Home Up Forces Aircraft


The aircraft used in the British aerial attacks on the Italian fleet.

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The Battle of Matapan may have been considered by Churchill as the greatest Royal Navy victory since Trafalgar, but it relied heavily on its air arm.
At the bottom of this page there are a couple of extracts from the obituaries some Swordfish pilots, Torrens-Spence, and Ken Pattisson.
Fairey Fulmar (fighter)
More to follow on the specification of the aircraft.
Fairey Swordfish (torpedo bomber)
The Swordfish came about in response to a 1933 Admiralty requirement for an aircraft that would fulfil every naval requirement except air defence of the fleet.  Six of the requirements were; reconnaissance, at sea and over the land; shadowing, by day and night; 'spotting' the fall of shot from ship's guns; convoy escort duties such as anti-submarine searches and attack; torpedo and dive-bombing attacks against shipping; minelaying - and the carrying of other heavy loads - which in the Second World War varied from searchlights to rockets, plus depth-charges, bombs and flares.
It is difficult not to admire the courage of the men who flew these old bi-plane aircraft into the barrage of AA that they faced in their attacks on large battleships.  A short biography of one of them is given below.
A personal account of how it was to go to War in a Stringbag, by Charles Lamb.  An excellent book.  I have put some extracts from the book on a separate page. War in a Stringbag
Fairey Albacore (torpedo bomber)
While still looking very old, this was in fact the replacement for the Swordfish.
Captain Michael Torrens-Spence, DSO, DSC, AFC.

The following are a couple of extracts from the obituary to Torrens-Spence from the December 13, 2001 copy of The Times.

Torrens-Spence took part in the attack on the Italian battleships in Taranto harbour, as well as the Battle of Cape Matapan.  At Taranto; "Torrens-Spence was in the second wave.  His observer, Lieutenant (later Captain) Alan Sutton [see below] recalled being able to see the anti-aircraft fire from ten miles away and recounted how, once inside the harbour, their torpedo failed to release until the second attempt.  Already very low, Torrens-Spence actually hit the water with his wheels when making his escape.  Three battleships, two cruisers and several auxiliaries had been incapacitated for the price of two Swordfish that failed to return.  With the other aircrew, Torrens-Spence was awarded the DSC."

He was also involved when the Illustrious was very badly damaged; "..Illustrious was escorting a convoy to Malta when she was attacked by three squadrons of Stuka dive-bombers, the efficient German air force having recently arrived in this theatre.  Suffering multiple bomb hits and more than 200 casualties, Illustrious limped to Malta and eventually to America for repairs.  Her aircraft were disembarked in Malta and Torrens-Spence flew to Eleusis, near Athens, with elements of 815 and 819 Squadrons for an active anti-shipping campaign which later earned him the award of the DSO."

Matapan, and his involvement, is described on a separate page, however, one extract from the obituary; "Torrens-Spence had arrived in the vicinity of the Italian force before the Formidable's aircraft and witnessed their attack through a thick and all-enveloping smokescreen.  He saw no hits, and was able, after their departure, to find a gap and attack a heavy cruiser, which turned out to be the Pola.  His typically professional and unemotional account reports 'no results observed'.  But the cruiser was brought to a standstill in the water and, given his experience and skill, it seems entirely likely that Torrens-Spence was the architect of the victory at Cape Matapan."  There are many references to Torrens-Spence in Charles Lamb's book "War in a Stringbag".

The page on the battle of Matapan explains how the Pola, which was immobilized, became the focal point for the Italian and British forces, for different reasons, and caused them to become engaged.
Lt-Cdr Ken Pattisson.  From his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, 8 August, 2002.
Although not strictly related to this site, I could not miss the opportunity to include Lt-Cdr Pattisson in this Swordfish section, as he put the torpedo into the stern of the Bismarck. It gives some idea of the courage of the men who flew these machines.
In the first attack, launched from the carrier Ark Royal on May 26 1940, Pattisson was mistakenly led down on the British cruiser Sheffield, which was shadowing Bismarck.  But he recognised her silhouette and withheld his fire, unlike his 14 colleagues whose torpedoes fortunately detonated in the heavy seas before reaching her; when Sheffield saw the next attack of Swordfish arriving she calmly signalled that the enemy was 15 miles north.
After rearming with torpedoes, now equipped with impact detonators and set to run shallower, 810 squadron was launched again in worsening weather.  Climbing to 9,000 ft Pattisson lost contact in a snow squall with everyone but his leader, "Feather" Godfrey-Faussett who led him into an attacking dive.  Shrapnel started to tear away the flimsy canvas covering his wooden airframe.  Breaking through the cloud at 900 ft, Pattisson found himself alone as he saw the Bismarck on his starboard side.  Although conscious that his lumbering "stringbag" made an easy target for Bismarck's gunners as he flew straight and level towards her, Pattisson waited until he was 900 yards off and 90 ft above the waves before firing.  He then started to jink wildly from side to side to put the Germans off their aim.
Later, he modestly admitted that it was "highly probable" that his torpedo hit Bismarck's stern and jammed her rudders, though others, who saw a large column of water rise up on her starboard side right aft, were more certain.  Bismarck steered in circles throughout the night before the Home Fleet caught up with her.  At dawn next day, 810 squadron was launched again, but was told to hold off while King George V and Rodney pounded her.  Pattisson then watched from the air as Bismarck capsized, leaving the heads of the survivors, he recalled, "bobbing like turnips in a field".  He was awarded a DSC for his part in the operation.  A piece of shrapnel which had lodged in his aircraft became a prized souvenir; but while returning to Britain as a passenger in Springbank in Convoy HG73, he lost all his possessions when she was sunk by a U-boat.  Jumping from her on to the deck of the corvette Jasmine, Pattisson broke three ribs, though this was his only injury, bar one high landing, in 20 years service.
Commander Alan Swanton, from his obituary in the Daily Telegraph Feb 26 2003.
Alan Swanton was involved in the action against the Bismarck and also won his first DFC in Operation Harpoon, 1942, one of the last Malta convoys.  The following is an extract from his obituary.
Commander Alan Swanton was one of the young naval pilots involved in crippling the German battleship Bismarck north-east of Brest in 1941.  On May 26 he flew off for what was thought to be the last air strike of the day in such appalling weather that his squadron mistakenly directed its attack against the shadowing British cruiser Sheffield.  When they returned to the carrier Ark Royal, the undercarriages of three of their planes were destroyed as the stern rose and fell 60 feet, although no one was injured.
Further air operations were thought impossible, but Swanton and his friends obtained permission for another go, and 15 aircraft from 810, 818 and 820 Fleet Air Arm Squadrons were readied.  It was blowing 50 knots along the flight-deck, close to the stalling speed for a Swordfish, as the carrier turned into the wind for the aircrafts' take-off.  Most of them became separated in the thick cloud, but Swanton's flight kept its formation and, after circling astern of the Bismarck, flew out of a gap in the cloud 1,000 yards from her port side.
The radar-controlled German flak was extremely accurate even before the aircraft could see the battleship, and both Swanton and his telegraphist, Air Gunner "Flash" Seager, were wounded.  Despite the loss of blood, Swanton flew on for 25 minutes, before making a skilful landing with 175 holes in his plane's fuselage.  Then, as the Swordfish crews made their reports, it gradually became clear that they had crippled the Bismarck with two or three hits.
In his logbook Swanton noted laconically: "Failed to locate enemy BS and attacked HMS Sheffield in error.  Second striking force led by Lt-Cdr Coode eventually located enemy BS and attacked.  Intense AA fire.  Launched torpedo successfully but A/G and self both wounded."  He went on to fly in the Pacific and won a second DFC in the Korean War.  

The Daily Telegraph for 26 May 2006 had the obituary for Lt-Cdr John Wellham, the last surviving Swordfish pilot from the Taranto raid.  His observer on the raid was Lt. Pat Humphries.  They were in the second wave and their aircraft was hit quite badly, but he got it back to Illustrious.  As he throttled back for landing "E5H became uncontrollable, flopping through the air and threatening to stall until he cut the engine early to thump onto the deck."  The port aileron rods were broken.
John Wellham died on May 9th 2006.

On 18 November, 2008, the Daily Telegraph carried an obituary to Captain 'Alfie' Sutton; Fleet Air Arm observer who was the last survivor of the raid against the Italian Navy at Taranto.  Sutton flew  the Taranto raid with Torrens-Spence whose obituary comes earlier on this page.  Following this he became naval liaison officer to the RAF in Greece.  Sutton was part of the evacuation from Greece to Maleme on Crete.  After the invasion he organized a platoon of sailors and RAF groundcrew to fight alongside the New Zealanders in trying to retake the airfield.  
Three surviving Swordfish out of 22 flew on to Egypt, while Sutton tramped over the White Mountains to Sphakia.  At Spahkia, where the defeated Allied forces were being evacuated by the Navy, he appointed himself beachmaster and, after several thousand men had been taken off, got away himself in one of the last boats.  He was awarded a bar to his DSC for his outstanding gallantry, fortitude and resolution.  After a few days in hospital for repairs to his feet which, having worn out his shoes, were like "horse's hooves", he quickly returned to duty.  He then went on to other posts as detailed in the obituary.  The picture below was with the obituary, presumably the raid on Taranto, bit there was no indication of the artist.