Taranto 1940 Part II


Mr Churchill, in accordance with his nature, expressed a view rather more generous than that of the Admiral. On the day after the Stringbags, less two, had returned to the nest he stood up in Parliament and spoke with feeling. The Prime Minister deserved his opportunity after months and months of nothing but failure and defeat to report. He took it. ‘I have some news for the House. It is good news. The Royal Navy has struck a crippling blow at the Italian fleet. The total strength of the Italian battle fleet was six battleships, two of them of the “Littorio” class, which have just been put into service and are, of course, among the most powerful vessels in the world and four of the recently reconstructed “Cavour” class. This fleet was, to be sure, considerably more powerful on paper than our Mediterranean Fleet, but it had consistently refused to accept battle. On the night of the 11th–12th November, when the main units of the Italian fleet were lying behind their shore defences in their naval base at Taranto, our aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm attacked them in their stronghold.’

He went on, not without relish, to set out in some detail all that the photographs rushed to him by the RAF had depicted. His exposition was as accurate as it could be from photographs alone. ‘It is now established that one battleship of the “Littorio” class was badly down by the bows and that her forecastle is under water and she has a heavy list to starboard. One battleship of the “Cavour” class has been beached, and her stern, up to and including the turret, is under water. This ship is also heavily listed to starboard. It has not yet been possible to establish the fact with certainty, but it appears that a second battleship of the “Cavour” class has also been severely damaged and beached. In the inner harbour of Taranto two Italian cruisers are listed to starboard and are surrounded with oil fuel, and two fleet auxiliaries are lying with their sterns under water. The Italian communique of 12th November, in admitting that one warship had been severely damaged, claimed that six of our aircraft had been shot down and three more probably. In fact only two of our aircraft are missing, and it is noted that the enemy claimed that part of the crews had been taken prisoner. I felt it my duty to bring this glorious episode to the immediate notice of the House. As the result of a determined and highly successful attack, which reflects the greatest honour on the Fleet Air Arm, only three Italian battleships remain effective.’

The Prime Minister went on to speak of heroism of a more customary kind, the loss of the Jervis Bay along with Captain Fogarty Fegen and his entire ship’s company, sunk by the German battleship she had taken on in a hopeless, valiant, attack in order to give her convoy some chance to get away. It was the first time since the purely defensive Battle of Britain that Mr Churchill had been able to speak of hitting back, and hitting back hard. Along with the entire nation, he made the most of it.

It took some days before a proper assessment of the damage could be made. Littorio, though looking dramatic with two naval auxiliaries, a large submarine, a tanker and several smaller craft close alongside, was not desperately hurt, certainly not for a ship fairly struck by three torpedoes. The two hits scored by the first strike had holed her. Neil Kemp’s hit on the starboard bow had blown an opening 49 by 32 feet in the bulge abreast No 1 6-inch turret; that from Ian Swayne in L4M had opened up another on the port quarter, 23 feet by 5, abreast the tiller flat. The second strike, that of Torrens-Spence in L5K, had been the most damaging. The torpedo had struck home at a very low level on the starboard side, forward of Kemp’s hit, blowing a hole 40 feet by 30. Less importantly, the fourth torpedo was found in the mud under Littorio’s stern – there was an unaccountable dent in her starboard quarter – with its striking cap damaged by impact after passing the target. Praise is due to Engineer Inspector-General Umberto Pugliese and the Ansaldo company for designing and building a ship strong enough to survive such punishment. Littorio, down by the bows and with her forecastle awash, retired hurt. She was, however, capable of repair and was back at sea by the end of the following March. Perhaps the 18″ torpedo, even with the Duplex fuse, was not the ultimate weapon for use against battleships and their like.

The older ships, Cavour and Duilio, were in a worse plight. Williamson’s torpedo had made the biggest impression of them all, leaving a hole 40 feet by 27 on the port bow under the foremost turret. Two oil fuel tanks were flooded, and only with difficulty were the adjacent compartments prevented from flooding as well. L4A, whatever the fate of its occupants, had delivered a knock-out punch. At 05.45 Cavour was towed inshore and abandoned, settling comfortably down with her stern on the bottom. Almost all her decks were under water, the after turret submerged entirely. She was refloated in July, 1941, and towed to Trieste but for the Conte di Cavour the war was over. She never came back.

Duilio was the victim of L5H in the second striking force. ‘Sprog’ Lea’s torpedo had made a clean hit on the starboard side at a depth of 29 ft 6 in and blown a gap 36 feet by 23 between Nos 1 and 2 magazines. Both were completely flooded. Like her sister, Caio Duilio was beached, patched up and towed to Genoa. Repairs took until the end of May, 1941.

The Official Report rounds it off: ‘The results of the bombing attacks were not noticeable at the time. It is now known that the Trento and Libeccio received direct hits from bombs which failed to explode, and other ships were narrowly missed; according to the Italians, few of these bombs exploded.’ This was a disappointment of some order. Ranged alongside at the destroyer/cruiser quay complex had been twenty-one destroyers and large torpedo boats with four cruisers berthed bow and stern along a frontage of no more than 1,000 yards. Had that not been target enough there were three more destroyers and two more heavy cruisers just offshore. The two bombs out of two dozen that hit but failed to explode caused a small amount of damage – the RAF photographs show a quantity of leaked oil on the surface of the Mar Piccolo – but it was a disproportionate reward for so much skill, determination and plain old-fashioned courage. The lesson it was supposed to have taught, but which was shown a couple of months later to have been dreadfully wrong, was that the bomb was almost worthless as a means of sinking ships even at anchor. In all forty-two of them, of the standard 250-lb SAP pattern, fused nose and tail, were dropped.

The oil tanks suffered some damage, judging from the fires seen to start, but it can not have amounted to much. More important was the attack on the seaplane base. This was home to the spotters which plagued Cunningham’s fleet and radioed back every move made by every ship. It took six bombs, direct hits on hangar and slipway, with a satisfactorily large fire caused in the adjacent building. Wellham knew it to be still smouldering on the following day. The result would not, of course, have been to put the spotters out of business but it can not have been helpful to them.

Far and away the most important consequence was the moral effect. Taranto raised the hearts of everybody on the allied side, as a demonstration that we had moved on from the ‘Britain Can Take It’ slogans and posters of some months earlier. At last it was plain that Britain was beginning to acquire the ability to dish it out. The Italian navy had not seemed exactly avid to come to hand-grips with Cunningham’s ships even when they outnumbered and outgunned them handsomely. Now that the strength of the Italian battlefleet had been halved and the Royal Navy strengthened by another battleship, three cruisers and two destroyers, the light of battle in the eyes of the Duce’s sailors grew no fiercer. Small blame to them.

That the episode had been glorious was beyond question and it had come at a moment when glorious episodes were a little scarce. Even making all allowances for the general mood towards the end of a year not notable for victories, it may have been that the results were not entirely what they ought to have been. Had surprise been achieved there might have been some chance of sinking the prime targets. Vittorio Veneto and Littorio, roughly equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Prince of Wales and Duke of York, got off lightly. Littorio was removed from the scene for a matter of months only; two torpedoes were aimed at Vittorio Veneto, one grounding harmlessly and the other missing altogether. Of the two older ships, comparable with Royal Oak and Royal Sovereign, Cavour had been eliminated from the war and Duilio taken out of it for half a year. Fortune had not favoured Operation Judgment, but it would have been worthwhile for the moral effect alone. ‘Glorious Episode’ was not mere hyperbole.

Fraternal greetings came from a namesake to HMS Eagle: ‘The American Eagle Club of London expresses hearty admiration of your gallant work at Taranto. Americans abroad and at home will be proud of you. Congratulations. Robert H. Hutchinson, chairman.’ No message came from another navy whose creation had been largely the work of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. Admiral Yamamoto doubtless studied the operation in detail, for it contained practical experience that would come in useful a little over a year later. Nobody expected praise from that quarter.

Captain Boyd of Illustrious addressed his ship’s company, pointing out that ‘in one night the ship’s aircraft had achieved a greater amount of damage to the enemy than Nelson had achieved in the Battle of Trafalgar, and nearly twice the amount that the entire British fleet achieved in the Battle of Jutland in the First World War’. Had he felt so inclined, Captain Boyd might have parodied Admiral Beatty’s much-quoted remark on that occasion: ‘There’s something wrong with our bloody bombs today, Chatfield.’

And so from Italian casualties to our own. The body of Lieutenant Slaughter was never found; that of his pilot, Lieutenant Gerald Wentworth Loscombe Abingdon Bayly, was accorded the honourable treatment that one may expect from a civilized enemy. He lies now in the Military Cemetery at Bari. The other victim, L4A, was more fortunate. You will remember that we left Lieutenant-Commander Williamson in the water by the floating dock and Lieutenant Scarlett sitting there waiting upon events. Their captors behaved admirably towards their prey. ‘In fact,’ said Williamson, ‘we were almost popular heroes. Two nights after our raid the RAF came over and we were put into an air-raid shelter full of seamen. They all pressed cigarettes on us and towards the end of the raid about twenty of them sang “Tipperary” for our benefit.’ Scarlett was a more abrasive character. His obituarist observes that he ‘was an excellent prisoner from the Allied point of view. He did much to annoy his captors and keep up the morale of his fellow POWs. In 1945 he was mentioned in despatches for organizing an attempt to escape from a camp near Lübeck.’

Everybody who had had any part in the business, fitter, rigger, aircrew and indeed all hands on both carriers, knew for certain that they had won a great and famous victory. Only one man seemed less persuaded. You will remember how, after Albuhera in 1811, Wellington came across General Beresford as he wrote ‘a whining report that would have driven England mad’. The Duke found it necessary to explain to the other that he had won a great victory. Sir Andrew wrote no whining report but he never seemed quite to have taken in what his newest arm had achieved. The ‘Manoeuvre well executed’ signal may have been an ironic pleasantry, for the Navy well understands the value of meiosis.

But it was within the Admiral’s power to mark the fact that it had been uncommonly well done by a fairly generous giving of decorations. When the immediate awards were announced the heavy displeasure of everybody concerned was soon made manifest. DSOs to the two flight leaders were natural enough, even though the absent Williamson would have to wait for his. The four DSCs went to Scarlett, to two other observers and to a pilot from Eagle. The entire company of Illustrious rose up in wrath at such a niggardly grant, the more so because not a single pilot from their ship, squadron commanders apart, received anything. Some unidentifiable sailor tore down the notice from the board. Being the honest man he was, Sir Andrew admitted years afterwards that he had undervalued both the feat itself and those who had performed it. Very possibly, with his traditional background, he shared the opinion of the great Duke that a man ought not to be especially rewarded for doing what he ought to have done.* The simmering anger boiled when the awards for Matapan – ‘many DSOs and scores of DSCs’, Charles Lamb called them – were announced. In May, 1941, Captain Boyd, late of Illustrious, found a well-disposed MP who was willing to ask a Question. Two more DSOs, fourteen more DSCs and Mentions in Despatches for all those left out were added. By then twenty of the forty who had flown to Taranto were dead.

Others less intimately concerned seemed to have a better understanding of what had been achieved. Admiral Pound wrote of it to Admiral Cunningham: ‘Just before the news of Taranto the Cabinet were rather down in the dumps; but Taranto had a most amazing effect on them.’ One has to sympathize. There can have been little joy around the Downing Street table towards the end of 1940. For a time there were beaming smiles and mutual congratulations.

It was not quite the same in the opposing camp. Count Ciano, Mussolini’s unfortunate son-in-law, left a diary, written up in his prison cell at Verona shortly before his relation by marriage had him shot. Ciano tells, under ‘12 November 1940’, of ‘a black day. The British, without warning, have attacked the Italian fleet at anchor in Taranto, and have sunk the dreadnought Cavour and seriously damaged the battleships Littorio and Duilio. These ships will remain out of the fight for many months. I thought I would find the Duce downhearted. Instead he took the blow quite well and does not, at the moment, seem to have fully realized its gravity.’ In this, at least, he made common cause with Admiral Cunningham. The stiff upper lip phase did not endure; rage took its place.

The Regia Aeronautica (which Ciano says was always poking fun at the navy)* tended to avoid Alexandria whilst the Fleet was in residence. It was now ordered to seek instant vengeance. During the absence of Cunningham’s ships the Italian pilots flew in during daylight hours, hit a destroyer without doing her much harm and scattered time bombs around the anchorage near to the floating dock. This could have been serious but it was no sort of spectacular revenge. On the morning of 12 November three of the big CANT flying-boats were sent in to do all the damage they could. It did not amount to much and all of them were shot down by Fulmars from Illustrious as she returned to port. From Mussolini’s point of view there was only one thing to be done and he turned to his master. Hitler and Goering had a score of their own to settle with the British after the thrashing their Luftwaffe had received from the RAFs Fighter Command. Once they had grasped the fact that the balance of sea power in the Mediterranean turned almost wholly upon the existence of a single ship the word went out from Berlin.

Send in the Stukas. Sink the Illustrious.