THE ATTACK AT TARANTO
Tactical Success, Operational Failure
Lieutenant Colonel Angelo N. Caravaggio, Canadian Forces,
NAVAL WAR COLLEGE REVIEW
Much has been written about naval supremacy in the Mediterranean and the naval conflict between the British and Italian fleets with the Germans playing a secondary role in support of their Italian allies.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Caravaggio of the Canadian Forces, the British failed to establish supremacy in the Mediterranean. They failed to expel the Italians who continued to dominate the central Mediterranean and support, almost interrupted, vital Italian convoys to North Africa sustaining Axis forces with the resources to continual fighting for three years.
Caravaggio’s conclusion is that the Taranto attack failed to shift the balance of power in favor of the British who “failed to capitalize on the operational opportunities resulting from their attack.” It was not the decisive victory they claimed it to be.
In the attack, four Italian battleships were damaged but not destroyed. Three were quickly repaired and ready for action within a few months. The initial euphoria of Churchill and Admiral Cunningham was short-lived.
The attack on Taranto only gave the British a temporary reprieve. In fact, according to Caravaggio,
“measured against the principal task of disrupting Axis convoys to Africa, the Taranto attack had literally no effect; it increased not at all the British ability to stop deliveries to Libya. In fact, Italian deliveries to Libya increased during the months of October 1940–January 1941 to an average of 49,435 tons per month, up from the 37,204-ton average of the previous four months.83 Losses for the seven-month period of June–December 1940 were less than 2 percent. The February 1941 to June 1941 statistics are even more telling, with the average monthly Italian deliveries to Libya almost doubling, to 89,563 tons per month.”
In a word, the Taranto attack failed to capitalize on its limited success and did not change the balance of power in the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean campaign would eventually cost the British 244 merchant ships and 135 warships, representing 930,673 and 411,935 tons, respectively. The Italians were able to make the British pay dearly for contesting control of the Mediterranean. In the end, they were never able to overcome and defeat the Italian fleet in the “Middle Sea”.
“After the attack at Taranto, British naval authorities exhibited a lack of operational insight and so failed in three critical areas: they failed to finish the destruction of the Italian battleships; they failed to eliminate the critical infrastructure support needed to sustain the battle fleet, in particular the dry dock and fuel at Genoa; and they failed to exploit their newly won operational freedom to achieve a theater-wide buildup in logistics by pushing convoys through to Malta and Alexandria. The Royal Navy had the RMI on the ropes after Taranto but failed to deliver the true knockout blow that would have changed the context within which the rest of the war in the Mediterranean was fought. Destruction of the Italian battle fleet in 1940 would have given the British outright sea control in the Mediterranean. Instead, conflict of priorities squandered a priceless opportunity.”
Thus, for all their blustering and claims of an “outright victory”, the raid on Taranto harbor on the nights of the 11-12 November, 1940, produced little effect operationally and strategically. The naval war in the Mediterranean would continue for a further two and a half years, a contest the British could ill afford in terms of ships, men and resources that were sorely needed elsewhere.