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 6 battle­ships, 7 heavy and 2 light cruisers, and 28 destroyers that bristled with more than 700 anti­aircraft guns. The naval base itself was well pro­tected by 13 large listening devices (no radar) that could detect air­craft from miles away, 21 bat­teries of 4-inch anti­aircraft guns, 84 auto­matic can­nons, more than 100 light machine guns, and 22 powe­rful search­lights to blind incoming pilots during night attacks. Adding pas­sive devices to harbor defenses were 87 bar­rage bal­loons and 2.6 miles of anti-torpedo nets deployed around some of the ships.

On this date, November 11, 1940, and the next 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, on Italy’s west coast, 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.

(Interestingly, a U.S. Navy observer, Lieu­tenant Com­mander John Opie III, was aboard the HMS Illus­trious to wit­ness the Taranto strike and report back what he learned. The Royal Navy, he reported on Novem­ber 14, 1940, now favored air-dropped torpe­does over high-level aerial bombing. From Opie and front-page news­paper head­lines senior U.S. naval com­man­ders were well aware of the Taranto strike and the danger a simi­lar strike posed to the Pearl Harbor naval base. Memos and reports advo­cating improve­ments to the island’s defenses lan­guished in bureau­cratic la-la land. Sadly, Opie’s request to visit Pearl Harbor and recount his “war experi­ences and how to train to meet the lessons learned” fell on deaf ears. Unlike the Japanese, senior U.S. Navy brass failed to make a Taranto-Pearl Harbor connection.)

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.

One-Hour Battle of Taranto (Operation Judgment), the British Strike Against the Italian Naval Base at Taranto, November 11–12, 1940

Battle of Taranto: Attack directions of British torpedo bombers, Taranto 1940Fairey Swordfish with torpedo

Left: At 10:40 p.m. on November 11, 1940, 12 British Sword­fish tor­pe­do bombers 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, the same num­ber of months it took to bring the Littorio back into ser­vice. 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. Addi­tion­ally, sub­stan­tial damage was inflicted on the main Ital­ian dock­yard, nearby oil-storage facil­ity, and sea­plane base. The crippling air drop of bombs and tor­pe­does on the Ital­ian naval port left 85 dead, including 55 civil­ians, and injured more than 581. A little over a year later, on Decem­ber 19, 1941, the Ital­ians revenged them­selves when frog­men riding mid­get sub­marines planted lim­pet mines that badly damaged two British battleships docked at Alexandria.

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.

Battle of Taranto: Semi-submerged Italian battleship Conte di Cavour after Taranto raidBattle of Taranto: Battleship Caio Duilio undergoing repairs after Taranto raid

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.

One-Hour Battle of Taranto (Operation Judgment), the British Strike Against the Italian Naval Base at Taranto, November 11/12, 1940