The Buzz

The (Almost) Forgotten Tale of How Great Britain Launched Its Own ‘Pearl Harbor’

For the price of just two aircraft, the Italian battleship force had been devastated. Just as important, the Italian Navy had taken a blow to its already fragile morale and aggressiveness. The Italians got their revenge later, when frogmen riding midget submarines planted limpet mines that badly damaged two British battleships docked at the Egyptian port of Alexandria on December 19, 1941. Nonetheless, in the autumn of 1940, when Britain seemed down and out, the Royal Navy demonstrated who ruled the waves.

However, the real significance of Taranto was to come later. “Several days after the Taranto raid, almost unnoticed in the confusion and destruction, a slight figure in an unfamiliar uniform studied Taranto harbor intently, inquiring about depths and distances, making careful notes,” according to the book The Attack on Taranto: Blueprint for Pearl Harbor.

“This was Lt. Takeshi Naito, assistant air attache at the Japanese embassy in Berlin. The implications of those sunken battleships were not lost to him.”

One problem with assessing Taranto is that there is a tendency to blame Italian inefficiency for the disaster, even though no one else had ever experienced such an attack before. Nonetheless, if Taranto supposedly reflected some peculiarly Italian failing, what was the excuse of the Americans?  Why didn't the U.S. learn from the Taranto raid that aircraft carriers could destroy a fleet in a port, namely Pearl Harbor?

Indeed, a U.S. Navy observer, Lieutenant Commander John Opie, was aboard the Illustrious to witness the Taranto strike, and he lost no time in reporting back what he had learned, including that the Royal Navy now favored aircraft-delivered torpedoes over bombs. Yet while senior U.S. naval commanders were aware of Taranto and the danger posed by torpedo attack to Pearl Harbor, actual improvements to Hawaii's defenses were buried under memos and reports that meandered through the naval bureaucracy. Opie's request to visit Pearl Harbor and pass on his Taranto experience was ignored. In fact, the Navy opted not to install anti-torpedo nets at Pearl Harbor on the ground that the waters there were too constricted to allow, and too shallow for torpedoes to run without hitting the bottom.

The Imperial Japanese Navy, and eight U.S. battleships sunk or damaged, would soon prove those decisions wrong.

Michael Peck is a frequent contributor to the National Interest and is a regular writer for many outlets like WarIsBoring. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

This first appeared last year.