The “Stringbags” at war
The Battle of Taranto (Italy) 11 November 1940
a diorama by Bjørn Jacobsen
Twenty slow moving and outdated Fairley “Swordfish” decimated the world’s perhaps largest battle fleet in Taranto harbour on 11 November 1940
In November of 1940, France had fallen and Britain stood alone in Western Europe as the only country unconquered and unoccupied by
The British holdings in the Mediterranean were
under attack. Axis advances were threatening
Crete. Malta was under heavy attack, and Hitler
had his eye on the key chokepoint at Gibraltar.
The Germans didn’t have a large naval presence in
the Mediterranean, but the Italians did – far
stronger than the British.
British operations in North Africa were supplied
through Egypt, and a strong naval presence at
Taranto meant Axis forces were in a good position
to cut British supply lines
The British had been considering action against
Taranto for years and stepped up the planning after
the fall of France. The plan was to use aircrafts
from two carriers, HMS Eagle and HMS Illustrious
to attack Taranto in October 1940
Unfortunately, just before the attack, HMS Illustrious
suffered a fire, destroying two Swordfish aircrafts
and HMS Eagle had a breakdown in her petrol
system and had to go to Egypt for repair.
It was decided that Eagle should transfer five of her
Swordfish to Illustrious, giving her a strike force of 24 aircraft.
On the night of November 11, the strike force was ready.
It was decided to attack in two waves, the last one 60 minutes
behind the first attack.
The first wave of 12 aircraft- six with torpedoes four with bombs
(6x250 lb) and two with flairs took off from Illustrious at 22.00
One of the world’s most powerful navy was
waiting for them at Taranto harbour:
6 battleships, 7 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 28 destroyers,
5 torpedo boats, 16 submarines, 4 minesweepers, 1 minelayer
The Italian was well aware of the possibility of an air attack and
had taken extensive precautions to protect the ships.
These included 22 searchlights, 21 batteries of 102mm (4in) guns, 101 anti-aircraft guns and 84 heavy and 109 light machine guns sited to cover the whole area of the port. In addition, there were anti-torpedo nets protecting the ships and barrage balloons meant to destroy low flying aircraft.
The old-fashioned slow moving double-deckers, affectionately called the “Stringbag”, were to enter this inferno at a speed of less than 120 mph (195km/t)
and at a height of only 9 meters.
The torpedo planes entered the harbour just a few
metres above the water, heading straight for the big
The Stringbags with bombs were going in higher,
releasing flairs to light up the harbour and then dive-bomb
Few – if any – of the crews believe they would survive
the inferno waiting for them at Taranto harbour.
The attack had been codenamed Operation Judgement
and they all hoped it was the Italians who were to meet
their Maker, and not them.
Just before 11:00 pm, they made their first pass over
Taranto for target acquisition – and all hell breaks loose
when hundreds of AA-canons both on land and on the
ships open up with everything they had.
15 minutes later, the first attack with 12 aeroplanes
(6 with torpedoes, four with bombs and two with flairs)
90 minutes later, the second attack with 8 aircraft
(4 torpedoes two bombs and two with flairs) starts.
Every Stringbag had an amazing story to tell, and we
can follow the aircraft L4M which is the one I choose
to build. It was piloted by Lt. Swayne with Sub-Lt.
Buxall as observer.
At only 1000ft (305m) Swayne steered straight for the
northern end of the breakwater. Intense AA fire was
encountered from the ships and the batteries as they
crossed the harbour, losing height to 9 meters.
On reaching the end of the mole he made a sharp
turn to port and let go the torpedo 400 yards (365m)
from the battleship Littorio, which struck on the
However, Swayne could not wait to see the result
of this attack, and, lifting his aircraft up and over the
masts of the battleship, he banked to port and fled
the inferno of flak and explosions.
His escape was no less than a miracle.
Against all odds, the miracle continued for the
Only two aircraft were shot down, the two crew members
of the first were taken prisoner. The other two were killed.
All the rest of the Swordfish landed safely on
But the Italian warships were not so lucky:
The battleship Conte di Cavour was hit by a torpedo
which made a 12 m × 8 m (39 ft × 26 ft) hole below the waterline. The next morning, only her superstructure and main armament remained above water. She was subsequently raised, but never returned to service.
The battleship Caio Duilio had only a slightly smaller hole 11 m × 7 m (36 ft × 23 ft) and was saved by running her aground
The battleship Littorio had considerable flooding caused by three torpedo hits. She was holed in three places, once on the port side (7 m × 1.5 m) (23 ft 0 in × 4 ft), and twice on the starboard side 15 m × 10 m (49 ft × 33 ft) and 12 m × 9 m (39 ft × 30 ft). She too was saved by running her aground.
In addition, two Italian aircraft were destroyed on the ground by the bombing, and two unexploded bombs hit the cruiser Trento and the destroyer Libeccio. Near misses damaged the destroyer Pessagno.
Italy’s power had been seriously damaged, and its battleship force had been cut in half.
The Italian battleships Littorio and Vittorio
The attack plan
The battleship Conte de Cavour after the attack
Taranto harbour the day after
It seems incredible that only two aircraft were brought down, because the harbour defences fired a total of 13.489 rounds of high angle anti-aircraft shells at the bomber/flair droppers and 1.750 rounds of four-inch and 7.000 rounds of tree-inch shells at the eleven torpedo droppers. There is no record of the amount of armament expended by the ships, but it greatly exceeded the flak put up by the harbour defences.
A total of 40 – 50.000 rounds were fired at the twenty slow-moving biplanes, dancing a stately minuet in their midst, performing a feat of agility which no other type of aircraft could attempt without falling out of the sky.
This was the Royal Navy’s proudest moment during WWII.
Building the diorama
This will be more challenging than normal because the attack on Taranto happened at night and everything was pitch black except for the flairs dropped from the bombing Swordfishes, the fires and exploding shells from hundreds of cannons on shore, on floats and on the ships. Besides, we are talking about a huge harbour with several really big battleships – and a few small double-deckers trying to sink all battleships… I am not sure if this is going to work
Three was a lot of ships at the harbour and I decided to use two battleships and two destroyers in the diorama (scale 1/700)
There are no model kits of the Italian battleships, so I had to use some other, thinking that the main thing was the type of ships, not the particular Italian ships.
One of the battleships should have an explosion after a torpedo hit; the other should have a huge fire after a torpedo hit.
After I built the ships,I made holes in the ship’s hull, big enough to insert a small 12V halogen lamp.
Then I drilled a hole in the base for the electrical cables and screwed the ships in place with the lamps inside.
The fire and explosion needed some smoke and I found some cotton which I sprayed a little black.
The dimension was rather small (1/700) and the smoke (cotton) did not need a lot of support. The smoke from the fire was fixed to a small wire and the explosion smoke was just placed over the site
To have some more colouring, I added some small bits of coloured cellophane in adittion to a little black/gray airbrush on the cotton
The first I did was to find a plywood plate (70x90cm, 28x36inch) which could be the water and painted it black.
Then I decided the position of the two battleships and painted the explosion sites besides the hulls.
I also painted quite a few shell impacts on the water and covered the whole area it with Realistic Water (Woodland Scenics) to give it a “wet” surface
I painted the background on a cardboard plate, mostly very dark, but with some searchlights and a lot of exploding shells.
There is a question of whether or not the Italians used searchlights at Taranto.
Some sources say yes, some say no, but I see that some artists have painted searchlights on their painting of Taranto and searchlights gives a nice atmosphere to the diorama, so I decided to go for the searchlights.
In front of the backdrop, I needed the harbour, which I made of cardboard.
Behind the docks, were quite a few cannon batteries and I used some leftover Christmas lights to give the illusion of cannon flares.
The battleship was screwed to the base and the cotton-smoke fixed to the explosion. The electrical wires run beneath the base
The Mk.II is almost identical with the Mk.I which was used at Taranto. There will be no problem making this an Mk.I.
The Tamiya Swordfish is a very nice kit to make, very well engineered and comes with both torpedo and the extra fuel tank which was needed for the long flight from the carrier to Taranto and back again.
The only place to have this tank on a Swordfish was in the observer’s seat (between the pilot and the gunner) – which of course made the observers/gunners duties a lot more difficult.
All parts fit closely and tightly. I did not use any filler at all.
I have mention several times that the Swordfish was a very old construction (first flight was April 1934). It was built with a metal airframe covered in fabric.
This can clearly be seen when the cockpit was finished. Also note the extra fuel tank placed in the observer’s seat.
Normally I paint the whole aircraft after I finish building, but not this time.
There are so many parts in the rigging and strut assembly so I decided to paint the whole plane before I assembled the wings and fixed them to the fuselage.
To help with the wings, I had bought the Tamiya PE-rigging.
And the rigging was a challenge. I have seen many descriptions of how to do this, but I choose to do it my own way.
What I did was to glue the two wing pair together with the main struts and then fix all the wires in just one end, leaving the other end to be glued later.
Then I glued the mid-section and the two wing pair together at the same time, and last, when all elements had dried, I fixed the loose ends of the supporting wires.
On the picture to the right, you can clearly see the extra fuel tank in the observers seat.
The model of the "Stringbag" was the 1/48
Fairley Swordfish Mk.II from Tamiya,
converted to a Mk.I
The camouflage colours.
There seems to be some confusion about the colours on the Stringbags which took part in the Taranto attack.
The normal colours were Extra Dark Sea Gray / Dark Slate Grey (a greenish colour) on upper surfaces; Sky Grey undersides and lower fuselage. I note that most of the paintings I have seen from the Taranto battle use these colours on the aircraft.
In the book ”To War in a Stringbag” by Commander Charles Lamb, who was one of the pilots in the attack, he describes how the torpedo planes in the 815 squadron were painted black on the lower wings and lower fuselage in order to blend in as much as possible.
There were, however, two squadrons (815 and 819) on HMS Illustrious, and there is no report I have seen which confirm that the 819 planes also was painted black with no roundels under lower wings.
So may be the planes in first attack (815 squadron) was black and the planes in the second attack (819 squadron) had kept their standard colours, although I have not found any reliable information on this.
One thing is for sure: If I was to enter the inferno at Taranto at midnight, I had wanted my aircraft as dark and invisible as possible!
Then it is just a question of putting everything together:
And here is my diorama and picture story of the dramatic attack
on Taranto, November 11, 1940
The torpedoes and the torpedo nets
All the battleships were protected with weighted anti-torpedo nets reaching
down meters in the water - as far as the ships keel.
The averaged depth in the harbour was only 15 meters (49ft).
The Italians felt they had protected their ships well, but they were in for a
The torpedoes used by the Swordfish were fitted with a magnetic device which
exploded the torpedoes warhead when it passed underneath a ship, being
activated by the ship’s magnetic field.
The torpedoes were set to 10 meters (33ft) and the British hoped they would explode underneath the ship if they didn’t strike the hull.
Ten of the Swordfish were armed with torpedoes, the other ten were carrying aerial bombs and flares to carry out diversions, nobody expected the small 250 lb bombs to sink a battleship - but the torpedoes were another matter...
Take-off and heading for Taranto
The first glimpse of Taranto. The welcome committee had already started the firework
Slow and low. Heading right for the huge battleships
Then – get away as fast as the old crates could fly
At last – eighteen out of twenty aircrafts landed safely on HMS Illustrious. Operation well executed!
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