The Fleet Air Arm in the Mediterranean War
The Taranto raid – when 21 British Swordfish biplanes of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) dealt a powerful blow to the anchored Italian battlefleet during a night attack on 11-12 November, 1940 – has achieved near-mythic status in British military history. The FAA hit back against overwhelming force at a time when Britain seemed alone. Despite decades of struggling against resource and organizational constraints, followed by belated rearmament, British naval airpower was still valued and still very good. The Taranto raid itself is the subject of one of this book’s chapters, 50 out of some 400 pages providing a detailed narrative of FAA carrier- and shore-based naval air combat operations in and around the Mediterranean in 1940-1944; it also covers operations off Dakar, in the Red Sea and in Iraq. The last 100 pages of text cover combat operations in 1943-44. However, this book is significantly mistitled. “The Fleet Air Arm” should replace “Naval Air Warfare” in the title. This is not insignificant, because this book is an organizational/unit history. Its focus is on FAA combat operations rather than the overall strategy-air-sea-land-intelligence-logistics interaction of the Mediterranean theatre.
The author appears uniquely qualified to have written this book. A former FAA carrier pilot, he flew Fairey Gannets and many other types of airplanes and helicopters,1 Hobbs was director of the FAA Museum at Yeovilton in the west of England.2 He has written eight previous books on British carriers and naval air operations. However, this books’ emphasis on providing a detailed operational narrative means there is less room for the author to use his experience and knowledge to present a coherent story on the development of weapons, training, command personnel and relationships, technology and tactics. To give the reader a better idea of how the events described were experienced by participants, there are a few excerpts from first-person accounts; a greater use of these would have been appreciated. The selection of photographs includes some of historical significance, previously unseen, along with others likely to be familiar. The maps are adequate, although having to describe complex air-sea operations without track charts is a drawback. There are a few diagrams showing technical information such as damage to aircraft carriers or radar coverage. The appendices are useful, although it would have been good to have timelines for keeping track of carrier and squadron deployments.
Even the most qualified author writing about the wartime FAA is confronted with an absence of sources. Historians of the RAF use the squadron operational record books (ORBs). The UK National Archives at Kew even provides on-line access to them.3 But, for the FAA, few of these valuable documents survive. Apparently, at the end of the war, the Royal Navy collected them up and placed them in a Raiders of the Lost Ark style warehouse for safekeeping. From there, they apparently ended up on the disposal list, someplace between the two HMS Ark Royal. As Royal Navy embarrassments go, this may not rank with Yorktown or the Invergordon Mutiny, but it is hard not to cringe at the thought of the history lost beyond recall: the duels with the desperate anti-aircraft gunners on Sakishima or the night carrier landings on pitching flight decks in the Barents Sea.
In the absence of these documents, to produce his detailed narrative, the author has relied primarily on British naval staff histories and confidential books (including drafts of unpublished and unfinished volumes of the Naval Staff History Mediterranean), held at the Naval Historical Branch, the Admiralty Library and the museums at Portsmouth and Yeovilton. These sources have not been widely used by previous authors and, combined with the author’s background, provide valuable assessments on the FAA and the Royal Navy leadership. The author has made effective use of these sources.
It is those he did not use that are problematic. There are almost no citations of sources held at the UK National Archives at Kew, where war diaries, action reports, ship’s logs and all the other Admiralty files are held. This appears a significant omission. Foreign sources are cited only when they were quoted in the staff histories, even when they are available in English translations or online. Sources from the US (whose carriers operated alongside the British, US carrier designs were influenced by the British and influenced British carriers in return) and Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand (source of many FAA aircrew from 1943 on) are also largely absent. Finally, few of the many recently published sources appear, however much they may have added to filling the gaps in the internal histories.
There are a lot of gaps that needed filling. Because the manuscript is drawn so heavily from these internal Royal Navy histories, pointing out where this book’s information, because of its limited sources, is incorrect or has been corrected by more recent publications would be shooting fish in a barrel. The author repeats uncritically statements about French, Italian and German forces, operations and losses that appear in his sources without checking against foreign or more recent published sources. This has led to a lack of coverage of cryptanalysis (including both ULTRA and Axis efforts) and radio interception, which remained classified at the time the internal histories were written. There are enough of these gaps to keep the tribe of online Amazon trolls busy for years. These include the aircraft that damaged British ships being misidentified (HMS Nelson) or omitted (HMS Indomitable) despite this information being readily available in published sources. The air attack on a North Africa-bound Italian convoy on 12 May 1940 is described as successful, while the Italian Official History reports the convoy was unhindered.4 The reader is told that an FAA Fairey Albacore torpedoed and sank the damaged U 331 while it was on the surface but not that it had already surrendered and a British destroyer was inbound to tow it into port (in fairness, Admiral Doenitz did not provide U boats with white flags for such eventualities).
Putting aside the fish, barrel, and smoking gun, this remains a valuable unit/organizational narrative history of the FAA in the Mediterranean theatre. This applies both to its treatment of the Taranto raid and through providing details of an important organization fighting and adapting, regardless of the limitations of the sources used for the author’s coverage of theatre warfighting and individual air missions alike.
As the author has written extensively on the subject, a reader starting with this book may feel like they have picked up a middle volume of a serial. This applies not only to the FAA, but to British aircraft carriers, weapons and much else. The treatment of the Taranto raid does indeed go back to its origins in the 1917 requirement to find a way to attack German sea power at its sources. It would have been useful to see how this thinking meshed with interwar British carrier experience when, in 1936, the Abyssinia crisis forced the Royal Navy to confront the issue of how to defeat the Italians, the first European power to rearm, without having the time and scope for activities such as the extensive wargaming and fleet problems that had, over the years, provided many of the insights that the US Navy was eventually able to use to achieve strategic and tactical success. The author raises some of these issues – why were two other carriers left out of the Taranto raid? – but, following the narrative approach of his sources, does not look at the overall evolution of British thinking about a war in the Mediterranean in 1936-40 and the part the FAA would play in it.
Despite its limitations, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare the Mediterranean is a valuable source for some of the most significant events in the history of the FAA.
1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKoG5L8Fi9c. This is “Janet the Gannet” that still flies in the US and is worth taking a trip to see.
4. http://books.stonebooks.com/subject/1006154/ provides English translations of 22 of its volumes online.