aircraft. These had to be integrated with the searchlights worked by the base.’

Nobody could accuse the Italian authorities of not trying. The plan did not work out as had been hoped. Such has happened to nations other than Italy at most times throughout recorded history. The report ends, a touch plaintively, with an assertion that recent enemy air activity had ‘served as a warning of heavy air attacks’. Against aircraft less acrobatic than the Stringbag and pilots of lesser quality than these the Italians might have enjoyed better fortune.

Taranto 1940 Part II


Mr Churchill, in accordance with his nature, expressed a view rather more generous than that of the Admiral. On the day after the Stringbags, less two, had returned to the nest he stood up in Parliament and spoke with feeling. The Prime Minister deserved his opportunity after months and months of nothing but failure and defeat to report. He took it. ‘I have some news for the House. It is good news. The Royal Navy has struck a crippling blow at the Italian fleet. The total strength of the Italian battle fleet was six battleships, two of them of the “Littorio” class, which have just been put into service and are, of course, among the most powerful vessels in the world and four of the recently reconstructed “Cavour” class. This fleet was, to be sure, considerably more powerful on paper than our Mediterranean Fleet, but it had consistently refused to accept battle. On the night of the 11th–12th November, when the main units of the Italian fleet were lying behind their shore defences in their naval base at Taranto, our aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm attacked them in their stronghold.’

He went on, not without relish, to set out in some detail all that the photographs rushed to him by the RAF had depicted. His exposition was as accurate as it could be from photographs alone. ‘It is now established that one battleship of the “Littorio” class was badly down by the bows and that her forecastle is under water and she has a heavy list to starboard. One battleship of the “Cavour” class has been beached, and her stern, up to and including the turret, is under water. This ship is also heavily listed to starboard. It has not yet been possible to establish the fact with certainty, but it appears that a second battleship of the “Cavour” class has also been severely damaged and beached. In the inner harbour of Taranto two Italian cruisers are listed to starboard and are surrounded with oil fuel, and two fleet auxiliaries are lying with their sterns under water. The Italian communique of 12th November, in admitting that one warship had been severely damaged, claimed that six of our aircraft had been shot down and three more probably. In fact only two of our aircraft are missing, and it is noted that the enemy claimed that part of the crews had been taken prisoner. I felt it my duty to bring this glorious episode to the immediate notice of the House. As the result of a determined and highly successful attack, which reflects the greatest honour on the Fleet Air Arm, only three Italian battleships remain effective.’

The Prime Minister went on to speak of heroism of a more customary kind, the loss of the Jervis Bay along with Captain Fogarty Fegen and his entire ship’s company, sunk by the German battleship she had taken on in a hopeless, valiant, attack in order to give her convoy some chance to get away. It was the first time since the purely defensive Battle of Britain that Mr Churchill had been able to speak of hitting back, and hitting back hard. Along with the entire nation, he made the most of it.

It took some days before a proper assessment of the damage could be made. Littorio, though looking dramatic with two naval auxiliaries, a large submarine, a tanker and several smaller craft close alongside, was not desperately hurt, certainly not for a ship fairly struck by three torpedoes. The two hits scored by the first strike had holed her. Neil Kemp’s hit on the starboard bow had blown an opening 49 by 32 feet in the bulge abreast No 1 6-inch turret; that from Ian Swayne in L4M had opened up another on the port quarter, 23 feet by 5, abreast the tiller flat. The second strike, that of Torrens-Spence in L5K, had been the most damaging. The torpedo had struck home at a very low level on the starboard side, forward of Kemp’s hit, blowing a hole 40 feet by 30. Less importantly, the fourth torpedo was found in the mud under Littorio’s stern – there was an unaccountable dent in her starboard quarter – with its striking cap damaged by impact after passing the target. Praise is due to Engineer Inspector-General Umberto Pugliese and the Ansaldo company for designing and building a ship strong enough to survive such punishment. Littorio, down by the bows and with her forecastle awash, retired hurt. She was, however, capable of repair and was back at sea by the end of the following March. Perhaps the 18″ torpedo, even with the Duplex fuse, was not the ultimate weapon for use against battleships and their like.

The older ships, Cavour and Duilio, were in a worse plight. Williamson’s torpedo had made the biggest impression of them all, leaving a hole 40 feet by 27 on the port bow under the foremost turret. Two oil fuel tanks were flooded, and only with difficulty were the adjacent compartments prevented from flooding as well. L4A, whatever the fate of its occupants, had delivered a knock-out punch. At 05.45 Cavour was towed inshore and abandoned, settling comfortably down with her stern on the bottom. Almost all her decks were under water, the after turret submerged entirely. She was refloated in July, 1941, and towed to Trieste but for the Conte di Cavour the war was over. She never came back.

Duilio was the victim of L5H in the second striking force. ‘Sprog’ Lea’s torpedo had made a clean hit on the starboard side at a depth of 29 ft 6 in and blown a gap 36 feet by 23 between Nos 1 and 2 magazines. Both were completely flooded. Like her sister, Caio Duilio was beached, patched up and towed to Genoa. Repairs took until the end of May, 1941.

The Official Report rounds it off: ‘The results of the bombing attacks were not noticeable at the time. It is now known that the Trento and Libeccio received direct hits from bombs which failed to explode, and other ships were narrowly missed; according to the Italians, few of these bombs exploded.’ This was a disappointment of some order. Ranged alongside at the destroyer/cruiser quay complex had been twenty-one destroyers and large torpedo boats with four cruisers berthed bow and stern along a frontage of no more than 1,000 yards. Had that not been target enough there were three more destroyers and two more heavy cruisers just offshore. The two bombs out of two dozen that hit but failed to explode caused a small amount of damage – the RAF photographs show a quantity of leaked oil on the surface of the Mar Piccolo – but it was a disproportionate reward for so much skill, determination and plain old-fashioned courage. The lesson it was supposed to have taught, but which was shown a couple of months later to have been dreadfully wrong, was that the bomb was almost worthless as a means of sinking ships even at anchor. In all forty-two of them, of the standard 250-lb SAP pattern, fused nose and tail, were dropped.

The oil tanks suffered some damage, judging from the fires seen to start, but it can not have amounted to much. More important was the attack on the seaplane base. This was home to the spotters which plagued Cunningham’s fleet and radioed back every move made by every ship. It took six bombs, direct hits on hangar and slipway, with a satisfactorily large fire caused in the adjacent building. Wellham knew it to be still smouldering on the following day. The result would not, of course, have been to put the spotters out of business but it can not have been helpful to them.

Far and away the most important consequence was the moral effect. Taranto raised the hearts of everybody on the allied side, as a demonstration that we had moved on from the ‘Britain Can Take It’ slogans and posters of some months earlier. At last it was plain that Britain was beginning to acquire the ability to dish it out. The Italian navy had not seemed exactly avid to come to hand-grips with Cunningham’s ships even when they outnumbered and outgunned them handsomely. Now that the strength of the Italian battlefleet had been halved and the Royal Navy strengthened by another battleship, three cruisers and two destroyers, the light of battle in the eyes of the Duce’s sailors grew no fiercer. Small blame to them.

That the episode had been glorious was beyond question and it had come at a moment when glorious episodes were a little scarce. Even making all allowances for the general mood towards the end of a year not notable for victories, it may have been that the results were not entirely what they ought to have been. Had surprise been achieved there might have been some chance of sinking the prime targets. Vittorio Veneto and Littorio, roughly equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Prince of Wales and Duke of York, got off lightly. Littorio was removed from the scene for a matter of months only; two torpedoes were aimed at Vittorio Veneto, one grounding harmlessly and the other missing altogether. Of the two older ships, comparable with Royal Oak and Royal Sovereign, Cavour had been eliminated from the war and Duilio taken out of it for half a year. Fortune had not favoured Operation Judgment, but it would have been worthwhile for the moral effect alone. ‘Glorious Episode’ was not mere hyperbole.

Fraternal greetings came from a namesake to HMS Eagle: ‘The American Eagle Club of London expresses hearty admiration of your gallant work at Taranto. Americans abroad and at home will be proud of you. Congratulations. Robert H. Hutchinson, chairman.’ No message came from another navy whose creation had been largely the work of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. Admiral Yamamoto doubtless studied the operation in detail, for it contained practical experience that would come in useful a little over a year later. Nobody expected praise from that quarter.

Captain Boyd of Illustrious addressed his ship’s company, pointing out that ‘in one night the ship’s aircraft had achieved a greater amount of damage to the enemy than Nelson had achieved in the Battle of Trafalgar, and nearly twice the amount that the entire British fleet achieved in the Battle of Jutland in the First World War’. Had he felt so inclined, Captain Boyd might have parodied Admiral Beatty’s much-quoted remark on that occasion: ‘There’s something wrong with our bloody bombs today, Chatfield.’

And so from Italian casualties to our own. The body of Lieutenant Slaughter was never found; that of his pilot, Lieutenant Gerald Wentworth Loscombe Abingdon Bayly, was accorded the honourable treatment that one may expect from a civilized enemy. He lies now in the Military Cemetery at Bari. The other victim, L4A, was more fortunate. You will remember that we left Lieutenant-Commander Williamson in the water by the floating dock and Lieutenant Scarlett sitting there waiting upon events. Their captors behaved admirably towards their prey. ‘In fact,’ said Williamson, ‘we were almost popular heroes. Two nights after our raid the RAF came over and we were put into an air-raid shelter full of seamen. They all pressed cigarettes on us and towards the end of the raid about twenty of them sang “Tipperary” for our benefit.’ Scarlett was a more abrasive character. His obituarist observes that he ‘was an excellent prisoner from the Allied point of view. He did much to annoy his captors and keep up the morale of his fellow POWs. In 1945 he was mentioned in despatches for organizing an attempt to escape from a camp near Lübeck.’

Everybody who had had any part in the business, fitter, rigger, aircrew and indeed all hands on both carriers, knew for certain that they had won a great and famous victory. Only one man seemed less persuaded. You will remember how, after Albuhera in 1811, Wellington came across General Beresford as he wrote ‘a whining report that would have driven England mad’. The Duke found it necessary to explain to the other that he had won a great victory. Sir Andrew wrote no whining report but he never seemed quite to have taken in what his newest arm had achieved. The ‘Manoeuvre well executed’ signal may have been an ironic pleasantry, for the Navy well understands the value of meiosis.

But it was within the Admiral’s power to mark the fact that it had been uncommonly well done by a fairly generous giving of decorations. When the immediate awards were announced the heavy displeasure of everybody concerned was soon made manifest. DSOs to the two flight leaders were natural enough, even though the absent Williamson would have to wait for his. The four DSCs went to Scarlett, to two other observers and to a pilot from Eagle. The entire company of Illustrious rose up in wrath at such a niggardly grant, the more so because not a single pilot from their ship, squadron commanders apart, received anything. Some unidentifiable sailor tore down the notice from the board. Being the honest man he was, Sir Andrew admitted years afterwards that he had undervalued both the feat itself and those who had performed it. Very possibly, with his traditional background, he shared the opinion of the great Duke that a man ought not to be especially rewarded for doing what he ought to have done.* The simmering anger boiled when the awards for Matapan – ‘many DSOs and scores of DSCs’, Charles Lamb called them – were announced. In May, 1941, Captain Boyd, late of Illustrious, found a well-disposed MP who was willing to ask a Question. Two more DSOs, fourteen more DSCs and Mentions in Despatches for all those left out were added. By then twenty of the forty who had flown to Taranto were dead.

Others less intimately concerned seemed to have a better understanding of what had been achieved. Admiral Pound wrote of it to Admiral Cunningham: ‘Just before the news of Taranto the Cabinet were rather down in the dumps; but Taranto had a most amazing effect on them.’ One has to sympathize. There can have been little joy around the Downing Street table towards the end of 1940. For a time there were beaming smiles and mutual congratulations.

It was not quite the same in the opposing camp. Count Ciano, Mussolini’s unfortunate son-in-law, left a diary, written up in his prison cell at Verona shortly before his relation by marriage had him shot. Ciano tells, under ‘12 November 1940’, of ‘a black day. The British, without warning, have attacked the Italian fleet at anchor in Taranto, and have sunk the dreadnought Cavour and seriously damaged the battleships Littorio and Duilio. These ships will remain out of the fight for many months. I thought I would find the Duce downhearted. Instead he took the blow quite well and does not, at the moment, seem to have fully realized its gravity.’ In this, at least, he made common cause with Admiral Cunningham. The stiff upper lip phase did not endure; rage took its place.

The Regia Aeronautica (which Ciano says was always poking fun at the navy)* tended to avoid Alexandria whilst the Fleet was in residence. It was now ordered to seek instant vengeance. During the absence of Cunningham’s ships the Italian pilots flew in during daylight hours, hit a destroyer without doing her much harm and scattered time bombs around the anchorage near to the floating dock. This could have been serious but it was no sort of spectacular revenge. On the morning of 12 November three of the big CANT flying-boats were sent in to do all the damage they could. It did not amount to much and all of them were shot down by Fulmars from Illustrious as she returned to port. From Mussolini’s point of view there was only one thing to be done and he turned to his master. Hitler and Goering had a score of their own to settle with the British after the thrashing their Luftwaffe had received from the RAFs Fighter Command. Once they had grasped the fact that the balance of sea power in the Mediterranean turned almost wholly upon the existence of a single ship the word went out from Berlin.

Send in the Stukas. Sink the Illustrious.