(Nov. 6, 2020) This week, 80 years ago, the Royal Navy established a blueprint for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when the Royal Navy’s carrier-based planes attacked the Italian navy — Regia Marina Italia — at its base in the 2,600-year-old port of Taranto.
Taranto is located at the southern end of the Italian Peninsula, in the “heel” of the Italian “boot.”
It is 317 miles south of Rome on the Ionian Sea and today has a population of almost 200,000.
It had been chosen as the main base of the Regia Marina because it was close to the British lines of communication in the Mediterranean.
Less fuel would be required for a strike on Malta from Taranto then from Naples. The Italian Army had wanted the Regia Marina to base in Naples, since it was entrusted with war defenses and Naples was easier to defend. However, fuel dominated the Regia Marina’s thinking.
Taranto was protected by 21 batteries of 4-inch antiaircraft guns, 84 automatic cannons and 109 machine guns.
In addition, the six battleships, seven cruisers and 28 destroyers based there mounted more than 600 antiaircraft guns between them. The harbor was further protected by 22 modern searchlights, 13 huge electrical devices able of detecting a plane miles away and 30 barrage balloons trailing steel cables ringing the anchorage. Finally, the Italians had installed 4,600 yards of underwater steel torpedo nets.
Nothing like this had ever been attempted. The original plan called for two carriers, Eagle and Illustrious, to launch 36 planes in two waves. The planes that were to be used were Fairey Swordfish.
The Fairey Swordfish was a biplane, which because of its appearance was dubbed the “Stringbag.” It was manufactured by the Fairey Aviation Company Limited, founded by Charles Richard Fairey in 1915. By the time of the assault on the Taranto naval base, the Fairey Swordfish was obsolete and resembled a refugee from “The Great War.”
The British had initially planned the attack for Oct. 21, 1940, the day England celebrates the victory of Admiral Lord Nelson’s fleet over the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805. But a few days before the planned attack, a fire destroyed two of the planes and damaged five others.
The attack was rescheduled for Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1940. A few days before launch, HMS Eagle came up lame. Five of its planes were transferred to Illustrious, making for a total of 24.
Two days before the scheduled strike, three planes were lost. Now there were only 21.
The Illustrious was accompanied by cruisers Gloucester, Berwick, Glasgow and York, and four destroyers, commanded by Rear Adm. Sir Arthur Lumley St. George Lyster.
The Illustrious had only recently joined the Royal Navy. It displaced more than 28,000 tons and carried a crew of 1,900.
At 9 p.m. on Nov. 11, 1940, the first wave of 12 Fairy Swordfish opened the attack. Half were armed with bombs and half were armed with torpedoes.
The first wave arrived over target at 10:58 p.m. They were met by a hail of anti-aircraft fire. The Italians were not surprised.
Two planes attacked the oil tanks. Three planes, led by LCDR K. W. Williamson attacked the Conte di Cavour.
The battleship was struck by a torpedo, which blew a 27-foot hole under its waterline and killed 16 of its crew. The damage was so extensive that it never returned to service.
Commander Williamson’s plane was shot down by the Conte di Cavour, and the other two attacked the battleship Andrea Doria without success. Commander Williamson and his observer, Lt. N. J. Scarlett were rescued and made prisoners of war.
The next three planes attacked the battleship Littorio, which was struck by two torpedoes, loosed by planes piloted by Lieutenants N. M. Kemp and H. A. I. Swayne, and put out of action for five months. Twenty-three of its crew were killed. By 11:30 p. m., the first wave was returning to the Illustrious.
The second wave, led by LCDR John William “Ginger” Hale, was supposed to consist of nine planes, but one was delayed and one had to turn back. One was shot down by the heavy cruiser Gorizia.
Both crewman, Lieutenants G. W. Bayley and H. J. Slaughter, were killed. Only Lieutenant Bayley’s body was recovered, At about midnight, the seven planes of the second wave arrived. During the second wave’s attack, the battleship Caio Duilio was struck by a torpedo from Lt. C. S. C. Lea’s plane and put out of action for six months. One Italian sailor was killed.
During the raid, Italian shore batteries had fired 12,800 rounds of all calibers. This does not include those fired by the ships.
At a cost of two planes, the British sank the battleship Conte di Cavour and heavily damaged the battleships Littorio and Caio Duilio, and destroyers Libescio and Pessagrio. But the British weren’t finished. Adm. Lyster advocated a return the next night.
Although Adm. Cunningham was uneasy about a return, he left the decision to Adm. Lyster. When one of the pilots was asked his opinion, he said, “After all, they only asked the Light Brigade to do it once!” But foul weather put an end to a second night of raiding.
The remainder of the Italian fleet was then moved to Naples. Even though Adm. Arturo Riccardi had been in command of the fleet at Taranto during the disaster, he was, on Dec. 7, 1940, promoted to Under Secretary of Navy and Chief-of-Staff of the Regia Marina, replacing Adm. Domenico Cavagnari.
He could not be promoted any higher then Under-Secretary because the secretary of each of the three War Departments was the Supreme War Lord himself, Il Duce, Benito Mussolini.
Adm. Andrew Browne Cunningham, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, said, “Taranto, and the night of November 11-12, 1940, should be remembered forever as having shown, once and for all, that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon.”
Several days after the attack, LCDR Takeshi Naito, assistant air attaché to the Japanese Embassy in Berlin, arrived and began a detailed inspection of the harbor, making extensive notes on depths and distances. That was followed, on May 18, 1941, by a large Japanese delegation, which included Rear Adm. Koki Abe.
The delegation arrived with an enormous list of questions and stayed until June 8, 1941. Six months later, the Japanese would strike.
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Next week: Air Marshal Hugh Dowding Fired After Saving Britain