Taranto revisited - only a tactical success?

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Taranto revisited - only a tactical success?

Post by Andreas » 09 Aug 2006 14:01

This is an interesting article analysing Taranto in the larger operational and strategic context of the naval war in the Med.

http://www.nwc.navy.mil/press/Review/20 ... 5-su06.htm

I was wondering what some of the resident experts think of the thesis?

All the best


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Post by Jon G. » 10 Aug 2006 08:07

I will not claim any specialist expertise on the matter but I will comment on this very good article regardless. It is always stimulating with a new take on the interpretation of a well-known event. Thanks for posting it.

Caravaggio's article is certainly the best technical overview of the Taranto operation that I have ever seen. I knew that the Royal Navy had magnetic torpedo pistols in its inventory by the time of Taranto, but I thought the Regia Marina would have known about this type of detonator, if nothing else via their German allies. The 'duplex pistol' of which Caravaggio speaks seems in reality to be nothing more than the ability to switch detonators on the same torpedo depending on the mission, a capability which eg. the Germans also had at the time although their magnetic pistols did not perform well in the early war.

I'm not altogether sure what to make of his remark that '...Despite its age and slow speed the Swordfish could operate at night, a unique attribute for its time and one that provided the British with the vital capability necessary to launch an operation against Taranto...' I don't think the Swordfish had any special night-flying capabilities. Flares were used for the operations, and Caravaggio himself mentions that the follow-up operation planned for the
following night would have used dive-bombers. That presumably means Skuas or possibly Fulmars also operating at night.

Caravaggio is of course right when he says that '...Arming six of the planes with bombs for use against cruisers and destroyers in the inner harbor at the expense of six more torpedoes for attacks against the battleships diluted striking power..., but I wonder how clearly that would have been understood at the time. It is true that torpedoes with magnetic pistols did best in the action against the French at Dakar and the RN drew conclusions accordingly, but then dive bombers had also done well prior to Taranto - the German cruiser Königsberg was sunk by Skua dive bombers in Norway in April 1940. To me, it seems to have been the right decision at the time to arm the attacking planes with a mix of ordnance against a mixed group of targets.

At any rate, the mixed weaponry used by the two waves of attacking aircraft clearly classifies the Taranto operation as a raid, which may have been followed up on as circumstances permitted depending on the results of the first attack. Incidentally, that's quite analogue to the near-contemporary Operation Compass, which was originally also conceived as a mere raid with modest objectives and of short duration.

Overall, it's a very good article by Caravaggio. He is probably right that the strategic implications of Taranto were overstated at the time, and have been overstated by historians ever since. Some of Caravaggio's criticisms of the British failure to utilize the initiative won at Taranto are a little over the mark IMO. I will try and address that in a later post.

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Post by Andy H » 10 Aug 2006 16:08

Further, there is clear evidence that British fleet resources committed to the Mediterranean after Taranto were desperately needed elsewhere. An Admiralty message to Cunningham on 22 November 1940 stated urgent considerations that demanded redistribution of the fleet. These factors included:

The appearance of the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer in the North Atlantic

Uncertainty as to whether the Admiral Scheer had proceeded south76

The existence of, probably, five disguised enemy surface raiders in the South Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, where they were taking a heavy toll of shipping

The need for escorts for troop convoys carrying reinforcements to the Middle East

Jon wrote:
Some of Caravaggio's criticisms of the British failure to utilize the initiative won at Taranto are a little over the mark IMO
I would agree with Jons statement, and Caravaggio's examples shown above are weak IMO.

We can all point to specific instances where assets would have been better utilized but these very rarely happen in isolation or without reprocussions.

I would argue that even if Taranto had succeeded beyound the historical actuality, and all the Italian BB's had been sunk, the redistribution of RN assets would have been minimal. In fact it could well have had the opposite effect.

More to follow


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Post by JonS » 10 Aug 2006 21:37

Jon G. wrote:I'm not altogether sure what to make of his remark that '...Despite its age and slow speed the Swordfish could operate at night, a unique attribute for its time and one that provided the British with the vital capability necessary to launch an operation against Taranto...' I don't think the Swordfish had any special night-flying capabilities. Flares were used for the operations, and Caravaggio himself mentions that the follow-up operation planned for the following night would have used dive-bombers. That presumably means Skuas or possibly Fulmars also operating at night.
I took it that the 'dive bombers' would have been Swordfish again, as they were on the first (only) night, but that could just be my reading. On the night flying, I suspect that would have been - at least in part - because of it's slow speed, not despite it. More relevant though, I should think, would be crew training (both in the a/c and on the flattop).


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Post by Jon G. » 10 Aug 2006 22:11

Yes, on my second reading I realized that he meant Swordfish used as dive-bombers. I know that the venerable Stringbag is held in very high regard by many people, but I've never before heard that it was used as a dive-bomber. The original 1936 plan called for dive-bombers as part of the attacking force.

This paragraph by Caravaggio is pertinent:
British planners were concerned that searchlights aimed at low angles might dazzle the pilots of the torpedo-armed aircraft. It was decided that a distraction was needed to keep the searchlights directed upward. Originally, this distraction was to have been provided by Wellington bombers from Malta that were to attack the dockyard and ships in Mar Piccolo between 8:30 and 9:15. Inexplicably, this proposal was not adopted. Instead the British decided to use some of the attacking Swordfish as dive-bombers to provide the desired distraction. Their confidence in so reducing the strike force to only two-thirds of its original strength may have been based, in part, on experience gained in earlier operations against similar targets.
You might get the impression that there was a whole fleet of Wellingtons sitting idle on Malta while the FAA was heroically attacking Taranto. But if memory serves Malta had a grand total of five Wellingtons on strength at the time of Taranto. Sure, that would have been enough to distract the Italian defenses, and it would have allowed the entire first wave to have been equipped with torpedoes, but it would not have changed the scale of the operation in any major way.

Anyway, I disagree with Caravaggio that equipping 1/3 of the attacking force with bombs equalled dilluting the strength of the attack by a similar factor. It is only with hindsight that we know the bombs weren't very effective. In fact, several of Caravaggio's conclusions are clearly applied with blatant hindsight - although that doesn't detract greatly from my overall high opinion of his article. I think his assessment of the Taranto operation is very sober.

As it was, the FAA essentially doubled its chances of achieving at least some measure of success by attacking with both bombs and torpedoes.

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Post by Jon G. » 16 Aug 2006 14:55

My overall high opinion of Caravaggio's article is retained, but he draws some overstretched conclusions at times.

For example here:
One of the most important operational advantages that could have been gained from a more aggressive posture after Taranto would have been in operational logistics. Up until this point in the war, the British had been unable to use direct sea routes through the Mediterranean except for the occasional heavily defended convoy. The British success at Taranto did not change this policy.
Well, if opening op the entire Mediterranean to British shipping was the objective of the Taranto strike, then that wasn't achieved. But I think that is overstating British intentions greatly - after all it took the conquest of both Tunisia and Sicily to permanently re-open the Mediterranean to Allied east-west shipping.
For example, of the twenty-one British supply ships destined for the Middle East that left Britain on 18 December 1940, sixteen sailed round the Cape and only five risked the Mediterranean. The majority of British supply ships destined for the Middle East continued to be routed around the Cape of Good Hope even though this route involved as much as a four-month round trip for the ships involved.
It would be interesting to see how many convoys, if any, were re-routed through the Mediterranean after Taranto and before Compass. Urgent convoys were still routed through the Mediterranean, the Tiger convoy in 1941 being the most famous.
Routing convoys through Cape Town and Durban increased cycle times and was to blame, in part, for a shortage of mercantile tonnage at this stage of the war.The proven scarcity and ineffectiveness of Italian air reconnaissance combined with a reduced surface threat should have enticed the British to send more convoys through the Mediterranean, thereby providing greater flexibility in managing their theater logistics. The threat from the surviving Italian battleships and an exaggerated fear of Italian airpower continued to influence British naval operational planning inexplicably in the months following Taranto.
The shortage of merchant shipping had everything to do with what was going on in the Atlantic at the time. The choice was between exposing merchant tonnage on hand to greater risks by sending it through the Med. or by increasing the need for tonnage by sending it on longer trips. If we accept that the Taranto raid made the Med. somewhat safer for British surface shipping, then it was a fairly short window between the November 1940 strike and Fliegerkorps X's entry into the Mediterranean in January 1941. From then on the central Med. was a shooting gallery.

At the most, the British would have gained two months' worth of convoys for the Middle and Far East. Hardly more than a passing advantage, and hardly enough to affect operations in the Middle East in any major way. After all, Wavell managed to launch two major offensives against the Italians in North and East Africa in the two months following Taranto.

I also think Caravaggio overstates the Taranto raid's importance for Malta's continued existence as an advanced British base in the Mediterranean:
In terms of the objectives of holding Malta as an advanced base of operations and keeping the Mediterranean open to maritime traffic, the raid on Taranto had little effect. In a letter to Admiral Pound on 22 September 1940, Cunningham expressed his desire to make Malta a fully operational strike base by 1 April 1941 [...]the aftermath of the Taranto strike presented an excellent opportunity to exploit a weakened Italian position and to bolster the British position in Malta, but the response was anemic.From the attack until the end of December 1940 the British sailed only three convoys totaling fourteen ships to Malta, approximately sixty thousand tons of supplies. The important fact buried in this statistic is that all of the merchant ships got through safely. Had a greater effort been expended to resupply Malta at this point, the island could have been in a better position to defend itself and to have become a fully operational base for the British early in 1941...

Cunningham's desire to expand Malta into a 'strike base' should be put in context with the decision to evacuate the British Mediterranean fleet when war broke out with Italy. As far as I know, it was seriously considered to evacuate Malta altogether until January 1940. Maybe the Taranto raid was helpful in the final decision not to evacuate Malta, which definitely would give at least one strategically important success derived from the Taranto strike.

As it was, maybe Cunningham wanted to emphasize the continued usefulness of Malta in his September 1940 letter to Pound. As it was, 60,000 tons of supplies sent to Malta in a single month do not seem insignificant to me - maybe it wasn't enough to sustain a large RN and RAF contingent on the island (note Caravaggio's earlier comment about the Malta based Wellingtons), but it was enough to keep the island floating as it were. From January 1941 it became a life and death struggle to keep Malta supplied, but who could have known that in September or November 1940.

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Post by CharlesRollinsWare » 18 Aug 2006 07:20


HMS Illustrious went to sea for Operation Judgement with an air group composed of 42 aircraft. An overstrength 806 Squadron had 15 Fulmar I fighters (folding wing) plus 3 Sea Gladiators (fixed wing), the later operating in a permanent deck park. 815 and 819 had 19 Swordfish I TSRs of their own, reinforced by 5 more aircraft and very experienced aircrews from the Eagle's two TSR Squadrons, 813 & 824, giving a total of 24 TSRs. However, due to a fuel contamination problem, three of these TSRs were lost on various missions enroute, leaving only 21 available for the strike itself. Illustrious was not operating any Skuas and neither type of fighter could carry any bombs.

Due to the limitations of the sole flight deck available wherein only 12-15 aircraft could be ranged simultaneously, the raid was sent off in two waves. The first consisted of 12 aircraft, half making up the torpedo eguipped main striking force and the other half carrying bombs for diversionary strikes on the inner harbor. Two of the later also carried flares for illumination to "back light" the primary targets at the beginning of the attack. The second wave consisted of nine aircraft, five with torpedoes and four operating as dive bombers - again two were equipped with flares for illumination.

A number of the aircraft dispatched were damaged in the attack, and two were lost. Of the nineteen that returned, only fifteen could be made serviceable for a "second" attack that, much to the chagrin of the surviving aircrew, was set for the following evening. While the Air Group made all preparations for the attempt, with tactical surprise no lost, none of the air crew or the air staff gave the attack much chance for success and the high casualties (50%) that had been forecast for the initial attack were expected to be realized. In the event, however, the weather did not cooperate and the strike cancelled.

As for the article in question, it is clear that the author has little if any understanding of the massive preparations that went into the preparing HMS Illustrious and her airgroup to take the prewar plan devised by Captain Arthur Lumley St.George Lyster, CVO, DSO, RN and his Commander Flying on HMS Glorious, Commander Guy Willoughby, RN. Both 815 and 819 squadrons had, since activation, been equiped with highly experienced, ex-Glorious aircrew, who trained extensively in pin-point, formation, night attacks, supplemented throughout the Summer of 1940 by many night operational sorties, primarily minelaying and night dive-bombing. Combined with a Captain and Air Staff that were considered the pre-eminent theorists in the FAA, Illustrious went to sea with the express purpose of executing "Judgement". She also carried "passengers" and new equipment for use in equipping HMS Eagle's two TSR squadrons with the most modern instrumentationa and training her already experienced aircrew in the latest night attack doctrine so she could join Illustrious in the attack. All this took months of preparation which, while the attack ended up on a smaller scale than planned, paid rich dividends in the end.

Hope this is of interest.

Mark E. Horan

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Post by Jon G. » 08 Sep 2006 11:09

Here follows some corrections to the original article. The corrections are by noted Italian naval historian Enrico Cernuschi. The comments below were very kindly translated by former AHF regular DrG.

Note that references to page and line numbers refer to the paper version of Caravaggio's text. It should not be too difficult to find the relevant text in the online version - it's not a very long text after all.
Enrico Cernuschi wrote:- British DDs were 38, not 29 (p.2, l.25)
- the 9 months of endurance of oil of the RM were for a cycle of operations without limitations (p.3, l.6)
- the RM felt relatively secure agaist torpedo bombers attacks in ports until the summer of 1940, when the attitude changed after the British actions in Cyrenaica and Augusta (p.4, l.5)
- the RM knew magnetic pistols (it was studying them since 1937), but ignored that the British had already made them (p.4, l.8)
- there aren't proofs that the design of Italian anti-torpedo nets was not suited. In Tobruk they stopped as many as 9 torpedoes launched against the San Giorgio (p.4, l.13)
- about the efficacy of nets at a depth of 10 meters against torpedoes set at a deeper depth due to their oscillations see the notes of adm. Ricci [I haven't them and don't know them, but I tend to believe, from Cernuschi's sentece, that indeed the changes in the depth of torpedoes could make them hit anti-torpedo nets above their set depth] (p.4, l.17)
- the Swordfish wasn't the only night-operating aircraft. Also the French had the Loire 411, of which the Italians copied the instruments of the cockpit, after having captured two in Sardinia (p.3, l.36)
- it is good to remember that bad weather torn most of the balloons (that hadn't been landed in time) a few days before the English attack on Taranto. The true (unjustifiable) problem was the lack of spare ones and the deficiency of the land organization, unable to face an emergency (p.6, last line)
- also the Doria was not hit (p. 7, l.40)
- English pilots weren't anxious of making a second mission in a nightmarish night, among invisible balloons and tracing bullets, that remained unique in its kind. The comment of one of them, reported by the Admiralty in its "The Wat at Sea. A Preliminary Narrative", 1946 was: "But not even the Light Brigade [the one of the charge of the 600 in Balaklava] was asked to do it twice!" (p.8, l.2)
- the Cavour was not grounded, it sank before (p.8, l.9)
- moreover, it was not towed to Trieste (old legend), but by its own means, in December of that same year, as testified by photographies (p.8, l.10)
- the Italian fleet was unable to menace the convoys bound to Greece and Crete because they, in the winter of 1940-41, precisely to avoid bad encounters, passed through the channel of Kasos, well beyond the range of action of the Italian DDs that, notoriously, extended as far as Gaudo (p.8, l.25)
- there was no retreat of British DDs from the Mediterranean after Taranto and the crisis of British DDs in the Atlantic touched its zenith, in winter 1940-41, before that the new ones and the old America DDs, bought in Sept. 1940, entered in service
- before the 28 of Nov. the Italian fleet steamed to find the British, already on the 14th, as is remembered by the same Canadian author in page 13 of his article (p.8, l.34)
- it is not true that existed only a basin, in Genoa, able to contain the Littorios. The Ferratti basin in Taranto, dating back to the 1910's, contained the Littorio a month after the attack. The largest Italian line-ships were able to careen not only in Genoa, but also in Venice and, with a few acrobatics, also in La Spezia (p.9, l.39)
- the idea of using the Ark Royal in the Eastern Med. is at least singular. The passage of the ship through the Straits of Sicily wouldn't have passed unnoticed (and the missed return of an aircraft carrier in Gibraltar would have been notice by the observers in Algesiras). The surprise would have disappeared, along with the rest. The pilots of that ship, moreover, were not trained enough, as was complained by adm. Sommerville a few days later after the failed attacks on the Italian fleet at Capo Teulada (p.10, lines 6 and 12)
- the Ark Royal never had a radar (p. 10, l. 16)
- a raid of the Force H against Naples was rejected in May 1941, it was even less possible in Nov.-Dec. 1940 (p.10, l.36)
- the reader has to remember that the Ulster Price was a transport ship (p. 11, l.1)
- on 15 dec. the Doria was in Spezia, Veneto and Cesare were in Naples. The British recon was wrong (p.11, l.7)
- Not "most of the supplies" but all of them. Except for the convoy of Nov. 1940 and operation Tiger of may 1941, no other British merchant ship passed through the Mediterranean until the end of may 1943 (p. 11, l.24)
- the Italians had already "recovered" in Nov., not in Dec. 1940, as demonstrated by the failure of op. White on 15 Nov. as remembered by the author himself in page 13, and, a few days later, by Capo Teulada (p.12, l.10)
- Matapan is of 28, not 29 March 1941 (p.13, l.7)
- the author mistakes Churchill's memorandum of Aug. 1941 about the future placing of the RN in the theathers with reality. In Alexandria, in Aug. 1941, there were 3 BBs, not 4. There weren't BBs in the Indian and Pacific oceans. About aircraft carriers, there was only the Ark Royal in Gibraltar, by far not 2 in Alexandria and 2 on the opposite side of the Med. (p.13)
- the unoportunity of passing through the Straits of Sicily was acknowledged by the RN already on 28 Nov. 1940, because "of the menace posed by the Italian torpedo boats", that had almost got a succes. The Luftwaffe arrived two months later. See adm. Keyes, "Combined Operations", 1943. (p.14, l.17)
- the supply lines to Africa were never interrupted, not even in 1943 (p.14, l.38)
- note 9, line 6: 7 BBs, not 6, and 46 DDs, not 61.
- note 19: Santoni's statements about the refusal of an aircraft carrier by the top of the RM have been proved wrong a long time ago. See for example my biography of Cavagnari published by "Rivista Marittima".
- note 63: baseless.
- note 79: the damaged cruiser was the Pola. The bombing of 8 Jan. damaged the Cesare, but not the Veneto.
I remain indebted to DrG for his generous sharing and translation of Cernuschi's comments.

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