On the night of November 11-12, 1940, the Royal Navy launched twenty-one obsolescent Fairey 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 move out and engage 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 Judgement, 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 though 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.
The first wave of Fairey Swordfish biplanes, led by Lieutenant Commander K Williamson RN of 815 Squadron, left Illustrious just before 21:00 hours on 11 November 1940, followed by a second wave of nine about 90 minutes later. Of the second wave, one aircraft turned back with a problem with its auxiliary fuel tank, and one launched 20 minutes late, after requiring emergency repairs to damage following a minor taxiing accident, so only eight made it to the target.
The first wave, which consisted of six Swordfish armed with torpedoes, two with flares and four 110 kg bombs and four with six bombs, was split into two sections when three of the bombers and one torpedo bomber strayed from the main force while flying through thin clouds. The smaller group continued to Taranto independently. The main group approached the harbour at Mar Grande at 22:58. Sixteen flares were dropped east of the harbour and then the flare dropper and another aircraft made a dive-bombing attack to set fire to oil tanks. The next three aircraft attacked over San Pietro Island and struck the battleship Conte di Cavour with a torpedo that blasted an 8.2m hole in her side below her waterline.
Williamson's plane was immediately shot down by the Italian battleship's anti-aircraft guns. The two remaining aircraft in this sub-flight continued, dodging barrage balloons and receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire from the Italian warships and shore batteries, to press home an unsuccessful attack on the battleship Andrea Doria. The next sub-flight of three attacked from a more northerly direction, attacking the battleship Littorio, hitting it with two torpedoes and launching one torpedo at the flagship, the battleship Vittorio Veneto, which missed. The bomber force, led by Captain O. Patch RM, attacked next. They found the targets difficult to identify but attacked and hit two cruisers moored at Mar Piccolo hitting both with a single bomb each from 1,500 ft followed by another aircraft which straddled four destroyers.
In the second wave of eight aircraft, nine were lined up on deck, but numbers 8 and 9 collided while preparing to launch, one took off but had to abort when an auxiliary fuel tank fell off in flight; meanwhile, the other was repaired and launched late. This group led by Lieutenant Commander J. W. Hale of 819 Squadron, was now approaching from a northerly direction towards the Mar Grande harbour, with two of the four bombers also carrying flares, the remaining five carrying torpedoes. Flares were dropped shortly before midnight. Two aircraft aimed their torpedoes at Littorio, one of which hit.
One aircraft, despite having been hit twice by anti-aircraft fire, aimed a torpedo at Vittorio Veneto but the torpedo missed. Another aircraft hit the battleship Caio Duilio with a torpedo, blowing a large hole in her hull and flooding both of her forward magazines. The aircraft flown by Lieutenant G. W. L. A. Bayly RN was shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the heavy cruiser Gorizia following the successful attack on Littorio, the only aircraft lost from the second wave. The final aircraft to arrive on the scene 15 minutes behind the others made an unsuccessful dive-bombing attack on one of the Italian cruisers despite the heavy anti-aircraft fire, then safely returned to Illustrious, landing at 02:39.
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, unfortunately, did not, to America’s detriment a year later at Pearl Harbor.