Updated 7th December 2014 | Polk City, Florida. Many years ago HMS Belfast rested at a berth along the Thames. Moored immediately to starboard of the Royal Navy (RN) heavy cruiser was a visiting Japanese patrol vessel belonging to what is now the Japanese Coast Guard. Several officers and ratings lined the gangway connecting the ships and politely beckoned aboard the curious. Stepping onto the deck, more than one man recalled that only a few decades previously the United Kingdom and the Empire of Japan had been bitter foes.
The onslaught against British and Commonwealth interests opened with the aerial assault on American bases located on a Polynesian island. The grouping it is associated with was known formerly to the British as the Sandwich Islands. The world now knows them collectively as Hawaiʻi, and to this day Hawaiians recall their historic connection to the United Kingdom visually through the canton of the state’s flag.
An example of the key British player in the precursor to the 1941 Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service assault resides today in central Florida. Inside a Fantasy of Flight warehouse complex, known as Golden Hill, a Swordfish sits silently, out of her natural element, on the concrete floor. The forlorn-looking “Stringbag” patiently awaits restoration and a return to airworthiness. Currently incapable of movement, she nevertheless symbolizes the days her kind revolutionized naval warfare.
Today being the anniversary of Japan’s attack on American military installations on Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi, American and English patrons paused to reflect. Their minds drifted into the pages of previously read military history texts and recalled that the potent and capable Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy) threatened RN operations in 1940. Senior RN leadership, including Rear Admiral Lyster who had served at Taranto during World War I and devised a contingency plan of attack in the middle 1930s, were of the opinion that the Italian fleet had to be neutralized. A decision was taken to raid Taranto and a training program formulated.
The aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious would play a key supportive role. When the warship became available, Illustrious flew on 5 Swordfish from HMS Eagle to supplement her own complement. The embarked Fleet Air Arm (FAA) planes were from Nos. 806 (Gloster Sea Gladiators and Fairey Fulmars) 813 (Swordfish and Sea Gladiators), 815 (Swordfish), 819 (Swordfish) and 824 (Swordfish) Squadrons. Rear Admiral Lyster commanded the task force.
During the night of November 11-12 Illustrious launched the attack. The Swordfish detailed primarily for carrying torpedoes had their range extended through additions of petrol tanks in the observers’ cockpits, and those tasked to conduct bombing were equipped with auxiliary tankage beneath their fuselages. Notably, a severe loss rate had been forecast.
After flying off in 2 waves the 21 laggardly Swordfish winged their way toward Taranto, the Bristol Pegasas engines laboring under the fuel and armament loads. Amongst them the airplanes toted a mixture of flares for illumination of the harbor, bombs and torpedoes.
At 2300 hours (11:00 pm) flares began dropping from Swordfish. Despite the presence of barrage balloons, anti-torpedo nets and intense anti-aircraft fire of many calibers the pilots determinedly weaved their way through the treacherous sky toward the anchored vessels below. The normally dark airspace was filled with the beams of searchlights, flashes of exploding anti-aircraft shells and strings of colorful and deadly tracer bullets emanating from automatic weapons. The atmosphere was therefore choppy and the Swordfish bounced and skidded. Noting the resistance, the airmen would nonetheless not be deterred from accomplishing their important mission.
The Swordfish crews achieved success. In total 3 Italian battleships suffered severe damage, a cruiser and 2 destroyers were damaged and 2 auxiliary vessels were sunk. Remarkably, only one Swordfish in each wave was lost. David Mondey succinctly summarized (pages 91-92) the results in his book British Aircraft of World War II. He wrote the following: “In the short space of an hour the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean had been irrevocably changed, confirming the belief of prophets such as the USA’s ‘Billy’ Mitchell, by demonstrating the potential of a force of aeroplanes . . . to eliminate a naval fleet . . . .”
Afterward, the Japanese demonstrated intense interest. Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Naito, the assistant naval attaché to Berlin, and others visited Taranto to glean information. It became obvious that aerial torpedoes had been utilized in shallow waters. Naito later conducted a lengthy conversation with aviator Commander Mitsuo Fuchida who was destined to lead the attack on Pearl Harbor. “What is clear . . . is that the action at Taranto convinced the Japanese that the attack on Pearl Harbor was feasible ,” wrote (page 159) David Wragg in Swordfish. Furthermore, the IJN recognized (Wragg, pages ix-x) that the attack persuaded the Italians to relocate their fleet to another port. The recent relocation of the U.S. Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor was a deterrent to Japan’s expansionist policies. It is certainly possible that the IJN hoped its raid would likewise result in the withdrawal of American capital ships.
By December 1941 Allied intelligence knew something was about to happen. Many signs of impending action had been noted by both the British and American navies. Even officers aboard one of His Majesty’s warships sensed something afoot. On December 4 HMCS Prince Robert, an armed merchant cruiser of the Royal Canadian Navy, sailed from Pearl Harbor. While steaming toward Esquimalt, British Columbia, her wireless operator “picked up some mystifying signals” (Boutilier, p. 123). However, Prince Robert‘s able seaman lookouts saw nothing of Admiral Nagumo’s striking force. America’s “Day of Infamy” approached unabated.
After the devastation at Pearl Harbor the Congress of Britain’s former American colonies promptly declared war on Japan on the Axis powers. Although the U.S. Navy had been escorting convoys to the “Mother Country” for some months, America was now fully and officially engaged in the conflict. Around the time of the United States’ declarations of war, Prince Robert was north of Hawaiʻi and still homeward bound when a received signal advised her captain that Canada was now at war with Japan.
The History Channel documentary Greatest Raids: Royal Swordfish Take Taranto states that the FAA’s raid on Taranto was in some aspects more successful than the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service’s pummeling of installations at and around Pearl Harbor. Regardless, significant physical and psychological damage had been inflicted by both branches.
Obvious to all was the fact that there had been repetitive and effective executions by Swordfish. The ungainly planes damaged the French battleship Richelieu, at the time under Vichy control, on July 8, 1940, struck Taranto in November and on May 26, 1941, wounded the Kriegsmarine battleship Bismark. “In torpedo-plane tactics . . . the British Navy was least backward,” stated (page 35) Captain Donald Macintyre in Aircraft Carrier: The Majestic Weapon.
Compared to torpedo bombers such as the Douglas TBD Devastator, Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger and Nakajima B5N Kate the Swordfish was undoubtedly inferior. The RN was unfortunately not blessed during the early period of the conflict with competent domestically manufactured aeroplanes. As David Wragg stated (page 177), the “Fleet Air Arm had to make the best of what it had.” Nevertheless, the Fairey Swordfish gamely performed every role required of it.
The importance of Fairey’s product became apparent to all, and the legend of the aircraft justifiably grew. Testifying to her qualities, an affectionate song, which has been preserved within The Fleet Air Arm Songbook, became popular:
The Swordfish fly over the ocean
The Swordfish fly over the sea;
If it were not for King George’s Swordfish
Where would the Fleet Air Arm be?
Fantasy of Flight’s Swordfish is a Mk. IV, which is a Blackburn Aircraft Limited variant that was derived from the Mk. II. These planes were built by Blackburn in Sherburn, North Yorkshire. The Mk. IV featured an enclosed cockpit designed for frigid Canadian environs. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) operated many of this type while the RN also made use of Mk. IV machines at No. 1 Naval Air Gunnery School at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Canada received (Batchelor, page 13) at least 105 Mk. II and Mk. III Swordfish in total, but only a percentage were modified to the Mk. IV standard. The Canadian aircraft served in training roles.
The author (John Stemple) salutes the U.S. Military personnel who served, and especially those who died, on Sunday, December 7, 1941. He thanks Jeff Nillson of the Historic Naval Ships Association (HNSA) for providing the photograph of HMS Belfast and the staff of Fantasy of Flight for their cooperation.
Readers may be interested in Swordfish pilot Stanley Brand’s book Achtung! Swordfish! Merchant Aircraft Carriers. Clicking on the foregoing link will access a review.
*HMS – His Majesty’s Ship
*HMCS – His Majesty’s Canadian Ship
*Kriegsmarine – Nazi Germany’s navy
Sources, Suggested Readings & Viewings
Attack on Pearl Harbor: A Day of Infamy (2 DVD set), Timeless Media Group, 2007.
Attack on Pearl Harbor — Wikipedia
Battle of Taranto — Wikipedia
Bismark – Wikipedia
Brand, Stanley, Achtung! Swordfish! Merchant Aircraft Carriers, Horsforth, Leeds: Propagator Press, 2005.
British Attack on Richelieu
David Wragg, Swordfish: The Story of the Taranto Raid, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2004.
Donald Macintyre, Aircraft Carrier: The Majestic Weapon, New York: Ballantine Books, 1968, pages 48-71.
Fairey Swordfish — Wikipedia
Fantasy of Flight
Fleet Air Arm attack on Italian Fleet at Taranto
Gloster Sea Gladiator
Greatest Raids: Royal Swordfish Take Taranto, History Channel DVD Release Date: January 26, 2010.
Ireland, Bernard, Collins Jane’s World War II Warships, Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.
James A. Boutilier, ed., RCN in Retrospect, 1910-1968, Vancouver: The University of British Columbia Press, 1982.
John Batchelor and Malcolm V. Lowe, Plane Essentials: Fairey Swordfish, Dorset: The Minster Press, 2009.
Last Battle of the Bismark
Mondey, David, British Aircraft of World War II, Middlesex: Temple Press, 1982, pp. 91-92.
No. 806 Squadron
Pearl Harbor: Beyond the Movie
Princes Three: Navy Part 38
Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Museum Fairey Swordfish II
Thomas P. Lowry and John G. Wellham, The Attack on Taranto: Blueprint for Pearl Harbor, Stackpole Books, 1995.
Tora! Tora! Tora!, 20th Century Fox, 1970.
War in the Mediterranean – The Battle of Taranto