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Battle of Taranto : The Battle that Changed Warfare

The Battle of Taranto marked the end of the warfare age of the gun, and the beginning to the warfare age of the airplane

The Battle of Taranto was probably the World War Two battle most overlooked by historians.

A daring and divisive strike by British torpedo bombers on the Italian naval base of Taranto, it shifted the balance of power in the Mediterranean arena.

The battle was a manifestation of the decisive change in military strategy, and taught the world’s military that things had changed.

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The Battle of Taranto took place on the night of 11–12 November 1940 during the Second World War, between British naval forces led by Admiral Andrew Cunningham, and Italian naval forces under Admiral Inigo Campioni.

The Royal Navy launched the first all-aircraft ship-to-ship naval attack in history, employing 21 Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. 

The Battle of Taranto In November 1940, twenty one Royal Navy carrier-launched Fairey Swordfish bi-planes flew 70 miles through the night and in a stunning assault crippled the Italian Battlefleet at harbour in Taranto, radically changing the course of the War. Swordfish L4M over the battleship Littorio by water colour artist and Fleet Air Arm pilot David Williams. Reproduced by kind permission of his son Tim Williams.

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The Fairey Swordfish was an underdog, jokingly called the ‘Stringbag.’ It was a relic of World War 1-era design: a biplane with fabric skin. It was a lumbering beast, cruising at a top speed of 139mph, far behind other planes. What the Swordfish lacked in agility, it made up for in reliability, and it became a surprisingly useful asset. 

Launching with a force of just 21 aging biplanes, the strike at first appeared as a light raid. But despite their unassuming appearance, the biplanes were armed to the teeth with bombs and torpedoes, ready to devastate the Italian fleet docked at Taranto. Leveraging the element of surprise, two waves of biplanes raked the Italian fleet on the night of November 11th.  

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The attack changed naval warfare forever and resulted in 3 battleships getting completely disabled, 1 heavy cruiser and 2 destroyers getting damaged, and 2 fighters getting destroyed. The Royal Navy was able to crush the Italian Naval dominance in the Mediterranean in a single strike just by using 21 aging biplanes.

Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, who commanded the attack, noted how it changed the future of naval warfare: “Taranto and the night of November 11–12, 1940, should be remembered for ever…as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon.” 

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Taranto was the beginning of the end for the era of battleships, and marked the  rise of air power. Many historians believe that this daring strike gave the Japanese the confidence to launch their attack on Pearl Harbor.

Seeing the damage done by a small force of only 21 biplanes, many Japanese commanders began to recognize the destructive potential of an entire air arm. Although the attack on Pearl Harbor was planned before Taranto, the Japanese did not know if it was feasible. The Taranto raid proved that it was. 

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The Conte di Cavour sinks in shallow water following the Battle of Taranto. On the night of November 11, 1940, twenty planes flew from the deck of HMS Illustrious, then located 170 miles from Taranto. Eleven of those planes carried torpedoes, and five of those hit three Italian battleships.

The lessons of the Battle of Taranto were not a surprise to some in the US military.  General Billy Mitchell believed battleships were taking away money from precious airplanes and carriers and wrote extensively on this in the early 1920’s. His sinking of the captured German Battleship, the Ostfriesland in July 1921, considered by many a significant milestone in US Air Power. 

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Unfortunately for General Mitchell, his disregard for the conditions of the bombing runs ultimately ended in his court martial. 

In 1932, US Rear Admiral Yarnell, who also believed in the importance of air power over sea power,  executed Fleet Problem Number 13, a mock attack on Pearl Harbor coming from an Asian enemy. The defenders assumed any self-respecting admiral would surely attack with battleships. Instead, Admiral Yarnell used carrier-based planes and won the battle convincingly. 

The defenders, however, complained that the Admiral had cheated as they thought it the Japanese weren’t capable of such an attack. The verdict was reversed and the defenders were awarded the theoretical victory. 

However, the theoretical enemy, Japan, was paying attention. 

On November 11-12 1940, the Royal Navy devastated the Italian fleet anchored in the harbor of Taranto in the first all-aircraft on ship attacks.  Again, the US Navy brass dismissed its relevance to Pearl Harbor’s vulnerability because Pearl Harbor is shallow. Finally, on December 7 1941 the Japanese attacked in what was nearly a copy of Yarnell’s raid almost a decade earlier, to devastating effect.

Three days later, the HMS Prince of Wales, having survived the Bismarck’s wrath, and her consort HMS Repulse were sunk near Singapore after their commander, Admiral Phillips decided to chase Japanese troop transports without air cover. 

The age of the majestic battleship was over. In hindsight, its demise was predicted many years previously. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to listen.

Written by Harry Gillespie

Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Ryan Cunningham, Ramsay Bader & Michael Mendenhall