The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Colin Harris

The paper commenced with a brief description of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, described as "a day which will live in infamy." 353 modern aircraft flying from a fleet of 6 carriers had carried out the mission which caused serious losses to the American Fleet.

It went on to briefly mention the fact that just over a year earlier on 11 November 1940, a mere 20 obsolete "Stringbags," Fairey Swordfish bi-planes of the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy had done enormous damage to the "Regia Mare," the Imperial Italian Navy in the heavily defended naval base of Taranto in southern Italy. November 1940: Great Britain had her back to the wall. The 2nd World War had been in progress for 14 months and for the past 5 of these she had been fighting against an Axis of Germany and Italy. Because of Britain's Imperial commitments her forces, particularly the Royal Navy, were widely dispersed world-wide. The cut-backs after the Treaty of Versailles allied to the years of Depression in the 30's had resulted in what was really an out-dated defence establishment. By November 1940 it had become apparent that something drastic needed to be done in the Mediterranean as the threat to Britain's lifeline to the east through the Suez Canal was in danger of being cut off.

Italy had every chance to control the Mediterranean. Her large modern fleet with its six fast battleships posed a major obstacle to the British. Italy's Air-force had bases in Italy, Sicily, Libya and the Dodecanese Islands and was thus able to interdict over the entire area. In addition, in North Africa and the Red Sea, Italy occupied Eritrea, Abyssinia and Somaliland and required only an invasion of Egypt to tie up the whole eastern end of the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. This would give the Axis Powers direct access to the oilfields of the Persian Gulf.

Admiral Andrew Cunningham commanded the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet based at Alexandria in Egypt. However pre-war plans which Britain and France had made to counter Italy's six modern battleships was compromised after the fall of France. The neutralisation of the French capital ships meant that Cunningham was outgunned by Italy's fleet.

With both sides needing to be able to resupply and reinforce their armies, Britain the Army of the Middle East which protected the Canal and Italy with large forces in Ubya poised to strike at Egypt, the island fortress of Malta became the key. British need was for interdiction of Italian convoys, and the Royal Navy's need was for a way-station for convoys and movements between Gibraltar in the West and the Suez Canal.

The presence of the Regia Aeronautica, the Royal Italian Airforce within just 190 kilometres of Malta had been the reason why Britain had abandoned the island as its base for the Mediterranean Fleet as early as 1936. Already since the opening days of Italy's declaration of war, the island was being bombed and all British Fleet and convoy movements were being attacked by Italian aircraft with the ever present danger that the "Fleet-in-Being" at Taranto in southern Italy could steam out and cause mayhem.

Cunningham's senior officers made it clear to him that they favoured "doing a Nelson," a euphemism for the type of shock action which had made the hero of Trafalgar famous. A plan to attack Taranto by air had been in existence since as early as 1936 and had been updated in 1938 at the time of Hitler's march into Austria. Cunningham's Aircraft Carrier Division had recently doubled in size from one to two vessels. Its ships comprising the old HMS Eagle with the latest ship, HMS JIIustrious in company, and commanded by Rear-Admiral Lumley Lister, an aggressive and experienced flyer was up to the task.

Accordingly "Operation Judgement" was put into operation with the plan to attack Taranto on the night of 21st October 1940, suitably Trafalgar Day. However a series of incidents, one being damage sustained to HMS Eagle by high altitude bombing, and a fire in Illustrious' aircraft hangar, led to a postponement and the eventual departure by Illustrious only with her escort. She had twenty-five "Stringbags," Fairey Swordfish TSR-2 bi-plane aircraft aboard but three were lost due to flying accidents on successive days while en route to the attack.

The Aircraft Carrier steamed in company with Cunningham's fleet of four battleships with which he had hoped to draw out the Italian Fleet. Near Malta HMS JIIustrious split away and raced northwards with her cruisers and commenced launching the first wave of 12 aircraft at 20h35 about 350 kilometres from the target. Four aircraft became separated in cloud but one, carrying a torpedo flew at full speed to arrive outside Taranto harbour some fifteen minutes before the rest. This alerted the defences and by the time the small squadron got within 80kilometres the anti-aircraft barrage was in full sway and it only took the release of the first flares at high altitude to bring the full force of the harbour defence artillery as well as the guns of the ships in harbour into the picture.

Into this inferno of fire dived the six torpedo-armed Swordfish. The Leader managed to launch his torpedo which struck the battleship "Conte de Cavour" amidships. However his aircraft was either hit by anti-aircraft fire or dipped a wing into the water, possibly both, and the Swordfish crashed into the harbour. The pilot and observer survived the crash and were taken prisoner. The two other aircraft in the sub-flight both launched torpedoes which exploded on contact with the harbour mud bottom.

The leader of the second sub-flight made a slightly different approach and put his torpedo into the battleship Littorio, followed by the eager pilot who had arrived early. He also struck Littorio with his torpedo but the third aircraft's torpedo exploded on the bottom.

The two aircraft designated to drop flares became redundant as the light from the anti-aircraft fire was more than adequate to light-up the target. Both dropped their 125 kg bombs on the harbour oil installations. The other aircraft attacked two cruisers in the Inner Harbour with bombs with limited success.

The second wave which had left Illustrious an hour later received as hot a welcome as the previous attack but this time the Italians were not to have their attention drawn away by the flares. The squadron leader, making his attack from over the town was shot down in flames and he and his observer were killed. With the gunners' attention on the flaming wreck the other two in the subflight were able to attack. Another torpedo was put into "Littorio" whilst "Duilio" was also struck. All the other torpedoes struck bottom and exploded meaning that three of the battleships were not hit. The bombing was also not observed to have been very effective and it was found afterwards that twenty-five per cent of the bombs had failed to explode.

Only eight aircraft of the second wave had reached the target due to an incident with two aircraft colliding on the flight deck during take-off which, despite urgent repairs and late take-off meant they had to abort. One of the attacking torpedo bombers in the second wave sustained heavy damage but managed to make back the 270 kms to the ship.

The last aircraft to arrive came in at 02hSO and Illustrious with her four cruisers and destroyers left at high speed to be as far away as possible by dawn, eventually meeting up with Cunningham and setting off for Alexandria. The sixteen venerable Stringbags which came home had penetrated the defences which included 27 barrage balloons, anti-torpedo nets, 102 guns of large calibre plus a host of light Ack-Ack. They survived an anti-aircraft barrage which had seen 14 000 shells of 88mm calibre and bigger fired by the harbour defences. Only guesses can be made at the amount of light Ack-Ack and the ordinance discharged by the ships. The town of Taranto and the port installations suffered enormous selfinflicted damage from mis-directed fire. RAF reconnaissance aircraft revealed the following morning the scene with three battleships; Littorio, Duilio and Conte de Cavour all lying on the bottom, two fleet tenders sunk at the stern and the harbour empty as the remaining battleships were sailing at full speed with a massive escort; destination Naples. Taranto was not used as a Fleet base again before Italy surrendered in 1943.

The German Naval Staff in Berlin issued the following statement: "The English attack must be regarded as the greatest victory of the War. At a stroke it has changed the strategic situation in the Mediterranean decisively in England's favour. Even more than before the enemy will move about the Mediterranean taking no account of the Italian Fleet."

It is also known that the Japanese Military Attache in Rome visited the port on the 13 November although speculation on what he learned has never been confirmed.

Two DSO's and four DFC's were awarded. Admiral Cunningham is reported to have said later in the War that he had undervalued the feat and those who had performed it.

Summarized version of paper presented to MHS on 9 May 2013

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