|Conflict:||Battle of Taranto|
|Partof:||the Mediterranean Theater of World War II|
|Date:||11–12 November 1940|
|Result:||Decisive British victory|
|Commander1:|| Andrew Cunningham|
|Strength1:||21 torpedo bombers|
1 aircraft carrier
2 heavy cruisers
2 light cruisers
9 heavy cruisers
7 light cruisers
2 aircraft shot down
1 battleship destroyed
2 battleships damaged
2 aircraft destroyed
The naval 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 utilizing aerial torpedoes despite the shallow depth of 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.
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 a number of 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 (five 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 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,, on Cunningham's strength, was ideal, possessing a very experienced air group composed entirely of 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 over-arching "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 60impgal auxiliary tanks replaced the usual third crewman to extend the operating range enough to reach Taranto.) This minor fire spread into a more serious fire that destroyed two Swordfish. Then Eagle suffered a breakdown in her fuel system, so she was eliminated.
When the brand-new carrier, based at Alexandria, became available in the Mediterranean, she took on board five Swordfish from Eagle, and would launch the strike alone.
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, two light cruisers, and four destroyers. The 24 attack Swordfish came from 813 Naval Air Squadron, 815 Naval Air Squadron, 819 Naval Air Squadron, and 824 Naval Air Squadron. The small number of attacking warplanes raised concern 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, and 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 170nmi 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 underway. This contributed to the success of Judgement.
The first wave of 12 A/C led by Lt.-Cdr. M. W. Williamson, 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 from a minor taxiing accident.
The first wave, which consisted of a mixture of six Swordfish armed with aerial torpedoes and six with aerial 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 and 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 with a torpedo that blasted a 27feet hole in her side below her waterline. Williamson's plane was immediately shot down by the anti-aircraft guns of the Italian battleship. 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 . The next sub-flight of three attacked from a more northerly direction, attacking the battleship, hitting it with two torpedoes and launching one torpedo at the flagship—the battleship —which failed to hit its target. The bomber force led by Capt O. Patch RN next attacked. They found the targets difficult to identify but attacked two cruisers from 1500feet followed by another aircraft which straddled four destroyers.
The second wave of 9 A/C led by Lt.-Cdr. J. W. Hale, 819 Sqn.was now approaching, two of the four bombers also carrying flares, the remaining five carrying torpedoes. Flares were dropped shortly before midnight. Two aircraft aimed their torpedoes at Littorio, one of which hit home. One aircraft, despite having been hit twice by anti-aircraft fire, aimed a torpedo at Vittorio Veneto but that torpedo missed its target. One aircraft hit the battleship with a torpedo blowing a large hole in her hull and flooding both of her forward magazines. The aircraft flown by Lt G. W. L. A. Bayly RN was shot down by antiaircraft fire from the heavy cruiser  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 getaway, 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 fliers died in their plane.
The Italian battleships received very heavy damage:
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, extremely powerful, having 101 guns and 193 machine-guns. There were also 87 balloons, but strong wind caused the loss of 60 of these. Additionally, only 4.2km of anti-torpedo nets were actually fielded around the ships, up to 10m (30feet) in depth, while the need was for 12.8km. Finally, there were also 13 aerophonic stations and 22 searchlights (ships had two searchlights each).
Later, Littorio was repaired with all available resources, while repairs to the older battleships proceeded at a much slower pace (seven months for Doria, never completed for Cavour). In all, the Swordfish attack was made with just 21 aircraft. Two Italian aircraft were destroyed by the bombing, and two unexploded ordnance hit cruiser Trento and destroyer Libeccio. Near misses damaged destroyer Pessagno.
In the meanwhile, X-Force cruisers attacked an Italian convoy. This force had three cruisers (, and) and two Tribal-class destroyers (and). 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, and the next day the 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 months; Conte di Cavour required extensive salvage work and her repairs were incomplete when Italy simultaneously surrendered in 1943 and declared war against Nazi Germany. 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, balance of power had swung to 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 up to two battlegroups, each built around one aircraft carrier and two battleships.
However, 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 Operation White, aircraft supply convoy to Malta. Follow-up to this operation led to fleet action at Battle of Cape Spartivento on 27 November 1940. Two out of three damaged battleships were repaired by mid-1941 and battle for control of the Mediterranean continued to swing back and forth until Italian armistice in 1943.
Aerial torpedo experts in all modern navies had previously thought that torpedo attacks against ships must be in deep waters, of at least 30m (100feet) deep. The Taranto harbour had a water depth of only about 12m (39feet). However, the Royal Navy 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 the torpedo 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 wooden fins to break the dive of the torpedo, and it is likely that the Japanese took this idea from the British. The Imperial Japanese Navy's planning staff carefully studied the Taranto attack when planning their aerial torpedo attack on Attack on Pearl Harbor over a year later. The air attack on Pearl Harbor was a considerably larger operation than Taranto, with six fleet carriers, each one carrying an air wing that was more than double the number of planes that a British carrier had.