Authors: David Row
The Whale Has Wings
by David Row
lished by David Row at Amazon
Copyright 2013 by David Row
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental
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This is the second book in the 'The Whale Has Wings' series. It carries on directly from the action described at the end of Volume 1 - Rebirth.
While the action described in this book is intended to stand on its own, you may have problems understanding how the Royal Navy (in particular) got here if you haven't read Volume 1. To summarise:
In 1933, the British Royal Navy regained control of its Air Arm (the Fleet Air Arm) from the RAF. This allowed them to build carriers and the aircraft needed for them to their own pre-war plans, rather than be constricted by the limited number and performance of the aircraft grudgingly provided by the RAF. As a consequence, by the time war broke out in 1939, the FAA had better planes, and the building of carriers was a little advanced on our history. In addition, as more planes were available, a class of light carriers was building, and plans had been made for converting merchant ships (in our history, little actual planning for these was done as the RAF would not supply the aircraft required, so priority was very low).
Initially the war doesn't seem to go much differently, until the big raid on the German ships at Wilhelmshaven harbour. Even after this, the diversion isn't yet great, and Norway is still a disaster for the German Navy. However the leverage of the changes in air power are slowly growing. As a result of greater confidence in his carriers, the British are not forced to sink the French ships in Oran, and the attack on the Vichy French at Dakar goes more successfully.
Other changes are less obvious; with more air cover, fewer ships are being lost to aircraft and submarines (as a result, the savings in repair work and new construction more than allows the continuation of the RN carrier building programme). Italy joins the war, and action spreads into the Mediterranean.
This book starts with the British attack on the Italian Fleet at Taranto - this time, the plan is more like the original plans and exercises carried out in preparation for the raid. This books covers the actions through late 1940 and 1941, mainly in the Mediterranean, but also in the Atlantic. As well as the naval actions, details are given of the war on land and air (in particular where this involves British forces), showing how the divergence from our history is slowly increasing.
The possibility of a carrier strike to immobilize or destroy the Italian fleet had been considered for some years. Indeed, the initial idea preceded that of the Wilhelmshaven raid, and it was only the fact that Italy had not declared war until the summer that led to a raid on Germany being the first such carrier strike.
There were a number of differences with Operation Judgement. First, the location of the Italian fleet had to be known, and ideally this would be Taranto. Taranto was probably Italy's most forward large, well-protected anchorage; as a result it was also the most reachable. After what had happened at Wilhelmshaven, it was considered obvious by the British that Italy would have increased its defensive preparations at all its fleet bases.
The Royal Navy had also learned from their experience in Germany. In general, Taranto was a similar harbour to Wilhelmshaven - it was shallow, so the torpedoes would again need modification. Since the AA defences and the passive protection was considerably heavier, it would be more difficult to hit the capital ships by torpedo - not impossible, but more difficult. So with the exception of the modern capital ships, the attack would be by dive bombers, using 1,000lb bombs and the new 1,600AP bomb - this should penetrate anything but the new battleships decks. The attack would again be at night, and the maximum number of aircraft would be used. The attack would be supported by RAF bombers flying out of Malta, and it was planned that if conditions and Italian actions allowed, a follow-up strike would be made on the following night before the carrier force finally withdrew.
Unlike the North Sea, any attacking force would be in the range of the Regia Aeronautica for some time, especially if the follow-up strike on the second day went ahead. So the strike would go in around 2300 to maximise the effect of the rising moon outlining the targets, to allow the planes to return and land at night. The primary targets would be the Italian capital ships, as many as were in port, followed by the heavy cruisers. These were the two classes of ships most dangerous to the Mediterranean Fleets surface units. Part of the attack would also target the oil tanks, as it was thought that Italy was short on fuel supplies for the fleet, and so destroying the oil stored there would also limit the use of the Italian navy in the period after the raid. After that, targets of opportunity were the destroyers and submarines based there, and the port infrastructure itself. The launch point for the attack was established just west of the Greek island of Cephalonia, about 200 miles southeast of Taranto
In order to do the maximum damage, the Type XIVA torpedo would be used, with the duplex exploder. As it was expected that with all the torpedo protections not many hits would be obtained, it was necessary that the hits be as damaging as possible. It had been hoped to use the new Mk XV, but this had only just finished testing, and production would not be available for a few months. This use of the duplex fuse would prove later to be a very useful decision indeed.
The core of the strike force would be three aircraft carriers, HMS Implacable, HMS Indefatigable, and HMS Courageous. They would be escorted by a force of cruisers and destroyers, and a heavy covering force including the battleships Valiant and Warspite would wait to eastward to join up with them after the raid. While it was hoped that the raid itself would severely damage the Italian fleet, there was always the possibility that some of the modern fast battleships or heavy cruisers would pursue the retiring carrier force, and the capital ships in the covering force were to make sure that they would not be caught. Indeed, Admiral Cunningham was perfectly happy with the idea of Italian heavy ships 'catching' his battleships; he considered it so much easier than having to chase after them.
In order to maximize the strike, a partial deck park would be used on all three carriers; this also would allow additional fighters to be carried, as it was expected that retaliatory strikes would be heavy. While there was always a possibility that the carrier force would escape without interception, after the loss of HMS Venerable off Norway the Royal Navy was going to assume that the Regia Aeronautica would indeed find them and probably manage to make a number of attacks before they got out of range.
HMS Implacable and HMS Indefatigable would carry 30 TBR (strike), 24 Divebombers and 30 Fighters.
HMS Courageous would carry 18TBR (A/S , recon), 24 Divebombers and 24 Fighters
This would give the force a total air capability of 60 TBR (for strike use), 18 TBR (A/S, recon), 72 Divebombers and 84 Fighters. In order to fill out this aircraft complement, the reserve units at Alexandria would be stripped of naval aircraft, leaving the forces there in the protection of the RAF for the duration of the raid. It was not possible to launch this number of aircraft as a single strike (the deck space on the fleet carriers limited the number that could be flown off in one strike to about 30 planes), so the strike would go as two groups, first 42 torpedo-armed SeaLance, 36 Cormorant dive bombers and four Cormorants carrying flares and markers. The second wave would be another four flare carrying SeaLance, 12 SeaLance carrying torpedoes, and 30 Cormorants. In addition some of the strike TBR aircraft would carry additional flares.
As Courageous could not launch a fully loaded SeaLance, (her catapult had still not been upgraded, as she had been kept too busy to return to the UK for a planned refit), she would use her Swordfish for A/S and patrol work, allowing the other carriers to provide a heavier strike.
It was hoped to have all the planes landed by 0300, at which point the force would retire to the east to be out of range of the Italian fighters as early as possible. It would also allow them a better chance to evade detection if the direction of their returning planes had been observed. If a second strike was considered unnecessary, then the force would retire on the covering force as soon as the aircraft had been recovered. At dawn they would keep a CAP of 18 Goshawks in the air with another 18 warmed up on deck. It was expected that the air attacks would be heavy.
This force was to be assisted by a strike on Naples by Force H, using the carriers Ark Royal and Victorious, escorted by the battlecruisers Repulse and Renown and an escort of cruisers and destroyers. It had been considered making this force also the cover for a resupply of Malta, but this was discarded as it might have been an attractive enough target for the Italian battleships. For once Cunningham wanted them in port, not at sea. The carriers would launch their attack from southeast of Sicily at long range - approaching 300 miles. This would require the planes to carry a reduced bomb load, but the aim was to distract, not damage, and moving in closer would have led the carriers into the dangerous Sicilian Narrows. The carriers would be taking 30TBR, 18 Divebombers and 27 Fighters each. Their targets would be any destroyers and submarines using the port, and the oil tanks and any other facilities.
The plan was for Force H to strike about an hour before the Taranto attack, to distract the Italians and take their attention away from Taranto. The carrier force would retire on Gibraltar immediately the strike had been recovered; again it was expected that Italian retaliatory air strikes would be soon and heavy. The carriers were also carrying a deck park of fighters (Victorious had carried in extra planes from the UK, and a squadron would be left at Gibraltar as a defence force for the base after the operation was completed. Before the attack Force H would try and imitate a raiding force on the Sicilian airfields (something which had done before).