Alexandria, Egypt • November 11, 1940
Italian Army operations in North Africa, based in Libya, required a supply line from the Italian mainland. The British Army’s North African Campaign, based in Egypt, suffered from supply difficulties in the Mediterranean Theater due to the proximity of Italy’s Regia Marina naval base at Taranto on the Italian “heel.” Taranto was home port to six battleships, seven heavy and two light cruisers, and eight destroyers.
On this date in 1940 citizens in Great Britain received cheering news. The carrier HMS Illustrious based in Alexandria, Egypt, had launched the first all-aircraft, ship-to-ship naval attack in history, crippling Benito Mussolini’s fleet at Taranto for the loss of two aircraft, two killed, and two captured. Just two waves of obsolescent Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers had severely damaged or sunk half of Italy’s battleships in one night, shifting the balance of power in the Mediterranean Theater in favor of the Allies. Bad weather the following night prevented the Illustrious from launching another raid on the remaining ships in Taranto’s harbor, though the Regia Marina had begun hastily transferring its undamaged battleships, cruisers, and destroyers from Taranto to Naples to protect them from similar attacks.
The devastation inflicted by 21 British torpedo bombers on the Italian battle fleet was the beginning of the rise of naval aviation over the big guns of battleships, a lesson not lost on the Japanese, who flew an assistant naval attaché from Berlin to Taranto to investigate and report back on the attack firsthand. Among the people the naval attaché spoke with was Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the December 7, 1941, attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Three weeks later, on December 9, Britain’s desert forces, led by the one-eyed Gen. Archibald Wavell, launched Operation Compass (December 1940 to February 1941), a dramatic thrust into Italian-held Libya against much superior enemy forces. With the Italian Navy momentarily hobbled, distracted by salvage work, or holed up in ports further up the Italian boot, Wavell’s units achieved extraordinary success, driving hundreds of miles westward, and securing 130,000 Italian prisoners. For the British people, smarting from the nightly Blitz inflicted by Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe, the good news from Italy and North Africa brought some comfort to a grim Christmas season. If Britain’s political and military leaders were still at a loss how to win the war against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, it seemed enough to have avoided absolute defeat in 1940.
Operation Judgment, the British Strike Against the Italian Naval Base at Taranto, November 11–12, 1940
Left: At 10:40 p.m. on November 11, 1940, 12 British Swordfish aircraft operating from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious in the Ionian Sea some 170 miles off the Italian coast attacked the Regia Marina (Italian Navy) at Taranto in Southern Italy, hitting the battleships Conte di Cavour of World War I vintage and the recently completed Littorio, which sustained three aerial torpedo hits. A second wave of Swordfish sank the World War I battleship Caio Duilio, which also received three torpedo hits, causing extensive damage requiring five months of repairs. Two unexploded bombs hit the cruiser Trento and the destroyer Libeccio. Near misses damaged the destroyer Pessagno. Italy’s flagship battleship with it nine 15‑in cannons, the Vittorio Veneto commissioned six months earlier, was lucky to have escaped the single aerial torpedo meant for its destruction. The crippling air raid on the Italian naval port left 85 dead, including 55 civilians, and injured more than 581.
Right: Affectionately called “Stringbag” (a kind of British shopping bag), the Fairey Swordfish was a torpedo bomber biplane used by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm during World War II. By 1939 the slow (cruising speed of less than 100 mph), canvas-covered Swordfish was already outdated, yet it remained in front-line service for the duration of the war, outliving several types intended to replace it. Not only did the biplane achieve fame at Taranto in November 1940, but it famously crippled the German battleship Bismarck, which was scuttled in the North Atlantic on May 27, 1941, following incapacitating battle damage inflicted by ships of the Royal Navy.
Left: The semi-submerged battleship Conte di Cavour after the attack on Taranto. A single torpedo from a Swordfish tore a 27‑ft hole in the ship close to her bow and below the waterline, killing 17 crewmen. To avoid sinking in deep water, the ship was brought into shallow water, where she settled on the bottom. The Conte di Cavour was subsequently raised and was still undergoing repairs in Trieste when Italy switched sides following the September 8, 1943, armistice with the Allies, so she never returned to service.
Right: The battleship Caio Duilio undergoing repair work after the Taranto raid. The ship was hit around midnight on November 11, 1940, by a single torpedo. The explosion caused a 36‑ft hole in the forward magazine and killed three sailors. In the early hours of November 12, the ship was run aground in shallow waters. After undergoing further repairs in Genoa, the battleship was returned to service escorting convoys headed for Libya. After the September 1943 armistice, her crew surrendered her to the Allies on Malta.
The Royal Navy’s Attack on the Italian Fleet at Taranto on the Night of November 11/12, 1940