Taranto Revisited: 75 Years On

DR RICHARD HAMMOND

As with many of the historically themed posts on this blog, this one relates to an anniversary. November 2015 marks 75 years since the Fleet Air Arm’s famous raid on the Italian Navy at Taranto. For the loss of just two aircraft, a small force of British biplanes heavily damaged three battleships, one of which was still undergoing repair work by the time of the Italian armistice. The Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Cunningham, wrote that ‘As an example of economy of force, it is probably unsurpassed.’ It is hard to disagree with him on this point.

Of course it was not just economy of force that Britain needed in late 1940, it was events that might change the course of a war that appeared to offer only disaster and defeat. Taranto seemed to offer such potential. Cunningham’s report of the action claimed that it had immediately become evident that freedom of movement was increased and sea control of the Mediterranean established, enabling British battleships to be freed for operations elsewhere. This brought broad agreement at the Admiralty and across the War Cabinet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Winston Churchill went much further. He exclaimed to the House of Commons that ‘the result affects decisively the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean and also carries with it reactions upon the naval situation in every quarter of the globe.’ In conjunction with successes on land in North Africa over that winter, it formed a basis for hope that Italy might soon be knocked out of the war entirely, and preparations were made to pursue a separate negotiated peace. These assessments and ambitions were to prove less realistic. In fact, while a hugely impressive achievement, and an undoubtedly important contribution to Britain’s war in several ways, Taranto did not deliver such decisive outcomes.

It has been noted by Angelo Caravaggio that actually, even in the immediate aftermath of Taranto, sea control was not in place to the extent envisioned by Cunningham. The Italian Navy managed to put much of its available strength to sea just days afterwards, successfully deterring a smaller but significant RN force from delivering a full complement of urgently needed fighter aircraft to Malta. Indeed, the Admiralty itself questioned the notion of a decisive shift in the balance of naval power at the time. In April 1941, despite another naval victory at the Battle of Cape Matapan, the Director of Plans projected that by the following March, Italy would boast an operational strength of three fully modern and two re-modernized battleships, along with 14 cruisers of various types. This was greater than its operational strength of capital ships when it had declared war. The estimated British force required to handle this was placed at three battleships, a carrier and 10 cruisers of mixed types plus destroyers based at Alexandria, with a further two battleships, a carrier, two cruisers and attendant destroyers at Gibraltar. Far from representing an opportunity to free naval forces for deployment elsewhere, this would be a significant increase in the force in the Mediterranean at the time of Taranto.

Losses of RN capital ships to German U-boats and Italian Special Forces, along with commitments elsewhere and the entry of Japan to the war, meant that by late 1941 the Mediterranean was denuded of capital ships. Cunningham was forced to admit that major operations by the Italian Navy would have to go unopposed in the short term. The Italians managed to deploy practically their entire fleet to escort a series of vital convoys to North Africa over the winter of 1941-42. After the first, Cunningham warned the Admiralty that ‘The enemy has experienced freedom of movement and must enjoy the taste…he will become more venturesome’.

In spite of this troublesome situation, there was an increasingly pressing need to ferry more supplies to Malta by sea, in order to avoid such an important base being starved into submission. British solutions to the problem included trying to sneak major convoys through with only light escort at sea or to try and compensate with greatly increased aerial escort. Although the first attempt successfully reached the island in March, the next two were costly failures. The eastbound convoy of Operation ‘Harpoon’ met with a roughly equal Italian force, receiving significant damage and having several ships disabled. The surviving merchant ships were delayed sufficiently for the German air force to sink them. The commander of the RN escort admitted that ‘but for the enemy surface forces, these ships might have been brought in.’ A simultaneous convoy bound westward from Egypt attempted to compensate through increased air cover. This met with similar failure. After reports that the Italian fleet was at sea, and the subsequent inability of the RAF to deter it progress towards the convoy, the formation was turned back and the operation abandoned. Cunningham’s successor as Commander in Chief, Henry Harwood, acknowledged that it proved air power alone could not achieve such a task, and would have to work in conjunction with a powerful surface escort.

Harwood’s view brought consensus from London, including the First Sea Lord and Churchill. This led to the decision that the following, and most famous of the Malta convoys (Operation ‘Pedestal’) would include a vastly increased escort force, despite the pressing need for naval resources in other theatres of war. Three carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers and twenty four destroyers were ultimately employed, and the main Italian Fleet did not meaningfully interfere with the operation.

Evidently, Taranto had not released naval resources for operations elsewhere in the manner Churchill and Cunningham had hoped, nor had freedom of movement at sea been greatly expanded for the British. This was partly attributable to increases of German air power in the theatre in 1942, but also the continued presence and potential of the Italian Navy, as evidenced the wish for and transferral of precious battleships to the theatre. As a returning Cunningham noted in December 1942, ‘as long as the Italian fleet is in being and in a position to interfere a considerable force of capital ships and therefore cruisers is required.’ This influence even extended into 1943 and the planning for landings on Sicily (Operation ‘Husky’). The Joint Planning Staff had emphasised from an early stage the importance of knocking out the Italian Navy or driving it into the Adriatic where it could be ‘bottled up’ more easily by a concentrated covering force. As this was not achieved, a much larger force was required, with dedicated air and submarine resources taken from other roles to instead await a potential sortie. Its continued presence was also listed as one of the constituent factors as to why there was only a single set of landings on the southern point of the island, rather than a concurrent set taking place elsewhere.

Taranto is rightly remembered as an extraordinary achievement. It was not just a highly impressive tactical success, but also offered hope to Britain at a dark time, and damaged the capabilities of the Italian Navy. It did not knock it out of the war however, and certainly failed to decisively alter the naval balance in the Mediterranean and around the world, as Churchill claimed. Even in terms of increasing freedom of manoeuvre and releasing resources, the effects were limited. The Italians continued to operate, sometimes with success, even in the immediate aftermath. Perhaps more importantly, it retained the potential to operate with its fleet-in-being and subsequently continued to influence the British. Under-escorted convoys were more open to attack, and alternatives to significant escort proved unsuccessful. A sortie in defence of the Italian homeland never came in 1943, but it still had to be planned against. This all led to naval resources that had hoped to have been freed for work elsewhere soon returning to the theatre, and a constant need to reaffirm sea control.

It is in this manner that Taranto should be remembered, as an important but single event in a wider whole – namely war at sea that still raged three years later in the Mediterranean. In that sense Taranto was certainly not an end to the story, but in fact it was not a beginning either. As I argue in work that is currently underway, and will elaborate upon further in a future blog post, it represents one part of a story of continuity throughout the period of Anglo-Italian antagonism of 1935-1943.

Image: Fairey Swordfish, via wikimedia commons.

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