“Taranto, and the night of November 11–12, 1940, should be remembered for ever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon.” — Admiral Andrew Cunningham, British Commander at Taranto
So what’s this all about?
During the first year of World War II, the Italians were a not insubstantial threat to Allied war aims in the Mediterranean Sea. From their position at the tip of the Italian “boot”, the Italian Regia Marina possessed a geographical superiority over the English and French: from land bases, they could reach out and affect just about all of the Western Mediterranean ocean– including having the ability to strike nearby Malta and interdict naval convoys to the North African theater, and resupply Axis forces there. Without building expensive aircraft carriers, which suited the Italians right down to the ground. The ships of Regia Marina were a significant strategic threat that the Royal Navy had anticipated as early as 1936, when the seeds for an air raid plan had first been drawn up. After war had begun in earnest, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham dusted off the old 1936 plan and created OPERATION JUDGEMENT, a plan for an air raid on Taranto Harbor, located at the “instep” of the boot of Italy. The goals of the air raid would be to damage or destroy as much of the Italian fleet as possible, by bombing and torpedo attacks.
Compared to later operations, the RN did not have a lot to work with. The principle British Naval attack plane was the Fairy Swordfish, this was a biplane that was by general consensus considered antiquated before the first shot was fired. The swordfish was slow, it had a low ceiling, it was covered with fabric(!). However, it was extremely stable and had an excellent ability to loiter over targets. Swordfish pilots were genuinely affectionate about their aircraft, dubbing them the “Stringbag” for reasons unknown. [editorial note: “Stringbag” comes from the fabric construction and multiple guidewires to keep the wings intact, see the note in comments below. ]
Here’s a little footage of the Stringbag in the air with a torpedo load. (Video no longer embedded– the owner doesn’t want to share it. Go here instead)
Accordingly Admiral Cunningham had 21 Fairy Swordfish modified drastically for the long haul to Taranto from the Southwest. [editorial note: apparently not that drastic, the extra fuel tank conversion (removing the observer seat) wasn’t unheard of, see note in comment below] The middle seat was converted to a giant extended fuel tank. The attack was divided into three waves, with bombs and flares being dropped to distract the Italian fleet response while the torpedo planes made their runs. The resulting attack went astonishingly well for the British. The Italian fleet was devastated– losing half its operational fleet in an evening:
- Conte di Cavour had a large hole in the hull, and permission to ground her was withheld until it was too late, so her keel touched the bottom at a deeper depth than intended. 27 of the ship’s crew were killed and over 100 more wounded. In the end, only her superstructure and main armament remained above water. She was subsequently raised and was still undergoing repairs when Italy switched sides in the war, so she never returned to service
- Caio Duilio had only a slightly smaller hole and was saved by running her aground.
- Littorio had considerable flooding caused by three torpedo hits. Despite underwater protection (the ‘Pugliese’ system, standard in all Italian battleships), the damage was extensive, although actual damage to the ship’s structures was relatively limited (the machinery was intact). Casualties were 32 crewmen killed and many wounded. She was holed in three places. She too was saved by running her aground. Despite this, in the morning, the ship’s bows were totally submerged.
Overnight, the balance of power in the Mediterranean had changed drastically. The operational Italian fleet vessels were immediately transferred North to Naples. This put them out of easy striking range of Malta. Although they would play a role in the Med during the ensuing 3 years (until the fall of Mussolini), they would never be the strategic threat they were in 1940 again.
So, why am I interested in this battle? You mean, beyond the high drama of a desperate gamble on the part of the Royal Navy? Lots of reasons. Taranto is the first coordinated attack by a fleet air arm on a major fleet to occur in history. It served as the blueprint for the Pearl Harbor raid a year later. Most of all, it just seems such an improbable victory.. only 21 slow, obsolete airplanes against the entire Italian fleet. A while back, when I first picked up Victory at Sea and wanted to run a few naval games, I picked up enough ships to do Denmark Strait and the Pursuit of the Bismarck (1941). That led me to the Fairy Swordfish and eventually, to pondering a Taranto miniature wargame.
I bought the Axis and Allies War at Sea models for the Sink the Bismarck game when they were still easily found and affordable on a secondary market, although the game itself is out of print. For the Bismarck game, that worked pretty well, even if the scale, at 1/1800 (roughly), is a little larger than I had in mind. No problems with the miniatures– they come pre-painted and look (roughly) what they are supposed to look like. So, what the heck, I started collecting an Italian fleet from War at Sea models. It turned out to be easy, but painstaking when you are trolling secondary markets– there aren’t as many available as there were a few years ago.
Where to get the ships? Well, I’ve been a fan of reusing Axis and Allies War at Sea ship models already– when
I’ll probably give them another coating of wash, and touch up the factory job here and there, but pretty much these weren’t hard to collect and maintain. Obviously Hasbro didn’t produce EVERY ship in the Italian Fleet for their collectible miniatures game; to fill out the fleet I made several double buys where one ship of a CLASS of ships had a miniature made for it; that actually is a much easier problem to overcome with the smaller cruiser and destroyer classes where multiples of a single ship model work just fine. Even so, there were a few ships that were either priced right out of the secondary market or were never produced by Hasbro. In this instance, 3D printing came to the rescue. Shapeways.com has quietly been providing gap filler models for various games for the last few years; naturally, they came to the rescue for four ships I couldn’t locate at all. Accordingly,I bought three cruisers and a pre-dreadnought from Shapeways to round out my fleet.
The material for the 3D printer is a little grainy compared to the injected rubbery plastic the original series from WaS uses, but from the magical 3 foot mark, it looks great to me. The price is nice, as well.
So, I have the Italian fleet, more or less.. and I’m not worried about the big scale size. They are nice and chunky, the way I like it, and it’s not like they are going to maneuver around in this scenario and go off the table– most of these ships are just Anti Aircraft platforms in this projected game. I was projecting maybe there being an Italian player who might want to game that side, maybe make a victory condition escaping the harbor under power or something, but I can’t see it.. it wouldn’t be a lot of fun for any Italian player. So the ships will pretty much be stationary objects in this scenario.
If I wanted to be true to scale, the aircraft would be pinhead sized. Aside from the fact that there probably aren’t any plane models in that scale, they would just lack any visual impact. So I compromised and went with PicoArmor, who have a great WW2 aviation section. PicoArmor look great and are reasonably sharp in detail (although that’s from a distance). Good choice, even if construction of the plane models is hellishly irritating. Nothing fits together perfectly; I have to cut off flash, rough the edges of the join between upper and lower wing before glueing. THEN I have to hold the model while the glue sets, often gluing my thumbs to the model! At least I have decals. I won’t have to paint the rondels.
As for rules, I was leaning towards Victory at Sea at the start of this project, because I had used it before and it’s relatively “light” and fun to play. However, I’m not as satisfied with the aerial torpedo element of VaS. It’s far too simplistic for what I had in mind and really doesn’t provide some of the elements of the narrative that need to be there, such as the poor state of alert of the Italians, the poor training, the element of surprise. I have come to the conclusion that this isn’t going to be a game where the players play the Italian fleet at all; that would be almost cruel. Yet I want the Italians to have a fighting chance even as targets. So I’m monkeying around with various levels of alertness, and skill and whatnot. I may take a look at General Quarters 3 for the rules, as I like the level of granularity, although I may have to crunch some numbers on the ground scale.
So that’s where I am more or less. There’s other stuff, such as the map terrain.. building the harbor of Taranto, setting up the Anti-Aircraft on the Italian side (which was fierce.. the British lost two aircraft). I’ll probably write a follow up posting on those items when I get to them.
Thanks to Wg Cdr Luddite below for some comments clarifying the Swordfish.