“This operation has been described so many times that any detailed description is not necessary. I will only present some points that prove the destructive results that can have the delay in taking the necessary measures of precaution.
To begin with, the success of this operation is due in great extent to the supply of Malta with a new type of reconnaissance planes of R.A.F. (Glenn Martin) that were much more suitable for the task of reconnaissance than the Sunderland airboats of the Navy. That way, reconnaissance succeeded in photographing and giving exact information on the formation of the enemy Fleet in his base.
the Sunderland airboat
The operation was combined with the coverage of convoys towards Suda bay and Malta, with the main force of the British Fleet of Alexandria that included the aircraft carrier HMS ILLUSTRIOUS and with new reinforcements – the battleship HMS BARHAM, 2 cruisers and 6 destroyers – that came through the Sicily Straits. The British Fleet arrived safely off Malta, in spite of being bombed by the Italian Air force that was following him, and was joined by the reinforcements.
On November 10, 1940 the Fleet took position west of the Ionian Sea islands at a distance of about 170 miles from Taranto. From this position the aircraft carrier planes were going to be launched. In the afternoon of November 10, an air attack against the Fleet was successfully repelled by the aircraft carrier’s fighters that also succeeded the following day to shoot down the Italian reconnaissance planes that were keeping contact.
It is thus deducted that till the night of November 10 the Italians were aware of the enemy ship movements, the next day however –the day the British force took position to launch the air attack- they had no information on the enemy movements because it seems that the downed reconnaissance planes hadn’t had the time to send their reports. Thus, the British succeeded the surprise that was the main condition for the success of the attack. Otherwise it would have been natural and imposed for the Italian Fleet that disposed 5 battleships – of which 2 large – against 4 old of the British to clear the harbor of Taranto and fight.
It is nevertheless strange that the presence of enemy ships has not been reported by the Italian submarines that should have been executing reconnaissance patrols in that area [40 miles west of the island of Cephalonia], especially because of the on going intensive military transports in the Adriatic Sea.
Ahead of the main air attack of the night of November 11 – 12, 2 bombers were sent to throw lighters to illuminate the targets and bombe the cruisers in the inner harbor, in order to attract there the attention of the anti aircraft defense.
The main attack followed in two waves of 12 aircrafts each that was targeting the 5 battleships in the external harbor. The battleship LITTORIO was hit with 3 torpedoes, the DIULIO and CAVOUR with one each and the cruiser TRENTO with a bomb that didn’t explode. The British got these results with only the loss of 2 aircrafts and 4 airmen. In no encounter of ships could they be such difference of losses for the two opponents. (Naval airman Sutton was the observer of a Swordfish torpedo bomber)
It was a really bright success for the British; its results weren’t however as radical as initially believed. Although the inflicted damages were very serious, two of the three battleships that were hit were repaired much more sooner than expected. The battleship LITTORIO was ready for service before the end of March 1941 and DUILIO at around the middle of May of that same year.
The CAVOUR had sunk and was re-floated but its repairs hadn’t finished till the surrender of Italy.
R.N. CONTE DI CAVOUR
R.N. CAIO DUILIO
The British had succeeded total surprise especially because the Italian reconnaissance planes were not of a suitable type to face the aircraft carrier’s fighters. However, the destructive results of the attack are due to a large extent to the insufficient protection with anti-torpedo nets of the Italian battleships. The Italian Navy had taken care 4 months earlier to order such nets for all the naval bases. However, for the Taranto naval base alone 13,000 meters were needed, while the monthly production of the industry was 3,500 meters only. The most serious was that these nets had been designed to protect against the then known types of torpedoes, covering the sides of the battleships up to their maximum draught. The British on the other hand had supplied their torpedoes with a firing device that functioned not only by hitting but also magnetically, when the torpedo was passing under the keel of the attacked ship.
After this mishap the Italians constructed nets that extended to the bottom of the sea and completely contained the protected ships. The strange thing however is that more than a year later the American Fleet in Pearl Harbor suffered terrible losses with such air torpedoes and two German cruisers suffered very serious damages in Brest. Of course both were aware of what had happened in Taranto.
Another criticism that was made was that during the attack the Italians didn’t use any searchlights and smoke screens to protect the naval base. For the smoke screen there was difference of opinions at that time: Many maintained that a smoke screen could do more harm than prove useful, because it is was too much of a bother to an anti-aircraft defense. Later, however, this type of protection prevailed because the results of night shooting were usually very poor and lots of ammunitions were used.
The Taranto operation brought up temporarily an important change in the strategic situation in the Mediterranean. The Italians were left with only 2 battleships in action, the VITTORIO VENETO and the GIULIO CESARE. The DORIA was still undergoing repairs. In order to protect the battleships that remained from similar attacks, the Italians moved them fro Taranto to Naples, until the new nets were delivered. Thus they were sent away from the transport routes to Greece and although they could still enter the Central Mediterranean through the Messina Straits, their detection by the British reconnaissance was made easier. These Italian losses allowed the British to send to their Home Fleet 2 of the battleships of Alexandria, the HMS MALAYA and the HMS RAMILLIES.
On that same night of November 11-12, the Italians suffered one more blow in the South Adriatic Sea. A formation made of 3 British cruisers and 2 destroyers met a convoy of 4 empty ships returning from Avlona to Brindisi, escorted by 1 escort destroyer and 1 armed auxiliary ship. The British sunk all the cargo ships; the escorts escaped, one with heavy damages.
After these operations, the Italians were executing frequent patrols with cruisers, destroyers and torpedo boats in the approaches of the Adriatic Sea whenever they had information –even vague- about enemy ship movements and in any event of important military convoys at sea.”