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Taranto, Attack on (11 November 1940)

British navy raid on the principal Italian naval base, the fortified harbor of Taranto. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham and Rear Admiral A. L. St. G. Lyster of the carrier Illustrious planned the operation, code-named judgment. The date for the raid was to be 27 October 1940, the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and a night with a full moon. Thirty Fairey Swordfish were slated to make the attack from the aircraft carriers Illustrious and Eagle. The Swordfish, though it was a 10-year-old biplane, was nonetheless a reliable, sturdy torpedo platform, especially effective in night operations.

A fire on the Illustrious, which destroyed several aircraft, forced postponement of the operation. Then the Eagle, which had sustained near misses from Italian bombs, was found to have been more seriously damaged than originally estimated.

As a consequence, the attack was delayed until the next full moon, when the raid was conducted by the Illustrious alone. Twenty-one Swordfish fitted with extra fuel tanks participated, with 11 of them armed with torpedoes and the remainder carrying bombs and flares. The torpedoes were modified to negate the effects of "porpoising" in the harbor's shallow water.

At 8:30 p.m. on 11 November, Illustrious launched her aircraft some 170 miles from Taranto. All six of Italy's battleships were in the harbor, where there were protected by barrage balloons, more than 200 antiaircraft guns, and torpedo nets, although the quantity of the latter was far short of the number the Italian navy considered necessary. The planes set out in two waves an hour apart. The first wave achieved complete surprise when it arrived at Taranto at 11:00 p.m. The pilots cut off their engines and glided in to only a few hundred yards from their targets before releasing the torpedoes against the battleships, which were illuminated by the flares and Italian antiaircraft tracers. Conte di Cavour was the first battleship struck, followed by Littorio. In the second attack at 11:50, Littorio was struck again, and Duilio was also hit. In the two attacks, Conte di Cavour and Duilio each took one torpedo and Littorio three.

Conte di Cavour was the only battleship to sink, and she went down in shallow water. Italian tugs towed the other two damaged ships to shore. The cruiser Trento and destroyer Libeccio were both hit by bombs, but the bombs did not explode and caused only minor damage. Fifty-two Italian sailors died in the attack. The British lost two planes; the crewmen of one were rescued by the Italians.

Conte di Cavour was later raised and towed to Trieste to be repaired, but the work was not completed and she was never recommissioned. The Littorio was overhauled by March 1941, and the Duilio, which was transferred to Genoa, was repaired and returned to Taranto in May 1941. The Taranto raid thus deprived Italy of its naval advantage and at least temporarily altered the Mediterranean balance of power, and it also underscored the effectiveness of naval aircraft. The attack was also useful to the Japanese. They were already working on techniques to employ air-dropped torpedoes in shallow water. Taranto provided confirmation for their own plan to strike Pearl Harbor.

Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Fioravanti, Giuseppe. Le azioni navali in Medtierraneo dal 10 giugno 1940 al 31 marzo 1941. Vol. 4, La marina italiana nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale. Rome: Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore Marina, 1976.; Lowry, Thomas P. The Attack on Taranto: Blueprint for Pearl Harbor. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1995.; Schofield, Brian B. The Attack on Taranto. London: Ian Allan, 1973.; Smithers, A. J. Taranto, 1940: "Prelude to Pearl Harbor." Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

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