This week in the war, on the night of 11–12 November 1940, Fairey Swordfish biplanes from British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious attacked Taranto Harbour, the principal naval base of the Italian fleet. For the cost of two aircraft shot down, the naval balance of power in the Mediterranean was altered in a single stroke.
Under the command of Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the British Mediterranean Fleet—comprising the ageing battleships Barham, Warspite, Valiant, Malaya, and Ramillies, plus the modern aircraft carrier Illustrious—sailed eastward from Gibralter. Admiral Campioni had concentrated all six of Italy’s battleships at Taranto. Poor reconnaissance and the assumption that the British were likely heading for Malta and thence to Alexandria were to cost the Italians dear.
Shortly after 8.30pm, the first wave of ‘Stringbags’—as the Swordfish biplanes were jokingly called—took off from the deck of the Illustrious. The second wave followed an hour later; 21 aircraft in total, each with a crew of two. The picture to the left—taken by Peter Noble at the 2002 Duxford Air Show—shows one of the few remaining Swordfish. For a plane whose top speed was not much faster than a modern-day car (139 mph or 224 km per hour), the achievement at Taranto was remarkable. [Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal would later deserve much credit for the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck on 27 May 1941].
Despite the anti-aircraft fire from ships and shore defences, the Swordfish pilots pressed home their attack. When they left, half of Italy’s battleships were no longer fit for action: the Littorio and the Caio Duilio would take several months to repair; the Cavour would not be sea-worthy again. Twenty-one tiny planes, each with a single magnetically-detonated torpedo, had changed the nature of war at sea and signalled an end to the era in which battleships ruled the waves. In Tokyo, the admirals were taking note.
In the decade prior to WWII, British naval strategy assumed that the Royal Navy and France’s substantial fleet would control the Mediterranean, and that Italy would remain neutral. The reality was a neutral (Vichy) France and an Italy that was allied with Hitler. The Battle of Taranto put control—at least for a time—back into British hands, and ensured the flow of supplies to beleaguered Malta and to the Greeks who were fiercely defending their country against the Italian invaders.
Donald Macintyre has written a fine book covering Taranto and much more: The Battle for the Mediterranean (B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, 1964).