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Bi-planes smash Italian Fleet at Taranto

reconnaissance for taranto attack
Aerial-reconnaissance vertical of Italian naval vessels moored in the outer harbour (Mar Grande) at Taranto, Italy. Photograph taken by No. 431 Flight RAF flying from Luqa, Malta.
HMS Illustrious in 1940 with Swordfish aircraft
Twenty one Swordfish were launched from the new aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious for the raid on Taranto. Fifty per cent losses were expected.

The potential for Naval Aviation to dramatically alter the strategies and tactics of the war at sea had been considered by many theorists since the First World War. At Taranto a single raid by slow, virtually obsolete old Bi-planes suddenly shattered many long cherished beliefs about the power of Battleships and naval gunnery.

A possible attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto had been planned and prepared by the Royal Navy before the war. The operation called for the Fleet Air Arm to make a surprise attack with the carrier aircraft they had available. In 1940 that meant the Swordfish aircraft would have to make a long distance approach with auxiliary fuel tanks.

The Fairey Swordfish biplane in flight with torpedo
The Fairey Swordfish biplane appeared obsolete but scored many notable torpedo hits during the war.

Lieutenant M.R. Maund describes the reality for the men in the open cockpits of the venerable old Swordfish aircraft:

Six thousand feet. God how cold it is here! The sort of cold that fills you until all else is drowned, save perhaps fear and loneliness. Suspended between heaven and earth in a sort of no-man’s land – to be sure, no man was ever meant to be here Is it surprising that my knees are knocking together?

We have now passed under a sheet of alto-stratus cloud which blankets the moon, allowing only a few pools of silver where small gaps appear. And, begob, Williamson is going to climb through it! As the rusty edge is reached I feel a tugging at my port wing, and find that Kemp has edged me over into the slipstream of the leading sub-flight.

I fight with hard right stick to keep the wing up, but the sub-flight has run into one of its clawing moments, and quite suddenly the wing and nose drop and we are falling out of the sky! I let her have her head and see the shape of another aircraft flash by close over-head.

Turning, I see formation lights ahead and climb up after them, following them through one of the rare holes in this cloud mass. There are two aircraft sure enough, yet when I range up alongside, the moon-glow shows up the figure 5A — that is Olly. The others must be ahead.

After an anxious few minutes some dim lights appear amongst the upper billows of the cloud, and opening the throttle we lumber away from Olly after them. Poor old engine – she will get a tanning this trip.

We are now at 1,000 feet over a neat residential quarter of the town where gardens in darkened squares show at the back of houses marshalled by the neat plan of the streets that serve them. Here is the main road that connects the district with the main town. We follow its line and, as I open the throttle to elongate the glide, a Breda AA gun swings round from the shore, turning its stream of red balls in our direction.

This is the beginning. Then another two guns farther north get our scent — white balls this time — so we throttle back again and make for a black mass on the shore that looks like a factory, where no balloons are likely to grow. We must be at a hundred feet now and must soon make our dash across that bloody water …

I open the throttle wide and head for the mouth of the Mar Piccolo, whose position … can be judged by the lie of the land. Then it is as if all hell comes tumbling in on top of us … the fire of one of the cruisers and the Mar Piccolo Canal batteries …

taranto attack
Taranto Harbour, Swordfish from ‘Illustrious’ Cripple the Italian Fleet, 11 November 1940
by Charles David Cobb (c) David Cobb; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

We turn until the right hand battleship is between the bars of the torpedo sight, dropping down as we do so. The water is close beneath our wheels, so close I am wondering which is to happen first — the torpedo going or our hitting the sea — then we level out, and almost without thought the button is pressed and a jerk tells me the ‘fish’ is gone.

This account, and many others, appears in Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid.

The torpedo aircraft then had to launch their torpedoes from a steady height of 150 feet while travelling at 90 knots in order to cope with the relatively shallow water. This should have made them sitting ducks for the Anti-Aircraft guns of the Battleships and Cruisers that they were attacking, and heavy casualties were anticipated. In fact only two aircraft were shot down, the crew from one of them surviving as prisoners. Three battleships were hit by torpedoes, one was sunk and the two others seriously damaged.

artistic interpretation of taranto attack
A reconstruction of the British raid on Taranto with shipping, flares and searchlights in a night sky. The Italian fleet at anchor in the harbour is under attack from aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. Searchlight beams shine brightly up into the night sky, there are low flying aircraft and numerous shell bursts also illuminate the sky. A torpedo moves rapidly through the water towards the Italian battleship Littorio in the centre of the composition.

[The title to the video mistakenly credits the RAF rather than the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy]

The other aircraft, carrying conventional bombs and flares to illuminate the target area, caused confusion as they attacked other targets. More ships were hit as well as dockyard installations.

The attack established beyond doubt the potential of aerial launched torpedoes, even in relatively shallow harbour waters. It was closely studied by other navies around the world, not least in Japan. Pearl Harbour was just over a year away.

More immediately it shifted the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean. Not only was a significant part of the Italian fleet put out of action, many of the remaining ships were swiftly moved to ports further north, out of harms way but further from their main area of operations.

The Italian Battleships Littorio and Vittorio in action during exercises before the war. Both were targets of the Fleet Air Arm at Taranto, the Littorio was badly damaged.
RAF reconnaissance view of Taranto harbour
After the Fleet Air Arm attack the RAF flew a series of high level reconnaissance flights to assess the damage caused.
ship sunk during taranto attack
The Italian battleship CONTE DI CAVOUR after the attack. Only her funnels and super-structure remain above the water.

7 thoughts on “Bi-planes smash Italian Fleet at Taranto”

  1. Always happy to see more about Taranto.

    My book. THE ATTACK ON TARANTO was coauthored with John Wellham, one of the pilots who dropped a torpedo that night.

    And yes, US Naval Intelligence really screwed up.

  2. 77 years ago today November 11, 1940, my father, Silvano, then 20, narrowly escaped certain death, trapped below the water line on the Italian Battleship LITTORIO, left with just inches of air space between him and the ceiling of the fire control room (guns) of a fast-flooding, sealed compartment. Hundreds more Italian sailors died in the surprise attack that day. I always remember the stories he told of this fateful day. Had he not survived, I wouldn’t be here writing this.

  3. The Swordfish carrying torpedoes at Taranto flew at 30 feet. The torpedoes were fitted with the highly secret duplex pistol, designed to explode under the hull of ships. The depth of water in Taranto Harbour was well below the minimum depth required for torpedoes at the time, hence the low level drop height plus mods to the fins of the torpedoes. The dive bombing Swordfish went into a near vertical dive as they prepared to release their bombs. The fear was the wings would be torn off due to the forces on the wings, this subsequently happened to one Swordfish post Taranto. The reason we had obsolete aircraft at the start of WWII was due to crass ignorance of some of the top brass whose idea of using aircraft to bomb the enemy was not British. The Fleet Air Arm only took control of Naval aviation in 1939, a few months prior to the outbreak of war.

  4. Andy

    I presume you are responding to the video, which I was not responsible for!


  5. This raid had absolutely nothing to do with the RAF, the RAF never went to sea,and ,as far as I know never flew Swordfish aircraft. This was a raid planned by the Admiralty and carried out by the FLEET AIR ARM ,which ,incidentally, was flying from ships before the RAF existed. The first Naval Pilots flew Short Bi-planes from Eastchurch airfield in December 1910 several years before the RAF existed and soon afterwards ships were converted so they could launch sea planes ( initially used for observation), they were craned back on the ship after landing alongside. It also needs to be pointed out that several naval aircraft took part in the Battle of Britain, another fact the the RAF forget to mention !.

  6. history channel has a good account of dusko popov and j. edgar etc. but does not incorporate that story in any of it’s pearl harbor accounts…

    i blame j. edgar for pearl harbor and many many other things…


  7. There’s much more to this story:
    – Illustrious’ radar (1st CV so equipped) kept Italian recon away
    – Swordfish flew well below 150 feet
    – Japanese learned more from the Italians than from the attack itself
    – An American Naval officer was aboard Illustrious, and filed many
    intelligence reports with ONI
    – His request to go to Pearl Harbor and share “lessons learned” was denied
    Get the whole story in my book, Taranto: The Raid, The Observer, The Aftermath, available at

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