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E - 190: Not a Pyrrhic victory - How the Royal Navy's Innovations Carried the Night

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

A few days ago we talked about how Rome expanded into Southern Italy and how the Greek culture was adopted by Romans. We also learnt about Taranto’s ill adviced alliance with the King of Epirus which gave us the word Pyrrhic victory: a victory so indecisive but costly that it leads to strategic defeat.

Taranto is not only known for being one of the oldest Greek colonies in Apulia or for its alliance with King Pyrrhus, but also for the Battle of Taranto which took place on the 11th of November in 1940. Not as well-known as Pearl Harbor a good year later, it was the most decisive naval battle in the Mediterranean. It allowed the Royal Navy to win naval superiority and eventually cut Rommel’s supply lines from Italy to Northern Africa. It was the beginning of the end of the Axis’ dream to get access to the oil field in the Middle East.

The battle of Taranto was the first successful, large seaborn air attack on an active enemy fleet and firmly established the aircraft carriers as the decisive weapon in naval warfare. 21 Swordfish bombers from HMS Illustrious had participated. The British Admiral Cunningham, then the Royal Navy’s Commanding Officer in the Mediterranean, put it this way: “Taranto, and the night of 11–12 November 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." With one single strike, the Royal Navy had reduced the threat of the Regia Marina, the Italian Navy, by half and sank or severely damaged 3 Italian battleships.

The attack of the three waves of Swordfish bombers on the Italian Fleet

The English Victory was the result of innovative tactics and the early adaption of a new technology. The quality of the vessels and bombers of both the Royal Navy and the Regia Marina were comparable – most of their designs dated from the early 1930. However, the Royal Navy integrated Radar, a brand new technology, early in its operating model which – when combined with its existing older weapons – led to new tactics. Radar was used as fire guidance system for the big battleships with their 40.5 cm guns, which gave them night fighting capability.

It was also extensively used by the fleet's 7 aircraft carriers which took the squadrons of the Air Fleet Arm into battle. To almost everybody’s surprise, the Air Fleet Arm developed night fighting tactics which allowed them to avoid the dense anti-aircraft fire during the day. Flying bombers and fighters to an enemy fleet 200 miles away was something other navies could do as well. But how could you recover your Air Arm at night when the carriers had to keep moving to avoid being attacked by enemy submarines? With carriers constantly changing positions, the returning bombers would not have found their way back and would run out of fuel over the open sea.

Except that the Royal Navy had solved the problem. Radar could not only be used to guide the fire of battleship guns or to detect incoming enemy aircraft. It could also be used to guide the returning airplanes back to the carriers. On their way back, they were given a vector and an approximative distance. All else that was required was the installation of landing lights on the carriers which could be seen from the air but not from the sea.

Early in 1940 the Royal Navy had integrated its old and new technologies and was the first navy able to conduct air strikes at night – something that was kept so secret that no written notes were made. Have read about all of this second hand but would have loved to study an English Manual on the Optical Landing System they must have had to bring their planes safely back at night. All we know is that the British were leading in this field and that their technology became the world standard after 1945. Wonder how they transmitted the correct gliding path to the landing planes to land them successfully on thees tiny runways.

The burning Italian Fleet in Taranto

The fleet action before Taranto is a good example of how innovation and its fast application to practical use can completely change the game. More than two thousand years earlier, the Greek colonist had proven that long-distance grain trading was possible with a series of safe and fortified harbors – Taranto was one of them. By 1940, a new technology proved that what was safe for thousands of years could become a trap. The Italian Navy with no radar on their own ships and no radar for their anti-aircraft guns were sitting ducks in the port of Taranto.

We are going to visit Taranto in the third week of this year’s trip from Tunis to Athens and will discover a town built in Spanish baroque style – but why this is so will be the topic for another blog.

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