World War II: Battle of Taranto

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of Taranto." ThoughtCo, Sep. 17, 2016, thoughtco.com/battle-of-taranto-2361438. Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, September 17). World War II: Battle of Taranto. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-taranto-2361438 Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Battle of Taranto." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-taranto-2361438 (accessed October 21, 2017).
Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish
Fairey Swordfish. Public Domain

Battle of Taranto - Conflict:

The Battle of Taranto was fought the night of November 11/12, 1940 and was part of the Mediterranean Campaign of World War II (1939-1945).

Fleets & Commanders:

Royal Navy

Regia Marina

  • Admiral Inigo Campioni
  • 6 battleships, 7 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 8 destroyers

    Battle of Taranto - Background:

    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 Italians were 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 Royal Navy leaders first conceived an operation calling for an aerial attack on the Italian fleet base at Taranto.

    This plan was reactivated in September 1940, when its principal author, Rear Admiral Lumley Lyster, joined Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham's Mediterranean fleet with the new carrier HMS Illustrious.

    Battle of Taranto - The British Plan:

    Codenamed Operation Judgment, Cunningham and Lyster planned to attack Taranto on October 21, Trafalgar Day, with aircraft from HMS Illustrious and HMS Eagle.

    This 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. In the days before the attack, several reconnaissance flights from Malta confirmed that the Italian fleet was at Taranto.

    Battle of Taranto - Planes in the Night:

    This information 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. Aboard Illustrious, 21 Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers began taking off. 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. 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.

    Battle of Taranto - Aftermath:

    In their wake, the 21 Swordfish left Conte di Cavour sunk and the battleships Littorio and Caio Duilio heavily damaged. 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.