The following events took place during the Second World War.
The main base for the Italian fleet was the southern base of Taranto. The British had long planned a raid on this port, but the original plan was dusted off when two carriers became available. A raid with these two carriers was planned for Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1940. The RAF began regular reconnaissance flights into the area by way of preparation, but a delay was imposed by a fire in one of the aircraft hangars in Malta.
Following the invasion of Greece on October 28, new urgency was injected into the proceedings. It was decided that hitting Taranto would help keep the east-west route through the Mediterranean open, something Britain wanted to do at all costs. They decided to strike Taranto at the next favourable moon phase, which would be the 11th of November.
It turned out that this delay had served the British well, because five of the six enemy battleships were in port, and all were in the spacious outer port. The strike was to be opposed by the battleships anti-aircraft guns, and also by torpedo nets and balloon barrage. Fortunately for the British, only one third of the expected torpedo nets were in place, and the balloons had suffered extensive damage in a recent storm. Despite this, attack was only possible on two narrow fronts, so the British decided to use a relatively small number of planes - 12 Swordfish planes in the initial strike, and 9 in the second.
The planes set out on the 275km journey at 20:40 for a two hour flight. The British pilots were freezing in their cockpits. The jittery Italians, warned of impending aircraft by warning apparatus, but possessing no night-aircraft, lit the sky with AA fire long before the aircraft arrived.
The strike itself was wonderfully planned and executed, the British flares exploding at 805m intervals and the torpedo-equipped planes sank the battleships with amazing efficiency. Remarkably, only one British aircraft was lost in the first raid, despite having to fly through the invisible balloon cables.
The second strike did not go quite as well, but was still a success. It arrived 45 minutes behind the first, and set about with the flare-line again. One of the torpedo-aircraft crashed, and another was hit. The bomber craft were marred by faulty fuses and payloads that failed to explode.
The planes returned to the carrier Illustrious in the early hours. The raid had been an astonishing success -for the loss of only two aircraft, three enemy battleships had been bottomed. Two were eventually salvaged and returned to service. This attack served to raise morale and show the economy of a well-planned carrier strike. It also led to the withdrawal of all Italian heavy units from the south.
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