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Operation Judgement – The Attack on Taranto
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With the establishment of Mussolini’s dictatorship in 1925 it became apparent to the British Empire that Italy had the potential to become an adversary in the foreseeable future. Both Italy and Great Britain had interests and presence in North Africa; even before the outbreak of the Second World War it was evident to a few farsighted individuals that the two nations would need to use the Mediterranean Sea to resupply their forces in North Africa. To compound this, the Mediterranean was the gateway to Egypt and the Suez Canal, which in turn led to India and the Far East.

Whilst the Royal Navy had a clear numerical advantage over the Italian Fleet, it was also spread across a far greater area, making the Italian Regia Marina more of a threat in the Mediterranean where it enjoyed a local advantage in strength. As early as 1935 the key Italian port of Taranto was marked out as a target. By the summer of 1940 Britain and Italy had already clashed at sea, on land and in the air. The Italian involvement in the Battle of Britain had been nothing short of a disaster, Italy’s first offensive in the deserts of North Africa amounted to very little and after the battleship Giulio Cesare sustained a single hit from HMS Warspite, the Italian fleet had made no further serious attempts to engage in open battle. However, Italy’s supply route to North Africa was considerably easier than Britain’s respective route to their forces in Egypt. Following the early losses of HMS Courageous and Glorious, there were also concerns within the British Admiralty of the vulnerability of their carriers to axis forces. As a result, the decision was taken to make every endeavor to achieve naval superiority in the Mediterranean, and the plans for an attack on Taranto were re-visited.

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, C-In-C of the Mediterranean Fleet, had at his disposal the carrier HMS Eagle with the experienced 813 and 824 Naval Air Squadrons, and also the new carrier HMS Illustrious with 815 and 819 Naval Air Squadrons. Cunningham ordered the attack on Taranto to take place on the night of 21st October – the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar – however, a fire onboard Illustrious forced a delay in the proceedings. Whilst the damage was repaired quickly, the window of opportunity had been lost and it would not be until 11th November that another suitable night of moonlight was expected. Further delays were anticipated after Eagle was damaged by a near bomb miss, resulting in impairments to her aviation fuel system. Another delay was not an option, so the strike was ordered to go ahead regardless, even though the strike force was now reduced from 36 Fairey Swordfish to 24. Also, the more experienced crews made up 813 and 824 NAS aboard Eagle – their crews had already sank seven Italian vessels since arriving in theatre – now, only five of the 813 and 824 crews would be transferring to Illustrious to join the attack.

Illustrious was employed on convoy protection duties to and from Malta in the five days leading up to the attack; her embarked fighters effectively dealt with any Italian aircraft which attempted to approach the carrier, but further setbacks were experienced when contaminated fuel led to the loss of three more Swordfish, reducing the strike force down to 21 aircraft. Regardless, at 1800 on November 11th Illustrious headed for the launch position together with four escorting destroyers, 170 miles south of Taranto. Each crew’s Telegraphist Air Gunner was replaced as an extra fuel tank in the observer’s cockpit, forcing the observer to occupy the TAG’s rear cockpit. Now crewed by only a pilot and observer, the Royal Naval aviators briefed and prepared as the force moved into position.

The first wave of twelve Swordfish launched just before 2100 and, after a night transit of nearly two hours requiring commendable navigational skills, arrived in the target area. The defenses of Taranto were already alerted after a Sunderland of RAF Coastal Command had strayed too close to Taranto. Having become separated in cloud, eight aircraft arrived just before 2300 to begin the attack. Two Swordfish were detailed to illuminate the south east of the outer anchorage with flares before then diving down to bomb the harbour’s oil storage facilities, although the flares from only one aircraft were sufficient to light up the entire target area. Lieutenant Commander Williamson, CO of 815 NAS, then led three of the Swordfish in a torpedo run which succeeded in striking the battleship Conte de Cavour; Williamson’s aircraft was, however, shot down by AA although both he and his observer survived and were taken prisoner.

Within moments a second Sub-Flight of three Swordfish attacked from the north, successfully hitting the battleship Littorio with two torpedoes. The torpedoes were launched from less than half a mile away before the Swordfish were each dragged around into tight turns at wave top height to egress the target area as quickly as possible. The remaining four aircraft which had become separated en route had now caught up; each armed with six 250 lb bombs, the four Swordfish under the command of Royal Marine Captain Patch now dive bombed warships in the inner harbor and Taranto’s seaplane base before departing the target area at approximately 2335.

The second wave - under the command of Lieutenant Commander Hale of 819 NAS - had started badly when one aircraft was delayed in launching after a taxiing accident on deck, and a second Swordfish had to abandon the strike and return to Illustrious after its auxiliary fuel tank had detached. The eight Swordfish arrived at Taranto some twenty minutes after the first wave had departed; the cloud which had hampered the first wave was now beginning to clear and the fires from the first strike were visible from 60 miles away. The skies were still lit up by the fierce barrage of AA fire from warships and coastal emplacements. The second wave repeated the same initial steps by lighting the target area with flares from two Swordfish which then went on to bomb Taranto’s fuel depots. A torpedo strike from the north west succeeded in scoring two further hits on the Littorio and one on the Caio Duilio. One Swordfish of the second wave was shot down whilst attacking the heavy cruiser Gorizia, with both pilot and observer being killed. The second wave’s bombers also carried out accurate attacks on ships moored in the Mar Piccolo anchorage. The second strike was over in only ten minutes, although Italian AA guns continued to fire for a further 45 minutes. By 0250 all 18 surviving Swordfish had successfully recovered to Illustrious.

The damage inflicted by the 20 Royal Navy biplanes was catastrophic. After severe flooding the Caio Duilio was beached, shortly followed by the Conte de Cavour and the Littorio. Three battleships had been flooded and abandoned with the loss of 52 men. Fuel and oil depots on the shore were also damaged, as was the seaplane base along with the loss of two aircraft. Superficial damage was also caused to several other smaller warships by the dive bombing. It would take the better part of half a year to repair the damage to the battleships Littorio and Caio Duilio whilst repairs to the Conte de Cavour were never completed. Not only had the Italian fleet lost half of its capital ships in one attack, it also moved its surviving three battleships to Naples for better protection, which placed them out of range of being able to quickly contribute to operations in the Mediterranean.

Expecting severe losses, the Swordfish crews returned to a heroes’ welcome back onboard Illustrious, reputedly followed by three rounds of whiskey and soda in the ship’s Wardroom. Admiral Cunningham, upon hearing of the success of the raid, sent the message “Illustrious maneuver well executed.” A second strike, enthusiastically supported by the Swordfish crews, was planned for the next night but this was cancelled due to poor weather. Much later, when the list of awards to crews were posted on the ship’s notice boards, angry sailors tore them down in protest after the expected Victoria Crosses for Williamson and Hale were not awarded. A small number of DSOs and DSCs were awarded in December, although more medals would follow in a second round of decorations in May 1941.

The attack on Taranto is now regarded as a pioneering strike which proved the effectiveness and versatility of carrier air power. Taranto was the inspiration and formed the basis of the planning for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is still celebrated every year by squadrons of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. It would be Admiral Cunningham who would best sum up the effectiveness of the daring attack:

“Taranto, and the night of November 11–12th 1940, should be remembered forever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon.”


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