Key point: History does not repeat, but it sure rhymes.
On the evening of November 11, the flight deck of HMS Illustrious had become a very busy place. Aircraft were being raised to the flight deck, aircraft handlers were attending to their tasks, and on the command deck there was an air of anxiety. Illustrious was preparing to launch an unprecedented mission. The final order to carry out a full, airborne, torpedo and dive-bomber attack on the Italian fleet had come down at 7 o’clock that evening. The battle of Taranto was about to begin.
All Quiet at the Italian Port
In the deepening twilight, aircraft were being lined up, fully fueled and armed. The air crews, heavily swaddled in their fur-lined “Irving Jackets,” clambered into the open cockpits of their planes. Despite the fact that this was 1940, the flight deck was covered with anachronistic aircraft that resembled veterans of 1918. These were Fairey Swordfish biplanes, Model K4190 Mark II.
At the Italian port, all was quiet both in town and aboard ship. This was November 11, the anniversary of Italy’s participation in the victory of 1918. Traditionally, this date was celebrated with fireworks. This year, it was different—the Italian government thought it might be unseemly to hold a fireworks display celebrating its victory over a former enemy who was now an ally. The crews were engaged in their customary recreational activities ashore, but they seemed to hold an air of disappointment over the lack of a celebratory fireworks display. They were about to get one of a different sort.
The Fairey Swordfish, with its engine going flat out, could reach a top speed of 137 mph. But carrying an externally mounted torpedo, it was almost at its maximum load and could barely reach 120 mph. Allowing for headwinds, covering the 170 miles to target would take the best part of two hours. That put the arrival time at about 10 pm, the height of the customarily late Italian dinner hour.
Night Turned Into Day