Posts Tagged ‘Battle of Taranto’

The Battle of Taranto is one of the Second World War’s more obscure engagements.  Maybe that’s because it happened at night, or because it lasted only a few hours.  But as we’ll soon see, it was very important for a couple of reasons.

Taranto itself might be familiar to readers of Today’s History Lesson, who may recognize the harbor and city as one of the landing areas for Allied troops commencing the invasion of Italy in 1943.  But this was 1940, and Operation Husky was too far into the future to even be a gleam in the General’s eye.

In November of 1940, France had fallen and Britain stood alone in Western Europe as the only country unconquered and unoccupied by Nazi Germany.  But more than just standing on her own, Britain’s holdings in the Mediterranean were threatened as well.  Axis advances were threatening Crete, Malta was already under heavy attack, and Hitler had his eye on the key chokepoint at Gibraltar.

The Germans didn’t have a large naval presence in the Mediterranean, but the Italians did.  British operations in North Africa were supplied through Egypt, and a strong naval presence at Taranto meant Axis forces were in a good position to cut British supply lines.  A way was needed a way to level the playing field a bit.

The British had been considering action against Taranto for years, but planning stepped up after the fall of France.  A two-carrier operation was formulated using carrier aircraft from the HMS Eagle and HMS Illustrious.  An attack in the latter part of October was scratched when the Illustrious suffered a small but potent fire and the Eagle was diagnosed with serious fueling problem.  In the end, aircraft from the Eagle were shuttled to the Illustrious and Operation Judgement became a one-carrier mission.

At 10:00pm on the night of November 11, 1940, two dozen Swordfish aircraft left the decks, many armed with torpedoes and some with bombs.  The Swordfish itself was a World-War-I-style biplane (shown above) that couldn’t even reach 140mph, but on this night, it didn’t need to.  Just before 11:00pm, they made their first pass over Taranto for target acquisition.  Fifteen minutes later, the attack began.

And these outdated biplanes did far more damage than their diminutive sizes would have suggested.  The battleship Conte di Cavour was hit, as was the battleship Littorio (twice).  The next wave succeeded in hitting the Littorio again and putting a large torpedo-sized hole in the battleship Caio Duilio.  Italy’s power had been seriously damaged, and its battleship force had been cut in half.  The British lost a couple of Swordfish.

Naval convention said that torpedo launches had to be made in water that was at least 100 feet deep.  The waters around Taranto were only 40 feet deep and the British dropped their torpedoes at a very low altitude and pioneered a dramatic change in torpedo tactics.

The Swordfish would go on to achieve greater fame six months later, when they would again put holes in a battleship…this time the legendary Bismarck.

The Battle of Taranto would also go on to achieve greater fame, thirteen months later, when the Japanese studied the British attack and used many of the same tactics…this time at legendary Pearl Harbor.


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