|Conflict:||Battle of Taranto|
|Partof:||the Mediterranean Theater of World War II|
|Date:||November 12 1940|
|Result:||Decisive British Victory|
|Strength1:||21 torpedo bombers|
1 aircraft carrier
2 heavy cruisers
2 light cruisers
9 heavy cruisers
7 light cruisers
|Casualties1:||2 aircraft destroyed|
1 battleship permanently disabled
2 battleships damaged
The naval Battle of Taranto took place on the night of 11 November 1940 - 12 November 1940 during World War II. The Royal Navy launched the first all-aircraft naval attack in history, flying a small number of aircraft from an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea and attacking the Italian fleet at harbour in Taranto. The effect of the British carrier-launched aircraft on the Italian warships foreshadowed the end of the "big gun" ship and the rise of naval air-power.
Long before the First World War, the Italian Royal Navy's First Squadron was based in Taranto. In this period, the British Royal Navy developed plans for countering the power of the Italian fleet. Mitigating the plausible effects of a potential Mediterranean adversary was an on-going exercise. Plans for capturing the port at Taranto were considered as early as the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935.
In 1940 Italian operations in North Africa around Libya required supply from the Italian mainland. British North African operations, based in Egypt suffered from much greater supply difficulties, with convoys having to cross the Mediterranean Sea from depots in Gibraltar. This put the Italian fleet in an excellent position to cut off supplies to British forces.
The Royal Navy had won in several actions, considerably upsetting the Mediterranean balance of power. Following the theory of a fleet in being, the Italians left their ships in harbor. The fleet at Taranto was powerful: six battleships (five of them battle-worthy), seven heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eight destroyers, making the threat of a sortie against British forces a serious problem.
During the Munich Crisis of 1938, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, commander of the British navy's Mediterranean Fleet, was concerned about the survival of HMS Glorious in the face of Italian opposition in the Mediterranean; and he ordered his is staff to re-examine the plans for attacking Taranto. He was advised by the captain of Glorious, Arthur L. St.G. Lyster, her Fairey TSR Swordfish were capable of a night attack; indeed, the Fleet Air Arm was then the only naval air arm capable of it. Pound took Lyster's advice, ordering training to begin; security was so tight, there were no written records. Just a month before war began, Pound knowingly advised his replacement, Admiral A. B. Cunningham, to consider the prospect. It would come to be known as Operation Judgement.
The fall of France and 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 an air group comprised entirely of Swordfish (with the unofficial addition of three Sea Gladiators) Firm plans began to be drawn after the Italian Army halted at Sidi Barrani, which freed the Mediterranean Fleet.
Judgement, just a small part of the over-arching Operation MB8, was originally scheduled to launch on 21 October 1940 (Trafalgar Day) but a fire in a 60 UKgal (270 l) auxiliary fuel tank of one TSR, replacing the third crewman to make the mission possible, led to a serious fire which destroyed two aircraft. The older aircraft carrier HMS Eagle suffered a casualty in her fuelling system, so the new HMS Illustrious (her operating group in the hands of Rear Admiral Lyster, who as captain of Glorious had created the plan) took aboard Eagle's five TSRs and launched the attack alone. The task force consisted of Illustrious, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and four destroyers. The twenty-four attack aircraft came from 813, 815, 819, and 824 Naval Air Squadrons; the small number of attackers raised concern that Judgement would only "put the wind up" the Italians without achieving significant results. Illustrious also had 806 Squadron embarked for air cover.
Half the TSRs were armed with torpedoes as strike aircraft, half with bombs and flares to act as a diversion. The torpedoes were fitted with Duplex magnetic/contact exploders (which were extremely sensitive to heavy seas, as attacks on Bismarck would later prove), and there were fears the torpedoes would bottom in the shallow harbor after launching. The loss rate was expected to be fifty percent.
Several reconnaissance flights by Martin Maryland bombers (of RAF No. 431 General Reconnaissance Flight) operating from Malta had confirmed the location of the Italian fleet. These flights produced photos on which Ilustrious' intelligence officer fortuitously detected unexpected barrage balloons, and the plan was changed accordingly. To make sure the Italians had not sortied, the British also sent in a Short Sunderland patrol flying boat on the night of November 11, just as the task force was forming up about 170 miles (315 kilometers) away from the harbour, off the Greek island of Cephalonia. This alerted the Italian forces, but without radar they could do little but wait.
The very complexity of Operation MB8, with its various forces and convoys, succeeded in deceiving the Italians into thinking only normal convoying was underway, thereby contributing to the success of Judgement.
The first wave of 12 Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers left the Illustrious just before 21:00, followed by a second wave of 9 aircraft about an hour and a half later. The first wave, which consisted of a mix of 6 bomb-armed and 6 torpedo-armed, split in two when 3 of the bombers and one torpedo carrier strayed from the main force while flying through thin cloud. The smaller group continued on to the target independently. The main group of planes approached the harbour at 22:58. A flare was dropped east of the harbour and the flare dropper and another aircraft made a dive bomb 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, with Williamson's machine being shot down by flak just after releasing its torpedo, which blasted a 27-ft hole in battleship Conte di Cavour. The two remaining aircraft in this sub-flight continued, dodging the balloon barrage and receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire, to press home an unsuccessful attack on the battleship Andrea Doria. The next sub-flight of 3 attacked from a more northerly direction, attacking the battleship Littorio, hitting it with two torpedoes and launching one torpedo at the flagship Vittorio Veneto which failed to hit its target. The bombing force led by Capt O. Patch RM now attacked; they found the targets difficult to identify but attacked two cruisers from 1,500 ft, followed by another aircraft which laid its bombs across four destroyers.
The second striking force of 9 aircraft was now approaching, 2 of the 4 bombing aircraft also carrying flares, the remaining 5 carrying torpedoes. One turned back with a problem with its auxiliary fuel tank, and one aircraft launched 20 minutes behind the others after requiring emergency repairs to damage from a minor taxiing accident. Flares were dropped shortly before midnight. Two aircraft aimed their torpedoes at Littorio, one of which hit home. One aircraft, despite having been struck twice by anti-aircraft fire, aimed a torpedo at Vittorio Veneto but the torpedo missed its target. One aircraft hit the battleship Caio Duilio with a torpedo making a large hole and flooding both forward magazines. The aircraft flown by Lt G. W. L. A. Bayly RN was shot down 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 bomb attack on a cruiser despite heavy anti aircraft fire, and made a safe get away returning to Illustrious at 02:39 in the morning.
Of the two aircraft lost, two crew were taken prisoner. The other two crew were lost.
The Italian fleet had suffered heavily, and the next day Regia Marina transferred its undamaged ships from Taranto to Naples to protect them from similar attacks. Repairs to Littorio took about five months and to Caio Duilio six, but Conte di Cavour required extensive salvage work and its repairs were incomplete when Italy left the war in 1943. The Italian battleship fleet lost half its strength in one night. The "fleet-in-being" diminished in importance and the Royal Navy increased its control of the Mediterranean.
Despite this serious setback, the Regia Marina had adequate resources to fight the Battle of Cape Spartivento (27 November 1940). However, the British decisively defeated the Italian fleet a few months later in the Battle of Cape Matapan (March 1941).
Air-launched torpedo experts in all modern navies had previously thought that torpedo attacks against ships required deep water, at least 30 m (100 ft). Taranto had a water depth of only 12 m (40 ft). However the Royal Navy used modified torpedoes dropped from a very low height.
By Frederic L. Borch, Daniel Martinez
Contributor Donald M. Goldstein
Published by Naval Institute Press, 2005, pp. 53-54.
By Robert Gannon
Published by Penn State Press, 1996, page 49.