6. A Devastated Fleet, For the Loss of Only Two Airplanes
In the weeks and days that preceded the raid on Taranto, RAF photoreconnaissance confirmed the presence of the Italian fleet and identified the location of various warships, especially the battleships. Final plans were then formed, and a strike force prepared. A first wave of twelve Swordfish biplanes, half armed with torpedoes and the other half with bombs and flares, were launched from HMS Illustrious at 9 PM, November 11th, 1940. They were followed by a second wave of nine Swordfish 90 minutes later. The first Swordfish to reach Taranto dropped illumination flares, 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.
In less than two hours, the biplanes hit three battleships and several cruisers, and severely damaged the port’s installations, for the loss of two planes and four crewmen. The Italians lost half their capital ships that night, and the next day, they transferred the warships that had survived the raid to the greater safety of Naples. The attack on Taranto ushered in the ascendancy of naval aviation and the aircraft carrier over battleships. It was a momentous engagement that revolutionized warfare. Other navies took a keen interest in what the British had done at Taranto, and Japanese observers of the Imperial fleet, in particular, paid close attention. US Navy observers did not, to America’s detriment a year later at Pearl Harbor.