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Taranto's Night

by Cristiano D'Adamo


Leading to the attack

Before reaching her assigned position, the Illustrious had to endure problems with her aircraft, which, if not brought under control, could have easily jeopardized the whole action. At 12:19 of the 9th, a Swordfish launched by the Illustrious experienced engine trouble and was forced to crash land near the Warspite. On the 10th, at around 7:00 another Swordfish experienced similar problems and was lost. The same day, Italian planes continued attacking the British force, now fast approaching Malta, but around mid-day a Cant 501 was lost. A later attack conducted by ten bombers did not cause any damage.

At mid-day on the 11th, the fleet was already halfway back toward Crete and, during a routine flight, another Swordfish was lost. The situation had become worrisome; three planes of the already dwindling task force had been lost. The three vehicles belonged to the 819th Squadron and had been refueled from the same fuel depot. After an inspection, it was discovered that the gasoline in the depot was contaminated with water, sand and mold.

The attack

The night of November 11th, a few miles off the Greek island of Cephalonia, about 170 miles from Taranto, the Illustrious released her Swordfish aircraft which, undetected, reached Taranto in two waves of 12 and 9 airplanes each. One of the planes in the first wave, due to a navigational error, reached Taranto 15 minutes before the rest of the squadron, causing the antiaircraft defenses to go into full alert.

First Wave

Flares and bombs

At 10:58 PM the two flare-launchers started their action. The two swordfish (Kiggell, L4P and Lamb L5B), flew over Cape San Vito, coasted the southern boundary of Mar Grande and began launching flares near the point in which the Tarantola's jetty meets land. Each plane dropped 9 flares, which provided a good back stage illumination for the incoming torpedo bombers. The dropping stopped just past the end of the balloon barrage, slightly north of the Doria. After a sharp turn, the two planes zigzagged back towards the large oil depot where they conducted an unsuccessful diving attack against an oil depot, and then headed back toward the safety of the sea.

Torpedoes

Williamson-Scarlet, L4A

At 23:14, crewmembers aboard the destroyer Fulmine witnessed the downing of Williamson-Scarlet's swordfish. Their plane, after a slow descent with the engine cut off, had successfully launched a torpedo toward the Cavour, but it had been stricken by anti-airplane gunfire from the Cesare. The two crewmembers were later rescued. They had flown over San Pietro Island, north of the smaller San Pietro island and almost straight across the bay through the Tarantola balloon barrage; the torpedo had literally squeezed between the destroyer Fulmine and the Lampo. The two crewmembers were picked up by dock workers, roughed up and then delivered to the Navy.

Maculay-Wray L4R and Sparke-Neale L4C

These crews followed the same approach route taken by their leader Williams. Instead of launching at the already stricken Cavour, their weapons were aimed at the further back-moored Doria. The planes flew between the destroyer Lampo and Baleno, and retracing their original route, they returned toward the Bay of Taranto. At 23:15, aboard the Doria, crew witnessed two explosions just near the ships' bow. These explosions were mistaken for bombs, but it is safe to assume that they were actually caused by the torpedoes exploding upon contact with the bottom. These crews could have easily aimed at the Vittorio Veneto, which was in slightly deeper waters.

Kemp-Baley L4K

Chronologically speaking, the attack which followed was the one conducted by Lt. N.M. Kemp. He flew north of San Pietro Island, north of the balloon barrage protecting the heavy cruisers to then sharply fly south towards the battleships. His altitude, estimated at about 1200 meters during the approach, suddenly decreased to a few meters before the launch. The torpedo quickly ran toward the Littorio striking the ship on her starboard bow. The crew rapidly left the bullet-infested Mar Grande, flying straight to the south near the Capo San Vito.

Swayne-Buscall L4M

Their maneuver was different from the one by Kemp-Bailey, but achieved the same result torpedoing the Littorio's starboard stern. Their flight path took them north of the San Pietro island, south of the "Secca della Sirena" to then make a sweeping 180 degree turn over the Littorio. Their escape route took them over the San Pietro Island and back into the Gulf of Taranto.

Maud-Bull E4F

This plane was the last one to the scene. It flew over Punta Rondinella, north of the cruisers and then squeezed a torpedo between the Duilio and the Littorio towards the Vittorio Veneto. The weapon entered the water but then exploded upon contact with the bottom, probably victim of a heavy "sack". The plane went back into the Gulf of Taranto, flying over the Island of San Pietro.

At 23:15 Patch-Goodwin E5A conducted at attack against the Libeccio in Mar Piccolo, hitting the target which was not seriously damaged since the weapon did not detonate. The hydroplane terminal was attacked by Sarra-Bowker L4L who destroyed two planes and caused a fire which was controlled within 15 minutes.

The first wave was over; damage was great and soon to be worse. The Littorio had received two hits and it was slowly going down by the bow, while the Cavour was been flooded by tons of water. While part of the aircraft of the first wave was conducting the primary attack against the units moored in Mar Grande, a secondary group conducted a bomb attack against units in Mar Piccolo.

Between the attacks

The anti-aircraft guns were silenced between 23:20 and 23:35, but soon planes from the second wave began making their appearance over the sky of Taranto. More planes dropped bombs near the destroyers between 23:30 and 23:40. All weapons fell about 20 to 30 meters short of their target. These were probably the bombs launched by Mardeal-Ferreira and Murray-Paine. Of the two planes, the first repeated the attack twice, due to an early problem with the release mechanism.


Second Wave

Flares and bombs

Hamilton-Weekes L5B and Skelton-Perkins L4F

At 23:35 several airplanes were once again spotted in the skies over Taranto. Between 23:50 and 23:55 seven or eight more flares were dropped by these two planes starting, more or less, at the same point os the previous one, but terminating further north. Following the launch of the flares, the two planes conducted an unsuccessful attack against the oil depot at the naval arsenal.

Torpedoes

Lea-Jones L5H

At 23:55, with the engine cut off, their airplane crossed Punta Rondinella and dropped a torpedo against the Duilio, the first of the battleships moored in Mar Grande. At around midnight, the ship was violently shaken following a hit near the bow.

Hale-Carline L5A or Torrens Spence-Button L5K

A minute past midnight, a torpedo from one of these two planes hit the Littorio for the third time. To this day, it is not known which crew scored the hit.

Wellham-Humphreys E5H

At the same time of the previous two crew, these planes conducted an attack against the Vittorio Veneto, but without scoring .

Bayley-Slaughter E4H

Their airplane was hit by the anti-aircraft fire and plunged into the water. The body of the commander was found and buried with full military honor, while the body of the co-pilot was never found.

Mar Piccolo

In addition to the flare-dropping planes, Clifford-Going L5F conducted a bomb attack against the Trento and the Miraglia. One of the bombs hit the Trento near the forward 10 mm gun causing minor damage, but failing to explode. At 1:22 the alarm was finally called off and the cleanup work immediately began.


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