Modern-day location – Mediterranean Sea, about 150 miles off Cape Matapan, the southern tip of mainland Greece
Conflict – Second World War, 1939-1945
Forces engaged* – British: Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham: battleships Barham, Valiant, and Warspite, aircraft carrier Formidable, 9 destroyers. Vice-Admiral Henry Pridham-Wippell: 4 light cruisers, 3 destroyers. Italian: Admiral Angelo Iachino: battleship Vittorio Veneto, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 13 destroyers
*Example Battleship Vittorio Veneto class: 41,380 tons, 30 knots, 1,900 crew, 9 x 15-inch guns
ship types Heavy cruiser Zara class: 11,850 tons, 33 knots, 840 crew, 8 x 8-inch guns
(Italian) Light cruiser Abruzzi class: 9,580 tons, 33 knots, 640 crew, 10 x 6-inch guns
Destroyer Oriani class: 1,715 tons, 39 knots, 206 crew, 4 x 4.7-inch guns
In early 1941, Britain was urgently convoying troops and supplies from Alexandria in Egypt to reinforce its new ally Greece against an anticipated German invasion.
On March 27, aware of the British traffic and under pressure from their German allies to act, the Italians dispatched a powerful surface ship fleet to attack the convoys. Admiral Iachino’s flagship was the brand-new fast battleship Vittorio Veneto. The Admiral deployed his fleet in four separate divisions: the battleship, two groups of three heavy cruisers and one of light cruisers, all with supporting destroyers.
Meanwhile, the British Mediterranean Fleet under Admiral Cunningham was moored in Alexandria harbour. Cunningham’s three battleships, although powerfully armed, were veterans of the First World War, much slower than Vittorio Veneto. However, he did have a fleet aircraft carrier, while the Italians had to depend on their none too reliable air force or the German Luftwaffe for air defence. In addition, there was a light cruiser squadron at Piraeus in Greece, under Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell. Crucially, many of the British ships were equipped with radar, a technology that the conservative Italian Navy had not yet introduced.
Unbeknown to the Italians, the Allied codebreakers at Bletchley Park had intercepted Axis radio traffic suggesting the Italian fleet was about to put to sea. As was usual in these circumstances, the British then dispatched a reconnaissance aircraft to ‘accidentally’ discover the Italians once they left port. This procedure was adopted to ensure that the enemy did not ‘smell a rat’ and suspect that their codes had been compromised. Accordingly, a Sunderland flying boat from Malta reported three Italian cruisers eighty miles east of Calabria on the morning of March 27.
In Alexandria, the British authorities believed the Japanese consul was passing information to the Axis. Admiral Cunningham therefore went ashore that afternoon with an overnight case and played a leisurely round of golf. Invitations also went out to a dinner party aboard his flagship that evening. Having finished his round, Cunningham then slipped back to the harbour incognito, and the fleet sailed just after dark. At the same time, Pridham-Wippell was ordered to sail from Greece and rendezvous with Cunningham to the south of Crete, early on March 28.
Learning that his fleet had been spotted by a British plane, Iachino understood that the British would now suspend convoys, making the planned operation pointless. However, he decided to continue sailing eastwards through the night, in the hope of finding a target of opportunity, and then reverse course and return to Italy at daybreak.
Off the south coast of Crete, instead of the hoped-for transport vessels, Iachino’s leading division of heavy cruisers encountered Pridham-Wippell’s squadron. With their eight-inch main armament, the Italians easily out-gunned and out-ranged the British light cruisers, and Pridham-Wippell decided to withdraw to the south, hoping to draw the Italians after him and onto Cunningham who was sailing northwards at full speed. However, after about an hour of long-range bombardment, the Italians broke off their pursuit and turned to re-join Vittorio Veneto. In turn, Pridham-Wippell too turned north, trailing the heavy cruisers at extreme range, until the Italian flagship suddenly hove into view over the horizon. Iachino then executed a skilful pincer manoeuvre at high speed, hoping to trap the weaker British squadron between the hammer of his cruisers and the anvil of his flagship. Heavy shells from the Vittorio Veneto began to fall around the British ships.
The Daylight Action
Pridham-Wippell had already been in contact with Cunningham whose slow battleships were too far away to intervene. Instead, Cunningham dispatched an air strike from Formidable which arrived just in time to rescue the British light cruisers from their predicament. While the Italians concentrated on their anti-aircraft barrage, Pridham-Wippell slipped away. The Italians reversed their course as planned and headed west for their base at Taranto.
Frustrated by the slow progress of his battleships, Cunningham continued to launch air attacks. Late in the afternoon, a torpedo bomber managed to score a hit on Vittorio Veneto, although the aircraft was shot down and the crew killed seconds later. The torpedo struck the battleship’s stern, damaging her propellers and bringing the ship to a halt: by now Cunningham was only forty-five miles away but it turned out to be a case of ‘so near, and yet so far’. After emergency repairs, Iachino got his flagship underway again, albeit at reduced speed, and the gap began to widen again. It was now mid-afternoon, and the cruisers and destroyers were ordered to close up around the battleship in a single formation to mass their anti-aircraft fire.
Further abortive air strikes followed until the final attack, delivered as dusk was falling, scored a hit on the heavy cruiser Pola. The torpedo knocked out most of her boilers and wrecked her electrical system, leaving the ship dead in the water: meanwhile, the rest of the fleet continued to steam westward. Still unaware of Cunningham’s pursuing battleships, Iachino now ordered Pola’s sister ships Zara and Fuime and four destroyers, under Vice-Admiral Carlo Cattaneo, to return and assist the damaged cruiser, taking off her crew and scuttling her if necessary.
The Night Action
As Cunningham’s fleet approached the stricken Pola, British radar began to show the other Italian vessels approaching, invisible in the pitch darkness. Completely unaware of the British presence, the Italian cruisers continued making towards Pola planning to take her in tow, until the British battleships had closed the range to 3,000 yards or so.
In tense silence, the guns were loaded and the huge turrets rotated to aim at the invisible target. On command, a British destroyer snapped on its searchlights illuminating the Italians in a harsh white light and the three battleships opened fire. Taken completely by surprise, Zara and Fuime were overwhelmed in moments and literally blown to pieces – witnesses spoke of whole gun turrets and large sections of steel superstructure being blasted over the side or hurled high into the air. In less than five minutes, both heavy cruisers were reduced to blazing, sinking wrecks. Meanwhile, the British destroyers fought a brief, violent melee with their Italian counterparts, sinking the Vittorio Alfieri and Giosuè Carducci with torpedoes.
After the battle, still stationary and helpless, the ruined Pola heaved back and forth in the swell while her crew was taken off by the British destroyers: the silent hulk was then finished off with a torpedo.
With the arrival of daylight, the British continued to pick up survivors but German aircraft soon appeared and put a stop to further rescue operations. The British departed while, in a chivalrous act Cunningham radioed on the Merchant Marine emergency band to advise that there were men in the water: an Italian hospital ship was later able to save another 160 survivors.
The Italians lost three modern heavy cruisers, two destroyers and more than 2,300 men. A number of other ships were damaged, and over 1,000 sailors were taken prisoner. Total British losses in the battle were one aeroplane and its crew and some minor shell splinter damage to Pridham-Wippell’s four light cruisers
Following the crushing naval defeat at Cape Matapan, Mussolini gave orders that in future no Italian surface ships must move outside the range of land-based air cover. This order effectively neutralised the Supermarina for the rest of the war and handed the initiative in the Mediterranean to the Royal Navy.
Grant, R.G. – Battle at Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare – Dorling Kindersley, 2008
Mordal, J. – 25 Centuries of Sea Warfare – Abbey Library, 1973
Symonds, C.L. – World War II at Sea: A Global History – Oxford, 2018