Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Attack at Taranto

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Attack at Taranto

Article excerpt

Tactical Success, Operational Failure

The lack of a decisive British victory in theMediterranean theater fundamentally affected British maritime strategy throughout the Second World War. The Royal Italian Navy, or RegiaMarina Italiana (RMI), exerted a disproportionate influence on British strategy and fleet disposition, because its existence could not be ignored and British operations to eliminate it failed. On 11 November 1940, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, the British commander of naval forces in the Mediterranean, had the opportunity to eliminate the entire complement of battleships from the Italian order of battle, at Taranto. However, questionable decisions in the planning process, combined with Cunningham's decision to launch a considerably reduced strike force, succeeded in only temporarily reducing the Italian battle fleet from six to two battleships. More importantly, the British failed to capitalize on the operational-level opportunities resulting from the success of their attack. Britain held the initiative, but the window of opportunity to decisively shape the conditions in the Mediterranean theatre after Taranto was finite, and it closed with the arrival of the German Fliegercorps X in January 1941.1

The widely accepted assessment of the outcome of the British attack at Taranto as a decisive victory with strategic implications, then, is wrong.2 The failure to exploit the favorable conditions generated by the attack represented a missed opportunity that had significant ramifications for the disposition of British fleet resources across all theaters, theater logistics within theMediterranean, and ultimately in the execution of the British land campaign in North Africa. The failure to deliver a decisive blow at Taranto obliged the British to tie up in theMediterranean naval forces that otherwise could have been deployed to the Atlantic, Indian, or Pacific theaters. The lack of British strategic and operational focus at this critical juncture of the war squandered vital resources and resulted in missed opportunities.3 Consequently, the Italians were allowed to recover from what was seemingly a decisive British victory and, in the following three years, force Britain to commit, and subsequently lose, a sizable portion of its surface fleet to contain the Italian "fleet in being." By measuring success gained against operational objectives assigned, this article will argue that the British attack at Taranto was a tactical success but one that did not significantly alter the strategic balance in theMediterranean, because the British failed to capitalize on the operational opportunities resulting from their attack.

STRATEGIC OVERVIEW: BRITAIN

Since the eighteenth century it had been British policy to maintain at least a one-power standard of naval strength (that is, determination to exceed the forces of any other single power) in the Mediterranean. With the opening of the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean became the main artery of imperial sea lines of communication, raising significantly the importance of this region.4 In the interwar period, British naval planners were faced with the question not merely of what sort of fleet they needed but also of how to balance commitments and resources in an era of considerable political and technological uncertainty. The decision was made to basemuch of the British fleet in theMediterranean, a strategically sound position from which to move either to home waters against the Germans or to the Far East against the Japanese.5

The key to the Mediterranean theater was the island fortress of Malta, some sixty miles south of Sicily. The former had been under the British flag since 1800. It supplied a refuge and refueling point for warships and merchant ships midway between Gibraltar and Alexandria, and it served as a forward base for submarine and light surface forces. Initially, Malta was considered indefensible in aMediterranean war, but this belief changed quickly once hostilities began and Italy failed to invade it. …

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