Il Duce Benito Mussolini wanted the Mediterranean to be an Italian Lake. When he declared war against a defiant Britain and a defeated France on June 10, 1940, he told his military commanders the war would last four months.
After taking power in 1922, Italy had embarked upon a major building program, especially her Navy. Wanting to restore the glory of Imperial Rome, Mussolini wanted the Italian Navy to be able to take on the world’s greatest naval power, England’s Royal Navy. By the declaration of war, he did not have a numerically superior force to the British, but he had two battleships completed with another four fitting out; seven heavy and fourteen light cruisers; seventy-three destroyers; and 106 submarines. And soon the British would be committed against U-boats in the North Atlantic, and after 1941 in the Pacific. With the French armistice they were the dominant fleet in the Mediterranean.
The Italian Navy had two critical shortcomings — no radar and little fuel. The strategic plan gave all aircraft to the Italian Air Force, so the Fleet lacked their own aircraft. Germany began to give the Italians fuel in late 1940.
The Royal Navy had to even the balance of power if they hoped to check the Italians in North Africa. On the night of November 11-12, 1940, torpedo bombers from the UK carrier HMS Illustrious struck the Italian Navy base at Taranto. Using obsolete Fairey Swordfish biplanes nicknamed “stringbags” for the thread used to make repairs in the fabric wings and torpedoes modified to run properly in the shallow harbor waters, three battleships were sunk or damaged. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto would study this attack closely in planning his attack on Pearl Harbor a year later.