Battle of Taranto : The Battle that Scuttled the Battleship

A British Admiral Saw the Future of War in the Air and it was not the Battleship : Battle of Taranto

Written by Harlow Giles Unger : a New York Times Bestselling author of 28 books, including Lafayette and The Last Founding Father

The World War I era biplanes buzzing about the Golfo da Taranto drew laughter from Italian sailors at first, on the night of November 11, 1940. They stood aboard what was then the mighty Italian battle fleet docked at the large port of Taranto. 

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A major commercial port at the top of the “arch” of the boot in southern Italy, Taranto was one of the Italian Navy’s most important naval stations, its fleet under the command of the heralded Admiral Inigo Campioni.

“Clothed” in fabric skins, the lumbering British relics were of the “Swordfish” class and seemed more likely headed for an air show than wartime engagements. The lead plane, The Fairey Swordfish, or “string bag,”  as detractors called it, had survived World War.

It cruised at a top speed of 139 mph, clumsy at best—bobbing as if it was about to fall in the water and sink before reaching its destination. But what it lacked in agility, it made up for in reliability, utility, and deadly destructive power. 

On the night of November 11, 1940, and again, on November 12, British naval forces under Admiral Andrew Cunningham launched the first all-aircraft ship-to-ship wartime naval attacks in history.

Twenty-one Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers—the much maligned “string bags”–from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious noised rather unsteadily fluttered across the Golfo di Taranto in a surprise attack on the Italian naval base.

The attack lasted two days and two nights. In the end, British naval aviators left 3 battleships completely disabled, 1 heavy cruiser damaged, 2 destroyers damaged, 2 fighters destroyed, and the Italian Navy all but impotent. 

Conte Di Cavour sunk

In what was the first first all-aircraft-on-ship encounter in military warfare, the British not only shifted the balance of military power in the World War I Mediterranean Theater, they had changed the course of world military history by rendering the battleship obsolete as a dominant weapon in favor of airships. 

The shift came as no surprise to many. As early as 1932, American Admiral Harry E. Yarnell had staged just such a devastating air attack on battleships in war games.

But four years later, General Billy Mitchell, who had demonstrated the superiority of air power over naval power in the early 1920s, lobbied so strongly for a build-up of air power, that naval officials engineered his court martial and dismissal.

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.

As American military leaders dismissed the Battle at Taranto as “interesting,” Japanese officials saw it as a green light for the most devastating attack ever waged against America.

Although they had used the Yarnell scheme from the 1932 war games as their model, the Japanese high Command? had hesitated to implement it until the Taranto attack proved the ease with which air power could crush sea power. 

On December 7 1941, inspired by the British success at Taranto, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor inflicting the most devastating wartime defeat in American History.

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Edited by Jules Hirschkorn & Alexander Fleiss

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