Battle: Taranto Raid – Italian Pearl Harbor


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is well-known, But is was preceded and influenced by an attack of the British naval arm against the Italian fleet anchored in the harbor of Taronto in November 1940, more than one year before Pearl Harbor. The Japanese studied the attack thoroughly, and now it is our time to take a closer look. Taranto was a major Italian port, and it is located at the southern part of Italy, about 515 km (320 mi) from Malta, which was an important British base in World War 2, through its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean, between Italy and North Africa. The British already had plans for an attack on Taranto developed in 1935 and 1938. These were updated again in 1940 after extensive training and testing. Additionally, the British had gained valuable experience by attacking the french battleship Richelieu in harbor with torpedo bombers a few months earlier, and adapted the measures to increase the effectiveness of its operations. During the attack, the British used the swordfish, a carrier-borne biplane bomber, which was a plane with limited performance when it came to speed, but it was one of the few that could perform a night attack, thus ideally suited for a surprise attack. In order to achieve a surprise attack and provide sufficient illumination for the attack, the strike would position itself during a moonlit night in a manner that the planes could be launched, and retrieved under the cover of darkness. Yet there were various problems. The original attack was planned for the 21st of October, which was the anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, but due to technical problems, it had to be postponed. Since the attack also required the proper moon setting, for illumination, it was instead scheduled for 11th of November 1940. Originally two carriers, the HMS Illustrious, and the HMS Eagle should be part of the strike, but the latter had technical problems, hence, the final strike force consisted of one carrier, two cruisers, two light cruisers and four destroyers. The force approached the launch point during the night, which was located about 64 km (40 mi) west of Kabbo point, on the Greek island of Kefalonia. Thus the strike force was about 274 km (170 mi) south-east of Taranto. Meanwhile, in the Italian harbor in Taranto lay six battleships, seven cruisers, two light cruisers, and at least eight destroyers, and various auxiliary vessels. Note that the numbers on the Italian ships differ a bit from source to source. But these ships should be protected by 90 barrage balloons, but due to a shortage of hydrogen, only twenty-seven were properly deployed. Although torpedo nets were deployed in the harbor, the quantity and quality was limited, only about one third of the required length was available, in terms of quality the nets were not deep enough for the British torpedoes. Once the British fleet was in position, the attack was launched. At around 20:40, the first wave of twelve swordfish was airborne an heading for Taranto. About an hour later, the second wave of nine swordfish had launched successfully. Once the first wave arrived, four swordfish were used as dive bombers to attack the inner harbor in the north, in order to distract the searchlights from blinding the torpedo bombers while another two aircraft approached the harbor from the South-East to drop flares in the Eastern part, thus illuminating the ships in the harbor. Then the remaining six torpedo bombers attacked the battleships, one torpedo struck the Conte di Cavour, and one the Littorio. The British lost one plane of the first wave, the second wave attacked around an hour later with a similar tactic, This time eight bombers attacked the ships. One torpedo struck the Caio Duilio, and two more hit the Littorio, which already suffered a hit from the first wave. Again, the British only lost one plane in the attack. Additionally the drop bombs hit the cruiser Trento, a destroyer, auxiliaries, the sea-plane base and dockyards, yet many bombs failed to explode. Besides the two planes lost in the attack, all swordfish could return to the carrier strike force. Although the original plan intended to repeat the attack the following night, due to reports of bad weather, the attack was cancelled and the strike fleet returned undetected. Despite the rather small number of twenty-one aircraft, and minor losses, the British inflicted severe damage to the Italian fleet, four battleships were damaged. One lightly, and three so badly that they couldn’t leave Taranto. Unlike the orders that were transferred to Naples the following day. In the long run, two battleships needed longer repairs until they could be made operational again. One in March, and one in May 1941. But one was completely out of action until the armistice. Although the attack shocked the Italian navy, the effect was not as devastating as some authors claim. Just a few days later, the Italian navy launched an operation including their remaining battleships to interrupt successfully a supply mission with aircraft headed for Malta. There seems to be no real consensus how much the attack affected the Regia Marina. Where some authors claim the Italians became more timid after the raid, others state that not much changed, and that the Italians just didn’t risk ships unless they had a tactical advantage. German military historians see this a bit different, considering the previous lacklustre performance of the Italian navy against the Royal navy, the threat of the Italian navy was limited anyway, thus the attack just shifted the balance of power more in favour of the British. Although, since the Germans shortly afterward turned their attention to the Mediterranean, one could argue that the Italians might have engaged more often, considering that with more ships, and the German X. Fliegerkorps, the number of favourable tactical situations could have increased. Yet, another aspect should not be forgotten. As often with the Axis in World War II, The fuel situation limited the capabilities of existing forces considerably. After all, the Italian navy entered the war with oil reserves from just nine months, and thus were completely dependent of German resources. In short, the raid on Taranto was clearly a tactical success, on the operational and strategic level its effects were limited, but I won’t go so far as calling it a failure, contrary to a recent article that made many good points, but contains various arguments that didn’t convince me completely. As always, all sources are linked in the description, in this case, the aforementioned article is available as a free PDF, Also, special thanks to Justin for providing feedback in regards to my thoughts in the article. If you liked this video, you might also want to check out my video on Pearl Harbor, or submarine warfare in World War I and World War II. Thank you for watching, and see you next time.

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