Operation Sitting Duck? Obsolete British Biplanes Mounted History’s First All-Aerial Ship-to-Ship Naval Attack

On the night of Nov. 11, 1940, a small fleet of British warships indifferent from a a lot bigger job power working within the western Mediterranean and steamed north into the Ionian Sea towards Salento, the bootheel of Italy. The fleet comprised 4 cruisers, 4 destroyers and the newly commissioned plane provider HMS Illustrious. Its mission, code-named Operation Judgment, was a presumptuous one: to assault the principle Italian fleet, the Regia Marina, in its storied residence port of Taranto. At evening.

In his memoir Conflict in a Stringbag Royal Air Power Lt. Charles Lamb, who piloted a Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber through the strike, recalled the method to the Italian port:

For the final quarter-hour of our passage throughout the Ionian Sea [we] had no navigational issues, for Taranto could possibly be seen from a distance of fifty miles or extra due to the welcome awaiting us. The sky over the harbor appeared because it typically does over Mount Etna, in Sicily, when the nice volcano erupts. The darkness was being torn aside by a firework show which spat flame into the evening to a top of almost 5,000 ft.

“I feel our hosts predict us,” I stated.

The matchup between British attackers and Italian defenders appeared nearly laughably lopsided. This could not be a ship-to-ship slugfest à la Jutland; the Regia Marina was greater than 4 instances the scale of the small British fleet. As a substitute, the attackers would strike by air, in 21 sluggish and manifestly out of date provider plane bearing torpedoes and bombs. The fleet of their sights comprised six battleships, 9 cruisers, extra than two dozen destroyers and quite a few different vessels at anchor in one of many world’s best-protected harbors, with submerged breakwaters, submarine nets, barrage balloons dangling metal cables and a whole bunch of antiaircraft weapons. The British would possibly precisely have named its mission Operation David vs. Goliath.

Because it turned out, the Italians would possibly effectively have dubbed it Operation Sitting Duck.

Taranto was residence port of the Regia Marina’s most important fleet, together with battleships, cruisers and destroyers. (Ernesto Burzagli)


The British had discovered a lot about naval aviation through the Thirties, and their newest carriers, the Illustrious class, had been extra than simply credible. They had been purpose-constructed, not transformed cruisers or freighters with grafted-on flight decks. At 740 ft lengthy, they provided ample area to each launch and recuperate fight plane. Their three steam generators might propel the ships at speeds as much as 30 knots. They boasted a spread approaching 11,000 nautical miles. The carriers featured early-warning radar, a number of antiaircraft batteries and, most vital, an armored flight deck. Every might carry 36 fight plane.

The Royal Navy’s provider plane of selection in 1940 was the Swordfish, a single-engine torpedo/dive bomber. Launched in 1936, it was an open-cockpit biplane with fastened touchdown gear. It appeared like an vintage and by the outbreak of World Conflict II was already thought of out of date, particularly when in comparison with most different Axis and Allied fighters, bombers and torpedo planes.

The Swordfish—or “Stringbag,” because it was nicknamed (a reference to string purchasing baggage frequent on the time in Britain), for the number of gadgets it might carry—had a theoretical prime velocity north of 140 mph, although lots of the Royal Navy aviators who flew it famous the aircraft hardly ever topped 100. It was fabric-skinned, thus the crewmales’s flight fits provided the one climate safety. The plane carried no navigational gear past a comgo, an airspeed indicator, a easy radio and an observer’s wristwatch. Its fastened armament consisted of two World Conflict I–classic .303-caliber machine weapons.

Out of date, sure. Nevertheless it was Britain’s greatest operational provider aircraft, and it provided some vital benefits. Every Swordfish might carry and launch a single Whitehead Mark XII, a confirmed torpedo weighing simply over 1,600 kilos. With a spread of 1,500 yards at a velocity of 40 knots, the torpedo delivered a warhead full of 388 kilos of TNT—enough to blow a gap the scale of a double-decker bus by way of the plating of a contemporary armored battleship. Alternatively, the plane might carry 1,500 kilos of bombs or a mixture of bombs and flares.

The Swordfish had different pluses. It was straightforward to fly, forgiving (proving tough to stall) and stout sufficient to face up to a 200 mph dive and stay controllable. It might additionally take lots of punishment—even to its 690 hp Bristol Pegasus nine-cylinder radial engine—and remost important airborne. Maybe most vital, the Swordfish could possibly be launched and recovered after darkish, whereas the Italians had no operational evening fighters anyplace close to Taranto.

Apart from cutting-edge carriers and succesful strike plane, the British fleet claimed different key strategic and tactical benefits over its Italian adversaries.

On the defensive entrance was shipborne radar. By 1940 greater than a dozen warships within the British Mediterranean Fleet, together with Illustrious, had been radar-equipped, professionalviding early warning of approaching enemy plane. Boosting the fleet’s sense of safety was the newly introduced Fairey Fulmar, the mainstay of Illustrious’ fight air patrols. A quick two-seat fighter and dive-bomber, it bore the identical eight-gun firepower of a Hawker Hurricane and proved greater than a match for any potential Regia Aeronautica attackers.

The British additionally had planning on their aspect. As early as 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia in a bid for management of the Mediterranean, Adm. Sir William Fisher, then commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, realized his service sometime might need to assault the Regia Marina’s residence base and labored out the small print of an aerial torpedo assault. Fisher’s successor, Adm. Sir Dudley Pound, made refinements and started coaching for that eventuality. The Royal Navy shelved the plan till 1938, when warfare clouds started gathering over Europe. At that level Pound’s successor, Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham, a resourceful and decided commander, reopened the plan and undertook in depth workouts, together with apply evening launches, assaults and recoveries. Among the many beneficiaries of these workouts had been the very flight crews that by way of the summer season and fall of 1940 educated for the scheduled Taranto raid. By that November they had been digital veterans of the operation.

Lastly, Britain approached the raid with wonderful intelligence, together with prolonged surveillance of the Taranto harbor. Within the months previous the raid, British reconnaissance plane, principally ponderous four-engine Brief Sunderland flying boats, undertook many dangerous overflights of Taranto to find out the kinds, numbers and locations of the Italian capital ships. That reconnaissance took a terrific leap ahead with the arrival in Malta of three new American-built Martin Maryland Mk.Is, twin-engine gentle bombers with a cruising velocity of 250 mph and a ceiling approaching 30,000 ft, rendering them impervious to Italian fighters. Their productive picture runs over Taranto continued as much as the very afternoon of the November 11 assault, offering the detailed real-time disposition of the Italian fleet. The Swordfish pilots knew precisely the place their goal ships had been anchored.

Shortly after 8 p.m. on November 11 Illustrious arrived at “Level X” within the Ionian Sea, some 40 nautical miles northwest of the Greek island of Cephalonia and 170 nautical miles southeast of Taranto. Accidents, battle injury to HMS Eagle and operational mishaps had decreased the strike power from two plane carriers to at least one (Illustrious) and 24 Swordfish to 21. Simply earlier than 8:30 p.m. on that cool moonlit night Captain Denis Boyd turned his provider into the wind as aircrews boarded the dozen Swordfish of the primary wave.

Six of the plane carried torpedoes, 4 carried six 250-pound bombs, and two carried 4 bombs and 16 magnesium parachute flares. The flares had been to be dropped from about 5,000 ft in line at intervals simply inland from the harbor in an effort to silhouette the Italian ships for the attacking pilots.

At 8:30 p.m. the chief of the primary wave, Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth “Hooch” Williamson, flew his torpedo aircraft from the deck of Illustrious. The opposite Swordfish adopted at 10-second intervals, forming up on Williamson’s plane for the two-hour, twenty-minute flight to Taranto. Whereas the planes often had a crew of three—pilot, observer and rear gunner—on this mission, the gunners had been left behind to accommodate a long-range auxiliary gasoline tank. Thus the observer, who doubled because the navigator, was to man the rear machine gun in a pinch. The crews would preserve radio silence through the operation, so he was no less than spared that obligation.

Flying in free formation and ultimately climbing above cloud cowl at 7,500 ft, the completely chilled pilots and observers had time to mirror on what could have appeared a suicide mission: They had been approaching a stoutly defended port swept by searchlights and bristling with anti-aircraft weapons. Their arrival could be no surprise to the Italian defenders, as ringing the harbor was a string of sound detectors that might decide up approaching plane as a lot as 25 miles nautical miles out. Pressured by necessity, the Royal Navy pilots would make their remaining torpedo runs straight and degree at wave-top top.

On the upside, the crews would don’t have any downside spotting their targets. Alerted by the sound detectors a full quarter-hour earlier than the primary wave arrived round 11 p.m., the Italian gunners had stuffed the sky over Taranto with vibrant explosions and crisscrossing crimson, inexperienced and white tracer bullets. The 2 Swordfish carrying parachute flares quickly dropped their beacons, additional including to the spectacle. It will need to have appeared unattainable to fly over the harbor with out getting shot down. Certainly, the lead aircraft, piloted by Williamson, was promptly hit and downed. However not earlier than Hooch had dropped to a top of simply 30 ft and dropped his torpedo. The Italian battleship Conte di Cavour lay in plain view, because of the intense flares. The torpedo ran straight and true, placing the vessel on the port bow. Water rushed into the large gap, forcing its helmsman to seashore the ship.

Because it turned from its assault run, Williamson’s Swordfish was struck by machine-gun hearth and dropped into the harbor. Each Williamson and his observer, Lt. Norman Scarlett, had been unharmed. Finally fished out of the water, they had been accosted by offended dockworkers earlier than being formally taken prisoner.

The Italians had thought of their base untouchable by torpedo assaults, as each the internal and outer harbors had been too shallow (at about 40 ft) for attacking submarines. Alongside that very same line of thought, they believed all aerial-dropped torpedoes initially sank to some 90 ft earlier than rising to strike degree; had been that true, the harbor would once more show too shallow. However the Royal Navy had modified its torpedoes to sink to a most of 35 ft earlier than continuing to the goal. The weapons had been additionally outfitted with Duplex detonators, which might set off the warheads both on contact or as soon as throughout the ships’ magnetic area, whichever got here first. The Italians had deployed in depth anti-torpedo netting, however not sufficient to intercept these torpedoes.

A second and third Swordfish additionally launched torpedoes at Conte di Cavour however missed. The following two Swordfish attacked the battleship Littorio in fast succession, every of their torpedoes discovering its mark. The torpedo from the first aircraft struck Littorio’s starboard bow, opening a gap some 30 by 50 ft. Dropped from simply 400 yards out, the torpedo from the second aircraft opened a smaller gap within the ship’s port quarter.

The final torpedo aircraft approached over land and made its remaining run on the battleship Vittorio Veneto. Its torpedo exploded within the water wanting its goal. The pilot maneuvered dramatically almost at mast-height earlier than disappearing into the darkish skies of the Ionian.

Although that they had spent only some minutes on track, the six torpedo bombers had severely broken two Italian battleships at the price of one downed plane. Sluggish as they had been, the gray-green camouflage-painted Swordfish had been tough to identify exterior the beams of the searchlights, and the Italian anti-aircraft gunners had been unable to focus on plane flying so near the water. Because it was, a lot of their projectiles as an alternative struck neighboring ships and shore installations.

The follow-on Swordfish carrying six bombs every had been much less profitable than the torpedo planes. The primary two descended under their assault altitude of 8,000 ft however nonetheless couldn’t find their designated targets—the heavy cruisers anchored within the internal harbor. Most of their bombs went astray or did not detonate, although one aircraft managed to hit a hangar at a seaplane base, setting it afire and destroying two plane. The third Stringbag made two runs however hit nothing. The crew of the fourth claimed to have hit an Italian destroyer with a bomb, however the warhead did not explode. All 4 plane bought away safely. The final two planes of the primary wave over the goal had been the flare-carrying Swordfish, every of which dropped its 4 bombs on an oil storage depot a mile inland.

By then the second wave of Swordfish, led by Lt. Cmdr. John W. “Ginger” Hale, was about 20 minutes out from Taranto, albeit quick two plane. The final two of its 9 planes had collided whereas taxiing on Illustrious. The provider’s flight deck crew bought them untangled, however just one appeared airworthy and was capable of take off. It had sustained injury, although, and was pressured to show again. Mechanics had been capable of restore the second aircraft, which launched late. In the meantime, the seven different planes—5 carrying torpedoes, two flares and bombs—climbed to eight,000 ft and arrived on track simply earlier than midnight. Once more the sky lit up in a kaleidoscope of antiaircraft hearth.

After additional illuminating the internal and outer harbors, the 2 flare-bearing Swordfish dropped their payloads on the oil depot and turned again to sea. Piloting the lead torpedo aircraft, Hale flew in from the northwest, making an finish run round a line of barrage balloons to launch his torpedo at Littorio. It did not detonate. A second Swordfish flew across the barrage balloons to the south, however because it neared the rows of battleships and cruisers, close-range anti-aircraft hearth shot it down, killing pilot Lt. Gerald Bayly and observer Lt. Henry Slaughter.

The following attacker fared higher, lining up for a transparent run on the battleship Caio Duilio. Its torpedo struck amidships on the starboard aspect and opened a fatally giant gap. Because the warship threatened to founder, Duilio’s helmsman turned the ship and beached it.

A fourth Swordfish maneuvered by way of the balloons and heavy anti-aircraft hearth, approached Littorio at wave-prime top and launched its torpedo from some 700 yards out. The weapon hit residence on the starboard bow of the battleship, which started to listing.

The ultimate torpedo bomber, piloted by Lt. John Nicelyham, circled the internal harbor to method the battleships from the southeast. Although his Swordfish caromed off a barrage balloon and was hit by anti-aircraft hearth, Nicelyham managed to launch his torpedo at Vittorio Veneto. It missed the battleship however reportedly went on to strike and additional injury Conte di Cavour. As Wellham made good his escape, his torpedo bomber sustained injury from flak, however the dauntless pilot stored it within the air.

Fifteen minutes later the straggler Swordfish broken within the deck collision arrived alone over the harbor and launched its payload of bombs on the heavy cruisers. One hit Trento however did not explode. The time was 12:35 a.m. on November 12, and the assault on Taranto was over.

As soon as the final plane of the second wave had gotten away, Captain Boyd had turned Illustrious again towards Cephalonia and headed to a rendezvous level some 185 nautical miles from Taranto. There he had turned the provider into the wind and ready to recuperate the returning Swordfish. The primary touched down at 1:40 a.m., the final at 2:50. Debriefing of the aircrews suggested the mission had inflicted severe injury on the Italian fleet, at a price of two downed Swordfish, two males killed and two captured. An in depth evaluation got here later that morning after a reconnaissance flight by a Maryland out of Malta. It reported one battleship sunk (Conte di Cavour) and two beached (Caio Duilio and Littorio), plus damages to different ships in addition to to the seaplane base and the oil depot. Forty Italian sailors had been killed.

The unique operational plan known as for a return assault that evening, an thought reportedly met with a heartfelt and memorable protest from one of many pilots: “They solely requested the Gentle Brigade to do it as soon as!” In the long run, given the approach of unfavorable climate, exhausted crews and the chance of extra casualties, the powers that be cancelled the second strike.

The assault on Taranto was thought of a decisive victory for Britain, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill touted it as such in a November 13 speech to the Home of Commons. Certainly, the Regia Marina had misplaced half of its battleships. Although Caio Duilio and Littorio had been refloated and repaired inside six months, the severely broken Conti di Cavour by no means returned to service. The Italians promptly moved their three operational battleships to berths in Naples, thus shifting the stability of naval energy within the Mediterranean in favor of Britain.

Although Japanese naval observers had been effectively conscious of the success of the British assault on Taranto and gleaned what they might from its outcomes, it was removed from a blueprint for the far bigger strike towards Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. It was, nonetheless, a helpful proof-of-idea for a carrier-based aerial raid on a stationary fleet of floor ships—a possible lesson tragically unheeded by the U.S. Navy.

New York-based author Michael W. Robbins is a former editor of Army Historical past and MHQ. For additional studying he recommends Air Energy, by Stephen Budiansky, Taranto 1940, by Angus Konstam, and Conflict in a Stringbag, by Charles Lamb.


Leave a Reply

GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings