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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Taranto Raid

11 November 1940

Location: Taranto, Italy
Players: British carriers 'Illustrious' and 'Eagle', RAF, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound
Outcome: Taranto harbour seriously damaged, one old and two new dreadnoughts destroyed, oil depots and hangars put out of action.

A 'Flying Fish' plane
A 'Flying Fish' plane©
The Japanese used the Taranto Raid as a blueprint for their attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, although they made the former look primitive in comparison.

Masterminded by the British, the Taranto raid relied on stealth. Twenty-four aircraft bombed the Italian naval base of Taranto on 11 November 1940. Flown in from the British carrier Illustrious, the Swordfish biplanes attacked in two waves, leaving an hour between each attack.

The plan appeared simple: approach the Italian coast, launch the bombers, sink the dreadnaughts, retrieve the aircraft, get back to base - but the execution was deadly accurate and put an end to the overweening surface power of the battleship. Much planning was involved, including decoy forces, intelligence, false radio signals, hours of reconnaissance flights and a concept that had been dreamt up years before by Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, then commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet.

Two carriers were intended to lend bombers for the raid: the Illustrious and Eagle. The attack was scheduled for 21 October, the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, but it was delayed by unforeseen problems: a mechanic short-circuited wires by mistake, causing a fire in the hangar of Illustrious; and the Eagle had developed serious machinery problems and had to be withdrawn. Five of her bombers were transferred to Illustrious.

Given these events, the RAF advised against the raid. They were afraid that a failure would result in the improvement of anti-aircraft defenses of the Italian harbour. But their warnings were ignored and the raid went ahead to devastating effect. Italian anti-aircraft guns were confused by flares set off by two leading planes; these also successfully illuminated targets.

The British bombers had only attacked a handful of warships, the hangars and oil depots, yet damage to the harbour and even to the city looked much more extensive. Only two British aircraft were lost.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.


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