America Should Thank Britain For Japan's Surprise Attack On Pearl Harbor
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You should note the following: "A few days after the Taranto raid, almost unnoticed by confusion and destruction, a small figure in an unknown uniform carefully studied the port of Taranto, inquired about depths and distances, and took careful notes," it says in The Attack on Taranto: Blueprint for Pearl Harbor. This was Lt. Takeshi Naito, assistant of the aerial attache at the Japanese embassy in Berlin. The effects of these sunken battleships were not lost to him. "
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It was the hour before midnight when the battleships were sleeping.
The Italian fleet sat comfortably in its harbor, cocooned behind layers of anti-aircraft guns and headlights, and was peacefully unaware of the fate that lay ahead.
Through the dark sky came waves of planes trampling under the weight of the torpedoes they carried. The date was November 11, 1940, the location was the southern Italian port of Taranto, and the battle that followed that night was the prelude to the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor.
Britain was in trouble in the fall of 1940. France had fallen, Nazi Germany ruled Western Europe and the British Empire was alone. To make matters worse, Mussolini's Italy had entered the war. Italy was weaker than Germany or Japan, but it had an inestimable advantage: It was located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and crossed the sea routes to the Suez Canal and the vital island of Malta, which the British needed as a thorn in the axis supply routes to North Africa. To avoid Italian naval and air forces, British convoys would have to forego the direct route to the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar and sail all the way around Africa to pass through the Suez Canal.
The Royal Navy rightly considered itself superior to the Italian Regia Marina. Fortunately, the Italians too. Although the Italian fleet was smaller, the Royal Navy was severely overwhelmed to protect itself from a possible German amphibian invasion, to look for operations by German surface predators against Atlantic convoy routes, and to fight the threat posed by German submarines. The Italian Navy has often been accused of shyness, but there was a reason not to risk its precious and irreplaceable ships in a major Jutland-style naval battle. Like the German ocean-going fleet in World War I, they were able to stay in port and only - covered by land planes in Italy - pounce on an exposed British force.
If the Italian fleet did not come out to fight, the British - in the tradition of the Royal Navy - would lead the fight to them. After December 7, 1941, the idea that aircraft carriers were attacking a fleet in port seemed obvious. But only a year earlier, aircraft carriers were still a new and relatively untested weapon. Nevertheless, the British investigated a torpedo strike on Taranto with aircraft carriers as early as 1938.
Compared to the six aircraft carriers and 400 aircraft that Japan used to attack Pearl Harbor, the armed forces Britain could muster for Operation Judgment appeared to be only a child version of a carrier task force. The Royal Navy only hired Illustrious, two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and five destroyers. The Italian fleet in Taranto consisted of six battleships, nine heavy cruisers, seven light cruisers and 13 destroyers. If they had intercepted the British flotilla, the result would have been a massacre.
The Fleet Air Arm - the flying fist of the Royal Navy - also seemed to be a joke. The Illustrious would only launch 21 planes, and these were Fairey Swordfish - nicknamed "The Stringbag". Obsolete two-man biplanes, which looked like remnants of World War I, were trudging through the air at a speed of about 140 miles an hour. Still, they could fly low and slow to drop torpedoes exactly as they did to paralyze the German battleship Bismarck.
The British struck at night when the vulnerable swordfish could avoid Italian fighters, who easily knocked them out of the sky. The Illustrious launched two waves of 12 and nine planes each, half carrying torpedo each and the rest armed with torches to light the ships and armor-piercing bombs to hit them. Not only did the British surprise, they also had a happy break: the Italians had put some nets in the harbor to catch torpedoes, but the nets were not long enough to reach the ocean floor so the torpedoes could slide under them.
As one of the British aviators later recalled:
“We turn around until the right battleship is between the bars of the torpedo sight, and fall down. The water is just under our bikes, so close that I wonder what should happen first - the torpedo goes or we hit the sea - then we even out and almost without thinking the button is pressed and a jerk tells me the "fish" is gone. "
The attack started shortly before 11 p.m. and ended around midnight. The British lost two planes, two crew members were killed and two captured. But these only 21 planes and a handful of torpedoes (the bombs did no harm) sank or damaged three battleships. Three battleships were torpedoed. The Conte di Cavour partially sank to the bottom of the harbor and never returned to service. The Caio Duilio was saved only by running aground, as was the Littorio, whose torso had been pierced by three torpedoes.
The Italian battleship had been devastated for the price of just two planes. It was equally important that the Italian navy had dealt a blow to their already fragile morale and aggressiveness. The Italians later retaliated when frogmen who drove on small submarines planted limp limestone mines that severely damaged two British battleships that were docked in the Egyptian port of Alexandria on December 19, 1941. Still, in the fall of 1940, when Britain seemed depressed, the Royal Navy demonstrated who controlled the waves.
The real meaning of Taranto should come later, however. "A few days after the Taranto raid, almost unnoticed by the confusion and destruction, a small figure in an unknown uniform carefully studied the port of Taranto, inquired about depths and distances, and made careful notes," says The Attack on Taranto: Blueprint for Pearl Harbor.
This was Lt. Takeshi Naito, assistant of the aerial attache at the Japanese embassy in Berlin. The effects of these sunken battleships were not lost to him. "
A problem with Taranto's assessment is that there has been a tendency to blame Italy's inefficiency for the disaster, even though no one has experienced such an attack before. But what was the American's excuse if Taranto allegedly reflected a peculiar Italian failure? Why didn't the US learn from the Taranto raid that aircraft carriers could destroy a fleet in a port called Pearl Harbor?
Indeed, a U.S. Navy observer, Lieutenant Commander John Opie, was aboard the Illustrious to witness the Taranto strike and he did not waste time reporting what he had learned, including the fact that the Royal Navy now preferred aircraft-powered torpedoes to bombs. While senior U.S. naval commanders knew Taranto and the danger of a torpedo attack on Pearl Harbor, actual improvements in Hawaii's defense were buried under memos and reports that meandered through the naval bureaucracy. Opie's request to visit Pearl Harbor and share his Taranto experience was ignored. In fact, the Navy decided not to install any anti-torpedo nets on the ground at Pearl Harbor because the water there was too narrow and too shallow for torpedoes to run without hitting the ground.
The Imperial Japanese Navy and eight sunk or damaged US battleships would soon prove wrong.
Michael Peck often contributes to national interest.
(This first appeared a few years ago.)
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