A little before 21:00 hours on 11 November, Lieutenant-Commander Kenneth ‘Hooch’ Williamson, commanding officer of 815 Squadron, took off from the Illustrious, leading the first wave of twelve Swordfish aircraft. Six of these aircraft were armed with torpedoes, while four carried 250lb bombs and two had flares to illuminate the harbour for the attack. About an hour and a half later, a second wave of Swordfish, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander John Hale of 819 Squadron, also took off. Unfortunately, two of Hale’s aircraft collided on deck and another was forced to turn back after its auxiliary fuel tank dropped off during flight. As such, the second wave would be down to only eight aircraft.
While en route to Taranto, three of Williamson’s aircraft became separated from the others due to cloud coverage. Nevertheless, all of the aircraft pushed on towards their target, now in two groups of nine and three. Reaching the harbour at 22:58 hours, the main group of nine dropped a total of sixteen flares east of Mar Grande, after which two of the aircraft commenced a dive-bombing attack on some oil tanks. Williamson then led three of his Swordfish in an attack over the island of San Pietro, hitting the battleship Conte di Cavour with a torpedo, resulting in a gaping hole below her waterline. However, during the attempt Williamson was shot down by anti-aircraft fire.
Two more Swordfish of the first wave attacked the battleship Andrea Doria, but despite the courage of their crews in flying through heavy anti-aircraft fire their efforts were to be in vain. Elsewhere, three Swordfish hit the battleship Littorio with two torpedoes, while a third missed the battleship Vittorio Veneto. Captain Oliver Patch of the Royal Marines, who was leading the remaining Swordfish of the first wave, attacked two cruisers at Mar Piccolo, striking both with 250lb bombs.
Lieutenant Michael Maund, who was piloting one of the attacking Swordfish, recalled his experiences over Taranto:
“We are now at 1,000 feet over a neat residential quarter of the town where gardens in darkened squares show at the back of houses marshalled by the neat plan of the streets that serve them. Here is the main road that connects the district with the main town. We follow its line and, as I open the throttle to elongate the glide, a Breda AA gun swings round from the shore, turning its stream of red balls in our direction.
“This is the beginning. Then another two guns farther north get our scent — white balls this time — so we throttle back again and make for a black mass on the shore that looks like a factory, where no balloons are likely to grow We must be at a hundred feet now and must soon make our dash across that bloody water…
“I open the throttle wide and head for the mouth of the Mar Piccolo, whose position … can be judged by the lie of the land. Then it is as if all hell comes tumbling in on top of us … the fire of one of the cruisers and the Mar Piccolo Canal batteries…
“We turn until the right hand battleship is between the bars of the torpedo sight, dropping down as we do so. The water is close beneath our wheels, so close I am wondering which is to happen first — the torpedo going or our hitting the sea — then we level out, and almost without thought the button is pressed and a jerk tells me the ‘fish’ is gone.”
With the first wave concluding its attacks, the second wave, led by Hale, approached the Mar Grande from a more northerly route. Five of these aircraft were armed with torpedoes, while the remaining three had flares, the latter of which were dropped just before midnight.
Two of Hale’s Swordfish lined themselves up and commenced an attack on the Littorio, the battleship suffering a second torpedo strike. Lieutenant Gerald Bayly, who piloted the aircraft that hit the battleship, was shot down by the anti-aircraft guns of the cruiser Gorizia. Another torpedo was launched at the Vittorio Veneto but it missed, while another successfully hit the battleship Caio Duilio, creating a gaping hole in the side of her hull. The remaining aircraft of the second wave arrived fifteen minutes later, but their dive-bombing attack on a cruiser was unsuccessful. The raid now came to an end and the surviving Swordfish made their way safely back to Illustrious.
In the wake of the attack on Taranto, Winston Churchill exulted: “By this single stroke the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean was decisively altered.” An equally pleased Cunningham also wrote: “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.”
Considering the difficulty of the task ahead of them, the British lost only two Swordfish aircraft shot down. Of the crews, two – Lieutenant Bayly and his observer, Lieutenant Henry Slaughter – were killed and two were taken prisoner. The Italians, however, suffered much worse, including fifty-nine killed and around 600 wounded. The battleships Conti di Cavour, Caio Duilio and Littorio were heavily damaged, the latter two only saved by being ran aground while the former partially sank, although she was later raised. A heavy cruiser and two destroyers were also slightly damaged. Two further Italian ships had been hit but the bombs had failed to explode, and two aircraft were destroyed on the ground. On shore, a number of installations were also hit.
Three of Italy’s six capital ships at Taranto were out of action, and in an attempt to avoid further attacks the unharmed warships in the harbour were ordered to sail for Naples the next day. The Italians quickly set to making repairs at Taranto, and installed additional torpedo nets. It would take up to six months to complete repairs to the Caio Duilio and Littorio, while the Conti di Cavour never returned to service. Considering the attacking force was so small, the British attack on Taranto had been a remarkable success.
However, despite the success of Operation Judgement, Italian naval power in the Mediterranean had not been eliminated or frightened into staying in port. On 17 November, Admiral Inigo Campioni led an Italian fleet of two battleships, six cruisers and sixteen destroyers to disrupt Operation White, a British attempt to deliver badly needed Hawker Hurricane fighters to Malta. The Italians would also mount a raid on Alexandria on 19 December 1941, disabling two British battleships and damaging a destroyer.
Nevertheless, despite its limited effects the raid on Taranto proved that torpedo attacks against ships in shallow water could be done. Previously, it was believed that unless the depth of the water the target ships were in was a minimum of 75 feet such an attack was impossible. Yet at Taranto the British torpedoes had found their mark in water less than 40 feet deep. The British had achieved this by developing a method of preventing the torpedoes from diving too deeply following their release from their aircraft. This they did by installing a wire drum under the nose of the aircraft, the wire being attached to the nose of the torpedo. As the torpedo dropped the wire tensed and pulled the nose of the torpedo upwards, making it land flat on the water rather than nosedive down into it.
Following the attack on Taranto, the Japanese assistant naval attaché to Berlin, Lieutenant-Commander Takeshi Naito, flew to the site of the attack to see it for himself. Later, Naito is said to have held talks with Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who would lead the first wave of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It is also known that other officers from the Japanese navy would visit Taranto, where they also held talks with their Italian counterparts.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that, despite Japanese interest in the British attack on Taranto, they employed a different method of making their torpedoes work in shallow water at Pearl Harbor. Instead of a wire, the Japanese employed wooden fins and a breakaway wooden nosecone on their Type 91 torpedoes, a method they had begun work on before the Second World War had begun.
It remains, therefore, a matter of debate as to how much, if indeed at all, the British attack on Taranto influenced Japanese thinking in their attack on Pearl Harbor a year later. Either way, both attacks showed that naval air power, and not the guns of mighty battleships, was now the greatest asset that any naval force could possess.
A big thank you to Mark for kindly speaking with us about the raid by the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Navy in this audacious attack on the Italian Navy in Taranto Harbour as well as its aftermath.
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: HMS Ark Royal with a Flight of Fairey Swordfish | Conte di Cavour | Fairey Swordfish Formation Flying | Fairey Swordfish Mark II | Sir Winston Churchill | Aerial Photo of Aftermath of Taranto Raid | Italian battleship Giulio Cesare | Mitsubishi A6M2 “Zero” fighter | USS Arizona Pearl Harbour |