Was Taranto the Inspiration Behind Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor?

Before Pearl Harbor the Fleet Air Arm showed the way at Taranto.
Aerial photo of Taranto Harbor and smoking ships after the attack
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Was Taranto the inspiration behind Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor?

The Fleet Air Arm’s raid on the Italian naval base of Taranto in 1940 was the first-time carrier launched aircraft were used to attack enemy ships, in a heavily defended harbour. It has been overshadowed by Japan’s much larger raid on Pearl Harbor, but it proved the concept of carrier born aircraft to the Japanese as they considered the risks of launching their own carrier born attack.

In the Inter-war period naval aircraft were largely seen as a novelty, whose purpose was to find enemy ships and direct the fire of the big guns onto them. However, with the increasing pressure on the Royal Navy’s resources from growing threats across the globe, advocates for naval airpower started to make ground. When Italy joined the war in 1940 it greatly restricted the Royal Navy’s ability to wage war, with a considerable number of its battleships tied up on convoy duty. Admiral Cunningham, the commander of the Mediterranean fleet therefore gave his support to what was at the time an unconventional operation, to relieve some of this strain.

On 11th November 1940, twenty-one Fairey Swordfish biplanes launched from HMS Illustrious attacked the Italian battle fleet at anchor in Taranto harbour. Although obsolete the ‘Stringbag’ was a reliable and manoeuvrable aircraft, and loved by its crews. They were also armed with the latest type of torpedo and flown by battle hardened veterans who had been on near continuous operations since the start of the war.

The Swordfish attacked Taranto in two waves, roughly half the Swordfish in each wave were torpedo bombers and attacked the battleships in the large harbour, Mar Grande. The remainder of the Swordfish attacked the smaller ships and base facilities in the inner harbour, Mar Piccolo, with bombs. Some of these aircraft also dropped flares to silhouette the battleships.

The attackers were picked up by Italian sound detectors as they approached and had to fly through an enormous anti-aircraft barrage from the shore batteries and guns of the ships in harbour. Flying low and throwing their aircraft around the sky the Fleet Air Arm pilots were able to avoid tracer fire the size of onions that came flaming towards them. Charles Lamb, one of the flare droppers said any normal aircraft would have fallen out of the sky. Altogether they dropped eleven torpedoes and forty-eight 250-pound bombs.

The battleship Littorio was hit three times by torpedoes, and the battleships Caio Duilio and Conte di Cavour once. Three cruisers and two destroyers were also badly damaged, as was Taranto’s oil storage facilities. All three battleships were eventually repaired and returned to service, but the Italians had to move their fleet to the safer harbour of Naples, which was in a less strategically advantages position, further relieving the pressure on Britain’s Mediterranean convoys. Miraculously the Fleet Air Arm only lost two Swordfish.

The raid established carrier born aircraft as a significant weapon and proved to the conservatives in the Japanese navy that carrier born aircraft could successfully attack ships in harbour. Taranto did not inspire the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as they had been making preparations for a year before the attack, but they did take a keen interest in the raid and sent a number of delegations to Italy to study the attack. This is where my novel Rising Tide comes in: when the Japanese start taking an interest in the raid it sets alarm bells ringing in the Admiralty about the vulnerability of British interests in the Far East.

Alan Bardos is a novelist and the author of Rising Tide.

Was Taranto the inspiration behind Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor?