In the winter of 1940, Britain had her back to the wall; she had weathered Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain and was now fighting the Italians in North Africa. The fall of France and the consequent loss of the French Mediterranean Fleet meant that Britain alone faced the Axis naval forces in the area. The Italian army based in Libya was easily resupplied from Italy while the British based in Egypt could only be supported by convoys via Gibraltar and Malta and then by sailing close to Sicily to reach their destination, or sail around the Cape of Good Hope and then up the entire east coast Africa and through the Suez Canal. This latter choice was a very long and slow route, forcing the British to take their chances in the Mediterranean.
The Italian fleet based in Taranto was a powerful one, consisting of six battleships, seven heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and eight destroyers and was a serious threat to any British convoy in the area. The British navy had already fought some successful skirmishes with them, making the Italians reluctant to risk their ships in a straightforward battle, but they were nevertheless a constant threat to convoys passing through.
The British Admiralty had long recognised this potential threat and with the North African campaign now in full swing, the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Cunningham, ordered his staff to re-examine all plans for an attack on Taranto. He was advised by the captain of the carrier HMS Glorious that her Fairey TSR Swordfish aircraft were capable of night attack using aerial torpedoes and after much discussion, this option was chosen. These biplanes, designed in the early thirties and affectionately known as “Stringbags” were already obsolete as a land based aircraft, but its slow speed and ability to land on short runways made it ideal for carrier operations.
HMS Eagle, an older carrier in Cunningham’s fleet, was chosen for the task as it possessed a very experienced air group composed entirely of Swordfish and plans were laid to carry out the raid on Trafalgar Day, 21st October, but a fire in an auxiliary fuel tank on a Swordfish delayed the attack. The fire spread and engulfed two Swordfish and although the flames were swiftly extinguished, a breakdown in Eagle‘s fuel system rendered it unable to continue the mission.
The newly commissioned carrier HMS Illustrious was then given the task and after taking on some of Eagle’s Swordfish, joined the task force heading for Taranto. This force, commanded by Rear Admiral Lyster, the author of the plan, consisted of Illustrious, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and four destroyers. The 24 Swordfish came from 813, 845, 819 and 824 Naval Air Squadrons, with fighters from 806 Naval Air Squadron providing air cover. Half of the Swordfish were armed with torpedoes and the others with aerial bombs and flares. The torpedoes were Duplex magnetic contact weapons and there was some concern as to whether they would “bottom out” in the relatively shallow waters of Taranto harbour. The aircraft loss rate on this hazardous mission was expected to be fifty percent.
Martin Maryland bombers of the RAF made a number of reconnaissance flights over Taranto prior to the night of the attack and brought back valuable information regarding positions of the enemy ships and their protective barrage balloons. A Sunderland flying boat was sent over the area on the night of the 11th November to confirm that there was no change in the enemy positions. This flight did alert Italian forces in southern Italy to the possibility of an impending attack, but as they had no radar they could not detect the approaching British fleet.
Lieutenant Commander Williamson RN of 815 Squadron led the first wave of twelve Swordfish from Illustrious just after 2100 hours on the 11th. Six carried torpedoes and six carried bombs, but four of the planes lost formation when flying through cloud. The remaining aircraft approached Taranto at 22.58 and two of the Swordfish dropped flares to the east of the harbour before making a dive bomb attack which set light to oil tanks.
Williamson led the next sub flight of three and attacked the battleship Conti di Cavour which was struck by a torpedo that blasted a 27 foot hole in her hull below the waterline. Williamson’s plane was immediately shot down by anti-aircraft fire, but the two remaining planes flew low dodging the barrage balloons and anti aircraft fire to attack the battleship Andrea Doria.
The next three attacked the battleship Littorio, hitting it with two torpedoes and then launched a torpedo at the battleship Vittorio Veneto which missed. The remainder of the first flight, led by Captain Patch RN, then arrived and attacked the cruisers and destroyers.
The second wave of nine aircraft, led by Lieutenant Commander Hale RN of 819 Squadron, left Illustrious some 90 minutes after Williamson and arrived over the target at midnight. Two of his aircraft fired torpedoes at Littorio, one of which hit. A third, despite being hit by anti aircraft fire, aimed his torpedo at Vittorio Veneto, but missed. The next attacker hit the battleship Ciao Dulio, the torpedo blowing a large hole in her hull and flooding her two forward magazines. Following the attack on Littorio, the aircraft flown by Lieutenant Bayly RN, was shot down by the guns of the heavy cruiser Gorizia, this being the only aircraft lost from the second wave.
Of the two aircraft shot down, the two crew members of the first plane were taken prisoner, the other two died in their plane.
The raid had cost the Italians dearly; Conti di Cavour had a hole in her side 39ft by 26ft and although raised and partially repaired, never returned to service in the navy. Caio Dulio was badly holed and was only saved by being run aground. She required extensive repairs and was still not ready for action in 1943, when Italy changed sides and the ship was sunk by a German glider bomb. Littorio had been holed in three places and was also run aground. With just 21 aircraft the British had put half of Italy’s capital ships out of action. The Italians had fired 13,489 shells from their land batteries and thousands more from the ships, but had brought down only two Swordfish. To add to the Italian’s woes, the British task force stationed that night off Taranto intercepted and destroyed four Italian merchantmen and damaged a torpedo boat, while the Italian cruiser Ramb 11 fled. After the raid, the Italian navy moved its fleet from Taranto to safer ports in the north.
Admiral Cunningham epitomised the fighting spirit of the Royal Navy when he wrote after the attack, “The Taranto show has freed up our hands considerably and I hope now to shake these damned Eyties up a bit. I don’t think their remaining three battleships will face us and if they do, I’m quite prepared to take them on with only two”.