Operation Toro


'Toro' was an Italian unrealised plan for a naval bombardment of British-held Tobruk on the coast of North Africa (summer 1941/spring 1942).

On 10 September the Germans asked the Italian navy to undertake a naval gunfire bombardment of the British and commonwealth stronghold of Tobruk, which was currently besieged by Generaloberst Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee 'Afrika'. The resulting operation was planned on the basis of a naval bombardment co-ordinated with a land offensive against Tobruk, and within this the naval bombardment’s targets were to be the coastal defences and the area of the bay used by the British to land reinforcements from Egypt.

However, given its experience in the Spanish Civil War and what it knew of such undertakings in the German 'Marita' seizure of Greece, the Italian navy was highly sceptical about the overall efficacy of naval shore bombardments which, it felt, were more costly and less accurate than aerial bombing. The Supermarina therefore believed that the operation was at best a naval demonstration that would yield political and morale advantages.

The operational plan for 'Toro' was created by Ammiraglio di Squadra designato d’Armata Angelo Iachino, commander-in-chief of the Italian navy, and did not call for the involvement of Italy’s battleships. The naval force tasked with the mission would have included the heavy cruisers Trento, Trieste and Bolzano escorted by a squadron of destroyers and two modern torpedo boats to sweep for mines just ahead of the cruisers during the bombardment.

One of the primary elements required for the operation was surprise, so it was decided to make a two-part approach, with each part to be covered at night. Leaving Messina on the island of Sicily two days earlier and with at least 72 hours' notice, the ships were to reach Navarino (Pylos in Greek) on the west coast of the Peloponnese during the following morning. From here, immediately after dark, the ships were to have steamed to the south to arrive off Tobruk at about 10.00 on the following day. In the final plan, extensive air reconnaissance was to be carried out by German aircraft based on Crete from dawn on the day the operation was scheduled to reach fruition. Circumstances would then dictate to the commander at sea what route the ships would take to return to Italian waters.

The bombardment itself was to be undertaken by one destroyer at a distance of 875 yards (800 m), with the cruisers remaining some 3,280 yards (3000 m) off shore and flying off their floatplanes to spot for the guns, although consideration was later given to the use of land-based aircraft carrying a naval observer so that the cruisers' Meridionali Ro 43 floatplanes would be available in the event of a British naval intervention.

Much more ambitious was a different plan, known as 'Operazione No. 2', which called for the use of the two fast battleships, Littorio and Vittorio Veneto, as well as the heavy cruisers for an action off Tobruk to impede the flow of supplies to the garrison of Tobruk during the land offensive. This plan was set aside almost immediately after the difficulty of keeping the British unaware of the redeployment of major Italian naval forces had been appreciated: the two battleships were the most powerful warships available to the Italian navy, and were therefore kept under the eye of British air reconnaissance. Another factor was that the commitment of two battleships over the distance involved would seriously deplete the Italian navy’s already straitened fuel resources. Air co-operation was also needed, and it was therefore decided to make use of all Italian bombers and torpedo bombers based in North Africa and in the Aegean sector, as well as German warplanes based in Crete to attack British naval formations, while fighters from the Axis airfields in Cyrenaica were to provide a protective umbrella of more than 100 aircraft.

The problems thus raised for the Italian air force led to a postponement of the original date of mid-November and finally, as a result of the Axis land forces' capture of Tobruk on 21 June 1942, 'Toro' was cancelled.