London, England · 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.” 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. 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.

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British Strike Italian Naval Base at Taranto, November 11–12, 1940

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

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 and the recently com­pleted Littorio, which sus­tained three torpedo hits. A second wave of Sword­fish sank the 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. 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.

Semi-submerged Italian battleship Conte di Cavour after Taranto raidBattleship 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, 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.

Operation Judgment: The Royal Navy’s Attack on the Italian Fleet at Taranto on the Night of November 11–12, 1940