November 11th is always remembered as Armistice Day; the date in which the First World War ended and the British and Commonwealth peoples take a moment to remember all those who have fallen in the name of our freedom. It is however also the anniversary of an incredible attack that took place in 1940.
By November 1940 nearly all of Western Europe was under Nazi German occupation. The RAF had narrowly defeated the Luftwaffe and although Hitler had postponed Operation: Sea Lion, his invasion of Britain, the war was now beginning to heat up in the Mediterranean. Fascist Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, had aspirations for building a new Roman Empire in Africa and now he was poised to capture British Empire territory in North Africa. In order to do that he had to defeat the powerful but desperately overstretched Royal Navy with his own fleet of big-gun capital ships who had the advantage of operating from their home port of Taranto.
The British Admiralty knew they had to take these ships out quickly and prevent them from leaving the harbour. Many plans were devised and rejected until finally the decision was taken for the Fleet Air Arm to launch a daring attack using Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo-bombers. It was a bold but dangerous plan and even the pilots involved expected a 50% casualty rate but the Italian ships had to be destroyed to help secure the Mediterranean and keep the supply lines to North Africa open.
The attack force was launched from HMS Illustrious at 2100hrs on November 11th 1940 and was an incredible success. During the course of the night the Italian Navy lost half of its capital ships while many other ships and port facilities were damaged. Despite such pessimistic casualty projections only two Swordfish were downed in the attack. It was a dramatic display of the potency of naval aircraft, even antiquated ones such as the Fairey Swordfish, and this was not lost on the Japanese who would be inspired by Taranto in their planning for their attack on Pearl Harbour a year later. The Taranto attack itself was actually inspired by an earlier plan to attack the Imperial German Navy in Wilhelmshaven during the First World War (see World War I’s Abandoned “Pearl Harbour” Attack).
This year marks the 75th anniversary of this incredible story.