Lieutenant-Commander John Wellham, who has died aged 87, was the last surviving pilot of the Fleet Air Arm raid on the Italian fleet at Taranto. . . .
Wellham remembered meeting a barrage balloon at 4,000 ft and thinking that it must have broken off its moorings. As he manoeuvred violently around it he was hit by flak, and had the control stick wrested from his hands. Then, slamming it hard to right and left while opening and closing the throttle, he suddenly realised that he was heading vertically for the city's rooftops.
Levelling out with difficulty 100 ft above the sea, he glimpsed a battleship on his right, and instinctively swung his tail from side to side to reduce speed and keep the aircraft at the correct dropping height.
Most of the tracer passed overhead, but, after dropping its torpedo, the Swordfish rose into the stream of fire. Zigzagging wildly at low level, it crossed the breakwater and began climbing into the night sky.
Lieutenant Pat Humphries, the observer, shouted at Wellham through their voice tube: "That was a bit exciting. I think that you've bent the plane somewhat. Do you think she'll get us home?" "It wasn't my fault," Wellham replied indignantly. "It was those bloody Eyeties!" . . .
The attack by 21 Swordfish torpedo bombers left Taranto in chaos. The Italian battleships Conte di Cavour, Littorio and Caio Duilio had been sunk, the seaplane depot set ablaze and a cruiser damaged, all for the loss of two aircraft and their crews. The battle sounded the death knell not just for the Italian fleet but for all battleships.
It's both a fascinating vignette in its own right, and it sparked in me a memory of one of my Dad's stories about WWII. During the War, my Dad served in the RAF, which had him all over Southern Europe and North Africa. It was in North Africa, I believe, that my Dad's unit ended up guarding a group of Italian POWs. My Dad loved those POWs. He said that they were delightful men, relieved both to be out of the fighting and out of Mussolini's hands. He also said that they cooked marvelously and that, in the middle of the desert, they struggled to make flowers bloom.
[For more on the British/Italian battles in North Africa, go here.]