On December 7th 1941, aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy struck the US Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The attack crippled the bulk of the US Navy’s surface forces and meant that for the following six months the Japanese Navy had almost total control over the Pacific before finally the US were able to reclaim it and drive the Japanese fleet back. A little known fact about the attack was that the Japanese were actually inspired by a British attack carried out against the Italians in the Mediterranean a year earlier. On the night of the 11th November 1940 two waves of obsolete Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish biplanes took off from the carrier HMS Illustrious to attack Taranto harbour where a large force of Italian warships were anchored. For the loss of just two aircraft the Italians were dealt a crippling blow but unlike the Americans a year later they were never able to recover and the Royal Navy controlled the Mediterranean Sea for the rest of the war with only Axis air power and submarines being able to threaten it.
An even lessor known fact is that the Taranto attack was itself inspired by an even earlier plan concocted in the closing years of the First World War.
World War I was a frustrating conflict for the Royal Navy. Unquestionably the most powerful surface force in the world the Admiralty hoped that it could send its powerful fleets out to sea to clash with the German High Seas Fleet and annihilate it once and for all so that Britannia could truly rule the waves. Instead however the Royal Navy found itself manning a massive blockade line that was wrought with operational difficulties that allowed German warships to slip by and bombard English coastal towns thus shaking the British people’s confidence in their navy. They were also having to contend with a totally new weapon of war that was inflicting painful losses on the Royal Navy and more importantly Britain’s Merchant Navy – the submarine or U-Boat. The potency of such a weapon was dramatically highlighted early in the war with the Cressey Catastrophe in which three heavy cruisers were sunk by a single U-Boat in less than one hour.
When the German High Seas Fleet finally left port in strength to face Britain’s Royal Navy in the Battle of Jutland the result was not as decisive as had been hoped. Despite being outnumbered the German sailors and their ships put up an extraordinary performance that left the Royal Navy bloodied and bruised despite being ultimately victorious. Although large numbers of German warships were sunk or damaged it was not enough to secure the seas from the Germans attempting a similar break out in the future and so the Admiralty began to study plans to finally deal that fatal blow that would crush the Kaiser’s fleet. The answer was obvious. They would have to destroy the German ships in port. With the German surface fleet destroyed the Royal Navy could then reorganize its efforts to run down and destroy the U-Boats and achieve victory at sea. In September 1917 Admiral David Beatty, the commander-in-chief of Britain’s Grand Fleet finally signed off on one of the proposals put before him. The Royal Navy was going to launch torpedoes against the German fleet whilst it was in harbour using aircraft to deliver them.
The aeroplane had come a long way in just under decade from when the Royal Navy told the Wright Brothers that their invention had no practical use in war. Despite this somewhat less than enthusiastic start the Royal Navy quickly became one of the aeroplane’s biggest advocates and perhaps even more than the Army’s Royal Flying Corps the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) embraced aircraft as a means of waging war. The RNAS itself was barely a year old when it began studies in to using the aeroplane to attack shipping using torpedoes dropped by Short Type 81 seaplanes. Building on these trials Short then produced the Type 184 seaplane and on the 12th August 1915 during the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign a Type 184 became the first aircraft in history to sink an enemy vessel in combat.
By September 1917 the aeroplane and the delivery of airborne torpedoes had advanced considerably and now Beatty had enough faith in his fly-boys to commit them to such a vital mission on a scale not yet seen in aerial warfare. That does not mean to say that both the aircraft and the torpedo were not free of their problems. Quite the contrary. The aircraft of the day were still very fragile machines with limited range and endurance and with carrier operations in its infancy, seaplanes were still the order of the day. The torpedo also had its operational problems requiring considerable cooling when armed on the ground. They also had a tendency to explode upon contact with the water often resulting in the destruction of the launch aircraft. While these problems had largely been ironed out to an acceptable level by late 1917 the risk in handling them remained but balanced against this was the potential to inflict severe, usually fatal, damage on a warship which is why Beatty greeted the idea of using them to destroy the German fleet in port so enthusiastically.
His plan called for no less than 121 aircraft to launch an attack on the strategically important German harbours at Kiel (right) and Wilhelmshaven where the bulk of Germany’s battleships, battlecruisers and heavy cruisers were based. Three groups of around 40 aircraft would launch from a number of aircraft-carrying ships traversing the Heligoland Bight; a stretch of the North Sea west of the harbours. The aircraft were to launch just before dawn when the fleet of ships were approximately an hour’s flight time from their targets. They would fly east until almost parallel with the Jade Roads (a body of water at the entrance to Wilhelmshaven) and then turn south to begin their attack.
The aircrews were to be given a list of targets in terms of their importance emphasizing that above all the battleships and battlecruisers must be sunk. The following waves of aircraft would have to assess the success of the earlier aircraft before deciding whether or not to attack again or move on to one of the other targets on the list. Once all the battleships and battlecruisers had been hit or sunk the following pilots would then attack the dock gates and the floating dock facilities in an effort to reduce the effectiveness of the harbour. If the attack went according to plan there would be sufficient aircraft available to attack some of the smaller surface vessels such as cruisers, destroyers, auxiliaries and hopefully a few U-Boats. Once an aircraft launched its torpedo the pilot was then expected to circle the harbour and use his machine guns to suppress the harbour defences for the aircraft behind him.
Not all the aircraft involved were to fly from the aircraft carrying ships. A large number of flying boats operating from the English Coast were also to participate dropping bombs on harbour facilities before another formation would deliver mines to prevent the German ships from escaping in to the open ocean. The flying boats lacked the range for a return trip and were therefore going to have to land near a formation of waiting destroyers who would refuel them near the Dutch coast before they continued on their way home. It was a bold but complicated plan for 1917/18.
Once the details of plan had been worked out Beatty and his staff began their preparations. It was a daunting task. To begin with there weren’t yet enough vessels able to carry the required 121 aircraft in Royal Navy service. The navy had been operating seaplane carriers since 1913 beginning with HMS Hermes, a converted light cruiser which carried aircraft equipped with floats that were lifted out of the hangar by steam powered cranes and placed on the water for take off. This was followed by a handful of other conversions and the first purpose-built seaplane carrier (and as a result the first purpose built aircraft carrier) HMS Ark Royal. The problem with these vessels was that they could only hold between seven and ten aircraft each and deploying them in force was a long winded affair because of the time taken to lift the aircraft out of the hold and assemble the folding wings.
As the war progressed the need to improve carrier operations became clearer and this spurred the development of the first true aircraft carriers; the flat-tops. These had the advantages of being able to handle more aircraft and launch them in quick succession. Britain had one and a half flat-tops at the beginning of 1918 – the half being the cumbersome and dangerous conversion undertaken to HMS Furious which saw the fitting of a flight deck forward of the main superstructure in place of the guns. Taking off was fine but landing on the ship was an insanely difficult affair with the pilot having to fly alongside the ship from astern and then side-stepping on to the deck! HMS Argus on the other hand was a complete flat-top and was effectively a floating runway.
Beatty’s problems with the number of aircraft carrying ships available was exacerbated by the loss of the seaplane carrier HMS Ben-my-Chee a few months before his plan was formalised. He therefore had his staff look at other ways of taking aircraft to sea and they came up with a rather novel solution; modify merchant ships with flight decks. These would effectively make them temporary flat-tops and providing he could modify enough ships that could carry around 17 aircraft each he would only need a force of eight vessels including Argus and Furious. The modified ships wouldn’t need hangar facilities because they would only be carrying out this one operation.
As the architects went about looking for suitable ships and planning their conversions Beatty now had to decide upon the aircraft that would carry out the attack. The requirements were stringent as it had to have good endurance, a reasonable ability to defend itself and carry a single 18-inch torpedo weighing 1,099lbs. The aircraft that best suited the mission as 1918 dawned was the Sopwith T.1 known affectionately as the “Cuckoo”. With dimensions similar to a Supermarine Spitfire I the Cuckoo was a single seat torpedo bomber with a range of around 300 miles and a top speed of 105mph after its torpedo had been jettisoned. With the Cuckoo Beatty thought he had his plane but this selection created even more problems for the ambitious plan. At the start of 1918 Sopwith was heavily involved in fighter construction for both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. This resulted in the construction of Cuckoos being subcontracted out to Fairfield in Glasgow and Blackburn in Doncaster which further delayed deliveries with the first aircraft becoming available in May 1918. Unfortunately this put back Beatty’s plan for a late summer attack as he needed sufficient time to train the Cuckoo crews and the crews of the merchant ships fitted with a flight deck. The later date meant risking carrying out the operation as winter set in which presented unfavourable weather conditions for naval air operations. This was such a concern that Beatty actually considered postponing the attack until 1919.
April 1918 threatened yet another setback when the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps entered in to their forced marriage to become the Royal Air Force. In the stroke of a pen Beatty had almost lost control of his naval air arm and this would be the source of much contention within the Admiralty until 1939 when the navy finally regained control of its own air force. Fortunately the RAF embraced the plan although it was now their operation and success might guarantee the baby service’s survival against army and navy hostility.
Training continued throughout 1918 but the slow process of converting the ships, delivering the aircraft and training the crews meant constant delays. As summer gave way to autumn the situation on the western front was changing and the Germans appeared to be losing ground. With the war expected to be over by Christmas questions began to be raised about whether an attack was necessary anymore but Beatty insisted that they should take nothing for granted.
Then on November 11th 1918 the guns fell silent thanks to revolution in Germany and even a mutiny by sailors at Kiel – one of the very targets of the plan.
With his plan called off Beatty and the rest of the Admiralty now eyed their former targets with glee at the prospect of taking the German ships and impressing them in to Royal Navy service to quickly and cheaply replace war losses. It was not to be however and the Germans famously scuttled their fleet rather than let their proud ships be taken over by their enemy. After the war Beatty remained convinced of the importance of the air launched torpedo as a weapon of war but the new-born RAF disagreed believing that bombers could destroy ships and their harbour facilities in one quick stroke. This was as much about asserting itself against the older service as it was about tactics.
Would the attack have succeeded? History does not like speculation but if one wanted to take an educated guess then there was a high chance of success. The German harbours were prepared for a surface attack by warships firing long range shells. They were ill prepared for an air attack on this scale and so providing that the aircrews achieved the necessary element of surprise it is very likely that there would have been scenes similar to Taranto and of course Pearl Harbour but in 1919.