The night of 11th – 12th November 1940 saw a naval mission of unprecedented determination and bravery when 21 canvas-winged Fairey Swordfish aircraft took off from HMS Illustrious to carry out one of the most pivotal aerial attacks of the Second World War: the sinking of the Italian Battle Fleet at Taranto.

Leaving the deck of HMS Illustrious in radio silence, without navigation lights to avoid detection, the Swordfish flew 170 miles through the night to drop their torpedoes and bombs on the battleships, cruisers and destroyers anchored in Taranto harbour. The attacks on the heavily defended harbour were swift, sudden and unexpected, crippling the Italian fleet and rendering the Italian Navy ineffective for the rest of the War.

The attack was the first time in history that an enemy fleet had been defeated without ever sighting or engaging the opposing ships. It was also the first successful major offensive against the Axis Power in the Second World War and was a welcome boost to British morale. The combination of the strategic use of aircraft carriers and the spirit of the Fleet Air Arm turned the balance of power in the Mediterranean.

For centuries the success of the Royal Navy was dominated by battleships but on the night of 11-12 November 1940 the courage and initiative of a small band of naval pilots flying Swordfish bi-planes marked the birth of a new era in naval warfare.
In 1940, the entry of Italy into the war presented the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean with a serious threat: close to the convoy supply routes to Crete and Malta was the Italian naval base of Taranto.

The original plan had been to strike Taranto on the night of 21 October using 36 Swordfish from HMS Illustrious and HMS Eagle but several mishaps intervened, including a fire aboard Illustrious and the withdrawal of Eagle due to battle damage. The force of Swordfish torpedo bombers was therefore reduced to 21 aircraft and the attack, named ‘Operation Judgement’, was postponed. The delay allowed improved reconnaissance which two days before the attack, confirmed that the entire Italian battleship strength (the brand new Littorio and Vio Veneto and four modernised battleships, Cesare, Duillio, Andrea, Doria and Cavour) were all moored in the harbour. Several cruisers and destroyers were also present. Operation Judgement was underway!
The aircraft took off in two waves and rumbled through the darkness towards their target, over two hours’ flying time away, at only 75 knots. One aircraft turned back, but 20 pressed on. Eleven of the aircraft were armed with torpedoes and the remainder carried flares and bombs.

As the first wave of Swordfish began their approach from the south west at 2258, the flare carriers lit up the Italian ships, signalling the torpedo bombers to begin their dive into a storm of anti-aircraft fire.

Within ten minutes the Italian fleet had suffered massive damage. Three Italian battle ships, Littorio, Caio Duilio and Conte di Cavour had been crippled, four other ships were sunk or badly damaged and a number of shore installations had been destroyed.

The second wave arrived around midnight, dodging the steel cables of barrage balloons and coming under fire from over 800 anti-aircraft guns. They were only eight strong: five torpedo planes and three bombers. By the time the last aircraft had completed the attack, the first Swordfish had reached Illustrious; it was 0120. During the next hour and a half, whilst all on board waited anxiously, the Swordfish gradually arrived back and landed safely. Only two aircraft were shot down.

The success of the attack was a remarkable victory for such a small force: had the battle occurred between surface ships in the traditional way – with big guns firing broadsides – it would have been seen as a major victory for the Royal Navy. The Littorio was out of action for many months. The Duilio and Cavour were both beached, the former taken out of action for nearly a year and the latter until the end of the war. Two cruisers were heavily damaged and the seaplane base and oil depot badly damaged.

‘Taranto and the night of 11 November 1940 should be remembered forever as having shown once and for all, that in the Fleet Air Arm, the Navy has its most devastating weapon.’ Admiral Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Fleet 1940

Keeping the Swordfish flying today is a living tribute to the young men who flew her and their resourcefulness and determination to succeed whatever the difficulties. They flew into an inferno but their flying skills were well practiced and their courage and professionalism epitomises the Fleet Air Arm today.