Today is December 7th, the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I’m
sure you’ve heard of it, and probably know it as the major event that brought the US into World War Two. Perhaps you even know it as the turning point, when the big guns of battleships were over-powered by the might of air power. But did you know that the attack was the second time aircraft carriers had triumphed over battleships? And that the first time, it was our allies, the British, who sent the battle-wagons to the bottom?
A year earlier, in November 1940, it was a dark time for Great Britain. All of western Europe had fallen before Germany’s Blitzkrieg = Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and France had all been conquered. The Battle Of Britain was still in full gear, with British cities burning every night. At sea, German U-boats were sinking massive amounts of British merchant shipping. In the Mediterranean, Italy’s powerful fleet threatened the Suez Canal and Britain’s lifelines to her colonies in India and Asia. The British Admirals knew they had to do something to minimise the threat of the Italian fleet.
That something was an air strike that took place on the night of 11–12 November 1940, an attack by ancient biplane aircraft, launched from the British carrier HMS Illustrious, against the Italian harbour of Taranto.(Taranto lies at the top of the arch of the Italian “boot”. the furthest southern port available for deep-displacement vessels such as battleships.) Using only aerial torpedoes, the 21 British Fairey
Swordfish attacked three Italian battleships, the brand-new Littorio and the World War One-vintage Conte Di Cavour and Caio Duillio. The Cavour sank at her moorings, saved only by the shallow draught of the harbour She was still undergoing repair when, in 1943, Italy changed sides from being aligned with the Axis powers (Germany and Japan) to fighting alongside the Allies. The Duillio and Littorio were both run aground to keep them from sinking – Littorio suffered severe damage, requiring 5 months and all the resources available at Taranto to repair her. The Duillio took another 7 months to repair. All of this damage cost the British 2 aircraft, two aircrew killed, and two others captured. Three of the Italians seven battleships were taken out of action in one single attack, and the Italians moved the remaining ships further north along the coast, sharply reducing the threat to the British they posed.
A year and a few weeks later, six Japanese aircraft carriers would take the lesson of the
Battle Of Taranto, and devastate the US Fleet at its’ anchorage in Pearl Harbor. So remember all the brave US servicemen lost that day. Remember the two US Battleships that remain on the harbour bottom to this day (USS Arizona and USS Utah). And remember, as the old saying goes, that those who do not remember their history are doomed to repeat it – in this case, our failure to learn what we could lose, as shown by British naval airpower.