When the full success of the attack on Taranto became apparent it was a remarkable victory for such a small force. Indeed, had the battle occurred between surface ships in the traditional way – slugging it out with big guns firing broadsides – it would have been considered a major victory for the Royal Navy.
The aircrew themselves had little or no idea of what they had achieved at first and were fully expecting to return for a second assault the next night. In the event, worsening weather scotched any plans for a repetition, which was probably just as well, as they were unlikely to get away with such a low casualty rate a second time. One officer was heard to remark that even the Light Brigade hadn’t been told to do it again!
At first light the following morning, photographic reconnaissance showed how successful the attack had been, providing irrefutable evidence that no second attack would have been needed. The results of the first looked very satisfactory indeed.
One of Italy’s new Littorio battleships was badly down by the bows, with her fo’c’sle under water and a heavy list to starboard. A Cavour class battleship was beached and listing with her stern and after-turret, submerged. A second Cavour class was damaged. Two cruisers, listing to starboard, were surrounded by oil. Two fleet auxiliaries were sunk, there were four more dark shapes lying under water, and a seaplane base and oil supply depot burned out. In short, the effective strength of the Italian Navy had been cut by half.
Some of the Italian cruisers had also fired on each other. They had lowered their gun sights to try and hit the Swordfish, but the Swordfish were flying so low it would have required something exceptional in the way of gunnery procedures to hit them. Once the weight of the torpedo was dropped, the agility and performance of the Swordfish improved immeasurably, and the naval pilots were well-rehearsed in dodging shells and making a quick get away! Full stick, full throttle, top rudder, and a sensationally steep turn – and they were out of there! Against aircraft less acrobatic than the Stringbag and pilots of lesser quality, the Italians might have enjoyed better aim.
Such was the significance of Taranto that news of the success of the attack was emblazoned across newspapers around the world. After months of defeat and failure, it was the victory that Churchill and the Allies badly needed.
Addressing Parliament, the following day, Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the attack as a “Glorious Episode”. The morale of the Nation and the Allies soared. That the episode had been glorious was beyond question and it had come at a moment when glorious episodes were scarce.