Taranto Air Attack (1940)

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Further proof that the Axis Powers were prepared to widen the war even more came with the signing of the Tripartite Pact linking them with Japan in late September and reports of a meeting held between Hitler and the Spanish Caudillo Francisco Franco at Hendaye in the Pyrenees on 23 October. Mussolini had struck both before and after these diplomatic initiatives had been arranged. His reckless enthusiasm for the Axis war effort had been shown firstly in a cross-border attack launched by his 10th Army on Egypt in mid-September and then by an invasion of Greece from across the Albanian border in late October. While his military forces didn’t cover themselves in glory in either of these two new theatres, the Regia Marina – now boasting six battleships – was not doing much more than engaging in mining operations, escorting convoys and skirmishing unsuccessfully with Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. Worse was to follow for Il Duce and his fleet before November was out. During the night of 11-12 November, two waves of Swordfish aircraft from the carrier Illustrious had the temerity to attack the Italian Fleet as it lay at anchor in harbour at Taranto, crippling three of its battleships while slightly damaging a heavy cruiser and a destroyer into the bargain. Everyone on the British side was delighted with the results of Operation Judgment, since it appeared to have eased the Allied naval position in the Central Mediterranean, by reducing the risks to their convoy traffic and boosting morale in their own ranks, while complicating the Italian strategic situation and deflating the enemy. Cunningham summed up the cost-benefit analysis of the entire operation perfectly by stating: `As an example of “economy of force” it is probably unsurpassed.’ He was not prone to exaggeration and his enthusiasm for taking the fight to the Italians was infectious.

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The first carrier-based aircraft strike against a fleet of warships. Located on Italy’s eastern coast, Taranto was the main Italian naval base in early World War II. The excellent natural harbor comprised two anchorages-Mare Grande and Mare Piccolo. When Italy entered the war on 10 June 1940, its sizeable Mediterranean fleet became a threat to the British, who were fighting alone following the fall of France that May.

The Axis envisioned this fleet controlling the Mediterranean shipping lanes and reducing supplies to British forces in North Africa. Concurrently, the Royal Navy sought to engage and destroy the Italian fleet to limit the resupply of Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps. To this end, Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham, commander in chief Mediterranean, sent British ships near the Italian coast to lure (without success) the Italians into a surface engagement.

British intelligence reported that increasing numbers of large ships were congregating at Taranto. Thus, Cunningham ordered his operational commander to plan an airborne carrier attack for 21 October 1940-Trafalgar Day.

Originally, the HMS Eagle and the new HMS Illustrious were to launch the attack. However, a fire aboard Illustrious delayed the operation until 11 November-Armistice Day. Additionally, Eagle suffered bomb damage and was removed from the operation. Some of its aircraft were transferred to Illustrious.

At 8:40 P. M. 11 November, Illustrious launched 12 old and slow Swordfish biplanes of the Nos. 813 and 815 Squadrons 170 miles southeast of Taranto. Fourteen Fulmer and four Sea Gladiator fighters of No. 806 Squadron flew air cover. Two Swordfish carried flares and four carried bombs. This first group arrived over the target at 11:00 P. M. and illuminated the harbor with the flares; the aircraft armed with bombs made a diversionary attack on the cruisers and destroyers.

The last six Swordfish in the first wave, armed with one torpedo each, attacked the six Italian battleships anchored at Mare Grande. A single torpedo put a hole in the Conte di Cavour, which began to sink. A second torpedo tore a hole in the Caio Duilio, which was run aground in shallow water. The first wave lost one plane; the crew survived.

Less than an hour later, as Italian crews were fighting fires and searching for shipmates, a second wave of nine Swordfish from Nos. 819 and 824 Squadrons struck. Five of the planes had torpedoes. This time the Littorio was heavily damaged and also run aground. A second torpedo hit the Cavour, sending it to the bottom in deep water. Numerous lesser ships were also damaged. The second wave lost one plane; both crew members were killed.

In one night, the British had taken a major step in wresting control of the Mediterranean from the Axis. The remainder of the Italian fleet soon withdrew to Naples on the western coast and out of range of British carrier planes. The Cavour took enormous resources to refloat and never returned to service. The other two were refloated in two months, but it took many more months to make them seaworthy. By that time the Italian navy was less of a factor. Cunningham noted that after Taranto the Italian fleet “was still a considerable force” but had been badly hurt.

Although some historians remain unconvinced, there is evidence that Britain’s Taranto air attack inspired Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to launch the 1941 carrier-based air attack on Pearl Harbor. Regardless, at Taranto a single British carrier and 21 antiquated biplanes crippled the Italian fleet in one nighttime raid, proving the vulnerability of surface vessels to aerial assault.

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Fairey Swordfish

British dive-bomber and torpedo-bomber. Regarded as obsolete at the beginning of World War II, the Swordfish nevertheless went on to serve in the Fleet Air Arm and the RAF until the end of hostilities. The reason for such longevity was its superb handling, especially during landing, torpedo attack runs, and dive-bombing.

A follow-up to the earlier TSR. I, the Swordfish was developed as the TSR. II by Fairey Aircraft, the first one flying in April 1934. Fairey delivered 692 aircraft before handing over production to Blackburn to make way for production of the Albacore, hailed as the replacement for the Swordfish.

Service deliveries of the Swordfish I began in February 1936, with deployments to the various fleet carriers occurring soon after. A further development of the Swordfish, the Mk. II, began to enter service in 1943 and featured a strengthened lower mainplane that was stressed for the carriage of rocket projectiles. The final major production variant was the Swordfish III, which had an uprated Pegasus engine and an air-to-surface-vessel radome located between the main undercarriage legs. A further upgrade saw the appearance of the Swordfish IV, which had an enclosed cockpit for use in Canada.

The Swordfish first came to prominence during the Battle of Narvick when a battleship-launched aircraft spotted an U-boat for the fleet before destroying it itself. In November 1940, the Swordfish was involved in the most famous torpedo attack of all: the immortal strike against the Italian main battle fleet at Taranto Harbor. The Italian fleet suffered great losses that rendered it almost useless for the rest of the war. Further escapades involved the hunting of the German battleship Bismarck. For the last three years of the war, the Swordfish operated from the smaller fleet carriers in support of operations during convoy work.

The Swordfish also operated with the RAF for Coastal Command patrol duties. All operational Swordfish flying duties finished with the FAA in June 1945. A few aircraft remained in use for trials and communications use before final retirement ceremonies in 1953.

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