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.
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 …
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.
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.