Operation Judgement

‘It was a beautiful, picture-postcard evening; there were only a few wisps of cloud below us, otherwise the sky was clear, and littered with a blaze of stars; to the south a three-quarter moon was throwing a golden pathway across the calm sea; the air was smooth giving hardly a judder. It would have been the most perfect evening to enjoy flying, had it not been for the reason for our flight.’

Lt John Wellham

WHEN MUSSOLINI DECLARED war on Britain on 10 June 1940, the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet found itself in an extremely vulnerable position. At a stroke, Britain’s ability to maintain control over a region vital to its survival was plunged into serious jeopardy. Outnumbered and outgunned, many of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s antiquated ships, impressive though they looked, were clapped out and close to the end of their operational usefulness. The Italians, by contrast, boasted dozens of new and impeccably renovated ships and submarines in a huge fleet, backed up by a large air force with hundreds of very good-quality aircraft. Mussolini liked to refer to the Med as ‘Mare Nostrum’ (Our Sea) and, on paper at least, it was his Royal Navy, not Britain’s, that ruled its waves.

Since Nelson’s time, the Mediterranean Fleet had been regarded by British admirals as the finest command of them all, but nine months into Hitler’s War, it had become something of a Cinderella service. Most of its best ships had been rushed back to defend home waters: the Dunkirk evacuation had begun at the end of May, the Battle of Britain raged overhead, the Atlantic convoys were being sunk in great numbers by German U-boats, and Norway needed help too. What ships could be spared for the Med were past or fast approaching their scrapping date.

This might not have mattered had the Mediterranean been a backwater command irrelevant to Britain’s war effort. But that was far from the case. Control of the 2,400-mile-long sea was vital to British interests and it had to be held at all costs. The Mediterranean was the main corridor for all British imperial assets and territories in North Africa, the Middle East, the Far East and Australasia. The alternative passage from the UK to India, around the Cape of Good Hope, was 4,000 miles longer, which added several more weeks to the journey time.

Gibraltar had no airfield at the time and Malta, the Royal Navy’s other major base in the region, lay a short flight from a string of Italian air bases. Over a two-year period, the tiny island and its British naval base was to be subjected to more than 3,000 bombing raids. There was no other good-quality naval base or anchorage in the 6,000 or so miles between Malta and Singapore. The Navy had adopted Alexandria out of necessity rather than choice: the Egyptian port’s defences and facilities were poor and the fleet was vulnerable there.

With all her capital ships drawn off for more pressing engagements, by the end of 1939 the once formidable Mediterranean Fleet consisted of three small cruisers and a few destroyers of World War One vintage. The reinforcements that arrived by the time Mussolini decided that Britain was a spent force, ripe for picking off, were welcomed, but they brought little more than the appearance of strength. A fleet is only as powerful as its biggest guns – that is, its battleships – and against Italy’s six modern battleships, only HMS Warspite could hope to hold her own in an old-fashioned slugging match. Possession of just two of her modern battleships, supported by its cruiser and destroyer squadrons, would have been sufficient to give the Italians the upper hand in the Mediterranean. Half a dozen of them was a luxury that Britain could only envy – and fear. The Royal Navy was also very short of ammunition and, if major repairs were needed to a ship, she would have to return to the UK or make the long, dangerous passage to the United States or Canada.

In short, Britain’s days in the Med were numbered. Not for two centuries had one of Britain’s enemies had a better opportunity to defeat a fleet of the fabled Royal Navy in open battle. And yet the Italians never tried. There were two reasons for this. Firstly and frankly, they simply didn’t fancy it. The reputation alone of the Royal Navy was formidable enough to keep the Italian Fleet in the safety of its heavily defended bases. Secondly, even with the odds stacked in their favour, they didn’t need to risk a confrontation. In spite of his ageing fleet’s technical inferiority, Admiral Cunningham, a fighting man to the tips of his well-polished shoes, never stopped trying to invite the Italians out into the open. But they never came. When, once, the two forces ran into each other, after a brief engagement the Italians quickly ran for the sanctuary of their harbours.

It wasn’t so much cowardice as common sense that persuaded Admiral Riccardi, Chief of the Italian Naval Staff, to keep his big ships out of harm’s way. Italian submarines and aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica were causing quite enough damage to British interests as it was. Malta was hanging on by a thread; British submarines were being sent to the bottom faster than they could be replaced; Allied supply convoys to North Africa were being harassed to distraction, and Italian seaplanes, with virtually no opposition in the air, were providing information about every British move in the Med. Riccardi simply had to wait for the overstretched, obsolete Royal Navy fleet to burn itself out before sailing forth to administer the knockout blow.

Admiral Cunningham and his senior commanders understood the danger. They knew they had to act before it was too late. With the RAF tied up defending Britain from a German invasion, Britain’s air assets in the Med were pathetically inadequate for the job of defending the fleet and her bases. There was barely a dozen aircraft available to patrol almost one million square miles of air space, an area the size of the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, the Lowlands, Poland and Greece combined.

Old-school Navy characters – and there were a great many of them – were yet to fully grasp the strategic importance of ‘air’ to navies in modern warfare. Some even thought it was unchivalrous for one Navy to attack another with anything but the guns on her ships. But, whether they knew it or not, the days when two fleets took up position and knocked lumps out of each other from a distance were over. To devastatingly destructive effect, the Luftwaffe divebombers had recently shown in their attacks against the Royal Navy in Norway that a few dozen small aircraft, produced at a fraction of the cost of a warship, were able to locate enemy ships at sea with ease and then set about them with powerful, precisely delivered bombs. The Royal Navy, with its outdated, inaccurate AA guns, never stood a chance in the doomed Norwegian campaign (by coincidence, the campaign came to an end the day Italy declared war on Britain).

A letter in May 1940 from Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, Cunningham’s predecessor in the Med, confirmed what the new Commander-in-Chief already knew. It read: ‘I am afraid you are terribly short of “air”, but there again I do not see what can be done because . . . every available aircraft is wanted in home waters. The one lesson we have learnt here is that it is essential to have fighter protection over the fleet whenever they are within the range of enemy bombers. You will be without such protection, which is a very serious matter, but I do not see any way of rectifying it.’ At the time of his writing, the ancient aircraft carrier HMS Eagle was on its way from the Far East with a small squadron of biplanes in its hangar, but that was next to no comfort to the naval chiefs. Carriers, warships and aircraft were being built at a frenetic rate back in Britain’s shipyards and factories, but whether there would still be a Mediterranean Fleet for them to reinforce was another matter.

From the moment they received the news that Britain was at war with Italy, every sailor and airman (what few there were of the latter) in the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet understood there was only one option: Cunningham was going to have to ‘do a Nelson’. That was the expression buzzing around below the decks, referring to two great episodes in the history of the Royal Navy, the Battle of Copenhagen and the Battle of the Nile. In both encounters, Nelson used the element of surprise to attack enemy fleets whilst they were at anchor. Both ended in decisive victories for the Royal Navy and secured British domination for years to come.

The huge Italian fleet at the southern port of Taranto was asking for the same treatment. The only difference this time round was that it was not giant ships of the line, with a thousand guns between them, that were tasked to wreak the destruction. It was a handful of cloth-covered biplanes that looked as if they had flown straight out of a Biggles adventure book.

There is a well-told story in the Fleet Air Arm of an officer from the US Navy boarding HMS Illustrious in 1940. He walks along the flight deck and, pointing at the strange-looking aircraft emerging from the lift hangar, exclaims: ‘Oh My God! You don’t actually fly those things, do you? They look more like four-poster beds than frontline airplanes.’ There’s no reason to doubt the truth of the story. Even seventy years on, you don’t have to be an aviation expert to take one look at a Fairey Swordfish and wonder how its type had not been consigned to the scrapyard many years earlier. At a time when sleek, powerful Spitfires and Hurricanes were tearing up the skies with Me109s and Stuka divebombers, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Swordfish looked like an aircraft better suited to a museum or a vintage airshow than a modern theatre of war. How that American naval officer would have been astonished to learn that not only would the Swordfish remain in frontline service until VE Day, but that it would account for sinking a greater tonnage of Axis shipping than any Allied aircraft in the war.

The Swordfish was conceived and went into production in the mid-1930s at a time when the rest of the world’s aircraft manufacturers had begun to turn their creative minds to monoplanes, constructed from steel and toughened aluminium. The British designer Charles Fairey, founder of Fairey Aviation, believed there was still a role for an old-style biplane made from struts and wires and covered in linen cloth. At the behest of the Admiralty, it was designed as a maritime aircraft that, flying off carriers, could carry out antisubmarine patrols, reconnaissance and torpedo-dropping. Carrier aircraft, coming in at speed, needed to be extremely robust to withstand the heavy landings on deck and, operating far out at sea, often a long way from their targets, they also needed to have longer legs than most. The Swordfish had a range of 450 nautical miles, and that could be doubled by strapping on an extra fuel tank.

It was never imagined that the Swordfish would be able to hold its own against the speedy, powerful fighters of the Italian or German air forces. The Swordfish could reach 100 knots at a push, but nothing like that when laden with fuel and bombs or a torpedo. The Me109, the Luftwaffe’s workhorse fighter, was four or five times faster; its armament of fixed machine guns and cannon immeasurably more powerful and accurate than anything the British biplane could put up. The Swordfish’s only form of defence was a fixed forward-firing Vickers machine gun and a swivel-mounted Vickers or Lewis gun at the back of the open cockpit; these were so cumbersome and inaccurate that the gunner/wireless operator rarely bothered to use them and they were often removed altogether. A handheld pistol was seen as a more effective means of defence. Slow, defenceless and made from stretched cloth . . . the sight of a leisurely approaching Swordfish was unlikely to put the fear of god into its enemies. The hope was that they would rarely meet.

The Swordfish might not have been the most sophisticated piece of kit to take to the air in the Second World War, but they didn’t build 2,392 of them for the amusement of the Germans and Italians. Speak to the pilots of the Fleet Air Arm who flew her throughout the war, and you won’t hear anything but affection and admiration for the aircraft. They will tell you that the Swordfish had three outstanding qualities: it was extremely manoeuvrable, highly adaptable and, in spite of its flimsy-looking cloth frame, it was as hard as nails.

Its aerobatic qualities certainly came in handy when being chased by German fighters in the Norwegian campaign a few months earlier. A number of Me109s, chasing Swordfishes up fjords, found it hard to lay a round on them as the biplanes twisted and turned. In the aerobatic tangle, the less manoeuvrable German fighters sometimes crashed into the steep rock faces of Norway’s jagged coastline. The Swordfish was highly unlikely to shoot down an enemy fighter, but she could certainly give him the runaround. The aircraft’s versatility earned it the nickname ‘Stringbag’. The Swordfish was happy to drop anything: bombs, torpedoes, flares, depth charges, mines . . . Like a housewife’s string shopping bag, the Swordfish could carry any number of items of equipment at a time. But above all, she could take a great deal of punishment, more than any other aircraft in operation at the time. Most rounds passed straight through her linen-covered fuselage and wings.

Since the emergence of military aircraft thirty years earlier, no strike from the air had ever been attempted on a heavily defended naval base anywhere in the world. This was in part down to the very sensible reasoning that such an operation could have only one outcome: disaster for the attacking force of aircraft. Taranto, like Portsmouth and Wilhelmshaven, was one of the world’s great naval bases, protected by layer upon layer of defences. In addition to dozens of shore batteries, there were, of course, the countless guns of the ships themselves to see off any aircraft mad or brave enough to fly within their range. But Admiral Cunningham was not the only senior commander in the Med to believe that a surprise night attack on Taranto could be carried out. It was a happy coincidence that his air adviser, Rear Admiral Lyster, now in charge of carriers in the Mediterranean, had drawn up plans for an air attack on Taranto two years earlier when war loomed. When HMS Illustrious, Britain’s only modern aircraft carrier, sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar in August 1940, his plans were immediately taken out of the filing cabinet and dusted down.

It has been well known to Britain’s enemies down the centuries that the Royal Navy ‘never refuses action’. Nor has it been in the habit of sitting back and waiting to react to its enemies’ moves. The Royal Navy has always played on the front foot. Or as Admiral Nelson put it: ‘Our country will, I believe, sooner forgive an officer for attacking an enemy than for letting it alone.’ Cunningham was an aggressive commander in the mould of Nelson and, although at the start of the war he had no great enthusiasm for naval aviation, he was sharp enough to understand that the crews of the Fleet Air Arm represented his best, and probably his only, hope of delivering a decisive blow against the Italians. But when Cunningham, Lyster and Air Marshal Longmore, the RAF Air Officer Commanding Middle East, sat down in Alexandria Harbour to draw up a plan for an air attack on Taranto, even those bright military minds could not have foreseen that they were devising one of the great raids in the history of warfare, and one that would have a major impact on the nature of naval warfare for many years to come.

When Rear Admiral Lyster submitted his plans for the raid they were met with an ‘approval’ by the Admiralty back in Whitehall that was so grudging it was almost a refusal. After giving ‘Operation Judgement’ a dim green light, Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, couldn’t resist a little dig. ‘Only sailors who live in ships should attack other ships,’ he wrote.

The broad outline of the plan was for two carriers, HMS Illustrious and HMS Eagle, to get as close to Taranto as possible without arousing Italian suspicions and launch a night attack on the Italian Fleet. The element of surprise was essential. The last thing they needed was every gunner in the Italian Navy at action stations on their arrival. The attack was to take place at night when there was no chance of being intercepted by the Regia Aeronautica, which had no nightfighters in its otherwise impressive air fleet. Although the first wave of Swordfish was tasked with dropping parachute flares to guide in the rest, the attack still needed a good ‘moon period’ to help light up the ships in the harbour. For that reason, and no doubt with a salute to Admiral Nelson too, 21 October – Trafalgar Day – was chosen as the date, only for it to be scrapped soon after a major fire broke out in Illustrious’s hangar. The additional fuel tanks were being attached when one of the aircraft burst into flames. The fire quickly spread, reducing one other Swordfish to a blackened wreck and seriously damaging five others. Much of the damage was caused by the sea water pumped in to douse the inferno. The aircraft that escaped the blaze had to be taken apart, washed in fresh water and reassembled. The raid was postponed first to 31 October, and once more to the night of 11 November – Armistice Day – in order to exploit the light from a near-full moon.

There was a further setback shortly before the two carriers and their escort were due to set out from Alexandria. HMS Eagle, an ancient vessel already in her death throes, had to be withdrawn at the last minute after developing problems with her aviation fuel supply. Rather than delay the operation again, it was decided to leave her at Alexandria. Five Swordfishes and eight aircrew were transferred to Illustrious.

The Swordfish were to be launched in two flights of twelve aircraft with roughly one hour between each attack. Each flight was to comprise six aircraft carrying a mixture of 250-lb bombs and parachute flares, and six carrying torpedoes, which were expected to cause the greatest amount of damage. The orders were kept loose. It was left to the pilots to decide on their arrival at Taranto which was the best ship to target. The battleships were the main prizes, however, and the torpedo bombers, the heavy mob of the operation, were to go for them. It didn’t matter which of the six they attacked because RAF reconnaissance images showed the Italians’ capital ships were bunched so closely together that a torpedo, dropped in their general direction, stood a good chance of hitting one of them. The bombers’ principal targets were the fleet’s heavy and light cruisers and destroyers, but they were also to go for the seaplane base and the oil installations. The flying boats were the eyes of the Italian air force and the bane of the Mediterranean Fleet; the destruction of their operating centre would raise a loud cheer back in Alexandria.

Sitting on the instep of Italy’s ‘boot’ in the heart of the Mediterranean, Taranto was the obvious location to house the Italian Fleet. It had two large harbours. The outer harbour, known as the Mar Grande, is shaped like a backward ‘C’ and is almost three miles in diameter. It was here that the six battleships were anchored, along with three heavy cruisers and eight destroyers. Behind it, in the land-locked inner harbour, known as Mar Piccolo, there was a bomber’s feast of six cruisers, twenty-one destroyers, five torpedo boats, sixteen submarines and a variety of minor warships and support vessels. Not surprising, then, that Taranto was protected by a formidable network of defences designed to deter aircraft from attacking some of the most powerful warships afloat. Of the twenty-seven barrage balloons, sixteen were at the harbour entrance, protecting the battleships, and there would have been a further sixty had they not been wrecked in a recent storm. A shortage of hydrogen meant that they had yet to be replaced. With all the gaps between them, the balloons were expected to be more of a nuisance than a grave danger.

The battleships in the open expanse of the main outer harbour were vulnerable to torpedo attack and almost 14,000 metres of underwater netting were needed to protect them (were a torpedo ever to enter Taranto Harbour, it would come, the Italians believed, from a submarine, not an aircraft). On the night of the raid, a little over 4,000 metres of net had been installed – and even these could be avoided thanks to a new invention known as the Duplex pistol, which gave the torpedo two opportunities of detonating. It was fitted with a conventional contact pistol that detonated when the torpedo hit the target and also a magnetic one that went off when the torpedo passed underneath. All the propeller-powered torpedoes were set to run at twenty-seven knots at thirty-three feet, a depth great enough to slip under the protective nets.

It was more the vast array of anti-aircraft (AA) guns that the aircrews had to worry about. Strung out along the shore, as well as on the submerged breakwaters and the island of San Pietro at the mouth of the harbour, and on a series of floating pontoons, there were twenty-one batteries of 76-mm and greater calibre guns, eighty-four 17-mm and 20-mm guns and over 100 smaller weapons. There were also twenty-two searchlights to help the gunners pick out their targets. The guns of the ships doubled the weight of fire that could be brought to bear on unwanted visitors. How the crews of the lumbering Swordfish might expect to escape unscathed from the maelstrom of fire in so confined a space remained to be seen.

Illustrious was to leave Alexandria under cover of providing an escort for a number of convoys to reinforce Malta, Crete and the forces sent to assist the Greeks in their bitter struggle against the Italians. Alexandria was a port crawling with Axis spies and it was essential that Illustrious’s true objective should not be revealed. Were the Italians to pick up a whiff of suspicion that the aircraft carrier’s true target was Taranto, then they would have promptly weighed anchor and moved the entire fleet to the sanctuary of more northerly ports beyond the range of the Swordfish. Rumours had been abounding below decks for weeks, but details of Illustrious’s mission were not confirmed to the aircrews until the naval force had slipped Alexandria on 6 November. The Fleet Air Arm crews were a highly experienced, tight group of young men who would all have flown with one another at some point. Each of them instantly understood the challenge of the historic task they had been handed. As was the strict custom, no one dreamt of airing their fears in the wardroom over a drink at the end of the day, but inwardly each one knew the odds were against them returning. As one of the pilots, John Wellham, noted: ‘My feelings were mixed . . . Certainly, it was a boost to the ego to have been chosen but, on the other hand, it looked a pretty hairy operation, with less chance of returning in one piece than on earlier ventures . . . I had a drink and tried to look enthusiastic.’

The overall operation was given the code Mike Bravo Eight (MB8) and the total force involved practically every serviceable ship in the Mediterranean Fleet, consisting of five battleships, two aircraft carriers, eight cruisers, two AA cruisers, thirty destroyers and many smaller vessels. Once the convoys were considered secure, HMS Illustrious and her escort were to launch Operation Judgement, while a diversionary attack was launched further along the Italian coast in the Straits of Otranto. Inevitably, it was not going to be long before a force of that size attracted the attentions of the Regia Aeronautica. Sure enough, seven Savoia-Marchetti SM79 bombers were soon on the scene but, attacked by three Fulmar fighters, two were sent spiralling into the sea and the rest ditched their bombs and turned tail.

In the countdown to the raid, the naval commanders requested daily sorties by the RAF’s photographic reconnaissance aircraft to provide fresh information about the Italian Fleet and Taranto’s defences. It was unfortunate that the rivalry between the Senior Service and its junior partner meant the relationship was not the healthiest at this time and the lack of cooperation threatened to jeopardise operational activity, including the raid on Taranto. To the undisguised annoyance of the Navy, the RAF regarded the images from their photographic recce flights as their property and they were unwilling to release them. The photos had to be flown from Malta to the RAF HQ in Cairo, where, incredibly, just one naval officer was allowed to look at them, and was refused permission to take them away.

The Navy might have enjoyed a good, clean fight with their enemy, but against their compatriots in the RAF they were forced to play an altogether dirtier game. On the eve of the attack, a young officer, Lieutenant David Pollock, was despatched to inspect the photos. When his RAF colleague was distracted, Pollock smuggled out the images. The following day the photographs were copied and then returned without the RAF ever realising they had been deceived. The copies shown to Admiral Lyster revealed that virtually the entire Italian Fleet, including all the battleships, was still at anchor in Taranto. But the good news was tempered by major alarm over the state of the Swordfish.

In the morning of 10 November, with less than thirty-six hours to go before the attack was launched, one of the Swordfish was on a routine recce patrol, about twenty miles from Illustrious, when the engine cut and the pilot was forced to ditch. Lt Clifford and his observer Lt Going managed to inflate their dinghy before the aircraft sank and, igniting their flame floats, were able to attract the attention of two Royal Navy cruisers. They were flown back to Illustrious. The following morning yet another aircraft was forced to ditch after the engine failed. Hasty examinations back on Illustrious revealed that the ship’s aviation fuel tanks had been contaminated with sea water, probably during the efforts to put out the hangar fire in October. With the clock ticking down to takeoff time, the fitters raced to strip down all twenty-one aircraft earmarked for the operation, wash out their fuel systems, and then reassemble and refuel them.

The air crews on Illustrious had nothing but praise for the small army of riggers, fitters, mechanics and engineers of various description who kept their aircraft in immaculate working order. And it was thanks to their hard work and efficiency that, with barely an hour or so to spare, the attack was able to take place. Had they been forced to delay twenty-four hours, the Italians might well have suspected British intentions and moved the fleet to safer waters. Illustrious and her escort of four cruisers and four destroyers split from the main force and headed north. Admiral Cunningham signalled: ‘Good luck then to your lads in their enterprise. Their success may well have a most important bearing on the course of the war in the Mediterranean.’

By 2000 hours Illustrious had reached Kabbo Point, the flying-off location situated 40 miles off the Greek island of Cephalonia, and 175 from Taranto. The first wave of Swordfish was ranged on deck poised to launch the most daring air raid in the history of warfare. The RAF had just given the Luftwaffe a sound thrashing in the skies over southeast England. Now was the moment for the pilots of the Royal Navy, facing equally daunting odds, to prove their skill and courage.

At 1900, scores of men filed out onto the flight deck to start ranging the twelve aircraft of the first striking force. One after another, the Swordfish emerged from the lift hangar and were wheeled into position at the aft end of the ship. The moon, three-quarters full, glowed brightly above a blanket of thick cloud at around 7,000 feet.

There were several reasons why, when the order was given, the deck crews endeavoured to get the aircraft off the ship as quickly as possible. To provide the heavily laden Swordfish with the necessary lift to get airborne, the carrier had to steam into the wind as fast as she could. Moving in a straight line made her an easier target for subs and bombers, so the sooner she could resume a zigzagging course, the better. What’s more, as the deck was crowded with Swordfish, if an aircraft already airborne got into difficulties, it would be unable to land and would be forced to ditch. It also meant that, in the event of an air attack, the Fulmar fighters would not be able to take off and defend the ship. A rapid series of takeoffs also conserved fuel and extended the range of the strike force as less time was spent waiting for the rest of the aircraft to get airborne. On the night of 11/12 November there was an even more pressing incentive to get a move on: delays and dawdling risked jeopardising the element of surprise that was considered essential to a successful outcome. It was fortunate that in HMS Illustrious, the air crews had a well-drilled ship’s company of the very highest efficiency and skill. While the men on deck went about securing and checking the aircraft, the forty-two pilots and observers of the two striking forces gathered in the wardroom for the final briefing. If all went to plan, they’d reconvene in the comfortable club-like surroundings in six hours’ time to swap stories over a strong drink. It was probably just as well they didn’t know that the planners were preparing for a 50 per cent casualty rate.

Having lost three aircraft to mechanical problems, the final total of aircraft available was just twenty-one, drawn from 813, 815, 819 and 824 Squadrons FAA (Fleet Air Arm). In order to accommodate the extra fuel tank, the gunner/wireless operator was jettisoned and crews were reduced to pilot and observer. There was no gun aboard, but that was hardly going to affect their chances of survival. A misfiring, ancient Vickers against the might of the Italian fleet’s guns and shore defences were no more use than a teaspoon in a knife fight. W/T (Wireless/Telegraphy) silence was to be observed throughout and the removal of the heavy W/T equipment was of greater concern to the crews. Each crew would have to find its own way back to Illustrious. The aircraft carrier might have been over 740 feet long, but in the vast expanse of the Med at night, quite possibly in cloud and with a limited amount of fuel, trying to relocate her could be a nerve-racking challenge.

By 2015, with all twelve Swordfish on the flight deck, Illustrious and her escorts immediately began to increase their speed for the takeoff. As the bows of the ships cut into the calm surface of the sea, great sprays showered the foredecks and the gathering wind tugged hard at the clothes of all on deck. The wash from Illustrious’s giant propellors, or ‘screws’, churned up a seething froth of white foam below the quarterdeck at the stern of the boat. The pilots and their observers in their bulky flying suits and Mae Wests walked through the darkness to their aircraft, pulled themselves up into the cockpit, settled themselves on their parachutes and strapped themselves in. The riggers and fitters assigned to each aircraft slapped the backs of the air crew and offered cheery words of encouragement.

The luminous wand of the deck officer made circles in the darkness, telling the pilots to fire up their engines. The handlers inserted the handle to wind the inertia starter, filling the air with a high-pitched whining sound. Slowly the revs built, the pilots set the throttle, and twelve Pegasus engines, almost as one, coughed into life as clouds of smoke billowed from the exhausts. The pilots checked the gauges on the instrument panel and pushed the engine to full throttle, then back to tick-over, awaiting the summons forward. The ship was approaching maximum speed of almost thirty knots and the wind was now howling down the flight deck, offering as much lift as possible for the heavily burdened bombers. The crouching maintainers and handlers, buffeted by the gusts, dodged the whirling propellors as they slipped around the aircraft, ready to unfold and lock down the wings and remove the wooden chocks under the wheels. It was just before 2030 and some moonlight was visible through a break in the clouds.

A green light gave the signal for the first aircraft to fly off. The twelve aircraft, ranged on both sides at the rear of the flight deck, were to taxi out to launch their takeoff run, alternately from starboard and port. The silhouettes of 1,500-lb MkXII torpedoes were clearly visible under the fuselage of six of the aircraft and the 250-lb semi-armour-piercing bombs under the others. The first aircraft was flown by the leader of the striking force, Lt Commander Kenneth ‘Hooch’ Williamson, CO (Commanding Officer) of 815 Squadron. His observer was Lt Norman ‘Blood’ Scarlett. Moving out into the line running down the centre of the deck, Williamson held the brakes while the Swordfish’s double wings were folded out and locked tight. On the signal, Williamson opened the throttle and released the brakes. The engine roared as the 3.5-tonne fully loaded biplane gathered speed along the 740-foot-long deck, dropped over the bow and then climbed into the night. The other eleven followed in rapid succession and, eight miles from Illustrious, still climbing and heading in a roughly northwesterly direction, the force formed up on Williamson’s lead aircraft. Cruising at around eighty knots, the attack force were on course to reach Taranto shortly before 1100.

At around 7,500 feet, the twelve biplanes disappeared into thick cumulus cloud. When they emerged into the bright moonlight on the other side, the formation had been reduced to nine. Colliding in cloud could and did happen, but it was more likely that three other aircraft had become detached and were making their own way to the target area. All the aircrews later remarked on the extreme cold they suffered in the open cockpits. On arrival at the target area, the plan was for the twelve aircraft to split up. The two carrying the parachute flares were to drop them over the battleships as the torpedo-bombers negotiated the barrage balloons at the harbour entrance. The bombers were to head straight for the inner harbour to attack the cruisers and destroyers. The hope was that before the majority of the AA gunners had gone to action stations and opened up, the torpedo-bombers would be diving onto their targets. But, in the event, far from their arrival being a surprise to the defenders, virtually every gun in the Italian Navy was manned, loaded and waiting for the Royal Navy raiders. One of the aircraft that had become detached in the cloud, crewed by Lt Swayne and Sub-Lt Buscall, reached Taranto fifteen minutes before the others because it had flown at sea level. On realising they were the first to arrive, they had no choice but to fly around and wait for the rest of the attacking force. Inevitably, their presence was picked up by Italian listening devices and the alarm was raised.

Williamson and the others knew they were on the right navigational course when they were about ten minutes away. Hundreds of guns opened up and ‘flaming onion’ tracer shells erupted in the night sky. From that distance the skies above the harbour resembled a giant fireball. ‘Taranto could be seen from a distance of fifty miles or more, because of the welcome awaiting us,’ wrote Lt Charles Lamb, one of the flare-droppers, in his war memoir. ‘The sky over the harbour looked like 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.’

If the aircrews had been in any doubt about the risks they faced in the attack, they were dispelled in an instant by the scene ahead of them. Their survival would depend on the skill of each pilot and the famous manoeuvrability of the Swordfish. The torpedo-bombers’ task of attacking the heavily gunned battleships was the most important and the most challenging. They would have to dive almost vertically through the wall of fire rising to meet them, straighten up a few feet over the surface of the harbour, line up a target, drop the torpedo and escape in a steep climb back through the barrage.

The formation reached Taranto at around 8,000 feet just before 11 o’clock. At 2256 the first flare-droppers, crewed by Kiggell and Janvrin, dropped their line of sixteen flares in rapid succession along the eastern side of the harbour. The flares, which would burn for three minutes, had delayed fuses, allowing the droppers to escape before they were lit up for the AA gunners. The harbour, already illuminated by the defenders’ fire, was soon bathed in a bright light, but there was so much smoke from the flak drifting through the air that some of the targets remained obscured. The barrage of the Italian gunners reached a feverish pitch as they concentrated their fire on the tiny flares slowly floating down from the heavens. In hindsight, they would have been better off focusing on the Swordfish. Kiggell’s flares were burning so brightly and the ships were now so clearly visible that Lamb decided not to drop his, fearing they would be more help to the defenders than the attackers.

Sitting 5,000 feet above the harbour, Lamb had the best seat in the house from which to observe the unfolding drama below. ‘For the last six months, almost without a break, we had attracted the enemy’s fire for an average of at least an hour a week; but I had never imagined anything like this to be possible. 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 sideshow . . . into that inferno, one hour apart, two waves, of six and then five Swordfish . . . danced weaving arabesques of death and destruction with their torpedoes, flying into the harbour only a few feet above sea level – so low one or two of them touched the water with their wheels.’

The torpedo-bombers split into two subflights of three and launched their attack simultaneously. The first subflight attacked the northernmost battleships, while the second, led by Kemp, made for the southernmost. All six biplanes dived straight into the storm of fire. The first, led by Williamson and Scarlett, with the Conte di Cavour as their designated target, arrived on the scene bang on time, just as the first flares were adding their glare to the illuminations. Straightening up out of the dive, they passed unscathed through the barrage-balloon cables as they roared through the harbour entrance towards the line of battleships. Pointing straight at the massive silhouette of the Cavour, Williamson flicked the release button on his throttle lever. They were so low at this point that they felt the splash as the lethal ‘fish’ slapped into the water. The torpedo sunk below the surface and moments later an almighty explosion thundered across the harbour.

Almost instantaneously, the Swordfish slammed into the water.

The official reports suggest they had been hit by AA fire, which might have been the case, but the Swordfish might also have dipped a wing tip in the water as Williamson made to turn away. The flight commander, semi-delirious after cracking his head on impact, struggled to get out of the cockpit and he was under water when he finally managed to wrestle free from his parachute and harness. When he reached the surface, at first he thought it had started to rain until he realised he was swimming through machine-gun fire. ‘Blood’ Scarlett recalled: ‘I just fell out of the back into the sea. We were only about twenty 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 and we hung about by the aircraft, which had its tail sticking out of the water. Chaps ashore were shooting at it.’ For half an hour, the two men clung to the tail of the Swordfish and watched the rest of the raid unfold before they swam off to a floating dock 100 yards away and clambered into the clutches of some very angry dockworkers.

The two other aircraft in the subflight, piloted by Sub-Lts Julian Sparke and Douglas Macauley, survived the approach into the harbour, and managed to get their torpedoes away. But both narrowly missed the Conte di Cavour and exploded close to the Andrea Doria, without causing any damage.

The second subflight were assigned to attack the Littorio, which was anchored a mile to the north of the Cavour, closer to the town of Taranto and the entrance to the inner harbour. The first two, piloted by Kemp and Swayne, approached from the west and came under the heaviest fire yet as they swept down into the harbour. Having survived the barrage from the shore defences, they were at mast height when the cruisers lowered their guns and added their considerable weight to the fire. The guns were elevated so low that many of the rounds were seen to riddle some of the other ships in the harbour. Kemp dropped his torpedo about a thousand yards short of the Littorio and watched it streak towards the battleship. As always after dropping the 1,600-lb torpedo, the Swordfish bucked upwards, and Kemp corrected the attitude of the aircraft before climbing steeply back into the streams of AA fire.

Swayne had managed to drop his torpedo 400 yards short of the Littorio, a range so close that he almost careered into the battleship’s rigging as he made his escape. There was a matter of seconds between the two explosions: Kemp’s struck the starboard bow, Swayne’s the port quarter. A column of smoke shooting out of the ship’s smokestacks confirmed that Littorio had been struck a deadly blow. The third Swordfish, with Lt Michael Maund at the controls, was not so fortunate. He decided to attack the Vittorio Veneto anchored close by, but his torpedo ran aground in shallow water.

While the torpedo-bombers laid siege to the capital ships in the main harbour, the other six Swordfish swept towards the Mar Piccolo, the inner harbour where cruisers and destroyers were stacked up ‘Mediterranean-style’ in a neat row along the jetty. If the bombers could negotiate the flak, they could barely miss. Ollie Patch, the only Royal Marine in the attacking force, was the first to arrive over the harbour, but he could barely see the ships for all the smoke and flames from the AA fire. When he finally picked out a target through the haze, he dropped the nose of his Swordfish into a dive so steep he was virtually standing on the pedals. He released his six bombs and made his escape. He twisted and turned the aerobatic Swordfish so sharply to avoid the streaks of tracer heading their way that his observer Goodwin was lifted from his seat and was only saved from plunging to his death by the ‘monkey’s tail’ wire that attached him to the aircraft.

In the space of ten minutes or so, the Italians had filled the air with thousands of rounds of various calibre and the smoke was so thick that when Sub-Lt Sarra dived from 8,000 to 1,500 feet over the Mar Piccolo, he was unable to identify clearly a single ship of the four dozen or so moored there. Dropping even lower to 500 feet, where the concentration of fire was even greater, he attacked the hangars and slipways of the seaplane base. All six bombs exploded and the hangars erupted in flames as he fled from the scene with AA flak and rounds of all description bursting around his tail and wings, shredding the cloth fabric as the biplane climbed as fast as it could to safety. Sarra and Sub-Lt Forde, who had only recently qualified as a pilot, were the most junior pilots of the twenty-one who took part in the Taranto raid and both showed remarkable courage and cool-headedness on the night. Forde, who had become split up from the rest of the bombers shortly before they went in, dived through murderous flak and dropped his bombs from 1,500 feet. Unsure whether all of his bombs had been released, he circled the harbour and plunged back into the firestorm again for a second attack. The last of the bombers, crewed by Murray and Paine, attacked the neat line of destroyers from 3,000 feet, dropping their bombs as they swept from east to west. One landed square on the destroyer Libeccio but, to their fury, it failed to detonate.

Having sensibly decided not to drop his flares, Lamb had circled the harbour, watching the inferno rage below. Keen to make his own contribution before leaving, he headed for the oil storage tanks, which had already been attacked by the other flare-droppers, Kiggell and Janvrin. His bombs found their target, but with no results observed; either the bombs had failed to go off or they had exploded deep inside the storage containers. Lamb’s was the last of the Swordfish to leave the scene of the attack and, as he turned the aircraft back in the rough direction of Cephalonia, he was convinced that he and Grieve, his observer, were the only survivors of the attack. The raid had taken little more than five minutes, but for two and a half hours, the two young airmen flew through the darkness in gloomy silence.

At 2123, an hour after Williamson’s force had set out, Illustrious was ploughing into the wind again when the first of nine aircraft in the second flight roared down the flight deck. The flight comprised five torpedo bombers, two bombers and two carrying a mixture of flares and bombs. There was certainly going to be no element of surprise in their attack. Taranto was already ablaze, the AA gunners now had their eye in and the early warning posts along the coast had alerted the Italian Fleet to the fact that a second wave of attackers was on its way. The pause between the two attacks also gave the defenders the opportunity to gather and reorganise themselves.

The second strike was led by the CO of 819 Squadron, Lt Commander ‘Ginger’ Hale, an excellent rugby player who had played for England before the war. Other notables in the second striking force included Lt Wellham, who had won a DSC for a daylight attack on Italian shipping at Bomba Bay in Libya, in which he had torpedoed and sunk an enemy supply ship. (The Royal Marine Ollie Patch sank a submarine in the same raid.) Wellham’s observer, Lt Pat Humphreys, had been awarded the George Cross in 1937 (then called the Empire Gallantry Medal) during the Spanish Civil War. After his destroyer had struck a mine, he had helped rescue seriously injured men from a compartment flooded with water and oil.

The undisputed flying ace of the force, however, was a lanky Ulsterman, Lt Michael Torrens-Spence, the senior pilot, and second-in-command of 819 Squadron. Every memoir or account of Fleet Air Arm operations in the Second World War stresses his remarkable flying skills and courage. He pressed home his attacks with an almost suicidal disregard for his own safety.

Illustrious’s aircraft had been bedevilled by problems from the moment plans for the raid were laid down, and it was no surprise when the second flight suffered a last-minute setback. The aircraft crewed by Clifford and Going – the same two who had been plucked from the sea the day before after ditching – was badly damaged when it was caught by another aircraft as it taxied across the flight deck. The cloth of the wings was badly torn and, worse still, several of the supporting ribs had snapped in half. There was no chance of it taking to the air in that state and she was taken down in the lift hangar. Clifford and Going were distraught at the prospect of missing the raid and ran straight to the island and begged Captain Boyd and Rear Admiral Lyster to let them catch up the rest of the force. Reluctantly, the commanders agreed. Working with incredible speed and skill, the riggers completed the extensive repairs; thirty minutes later, Clifford and Going climbed into the night and banked towards Taranto.

Passing them somewhere in the darkness were their colleagues, Lt Morford and Sub-Lt Green, who were returning to Illustrious after developing serious problems of their own. Their long-range fuel tank had fallen off and, in the process, damaged some fittings, which were now smashing against the fuselage. They had already turned back when the engine suddenly cut and the Swordfish began losing height. Morford managed to restart the engine, but the danger hadn’t passed. Observing the strict W/T silence that had been ordered, they were unable to inform Illustrious they were arriving and, as they approached the ship, the gunners on the carrier and the escorting cruiser Berwick opened fire. Green quickly fired the two-star identification signal of the day, the firing ceased at once, Illustrious turned back into the wind and they landed on.

The cloud had lifted as the formation of seven Swordfish slowly climbed to 8,000 feet. Shortly after 1100, still more than fifty miles from Taranto, the observers/navigators in the rear cockpits were able to stow their clipboards of navigational charts. The first wave had just launched their attack, turning the skies over the harbour into a ball of fire that acted like a homing beacon, growing bigger and brighter as they rumbled towards it. At five minutes to midnight, a few miles short of the coast, the two flare-droppers, piloted by Lts Hamilton and Skelton, peeled off from the main attacking force. Coming in from the south, they released twenty-four parachutes in rapid succession before turning their attentions to the oil depot a mile inland from the southern end of the Mar Grande.

In this attack, all the torpedo-bombers flew into the north of the harbour, avoiding the gun emplacements on San Pietro Island and the floating batteries at the harbour entrance, but the reception from the Italian gunners, now on full alert, was even more ferocious than that which greeted the first wave. One Swordfish, crewed by Lts Bayley and Slaughter, swooped to torpedo the heavy cruiser Gorizia, but was caught up in the intense volleys of flak, burst into flames and careered into the harbour. Both young officers were killed. The torpedo that was found floating near the crash location the following morning was thought to have been theirs. Its striking head had been crushed but had failed to detonate, suggesting they had managed to hit their target.

Simultaneously, Flight Leader Hale and Lt Torrens-Spence both dived into the intense flak to attack the Littorio, Italy’s newest battleship, whose beleaguered crew were busy trying to contain the damage sustained in the first assault. The Swordfish screeched and strained violently as they fell out of the sky almost vertically before their pilots pulled them hard out of the dive. When they levelled up to make their final approach, they were so low that the undercarriages were almost touching the water. Both pilots flicked the release buttons on the throttle at the same time, roughly 700 yards from the 40,000-ton warship. Both torpedoes found their target on the starboard side and yet another booming explosion added to the already deafening uproar. The other torpedo failed to go off having slapped into the muddy seabed directly below the ship.

Seconds away from smashing straight into the severely wounded battleship, Hale banked sharply, missing a barrage balloon cable by just a few yards before disappearing into the night as fast as his lumbering biplane would allow. Torrens-Spence was flying so low that, as he fled the scene of destruction, the wheels of his aircraft actually dipped into the water. With less skilled aviators at the controls, the Swordfish would have cartwheeled on impact, but in that split second Torrens-Spence showed why he had come to be regarded as one of the best in the Fleet Air Arm. By immediately pulling back on the controls, the Ulsterman saved himself and his observer Lt Alfie Sutton from certain death.

Lt Lea, meanwhile, had his sights on the Caio Duilio, moored at the northernmost end of the main harbour. Dropping beneath the AA barrage, he flew within 600 yards of his target before releasing his torpedo. From that range, he could barely miss the 550-foot-long battleship and, sure enough, seconds later the warhead tore a huge hole in its starboard side beneath one of its main turrets. With his observer, Sub-Lt Jones, clinging on in the back, unable to do anything but watch and pray, Lea also experienced a hazardous escape from the harbour. Flying just above the water, he had escaped colliding with a fishing boat by a matter of feet when he came under heavy fire from the two cruisers Zara and Fiume before struggling clear and heading back out to sea.

Lt Wellham, too, had to show excellent airmanship to emerge from the maelstrom unscathed. In the thundering, blinding chaos of the battle, Wellham had become detached from the other torpedo-bombers but, spotting a gap in the flak, he began his dive. He was gaining speed, pushing 170 knots as the multicoloured streaks of tracer flashed past, when a barrage balloon that had broken free from its mooring loomed into his path. With a less skilled pilot at the controls of a less manoeuvrable and robust aircraft, that would have marked the end for men and machine alike, but Wellham swerved out of the way at the last possible moment. The Swordfish rocked violently as one of the wings caught the balloon’s trailing cable. The wing was badly damaged and Wellham battled with all his strength to rescue the stricken biplane. ‘There was a tremendous jar, the whole aircraft juddered and the stick flew out of my hand . . . We were completely out of control . . . We were diving almost vertically into the centre of the City of Taranto! I hauled the stick back into my stomach.’ Others might have chosen to remove their wounded aircraft from harm’s way, but Wellham pressed on. ‘I was determined to aim at something after carrying the bloody thing all that way and having a rather hairy dive – I’d be damned if I didn’t do something with it.’ Struggling to keep the Swordfish on an even approach – the aircraft needed to be level when the torpedo was dropped – Wellham was 500 yards short of the Vittorio Veneto when he released his ‘fish’. The flagship of the Italian Fleet was leading a charmed existence that night and once again it escaped potentially catastrophic destruction. Given the difficulties that Wellham was having in preventing his Swordfish from crashing, it was not surprising that his effort narrowly missed its mark. (It was subsequently discovered that the ailerons of Wellham’s port wing had been wrecked and a giant hole had been torn in the fuselage.)

Clifford and Going, meanwhile, having made good time in their patched-up aircraft, arrived while the attack was in full cry. A hellish scene played out below. Through the billowing smoke, trails of tracer and explosions of flak, they could see vast slicks of oil stretching out across the main harbour. Clifford, piloting the only out-and-out bomber, circled the Mar Piccolo several times waiting for his chance to swoop. As soon as he spotted a gap in the flak, he put the nose down and tail up, and dropped the three-and-a-half-ton biplane towards the long line of cruisers and destroyers, whose gunners responded with a murderous barrage of fire. At 2,500 feet, he levelled off and turned towards two cruisers, dropping a stick of six bombs as he surged through the flak. Five of the bombs narrowly missed their targets; one scored a direct hit on the Trento, but failed to go off. Not for the first time that night, the bravery and skill of the bomber crews was let down by the shoddy design of the bombs they dropped. Had every bomb exploded as they should have done, then the destruction at Taranto would have been at least twice as great. Most of the bombs had missed their targets by so little that the explosions would still have caused significant damage to the lightly armoured cruisers and destroyers. Clifford banked to the north and disappeared over the coast into the darkness, leaving behind a scene of smouldering devastation. But not until an RAF reconnaissance aircraft photographed the harbour would the Swordfish crews discover if their heroic efforts had succeeded in inflicting any significant damage on the Italian Fleet.

Back on Illustrious, Rear Admiral Lyster, Captain Boyd and the rest of the ship’s company were growing increasingly anxious. The W/T silence that had been ordered so as not to give away the ship’s location was allowed to be broken just once. Williamson was to contact the ship with one short, sharp message to alert them of their imminent return, but he was now a prisoner of war. The time set for the return of the first wave had passed and the men back on Illustrious were beginning to fear the worst for the Swordfish crews when the radar officer picked up a formation of aircraft on his set. Not long afterwards, the dimmed navigation lights of the first Swordfish were visible on the horizon and Boyd turned the giant carrier into the wind for them to land on. To the mounting relief of all aboard, one after another the wheels of the sturdy biplanes thumped onto the flight deck. Each aircraft came to a violent halt as the hook at the tail of the Swordfish caught one of the arrestor wires strung out across the deck before taxiing to the end of the ship where their wings were folded and they disappeared back into the sanctuary of the hangar. By three o’clock all but two of the twenty-one aircraft to set out for Taranto were back in the hangar. Those piloted by Williamson and Bayley would never return. The ship turned southwards to rejoin the rest of the Fleet and head back to Alexandria.

While the observers heaved their weary, frozen bodies from the cockpits and hurried stiffly into the ship’s island to be debriefed, the exhausted pilots went below to inspect the damage to their battle-torn biplanes. Almost every Swordfish had been punctured and perforated, their cloth fabric shredded and singed by the shells and machine guns of the Italian defenders. Sarra’s aircraft alone had seventeen shell holes along its fuselage and wings, while Wellham’s was so badly damaged that the riggers and fitters were astonished he’d been able to keep it aloft, let alone fly it two and a half hours back to the ship. Had the Swordfish been made from metal, it is doubtful whether more than one or two of them would have survived to tell their tale of what the Italians still call La Notte Di Taranto – ‘Taranto Night’.

Most of the aircrews were convinced that the raid had been a failure. The bombs had failed to detonate, that much was sure, and it was impossible to know if the torpedoes, striking far below the surface, had caused any damage or even hit their targets. Neither striking force was going to hang around in the umbrella of flak over Taranto to inspect the results of their night’s work. But the opinion expressed by one of their number in the wardroom that night – that they had made ‘a complete cock of it’ – summed up the general mood of despondency, a mood that was deepened when the news filtered through that they were going to be asked to launch a further attack. On hearing the speculation, one wit was heard to wisecrack: ‘Bloody hell, even the Light Brigade was only asked to do it once!’

The exhausted pilots and observers who took part in the Taranto raid had been living on their nerves for months, and few of them attempted to disguise their delight when it was announced the following day that Admiral Lyster had decided against a third strike. His decision is often put down to worsening weather conditions, but there was a more weighing factor. At first light, the three Italian battleships that had not been targeted by the Swordfish torpedo-bombers slipped harbour and steamed as quickly as possible for the safety of Naples. With the major prey gone, there was little point in Lyster risking his precious aircrews and aircraft in the pursuit of the smaller warships that were now even less likely to venture out of port and risk action against the Royal Navy.

At the same time that the Italian battleships were weighing anchor and the dumbfounded authorities of the Regia Marina began inspecting the destruction in the oil-choked harbour, Illustrious was joining up with the rest of the Mediterranean Fleet off the south coast of the Peloponnese mainland. If the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Cunningham, was impressed by the efforts of his Fleet Air Arm, he had a peculiar way of expressing it. As Illustrious steamed within view, flags were hoisted aboard his flagship, HMS Warspite, spelling out a message from the Admiral which read: ‘Illustrious manoeuvre well executed’. The signal has since become a famous footnote in naval history, and Cunningham, as already noted, no great fan of naval aviation, was roundly barracked in some quarters for his lukewarm congratulations.

In mitigation, two points need to be made. Firstly, Cunningham was of the old naval school and believed no man should receive special praise for doing his duty and carrying out the job he was trained to do. More relevant, however, was the fact that it was early in the morning and the RAF reconnaissance aircraft was yet to produce its post-raid images of Taranto. Cunningham had no idea of the scale of the damage the Swordfish had inflicted. Had he known that the clumsy-looking, obsolete biplanes had effectively knocked the Italian Fleet out of the war and given him almost total control of the Med, then no doubt even he would have overcome his natural reserve and offered more effusive praise for their efforts. And, to his credit, soon afterwards he tacitly admitted that he had failed to acknowledge the airmen’s achievements: ‘Admirably planned and most gallantly executed in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, Operation Judgement was a great success,’ he wrote in a report four months later.

While Illustrious steamed eastwards to Egypt, as soon as there was sufficient light, three Cantieri flying boats were dispatched to pinpoint her location so that Italian bombers might deliver immediate revenge. All three were shot out of the sky by Illustrious’s Fulmar fighters and the carrier was spared the efforts of a fighting retreat. Lt Cdr Williamson and Lt Scarlett, meanwhile, were getting used to life as prisoners of war. Their crewmates back on Illustrious had no idea whether they were dead or alive, but the widespread assumption was that they had perished in the crash. After clambering ashore into the clutches of an angry mob of dockyard workers, they were roughly treated at first – perhaps understandably given the destruction being wrought all around them. Their clothes were torn from their backs and they were bundled into a hut. But their captors soon calmed down and gave them a blanket and some cigarettes. They were taken for questioning to the destroyer Fulmine, whose gunners were firing at them when they were downed. Their interrogation could not have been more civilised. They were handed glasses of cognac and issued with clean clothes, and then given a hot meal, beer and a comfortable bed for the night.

‘In fact,’ recalled Williamson, ‘we were almost popular heroes. Two nights after our raid the RAF came over and we were put into an air-raid shelter full of seamen. They all pressed cigarettes on us and towards the end of the raid about twenty of them sang “Tipperary” for our benefit.’ After a short spell in a prisoner-of-war camp at Sulmona, they were transferred to Germany where they saw out the war in less hospitable and comfortable circumstances. In 1945 Scarlett was mentioned in dispatches for organising a bid to escape from his Stalag. The other crew not to return from Taranto were not so fortunate. The body of the observer Lt Slaughter was never found. Lt Bayley is buried in the Imperial War Graves Cemetery at Bari.

As the sun rose over Taranto, thousands of sailors and dockyard workers were working furiously to salvage their crippled ships. The full details of the damage would not be known for a further twenty-four hours but, as he surveyed the scene, Admiral Riccardi, the Chief of the Italian Naval Staff, did not need a team of engineering experts to tell him that his fleet had suffered a catastrophic blow. As an expert in air warfare, he might even have privately admired the skill of the British raiders. In the Mar Grande, the battleships LittorioCaio Duilio and Cavour were either sunk or beached to prevent them sinking. Three cruisers and two destroyers and two fleet auxiliaries suffered significant damage, mainly from near-misses by the bombs, while the seaplane hangar had been gutted by fire and two aircraft destroyed. The oil depot had also been damaged; it was only the faulty mechanisms of the bombs that had prevented its total destruction.

Between them, the Swordfish dropped eleven torpedoes and over forty 250-lb bombs. The Italian shore defences alone had fired over 13,000 regular flak rounds as well as 1,750 rounds of four-inch and 7,000 rounds of three-inch shells. There are no records of the ammunition expended by the fleet’s gunners, but the aircrews reported that the volume of fire from the warships was even greater than that from the fixed-gun emplacements. Many of these rounds hit the merchant vessels, the dock installations and the city itself, adding considerably to the scale of the damage. Italian casualties, however, were remarkably light: twenty-three killed aboard Littorio, sixteen in the Conte di Cavour, and just one on Caio Duilio.

The Littorio had been hit by three torpedoes, two to starboard and one to port, each one tearing huge chunks out of her thick armoured hull. Kemp’s strike had blown a hole forty-nine by thirty-two feet in the first strike, but it was the follow-up blow delivered in the second strike by either Hale or Torrens-Spence that completed the job. It was a credit to her designers and builders that the damage suffered did not prove fatal. She was left to rest on the bottom of the harbour shallows while repairs took place. The work was complicated by the danger of the unexploded torpedo beneath her keel which, it transpired, had hit her but failed to explode. It was six months before she was refloated and made seaworthy again.

The Conte di Cavour suffered the heaviest damage. Williamson’s torpedo had blown a hole roughly forty feet by twenty-five feet close to the forward ammunition magazine, and she was on the bottom with water over her main decks by the morning. She never returned to service.

The Caio Duilio suffered damage from Lt Lea’s torpedo which ripped a hole of about thirty-five by twenty-five feet in the starboard, right between two ammunition magazines. She was immediately beached to prevent sinking. Two months later she was refloated and sent to the dry dock at Genoa for repairs. It was six months before she was able to return to service. Had Lea’s warhead struck a yard or two to the left or right and hit a store of explosive shells, she would have been blown to smithereens.

According to the Italians, a mere handful of the forty or so bombs dropped by the Swordfish exploded. The crews of the bombers who braved the storm of flak were especially annoyed to hear that their courageous efforts had brought no reward. With the destroyers and cruisers moored so closely together in the Mar Piccolo inner harbour, there would surely have been destruction on a terrifying scale had just half a dozen of the bombs managed to detonate. Had the first striking force managed to retain the element of surprise and arrive unannounced, before the gunners had taken their stations, then the damage might have been that much greater again.

It took almost two days for an accurate assessment of the damage to be constructed from intelligence reports and images from the RAF’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. After month upon month of announcing setback after setback, defeat after defeat, Churchill could barely hide his smile when he stood up to address the House of Commons on 13 November. ‘I have some news for the House. It is good news. The Royal Navy has struck a crippling blow at the Italian Fleet.’ When the cheering had died down, he continued: ‘The total strength of the Italian Battle Fleet was six battleships, two of them of the “Littorio” class, which have just been put into service and are, of course, among the most powerful vessels in the world, and four of the recently reconstructed “Cavour” class. This fleet was, to be sure, considerably more powerful on paper than our Mediterranean Fleet, but it had consistently refused to accept battle. On the night of the 11/12 November, when the main units of the Italian fleet were lying behind their shore defences in their naval base at Taranto, our aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm attacked them in their stronghold . . . I felt it my duty to bring this glorious episode to the immediate notice of the House. As the result of a determined and highly successful attack, which reflects the greatest honour on the Fleet Air Arm, only three Italian battleships remain effective.’

To a layman listening to the Prime Minister, the crippling of three battleships might not have sounded such a mighty blow, but a navy man would have instantly understood the significance. Although carriers would soon overtake them as the capital ships of a fleet, battleships were the heavy brigade of the sea, and no navy in the world could hope to compete with the Royal Navy if they didn’t possess a superior complement. Mussolini’s ‘Mare Nostrum’ had become ‘Cunningham’s Pond’, thanks to two attacks lasting no more than fifteen minutes between them carried out by twenty biplanes from a bygone era. Taranto represented not just a major shift in naval power in the Mediterranean, it heralded a major shift in naval strategy. Events in southern Italy didn’t go unnoticed by the Admirals in the Imperial Japanese Navy. Although the Japanese had already started planning their carrier-borne air attack on the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Taranto proved it could be done.

Praise for the Illustrious and the men of the Fleet Air Arm came from every quarter. In a letter to Admiral Cunningham, King George VI wrote: ‘The recent successful operations of the Fleet under your command have been a source of pride and gratification to all at home. Please convey my warm congratulations to the Mediterranean Fleet and, in particular, to Fleet Air Arm on their brilliant exploit against the Italian warships at Taranto.’ The First Sea Lord Admiral Pound, who had been so disdainful about the unchivalrous notion of aircraft attacking ships, wrote to his successor in the Med: ‘Just before the news of Taranto the Cabinet were rather down in the dumps; but Taranto had a most amazing effect on them.’ Indeed, news of the attack, trumpeted across the front page of The Times and other newspapers, gave the whole country an enormous lift, not least in London and the other major cities that were suffering the full force of the Luftwaffe’s Blitz at the time.

The mood was less buoyant in Rome and Berlin. The Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, made the following entry in his diary for 12 November 1940: ‘A black day. The British, without warning, have attacked the Italian Fleet at anchor in Taranto, and have sunk the Dreadnought Cavour and seriously damaged the battleships Littorio and Duilio. These ships will remain out of the fight for many months. I thought I would find Il Duce downhearted. Instead he took the blows quite well and does not, at this moment, seem to have fully realised its gravity.’

The price of neutering the Italian Navy was a high one. Mussolini might not have understood – or wanted to understand – that the Taranto raid had changed the balance of power in the Med overnight, but Hitler and his staff certainly did, and they knew that it had been brought about by the efforts of just one ship. Soon afterwards the Luftwaffe was dispatched to the Med to take over from the Regio Aeronautica, partly to assist the Italian invasion of Greece and the Balkans, but also to support Rommel’s campaign in North Africa by attacking Allied convoys and protecting their own. They arrived in huge numbers and among them was an entire Fliegerkorps of 300 aircraft, most of them Junker Ju87 Stuka divebombers, based on Sicily, just a short flight from Malta. The rocky little British colony, the key to the Mediterranean, was the principal objective of the German bombers, but there was one other target high on their list of priorities: HMS Illustrious.

On 7 January 1941, Illustrious accompanied the Mediterranean Fleet on Operation Excess to escort large merchant convoys to and from Malta and Crete. Once that task was completed, Admiral Cunningham wanted to make the most of the Fleet’s presence to seek out and attack enemy shipping along the Italian coast. Rear Admiral Lyster and Captain Boyd implored their Commander-in-Chief not to place Illustrious within range of the Stukas based on Sicily. With only five or six Fulmar fighters fit for action after a series of losses to the squadron, the carrier was as good as defenceless against hundreds of German divebombers. But Cunningham rebuffed their pleas, insisting she was needed for the morale of the rest of the fleet. As events soon proved, it was a fateful decision.

The morning of 10 January was a bright one and Lts Lamb and Torrens-Spence were leaning on the rail of Illustrious’s quarter-deck enjoying a post-breakfast cigarette. Beneath them, the surf seethed and frothed under the force of the carrier’s giant propellers. The force was close to the island of Pantelleria, 60 miles southwest of Sicily and 150 miles west of Malta. They were watching the escorting destroyer, HMS Gallant, cutting through the surf, when a huge explosion tore off her bow. She had struck a mine that had detonated her forward magazine, killing sixty-five men. The rest of the ship’s company were rescued and Gallant was towed into Malta but it was a bad omen for the watching airmen. Much worse was to follow.

Torrens-Spence, the senior pilot of 819 Squadron, had been briefed about the Stuka threat. He turned to Lamb and said: ‘This is a day you will never forget. You can thank your lucky stars that you are flying this morning and not sitting in the hangar at action stations.’

It was almost 1230 and Lamb was returning to the carrier after a morning hunting submarines. Getting low on fuel, he was circling the carrier waiting for her to turn into the wind so that the next wave of aircraft could take off and he could land on. Back on board, the radar officer looked on his screen in horror: a swarm of aircraft was bearing down on the carrier. Lamb banked, levelled out, and had begun to make his approach when he watched the first screeching Stuka dive from on high and drop its 1,000-lb bomb. Every gun on the Illustrious opened with a furious barrage, but there was little they could do to prevent the thirty-three divebombers from hitting such a large target, falling vertically upon her and dropping their deadly loads from a mere 500 feet. In the chaos of the minutes that followed, the Stukas scored six direct hits with their enormous bombs; the three-inch-thick armour on the flight deck of Britain’s most modern carrier and the reinforced fire curtains of the hangar were no defence against the assault. One of the bombs dropped straight into an open hangar lift-well, and the force of the explosion was so great that it picked up the lift platform and dumped it on the flight deck. From the bridge of his flagship, Admiral Cunningham watched in awe as the Illustrious battled for her life. ‘We opened up with every AA gun we had as one by one the Stukas peeled off into their dives, concentrating almost the whole venom of their attack upon Illustrious,’ he recalled in his memoir. ‘At times she became almost completely hidden in a forest of great bomb splashes . . . We could not but admire the skill and precision of it all. The attacks were pressed home to point-blank range, and as they pulled out of their dives, some of them were seen to fly along the flight deck of Illustrious below the level of the funnel.’

They certainly weren’t admiring the skill and precision of it all down in Illustrious’s hangar, which had become a scene of utter horror. For reasons that no airman could ever fathom, the drill was that whenever the carrier came under attack and action stations were called, they were to head down to the hangar where they were to remain, closed down, listening to the boom of the falling bombs and the ceaseless crack of the AA guns until the danger had passed. But the hangar was probably the most dangerous place on board, being packed with aircraft, tons of aviation fuel, tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition and dozens of torpedoes, bombs and depth charges. The state-of-the-art flight deck could take only so much punishment against the 1,000-lb fully armour-piercing bombs of the Stukas – and even when a smaller 500-lb arrived through the open lift shaft, the result was carnage below deck.

Many aircrew officers took themselves to the wardroom during an attack, figuring that, as there was nothing they could do, they might as well have a gin and tonic and read the paper until they were given the all-clear. On this occasion the wardroom took a direct hit. The effects of a blast can be extremely random and in this instance, while the thick metal supporting columns of the wardroom were bent into crazy shapes by the explosion, an RAF officer, on board as an observer, was found sitting in an armchair, holding a copy of The Times, but with his head nowhere to be seen and the clock still ticking on the wall behind him. Torrens-Spence was one of only three officers in the room to survive.

But it was the men caught in the hangar who suffered the worst horrors. The disintegrated bodies of men, talking and walking just a moment earlier, lay scattered across the deck and the bulkheads. The first deaths were caused by the blasts themselves and a storm of red-hot metal shards measuring up to four feet long, decapitating and dismembering anybody caught in their dreadful path. All the aircraft quickly caught fire, setting off their ammunition. Thousands of rounds bounced around the metallic interior, and anyone lucky enough to survive the maelstrom soon perished in the intense heat and thick, acrid smoke that followed. Within a matter of seconds the ship’s insides had become unrecognisable, her decks twisted and buckled and filled with the screams of the dying and the injured, suffering from the most hideous wounds imaginable. Neil Kemp, whose torpedo had sunk the Littorio, was one of six Taranto raiders to die that awful day. The young Lieutenant, whom many had tipped to make it to Admiral, was talking to his new CO, Lt Cdr Jackie Jago, when the first bomb struck the hangar. When Jago turned back, Kemp was still standing there but without his head. The England rugby player William Luddington was among the many who lost their lives in the hangar.

Meanwhile, Lamb was fighting for his life in the skies above Illustrious. In theory, a Swordfish stood no chance against a Stuka in a dogfight, but it remains a source of great pride in the Fleet Air Arm that not one of their biplanes was ever shot down by the powerful German divebomber in the course of the war. Lamb succeeded in leading his attacker a violent, twisting dance before the German finally conceded defeat and returned to Sicily. Once again, the incredible manoeuvrability and durability of the Swordfish, and the great skill of its pilot, had carried the day against its state-of-the-art predator. The wings and frames of Lamb’s Swordfish had been shredded by the Stuka’s machine guns and, more alarmingly, his fuel tank had been riddled and was spilling rapidly. With a matter of seconds before the engine cut on him, Lamb managed to ditch the Swordfish alongside the destroyer HMS Juno and was rescued.

Eighty-three men were killed and over 100 wounded, 60 of them gravely, during the 10-minute attack, but had it not been for the ferocious defence put up by her gunners, the casualty list would very probably have been a great deal higher and Illustrious might well have ended the day on the bottom. Incredibly, she lived to fight another day. (The German pilots were dumbfounded to learn that she had survived their pounding.) Working amidst the horrific conditions below deck, the ship’s company toiled heroically to douse the flames and save the ship while the medics tended to the many injured. It was a testament to the designers and dockyard workers at Vickers Armstrong in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria that, instead of slipping beneath the waves as most of the world’s other carriers would have done, Illustrious steamed to Malta at a stately twenty knots, in spite of the heavy damage to her steering. It was the sturdiness of her construction that saved her. The inferno raged below deck for some time but neither the magazines containing the torpedoes and bombs nor the giant fuel tanks caught light. Had they done so, Illustrious would have been blown out of the water and the death toll would have been closer to 2,000. One of the most stirring moments of the day was the sight of the ship’s Fulmars, which had been unable to land on, returning to the scene to protect their mother ship after refuelling in Malta. They succeeded in shooting down half a dozen Stukas before the Germans turned back to Sicily. It was at a quarter to ten that night, her flight deck still steaming from the heat below, that Illustrious, bent and bruised but not broken or bowed, slipped into Malta’s Grand Harbour. It was now that the grisly, traumatic task of collecting the bodies and limbs of friends and crewmates began. Some were never found.

The fact that the other ships of the fleet were left virtually unscathed by the Stuka attack provided the physical evidence that the Germans had come for one reason and one reason alone: to exact revenge for Taranto by sinking Illustrious. But they had failed and three days later they were back. This time, supported by Junker 88 bombers and Messerschmitt Me111 fighters, not to mention dozens of bombers and fighters from the Regia Aeronautica, the Stukas were determined not to give Illustrious a second chance. For much of the time, repairs continued below deck while air-raid sirens wailed and the gunners above tried to beat off the attacks. For two weeks, the Luftwaffe came in wave after wave but, heroically defended by the RAF Hurricane and Fulmar squadrons on the island and the gunners of the harbour defences, Illustrious refused to die. Two huge bombs succeeded in hitting her and three near-misses lifted her out of the water and smashed her against the wharf, damaging her hull. With losses mounting by the day and the RAF growing dangerously short of pilots, Lt Julian Sparke, who had taken part in the Taranto raid, volunteered to fly Hurricanes to help in the island’s increasingly desperate defence. He died ramming a German bomber. On 24 January 1941, following a fortnight of round-the-clock repair work, much of it while under attack, Captain Boyd stood on the carrier’s bridge, Illustrious slipped the Grand Harbour and steamed for Alexandria at twenty-six knots. On arrival, the carrier and her company were given a hero’s salute by every ship in harbour.

In the eight months since she had been launched, the Illustrious had certainly led a colourful existence. It was from her flight deck that the first-ever attack on a fleet at anchor had been launched. That bold action, by half a hangar of antiquated biplanes, had swung the balance of power in the Mediterranean and undoubtedly helped Britain hang on to Malta and the Suez Canal, as well as beat Rommel in North Africa. Her efforts were applauded by Churchill and Roosevelt and hailed around the free world. The Battle of Taranto had truly been one of Britain’s finest hours . . . and yet. And yet, when the gallantry medals were announced in the immediate aftermath of the attack, just two Distinguished Service Orders (to the two flight leaders) and four Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded. The fury below decks – chiefly amongst the sailors and deck crews – was uncontained. When the notice announcing the awards was pinned up on board, it was torn down by a disgusted sailor. No one had forgotten his ‘manoeuvre well executed’ signal the morning after the raid, and at first many suspected it was the cold hand of Admiral Cunningham grudgingly handing out the gongs. But subsequent investigations suggested that the meanness belonged to Whitehall mandarins, not the Admiral.

The matter was raised by Sir Murray Sueter MP in Parliament in May. As a retired Rear Admiral, he was disgusted by the lack of recognition and he suggested to the First Lord of the Admiralty that honours should be awarded to all forty men who took part in the raid. Medals were subsequently awarded to every one of them, but by the time they were announced a quarter of them were dead.

Almost half of the Swordfish crewmen who took part in the Taranto raid did not survive to see the war’s end. But they did at least have the satisfaction of knowing before they went to their deaths that they had played a part in one of the boldest raids ever undertaken; an action that, even in the illustrious history of the Royal Navy, will be remembered as one of its more glorious episodes. Captain Boyd of Illustrious, addressing his ship’s company after the raid, was speaking the truth when he said: ‘In one night the ship’s aircraft had achieved a greater amount of damage to the enemy than Nelson had achieved in the Battle of Trafalgar, and nearly twice the amount that the entire British Fleet achieved in the Battle of Jutland in the First World War.’

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