Battle of Taranto

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On the night of 11-12 November 1940, the Royal Navy launched a carrier-based night attack, Operation Judgement, better known as the Battle of Taranto, the main fleet base of the Italian Navy. With the Italian fleet growing stronger than the British Mediterranean Fleet under Admiral Andrew Cunningham, Cunningham and Winston Churchill urgently wanted to reduce Italian capabilities before the Germans could reinforce them.

Cunningham had said, "If they won't come out of Taranto we shall blast then out.[1]


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 HMS Illustrious (1940), to reinforce Cunningham's existing carrier, HMS Eagle (1924). It was first intended to attack, withn both carriers on 21 October, anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, but the ships were not ready. Some of Eagle's aircraft from 813 and 824 Squadrons were transferred to Illustrious to reinforce her complement of 815 and 819 Squadrons. Twenty-four Fairey Swordfish]] torpedo bombers were available instead of the planned thirty-six.[2]

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.[2]


The Italians had 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.[2]


For the loss of two British aircraft, five torpedoes hit three battleships, Littorio Veneto, Caio Duilio and Conte di Cavour. Italian battle strength immediately was halved, and the survivors retreated to Naples. Cavour was never repaired.

On the 13th, Churchill told the House of Commons,

I have some news for the House". "It is good news. The Royal Navy has struck a crippling blow on the Italian Fleet. "The reports of our airmen have been confirmed by photographic reconnaissance. It is now established that one battleship of the Littorio class is so badly down by the bows that her forecastle is under water, and she has a heavy list to starboard. One battleship of the Cavour class has been beached, and her stern, up to and including the after turret, is under water. This ship is also heavily listed to starboard. It has not yet been possible to establish the fact with certainly, but it appears probable that a second battleship of the Cavour class has also been severely damaged and beached. In the inner harbour of Taranto two Italian cruisers are listed to starboard and are surrounded by oil fuel, and two Fleet auxiliaries are lying with their sterns under water."[1]

Less desirable for the Allies, the Imperial Japanese Navy studied the attack in great detailed, and concluded, correctly, that air-dropped torpedoes would work in the shallow water of Pearl Harbor.