Key point: The British attack on the Italian port of Taranto holds the key.
“This was Lt. Takeshi Naito, assistant air attache at the Japanese embassy in Berlin. The implications of those sunken battleships were not lost to him.”
It was the hour before midnight when the battleships slept.
Snug in their harbor, cocooned behind layers of anti-aircraft guns and searchlights, the Italian fleet lay peacefully unaware of the fate droning towards them.
Through the dark skies came waves of aircraft lumbering under the weight of the torpedoes they carried. The date was November 11, 1940, the place was the southern Italian port of Taranto, and the battle that ensued that night was the prelude to the Japanese raid at Pearl Harbor.
In the fall of 1940, Britain was in trouble. France had fallen, Nazi Germany ruled Western Europe, and the British Empire stood alone. To make matters worse, Mussolini's Italy had entered the war. Though weaker than Germany or Japan, Italy had a priceless advantage: it was situated in the middle of the Mediterranean, athwart the sea routes to the Suez Canal and the vital island of Malta, which the British needed to supply as a thorn in Axis supply routes to North Africa. To avoid Italian naval and air forces, British convoys would have to forgo the direct route into the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar, and sail all the way around Africa to come up through the Suez Canal.
The Royal Navy rightfully reckoned itself superior to the Italian Regia Marina. Fortunately, so did the Italians. Though the Italian fleet was smaller, the Royal Navy was badly overstretched guarding against a possible German amphibious invasion, watching for sorties by German surface raiders against Atlantic convoy routes, and battling the German U-boat menace. The Italian Navy was often accused of timidity, but they had some reason not to risk their precious and irreplaceable ships in a big Jutland-like naval battle. Like the German High Seas Fleet in World War I, they could stay in port, only sallying forth -- covered by land-based aircraft in Italy -- to pounce on an exposed British force.