On the night of 11/12 November 1940, the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy launched an audacious attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto harbour. It was a dangerous mission conducted with sheer determination and raw courage, and an early example of how the primacy of the battleship at sea had come to an end. Air power was, in the words of Admiral Andrew Cunningham, now the ‘most devastating weapon’ in the hands of the navy. It was also an action that was closely examined by the Japanese, who would later carry out a similar but far larger operation a little over a year later at Pearl Harbor.
As war approached, the British began to develop plans to maintain its naval supremacy in the Mediterranean in response to a potential challenge from another power. The Regia Marina, Italy’s navy, was considered such a threat and the Royal Navy needed to be ready to counter it. As such, early plans for an attack on Taranto harbour, a major naval base in southern Italy, were formed even before the outbreak of war in 1939.
Following the commencement of hostilities, British forces in North Africa relied heavily on precarious supply routes that either stretched across the Mediterranean or entailed a long and painfully slow voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. With Italy entering the war on Germany’s side in June 1940, British supply convoys sailing across the Mediterranean were vulnerable to deadly attacks from both the Regia Marina and the Regia Aeronautica.
The British were particularly concerned about the powerful Italian fleet based at Taranto, which boasted six battleships, seven heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eight destroyers. Yet despite their potential destructive power, the Italians kept their ships in harbour, preferring the concept of the ‘fleet in being’ – the threat of their existence towards an adversary, rather than any actual confrontation – through fear of losing them to the guns of the Royal Navy. While this concept worked to a degree, due to its influence on British naval planning and deployment in the Mediterranean, it would ultimately prove damaging for the Regia Marina.
In 1938, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the British commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, re-examined the plans to attack Taranto. Captain Lumley Lyster, the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, suggested that his Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers could mount a nighttime raid on the harbour. Pound agreed with the idea and instructed the necessary training to commence, although it was to be kept an absolute secret. Pound would leave his post just weeks before the Second World War began, but he impressed upon his replacement, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, of the importance of the plans.
The attack on Taranto would be codenamed Operation Judgement, and following Italy’s involvement in the war the date of 21 October 1940, Trafalgar Day, was set for the attack. It was to consist of thirty-six aircraft being launched from the aging aircraft carrier HMS Eagle and the recently commissioned HMS Illustrious. Unfortunately, a fire onboard the Eagle resulted in the operation being delayed, and Illustrious would have to later launch the aircraft on her own.
Illustrious was joined by the heavy cruisers HMS Berwick and York, as well as two light cruisers and four destroyers as escort, all under the command of Lyster, who was by now a rear-admiral. A total of twenty-four obsolete Swordfish bi-planes were readied for the attack, while Fairey Fulmar fighters were also made available to act as air cover. Half of the Swordfish aircraft were fitted with torpedoes for attacking the Italian ships in their harbour, while the other half were armed with bombs or flares. In order to achieve surprise, the aircraft were to take off some distance from their targets, and so all were fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks.
In support of Operation Judgement, the Royal Air Force conducted several reconnaissance flights from Malta to ascertain the exact location of the Italian fleet. While the ships were seen to be still in the harbour, the flights revealed that the Italians had deployed barrage balloons to protect the ships from air attack, which necessitated last minute changes to the plan of attack. However, everything was now set, the attack on Taranto was merely hours away!
The last reconnaissance flight, made on the night of the attack, was spotted by the Italians, yet they failed to act and their fleet remained at Taranto. It is likely they believed this air activity was in support of just another Allied convoy, but in reality the Italians were simply unprepared for what was to come. The available anti-torpedo nets had not been fully installed to protect the battleships, and those that were installed failed to extend all the way down to the seabed. In addition, many of the barrage balloons had been blow away by strong winds almost a week earlier and rather incredibly had not been replaced.
Thank you to Mark for speaking with us about the planning and preparations by the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Navy for their audacious attack on the Italian Navy in Taranto Harbour. Part Two will be looking at the raid itself and seeing how the Battle of Taranto unfolded as well as its aftermath. This will be out shortly, but until then…
Why not enjoy reading other WW2 Nation articles written by Mark Simner, that focus on a few remarkable episodes of British espionage in WWII:
Photo Credits: Italian cruiser Raimondo Montecuccoli | Macchi C.202 | Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham | HMS Illustrious | A Fairey Swordfish Mk I Naval torpedo aircraft | Aerial-reconnaissance Photo Taranto Harbour |