Operation Judgement: the Battle of Taranto

Naval aviation history

Richard Shuttleworth recalls the Royal Navy’s successful airborne attack on the Italian naval base on 11 November 1940

By November 1940 the war in Europe had been raging for just over a year. Between 26 May and 4 June the British had been forced to retreat from Europe at Dunkirk; it was fortunate for us that Hitler had not at the time taken advantage of the situation to invade Britain. On 10 June Mussolini declared war, and ten days later France capitulated to the Germans. Britain stood alone.

The outlook was grave, but the Royal Navy possessed a large fleet, even though many ships were elderly – some dating from World War I, including the flagship, HMS Hood. Two of the Royal Navy’s six aircraft carriers had been sunk, but those of the new Illustrious class were under construction.

However, the loss of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir after the French surrender made the situation worse. To secure the western end of the Mediterranean the Admiralty decided to form Force H, based at Gibraltar; this included one carrier, HMS Eagle, the only modern vessel in service. The Royal Navy also had a substantial fleet based at the far end of the Mediterranean, in Alexandria.

As early as 1935, when Italy had invaded Abyssinia, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Fleet, had identified the southern Italian naval base of Taranto as a future target, and plans had been drawn up to attack it when appropriate. In 1938, Captain Lumley Lyster, RN, of HMS Glorious, knew of these plans; by 1940 he was Rear Admiral Aircraft Carriers Mediterranean, under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham (known as ABC), Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet – a much-admired officer of the old school, who believed in big ships with big guns. (The closest he came to a pure battleship encounter was off Cape Matapan at the southern tip of Greece, in March 1941.)

The threat

The Italians needed to resupply their troops in Libya, and also to move troops and supplies via Egypt southwards to their colony of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). In August the Italian fleet, already bigger than the British Mediterranean Fleet, received two new battleships which were not only faster than most ships in the British fleet, but also outgunned them. At the end of that month, however, although the Italians came close to an encounter with the Royal Navy, they withdrew into harbour: unlike the British, the Italian ships had a major disadvantage in not having radar, so there were few actual skirmishes.

Malta, the British base vital to the interruption of the Italian resupply to Libya, lay very close to the toe of Italy, and was vulnerable to bombardment. So it was seen as imperative that the heavily defended Taranto harbour, inside the ‘heel’ of Italy, should be attacked and the Italian fleet put out of action. The captain of the newly commissioned carrier HMS Illustrious, Captain Denis Boyd, DSC, a very able officer, was a veteran of Jutland who, although not a naval aviator, had a deep understanding of and personal interest in aviation, and had gained a pilot’s licence. HMS Illustrious and HMS Eagle were working up their crews, and night-flying practice played a major part in this. However, a clear moonlit night was needed and 21 October, with its serendipitous association with Nelson’s greatest victory at Trafalgar, was chosen as the best opportunity. Taranto was being regularly reconnoitred by the RAF in Crete, which had received three particularly useful Martin Maryland reconnaissance aircraft from the USA, originally destined for the French until they
had surrendered.

Operation MB8 was the code name, and the attack on Taranto was Operation Judgement. However, a serious fire in the hangar of HMS Illustrious delayed Operation Judgement. Her Swordfish were fitted with an extra fuel tank in the space where the observer normally sat, and his seat was moved to the telegraphist/air gunner’s rear seat, which was likely to be sprayed with fuel if the tank vented. Some of her Swordfish, destroyed in the fire, were replaced by Swordfish from HMS Eagle – but Eagle had problems herself, as she had been attacked and mined so many times that her aviation fuel system had been seriously damaged. She was removed from Operation Judgement and the attack was postponed.

The attack

HMS Illustrious. Photo: IWM

On 11 November 1940 HMS Illustrious was despatched from the main force, with four cruisers as escorts, to a position 40 miles west of Cephalonia, south of Corfu. Her Fulmar fighters had prevented Italian aircraft from discovering the move. A squadron of destroyers was sent to the mouth of the Adriatic to interdict the supply routes from Italy to Albania.

The final RAF reconnaissance showed that a sixth battleship had arrived in Taranto that day, but it also showed barrage balloons, identified by skilled stereoscopic aerial photograph examination only just in time. These along with some anti-torpedo nets, restricted the approach paths for the attacking aircraft; however, bad weather had removed two-thirds of the barrage balloons, and the nets were not fully in place as the Italian captains considered them a nuisance to ship movement.

In the previous 24 hours, three Swordfish had suffered engine failure; Commander ‘Flying’ James ‘Streamline’ Robertson identified the problem and, true to his nickname, got all the fuel systems cleaned in a few hours. This meant that 21 aircraft were available.

The attack was in two waves. The first, departing at 20:00, had twelve aircraft, and the second, at 21:00, nine. In each wave, six aircraft had 18-inch torpedoes, with a secret duplex fuse which could detonate under a ship by sensing its magnetic presence, as well as on contact. The remaining aircraft carried bombs and flares.

As the first wave headed towards Taranto the Italians heard possible aircraft noise on their ‘airphonic’ sound detectors, but thought they were false alarms or reconnaissance aircraft. At 22:25, however, the sounds were of the attack itself: although the Italians had been ready and waiting, they had, as mentioned earlier, no radar. A serious problem for the Italians was that the attacking aircraft came in so low that their own ships were in the way of their guns.

Flares had been dropped, set to burn at 4,500 feet as the torpedo aircraft descended in the dark to around 50 feet, and passed between barrage balloons on the mole on the south-east side of the outer harbour, dropping their torpedoes seconds later. In the first wave the leader’s aircraft was shot down, but its pilot and crew were rescued. By 23:35 the first wave withdrew from what was now a re-creation of Dante’s Inferno, and they made their way back to HMS Illustrious.

Meanwhile, at 22:20 the second wave had departed HMS Illustrious. Two of the Swordfish had collided on deck, but one was repaired, and departed 20 minutes later. On another aircraft the extra fuel tank fell off in flight, and that aircraft returned, narrowly escaping being shot down in the process.

Battleship Littorio with bow under water, attended by tugs after being hit by three torpedoes in the attack. Photo: Australian War Memorial / PD

For the second wave, navigation was easy – just head towards the fireworks display – but the Italian defenders were ready. When the seven remaining aircraft arrived at Taranto there was no way they could surprise the defenders, and their reception was fierce. One aircraft attacked so low that a wheel was believed to have touched the water. By 02:50 that wave had returned, having lost one aircraft. Sadly, one of the two crew killed was never found. Despite this, the casualties were far fewer than anyone would have dared to expect.

Not knowing how successful the raid had been, Command decided to send in a further attack while the enemy was in disarray. It was, however, pointed out that ‘even at Balaclava the Light Brigade had only been asked to go in once’ – and anyhow the weather had deteriorated. The proposed follow-up attack was cancelled.

The aftermath

One Italian dreadnought had been sunk and two battleships put out of action for months. If HMS Eagle had been able to join the attack, victory might have been total; but even so, until the Germans turned their attention to the Mediterranean later, this seemingly suicidal attack constituted a major blow to the Axis powers. The pilots and crews were outstandingly brave, and many of them took part in operations later.

Although airborne attacks on battleships by aircraft had been discussed since the mid-1930s, this was one of the earliest successes. The May 1941 sinking of the Bismarck, crippled by Swordfish torpedoes, would underline the viability of the tactic, as would the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse.

Richard Shuttleworth is a former Fleet Air Arm Wessex 5 pilot, and was also of the Oman Frontier Force and the London Air Ambulance. He is the son of a Swordfish observer and the brother of two other Fleet Air Arm pilots.