Lessons from Taranto and the Devastating Results from Inaction

Who is Taranto? It’s not who, it’s where. The Bay of Taranto is in the southern part of Italy and was the site of what turns out to be a very significant battle between the Royal Navy of England and the Italian Navy. The Battle of Taranto was a short battle during World War II, lasting just the days of November 11 and 12 in 1940.

The Battle of Taranto, November 1940

At this point in World War II, France had surrendered and the United States had not yet been drawn into the war. Britain alone fought the combined forces of Germany, Italy and Japan. In the Bay of Taranto, the Italian Navy had sheltered a strong fleet of 23 ships including cruisers, battleships and destroyers. Italy believed the shallow waters of the bay provided protection from torpedoes and other forms of attack.

But, on November 11, 1940, the British launched a surprise attack from a newly commissioned aircraft carrier, the HMS Illustrious. This, the first-ever air attack launched exclusively from an aircraft carrier, put half the Italian Navy’s fleet out of commission for the next six months. The Battle of Taranto advanced naval war strategy dramatically during the course of these 2 days. The power and importance of aircraft carriers were established for decades to come.

Two leaders, in particular, took note of the British success.

Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto drew comparisons between the Bay of Taranto and Pearl Harbor, where the America Pacific fleet was moored. In January of 1941, Yamamoto began devising a plan for attacking the terrific naval and air forces the Americans had stationed at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu. (In an interesting twist, Yamamoto advised his superiors that this was a death sentence for Japan. Their reaction was to assign him to lead the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

In November of 1940, shortly after the British attack on the Italian fleet, Admiral Harold Stark, chief of naval operations for the U.S., had the insight to foresee a similar attack on Pearl Harbor. He also advised his superiors in a letter that said, “If war eventuates with Japan, it is believed easily possible that hostilities would be initiated by a surprise attack upon the Fleet or the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.” War with Japan eventuated in just that fashion.

The insights were developed independently by two admirals (Seeing What Others Don't, Gary Klein). Both were correct in the insights they delivered to their superiors. In fact, Yamamoto was correct twice. His insight delivered a successful attack on December 7, 1941 and woke a sleeping military to eventual devastating results for Japan. Yamamoto called it correctly on both accounts.

Stark called it too. In fact, reading Stark’s letter of January 1941 to the secretary of the navy is chilling. He told the secretary of the navy exactly what would happen and the naval and air bases at Pearl Harbor were still devastated. No torpedo nets were installed to protect Pearl Harbor. All of the air and sea assets were grouped together in convenient targets. Airplanes, in an apparent attempt to avoid sabotage, were parked in groups on the tarmacs making them easy targets for the Japanese airstrikes. The Japanese ships traveled 4,000 miles without being detected, and when the air strike was seen on the radar, it was ignored, brushed off as American planes returning to base.

What are the lessons we should take away from the insights formed at the Battle of Taranto? Here are just a couple:

  1. Insights can be very valuable. But, if we fail to act appropriately on the insights, those insights are worthless. Stark was brilliant and developed the insight to predict the attack. No action was taken and the value of the insight was destroyed along with 2,400 Americans. We see this constantly in the business world. The most brilliant insights about our customers and the experience we provide for them are worthless if we fail to take action.
  2. Some of the best information we can gather comes from our front-line employees. Yamamoto knew the ramifications of the attack on Pearl Harbor and he warned his superiors. He had seen and studied the might of the U.S. He warned the Imperial powers, even wondering if they had “confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.” All too often, the insights coming from the people who interact with our customers are marginalized in favor of a greater strategy that may or may not be customer friendly.

Developing insights about our customers is valuable and most companies gather some intelligence. The most successful companies use that intelligence to create strategies that address the needs of their customers. And they execute with abandon. Great strategies without execution are worthless. Great insights without action are worthless. In order to serve our customers and create value for our shareholders, we must take action. We must execute.