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.”

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 sneak 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.

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.

Battle of Taranto: The Royal Navy’s Attack on the Italian Fleet on the Night of November 11/12, 1940