After the defeat of France, Fascist Italy declared war on the British Empire. Hoping for rich pickings in the Mediterranean without the presence of the French fleet in that sea, the Italians aimed to expand their Mediterranean empire. The war in North Africa began as Italian troops moved into Egypt.

Naval superiority in the Mediterranean was important to the North Africa Campaign. Both Italy and Britain needed to supply and re-enforce their troops in Africa and the Mediterranean. The Italian Regia Marina was one of the largest European navies, and its surface fleet was potentially a match for the U.K.'s navy. However, Britain still had one trump card: the aircraft carrier.

Aircraft carriers provided Britain with a potentially deadly weapon at sea. Although unproven in naval warfare, the Royal Navy had already drafted plans in the late 1930s for potential aircraft carrier operations targeting the Italian naval base at Taranto. The original plan outlined how the HMS Illustrious and Eagle aircraft carriers could be used in a devastating airstrike that would obliterate Regia Marina ships.

As the Eagle was undergoing repairs, the plan had to be modified slightly. Now only the HMS Illustrious was available for the proposed Operation Judgment. For this operation the British had a number of Swordfish torpedo-bombers that would be the primary bombers to bomb the Italians with. Torpedo strikes against ships were only usually attempted at sea-level depths of 100 ft or more; however, the Taranto port was much shallower than this. Due to this shallowness of the Taranto port the British also had to equip their bombers with specially designed torpedo bombs that would be dropped from low altitudes.

On the day of the battle Britain's navy sent scout planes over the base for further reconnaissance missions. These planes were actually spotted by the Italian defenders, but without any radar to provide further forewarning the Italians were still largely unaware of the Royal Navy's aircraft carrier. As such, Britain's navy launched its torpedo-bombers towards the Italian naval base.

During the battle two sorties of Swordfish torpedo-bombers flew towards the harbor and bombed their targets. They flew through anti-aircraft fire, which was ultimately ineffective. The planes were able to hit a number of targets during the Battle of Taranto. Most significantly the planes hit three Italian battleships stationed at the harbor. This was enough to sink one and put the other two out of action. Almost all of Britain’s Swordfish planes returned back to the HMS Illustrious.[1]

The Battle of Taranto was a notable naval victory for Britain's navy. Three Italian battleships were effectively lost during the battle. The loss of these battleships ensured that the Royal Navy retained its position in the Mediterranean, and it was also the first time in history that a navy had deployed aircraft carriers in a naval battle.

The Battle of Taranto was later copied by the Imperial Japanese Navy at Pearl Harbor in 1941. As such, after the battle the aircraft carrier had become an essential part of naval combat and would be essential to the outcome of the war in the Pacific. In addition to this, smaller Allied escort carriers would also provide convoy support in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Further naval battles followed in the Mediterranean involving the Royal Navy and the Regia Marina. In 1941, the Regia Marina sent a fleet to intercept British reinforcements heading towards Greece. The Royal Navy detected this fleet, and they met off Cape Matapan. Thanks to its aircraft carrier Britain's navy held the advantage during this battle, and the Italians lost three heavy cruisers and a couple of destroyers.

However, the Regia Marina was not entirely defeated. While the Italy's surface fleet was the obvious target for the Royal Navy, the Italians also had other naval weapons at their disposal such as human torpedoes. The human torpedoes, or Maiali, were manned torpedoes deployed in the Mediterranean which had detachable warheads that were then used to blow up battleships and other military vessels in harbor.

The Italian Maiali struck at the Royal Navy harbor at Alexandria in 1941. During this raid the Maiali effectively sank two Royal Navy battleships: the HMS Valiant and the Queen Elizabeth. It was a great coup for Italy after the Taranto and Cape Matapan debacles that had decimated its surface fleet.

In 1942, Battle of El Alamein decided the Desert War when British and Commonwealth troops halted Rommel’s advance into Egypt. Consequently, the Suez Canal remained out of reach of the Axis. The success of Operation Torch ensured further Allied reinforcements for 1943, which was the final year of North Africa Campaign. During this year the remainder of the Afrika Korps surrendered to the Allies in Tunisia.

The demise of the Afrika Korps was soon followed by the defeat of Italy in the war as Allied troops landed at Sicily. With such defeats, the Italian king accepted an armistice with the Allies after removing Mussolini from his post. Although the Italian Campaign would last for a few more years as Mussolini fled north and Germany sent more divisions into Italy.

The Battle of Taranto was a perfect demonstration of the potential of the aircraft carrier, which both the Americans and Japanese would take note of. Britain’s victory at this battle helped to ensure the defeat of fascist Italy by maintaining Allied naval superiority in the Mediterranean after the loss of the French fleet. Further defeats in North Africa and Sicily ensured the demise of fascist Italy by 1943.