How WWI-era Biplanes Ended the Reign of Battleships

By World War II, most navies centered their power around massive battleships. However, the recent introduction of biplanes to warfare would change that.

Mar 27, 2023By Allen Frazier, BA History w/ Journalism, MA WWII Studies in progress
how ww1 era planes ended battleships
A Fairey Swordfish Launching a Torpedo Against Italian Ships at Taranto


In the years leading up to World War I, aviation became an increasingly fascinating field for military planners. As the guns of Europe began raining shells down upon the land, military officials quickly militarized planes as reconnaissance tools. Soon, biplanes were armed with machine guns for defense and bombs for offense, creating a new field of warfare. Meanwhile, the navies of the world, mostly armed with massive dreadnaughts as a sign of strength, continued operations as they had for centuries. Unbeknownst to the warring nations, aviation and aircraft carriers would soon halt the mighty battleship as the true sign of strength on the high seas. While most think of Pearl Harbor in 1941 as the first event to highlight the shift from battleships to carriers, another event 13 months prior foreshadowed the disaster in Hawaii.


World War I Biplanes & Naval Warfare

A Depiction of Air Combat Between WWI Biplanes, via Military History Now


The airplanes of World War I were slow and made of soft materials, though they proved invaluable in turning the tide of war. Initially, planes were outfitted with cameras and used as tools to survey the scene beyond the trenches. However, pilots began carrying pistols and grenades for self-defense. Eventually, some planes were outfitted with small projectiles or bombs to attack ground targets.


The invention of an interrupting mechanism allowed forward-firing machine guns to shoot past propellor blades without damaging them. While rare and somewhat ineffective initially, an increasing arsenal of planes on both sides eventually culminated in massive aerial dogfights. While still archaic to today’s standards, these biplanes of World War I had yet to prove their full potential, even as the pilots earned unparalleled fame.


On the high seas, steel dreadnaughts combatted each other for naval supremacy. Historically, massive ships such as these were seen as the supreme tool for dominating the world’s oceans. As wooden ships turned into steel battleships, the idea of bigger means better still proved true. However, with the rise of aviation, several nations began experimenting with air-launched torpedoes to be used against naval targets.


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In 1916, a British torpedo-armed biplane sank a Turkish supply vessel in the Aegean Sea. The following year, the British ship Gena was sunk in the same fashion by a German plane. Few took note of this new weapon’s potential in naval warfare, and the United States only fielded its first torpedo-bombers in 1921.


Biplanes in the Interwar Years

A Torpedo-armed Hawker Horsley, via BAE Systems


Following the success of airplanes in combat and the recent introduction of aerial torpedoes, several nations sought to capitalize on this new weapon. Namely, the US, UK, and Japan found the need for a torpedo bomber critical.


In the mid-1920s, the UK developed the Hawker Horsley, an advanced biplane with a wide-reaching range. The Horsley would only see limited production and served mainly as a light bomber. However, 12 torpedo variants were utilized by the Coast Defense Torpedo Flight, later renamed No. 36 Squadron. Although it would never see active combat with the British military, the Horsley was the first actual torpedo bomber ever developed. It would set the standard for and influence its successor, the Fairey Swordfish, which would forever change warfare.


By the 1930s, many nations possessed squadrons of torpedo bombers. Britain replaced the Horsley with the Fairey Swordfish, a maneuverable but weakly armed biplane. The Swordfish was constructed mainly of wire and held together by canvas, earning it the nickname “stringbag.”


Meanwhile, the US, bordering two oceans, saw no need for land-based torpedo-bombers, instead opting for carrier-launched planes capable of supporting naval fleets. Japan sought dual development of land and sea torpedo-bombers, including the now infamous Nakajima B5N.


Even before World War II began, the tools that would forever destroy the battleship’s role in naval warfare were already in service. While Britain started to develop more advanced bombers to replace the WWI-era Swordfish, it would surprisingly prove vital to the war effort. The Axis nations of Germany and Italy would avoid large surface fleets centered around carriers and only invest limited funds towards torpedo-bombers and anti-naval airplanes.


World War II & the Naval War

Fairey Swordfish Attacking Italian Ships in the Mediterranean, via Weapons and Warfare


When Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, Britain and France entered the conflict to aid the Poles. However, as Germany and the Soviet Union quickly overran Poland, the Western Allies could hardly do anything in retaliation. The naval conflict would be the only theater to see continued combat between the Axis and Allies going into 1940.


The Allies initiated a relatively unsuccessful blockade of the German coast, much as they had done in the previous war. Germany, possessing a small battleship fleet that could hardly fight the Royal Navy head-on, relied on U-boats to traverse this blockade and harass Allied shipping. Despite this, the German Battleship Graf Spree scored several successes against British shipping within the first few months of the war. This seemingly proved that World War II was to be another naval conflict centered around battleships.


However, it was not the German Kriegsmarine that concerned British planners. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini made no secret of his intention to see the British and French kicked out of the area so he could reform the Roman Empire. While the Italian military lacked several vital technologies, resources, and advancements that other nations enjoyed, their fleet was still powerful. The Italian Regia Marina possessed six state-of-the-art battleships, 19 cruisers, 59 destroyers, and a submarine fleet over 100-strong, the largest sub-fleet in the world. On paper, this significant threat was terrifying to the British, and their nightmare came true on June 10, 1940, when Italy declared war just as France began to falter. The British wasted no time enacting operations that could negate the Italian’s naval strength in the Mediterranean.


HMS Illustrious & the Fairey Swordfish Biplane

The HMS Illustrious Class Aircraft-Carrier, via Seaforces


Even before the Italians entered the war, the Royal Navy had prepared plans to deal with the Regia Marina. Unlike the British, the Italians followed the traditional naval strategy of fleet-in-being. This approach means a battleship-focused naval force could exert influence and force the enemy to divert resources in anticipation of an attack without actually engaging them. This strategy proved helpful in the era of massive wooden ships and dreadnaughts.


Only sparse engagements between the two naval powers occurred in the months following Italy’s entry. The main focus between both sides was protecting their supply lines to Africa while denying the enemy that same protection. However, the much more extensive Italian fleet sunk or damaged several British ships. Meanwhile, Italy had already suffered several losses, especially to its submarine force.


Elsewhere, the Royal Navy lost two of its six aircraft carriers to German ships, and their dominance on the seas was challenged to the extreme. With little success to show against the Italians at sea, the British realized that a navy too scared to leave its port needed to be attacked at anchor.


Lumley Lyster arrived in the area to overtake the aircraft carriers of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. He immediately urged his commander, Andrew Cunningham, to allow his carrier-based Fairey Swordfish to attack the Italian Fleet at Taranto using torpedoes and the cover of darkness. Cunningham agreed, leading to the formulation of Operation Judgement, the planned surprise attack at Taranto. In October and November of 1940, several British convoys converged on the island of Malta, masking the deployment of the HMS Illustrious and other ships assigned to its task force from the Italians.


Operation Judgment

A Painting Depicting the Attack on Taranto on November 11, 1940, via World Naval Ships


On the night of November 10, 1940, Royal Air Force Flight Officer Adrian Warburton jumped behind the controls of an American-made Maryland Reconnaissance plane. He flew directly to Taranto, making several low-level passes and taking photos of the Italian ships at anchor. His flight noted the names and locations of five battleships, 14 cruisers, and 27 destroyers. He would then make the same mission again the following day, passing his findings to his commanders.


With this vital intelligence, Admiral Cunningham gave the green light for the commencement of Operation Judgement. Just before midnight on November 11, twenty-one Fairey Swordfish biplanes, armed with torpedoes, launched from the HMS Illustrious on a direct route to Taranto. The first Swordfish to reach the target area dropped illumination flares just behind the Italian ships, sparking a tremendous response of anti-aircraft fire from the Italian gunners.


Through the heavy enfilade of cannons, machine gun fire, and anti-aircraft balloons, the next wave of Swordfish dropped bombs onto onshore facilities. Several Italian oil storages were caught on fire and destroyed, as well as an airfield hangar. While the Italian gunners tried to defend the shore, a Swordfish launched a torpedo that slammed into the side of the Battleship Conte Di Cavour, blowing a massive hole in its side.


The Battleship Dulio suffered a similar fate, though the damage was less severe as the crew ran the ship aground, sparing it from sinking. Meanwhile, the Battleship Littorio was hit by three torpedoes, partially sinking it in the harbor. In the chaos, two Swordfish were shot down, with two pilots killed and two captured. The remaining Swordfish returned to the Illustrious with three Italian battleships, several smaller ships, and the port on fire behind them.


Aftermath & Consequences

Battleship Conte Di Cavour Partially Sunk in the Port of Taranto, via Comando Supremo


The attack was an unparalleled success for the Royal Navy. The Italian battleship fleet, once feared, had lost half of its mighty battleships in less than a few hours. The surviving Italian ships would transfer to Naples to avoid any future attacks. Incidentally, the Royal Navy had a follow-up operation planned for the next day, but bad weather forced its cancellation.


Either way, the Regia Marina had lost its ability to challenge the Royal Navy for supremacy in the Mediterranean. Admiral Cunningham noted,


“Taranto, and the night of 11–12 November 1940, should be remembered forever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm, the Navy has its most devastating weapon.”


For the first time in history, the airplane had decisively shifted the tides of war, made more impressive by the British use of World War I biplanes.


Within a year, two of the damaged battleships, the Littorio and the Dulio, would be fully repaired. Meanwhile, Italian naval operations continued unabridged as Axis convoys to Africa increased and Allied convoys were further intercepted. Italian Admiral Angelo Iachino would lead a task force centered around the Battleship Vittorio Veneto to block British ships in March of 1941. At Cape Matapan, Iachino’s cruiser division was annihilated by Cunningham, who again used carrier-launched planes to defeat the Italians. Unlike the other warring powers, the Italians could not replace losses such as these, forcing them to avoid significant engagements in the future. However, in the following months, the Illustrious would nearly be sunk by Luftwaffe bombs, and Italian sailors sank two British battleships in Alexandria. The Battle for the Mediterranean was far from over, but the era of the battleship had passed.


Inspirations for the Japanese

The Battleship USS Arizona Sinking During the Attack on Pearl Harbor, via National Review


The Attack on Taranto proved the vulnerability of large, slow steel battleships against torpedo-armed airplanes. However, few navies took note of this massive advancement in aviation and naval warfare. Aboard the HMS Illustrious on the night of Operation Judgement was an American, Lieutenant Commander John Opie III. He watched as the British planes took off and returned after devastating a superior enemy fleet at anchor. He immediately began writing reports of the attack, especially the torpedo’s effectiveness against stationary targets in shallow water. His findings were passed to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the President. However, Opie’s reports would be ignored, and his requests to shore up defenses in ports in the Pacific would go unheard. Meanwhile, Japan, an Italian ally and warring power, studied the Attack on Taranto with keen interest.


A Japanese diplomatic mission to Italy, led by Rear Admiral Koki Abe, met with Italian officers and traveled to Taranto to survey the damage. The Japanese could draw several inspirations for their carrier fleet with their findings and research. With tensions in the Pacific rising, Japan set its sights on war. Having ignored Opie’s findings and being unaware of Japanese intentions, Pearl Harbor and the American command were utterly vulnerable. Japan launched a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, using its own torpedo bombers, including the B5N. The attack was an even greater success than Taranto, sinking or damaging eight battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers, and several other ships and aircraft. Going into World War II, the US rebounded from this attack to devastate the Japanese in several aircraft carrier battles. Following the Battle of Midway, the aircraft carrier was the new ruler of the seas.

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By Allen FrazierBA History w/ Journalism, MA WWII Studies in progressAllen is a contributing writer from Mississippi who is currently a graduate student in Arizona State University’s World War II Studies program. He earned a BA in History and a minor in Journalism from the University of Mississippi. Due to his large military family, as well as his own service, he holds a passionate love for military history. His primary focus area is the U.S. including the American Civil War, World War II, and other conflicts. Outside of work and school, Allen enjoys the outdoors and loves spending time with his family and dogs.