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Taranto – a kick in the balls for Mussolini – 75 years ago tonight

I doubt that many realise that it was on 11th November 1940 that the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy struck a blow at Royal Fascist Italy’s Navy that may well have slowed the march of the Axis powers in the Mediterranean and marked the first check on their advance after the fall of France. The operation, called ‘Operation Judgment‘, involved two waves of Fairey Swordfish biplanes (almost certainly the slowest surprise air attack of WW2 apart perhaps from the springing of Mussolini) attacking the Italian fleet at Taranto harbour on the ‘heel’ of Italy. The outcome was that the Italian surface fleet was severely reduced in capability, and the remnants moved further up the peninsula to Naples, thereby limiting their capability to interfere with British shipping in the Mediterranean and to re-inforce North Africa. British casualties were 2 aircraft lost, 2 men killed, 2 PoWs. The Italians lost one battleship, and had 2 battleships and 2 cruisers heavily damaged.

The raid had been planned for Trafalgar Day, 21st October, but was put back due to a fire, fittingly enough to Armistice Day. A Swordfish also went on to cripple the Bismarck, and later in the War they accounted for 22 U-boats. Not a bad record at all.

It has been speculated that this raid inspired the Japanese to use air power at Pearl Harbor, but perhaps emboldened would be a better term, after all, it is not as if Japan wasn’t gearing up for something by this time. The anniversary of the raid has attracted some comment, a piece here in the American Thinker (an organ of which I know little), but pointing out that it actually makes sense to attack your enemies, not to wait for them to attack you. I particularly liked this part:

Third, fight to win, and winning means destroying the power of those who hate us. Had the Second World War been, instead of a continuous struggle, a series of peace talks and ceasefires and diplomatic pussyfooting, it is certain that Hitler would never have lost. Democracies naturally loathe war and yearn for peace, but evil regimes who control their subject peoples can maintain war fever indefinitely.

You might think that that author had some people from the present-day in mind.

And for those brave men of the Fleet Air Arm, flying in open cockpits at night against a major enemy harbour, I shall raise a glass of prosecco tonight, to sink something Italian.

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35 comments to Taranto – a kick in the balls for Mussolini – 75 years ago tonight

  • James Taranto says “OUCH”

  • JohnK

    The article mentions two British carriers being used, in fact it was only one, the Illustrious. It had been planned to use HMS Eagle as well, but she was damaged beforehand. The Royal Navy had only gained control of the Fleet Air Arm back from the RAF in 1937, and years of neglect meant it was operating obsolete biplanes, which only made the success at Taranto more remarkable. One thing we can be thankful for was that both Germany and Italy did not follow Japan’s lead and develop aircraft carriers, because that would have caused us major problems indeed. Luckily, both countries had air forces which opposed the development of naval aviation.

    Nowadays, because politicians are fools, the Royal Navy is once again dependent on the RAF for its fixed wing aircraft, which means that they are the wrong sort and will mostly be unavailable when needed. We seem to be comdemned to make the same mistakes over and over again, but I am sure that the Fleet Air Arm will always do its best to find, fix and strike the enemy.

  • Mr Pants

    I remember hearing somewhere that a major contributor to this victory was that the Italians had a deflection shooting system that wasn’t calibrated to work with targets that flew as slowly as a Swordfish. Quite literally, the raid was as successful as it was because the planes were obsolete. Has anyone else heard of this theory?

  • TDK

    I understand that the Japanese benefited in one key aspect: how to stop the dropped torpedo from immediately burying itself into the shallow harbour bed. The British worked out a way to modify the torpedo which the Japanese would adapt.

  • JohnW

    The Swordfish certainly sank a lot of Axis shipping.

  • Mike Giles

    The theoretical idea of an air attack on Pearl Harbor was first carried out by American carriers during war games in 1932 – on a Sunday morning. But of course the battleship admirals ignored what it portended. Just as they ignored the successful British attack on a shallow, defended harbor, just like Pearl Harbor.

  • Vinegar Joe

    Find a copy of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell’s Winged Defense printed in 1925.

    “Bombardment, attack to be made on Ford Island (Hawaii) at 7:30 A.M….. Attack to be made on Clark Field at 10:40 A.M.”

  • Mr Ed

    Yes indeed VJ, Mitchell was out by 18 minutes, it was 7.48 am!

  • Eric

    The Royal Navy had only gained control of the Fleet Air Arm back from the RAF in 1937, and years of neglect meant it was operating obsolete biplanes, which only made the success at Taranto more remarkable.

    Those obsolete biplanes were critical in the sinking of Bismarck. Her mechanical air defense computers couldn’t be configured for aircraft flying that slowly. Had the Royal Navy been using newer, faster torpedo bombers they would have sustained greater losses, even possibly allowing the ship to escape.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Interestingly, the Swordfish was in service with Canada as late as 1948, and some were fitted with radar – likely the only biplane ever to be so equipped.

    I should add, as an old military aviator and present-day cynic, that the real distinction between an ‘obsolescent’ and an ‘obsolete’ aircraft is that you have a replacement for the ‘obsolete’ one on hand.

  • Veryretired

    I remember reading that the US navy had a war game scenario that they practiced starting back in the 1920’s that began with attacks on the air and naval bases in Hawaii by Japan. I think it was called “Plan Orange”. There was another pre- drawn plan involving the Panama Canal, and others involving the Phillipines, Australia, etc.

    It wasn’t so much surprise as incompetence.

  • Darrell

    “A Department of Defense never won a war.” attributed to Robert Heinlein

  • the frollickingmole

    Mr Pants

    I had read the same thing with regards to the fusing on some of the Bismarks shells, a lot went off in front of attacking aircraft, much less next to them.
    http://navalairhistory.com/2015/07/07/fairey-swordfish-fluke-victor/

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    Veryretired, as an Australian, I have to ask- was Japan the aggressor in those plans against Australia, or did America plan to invade us?

  • JohnK

    Eric:

    I think if you had asked the crews if they would prefer to fly a Swordfish or a Grumman Avenger I think I can guess the answer. Whether it is true that German and Italian AA guns had difficulty due to the Swordfish’s slow speed I don’t know. Sounds a bit like an urban myth to me, but you never know. It’s not something I would like to rely on though.

    The Swordfish found a new lease of life later in the war flying from escort carriers and the even smaller merchant aircraft carriers against U Boats, armed with depth charges. It was doing the sort of job a helicopter would do now, and its slow speed was if anything a virtue in that role.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Nicholas, for heaven’s sake. Of course the idea was to invade you. You folks had a Natural Monopoly (eee-ee-villl, boo-hiss) on a very valuable and rare resource, wombats. We planned to subdue you Aussies so as to take possession of all your wombats, thereby cornering the market in wombats, leading to wealth beyond measure for our country.

    Alas, a couple of other things came up before the plan could be put into practice, so this magnificent project died before birth. A great pity. I believe we should have named a National Day of Mourning to commemorate, each year, the loss of the world supply of wombats. 🙁

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    Julie, whilst rare, I don’t know where the value is in wombats. They’re like guinea-pigs, only larger and dumber! you can have all the wombats you want- we’d have given them to you! and have been grateful to get rid of them!
    Now drop bears are a different matter! these are carnivorous koalas who hide in the tops of gum trees, and drop onto their victims, stunning them, so they can then eat them (a gum leaf diet gets so boring!!!). These could be a surprise weapon. And I haven’t even mentioned the eagle-billed platypus, the meat-eating cousin of the more familiar duck-billed variety!

  • Rich Rostrom

    The Swordfish was not obsolete in 1940. It was a highly effective aircraft for the purposes it was used for, and remained useful all the way to the end of the war.

    It was more effective than the Albacore, which was designed later to replace it, but was taken out of service first.

  • Eric

    JohnK,

    This is supposedly in Mullenheim-Rechberg’s book Battleship Bismarck: A Survivor’s Story (I don’t have a copy). He attributed the fact that they didn’t get a single torpedo plane to both the inability of the tracking computers to resolve something moving that slowly and to the wild gyrations the ship was going through as she tried to evade torpedoes already in the water. She managed to dodge eight before the ninth hit her rudder.

    The Bismarck didn’t have a proper shakedown cruise, so she had the sorts of teething problems you’d expect from a brand new complex machine. When they tested the anti-aircraft batteries they used a fast diving Stuka for a target, and they ended the tests early due to time pressure. Not that they were unaware of problems. We have the report AVKS-700 which seems to be some kind of acceptance test documentation, which contains this:

    “…firing at sea targets or firing against low-flying aircraft with the 10.5 cm rapid loading C/33 in the C/37 twin mount is practically impossible by direct aiming of the guns with the available mechanical elevation alignment devices.”

    The AA battery wasn’t the only problem, either – a full broadside from the main battery would knock the radar offline, which forced the captain to rely on the Prinz Eugen‘s radar to scout. Not sure how they could have missed that.

  • Paul Marks

    Some “libertarians” and “conservatives” (especially in the United States) write as if World War II could have been avoided by adopting a weaker (yes weaker) policy towards Mr Hitler.

    They write as if Prime Minister Chamberlain had not bent over backwards for peace (just as Sir Edward Grey and Prime Minister Asquith desperately wanted peace in 1914) – and was some sort of warmonger.

    In reality the British government did all it could to maintain the peace, both in the run up to 1939 and in 1914, both World Wars were the fault of the German regimes involved (the desire, in 1914 as well as 1939, for unlimited conquest), and those who deny this are really in the Nelson-never-went-to-sea school of “history”.

    I am glad Mr Ed gives such people short shift.

    As for naval warfare.

    The post shows that the British did understand it in World War II.

    The disaster in the Far East (in relation to the Japanese) was due to lack of British carriers (and so on) in the area – and the fact that British military secrets were essentially wide open to the Japanese.

    A certain member of the “Right Club” (who worked very high in the British government) deserved to be hanged.

  • Paul Marks

    Short shrift – rather than short shift.

    As for the Japanese.

    Alas!

    By the 1930s Japan was utterly under the control of an expansionist belief system (State Shinto – a form of Shinto that had not even existed a few decades before). It was committed to unlimited conquest – which made war, at some stage, inevitable.

    The idea that the Japanese regime, by this stage, could have been reasoned with is just as false as the idea that the Nazi German regime could be reasoned with in the sense of being convinced that unlimited conquest was a bad idea.

    Indeed in Japan anyone in political life who showed signs of being rational, risked being chopped up by sword wielding lunatics.

    When a major power is taken over by Mad Dogs shooting can not, in the end, be avoided.

    Indeed trying to prevent war may lead to war occurring at a time when the Mad Dogs are stronger and one has less change of defeating them.

  • JohnK

    Rich:

    The Swordfish was obsolete in 1940, just compare it to a Japanese Kate torpedo bomber. However, the Swordfish was made to work by the bravery of its crews, and the good fortune that neither Germany nor Italy managed to build a carrier during the course of the war. As soon as the Fleet Air Arm could get hold of Avengers they stopped using Swordfish from fleet carriers, but the type still did valuable work as an anti-submarine bomber from escort carriers.

    Eric:

    I wonder if the German gunnery officer was excusing his poor performance by blaming his equipment? The Stuka is of course a dive bomber, so I don’t see how gunnery solutions for that would translate to shooting at a torpedo bomber. I think you are more likely on to something when you point out that Bismarck was very new and not yet fully shaken down. I think more experienced gunners would not have found Swordfish flying at about 130 knots such a difficult problem. The report you quote mentions the 10.5 cm guns, which were the heavy AA battery, but Bismarck also had 3.7 cm and 2 cm light AA guns, and these should have been able to cope with Swordfish, being aimed by MkI eyeball. Again, I would hazard a guess that the inexperience of the German gunners did the Swordfish crews a big favour there.

  • Mr Ed

    I have found the Telegraph obituary of the last surviving pilot from the raid, Lt-Cdr John Wellham, who reportedly spent the war having had a premonition that he would not die flying. Nice to have a name to remember.

    The obituary has this exchange between pilot and observer after the raid:

    That was a bit exciting. I think that you’ve bent the plane somewhat. Do you think that she’ll get us home?” “It wasn’t my fault” Wellham replied indignantly “It was those bloody Eyeties!“.

    It notes that a sailor inspecting his damaged Swordfish on its return was heard to say “F*** mate, look at that!“.

    Today, 12th November 2015 is the 71st anniversary of the day that the Tirpitz met the Tallboy, and was bowled over. All credit to 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF.

  • Watchman

    JohnK,

    The Swordfish was actually probably quite difficult to bring down with lighter guns, because it was basically light covering over a flexible frame, and could absorb a lot of holes (see Mr Ed’s story above…). Unless you hit the pilot, fuel tank or propulsion system, then relatively light ordinance was going to basically go through the plane and not really cause problems.

    And it’s not as if the Bismark had crew to spare to man the light guns – there were a couple of fairly menacing Royal Navy ships trying to get into firing range, so they need to man their main armament as well. And to be honest, I doubt that even an experienced gunnery officer would have realised what he was dealing with (planes flying slowly and extremely low was not something the Germans had experienced much) until they were dodging torpedoes.

  • Veryretired

    Nicholas—If I remember correctly, it wasn’t wombats that drove the invasion plans, but the belief that Oz had an unlimited supply of really good beer. These plans were made during Prohibition, remember.

    Anyway, you guys were after we invaded Canada to get more of those really warm coats with the big stripes on them.

    You have to keep your priorities in order…

  • Regional

    Julie near Chicago,
    At the cessation of hostilities the Americans looted Australian factories of indigenous innovations.

  • JohnK

    Watchman:

    What you say may be true, but it does not detract from the fact that the Swordfish was thoroughly obsolete in 1940, a legacy of the RAF’s control of the Fleet Air Arm, which they neglected while they concentrated on their beloved bombers.

  • Nicholas (Andy.royd) Gray

    Sorry, Paul, but I think you are wrong twice in one article! As I remember, the First War was caused by the Austrians, and their unreasonable demands on Serbia. The alliance system meant that Germany was also involved. Whilst they were not reluctant, I don’t think they started it.
    And Hitler was also born in Austria… I wonder if there’s something nasty in the Alpine water?
    This supports my idea of Southerner Syndrome! Napoleon was born in Corsica (the southern-most part of France), Stalin was born in Georgia, and Hitler was born in Austria. They were all southerners, and born in mountainous country, so maybe being closer to the sun made them more warlike? Could be a glib-sounding thesis in that!

  • JohnW

    Some “libertarians” and “conservatives” (especially in the United States) write as if World War II could have been avoided by adopting a weaker (yes weaker) policy towards Mr Hitler.

    Mr. Rothbard has a lot to answer for…

  • JohnK

    Nicholas:

    The Austrians wanted to smash Serbia, but hesitated because Russia was Serbia’s protector. It was only when Germany gave Austria its “blank cheque” of support whatever happened that the Austrians found the nerve to attack Serbia and initiate the beginning of the end for European civilization.

  • lucklucky

    There was only one carrier, Eagle had been damaged by Italian high level near misses.
    There were no cruisers heavily damaged. All battleships were refloated but Cavour an heavily rebuild WW1 Battleship – one example of Mussolini idiocy – was sent to shipyard but not repaired.

    The British got a couple of months which probably would get anyway with incompetent Italian aerial search and winter weather.

    The Sworfish was the ideal plane for night attacks due to it’s slow speed and maneuverability. The Swordfish successor the Albacore wasn’t so much.
    Both are hopless in face of aerial defenses.

  • JohnK

    Lucky:

    I think you are bit harsh on the Italians. Britain, the USA and Japan all rebuilt WWI era battleships to get the best use out of them, and the Italian rebuilds were particularly good. Times were hard in the 1930s and states had to make the best of what they had. The Italian battlefleet was a major threat, and it was our good luck that they never completed an aircraft carrier. The Italian air force insisted that Italy was one large aircraft carrier, which is typical of the misguided thinking air forces typically display towards naval aviation.

    As to the Swordfish, it was indeed remarkable that it proved to be more useful than its designated successor, the Albacore, but as I have said, the baleful influence of RAF control of the Fleet Air Arm left it in a very poor state, and its procurement policies no doubt reflected that.

  • Mr Ed

    One reason for the rebuild of WW1 era ships was the Washington Naval Treaty which limited the construction of battleships etc post WW1, until it fell apart in the mid-1930s, with Germany barred from building battleships by Versailles, which was not enforced. Hence poor old Hood facing the Bismarck, a reconditioned banger vs a new build.

  • Mr Ed

    JohnK:

    You are quite right about the situation of the Fleet Air Arm. It was nonsensical that the RAF provided the aircraft and crew aboard Royal Navy ships, a situation that only ended in May 1939 with the transfer of the RAF crews to the Royal Navy (one of the Flight Lieutenant Swordfish pilots at Taranto kept his equivalent rank much to the chagrin of RN officers of the same age who were below him). However, the situation of the Royal Air Force Coastal Command was hardly much better, it was very much the Cinderella of the service, being low in the pecking order for resources, and lacking much in capability and strength for the early part of the War.

    It should be remembered that whilst the FAA had Fairey Swordfish, at the start of the War, the RAF had a light bomber known as the Fairey Battle, probably the slowest thing with a Merlin on it in history, and basically fit only for growing tomatoes under its glazed canopy, it was basically a Luftwaffe ‘target tug’ and 200 were lost in 6 weeks of which 99 were in one week in May. It took 3 crew, thereby getting more men killed per mission, although it did have the first RAF kill of the war to its credit.

    Odd to think that post-War, the Fairey Aviation Company then produced a world speed record holder, the Fairey Delta 2, claimed by some to be the genitor of the French Mirage family.

  • JohnK

    Mr Ed:

    Yes, sadly the poor old Hood never got the rebuild she was due for in the late 1930s, as she was kept busy showing the flag in the Med during the Spanish Civil War. She was due to have been modernised to a similar standard to the other rebuilt capital ships, which would certainly have helped when she had to face the Bismarck.

    You are also right about the Fairey Battle, which was a death trap. Sadly, the RAF had stopped development of a very promising dive bomber, the Hawker Henley, because dive bombing was seen as putting the RAF in a subservient role to the army. Likewise, Coastal Command was similarly neglected because it put the RAF in a support role to the Royal Navy. The Air Staff firmly believed that strategic bombing would win the war, and poured resouces into Bomber Command. I rather suspect that one reason Sir Hugh Dowding was rewarded with the sack after he won the Battle of Britain was because he had proved that an integrated air defence system could defeat a strategic bombing offensive, and had thereby invalidated the whole raison d’etre of an independent air force.