More than a year before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, carrier-based planes surprised and smashed a navy’s battleships while they were anchored in their home port. The port was Taranto, the fine harbor located in the instep of the Italian boot; the planes belonged to the Royal Navy. 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. Littorio and Caio Duilio were severely damaged and required months of repairs, while Conte di Cavour was sunk, and never sailed again. The other aircraft carried bombs, and they inflicted damage on smaller ships, harbor facilities, and a seaplane hangar. Only 2 planes were lost, and Illustrious and her escorts returned safely to their base at Alexandria.
When the Mediterranean Fleet tied up at the Alexandria docks, a man in street clothes quickly left Illustrious and traveled to the American Legation. He was Lt. Commander John N. Opie, III, USN. Opie immediately began work on a report of his observations while aboard the carrier. He had looked over the shoulder of radar operators as they identified Italian planes and vectored fighters on to their locations. He had sat in on the pilots’ pre-flight briefing, and shared whiskey and eggs with them after they returned. He had seen the reconnaissance photos that showed ship locations, barrage balloons, and anti-aircraft guns. He had watched aircraft take-offs and landings from the “goofers’ gallery,” an observation deck built into the carrier’s island. He had seen the aircraft armed with their bombs and torpedoes, and observed the method developed by the Royal Navy to control the initial dive of air-launched torpedoes, thereby allowing those torpedoes to be used in shallow water. This report would go to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C. More on Opie and his report below; but first, a look at the details of the British attack.
The bombing of Taranto was made possible by the arrival of Illustrious in August. Newly commissioned, she was the best carrier in the Royal Navy. Joined with HMS Eagle, she gave the Mediterranean Fleet a strong air arm. Illustrious was built with an armored flight deck, allowing her to operate in areas where the enemy’s land-based air power was always a threat. She took to sea the radar and fighter control techniques that had recently won the Battle of Britain. Her pilots, and those of Eagle, were well-trained and experienced. The Fleet commander, Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham, immediately put his two carriers to work, attacking remote ports and bases such as Benghazi, Rhodes, Leros, and Tobruk. These attacks, conducted in September and October, gave the pilots further combat experience, and sharpened their skills. The Royal Navy attacked at night, unlike any other navy in the world. In September, an RAF photo squadron was established on Malta. This squadron, flying Martin Maryland medium bombers, began to routinely fly photo missions over Italian ports, locating the ships of the Italian Fleet, and documenting the layout of the harbors and the harbor defenses. With good intelligence and a well-drilled air arm, Admiral Cunningham resolved to attack the Italians at one of their major bases.
He had hoped to make the attack on October 21, the anniversary of Admiral Nelson’s great victory at Trafalgar, but an accident and fire aboard Illustrious caused a delay. On November 4, 1940, the British kicked off the Taranto attack by going to sea at both ends of the Mediterranean.
Convoys left Gibraltar headed for Malta, and left Alexandria with deliveries scheduled for Crete, Athens, and Malta. Naval units escorted these convoys, and included warships that would be transferred from Force H, the Gibraltar-based flotilla, to the Med Fleet. The Italians observed these movements, and tried to attack, but the radar on the British carriers identified the incoming Italian planes at 50 miles or more, and fighter planes drove them off. The ships converged on Malta from the east and west, delivered men and materiel to the island, and then began moving back to their bases.
At this point, the Italians seemed to have relaxed a bit, because they did not track Illustrious (Eagle was not able to participate, a victim of near misses from Italian bombers) as she moved east and then northeast to her launch point off the island of Cephalonia. The base at Taranto was in a high state of readiness – guns manned and ammunition at the ready – but they were not aware that the carrier was approaching. At around 8 pm, the first wave of 12 planes were launched.