Half of the Italian Navy was wiped out by British naval aircraft in Taranto Harbor on November 11, 1940. Today, this attack is often referred to as “the first Pearl Harbor,” as it is the blueprint that Japanese forces used while planning their attack on United States ships, which took place just over a year later. Few people in the US are aware of the Battle of Taranto, it’s not in a lot of the textbooks or lesson plans in public schools, but it was a resounding victory for British forces and proof that the naval air arm was a powerful tool against Britain’s enemies. Operation Judgment, as it was called, has become an integral part of military history.
Several reconnaissance missions flew over Taranto Harbor leading up to the attack, confirming that the entire Italian navy was in place there, at their headquarters. The base at that time didn’t even have rudimentary radar, and was unaware of the enemy ships in the area. Italian military personnel spotted one of the reconnaissance flights, giving them a small warning that something might happen.
The First Attempt
The Battle of Taranto was originally slated for October, 1940, based on plans that had been developed during the Munich crisis in 1938. The aircraft carriers slated for Operation Judgment were the HMS Eagle and the HMS Illustrious – but as the attack neared, neither of them were ready due to damage from fire and enemy action.
By November, the attack plans were in place. A variety of British naval vessels sailed within range of Taranto, but the assortment convinced Italian military officials that is was simply a convoy, not an attack mission. On the 11th, two waves of Fairey Swordfish – a total of 21 planes – took flight from the deck of the Illustrious carrying torpedoes, bombs, and flares. The attack raged well into the night, and at the end half of Italy’s military might lay in ruins. Casualties included three battleships, two of which were able to be repaired and returned to service before the end of World War II. The Italian fleet narrowly missed losing its flagship, the Vittorio Veneto.
Devastation of the Italian navy could have been far more profound, as the British planned a second attack the following day. The original plan was to complete the destruction of the navy before Italian forces had a chance to regroup from the initial attack, but the weather intervened and made a second attack impossible.
Overall, Operation Judgment in the Battle of Taranto is considered a brilliant military operation. The plan was closely followed by Japanese forces planning the Pearl Harbor attack, which resulted in far more casualties and collateral damage than the initial use of the plan. The fact that the operation worked so successfully, despite using a small number of outdated planes, inspired major considerations of the true use of military might.