Seventy-Five Years after Taranto
On November 11, 1940, Britain began its long counterattack against the four great powers that dominated Eurasia – Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy – with a blow so unexpected and so devastating that military historians tend to assume that the results of that strike were inevitable.
Until that day, the British and French were reacting to the enemy. France fell. The BEF escaped, barely, from Dunkirk. The RAF survived, barely, the Battle of Britain. The Royal Navy attacked the French Fleet in North Africa, but with no relish and genuine sadness, simply to keep the French Fleet from falling into German hands.
Britain closed the Burma Road to placate Japan. Britain watched helplessly as many thousands of railway cars loaded with oil, grain, cotton, nonferrous metals, and lumber moved from Russia to feed the appetite of Stalin’s closest ally, Hitler. Italians were overrunning East Africa and closing off the straits between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
Churchill had warned the British people after Dunkirk that wars were not won by retreats, but that was all the world had seen so far from Britain. Although it is hard for us to grasp today, the most serious threat to Britain in November 1940 was from Italy, which had the fifth largest navy in the world, the finest torpedo bomber, the best underwater demolition teams, and the biggest submarine fleet on the planet.
If Suez fell – which looked likely – then the oil of the Middle East would fall into Axis hands, and the entire British position in the Indian Ocean basin, the heart of the empire, would unravel. India would surely fall. The vital military contribution of the Dominion democracies would be lost. Japan, surely, would pounce on Malaya and Singapore and seize Dutch East Asia (Indonesia).
Then, in one of the boldest actions in modern military history, a handful of Fairey Swordfish biplanes took off from two British carriers and struck the Italian Fleet at Taranto. Half of the battleships in that fleet were sunk or crippled, while the British losses – two biplanes – were remarkably modest. The entire strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea changed in one hour.
There are lessons we can learn today.
First, surprise our enemies. Instead of always reacting, force those who hate us to react to our actions. Until Taranto, Britain could do little but react, but as soon as it had the opportunity to hit the Axis hard, it did. After Taranto, the Royal Navy largely dictated the war in that theater.
Second, use brave fighting men wisely with an eye to minimizing their losses. No attack in the Second World War cost the Allies fewer casualties than Taranto and the knowledge that the lives of those defending freedom is at least as precious as the poll numbers of the political leaders affects morale wonderfully – in the field and on the home front.
Third, fight to win, and winning means destroying the power of those who hate us. Had the Second World War been, instead of a continuous struggle, a series of peace talks and ceasefires and diplomatic pussyfooting, it is certain that Hitler would never have lost. Democracies naturally loathe war and yearn for peace, but evil regimes who control their subject peoples can maintain war fever indefinitely.
In a world plagued by a neo-Russian Empire, an Iran that seeks our destruction, a Chinese regime pushing aggressively, a madman with nuclear weapons in North Korea, and Islamic thuggery everywhere, we ought to embrace the lessons of Taranto.
Our generals and admirals doubtless have many ideas after hitting the bad guys in ways that unnerve them. These military commanders also know how to win big victories with the least amount of blood from our soldiers. We need a president who will support them and empower them.
Most of all, however, we need a political leader who grasps and articulates to our people and to our allies and enemies around the world that wars – hot, warm, or cold – are fought by good nations to win and for nothing less than victory. And victory means defeating, utterly and absolutely, those who wish us harm.