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.