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Taranto 1940

HMS Illustrious shortly after completion, July 1940
Swordfish Aircraft

'Taranto, and the night of November 11th and 12th, 1940, should be remembered for ever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon.' Admiral Andrew Cunningham

The Fleet Air Arm's attack on Taranto ranks as one of the most daring episodes in the Second World War. It transformed the naval situation in the Mediterranean and was carefully studied by the Japanese before their carrier-borne strike on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour in December 1941.

In mid 1940 the balance of power was tilting against Admiral Cunningham's Mediterranean Fleet. The Italians had no fewer than six battleships and outnumbered Cunningham in every class of ship except aircraft carriers, although they proved unwilling to operate very offensively. Both factors pointed to an air attack on the Italians in Taranto, their main fleet base on the south coast of Italy. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was anxious that Italian strength be reduced before German forces arrived to bolster their ally.

The British had drawn up plans to carry out such an operation if war had broken out during the Munich Crisis of 1938. These were reactivated when the author, Rear Admiral Lumley Lyster, arrived in September 1940 aboard the new fleet carrier Illustrious to reinforce Cunningham's existing carrier, Eagle. Originally it was intended to strike with both carriers on 21 October, Trafalgar Day, but plans had to be changed because of fire damage to Illustrious and action damage to Eagle. Some of the latter's aircraft from 813 and 824 Squadrons were transferred to Illustrious to reinforce her complement of 815 and 819 Squadrons. Twenty-four Swordfish torpedo bombers were available instead of the planned thirty-six.

On 6 November 1940 HMS Illustrious sailed for Operation 'Judgement', to be undertaken on the night of 11-12 November. Accidental losses reduced the actual strike to twenty-one Swordfish, a first wave of twelve but only nine in the second. Eleven aircraft were armed with torpedoes, the remainder carrying flares and bombs. Reconnaissance flights by R.A.F. Glenn Martin aircraft operating from Malta confirmed the presence of the whole Italian fleet.

The Italians possessed no radar, but a patrolling R.A.F Sunderland flying-boat had alerted their defences before the Swordfish in the first wave arrived at 2258 hours. The leader, Lieutenant-Commander K. Williamson, recalled the terrific if largely ineffective anti-aircraft fire:

'There suddenly appeared ahead the most magnificent firework display I had ever seen. The whole area was full of red and blue bullets. They appeared to approach very slowly until they were just short of the aircraft, then suddenly accelerated and whistled past.'

The aircraft may have been few in number, but their crews were highly experienced and the result was catastrophic for the Italians. Five torpedoes struck three battleships, Vittorio Veneto, Caio Duilio and Conte di Cavour. The first two were recommissioned by mid-May 1941, but Cavour was never repaired. The attack immediately halved the strength of the Italian battlefleet and the surviving ships took refuge in Naples, further away from the area of operations.

The Italian fleet had been neutralised, for the loss of two aircraft, a remarkable victory for such a small force. Understandably, the Fleet Air Arm celebrate their victory on 'Taranto Night' to this day. When the Italians seemed to have recovered from this hammer blow in the spring of 1941, the Royal Navy won another decisive victory at the Battle of Cape Matapan.

Further reading:

  • Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, A Sailor's Odyssey (London: 1954).
  • David Brown, "Lyster: Taranto,1940" in E.J. Grove (Ed.) Great Battles of the Royal Navy (London, 1994).
  • John Wellham, With Naval Wings (Staplehurst, Kent: 1995).