Admiral Schofield, who retired in 1950, wrote several works of naval history, including one recently republished on the naval side of D-Day (Operation Neptune) in which he was involved as Captain of HMS Dryad (of which he also wrote a history). The reader will be unsurprised that he has a refreshingly sure touch compared with some civilian authors. Technicalities are well covered and at all points clearly explained, including (as an appendix) an explanation of the decision to build the hangar of the Illustrious class as an armoured box, a decision vindicated by how the name ship’s armoured flight deck, although pierced by a 500Kg bomb, prevented it penetrating to an engine room compartment which could have lost the ship - and later by the way Formidable survived Kamikaze attacks.
Buy this book from Amazon
The Taranto section opens with a review of the development of naval aviation, of which we were the leaders until we lost our touch under the dead hand of the Royal Air Force, including taking unto itself all those air-minded naval officers who would otherwise have matured to senior positions in 1939, a contributory factor to the loss of the Glorious and possibly that of Courageous. Nevertheless a contingency plan for an FAA attack on Taranto had been conceived before the war and was resurrected by a gifted Gunnery Officer, Lumley Lyster, when Italy entered the war. The attack itself was part of a complex thread of naval movements which are well explained in the text but not well illustrated by the rather poky maps reproduced in the book.
The FAA only possessed the Swordfish because Faireys produced it as a private venture. By 1940 though it was obsolete in terms of speed, and importantly range - the Japanese Kate could have raided Taranto from Malta without the need for a carrier. However the Stringbag was incredibly robust and could stay in the air in spite of fabric damage and even with a cylinder or two of its Peggy (Bristol Pegasus radial engine) shot away - it could even be flown with a bicycle strapped to its struts. As it was, for Taranto an extra fuel tank had to be fitted in the Observer’s seat and that officer, with his cumbersome chart board, relegated to the Telegraphist-Air Gunner’s seat in rear, leaving him with the prospect of being drenched in burning petrol of the enemy’s AA fire got lucky. The TAGs did not therefore fly in the attack.
The reduction in the number of aircraft due to Eagle’s aviation fuel systems being compromised by battle damage, causing her to miss the operation, a hangar fire in Illustrious, and the loss of three of Illustrious’ Swordfish caused by fuel contamination problems, reduced the attack from 30 to 21 aircraft. Proportionately, this can be argued to have cost us a couple of torpedo hits which might have added another Italian battleship to the FAA’s bag. The bomb-armed aircraft did useful damage to shore oil installations, but their attacks on ships were ineffectual; only two bombs actually hit ships and both failed to explode.
Our side had some good luck as well though. Crucially the RAF in Malta got first nibble at the new US Maryland aircraft and were able to give superb reconnaissance support to the Taranto raid as a result. So revealed, Taranto’s balloon barrage was a nasty surprise, but mercifully was not fully deployed on the night. Also the new Duplex (contact and magnetic) fuzes on our torpedoes enabled these to run and detonate under the Italian hulls, whose torpedo nets were not rigged deep enough to intercept such an attack. And in spite of postponement from the intended 21st October date, total surprise was achieved, the Regia Aeronautica completely failing to find and track Illustrious.
Schofield records how the RAF, having thus procured excellent photos of Taranto harbour, refused to let them be lent to the admirals who were charged with planning the attack. These were however borrowed and copied and replaced by an enterprising RNVR officer without the RAF noticing.
Forty two officers were thus committed to what must have looked like a twentieth century version of the Charge of the Light Brigade, riding into battle at night at eighty knots, thirty feet (or less) above the sea into possibly the biggest Brock’s Benefit of AA fire the FAA had so far encountered.
The result was not just the immediate damage to individual ships, useful though that was, but perhaps more importantly the forcing of the surviving Italian battle fleet to retreat to la Spezia, from where (although out of range of the Marylands) it would find it much more difficult to intervene in our affairs in a timely manner. In like manner had Prien - albeit temporarily - forced our Home Fleet out of Scapa Flow even though the only ship he sank was not a fighting unit. Billy Mitchell was vindicated; and in far-away Nippon the Japanese admirals took note.
Amazingly all but two aircrew survived the raid, two as PoWs; sadly several of the survivors were subsequently killed when Illustrious was successfully attacked later by Stukas, for which the FAA’s new 240k Fulmar fighters were no match, although they had very successfully seen off any Italian aircraft which came too close, including, crucially, shadowers. Although only four of the 42 aircrew who flew the raid were RNVR, attrition of RN aircrew culled in the early carrier losses, in action and in accidents was to leave the torch substantially in RNVR hands in the later war in the Pacific, where it was carried by the Wavy Navy with great honour.
Now to the Bismarck chase. This time the Axis was initially on the offensive; but again there was a great deal of both good and bad luck on both sides, and the odd blunder on ours. Schofield as an experienced navigator and battleship captain is entitled to his criticism of Admiral Holland; he carefully explains the why the Captain of HMS Prince of Wales was right to act as he did after Hood was sunk, indeed Leach, whose actions were endorsed by his senior, had no alternative. Cruel calumniation followed from those safe ashore but of course we could not admit to the Germans that our 14” turrets were unfit for purpose. I met one of the Vickers contractors who had been at sea in PoW years later in Tiger; her turrets didn’t work either.
Schofield relates the crucial FAA reconnaissance flight from Hatston which disclosed that the Bismarck was at sea. He leaves out the fact that it was flown in extremely bad weather, at extreme range, after RAF Coastal Command had failed. However Coastal (whose C in C had started his career in the RN) came good after Suffolk lost her target; I have read elsewhere that the actual crucial sighting from the Catalina was made by an American, but it would have been politically embarrassing to have admitted this while the United States was still neutral.
The vast and almost insoluble command, control and communications involved are well explained, as is the constant refuelling problem - the RN’s ‘astern’ method for doing this at sea was slow and cumbersome and we had yet to learn from the Americans how to do it abeam, and in any case the appalling weather throughout this period meant that ships, particularly destroyers, had to detach to Iceland or wherever to do this; the battleship Rodney would have been out of the fight if Ark Royal’s Swordfish had not scored that one crucial hit. As it was they had to be ranged, launched and recovered with the flight deck running with water and pitching fifty feet, conditions far outside what could have been risked in peacetime.
Relentlessly hammered by the Rodney, that Bismarck was ultimately scuttled is proven; this would certainly have been German policy as demonstrated with the Graf Spee, and in 1914 with the Dresden.
Schofield’s account is a good true bill, far better as historical guidance that either CS Forester’s book with its imagined or the ‘drama-doc’ film with Kenneth More (and others who had worn a blue suit like Michael Hordern) (re-re-re-showing on Film 4 as I write this).
In both sections Schofield relates how the Germans were reading our naval codes, a shocking piece of complacency on the part of the Admiralty. He was writing before the Ultra secret was made fully public, which might be thought a deficit, but it appears that Enigma decrypts had little influence on either of the actions described.
For the professional naval historian the book is light, with no detailed references let alone specifics to material in the National Archives. The resetting into the new volume has also brought in several typos, probably due to an uncritical overdependence on computery. For those with a less focussed interest in minutiae it is however an excellent reprise of two of the more vital battles of the war, and good reading withal.
A definite three anchors for all Rum Rats, plus an additional one for those with FAA links, or for those seeking a Christmas present for an old salt in his armchair. And yet one more for anyone who had a family member embroiled in these adventures, which, considering the tens of thousands of our sailors involved, is not unlikely. So average it at four.
A review by Seaweed
Click here to buy this book from Amazon