Battle of Taranto
On the night of November 11-12, 1940, the Royal Navy launched 21 obsolescent Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious against the Italian fleet anchored at Taranto. It was history’s first naval engagement that relied upon carrier aircraft to attack heavily defended warships, and was a defining moment of the Royal Navy’s Fleet air arm.
Plans for attacking the Italian fleet in Taranto, which was well positioned to sortie out and interdict British lines across the Mediterranean, had been mulled by the Royal Navy for years before the outbreak of WWII. The most promising plan, codenamed Operation Judgment, called for an attack by torpedo bombers launched from an aircraft carrier.
The Italian ships anchored in Taranto were protected by torpedo nets, surrounded by barrage balloons and antiaircraft guns, and thought they were immune. In the days preceding the attack, RAF photo reconnaissance confirmed the presence of the Italian fleet in Taranto, and identified the various ships’ locations, especially the battleships. Final plans were then formed, and a strike force prepared.
A first wave of 12 Swordfish biplanes, half armed with torpedoes and the other half with bombs and flares, were launched from the Illustrious at 9PM, November 11, followed by a second wave of 9 Swordfish 90 minutes later. Reaching Taranto, the leading Swordfish dropped illumination flares, then bombed the port’s oil storage facilities while other Swordfish launched torpedoes at anchored battleships. The second wave arrived shortly before midnight, dropped flares, and launched torpedoes. In under two hours, the biplanes had struck three battleships and several cruisers, and severely damaged the port’s installations, for the loss of two planes and four crewmen. The Italians lost half their capital ships that night, and the following day, transferred their surviving ships to the greater safety of Naples.
It was a raid that revolutionized warfare, and changed the course of history by ushering in the ascendancy of naval aviation and the aircraft carrier over battleships. Other navies took a keen interest in what the British had done at Taranto, and Japanese observers of the Imperial fleet in particular paid close attention. US Navy observers did not, to America’s detriment a year later at Pearl Harbor.