November 2010

HMS ILLUSTRIOUS - the last British Aircraft Carrier?

Fairey (Blackburn) Swordfish Mk.1, Taranto, 1940

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HMS ILLUSTRIOUS Fairey Swordfish

On the night of 11-12 November 1940, twenty one Swordfish aircraft from HMS ILLUSTRIOUS (813, 815, 819 and 824 Sqns), with Fulmar fighter cover (806 Sqn), attack and disable the Italian Fleet at Taranto. From a launch position 170 miles off the Italian coast at night, two waves of Swordfish torpedo and bomb the Italians in their home port. Two aircraft are shot down, but the Italian Navy suffers significant damage, with half its Fleet severely damaged, forcing its withdrawal to the more easily protected port of Naples and ensuring that it would play little meaningful role in the remainder of the war.

Amongst the observers ashore in Taranto that evening was the Japanese Naval Attache, who was particularly impressed with the effectiveness of a long range, decisive surprise attack on an enemy force in its home base and he files an excited report home. Just over a year later, at Pearl Harbour, the Japanese Fleet launches a copycat operation. However, despite being far larger in size and causing greater devastation, the Japanese operation does not account for the US Aircraft Carriers, which, by sheer luck, are at sea during the attack.

Taranto Night Celebrations - HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, Mediterranean, 1984.

I had the great pleasure of serving in this ship in 1984, during which time I attended a particularly boisterous Taranto Night Wardroom celebration, that took place at sea in the Mediterranean just off the Italian coast. It would be fair to say that the Fleet Air Arm made the most of the evening, with several large exploding models to celebrate what is perhaps one of their greatest victories