The BATTLE OF CAPE MATAPAN (Greek : Ναυμαχία του
Ταίναρου) was a
Second World War
* 1 Background
* 2 Prelude
* 2.1 Opposing forces
* 3 Battle
* 3.1 Action off Gavdos * 3.2 Air attacks * 3.3 Night action
* 4 Aftermath
* 4.1 Balance of naval power
The Italian fleet was led by Iachino's flagship, the modern
battleship Vittorio Veneto , screened by destroyers Alpino,
Bersagliere, Fuciliere, and Granatiere of the 13th Flotilla. The fleet
also included most of the Italian heavy cruiser force: Zara , Fiume ,
and Pola , accompanied by four destroyers (Alfredo Oriani , Giosué
Carducci , Vincenzo Gioberti, and Vittorio Alfieri ) of the 9th
Flotilla; and Trieste , Trento , and Bolzano , accompanied by three
destroyers (Ascari, Corazziere, and Carabiniere) of the 12th Flotilla.
Joining them were the light cruisers Duca degli Abruzzi and Giuseppe
Garibaldi (8th division) and two destroyers of the 16th Flotilla
(Emanuele Pessagno and Nicoloso de Recco) from
On 27 March, Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell—with the cruisers Ajax,
Gloucester, Orion and Perth and a number of destroyers—sailed from
Greek waters for a position south of Crete. Admiral Cunningham with
Formidable, Warspite, Barham and Valiant left
The Italian Fleet was spotted by a Sunderland flying boat at 12:00, depriving Iachino of any advantage of surprise. The Italian Admiral also learned that Formidable was at sea, thanks to the decryption team aboard Vittorio Veneto. Nevertheless, after some discussion, the Italian headquarters decided to go ahead with the operation, to show the Germans their will to fight and confidence in the higher speed of their warships.
ACTION OFF GAVDOS
The battleship Vittorio Veneto firing upon the Allied cruisers during the battle.
On 28 March, an IMAM Ro.43 floatplane launched by Vittorio Veneto spotted the British cruiser squadron at 06:35. At 07:55, the Trento group encountered Admiral Pridham-Wippell's cruiser group south of the Greek island of Gavdos . The British squadron was heading to the south-east. Thinking they were attempting to run from their larger ships, the Italians gave chase, opening fire at 08:12 from 24,000 yd (22,000 m). The three heavy cruisers fired repeatedly until 08:55, with Trieste firing 132 armour piercing rounds, Trento firing 204 armour-piercing and 10 explosive shells and Bolzano firing another 189 armour piercing shells, but the Italians experienced trouble with their rangefinding equipment and scored no significant hits. HMS Gloucester fired three salvos in return. These fell short but did cause the Italians to make a course change.
As the distance had not been reduced after an hour of pursuit, the Italian cruisers broke off the chase, turning to the north-west on a course to rejoin Vittorio Veneto. The Allied ships changed course in turn, following the Italian cruisers at extreme range. Iachino let them come on in hopes of luring the British cruisers into the range of Vittorio Veneto's guns.
An officer on Orion's bridge remarked to a companion, "What's that battleship over there? I thought ours were miles away." The Italians eavesdropped on Orion's signal that she had sighted an unknown unit and was going to investigate. At 10:55, Vittorio Veneto joined the Italian cruisers and immediately opened fire on the shadowing Allied cruisers. She fired 94 rounds from a distance of 25,000 yd (23,000 m), all well aimed but again with an excessive dispersal of her salvos. The Allied cruisers, until then unaware of the presence of a battleship, withdrew, suffering slight damage from 381 mm (15.0 in) shell splinters. A series of photographs taken from HMS Gloucester showing Italian salvos falling amongst Allied warships was published by Life magazine on 16 June 1941. Vittorio Veneto fired a total of 94 shells in 29 salvos. Another 11 rounds got jammed in the barrels.
Vittorio Veneto withdraws from the battle area after being torpedoed by RN aircraft.
Cunningham's force, which had been attempting to rendezvous with
Pridham-Wippell, had launched an attack by
A second aerial attack at 15:09 surprised the Italians; Lieutenant-Commander Dalyell-Stead was able to fly his Albacore to within 1,094 yards (1,000 m) of Vittorio Veneto before releasing a torpedo which hit her outer port propeller and caused 4,000 long tons (4,100 t ) of flooding. Dalyell-Stead and his crew were killed when their aircraft was shot down by antiaircraft fire from the battleship. The ship stopped while the damage was repaired, but she was able to get under way again at 16:42, making 19 knots (35 km/h ; 22 mph ). Cunningham heard of the damage to Vittorio Veneto, and started a pursuit.
A third attack by six Albacores and two
Unaware of Cunningham's pursuit, a squadron of cruisers and destroyers was ordered to return and help Pola. This squadron included Pola's sister ships , Zara and Fiume. The squadron did not start to return towards Pola until about an hour after the order had been given by Iachino, officially due to communication problems, while Vittorio Veneto and the other ships continued to Taranto.
At 20:15, Orion's radar picked up a ship six miles to port, apparently dead in the water; she was the crippled Pola. The bulk of the Allied forces detected the Italian squadron on radar shortly after 22:00, and were able to close without being detected. The Italian ships had no radar and could not detect British ships by means other than sight; Italian thinking did not envisage night actions and their main gun batteries were not prepared for action. At 22:20 they spotted the Allied squadron, but thought them to be Italian ships. The battleships Barham, Valiant, and Warspite were able to close to 3,800 yards (3,500 m) – point blank range for battleship guns – at which point they opened fire. The Allied searchlights (including those aboard Valiant, under the command of a young Prince Philip ) illuminated their enemy. Some British gunners witnessed cruiser main turrets flying dozens of metres into the air. After just three minutes, Fiume and Zara had been destroyed. Fiume sank at 23:30, while Zara was finished off by a torpedo from the destroyer HMS Jervis at 02:40 of 29 March.
Two Italian destroyers, Vittorio Alfieri and Giosué Carducci , were
sunk in the first five minutes. The other two, Gioberti and Oriani,
managed to escape, the former with heavy damage. Towing Pola to
The Allied ships took on survivors but left the scene in the morning, fearing Axis air strikes. Admiral Cunningham ordered a signal to be made on the Merchant Marine emergency band. This signal was received by the Italian High Command. It informed them that due to air strikes the Allied ships had ceased their rescue operations and granted safe passage to a hospital ship for rescue purposes. The location of the remaining survivors was broadcast, and the Italian hospital ship Gradisca came to recover them. Allied casualties during the battle were a single torpedo bomber shot down by Vittorio Veneto's 90 mm (3.5-inch) anti-aircraft batteries, with the loss of the three-man crew. Italian losses were up to 2,303 sailors, most of them from Zara and Fiume. The Allies rescued 1,015 survivors, while the Italians saved another 160.
BALANCE OF NAVAL POWER
Matapan was Italy's greatest defeat at sea, subtracting from its
order of battle a cruiser division. The British in the Mediterranean
lost the heavy cruiser York and the new light cruiser Bonaventure in
the same period (26–31 March 1941), but while the
After the defeat at Cape Matapan, the Italian Admiral Iachino wrote that the battle had,
... the consequence of limiting for some time our operational activities, not for the serious moral effect of the losses, as the British believed, but because the operation revealed our inferiority in effective aero-naval cooperation and the backwardness of our night battle technology. — Iachino
The Italian fleet did not venture into the Eastern Mediterranean again until the fall of Crete two months later. Despite his impressive victory, Admiral Cunningham was somewhat disappointed with the failure of the destroyers to make contact with Vittorio Veneto. The escape of the Italian battleship was, in the words of the British Admiral, "much to be regretted".
BLETCHLEY PARK (GC&CS)
For reasons of secrecy, code breakers at the GC">When Cunningham won at Matapan
By the grace of God and Dilly
He was the brains behind them all
And should ne'er be forgotten. Will he? ”
— \'Nobby\' Clarke , codebreaker
For decades after the end of the
Second World War