Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, PhD

David Hobbs, MBE served in the Royal Navy from 1964 until 1997 and retired as a Fleet Air Arm pilot with the rank of Commander. He qualified as both a fixed and rotary wing pilot, logged 2,300 hours with over 800 carrier landings (150 at night), and served on multiple aircraft carriers. Hobbs has become an acknowledged expert on British naval aviation and is the author of more than twenty books; in 2005 he was Aerospace Journalist of the Year: Best Defence Submission. Taranto is the ninth books he has written for Seaforth, a subsidiary within the Pen & Sword Books Ltd corporate family.

His latest volume is, to my knowledge, the first book to focus exclusively upon the Fleet Air Arm’s contribution to naval operations in the Mediterranean following the Italian declaration of war against the British Empire in June 1940. The Royal Navy found itself opposing a larger and better-equipped Italian surface fleet and substantial Italian and German air forces equipped with modern aircraft, as well as new Italian and German submarines. British aircraft would be a crucial element in the unprecedented combat on, over and under the sea surface.

Hobbs’ Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, 1940-1945 (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2021) is preceded by two other book-length treatments of the Taranto Attack. The first is Vice-Admiral Brian Betham Schofield’s The Attack on Taranto (London: Ian Allan; Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1973), in which he pointed out that this air attack on static enemy capital ships did not escape the notice of the Japanese. Schofield’s tome includes six chapters (73 pages of text) relating the attack; three plans (the attack, movement of forces, and hits on aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious); eight appendices (summaries of torpedo and ammunition expenditures; a list of Fleet Air Am personnel; details of the British, Italian, and German aircraft; and data on the British and Italian ships); plus 28 black-and-white images. His “Bibliography” contained 12 items and the detailed four-page double column “Index” is quite useful, as is the “Glossary” which defined 101 terms.

The second book is Thomas P. Lowry and John Wellham’s Attack on Taranto: Blueprint for Pearl Harbor (Mechanicsburg, PA:  Stackpole; London: Greenhill, 1995) which likewise discusses relationships to the Pearl Harbor attack. The authors wrote 14 chapters (110 pages of text) describing aspects of the Taranto attack; including one plan (the attack on November 11, 1940); eight appendices (on naval aviation and flight crews, data on the Italian ships, maximum airplane speeds in 1940, comparative naval ranks, and British abbreviations); and 19 rather “fuzzy’ black-and-white photos scattered through the narrative. The three-page “Bibliography” had 66 books by British and American authors, and a list of seven “Articles and Manuscripts.” Each of these three books covers the topic of the Taranto attack quite well but, interestingly, from slightly different perspectives.

Overall, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, 1940-1945 has 14 chapters (303 pages of text), six appendices (Royal Navy aircraft operating in the Mediterranean 1940-1944, fighter weapons, RN reinforcements flown to Malta, RBN and RAF reinforcements sent to the Eastern Mediterranean; planned and actual RN aircraft strengths 1939-1944, and aircraft carrier statistics); and 234 illustrations (images, drawings, and maps) mostly supplied by the Fleet Air Arm archives. Hobbs begins with the obligatory “Forward” and “Acknowledgments,” plus an expansive and necessary “Glossary” of 101 terms. The narrative is presented in chronological sequence, thankfully each with illustrations appropriately integrated rather than clustered in one or two locations in the text. In addition, there are nine pages of notes in smaller font providing references and explanatory remarks. The “Bibliography,” also in the smaller font, includes 23 primary sources from the Admiralty’s Naval Historical Branch and lists 101 published secondary works. An extensive 14-page double-column “Index” includes both topics and proper nouns. All in all, this is a splendidly organized and handsomely bound, well-sewn hardback book.        

Hobbs’ volume follows logically from his earlier book The Dawn of Carrier Strike (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Seaforth Publishing, 2019) which covers the period of British naval aviation from 1918 to late 1940, including operations in the North Sea. His new volume covers the six years of British action versus the Axis including the highly significant battles at Taranto and Cape Matapan. He details “Operation Judgment,” the attack planning, execution – 11-12 November 1940, and aftermath (Chapter 3, pp. 89-137) at the naval base of Taranto, a well-defended port city on Italy’s south-east coast. In addition, Hobbs describes the subsequent Battle of Cape Matapan over the course of March 27-29, 1941 (Chapter 3: pp. 136-138) just off the south-western coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Greece. The book is dedicated to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm where Hobbs had served as curator of the Fleet Air Arm Museum; his tenure there clearly provided him with details of the operations and battles fought in the Mediterranean and elsewhere during World War II. With the end of the Norwegian Campaign in June 1940, the focus of the Royal Navy shifted to the Mediterranean and operations against Vichy France following the French capitulation, versus the Italian Navy after Italy declared war against Britain on June 10, 1940 and opposing Axis intrusions into North Africa. 

Hobbs’ begins with an informative essay about the Admiralty, the Fleet Air Arm’s composition and organization in 1939, ten aircraft types employed from 1939 to 1944, and aircrew strengths. The Royal Navy created 11 [Task] Forces during World War II – Force H served the Mediterranean.  Most of the older French battleships and battle cruisers had departed France at the beginning of the war and a majority had anchored at Mers-el-Kabir near Oran, Algeria. Of particular significance to the British were the battleships of the Bretagne and Richelieu classes and two fast battleships of the Dunkerque class, the second largest force of capital ships in Europe after the Royal Navy. The British company Fairey manufactured four types of aircraft during the war (Albatross, Baracuda, Fulmar, and Swordfish); Swordfish was the mainstay of the Royal Navy. The British War Cabinet feared that the French ships would fall into Axis hands so they tasked the force stationed at Gibraltar—Force H, including the carrier HMS Ark Royal, which carried Fairey Swordfish bi-wing aircraft—with neutralizing the French capital ships. Force H disabled or sunk three battleships and three destroyers on July 8.The unfinished Vichy French battleship Richelieu stationed at Dakar, Senegal, a major city of the French colonial empire, was also attacked and damaged in September; however, the British suffered severely, with two battleships and two cruisers damaged. The Vichy forces at Dakar did not change sides as General De Gaulle had hoped they would; subsequently, the British withdrew, leaving Dakar and French West Africa in Vichy hands. Early in the war, convoys from the UK to Alexandria, Egypt were compromised by an Italian task force based in Naples and Libya; hence, the British realized the significance of Malta and began reinforcing that bastion and sending a new armored carrier, HMS Illustrious, and battleship HMS Valliant to the Mediterranean. An otherwise useful map of the Mediterranean Theater of Operations 1940-1944 (pp. 22-23), alas, lacks mile and kilometer scales.

In addition, reinforcements were sent to the Mediterranean and Middle East, notably cruisers and Fairey Fulmar carrier fighters which conducted offensive operations on Rhodes and at Benghazi and Tobruk in North Africa, while the Italians invaded Greece. These actions preceded the aforementioned “Operation Judgement,” the Taranto attack in November 1940; Hobbs provided excellent plans of the strike (pp. 72-72, 76), details of the Swordfish attacks, an analysis of the results (pp. 85-88), and vivid recollections by participants in the battle. He comments that “Taranto is rightly remembered as the battle in which the Fleet Air Arm demonstrated what it could achieve, even with obsolescent aircraft” and that it documented the eclipse of battleships and the arrival of carrier-borne aircraft as the fighting core of the fleet.  Prior to 1940, Hobbs notes, the Japanese Naval Staff had war-gamed a potential attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor (p. 85, note 47 citing Lowry and Wellham 1995, p. 110).  In addition, he points out that ships sunk in shallow water can be raised and repaired to fight again; therefore, the attacker needed the largest possible strike force for success (p. 86).

The subsequent Battle of Matapan included a series of strikes by the task force including HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious further devastating the Italian Fleet, while Royal Navy strikes on Tripoli and Crete in support of the Greeks served to disrupt the supply chain from Italy to North Africa and would necessitate Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine intervention. The British now had advanced radar directed aircraft control to help keep the supply chain from the UK to Egypt open. Nonetheless, 51,000 British Commonwealth troops were evacuated from Greece on April 24, 1941, and the Battle for Crete where the RAF was unable to provide air cover led to an Axis victory and the evacuation of 18,000 Commonwealth troops from Crete and the loss of three Royal Navy cruisers, and six destroyers and damage to six others. Convoys from Gibraltar to Alexandria were intercepted and the British were unable to replace their heavy losses of tanks and RAF Hurricanes bound for the North African campaign against the Afrika Korps.  

The next few chapters focus on operations by naval air squadrons in 1941, with the Fleet Air Arm stationed ashore, including operations in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Syrian Campaign, and North Africa. Luftwaffe assistance to Vichy Syria continued so that Syria remained under Axis control.  The British reinforced Malta and Tobruk but the Italians renewed attacks on British convoys as far west as Algiers and south of Sardinia with a fleet of three battleships, six cruisers, and 25 destroyers.  In late November 1942, Ark Royal was torpedoed by U-81 and lost (the wreckage was located only in 2002), and Italian frogmen in December penetrated the harbor at Alexandria and badly damaged HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Vaillant. The year 1941 witnessed a see-saw of successes and failures, and the British determined the need for more fighter squadrons and the realization that their carriers were vulnerable in confined waters. Malta was again reinforced and the Germans hesitated to invade the island as the North African campaign was shifting with successes by the British 8th Army and losses by Rommel’s Africa Korps mounted. The RAF was ultimately to employ Wellington and Baltimore bombers and Hurricane night-fighters as bombers. By summer, British convoys were protected by battleships, carriers with 14 Naval Air Service (NAS) groups, cruisers, and the 19th Destroyer Flotilla comprised of 13 ships. Lend-Lease assistance was able to provide the British with replacement aircraft. The Axis strength, however, included 18 Italian and three German U-boats and 600 land-based aircraft operating out of Sardinia, Sicily, and Pantelleria.

“Operation Torch,” the Allied landings in Algeria and French Morocco beginning on November 8, 1942, shifted the balance of power to the British and American forces because of American sea power, while the Germans responded by sending reinforcement to Tunisia, massive airlifts from Sicily to the Afrika Korps, and seized control, of unoccupied southern France. However, the Axis lost 68,000 tons of shipping during December. The victory in North Africa included the capture of Benghazi and the clearance of its harbor for Allied shipping. German resistance ceased on May 12, 1943, in the main, due to fuel shortages; Rommel had previously been recalled to Germany. The massive Allied operation relegated Force H to the role of air cover groups during the three-pronged invasion, and Hobbs indicates the NAS served a small but critical role (he calculated the number of Royal Navy sorties at 702 as no complete record had been kept).            

“Operation Husky,” the Allied amphibious invasion of Sicily, from July 9 to August 17, 1944, involved 3,000 ships including Force H: four battleships including HMS Nelson, and carriers HMS Formidable and HMS Illustrious, plus escort carriers [CVEs] with eight air groups of Seafire, Martlet, and Albacore aircraft; Force V comprised five CVE carriers: HMS Unicorn, Stalker, Attacker, Hunter, and Battler, and 12 air groups. Hobbs also discusses the flying programs for the groups and Fleet Air Arm contributions to the effort, “a fruitful testing ground for expanded naval air operations.” However, there were high accidental losses due to aircrew fatigue and deck operations problems. Notably, during “Operation Avalanche,” the attack on Salerno and Anzio, the Luftwaffe employed 100 remote controlled glide bombs – the first air to surface missiles (p. 340).  By the time of Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France, from August 15 to 20, 1944, the Admiralty had made significant changes to the way aircraft carriers were employed by instituting assault carrier training under a Flag Officer. The NAS was now being equipped with American-built Hellcats and Wildcats rather than Seafires. Hobbs tells the story of Sub Lieutenant(A) R. R. Banks (RNVN) who was shot down, crashed in the River Rhone, and escaped capture thanks to the French Resistance (Maquis). The author’s analysis of the operations included statements about the superiority of Hellcats but also notes that there were no significant threats from over, on, or under the sea. He also remarks that United States Navy fliers lacked training in fighter-bomber or ground strafing tactics. 

The last carrier operations in the Mediterranean took place in August 1944 when seven British CVEs equipped with Wildcat, Seafire, and Hellcat fighters intercepted German shipping as part of Operation Outing.  The war had clearly turned in favor of the Allies but, as Hobbs notes, a lack of night fighter capability and poor definition of bomb lines still encumbered the Royal Navy. In his chapter entitled “Retrospective,” he reports that the reinforced British Mediterranean Fleet had moved from Malta to Alexandria, while Force H remained stationed at Gibraltar. He also concludes that the Royal Navy was largely reliant on American aircraft from 1942 onwards and that the initial RAF distaste for joint or combined operations with the NAS Fleet Air Arm had dissipated.  The lack of British designed carrier fighters remained during the post-war period, but carrier fighters could now support the landing of expeditionary forces from the sea.  

Hobbs provides an incredible amount of detailed information in this well-written 456-paqge encyclopedic volume.  A testament to this is that his essays mention 58 Naval Fleet Air Arm squadrons and 29 other squadrons (RAF, USN, and USAAF), 60 operations, 57 airfields, and 23 U-boats. Especially valuable are his clear and detailed after-action analyses which pull no punches, and that he situates the well-known actions at Taranto and Matapan in the context of a complete analysis of the war in the Mediterranean. It is certain that Hobbs’s years of archival research together with his experience as a carrier pilot allow him to describe and analyze the operations of naval aircraft in the Mediterranean with unprecedented authority. This provides his book with novel insights into many familiar faces of the Mediterranean war while for the first time doing full justice to the Fleet Air Arm’s lesser-known achievements.

As a follow-up to his highly regarded British Pacific Fleet, Hobbs looks at the post-World War II fortunes of the most powerful fleet in the Royal Navy—its decline in the face of diminishing resources, its final fall at the hands of ignorant politicians, and its recent resurrection in the form of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers, the largest ships ever built for the Royal Navy. Despite prophecies that nuclear weapons would make conventional forces obsolete, British carrier-borne aircraft were almost continuously employed. The Royal Navy faced new challenges in places like Korea, Egypt, and the Persian Gulf. During these trials the Royal Navy invented techniques and devices crucial to modern carrier operations, pioneering novel forms of warfare tactics for countering insurgency and terrorism.

Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D., is a USNI Golden Life Member.

Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean (David Hobbs, Seaforth Publishing, Havertown, PA, & Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2021)

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