On the night of November 11, 1940, the British carried out a
daring and well-planned attack on the Italian fleet anchorage at Taranto.
Taranto is located in Southeast Italy, on the western side of the "heel"
of the Italian boot, on the Gulf of Taranto on the Ionian Sea. All six
of the Italian battleships of the 5th and 9th Divisions were in port on
the night of the attack. The new British armored carrier, "Illustrious",
approached undetected to within 170 miles of the base and launched two
strikes of torpedo-carrying Swordfish aircraft, some of which were from
the complement of "Eagle".
At 11:14 PM, the 12.6-inch gun battleship, "Conte di Cavour"
was hit by one torpedo in her port bow between her number 1 and 2 turrets.
A minute later, the battleship, "Caio Duilio" was hit by a torpedo in her
starboard bow just behind her number 1 turret. At the same time, the
15-inch gun battleship, "Littorio", was hit by three torpedoes: two in
her starboard bow and one in her port stern. The British used flares to
illuminate the harbor and only two of the twenty-one aircraft were shot
down, both to anti-aircraft fire.
"Littorio" and "Duilio" were moored in shallow water and were
run aground, down by the bows, to prevent their sinking. "Cavour",
however, was moored in deeper water and the decision to run her aground
was made too late. She listed to starboard and sank with only her
superstructure and main turrets above water.
The next day, the undamaged ships, "Guilio Cesare", "Vittorio
Veneto", and "Andrea Doria" (which was still not fully operational),
were transferred to Naples while Taranto's defenses were upgraded.
British Fairey Swordfish torpedo plane
with 18-inch torpedo of kind that
sank Italian ships at Taranto
from ILN, 1940/11/23, p.815
Salvage operations began immediately on the damaged ships.
"Littorio" and "Duilio" had held up relatively well and refloating
them was not particularly difficult and was accomplished within a
month. "Littorio" would be fully repaired in a little over 4 months
and "Duilio" in 6 months. "Cavour", however, suffered far more damage
and required a significant amount of lightening before she could be
raised. In fact, "Cavour" would never see action again and was still
undergoing repairs in Trieste at the time of the armistice.
Despite the losses at Taranto, the Italian Navy still had the
material wherewithal and desire to bring the British forces to combat.
This was demonstrated on November 27, 1940, when the Italians encountered
the British off Cape Teulada (known by the British as the Battle of