As the nation marks Armistice Day this Monday, Royal Navy sailors at RNAS Culdrose will be among those remembering the courage of the aircrews at the battle of Taranto – one of most daring raids in the history of the Fleet Air Arm and the inspiration for the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Britain won vital breathing-room during the dark days of the Second World War when it attacked the Italian battleships at anchor at the port of Taranto.

Twenty one Fairey Swordfish biplanes from naval air squadrons 815, 819, 813 and 824 took part in the attack from HMS Illustrious on November 11, 1940.

Two of those naval air squadrons (NAS) still exists today - 815 NAS is based at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset while 824 NAS is based at RNAS Culdrose in Helston.

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HMS Illustrious with Swordfish biplanes on her flightdeck

Using bombs and torpedoes, they sank one of the battleships and severely damaged two others, knocking them out of the war for several months and significantly altering the balance of power in the Mediterranean.

It had previously been thought that such an attack was impossible but the Royal Navy pioneered new technology and tactics for the courageous raid. It was so successful that the Japanese developed the idea for their more substantial attack against the Americans at Pearl Harbour.

Commander Martin Russell, the commanding officer of 824 NAS, said: “The attack by Royal Navy aircraft at Taranto in 1940 was a huge success for the Allies.

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One of the Italian battleships sunk after the raid at Taranto

“It has often been portrayed as a one-sided battle where a handful of obsolete biplanes made with canvas and wood overcame the latest armoured battleships. I think this underplays the courage of those aircrews who flew into such extreme danger.

“Flying at sea holds inherent risk – that is something we know very well today and our aircrews go through demanding training – but the risks faced by the men of Taranto was considerable.

“It was also widely believed that such an attack in shallow water and in an enclosed harbour was impossible. The navy had to innovate and use new technology and techniques to deploy torpedoes at the correct height. They also used the latest torpedoes with magnetic warheads, which were designed to cause more damage.

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Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish bombers

“By far the most significant element to the victory was the new tactic of using air power so successfully against capital ships. In a way, it marked the beginning of the new age of carrier warfare.

“It is no coincidence that today at 824 NAS we train the Merlin helicopter crews who will work on the Royal Navy’s latest flagship – which is an aircraft carrier. The Battle of Taranto proved that air power, combined with the ability to strike from a carrier anywhere in the world, would be vital for the future.

“That is still very much the case and the Royal Navy is leading the way with the latest generation of carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.”

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Photographs after the attack at Taranto showing damaged Italian ships