11. Operation Judgment: British Royal Navy Surprises and Devastates the Italian Fleet at Taranto
The night of November 11th – 12th, 1940, was a defining moment for the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, and one that witnessed history’s first naval engagement in which planes flown from aircraft carriers attacked heavily defended warships. It was the night when 21 obsolescent Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers took off from the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious to strike the Italian fleet anchored at Taranto.
Italian ships in Taranto were dangerously positioned to sortie out at any moment, and interdict British supply lines across the Mediterranean. So plans to deal with them had been mulled by the Royal Navy for years before the start of WWII. The most promising plan, codenamed Operation Judgment, was an attack by torpedo bombers launched from an aircraft carrier.
The Italian fleet in Taranto was protected by torpedo nets, and surrounded by barrage balloons and antiaircraft guns, so its commanders thought it was immune. They were mistaken. RAF reconnaissance planes identified the locations of the various Italian warships, especially the battleships. Final plans were then formed, and a strike force was prepared.
A first wave of 12 Swordfish biplanes, half armed with torpedoes and the other half with bombs and flares, were launched from the Illustrious at 9PM, November 11th. They were followed by a second wave of 9 Swordfish, 90 minutes later. The leading Swordfish dropped illumination flares upon reaching Taranto, then bombed the port’s oil storage facilities while other Swordfish launched torpedoes at the anchored battleships. The second wave arrived shortly before midnight, dropped flares, and launched torpedoes. Italy lost half her capital ships that night. In less than two hours, the biplanes struck three battleships and several cruisers, and severely damaged the port’s installations, for the loss of only two planes and four crewmen. The following day, the Italians transferred their surviving ships to the greater safety of Naples.
Operation Judgment revolutionized warfare, and changed the course of history by ushering in the ascendancy of naval aviation and the aircraft carrier over battleships. Other navies paid close attention to what the British had done at Taranto, none more so than the Imperial Japanese Navy. The US Navy did not, to the America’s detriment a year later at Pearl Harbor.