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Operation Judgement: The raid on Taranto

Discussion in 'Britain at Sea!' started by Jim, Dec 20, 2006.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    While the Japanese navy was planning its attack on Pearl Harbour the Royal Navy prepared to launch a very similar operation.

    On the night of 11/12 November 1940, 21 Fairey Swordfish torpedo-bomber biplanes of the Fleet Air Arm struck at the Italian fleet in Taranto harbour and, in the first major and successful strike by naval aircraft, effectively redressed the balance of sea power in the Mediterranean in British favour.
    Italy's entry into the war in June 1940 and the subsequent elimination of the French fleet had given the Axis superiority at sea in the Mediterranean, a situation that seriously threatened British convoys sailing to the UK with vital supplies from the dominions east of Suez. Moreover, following Italy's attack on Greece in October that year, undisputed use of the Aegean and Adriatic by the Axis powers posed considerable difficulties in the support of any British foothold in the Balkans that might be considered.

    Three of the 'Zara' class cruisers were lying in the centre of the Mar Grande when the Swordfish made their attack. In addition to their main armament each carried 16 dual-purpose 100mm (3.92in) guns, a powerful anti-aircraft battery in itself.

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    Key to any operations in the central Mediterranean by the Royal Navy lay in the continued use of Malta, both as a naval and air base, and it was with a fine sense of history that it had been intended to bring the Italian fleet to battle on 21 October (Trafalgar Day) with a British fleet of four battleships and battle-cruisers, two carriers (HMS Eagle and Illustrious), 10 cruisers and four destroyer flotillas. Despite the sailing of two convoys through the Mediterranean, the Italian fleet (comprising five battleships, 14 cruisers and 27 destroyers) declined to leave its base at Taranto; moreover, following a number of near misses from Italian bombers, the carrier Eagle was suffering mechanical troubles, necessitating the transfer of her Swordfish aircraft to the Illustrious.

    Vittorio Veneto was not hit during the Taranto raid but her sister ship Littorio suffered three torpedo hits leaving her under repair until Apri/1941. Capable of 30 knots and armed with high velocity 381mm (15in) guns, these magnificent battleships seriously threatened the British position in the Mediterranean.

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    The Italian air force failed to detect the approach of the British fleet to within range of Taranto. A few lumbering flying boats came near, but were shot down by British Fulmar fighters operating under radar control. So the
    raid achieved complete surprise and sank half the Italian navy's battleships, altering the balance of power in the Mediterranean at a stroke. The British were lucky: after storms earlier in the week only 27 of the 90 barrage balloons protecting the ships were still in the air on the night of the attack, and the Italian torpedo nets did not extend deep enough to protect the ships properly.


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  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Wave-top recce

    The action was accordingly postponed, and as a preliminary step a reconnaissance of Taranto was ordered on 10 November. A Martin Maryland of No. 431 Flight, RAF, flown by Pilot Officer Adrian Warburton, was despatched from Malta that day and, following an epic wave-top tour of the enemy port carried out in the face of intense flak, full details of the Italian fleet's dispositions were reported back to Rear Admiral Lumley Lyster, the flag officer aboard Illustrious. The same evening the crew of a RAF flying-boat reported that a sixth Italian battleship had also entered Taranto.

    The Fairey Swordfish was armed with a single 45.7cm (18in) torpedo or 8 x 27.2kg (60Ib) rockets. It was capable of only 222kmh (138mph) at sea level and was extremely vulnerable to enemy fighters and flak.

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    Encouraged by the survival of the Maryland, Lyster decided to launch a strike against the Italian ships where they lay, and on the evening of 11 November two waves of Swordfish flew off Illustrious at a position 275km (170 miles) south-east of Taranto. The first formation, led by Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Williamson, comprised 12 aircraft (six with torpedoes, four with bombs and two with bombs and flares); the second wave of nine aircraft (five with torpedoes, two with bombs and two with bombs and flares) led by Lieutenant Commander John Hale followed 40 minutes later.

    The Italian navy included large numbers of well-armed destroyers. Like most classes of Italian warship they were built for speed, but the lightness of these destroyers' design betrayed them after the Battle of Sirte when two foundered in heavy seas.

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    Despite the obvious significance of the Maryland's appearance over the naval base on the previous day, the Italians were evidently caught completely unaware when Williamson's aircraft swept into Taranto harbour; added to this was the fact that the balloon barrage, which had been expected to cause some embarrassment during the attack, had been almost wholly destroyed by storms the day before. Moreover the Italians had decided against the use of anti-torpedo nets on the pretext that they restricted the movement of their ships.
    Two flares quickly disclosed the position of the new battleship Littorio (35,000 tons), and with three torpedoes she was promptly sunk at her moorings. Two older battleships, Conte di Cavour and Caio Duilio (both of 23,600 tons) were also hit, the former never to sail again, and the latter beached to prevent her sinking. In the inner harbour a heavy cruiser and a destroyer were also hit. In due course the gun defences came into action and two Swordfish were shot down, including that flown by Williamson himself, although he and his crewman survived to be taken prisoner. Another Swordfish failed to release its torpedo.

    HMS Eagle, was unable to take part in the raid as planned. She had sustained considerable damage from numerous near misses during enemy air attacks off Calabria. Some of her Swordfish and their crews were transferred to Illustrious for the attack.

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    At a single blow, half Italy's battle fleet had been put out of action, a blow from which the Italians never fully recovered. On numerous occasions during the following three years their fleet declined battle with the Royal Navy, having been deprived of capital ship superiority. In the naval Battle of Cape Matapan on 28 March 1941, when a powerful force of Italian battleships might otherwise have severely crippled Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham's Mediterranean Fleet, the two enemy capital ships (albeit one of them damaged) sought safety by flight, leaving three cruisers and two destroyers to be sunk by the Royal Navy. In the subsequent evacuation of Greece and Crete by British forces, losses among ships of the Royal Navy were grievous, being in the main inflicted from the air. Had the bulk of the Italian battle fleet been intact at that time losses would have been immeasurably worse.
     
  3. Dave War44

    Dave War44 Member

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    Taranto raid accounts are always a great read Jim, and that one no exception. Quite amazing what the crews of these outdated-looking aeroplanes achieved. The Fairey Swordfish :thumb:

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  4. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    Excellent Picture Dave, looks as thou these planes were made for WWI era rather than WWII.. :der:
     
  5. Spitfire XIV-E

    Spitfire XIV-E New Member

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    And for Taranto read Pearl Harbor. The Japanese were the first to learn the lessons of the Taranto raid. Commander Minoru Genda who planned the Pearl Harbor attack studied the Taranto operation carefully and learned many lessons from it. Even the idea of fitting wooden fins to the Type 91 "Long Lance" Torpedoes used at Pearl Harbor to devastating effect. This was done so that the Torpedoes wouldn't hit the bottom after being launched instead levelling out much nearer the surface of the water in the shallow Harbor.
     
  6. m.i.l.f hunter

    m.i.l.f hunter New Member

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    Quite amazing when you look at the swordfish.Taranto was subjected to many more attacks after this and I know that my father had laid mines all over it,dropped from Wellington bombers.
     

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