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The pioneering attack on Taranto

Two British warships engaging Italian vessels during a convoy run from Alexandria to Malta in the Mediterranean (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Two British warships engaging Italian vessels during a convoy run from Alexandria to Malta in the Mediterranean (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The importance of the battle of Taranto is often overseen. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is considered a watershed moment in naval warfare, and sure enough, it determined how the war would play out in the Pacific; but the British attack on the Regia Marina, the Italian navy, happened a year earlier, and already established the value of a new type of naval war.
 
Taranto is a port city on Italy's southeast coast, and was the home port of the First Squadron of the Regia Marina at the outbreak of World War II. The United Kingdom, which held strategically important locations in the Mediterranean (just think of Gibraltar, Malta or Egypt), had been watching the Italian build-up with some worry for years before the war. The Italian force at Taranto consisted of 6 battleships (2 of them brand new, having been launched in 1937), 7 heavy cruisers, 7 light cruisers and 13 destroyers. While the Royal Navy was the mightiest sea power in the world at the time, it was spread wide across the globe. In the Mediterranean theater, specifically, the Regia Marina outnumbered the British in all classes of capital ships except for aircraft carriers.

British infantry advancing at El Alamein in North Africa in 1942 (Photo: National Army Museum)
British infantry advancing at El Alamein in North Africa in 1942 (Photo: National Army Museum)

This became a serious problem for Britain when the war broke out. Fighting between British and Italian forces in North Africa began in June 1940. Both sides needed to ship reinforcements and supplies into the area, and the Italians had a much easier job: all they had to do was cross one of the narrower parts of the Mediterranean, and they'd be already there. In contrast, the United Kingdom faced a tough choice. It could steam down the Atlantic coast of Europe, through Gibraltar, then cross most of the Mediterranean lengthwise, going past Sicily and Italy, exposing convoys to numerous Italian air, naval and submarine attacks. Or it could take the long way around: steam down the entire west coast of Africa, back up north along the east coast, through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, and reach Egypt that way. This latter route was obviously a very slow and fuel-expensive option. Things became even worse with the fall of France, after which Britain could no longer even rely on French naval help in the Mediterranean. Something had to be done about the Regia Marina to ensure a better supply situation in Africa.

It's important to note that the Italian fleet spent a lot of time in port, following the idea of the "fleet in being". "Fleet in being" is a naval concept originating from the late 17th century. The idea states that a fleet doesn't actually need to sail out and seek battle to hurt the enemy. All it needs to do is sit still in a harbor, somewhere in the vicinity of a location or transport route important to the enemy. This forces the enemy to devote extra resources to protecting its assets in the region, since even though your fleet has never sailed out to attack yet, it might do so anytime. The enemy has no choice but to devote troops and material to defense against a possible attack, leaving them with fewer resources to use elsewhere.

Taranto Harbor in 1936 (Photo: AP Photo)
Taranto Harbor in 1936 (Photo: AP Photo)

The British idea of launching an air attack against the fleet in being at Taranto first arose in the fall of 1938, during the Munich Crisis, when Nazi Germany gobbled up Czechoslovakia and pushed Europe one step closer to war. At the time, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, was concerned about the survival chances of the carrier HMS Glorious in case of a war involving Italy. The captain of the Glorious, Lumley Lister, told the admiral that the Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers aboard the Glorious are capable of nighttime attack, and that the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm was, in fact, the only force in the world capable of such an operation. Pound recognized the importance of this ability and ordered that the navy should start training for such operations. A nighttime attack by shipborne planes was such a revolutionary idea at the time that training was surrounded by the highest level of secrecy, and nothing about it was written down. Admiral Pound was replaced by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham a month before World War II broke out, leaving the latter in charge of the operation.

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, who oversaw the operation (Image: The National Archives (United Kingdom)
Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, who oversaw the operation (Image: The National Archives (United Kingdom)
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The Fairey Swordfish was an unlikely hero for such a pioneering operation. Though relatively new (first flying in 1934), it was a thoroughly obsolescent design, a fabric-covered biplane with a top speed of a paltry 143 mph / 230 km/h. However, it was a very stable and forgiving plane to fly, it could carry either a torpedo or bombs, and it earned the nickname "Stringbag" for its ability to carry a wide range of extra equipment. It could be argued that the Swordfish's slow speed was a blessing in disguise: it could fly so slow that other, more modern enemy planes kept overshooting it while attacking. For the Taranto attack, the participating planes had auxiliary fuel tanks fitted in the observer's spot to let them actually reach Taranto and get back home, the observer was seated in the radio operator/rear gunner's seat, and the radio operator/rear gunner stayed at home.

A Fairey Swordfish in the air (Photo: comandosupremo.com)
A Fairey Swordfish in the air (Photo: comandosupremo.com)

The shallow waters of the Italian port represented a technological challenge. Military wisdom at the time held that aerial torpedoes could only be dropped into water at least 75 ft / 23 m deep; in shallower waters, the weapon would hit the bottom. Taranto harbor was only about 39 ft /12 m deep.
 
A bit of jury-rigged engineering came to the rescue. The Swordfishes had rotating drums attached beneath their noses. Each drum had a cable wound around it, and the other end of the cable was attached to the nose of the torpedo. Once the torpedo was released, it started falling, unspooling the cable. The tension of the cable prevented the torpedo's nose from bobbing downward. Once the torpedo hit the water, it landed with a belly splash rather than a nose-first dive, thus staying close to the surface.

Air crews studying the Swordfish's torpedo system (Photo: Air Force Magazine)
Air crews studying the Swordfish's torpedo system (Photo: Air Force Magazine)

Events have reached a point where the attack was deemed necessary in late 1940. The operation was initially scheduled for October 21. It was a symbolic choice: the date is Trafalgar Day, the anniversary of Lord Nelson's famous victory over French and Spanish forces in 1805. The planes were supposed to take off from the older HMS Eagle, but two accidents delayed the attack. First, a fire from an auxiliary fuel tank destroyed two planes, then the Eagle's fuel system broke down, forcing the British to replace the Eagle with the brand new HMS Illustrious and reschedule the operation to November.

HMS Illustrious in 1940 (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
HMS Illustrious in 1940 (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

In true British fashion, the attack began with a deception operation codenamed MB8. A number of convoys were moved around the Mediterranean simultaneously, attracting Italian attention to what looked like business as usual, only more brisk. Ships escorting the convoys were shuffled around in the last moment to create the attack force centered on Illustrious and position it within range of Taranto. The trick proved a success: the Italians did not notice anything out of the ordinary, and were not even aware of the carrier's position. The stage was set for Operation Judgment, the actual attack.

Two waves of Swordfishes took off from Illustrious on the evening of November 11. The first, departing at 9:00 p.m., comprised of 12 planes: 6 armed with a torpedo each, 4 with six bombs each, and 2 with four bombs and two flares. The second wave, following the first by 90 minutes, had 9 planes, 5 with torpedoes and 4 with flares and bombs. One plane in the second wave lost its auxiliary fuel tank on the way and turned back. Another had a taxiing incident on deck and was delayed for 20 minutes.

A torpedo being loaded onto a Swordfish aboard the HMS Illustrious, 1942 (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
A torpedo being loaded onto a Swordfish aboard the HMS Illustrious, 1942
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The first wave accidentally split up on the way when four planes strayed away from the rest while flying through thin clouds. As a result, they arrived to Taranto at different time, the main group beginning its attack at 10:58 p.m. The Swordfishes ran into heavy anti-aircraft defense. Between the fleet and ground-based weapons, the Italians had 101 guns and 193 machine guns spitting lead at the slow and low-flying bombers. The area was also protected by 27 barrage balloons, dirigibles with long chains hanging from them, positioned so that attacking aircraft would crash into the chains. The British got lucky in one respect: the port was originally protected by about 90 such balloons, but most of them were lost to strong winds. Additionally, much of the Italian torpedo-netting, designed to protect capital ships from torpedoes, was missing, as they were recently removed for an upcoming gunnery practice event.

"Taranto Harbour, Swordfish from 'Illustrious' Cripple the Italian Fleet, 11 November 1940" by Charles David Cobb (Photo credit: National Museum of the Royal Navy)
"Taranto Harbour, Swordfish from 'Illustrious' Cripple the Italian Fleet, 11 November 1940" by Charles David Cobb (Photo credit: National Museum of the Royal Navy)

The two waves of bombers (and the last straggler, who arrived 15 minutes late) fell upon the Italian fleet. Flares were used to illuminate the water and guide pilots as they lined up their planes for torpedo runs, while Swordfishes armed with bombs attacked other ships and oil tanks. With a total of 20 attacking planes, the raid was small but furious. One Italian battleship, the Conte di Cavour, was holed, and it sank before receiving permission to run aground. She was later raised and sent to repairs and upgrades, but Italy surrendered before she could be finished. A second battleship, Duilio, was also torpedoed and was saved by running aground. A third vessel, the brand new battleship Littorio had three holes punched in her by torpedoes. She, too, was run aground, but in waters still so deep that her bows were submerged. Additionally, a heavy cruiser and two destroyers were also damaged.

The Conte di Cavour after sinking to the bottom of the harbor (Photo: comandosupremo.com)
The Conte di Cavour after sinking to the bottom of the harbor (Photo: comandosupremo.com)

The British achieved all this with surprisingly light losses. Two planes were shot down: one two-man crew was captured, the other died. A follow-up attack was planned for the next night, but was prevented by bad weather.

One of the two Fairey Swordfishes shot down at Taranto (Photo: Archivio Centrale dello Stato)
One of the two Fairey Swordfishes shot down at Taranto (Photo: Archivio Centrale dello Stato)

Operation Judgment accomplished its immediate goal: by diminishing Italy's naval power, it gave Britain some breathing space in the Mediterranean. With only three operational Italian battleships to contend with, the British Mediterranean Fleet no longer needed to stick together for safety; it could now afford to split into two battlegroups and conduct operations in different regions at the same time.

Aerial photograph of Taranto's harbor after the attack (Photo: Crown Copyright)
Aerial photograph of Taranto's harbor after the attack (Photo: Crown Copyright)

On the other hand, the Royal Navy and the Fleet Air Arm failed to deliver a knockout blow, nor did it manage to cow Italy into a defensive strategy. In fact, some of the remaining Italian ships sortied only five days after the attack and disrupted a British mission to deliver warplanes to Malta.

"'Executed' is the right word" – British newsreel about the battle (Video: YouTube)

The attack – the first of its kind – attracted international attention. Japan had already been working on the problem of aerial attacks in shallow-water ports since early 1939, eyeing such potential targets as Manila in the Philippines, British-held Singapore, Vladivostok in Russia, and, of course, Pearl Harbor. Once news of the British attack broke, Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Natio, assistant naval attaché to Berlin, quickly traveled to Taranto to investigate the event in person. His visit was followed by a Japanese military mission to Italy in early 1941, where officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy had lengthy talks with their Italian counterparts about what lessons could be derived from the attack. And in late 1941, Japan decided it was time to demonstrate those lessons, writ large, at Pearl Harbor.

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