On the night of 11 November 1940, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm aircraft attacked Italian battleships at anchor in the port of Taranto, Italy. On the morning of 7 December 1941, aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s carrier strike force attacked the battleships and other assets of the U.S. Navy at anchor in Pearl Harbor. Is there a connection between the two attacks?
It is not obvious that there should be any connection, for the two attacks were very different. Twenty fabric-covered biplanes struck the Italian anchorage in the dark of night, while 355 aircraft attacked many targets on Oahu in daylight. The Taranto task force consisted of one carrier escorted by eight ships. The Japanese employed 6 carriers, escorted by 14 ships and 3 submarines. The Japanese destroyed 174 planes, damaged another 128, and inflicted severe damage to airfields and hangars. The four British planes assigned to bomb targets ashore did little damage, and the bombs dropped on ships by five other planes failed to explode. Three Italian battleships were torpedoed, two of which were repaired and returned to service within six months. Eight U.S. battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers, and four auxiliary craft were either sunk, capsized, or heavily damaged.
Still, the fundamental lesson of each operation was the same: The development of naval aviation meant ships no longer were safe in their home ports.
Historians have claimed that the Japanese Navy “studied the Taranto attack” as it prepared for its own attack on Pearl Harbor. The evidence usually features the travel of Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Naito, assistant naval attaché in Berlin, to Taranto in December 1940 to view damage and discuss the attack with Italian naval officers. If Naito wrote a report about this trip, it has not been published.
Many writers note that Naito and Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the first wave of Pearl Harbor attackers, discussed Naito’s trip when the lieutenant commander returned to Japan. Not all of them state that this meeting took place in October 1941, by which time the planning and training for the Pearl Harbor attack was well along. The evidence for this meeting is an interview of Fuchida conducted in 1964. Fuchida recounts no tactical or engineering information that he received from Naito, only the encouragement that if the British could successfully launch torpedoes in a harbor, then so could the Japanese.
A more substantial exchange of information probably took place when a Japanese military mission visited Italy and Germany. While in Italy from 18 May to 8 June 1941, the naval members of the mission, headed by Rear Admiral Koki Abe, spent many days in Rome talking with Supermarina officers, then traveled to Taranto to see the fleet. Each side had particular questions for the other. The Italians wanted to learn about carrier operations because dictator Benito Mussolini had recently approved the conversion of two liners to aircraft carriers. The Japanese wanted to know about the operation of the Italian navy, providing a list of 83 topics for discussion. Afterward the Japanese showed interest in the Taranto torpedo attack.
The Italians mounted a wooden fin to their torpedoes to control the weapon’s attitude as it fell through the air. The Japanese solution to the problem of getting torpedoes to run in the shallow water of Pearl Harbor was mounting a wooden fin on the projectile. They already had begun to experiment with fins before the mission set out. In the end, they produced successful shallow-water torpedoes by dint of their own hard work and rigorous practice. There was tremendous compartmentalization and security around all the Pearl Harbor preparations; none of the mission’s officers would have known of the plan to attack the U.S. Navy.
Still, it is possible that some part of what the Italian navy showed off to its visitors contributed to Japanese success. If there was a connection between Taranto and Pearl Harbor, it ran through Rome.
Why didn’t the U.S. Navy make a connection between the Taranto attack and the possibility of a similar torpedo-plane strike against the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor? For insight, read Christopher O’Connor’s article from the December issue of Naval History.