The 80th Anniversary of the Attack on Taranto

The 11 November 2020 marks 80 years since the attack on Taranto Harbour in 1940.

Here's a breakdown explaining what happened during the attack and why.

The Fleet Air Arm attack on Taranto harbour strengthened Royal Naval superiority in the Eastern Mediterranean and ended the game of cat and mouse between the Italian Navy and the British Mediterranean Fleet.

Britain needed to reinforce Malta, Crete and the forces aiding the Greeks in their fight against Italy, but the Italian warships retreated to Taranto after every engagement.

The Admiralty therefore decided that an attack on the ships while they were in harbour was essential.

As Taranto was a well-defended naval base, a night attack was planned.

On the night of the 11th and 12th November 1940, nineteen Fairey Swordfish aircraft took off from HMS Illustrious armed with torpedoes and bombs, some with flares to illuminate the targets.

These aircraft had open cockpits and were bi-planes, with fabric wings, quite old-fashioned by 1940. Due to the length of the flight, the normal three-man crew of Pilot, Observer and Telegraphist Air Gunner was reduced to two. The TAG’s cockpit held an extra fuel tank in place of the gunner.

Flying through a defensive ring of barrage balloons and heavy anti-aircraft fire from the harbour, these few aircraft put half of the Italian fleet out of action.

One of the flare-droppers, who had a birds-eye view of the attack, was amazed that anyone survived, because of the flak from the harbour defences and the entire Italian Fleet.

Two of our aircraft were lost, with one officer killed and three taken prisoner. 

Fleet Air Arm’s success at Taranto was the victory Britain needed in the Mediterranean.

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