Letter from Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean to Secretary of Admiralty

[ADM 199/ 167] 16 January 1941

Operation ‘Judgement’ – attack on Taranto, 11– 12 November 1940

Be pleased to lay before Their Lordships the accompanying report of the Fleet Air Arm operations against Taranto on 11th November, 1940.

2. An attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto by the Fleet Air Arm with torpedoes had been under consideration for many months and long before the outbreak of war with Italy. The bridge between planning and execution was however a wide one, since several requirements had to be met before the operation could be undertaken with a reasonable prospect of success.

3. The most important of these requirements was good and timely photographic reconnaissance, since to plan the attack it was necessary to know not only that the battleships were in harbour but also their positions and berthing with some accuracy. It was not until the Glenn Martins arrived at Malta that such reconnaissance was possible, war experience having shown that flying boats are too vulnerable, and slow to approach defended ports with impunity.

4. In the event, the success of the Fleet Air Arm attack was due in no small degree to the excellent reconnaissances carried out by the Glenn Martin flight from Malta, under very difficult conditions and often in the face of fighter opposition.

5. An undetected approach to the selected flying off position was also most important, and to achieve this the use of long range tanks in the Swordfish aircraft was very desirable. These were not available until ILLUSTRIOUS arrived on the Station early in September.

6. A considerable amount of night flying training was also necessary before the pilots and observers could be regarded as fully competent to undertake the long flight required for this hazardous enterprise and it was not until mid October that the necessary state of training was reached.

7. The attack was first planned to take place on the night of 21st October, but owing to a fire in ILLUSTRIOUS’ hangar a few days before, which destroyed and damaged a number of aircraft, the operation had to be deferred. It was considered again for the night of 30th/ 31st October, when the fleet was operating off the West coast of Greece, but it was decided not to attempt it as there was then no moon and the attack would have had to be carried out with flares, the use of which the aircraft crews had had little practice.

8. In the meantime further photographs had been taken of the outer anchorage at Taranto by the Glenn Martins, and close examination revealed the presence of balloons and of nets surrounding the battleships. This discovery was most fortunate as these defences naturally affected the method of attack very considerably.

9. It had always been intended that both ILLUSTRIOUS and EAGLE should take part in this attack. Two days before the fleet sailed for the operation EAGLE developed serious defects to her petrol system, caused undoubtedly by the many near bomb misses she had experienced in the early days of the Italian war, and she therefore had to be left behind. Six of her T.S.R. aircraft and crews, however, were embarked in ILLUSTRIOUS, so that the EAGLE, whose squadrons had reached a high state of efficiency, was to some extent represented in the attack.

10. The operation is well described in ILLUSTRIOUS’ report and needs no elaboration. It was admirably planned and the determined and gallant manner in which it was carried out reflects the highest credit on all concerned.

11. The results achieved, as disclosed by subsequent photographic reconnaissance, appear to have been:– One CAVOUR class battleship beached and apparently abandoned. One CAVOUR class battleship heavily damaged and beached. One LITTORIO class battleship damaged and subsequently docked in the Taranto graving dock. There is no definite evidence of damage to cruisers and small craft as a result of the bombing attacks but it seems probable that two cruisers may have been hit.

12. This was the first occasion on which Duplex pistols were used in the Mediterranean. It is considered that the results achieved have proved the value of this weapon and that the many years of research and experiment devoted to its development have been well repaid.

13. There can be little doubt that the crippling of half the Italian Battlefleet is having, and will continue to have, a marked effect on the course of the war. Without indulging in speculation as to the political repercussions, it is already evident that this successful attack has greatly increased our freedom of movement in the Mediterranean and has thus strengthened our control over the central area of this sea. It has enabled two battleships to be released for operations elsewhere, while the effect on the morale of the Italians must be considerable. As an example of ‘economy of force’ it is probably unsurpassed.

14. I have already brought to the notice of Their Lordships in my signal timed 1449 of 16th November, 1940, the following officers who have been prominent in the planning and execution of this operation:–

Rear-Admiral Arthur Lumley St. George Lyster, C.B., C.V.O., D.S.O. (Rear-Admiral, Mediterranean Aircraft Carriers).

Captain Denis William Boyd, C.B.E., D.S.C., R.N. (Commanding Officer, H.M.S. ILLUSTRIOUS).

Captain Arthur Robin Moore Bridge, C.B.E., R.N. (Commanding Officer, H.M.S. EAGLE).

Lieutenant Commander John William Hale, D.S.O., R.N.

Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Williamson, D.S.O., R.N.

Lieutenant George Albert Carline, D.S.C., R.N.

Lieutenant Norman John Scarlett, D.S.C., R.N.

Captain Oliver Patch, D.S.C., R.M.

Lieutenant David Gordon Goodwin, D.S.C., R.N.

and these officers have since received decorations for their services on this occasion.

15. I propose to forward separately the names of other officers who took part in the attack for consideration as worthy of recognition.