Taranto Night Camp Bastion
The night of the 11th November is celebrated by Fleet Air Arm personnel around the world to commemorate the Battle of Taranto. This year the celebrations extended as far as Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, where Colonel Roylance RM, Commander Joint Air Group, and 857 NAS hosted deployed personnel from the Royal Navy, British Army, Royal Air Force and even the United States military.
As naval history aficionados well know, the Battle of Taranto was the first time that aircraft carriers had been used against capital ships to project force on a large scale. A small number of Swordfish torpedo-bomber aircraft launched from HMS Illustrious positioned near the Greek island of Cephalonia and struck the Italian fleet at anchor in Taranto harbour, using a combination of torpedoes and bombs. The devastation caused by the attack severely damaged the Italian fleet and marked the beginning of the rise of naval aviation and the demise of the big-gun battleships.
Hosting such an event in an active area of operations like as Afghanistan is no mean feat. It took the combined efforts of 857 NAS and other FAA personnel serving as part of the Joint Air Group in Camp Bastion to prepare the venue and to ensure that, despite the austere environment, the best possible mess dinner atmosphere was created.
Once a suitable hangar was found the inclusion of a Sea King Mk7 (from the hosting squadron), homemade ‘mess silver’, a hundred cylume light sticks, and numerous ensigns hung aloft, helped to create a spectacular backdrop. Finally, music from the Royal Artillery brass band made for an impressive evening of entertainment.
857 NAS’s Detachment Commander, Lt Cdr Brad Watson RN, acted as Mess President starting the night off with a traditional historical vignette before the first course, describing the build-up to the events of the famous night. As the courses continued Lt Cdr Colin Griffiths RN and Lt Cdr Fraser Hunt RN each read further excerpts describing the battle, and Naval Chaplain Father Martin Gough dedicated a poignant grace to the memory of the heroic men of Taranto.
Despite the constraints of an operational environment, the food served was Italian-themed, and came in the form of a warming minestrone soup, a hearty spaghetti bolognaise, and a Fleet Air Arm design cake specially commissioned for dessert. Having collected drinks donated from all over the camp, everyone was able to enjoy a ‘near beer’ during dinner, a further (perhaps wishful) attempt adding to the mess dinner atmosphere.
Post-dinner entertainment came in the form of a video depicting a fictitious scenario of the Battle of Taranto with the Chinooks, Lynx, Apache and Sea Kings of the Joint Air Group also taking part in the raid. The night ended with a FOD plod to ensure the hangar was clear of any rubbish and operations on the airfield could continue uninterrupted.
All things considered, those present had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Lt Cdr Brad Watson RN had this to add, ‘With the minimal resource and huge efforts by all involved, a spectacular night was had by everyone in attendance and we did ourselves justice when remembering the men of Taranto’.
Everyone returned to their place of work the next morning having sampled a small piece of Fleet Air Arm culture whilst deployed, and no doubt looking forward to next year’s celebrations wherever they may find themselves.