Italian Fleet attacked in Taranto harbour

HMS Illustrious in 1940 with Swordfish aircraft

Twenty one Swordfish were launched from the new aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious for the raid on Taranto. Fifty per cent losses were expected.

A possible attack on the Italian naval base at Taranto had been planned and prepared before the war. The operation called for the Swordfish aircraft to make a long distance approach with auxiliary fuel tanks.

The torpedo aircraft then had to launch their torpedoes from a steady height of 150 feet while travelling at 90 knots in order to cope with the relatively shallow water. This should have made them sitting ducks for the Anti-Aircraft guns of the Battleships and Cruisers that they were attacking, and heavy casualties were anticipated. In fact only two aircraft were shot down, the crew from one of them surviving as prisoners. Three battleships were hit by torpedoes, one was sunk and the two others seriously damaged.

The other aircraft, carrying conventional bombs and flares to illuminate the target area, caused confusion as they attacked other targets. More ships were hit as well as dockyard installations.

The attack established beyond doubt the potential of aerial launched torpedoes, even in relatively shallow harbour waters. It was closely studied by other navies around the world, not least in Japan. More immediately it shifted the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean. Not only was a significant part of the Italian fleet put out of action, many of the remaining ships were swiftly moved to ports further north, out of harms way but further from their main area of operations.

The Fairey Swordfish biplane in flight with torpedo

The Fairey Swordfish biplane appeared obsolete but scored many notable torpedo hits during the war.


The Italian Battleships Littorio and Vittorio in action during exercises before the war. Both were targets of the Fleet Air Arm at Taranto, the Littorio was badly damaged.

RAF reconnaissance view of Taranto harbour

After the Fleet Air Arm attack the RAF flew a series of high level reconnaissance flights to assess the damage caused.

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Chris O'Connor January 4, 2015 at 2:46 am

There’s much more to this story:
– Illustrious’ radar (1st CV so equipped) kept Italian recon away
– Swordfish flew well below 150 feet
– Japanese learned more from the Italians than from the attack itself
– An American Naval officer was aboard Illustrious, and filed many
intelligence reports with ONI
– His request to go to Pearl Harbor and share “lessons learned” was denied
Get the whole story in my book, Taranto: The Raid, The Observer, The Aftermath, available at

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