The Battle of Taranto took place on the night of 11–12 November 1940 during the Second World War. The Royal Navy launched the first all-aircraft ship-to-ship naval attack in history, flying a small number of obsolescent biplane torpedo bombers from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea. The attack struck the battle fleet of the Regia Marina at anchor in the harbour of Taranto using aerial torpedoes despite the shallow depth of the water in the harbour. The devastation wrought by the British carrier-launched aircraft on the large Italian warships was the beginning of the rise of the power of naval aviation, over the big guns of battleships. According to Admiral Cunningham, "Taranto, and the night of November 11–12, 1940, should be remembered for ever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon."
Long before the First World War, the Italian Royal Navy's First Squadron was based at Taranto. In that period, the British Royal Navy developed plans for countering the power of the Regia Marina (Italian Navy). Blunting the power of any adversary in the Mediterranean Sea was an ongoing exercise. Plans for the capture of the port at Taranto were considered as early as the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935.
During 1940–41, Italian Army operations in North Africa, based in Libya, required a supply line from Italy. The British Army's North African Campaign, based in Egypt, suffered from much greater supply difficulties. Supply convoys to Egypt had to either cross the Mediterranean via Gibraltar and Malta, and then approach the coast of Sicily, or steam all the way around the Cape of Good Hope, up the whole east coast of Africa, and then through the Suez Canal, to reach Alexandria. Since the latter was a very long and slow route, this put the Italian fleet in an excellent position to interdict British supplies and reinforcements.
The British had won several actions, considerably upsetting the balance of power in the Mediterranean. Following the concept of a fleet in being, the Italians usually kept their warships in harbour. The Italian fleet at Taranto was powerful: six battleships (of which five were battleworthy), seven heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eight destroyers, making the threat of a sortie against British shipping a serious problem.
During the Munich Crisis of 1938, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, was concerned about the survival of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious in the face of Italian opposition in the Mediterranean. Pound ordered his staff to re-examine all plans for attacking Taranto. He was advised by the captain of Glorious, Arthur L. St.G. Lyster, that her Fairey TSR Swordfish were capable of a night attack, using aerial torpedoes. Indeed, the Fleet Air Arm was then the only naval aviation arm capable of it. Pound took Lyster's advice, and he ordered training to begin. Security was kept so tight there were no written records. Just a month before the war began, Pound knowingly advised his replacement, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, to consider the possibility. This came to be known as Operation Judgement.
The fall of France and the consequent loss of the French fleet in the Mediterranean (even before Operation Catapult) made redress essential. The older carrier, HMS Eagle, on Cunningham's strength, was ideal, possessing a very experienced air group composed entirely of obsolescent Swordfish aircraft. Three Sea Gladiators were added for the operation. Firm plans were drawn up after the Italian Army halted at Sidi Barrani, which freed up the British Mediterranean Fleet.
Operation Judgement was just a small part of the overarching Operation MB8. It was originally scheduled to take place on 21 October 1940, Trafalgar Day, but a fire in an auxiliary fuel tank of one Swordfish led to a delay. (The 60 imp gal (270 L; 72 US gal) auxiliary tanks replaced the usual third crewman to extend the operating range of the aircraft enough to reach Taranto.) This minor fire spread into something more serious that destroyed two Swordfish. Eagle then suffered a breakdown in her fuel system, so she was eliminated.
The complete naval task force, commanded by Rear Admiral Lyster, who had authored the plan of attack on Taranto, consisted of Illustrious, two heavy cruisers (HMS Berwick and HMS York), two light cruisers (HMS Gloucester and HMS Glasgow), and four destroyers (HMS Hyperion, Ilex, Hasty and Havelock). The 24 attack Swordfish came from 813, 815, 819, and 824 Naval Air Squadrons. The small number of attacking warplanes raised concern that Judgement would only alert and enrage the Italian Navy without achieving any significant results. Illustrious also had fighters of 806 Naval Air Squadron aboard to provide air cover for the task force.
Half of the Swordfish were armed with torpedoes as the primary strike aircraft, with the other half carrying aerial bombs and flares to carry out diversions. These torpedoes were fitted with Duplex magnetic / contact exploders, which were extremely sensitive to rough seas, as the attacks on the German battleship Bismarck later showed. There were also worries the torpedoes would bottom out in the harbour after being dropped. The loss rate for the bombers was expected to be fifty percent.
Several reconnaissance flights by Martin Maryland bombers (of the RAF's No. 431 General Reconnaissance Flight) flying from Malta confirmed the location of the Italian fleet. These flights produced photos on which the intelligence officer of Illustrious spotted previously unexpected barrage balloons; the attack plan was changed accordingly. To make sure the Italian warships had not sortied, the British also sent over a Short Sunderland flying boat on the night of 11 November, just as the carrier task force was forming up about 170 nmi (200 mi; 310 km) from Taranto harbour, off the Greek island of Cephalonia. This reconnaissance flight alerted the Italian forces in southern Italy, but since they were without any radars, they could do little but wait for whatever came along. The Regia Marina could conceivably have gone to sea in search of any British naval force, but this was distinctly against the naval philosophy of the Italians between January 1940 and September 1943.
The complexity of Operation MB8, with its various forces and convoys, succeeded in deceiving the Italians into thinking only normal convoying was under way. This contributed to the success of Judgement.
The first wave of 12 aircraft led by Lieutenant Commander M. W. Williamson RN of 815 Sqn., left Illustrious just before 21:00 hours on 11 November 1940, followed by a second wave of nine about 90 minutes later. Of the second wave, one turned back with a problem with its auxiliary fuel tank, and one aircraft launched 20 minutes late, after requiring emergency repairs to damage following a minor taxiing accident.
The first wave, which consisted of a mixture of six Swordfish armed with torpedoes and six with bombs, was split into two sections when three of the bombers and one torpedo bomber strayed from the main force while flying through thin clouds. The smaller group continued to Taranto independently. The main group approached the harbour at 22:58. A flare was dropped east of the harbour, then the flare dropper and another aircraft made a dive bombing attack to set fire to oil tanks. The next three aircraft, led by Lt Cdr K. Williamson RN of 815 Squadron, attacked over San Pietro Island, and struck the battleship Conte di Cavour with a torpedo that blasted a 27 ft (8.2 m) hole in her side below her waterline. Williamson's plane was immediately shot down by the Italian battleship's anti-aircraft guns. The two remaining aircraft in this sub-flight continued, dodging barrage balloons and receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire from the Italian warships and shore batteries, to press home an unsuccessful attack on the battleship Andrea Doria. The next sub-flight of three attacked from a more northerly direction, attacking the battleship Littorio, hitting it with two torpedoes and launching one torpedo at the flagship—the battleship Vittorio Veneto—which failed to hit its target. The bomber force led by Captain O. Patch RM attacked next. They found the targets difficult to identify but attacked two cruisers from 1,500 ft (460 m) followed by another aircraft which straddled four destroyers.
The second wave of nine aircraft led by Lt.-Cdr. J. W. Hale of 819 Sqn., was now approaching, two of the four bombers also carried flares, the remaining five carrying torpedoes. Flares were dropped shortly before midnight. Two aircraft aimed their torpedoes at Littorio, one of which hit. One aircraft, despite having been hit twice by anti-aircraft fire, aimed a torpedo at Vittorio Veneto but the torpedo missed. One aircraft hit the battleship Caio Duilio with a torpedo, blowing a large hole in her hull and flooding both of her forward magazines. The aircraft flown by Lieutenant G. W. L. A. Bayly RN was shot down by antiaircraft fire from the heavy cruiser Gorizia while following the attack on Littorio, this being the only aircraft lost from the second wave. The final aircraft to arrive on the scene 15 minutes behind the others made a dive bombing attack on an Italian cruiser despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, and then made a safe exit, returning to Illustrious at 02:39.
Of the two aircraft shot down, the two crew members of the first plane were taken prisoner. The other two died in their plane.
The Italian battleships suffered significant damage:
- Conte di Cavour had a 12 m × 8 m (39 ft × 26 ft) hole in the hull, and in the six hours following the attack all the attempts to prevent her from sinking failed. She was subsequently raised and was still undergoing repairs when Italy switched sides in the war, so she never returned to service;
- Caio Duilio had only a slightly smaller hole (11 m × 7 m (36 ft × 23 ft)) and was saved by running her aground;
- Littorio had considerable flooding caused by three torpedo hits. Despite underwater protection, (the 'Pugliese' system, standard in all Italian battleships), the damage was extensive. She suffered 32 crewmen dead and many wounded. She was holed in three places, once on the port side (7 m × 1.5 m (23 ft 0 in × 4 ft 11 in)), and twice on the starboard side (15 m × 10 m (49 ft × 33 ft) and 12 m × 9 m (39 ft × 30 ft)). She too was saved by running her aground. Despite this, in the morning the ship's bows were totally submerged.
Italian defences fired 13,489 shells from the land batteries, while several thousand were fired from the ships. The anti-aircraft barrage was, at least on paper, formidable, having 101 guns and 193 machine-guns. There were also 87 balloons, but strong winds caused the loss of 60 of them. Only 4.2 km (2.3 nmi; 2.6 mi) of anti-torpedo nets were actually fielded around the ships, up to 10 m (33 ft) in depth, while the need was for 12.8 km (6.9 nmi; 8.0 mi). There were also 13 aerophonic stations and 22 searchlights (the ships had two searchlights each).
Littorio was later repaired with all available resources, while restoration of the older battleships proceeded at a much slower pace (seven months for Caio Duilio, never completed for Conte di Cavour). In all, the Swordfish attack was made with just 21 aircraft. Two Italian aircraft were destroyed by the bombing, and two unexploded bombs hit the cruiser Trento and the destroyer Libeccio. Near misses damaged the destroyer Pessagno.
Meanwhile, X-Force cruisers attacked an Italian convoy. This force had three cruisers (HMS Ajax, Orion and HMAS Sydney) and two Tribal-class destroyers (HMS Nubian and Mohawk). Just past midnight, they met and destroyed four Italian merchantmen (Capo Vado, Catalani, Locatelli and Premuda), damaging the torpedo-boat Fabrizi, while the auxiliary cruiser Ramb III fled.
Cunningham and Lyster wanted to strike Taranto again the next night with Swordfish (six torpedo-bombers, seven bombers, and two flare-dispensers), but bad weather prevented the action.
The Italian fleet lost half of its capital ships in one night; the next day the Regia Marina transferred its undamaged ships from Taranto to Naples to protect them from similar attacks. Repairs to the Littorio took about five months, to the Caio Duilio six months; Conte di Cavour required extensive salvage work and her repairs were incomplete when Italy changed sides in 1943. Cunningham wrote after the attack: "The Taranto show has freed up our hands considerably & I hope now to shake these damned Itiys up a bit. I don't think their remaining three battleships will face us and if they do I'm quite prepared to take them on with only two." Indeed, the balance of power had swung to the British Mediterranean Fleet which now enjoyed more operational freedom: when previously forced to operate as one unit to match Italian capital ships, they could now split into two battlegroups; each built around one aircraft carrier and two battleships.
Nevertheless, Cunningham's estimate that Italians would be unwilling to risk their remaining heavy units was quickly proven wrong. Only five days after Taranto, Campioni sortied with two battleships, six cruisers and 14 destroyers to disrupt a supply convoy to Malta. The follow-up to this operation led to the Battle of Cape Spartivento on 27 November 1940. Two of the three damaged battleships were repaired by mid-1941 and control of the Mediterranean continued to swing back and forth until the Italian armistice in 1943.
Aerial torpedo experts in all modern navies had previously thought that torpedo attacks against ships must be in water at least 30 ft (9.1 m) deep. Taranto harbour had a depth of only about 39 ft (12 m); the Royal Navy had developed a new method of preventing torpedoes from diving too deep. A drum was attached beneath the nose of the aircraft, from which a roll of wire led to the nose of the torpedo. As it dropped, the tension from the wire pulled up the nose of the torpedo, producing a belly-flop rather than a nose dive. The British used breakaway wooden fins to add aerial stability to the torpedo, before it entered the water.
Influence on Pearl Harbor
It is likely the Imperial Japanese Navy's staff carefully studied the Taranto raid during planning for the attack on Pearl Harbor because of the issues with a shallow harbour. Japanese Lt. Cdr. Takeshi Naito, the assistant naval attaché to Berlin, flew to Taranto to investigate the attack firsthand, and Naito subsequently had a lengthy conversation with Commander Mitsuo Fuchida about his observations; Fuchida led the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. However, the Japanese had been working on shallow-water solutions since early 1939, with various shallow ports as the notional targets, including Manila, Singapore, Vladivostok, and Pearl Harbor. In the early 1930s the Japanese were using a breakaway wooden nose to soften the torpedo's impact with the water. By mid-1941 the Japanese perfected breakaway wooden fins for added aerial stability.
The Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was a considerably larger operation than Taranto with six Imperial Japanese fleet carriers, each one carrying an air wing that was more than double the planes that a British carrier had. It hence resulted in far more devastation, sinking or disabling seven American battleships, and seriously damaging other warships. However the Japanese raid on the United States Fleet did not alter the balance of power in the Pacific in the same way that the attack on Taranto did in the Mediterranean Sea. The leaders of the U.S. Navy were forced to modernize their thinking and make aircraft carriers - which were untouched at Pearl Harbor - their capital ships in naval warfare planning. Compared with the Italian battleships that were a threat in the narrow confines of the Mediterranean, the US Navy's battleships which survived the raid proved to be of limited use in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, operating primarily as fire support for amphibious landings as they were too slow to escort the carriers.
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A torpedo bomber needed a long, level flight, and when released, its conventional torpedo would plunge nearly a hundred feet deep before rising to strike a hull. Pearl Harbor depth averages 42 feet.
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