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Remembering Taranto: The importance of Naval Aviation during the Second World War

Posted by Paul Harrison, on November 8th, 2020

Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911, threw himself into all matters concerning naval aviation. Together with the impetuous Captain Murray Sueter, he not only oversaw the creation of the Royal Naval Air Service, but encouraged its ambition and technical progress. Churchill only gave up flying lessons himself following a crash in 1919.

Churchill’s support for the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, however, had to a large extent been supplanted with an enthusiasm for Bomber Command. In spring 1943, Churchill congratulated the Minister of Aircraft Production, Sir Stafford Cripps, especially for ‘the increase in the “heavies,”’ whilst expressing shock and dismay to the First Sea Lord at the ‘renewed disaster’ taking place in the Atlantic. Indeed, the Admiralty recognised that the German anti-shipping campaign had come closer than ever to success in March, 1943, and it would not be until July that shipping gains for the first time overcame losses.

A significant factor in the defeat of the U-boats was the provision of escort carriers. It may come as a surprise to many that the mundane, often defensive operations which these ships carried out represented as great a contribution to the war effort as heroic actions like Taranto. The first escort carriers Biter, Archer and the ill-fortuned Dasher, had joined Atlantic Support Groups by the end of March; these particular ships being converted merchant vessels originally built in the United States. At this time, Churchill desperately needed shipping for the Allied invasion of Sicily and he was forced to tell an angry Stalin that convoys to Russia must be suspended. This background may explain the tone of the following exchange, and also serves as a useful reminder of the variety of tasks which the Fleet Air Arm regularly carried out throughout the war.

Extract from ‘The Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, Volume II, 1942-43’ by Ben Jones. N.R.S. Volume 165 (2018) pp. 401- 404

Minute from Prime Minister (The Rt.Hon. W.L.S. Churchill) to First Lord of Admiralty (The Rt.Hon. A.V. Alexander)
[CAB 120/295] 18 April 1943
Requirement for regular reports of Fleet Air Arm operations

1. Having regard to the very large developments of the Fleet Air Arm and the great numbers of
aircraft which are required at the expense of other important war activities, it is most necessary
that the operational performances of the Fleet Air Arm, including sorties, casualty losses and
damage inflicted on the enemy, should be presented month by month. Every part of His Majesty’s
Services has to justify its existence or the scale of its existence at the present time by the
contribution it makes to victory. I cannot recall any important offensive operation that the Fleet Air
Arm has performed since Taranto in 1940. I quite understand that a great deal of reconnaissance
is done in connection with Fleet and other movements at sea and of course the Malta convoys.
2. The form of return which you suggest seems satisfactory. It will be sufficient if it is rendered
every three months, the first one covering not only the month of April but the quarter ending April 30.

Minute from Fifth Sea Lord (RA D.W. Boyd) to Vice Chief of Naval Staff (VA E.N. Syfret)
[ADM 1/14990] 21 April 1943

Reply to Prime Minister’s minute of 18 April 1943

I am astonished at the Prime Minister’s comment in serial No. M.284/3 dated 18.4.43. It is such an
insult to the work of the Fleet Air Arm and as such to the Navy generally, that I suggest an
immediate reply is necessary to the words “I cannot recall any important offensive operations that
the Fleet Air Arm has performed since Taranto”. Major incidents in the work of the FAA since the
attack on the Italian Fleet at Taranto, November 1940:
1) The operations on the Dalmatian coast from Greece, where between 16 and 20 ships were
torpedoed by Swordfish aircraft (April–May,1941).
2) The Syrian campaign where 3 enemy ships were sunk (June, 1941).
3) Matapan, where the damage inflicted on the enemy was entirely caused by search and strikes
carried out by the FORMIDABLE (March, 1941).
4) The Fleet bombardments at Genoa (February, 1941) and Tripoli (April, 1941), relying almost
entirely on Fleet Air Arm spotting, coupled with diversionary raids (F.A.A. on objectives in the
vicinity.
5) The bombardments at Bardia (December, 1940, et seq) and the many later coastal day and
night bombardments throughout 1941–1942 in support of the Army, relying almost entirely on
F.A.A. spotting.
6) The night raid and minelaying at Mogadishu by FORMIDABLE’s aircraft (February, 1941) and
later attacks on enemy destroyers and “U” boats at Massawa (February/March, 1941).
7) The attack on the San Chiara dam, Sardinia, by ARK ROYAL’s aircraft (February, 1941) and
raids on enemy harbours, aerodromes, etc. in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1941.
8) The rounding up and destruction of the last remaining enemy destroyers in the Red Sea by
EAGLE’s aircraft (March, 1941).
9) The series of attacks on barracks and other objectives in Iraq by HERMES’s aircraft during the
military rising (May, 1941).
10) The sinking of the BISMARCK, which I think it is fair to say was only made possible by the
attacks by aircraft of the VICTORIOUS and ARK ROYAL (May 1941).
11) The daylight attack on Petsamo and Kirkenes by aircraft from VICTORIOUS and FURIOUS
(July, 1941), followed by raids on shipping and other objectives in Norway (August, September,
October, 1941).
12) The destruction of Focke Wulf’s by the fighters of AUDACITY and the fighter catapult ships
(July, 1941 et seq).
13) The attack by 6 Swordfish on SCHARNHORST, GNEISENAU and PRINZ EUGEN in the
Channel (February, 1942).
14) The attack on Madagascar where the Fleet Air Arm were responsible for sinking 2 submarines,
1 sloop, 1 Armed Merchant Cruiser and 1 other ship, and for close support to the Army in trench
strafing and in shooting down the only 3 bombers and 6 fighters which endeavoured to interfere
with them (May, 1942).
15) Operation “Pedestal” where the INDOMITABLE, VICTORIOUS and EAGLE were responsible
for shooting down 39 enemy aircraft (August, 1942), also some half dozen or more similar but
smaller scale operations in the Western Mediterranean (1941/42) and the N. Russia Convoy
(September, 1942).

16) The operations in connection with the landing in North Africa which depended on the Fleet Air
Arm for air support and where the Fleet Air Arm alone were responsible for the destruction of
some 60 aircraft on the ground or in air combat, and the rapid capture of enemy airfields; notably
the capture of Blida airfield by a Martlet pilot.
17) The continual work with the 8th Army of Albacores pathfinding and providing illumination for
the bombing of enemy key positions and transport, since the spring of 1941, through El Alamein to
the present day.
18) Both at Gibraltar and on the Tobruk run, a number of successful attacks against submarines.
19) Fleet Air Arm aircraft at Malta, who are now responsible for sinking 39 and damaging with
torpedoes at least another 50 enemy ships.
20) Minelaying and offensive operations by Naval aircraft in the Channel area resulting in the
destruction of, or damage to, 2 or 3 ships and several “E” or “R” boats, and work in cooperation
with the light coastal forces.
21) Aircraft Carriers have re-inforced Malta with some 750 fighter aircraft, Singapore with 50 and
Colombo with 60 Hurricanes.

Quite apart from these unrecollected incidents it should be pointed out that Naval aircraft have
played, and must continue to play, the leading part in every naval action and in the attack on every
forward base in the Pacific area.

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About Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison has taught at a Blackpool primary school for 34 years, and has always had a passion for history, especially Naval Aviation. He has recently started a PhD with Lancaster University to further his research into the Fairey Barracuda, a three-seat carrier-borne torpedo and dive bomber which saw extensive service with the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War.