Captain Oliver Patch, Royal Marines led a flight of three Fairey Swordfish torpedo aircraft that were temporarily detached from HMS Eagle. Flying from an RAF base in the western desert of Egypt, the Fleet Air Arm crew from 824 Squadron flew far out to sea and then turned towards the Italian Libyan harbour of Bomba, where an Italian supply ship had been sighted by earlier reconnaissance.
Approaching the harbour Patch saw an Italian submarine on the surface. This was an unexpected bonus. It was later learnt that this was the submarine Iride, exercising with frogmen who were planning to make a covert attack on the British base at Alexandria. Patch released his torpedo from 30 feet at a distance of 300 yards and scored a direct hit below the conning tower.
His wingmen Lieutenant’s Cheeseman and Welham flew on through the flak to attack a submarine and a depot ship in the Bomba harbour. They both scored hits and the exploding ammunition on the depot ship caught a destroyer that was alongside. The Italians subsequently reported that two submarines and two ships had been sunk. Welham’s Swordfish was badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire but he made it back to the forward base before it had to be abandoned.
Admiral Cunningham described the attack as ‘brilliantly conceived and gallantly executed’. The ‘phenomenal’ potential for airborne torpedo attacks on ships in harbour was not lost on the Royal Navy – nor by other Navies around the world.