World War II: Battle of Taranto

Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish
Fairey Swordfish. Public Domain

The Battle of Taranto was fought on the night of November 11-12, 1940 and was part of the Mediterranean Campaign of World War II (1939-1945). In late 1940, the British became increasingly concerned about Italian naval strength in the Mediterranean. In an effort to tip the scale in their favor, the Royal Navy launched a daring aerial strike against the Italian anchorage at Taranto on the night of November 11-12. Consisting of 21 outdated torpedo-bombers, the raid inflicted significant damage on the Italian fleet and altered the balance of power in the Mediterranean.


In 1940, British forces began battling the Italians in North Africa. While the Italians were easily able to supply their troops, the logistical situation for the British proved more difficult as their ships had to traverse almost the entire Mediterranean. Early in the campaign, the British were able to control the sea lanes, however by mid-1940 the tables were beginning to turn with the Italians outnumbering them in every class of ship except aircraft carriers. Though they possessed superior strength, the Italian Regia Marina was unwilling to fight, preferring to follow a strategy of preserving a "fleet in being."

Concerned that Italian naval strength be reduced before the Germans could aid their ally, Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued orders that action be taken on the issue. Planning for this type of eventuality had begun as early as 1938, during the Munich Crisis, when Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, directed his staff to examine options for attacking the Italian base at Taranto. During this time, Captain Lumley Lyster of the carrier HMS Glorious proposed using its aircraft to mount a nighttime strike. Convinced by Lyster, Pound ordered training to commence, but the resolution of the crisis led to the operation being shelved. 

Portrait of Andrew B. Cunningham
Admiral of the Fleet Andrew B. Cunningham.  Public Domain

Upon departing the Mediterranean Fleet, Pound advised his replacement, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, of the proposed plan, then known as Operation Judgement. The plan was reactivated in September 1940, when its principal author, Lyster, now a rear admiral, joined Cunningham's fleet with the new carrier HMS Illustrious. Cunningham and Lyster refined the plan and planned to move forward with Operation Judgement on October 21, Trafalgar Day, with aircraft from HMS Illustrious and HMS Eagle.

The British Plan

The composition of the strike force was later changed following fire damage to Illustrious and action damage to Eagle. While Eagle was being repaired, it was decided to press on with the attack using only Illustrious. Several of Eagle's aircraft were transferred to augment Illustrious' air group and the carrier sailed on November 6. Commanding the task force, Lyster's squadron included Illustrious, the heavy cruisers HMS Berwick and HMS York, the light cruisers HMS Gloucester and HMS Glasgow, and the destroyers HMS Hyperion, HMS Ilex, HMS Hasty, and HMS Havelock


In the days before the attack, the Royal Air Force's No. 431 General Reconnaissance Flight conducted several reconnaissance flights from Malta to confirm the presence of the Italian fleet at Taranto. Photographs from these flights indicated changes to the base's defenses, such as the deployment of barrage balloons, and Lyster ordered the necessary alterations to the strike plan. The situation at Taranto was confirmed on the night of November 11, by an overflight by a Short Sunderland flying boat. Spotted by the Italians, this aircraft alerted their defenses, however as they lacked radar they were unaware of the impending attack.

At Taranto, the base was defended by 101 anti-aircraft guns and around 27 barrage balloons. Additional balloons had been placed but had been lost due to high winds on November 6. In the anchorage, the larger warships normally would have been protected by anti-torpedo nets but many had been removed in anticipation of a pending gunnery exercise. Those that were in place did not extend deep enough to fully protect against the British torpedoes.

Battle of Taranto

  • Conflict:  World War II (1939-1945)
  • Date: November 11-12, 1940
  • Fleets and Commanders:
  • Royal Navy
  • Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham
  • Rear Admiral Lumley Lyster
  • 21 torpedo bombers, 1 aircraft carrier, 2 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 4 destroyers
  • Regia Marina
  • Admiral Inigo Campioni
  • 6 battleships, 7 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 8 destroyers

Planes in the Night

Aboard Illustrious, 21 Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers began taking off on the night of November 11 as Lyster's task force moved through the Ionian Sea. Eleven of the planes were armed with torpedoes, while the remainder carried flares and bombs. The British plan called for the planes to attack in two waves. The first wave was assigned targets in both the outer and inner harbors of Taranto.

Led by Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Williamson, the first flight departed Illustrious around 9:00 PM on November 11. The second wave, directed by Lieutenant Commander J. W. Hale, took off approximately 90 minutes later. Approaching the harbor just before 11:00 PM, part of Williamson's flight dropped flares and bombed oil storage tanks while the remainder of the aircraft commenced their attack runs on the 6 battleships, 7 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 8 destroyers in the harbor.

Photo of aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious
HMS Illustrious (87). Public Domain

These saw the battleship Conte di Cavour hit with a torpedo that caused critical damage while the battleship Littorio also sustained two torpedo strikes. In the course of these attacks, Williamson's Swordfish was downed by fire from Conte di Cavour. The bomber section of Williamson's flight, led by Captain Oliver Patch, Royal Marines, attacked hitting two cruisers moored in the Mar Piccolo. 

Hale's flight of nine aircraft, four armed with bombers and five with torpedoes, approached Taranto from the north around midnight. Dropping flares, the Swordfish endured intense, but ineffective, antiaircraft fire as they began their runs. Two of Hale's crews attacked Littorio scoring one torpedo hit while another missed in an attempt on the battleship Vittorio Veneto. Another Swordfish succeeded in striking the battleship Caio Duilio with a torpedo, tearing a large hole in the bow and flooding its forward magazines. Their ordnance expended, the second flight cleared the harbor and returned to Illustrious.

Aerial photo of battleship Littorio being salvaged.
Battleship Littorio being salvaged after the attack on Taranto. Public Domain


In their wake, the 21 Swordfish left Conte di Cavour sunk and the battleships Littorio and Caio Duilio heavily damaged. The latter had been intentionally grounded to prevent its sinking. They also badly damaged a heavy cruiser. British losses were two Swordfish flown by Williamson and Lieutenant Gerald W.L.A. Bayly. While Williamson and his observer Lieutenant N.J. Scarlett were captured, Bayly and his observer, Lieutenant H.J. Slaughter were killed in action.

In one night, the Royal Navy succeeded in halving the Italian battleship fleet and gained a tremendous advantage in the Mediterranean. As a result of the strike, the Italians withdrew the bulk of their fleet farther north to Naples. The Taranto Raid changed many naval experts' thoughts regarding air-launched torpedo attacks.

Prior to Taranto, many believed that deep water (100 ft.) was needed to successfully drop torpedoes. To compensate for the shallow water of Taranto harbor (40 ft.), the British specially modified their torpedoes and dropped them from very low altitude. This solution, as well as other aspects of the raid, was heavily studied by the Japanese as they planned their attack on Pearl Harbor the following year.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of Taranto." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 29). World War II: Battle of Taranto. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of Taranto." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).