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March 1941 - Battle of Matapan - History


The Italian Battleship Vittorio Veneto firing her 15in guns on British cruisers during a brief engagement near Gaudo Island

The British Navy acheive an overwhelming victory of the Italian navy at the Battle of Matapan. A good part of the Italian fleet was sunk and the British lost no ships. It was the greatest British naval victory of the war and effectively ended the Italian navy participation in the war.

On March 17th a British patrol plane spots the Italian Naval Division 3 who is moving to attack British shipping. The British scrambled their entire fleet from Alexandria which included the battleships Valiand, Barham and Warspite and the aircraft carrier Formidible.

The Italian Force was led by Vice Admiral Angelo Iachino and included the battleship Vittorio Veneto, the British force was led by Admiral Cunningham.

Cunnigham cruisers engaged part of the Italian force on March 28th. In the meantime Cunninghams main force was closing. When the British aircraft attacked, the Italians changed course and began to withdraw. Cunnighman then launched successive air attacks against the Italian fleet. The Vittorio Veneto was hit and forced to slow down, but was soon making 20 knots. The cruiser Polo was seriously damaged and two other cruisers and four destroyers were detached to escort the Pola. Cunnighams main force of battleships then struck the Italian cruiser in the middle of the night, Within three minutes the Italian cruisers Zara and Fiume were sunk. The destroyers Affeieri and Carducci soon followed. Finally, the partially disabled cruiser Pola was boarded and captured. It was the greatest British naval victory since Trafalgar.


Battle of Cape Matapan, 27–29 March 1941

The deteriorating military situation in Africa and Greece in 1941, however, made it clear that some offensive response by the Regia Marina was necessary if these theaters were to remain viable for the Axis powers. The Germans were now becoming more insistent that something be done to restore the situation in the Mediterranean. At their urging, and because of the general feeling at Supermarina (Italian naval headquarters) that an attempt should be made to re-establish the dynamics of conflict in the area, Operation Gaudo was born.

Vittorio Veneto firing upon Allied cruisers during the daytime phase of the Battle of Cape Matapan near the Island of Gavdos.

Supermarina committed the brand-new Littorio-class battleship Vittorio Veneto, sporting nine 15-inch guns and displacing 45,000 tons, as well as six of its seven 10,000-ton heavy cruisers and two of its best light cruisers to the operation. Usually reluctant to risk its capital ships, Supermarina had outdone itself for this mission. The Italians were further motivated by Luftwaffe reports on March 15, 1941, indicating that two of the three British battleships in the Mediterranean had been severely damaged and were not operational. Perhaps Supermarina officials would have been less sanguine had they known that those two battleships and their sister ship were not damaged, but anchored comfortably in Alexandria Harbor and quite ready to fight. Moreover, the British ships were led by one of the most competent and aggressive sailors in the Royal Navy.

Admiral Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, affectionately known as “ABC” to his men, had entered the Royal Navy as a cadet at age 14. While nurtured in a battleship navy, he was an early convert to air power. Cunningham had taken over a superb fleet whose training included night combat, which at that time was considered apostasy by most navies around the globe and ruled out as a matter of course. The British Mediterranean Fleet, however, excelled in night actions during prewar maneuvers and applied the lessons learned during the war years.

There were those in the Italian Naval Operational Command Centre (Supermarina). Admiral Riccardi, the Italian Chief of Naval Staff, and other leading members of the RMI, such as Admirals Campioni and Iachino, were particularly anxious to deliver a knock-out blow to Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. There is more than a suspicion that they entertained and even cherished the thought of bringing about some form of massive set piece battle in which the British could be put to the sword in the Mediterranean – a type of new style Jutland with a different result from the original encounter in the North Sea. These ideas were all very well in theory, but the reality of the situation was what counted in Berlin and Wilhelmshaven. Appreciating that something needed to be done to improve its standing in the eyes of its Axis partner, Supermarina strove to orchestrate a plan (codename Gaudo) that would succeed in restoring some pride to the Italian Navy. One effective way of doing that would be to intercept and destroy a couple of lightly screened Allied convoys scheduled for late March: AG.9 en route from Alexandria to Piraeus and GA.9 going in the opposite direction. As John Winton suggests, it was an excellent plan which might well have succeeded had it not been discovered in advance.

Its secrecy was compromised to some extent by the Italians themselves. Their rather understandable eagerness in checking repeatedly on the location of the Mediterranean Fleet through increased surveillance patrols of both Alexandria and the convoy routes south of Crete in the days leading up to the launching of Gaudo certainly alerted Cunningham and his staff to the likelihood of some imminent action in the Eastern Mediterranean. These suspicions were confirmed by the latest ‘Ultra’ intercepts provided for the Admiralty by the members of Hut 6 (working on the Luftwaffe’s ‘Light Blue’ code) and Dilly Knox and Mavis Lever (who concentrated on the RMI’s ‘Alfa’ code) at Bletchley Park. This signals intelligence suggested that German exasperation at the Italian failure to deal effectively with the Allied convoys to Piraeus and Suda Bay was such that the Supermarina intended to send its main surface fleet south of Crete in search of the troop transports and supply ships that had so far eluded its submarine arm and that 28 March was scheduled as D-Day for this operation.

Forewarned of Admiral Iachino’s intended operational sortie off Crete, but not the composition of the force that would be undertaking it, the Admiralty swiftly re-routed and then recalled its two merchant convoys. If the Italians were spoiling for a fight, so was Cunningham. Risks had to be accepted in such a situation, but the prospect of doing real harm to the Italian Fleet was too good an opportunity for him to miss. He sought to make the most of his advantages by sending Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Pridham-Wippell’s Force B (four light cruisers and four destroyers) out from Pireaus to act as live bait for Iachino’s warships in the waters off Crete and lure them unwittingly into the steely embrace of Cunningham’s Force A (the carrier Formidable, three battleships and nine destroyers) coming up from the southeast. If this could be done successfully, Cunningham felt his warships could then set about the enemy with some gusto.

On the same day (27 March) that Pridham-Wippell’s Force B left port to get into its pre-arranged position south of Crete to begin trailing its cape for Iachino’s fleet to follow, the very ships it was hoping to attract rendezvoused south of the Straits of Messina and moved off south-eastwards towards Crete – and the convoy routes to and from Greece that lay further to the south. Although the RMI had no carriers to rely upon, the force that gathered in Sicilian waters was still quite impressive. Apart from his flagship the battleship Vittorio Veneto and four destroyers that had come from Naples, Iachino had gathered a fleet of six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and nine other destroyers from their bases at Taranto, Brindisi and Messina. It was a fleet that could have done an awful lot of damage to any Allied convoy it came across, but it lacked constant air cover and reconnaissance support. In the absence of a carrier, however, Supermarina had fully expected to have at its disposal the planes of Fliegercorps X operating from their base in Sicily – so the aerial deficiency was not regarded as being critical at this stage.

Whatever the Fliegerkorps might have done for the Italians, the fact remained that Cunningham was far better served by aerial reconnaissance than his opponents. At lunchtime on 27 March, an RAF flying boat based on Crete reported that three Italian heavy cruisers of the Trento class and a destroyer were at sea and heading towards the island. This report confirmed the accuracy of the earlier signals intelligence and convinced Cunningham that action was in the offing. Despite his aggressive instincts, he didn’t want to reveal his hand too soon lest the enemy fleet break off the operation and return to its home bases. Wishing to deceive Italian agents in Alexandria about his intentions to leave port and go out for a showdown with Iachino’s warships, Cunningham behaved ashore as if hoisting anchor was about the last thing on his mind on the evening of 27 March. What Michael Simpson describes as an ‘elaborate charade’ seemed to work perfectly. Force A left Alexandria after dark undetected by spies and sped towards its pre-arranged meeting with Force B south of Crete later in the morning of 28 March.

Over the course of the next thirty hours a fleet action that had promised so much for the Italians turned into another grievous defeat every bit as bad as the earlier Taranto débâcle, if not worse. Whether the Battle of Matapan deserves the ringing epithet of ‘a naval Caporetto’ given to it by the Italian critic Gianni Rocca is arguable, but what is clear is that it was a tragedy and one that had been largely, and sadly, self-inflicted. While aircraft and radar both had a critical role in assisting the British cause on 28 March, the stunning victory that would come his way after nightfall was gifted to Cunningham by his adversary Iachino. Aware from a lunchtime air raid that the Gaudo operation had already lost its surprise element, Iachino had opted for a safety-first policy by turning westward in a bid to put his ships beyond the range of what he assumed had been purely shore-based RAF units. Once the Vittorio Veneto had been hit and holed in the stern during a torpedo attack in the mid-afternoon, he could do no more than abandon the operation and – after sterling work by his damage control party – make course for home at the best possible speed. As the Italian Fleet limped westward it was spotted by one of Warspite’s reconnaissance planes and targeted again at dusk by both carrier and land-based aircraft. As luck would have it in trying to finish off the battleship an Albacore 5A, the last carrier plane to make an attack, succeeded in totally immobilizing the heavy cruiser Pola at 1946 hours. As she remained dead in the water, the rest of the fleet retired from the scene as hastily as possible. After exchanging a series of messages about the plight of the Pola and her crew with Carlo Cattaneo, one of his divisional commanders, Iachino made a gross tactical error at 2018 hours in sending back two other Zara class heavy cruisers and four destroyers to go to the aid of the crippled warship. While Iachino’s humanity cannot be faulted for trying to rescue her officers and men, the return of Cattaneo’s entire group to retrieve the Pola by towing her to safety when he knew by this time that the Mediterranean Fleet was at sea is simply unfathomable. One can only imagine he thought the British ships weren’t close enough to be an active threat during the hours of darkness and that by morning he would have arranged sufficient air cover for Cattaneo’s entire group that Cunningham wouldn’t dare to intervene. It was an egregious error. Iachino may have thought that the British wouldn’t risk engaging in any night fighting, but if he did he didn’t know his opposite number. Cunningham was determined not to let the battleship get away and was prepared to bring the enemy fleet to action in the dark if need be, even though his ships had not practised night fighting for some months and the skills necessary to become good at it still remained rudimentary at best.

In the end, of course, the night action that took place didn’t involve Iachino’s entire fleet, but just Cattaneo’s division of it. They had the wretched luck to return to the stricken Pola just when Cunningham arrived at the same spot with Force A. Martin Stephen describes the scene graphically: ‘With flashless cordite and radar the British were sighted men in a world of the blind.’ At what amounted to point blank range the result was never in doubt. Fiume and Zara were soon rendered into smoking hulks by the broadside they received. In a little over four minutes the Zara class of heavy cruiser had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. As Cunningham described it later it was ‘more like murder than anything else’. Removing his battlefleet from what Barnett describes perfectly as a ‘chaotic mêlée’, Cunningham left his own destroyers to deal with their Italian equivalents. During the course of the evening, two of the four enemy destroyers were sunk (Alfieri and Carducci) while Oriani was damaged but managed to escape along with the unscathed Gioberti.

It was a magnificent victory for Cunningham, but it might have turned out even better had he not sent a sloppily phrased signal to the rest of his ships shortly after putting the heavy cruisers out of action that seemed to imply that all those not engaged in dealing with the enemy should withdraw to the northeast. While the ambiguous message was not intended for his light cruiser squadron, Pridham-Wippell didn’t realise that at the time. He broke off his pursuit of the Vittorio Veneto and withdrew to the northeast to conform with his C-in-C’s apparent orders. By the time that Cunningham had become aware of what had happened, Iachino’s flagship and her accompanying warships had escaped to live and fight another day. That was more than could be said for Vice-Admiral Cattaneo and 2,302 officers and men of the Regia Marina who perished in these engagements. Correlli Barnett calls it ‘the Royal Navy’s greatest victory in a fleet encounter since Trafalgar’. Is it churlish to suggest that it could have been even greater? It might well have been but for the ambiguously worded signal Cunningham had sent while basking in the glow of his battlefleet’s destructive blitz against Cattaneo’s heavy cruisers. Michael Simpson, the editor of Cunningham’s papers, draws another valid conclusion about the Battle of Cape Matapan, namely, that the C-in-C would have been far better served had he had two carriers rather than only one with him on this operation. Extra aircraft would have given him far more systematic reconnaissance and firepower than was available to him from only having Formidable and some of the land-based RAF torpedo-bombers at his disposal.

One thing that all the leading naval analysts who have reviewed the action off Cape Matapan agree upon is that this crushing defeat for the Regia Marina was as much psychological as it was material. It dealt a real blow to the esteem in which the Italian fleet was held and made the Supermarina far more cautious than it otherwise might have been. This attitude of restraint was further reinforced by yet another rout its forces suffered at the hands of the British only a few days later in the Red Sea, in what became an ultimately fruitless Italian quest both to attack Port Sudan as well as to retain their base of Massawa on the coast of Eritrea. In the face of a sustained land and aerial offensive launched by the enemy which closed in on the port on 6 April and captured it two days later, the Italians would lose six seaworthy destroyers, a torpedo boat, five MAS (fast motor torpedo boats) and nineteen of their merchant vessels, while six German ships, including the passenger ship Colombo, suffered the same fate. Somehow the degree of hopelessness into which the Italian naval cause had sunk was typified by the scuttling of the vast majority of these craft by their own crews at a total cost of 151,760 tons.


The Battle of Cape Matapan

In late March 1941, the British had the better part of three divisions in Greece and Crete, and supplying them required a steady stream of convoys from Egypt. Italian intelligence accessed that the British had just one battleship and no carriers in the Eastern Mediterranean, so Mussolini launched the pride of the Italian Navy, the ultra-modern battleship Vittorio Veneto (it was less than a year old), eight cruisers, and seventeen destroyers to raid convoys bound for Greece.

Italian intelligence was sorely mistaken. Admiral Cunnigham, the CinC of the British Mediterranean Fleet was reinforced by the ships that cleared the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea of Axis ships in February. He had three battleships, an aircraft carrier, seven cruisers, and seventeen destroyers, centered around his flagship, the First World War veteran HMS Warspite. Nevertheless, the Italian ships were faster, stronger, more heavily armed, and more modern. However, British intelligence could read the Italian enigma transmissions and knew exactly when the first raid would take place. Cunningham needed to get the Italians close, before the Vittorio Veneto’s higher speed, longer range and better fire control smashed the older British battlewagons.

Using a destroyer squadron as bait, Cunningham ambushed the Italians in the dark seas off of the tip of southern Greece’s Cape Matapan on 28 March 1941. All day Cunningham played a game of cat and mouse with the Italians with his destroyers and Swordfish torpedo planes. With the Italians suitably disorganized by dusk, and the VV slowed by multiple torpedo hits, Cunningham closed in for the kill that night. During the night fighting at point blank range the Italians’ more modern ships mattered little. Fearing the loss of the pride of Fascist Italy, the Italians broke off the fight before the heavily damaged Vittorio Veneto was sunk. The Italians lost three cruisers, three destroyers and nearly 2400 sailors. The British lost three sailors killed and two near obsolete torpedo bombers shot down.

For the rest of the war, the Mediterranean Sea was a British lake, especially with Malta still in Allied hands. Only with great difficulty and massive German air support could Rommel be supplied in North Africa.


No battle of Cape Matapan, Then What?

28 March 1941
19.50: The aircraft flown by Lieutenant F.M.A. Torrens-Spence is shot down by antiaircraft fire before torpedoing the heavy cruiser Pola.
Without the torpedoing, there would have been no diversion to rescue the ship and thus no night engagement. Assuming that the fleet would have returned to Taranto without any other damage (like in OTL) how would the Battle of the Mediterranean have played out without the battle of Cape Matapan?

What about the Battle of Crete? Would there have been an attempt to launch an amphibious attack on the island?
If yes, I think that there would have been another battle between the Italian fleet and the British fleet (this time however with heavy support from the Luftwaffe), but how would the battle have turned out?

I know that the Axis would have lost in the end but nonetheless, I think that this POD can lead to some interesting divergences from our timeline

Catspoke

McPherson

There is no guarantee that Iachino's movement would not have been betrayed by the Germans or by Italian air force use of an Enigma machine, or by other FAA reconnaissance or that some other intelligence flub does not bring on the battle. A fleet is hard to hide, especially one that likes to yak on the radio as much as the British or Italians did. Axis op-sec (Especially German side.) was poor. Also, I regard the FAA attacks on Vittorio Veneto as more significant than Pola. It was the torpedo that hit her, VV, in the props, that caused Iachino to luff up and allowed Cunningham's flyers to plink Pola.

What about the Battle of Crete? Would there have been an attempt to launch an amphibious attack on the island?

If yes, I think that there would have been another battle between the Italian fleet and the British fleet (this time however with heavy support from the Luftwaffe), but how would the battle have turned out?

I am unsure. The Italians would have to solve their ammunition problem and have to fight a daylight action, to stand a good chance.

Caledon

So, first of all, I will admit that most of what I know about this battle is right from Wikipedia. That being said, I think the POD is interesting, but it's not quite accurate to say it means that there is no Battle of Cape Matapan. The battle started early in the morning, with a number of engagements throughout the day, and Pola was hit late in the day, after Vittorio Veneto had already been hit earlier. So the battle still happens, but yes, without that torpedo crippling Pola, they don't lose those three cruisers during the night.

As for what that leads to, I suspect that if the night action doesn't happen, the Italians don't realize how badly they are outmatched. And they don't learn yet that their lack of radar is a huge problem. So, instead of hiding in port as they did OTL, they remain willing to sail out to fight (for now).

So yes, maybe they end up providing an escort so that the invasion of Crete can include an amphibious force.

Or maybe they continue to try to raid British convoys until the RN catches up with them again. Most likely, they get their asses kicked in the next big battle, and then they decide to stay home after that.

Marco Rivignani

I was thinking pretty much the same. By the way I called it No battle of Cape Matapan beacuse here in Italy the opening actions of the battle are also know as the Battle of Guado. Regarding the Crete Operation I have mixed feelings because the Italian would have German air support and I personally think that the Royal Navy would not risk more ships than it did in OTL to engage the Italian Fleet. The Italian fleet would most likely also desist from an engagment with Royal Navy. But I not an expert so I'm not 100% sure.

Assuming that the Italians still have enought fuel to sortie I think that this TL "Cape Matapan" would have been an operation to try to destroy Malta Harbour or something like that to starve the island and reduce it's offensive capabilities.

If for some reason there is NO "Cape Matapan"equivalent in early to mid 1941 there would surely be batterflies at battles like Cape Bon or at Sirte. Maybe the Regia Marina would try to sortie in 1942 to counter the relief efforts to Malta?
What do you think?

McPherson

I was thinking pretty much the same. By the way I called it No battle of Cape Matapan because here in Italy the opening actions of the battle are also know as the Battle of Guado. Regarding the Crete Operation I have mixed feelings because the Italian would have German air support and I personally think that the Royal Navy would not risk more ships than it did in OTL to engage the Italian Fleet. The Italian fleet would most likely also desist from an engagement with Royal Navy. But I not an expert so I'm not 100% sure.

Assuming that the Italians still have enough fuel to sortie I think that this TL "Cape Matapan" would have been an operation to try to destroy Malta Harbour or something like that to starve the island and reduce it's offensive capabilities.

If for some reason there is NO "Cape Matapan" equivalent in early to mid 1941 there would surely be butterflies at battles like Cape Bon or at Sirte. Maybe the Regia Marina would try to sortie in 1942 to counter the relief efforts to Malta?

Source: Commando Supremo article.

The Regia Marina was short of naval fuel oil (heavy kerosene). Whether or not it could organize a proper surface action group was also an administrative headache, since at the time some of the battleships were either in refit or repair and Benny the Moose demanded a raid demonstration to show the Berlin Maniac that Italy was still committed to the naval war. Very bad timing as to the raid, though the ostensible reason was to disrupt British operations . The RM tactical doctrine was based on the referent enemy, France, and battle in the Ligurian and Tyrhennian seas so the Matapan dispositions must be seen in that light with a scout/raider squadron and a core battleship main body operating in tangent instead of as a unified body as would be for another navy.

The British battle method is also curious, with a scout force sweeping ahead and then the screened battle line and the aircraft carrier bringing up the rear.

Neither navy has a good naval air practice or doctrine. The Regia Aeronautica has little experience with naval air reconnaissance. Their RIKKO (anti-ship capability) is "marginal" at this stage of the war as is inter-service cooperation, but will get much better. The British Fleet Air Arm (RAF) from its aircraft carriers, has to this moment, demonstrated "good" reconnaissance as to sea-air search and a formidable torpedo attack capability. It is LOUSY at fleet air defense and dive bombing.

The Italians have perhaps the finest optical fire control systems on Earth. They lack radar and their ammunition as to shells and propellants is of poor manufacture quality. This leads to unreliable repeatable ballistic trajectory profiles and causes huge dispersion problems, much as British WWI and early American WWII shells and ammunition did. So the Italians can straddle within 2 or three ladders, but with spreads of salvo groupings from Vittorio of almost a kilometer in dispersion the PH % was about 0.08 % or not too good. The cruisers were not much better.

British WWII shooting is "good". Tight salvoes from QE's of about 250 meters dispersion. PH% about 3 to 5%. Radar for blob detection and then if the ambushed enemy is within 5,000 meters and the searchlights snap on, with surprise gained, well Savo Island and First Guadalcanal was like that, so the USN has some sympathy. Being the sitting duck is no fun.

Could the RM do a shore bombardment and harbor disruption of Malta? No. The accuracy is not there until the ammunition problem is solved.

One set of comments about the German Luftwaffe: it totally lacked a good torpedo attack capability at this stage of the war, though its dive bombing of slow and stationary ships was "excellent". That service was utterly incompetent as to air search, and it was incapable of op-sec. LW attacks insofar as these occur at this stage of the war are the result of Italian radio intelligence and reconnaissance, or the British parking themselves where one would have to be a blind elephant to miss them. (Crete campaign.).


Helping the Pola

At 7:36 p.m., Allied aircraft struck again. The attack on the Vittorio Veneto lasted 14 minutes. Admiral Iachino kept his battleship from getting hit with anti-aircraft fire, smoke, and spotlights. He saved the bulk of the ships in his immediate area. However, one ship — Pola — obtained damage. Unfortunately for the Italian fleet, this damaged ship would be enough to make the battle go from relatively equal to an Italian defeat.

A photo of the Bolzano being attacked by Swordfish at the Battle of Cape Matapan. This image was taken from a second Swordfish that just dropped a torpedo at the bottom left of the image.

Admiral Iachino’s next move was to send ships out to aid his damaged ship. The rest of his fleet, including his battleship, moved on. It is generally thought that Admiral Iachino was unaware that British ships, including the aircraft carrier, were nearby. Others believe that the Admiral’s decision to send help to the Pola was a poor decision that lost the battle. Poor decision or uninformed decision, it certainly did lose the battle for the Italian fleet.

A Fairey Albacore torpedo bomber takes off the HMS Formidable.

Between 10 and 11 p.m., the Allies approached the Pola and those sent to save her. Once in firing distance, they attacked, sinking Zara class cruisers Fiume, Zara and destroyers Vittorio Alfieri, and Giosué Carducci in a matter of minutes. Pola sank hours later.


Naval Battle of Matapan. 29 March 1941

The Battle of Matapan took place o the Western coast of Crete on 29th March 1941 and involved the Australian ships HMAS Perth and HMAS Stuart .Under the command of Vice Admiral Pridham-Wippell, the cruisers HMAS Perth, HMS Orion, HMS Aajax, and HMS Gloucester, then patrolling in the Aegean Sea, was ordered to a point off Gavdos Island south of Crete to protect troop convoys bound for Greece, from attacks by the Italian Navy.

The Italian Fleet, comprising one battleship, eight cruisers, plus destroyers, was conducting sweeps west of Crete trying to find the convoys also off Gavdos. Unknowingly, the Allied ships were sailing into a potential disaster.

At 6am HMAS Perth and company were sighted by the Italians but at the same time the carrier HMS Formidable sighted the Italians. At 7.45am HMAS Perth sighted the Italian cruisers, Bolzano, Trieste, and Trento. At 8.12am the Italians opened fire. The Italian fire was very accurate and they were closing rapidly. HMS Gloucestor, who had received most of the shelling, opened fire and at 8.53 HMS Orion started to make smoke to try and attract our battle fleet. At 9am the Italians broke off the engagement so the allied cruisers turned to shadow them.

The battle ensign worn by Perth during the battle of Matapan (AWM REL29311).

Unfortunately, at 10.58am they ran into the new Italian battleship, Vittoria Veneto. They were now caught between the battleship and three Italian cruisers. Vittorio Veneto commenced very accurate fire, firing ninety four shells. However because the spread of shots was too wide, only slight damage was done to HMAS Perth and HMS Orion. Hopelessly outgunned, the Allied four cruisers set up a huge smokescreen and turned south at full speed to try to escape. They were now in a very dangerous position as the Italian battleship was driving them towards the Italian cruisers. At 11.27, just as disaster seemed about to strike, aircraft from HMS Formidable attacked Vittorio Veneto and she broke off the pursuit.

HMAS Perth and the others now turned to follow Vittorio Veneto and, until the close of the battle later that night, acted in a shadowing capacity for the main battle fleet. An attack by Formidable’s aircraft stopped the Italian cruiser Pola. The Italian admiral, not realizing the Allied Fleet was so close, ordered her sisters ships, Zara and Fiume to go to her assistance.

At 22.10 the radar on HMS Valiant detected the three cruisers at a range of only six miles. Illuminated by searchlights, the ships were pounded by 15” salvos from HMS Warspite and Valiant at point blank range. The Italians lost the three cruisers and the destroyers, Alfieri and Carducci plus 2400 men. HMAS Perth then returned to Piraeus and resumed patrols of the Aegean Sea.

The Battle of Matapan, was a resounding and essential Allied naval victory. Had the Italian cruisers managed to break into the sea routes between Egypt and Greece the result could have been disastrous for the Lustre Force convoys. Matapan was, in the words of Gavin Long, a ‘notable success’ and the Italian fleet, the only force in the Mediterranean capable of engaging the Royal Navy, did not again show itself during the ensuing months of the campaign in Greece and Crete thereby enabling the evacuation of tens of thousands of Allied troops in those future Battles.


Prince Philip once lit up enemy ships as Royal Navy warships tore them apart during a bloody nighttime WWII naval battle

Prince Philip, who died on Friday at the age of 99, was a decorated World War II veteran who fought in a number of battles during the global conflict, including one brutal exchange near Greece in the dead of night.

Allied forces delivered a devastating blow to the Italian navy at Cape Matapan just off Greece on March 28, 1941, sinking several enemy vessels in quick succession.

British Royal Navy warships closed with Italian ships in the dark, catching the enemy force off guard. It was the kind of close-range gun battle that naval radar advancements would make less common. Philip, who was then a 19-year-old midshipman aboard the battleship HMS Valiant, was manning the searchlights to find enemy ships.

"I seem to remember that I reported that I had a target in sight, and was ordered to 'open shutter'. The beam lit up a stationary cruiser, but we were so close by then that the beam only lit up half the ship," Philip recalled in the forward of the 2012 history book Dark Seas: The Battle of Cape Matapan.

"At this point all hell broke loose," he said. "All our eight 15-inch guns started firing at the stationary cruiser, which disappeared in an explosion and a cloud of smoke."

"I was then ordered to 'train left' and lit up another Italian cruiser, which was given the same treatment," he said.

During the nighttime fight, British warships sank three cruisers and two destroyers, some in a matter of minutes. The Italians lost more than 2,000 sailors. One account from the battle said that "thousands of bodies were strung over fifteen miles of sea off Cape Matapan."

For his actions during the fight, Philip was awarded the Greek War Cross, a military decoration for heroism.

Two years after the Battle of Cape Matapan, Philip took part in the allied invasion of Sicily, serving as a first lieutenant and second-in-command aboard the destroyer HMS Wallace, a ship he is credited with helping save from a nighttime bomber attack.

Harry Hargreaves, a former Royal Navy sailor who served with Philip aboard the Wallace, recalled the events of the 1943 fight in the early 2000s in discussions with British media.

He said that the Wallace was facing almost certain destruction by a German Luftwaffe bomber. "It was obvious that we were the target for tonight and they would not stop until we had suffered a fatal hit," he said.

He said that in that terrifying moment, he saw Philip in a hurried conversation with the ship's captain, presumably trying to come up with a plan of action before the bomber came back around.

"The next thing a wooden raft was being put together on deck," the former yeoman said. "Within five minutes they launched the raft over the side, at each end was fastened a smoke float." Once the raft was in the water, smoke began to billow up, as it might from a wounded warship.

The captain relocated the Wallace and then ordered engines stopped, sitting quietly in the darkness, bracing for the next attack. When the bomber circled back around for another run, it targeted the raft billowing smoke as though on fire. The plan had worked.

"Prince Philip saved our lives that night," Hargreaves told British media. "He was always very courageous and resourceful and thought very quickly. You would say to yourself 'What the hell are we going to do now?' and Philip would come up with something."

Several years after the end of World War II, Philip became admiral of the Sea Cadet Corps, colonel-in-chief of the Army Cadet Force, and air commodore-in-chief of the Air Training Corps. The following year, he was promoted to admiral of the fleet, field marshal, and marshal of the Royal Air Force.

Philip met his future wife of more than seven decades, Queen Elizabeth II, as a young cadet at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth just a few years before the war.

"It is with deep sorrow that Her Majesty The Queen has announced the death of her beloved husband, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh," Buckingham Palace announced Friday. "His Royal Highness passed away peacefully this morning at Windsor Castle."


Fact File : Battle of Cape Matapan

Location: Cape Matapan, off the southern coast of Greece.
Players: British and Italian navies, Admiral AB Cunningham, Vice Admiral Pridham-Wippwell.
Outcome: The Italian navy was defeated and did not seek battle with British ships again.

In the battle for supremacy in the Mediterranean, the British navy fought the Italian fleet off the coast of southern Greece on 28 March 1941. Increased enemy activity had been observed three days earlier by reconnaissance aircraft, and the British suspected that surface activity was being planned by the enemy. Ultra intelligence had broken the Italian code, and the British were aware that they planned to attack convoys.

A convoy transporting troops to Piraeus, Greece, was turned around and another about to depart Egypt for Greece was ordered to stay at anchor. Confirmation came that Italian ships were heading for Crete and a British battle fleet left Alexandria with Admiral Cunningham in command.

On 27 March he sailed with his battle squadron and the British carrier Formidable. The cruiser force under Vice Admiral Pridham-Wippell was also ordered to take up station south west of Gavdo Island at daylight on 28 March from its position in the Aegean. Admiral Cunningham managed to keep this movement secret from Italian and other intelligence services.

The Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto first opened fire on Pridham-Wippell, who was forced to turn about. British cruisers and aircraft launched from the Formidable pursued the Vittorio and caused her to break from engagement, saving Pridham-Wipwell. In a second attack the Vittorio was torpedoed, but not dangerously so. The cruiser Pola was stopped. Four Italian destroyers were sent to assist. The two forces were now steaming towards each other, but the Italians were taken by surprise.

Big guns from the battleships Warspite, Barham and Valiant attacked the Fiume - she was soon a wreck and sank - followed by the Zara and the destroyer Alfieri. In the battle between destroyers which followed the Carducci was sunk.

While the Royal Navy had in the end only fought an element of the Italian strength, Admiral Cunningham's tactics were successful and an objective was secured: the Italian navy had been checked and the two naval forces did not meet again.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.


Ahoy - Mac's Web Log

Introduction
If one looks at the Battle of Matapan as part of a broad canvas, it may be likened to the central segment of a triptych, the complementary parts of this picture are: the mauling of the Italian fleet at Calabria by the Royal Navy, and, Admiral Cunningham's Fleet Air Arm's successful sortie against the Italian Navy at Taranto, in December 1940.

All of these three actions interlock, as part of the Naval jigsaw for control of the Mediterranean, the British grimly holding on to Malta, and assisting the Greeks fighting to survive in their homeland against the German invaders.

Italy was being urged by Germany to move their Navy against the British Mediterranean Fleet, and suggesting to them that, Valiant, was the only British battleship available for any action.

From Rome, the German Naval Staff promised air reconnaissance over the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and, better still, daytime fighter cover for the Italian Fleet, to reach eastwards to Cape Matapan.

The stage was set
Admiral Angelo Iachino sailed from Naples on the 26th. of March 1941, his flagship the new battleship Vittorio Veneto, in his accompanying fleet were the eight inch cruisers, Bolzano, Fiume, Pola, Trieste, and Zara, the six inch cruiser Abruzzi, and Garibaldi, plus thirteen screening destroyers, a most formidible group.

Italian battleship Vittoria Veneto, taken from HMS Warspite

The Italian flagship's 9 by 15 inch guns were of a superior calibre to those fitted in Cunningham's older battleships.

Contrary to their promise, no German air cover appeared, and, even worse, a British reconnaissance aircraft, in bad weather, spotted a portion of the Italian fleet off Sicily.

As a result of intelligence of the imminent sailing of the Italian Fleet, Admiral Cunningham, prudently, was already at sea. His flag flying in Warspite, with Barham and Valiant, plus the carrier Formidible, with nine destroyers forming the escort, Greyhound, Griffin, Havock, Hotspur, Janus, Jervis, Mohawk, Nubian, and the old Royal Australian Navy V & W destroyer Stuart.

HMS Warspite

The cruisers under the command of Vice Admiral Pridam - Wippell, his flagship Orion, plus Ajax, Gloucester, and the RAN's six inch cruiser Perth, their anti-submarine screen, Hasty, Hereward, Ilex, and another member of the Australian Scrap Iron Flotilla, Vendetta.

Pridham-Wippell guessed that the Italians would steer to converge on the route taken by British convoys sailing to the aid of their Greek allies.

Throughout the night of the 27/28th. of March, both the Italian Fleet,and the British cruiser group,were inexorably setting up a clash on the 29th. for what we now call, The Battle of Matapan.

As day broke, the Italians were steaming south east in three discrete groups, the eight inch cruisers in the centre, the Vittorio Veneto on their starboard side, and the six inch cruisers on their port side.

Still no German aircraft in support, in desperation, at 0600 (6 AM) the Admiral ordered his flagship to fly off their own aircraft, with specific instructions " Find the British."

Within the hour, Success, the enemy report read " 4 cruisers, 4 destroyers, course South East, distance 60 miles from Flagship."

By 0812, (8.12 AM) the two sets of opposing forces sighted each other, and at almost 13 miles range, the engagement commenced, with the Italians opening fire on Gloucester. After the range had closed somewhat, the British cruiser opened fire, but her three salvoes all fell short, the Italian ships turned away, steadying on a course just west of North West.

The British ships trying to maintain contact with the enemy followed around to a similar course, at this stage, the Australian Vendetta, developed engine problems and was ordered to withdraw, and join up with the battle fleet.

Cunningham's battle fleet was sailing eastwards, endeavouring to catch up with the Italian Fleet. The fact that Formidible needed to turn into the following wind, to launch her aircraft, slowed down the advance of these ships, and Valiant, was sent on ahead to add fire support to Pridham-Wippell's cruiser force.

Aircraft reports reaching the flagship were confusing, one report even indicated the existence of another enemy force, including battleships further to the north of the Italian forces, but this aircraft lost touch with them.

It is a fact, that aircraft reporting enemy ships at sea, and even in harbour, have a tendency to report heavy cruisers as battleships, eg. the Japanese float plane that flew over Sydney Harbour prior to the Japanese Midget Submarine attack on May 31/ June 1 1942, mistakenly reported USS Chicago, an 8 inch gun cruiser for a battleship.

Now at 1100 (11 AM) Warspite intercepted three emergency signals emanating from the British cruiser force:-

"Make smoke by all available means."

"Turn together to 180 degrees."

"Proceed at your utmost speed."

Admiral Cunningham was quick to interpret that these messages indicated that his cruisers had run into the Italian battle fleet, and that they were in dire danger.

The Italian Admiral was in the dark about having a total picture about his enemies' disposition, he was obviously aware of the positioning of his own three groups of ships, and that he had just run into the British cruiser force led by Vice Admiral Pridham-Wippell, but he did not have the slightest idea that Admiral Cunningham with his battleships was even at sea, let alone that this fleet was but 70 miles away from him.

The British cruisers were steaming southwards at about 31 knots, in fact as fast as their individual engineering officers could drive them, making pungent smoke, trying to escape from the accurate fire of the Italian flagship pursuing them.

Formidible was ordered to launch an aircraft torpedo attack against Vittorio Veneto, and at 1127 (11.27 AM) a probable torpedo hit was scored on the Italian flagship. The cork was now out of the bottle, Iachino, suddenly aware of a British carrier operating near by, and he turned away to the north west.

The British now stopped making smoke, and at 1148 (11.48 AM) when it had dissipated, not an enemy ship was to be seen, these cruisers now proceeded eastwards to join up with Admiral Cunningham, which they achieved by 1230 (12.30 PM)

It was not until 1530 (3.30 PM) that an aircraft from Formidible found the Italian flagship once more, she was being screened by 4 destroyers, and was 65 miles north west of Warspite.

A second torpedo attack was made by carrier aircraft, and this time three hits were claimed, and reportedly slowing Vittorio Veneto down to an 8 knot speed. But, this speed estimate was far too optimistic, she was still steaming between 12 to 15 knots, and it would be dark before she could be overtaken.

It was eventually learned that but one torpedo had found it's mark, and the Italian flagship could still steam at 19 knots.

The British cruisers were despatched to again gain contact, and, on sighting the enemy, their escorting destroyers were to launch an attack.

By 1915 (7.15 PM) at last, Cunningham had a clear appreciation of the tactical situation, The Italian forces had converged on Vittoria Veneto, and at 15 knots were in 5 columns steering west north west, at a distance of 45 miles from Warspite.

The Italian battleship was in the centre, with four destroyers ahead, and two astern, in the inner column were Trento, Trieste, and Bolzano, in the inner starboard column, Zara, Pola, and Fiume. Three more destroyers made up the port outer column, whilst the last two destroyers were located in the starboard outer column.

The prior report of battleships to the north, were in fact, the cruisers Garibaldi and Abrzzi accompanied by destroyers.

At 1925 ( 7.25 PM) Pridham-Wippell and his cruiser group came into radar range of the enemy, and visually sighted AA fire from the Italians as they fought off attacking aircraft from Formidible.

Admiral Cunningham decided to commit his ships to a night action, keeping Stuart and Havock to starboard, and Griffin and Greyhound to port, (his staff in jest, described these destroyers as "the halt, the maimed and the blind.") he now ordered his remaining destroyers to attack.

The cruiser Pola took a torpedo in her engine room, and quickly stopped, Iachino turned to the south west, and after steaming for 30 minutes, he then turned to the north west, and by 2048 (8.48 PM) was making for Taranto.

The Italian Admiral now ordered Zara and Fiume with four destroyers to turn back and search for the stricken Pola.

Radar in Orion picked up Pola at a distance of 6 miles, at first Pridham-Wippell thought this contact was Vittoria Veneto, but then decided that the battleship still eluded him, and he proceeded to the north. Valiant’s radar also discovered Pola, and Cunningham altered course to close this contact, but as a precaution he ordered his destroyers to the starboard side, ie. on the farthest side away from the unknown ship.

At 2225 (10.25 PM) unexpectedly at a distance of only 4 miles, crossing the British battle fleet’s bows from right to left were Zara and Fiume, plus their attending destroyers, all returning to find and support Pola.

The British ships turned into line ahead, and Formidible pulled out to starboard, the two forces closed each other port side to port side, at only 3,800 yards range the director layer reported "seeing the target." Ding Dong went the firing bells, and the 15 inch guns in Warspite went into action with an enormous roar, and their flash lit the night sky as if it were daytime, then the searchlights were snapped on to catch the enemy ships in their glare, just as a hunter at night might illuminate his prey with a spotlight.

Within a short five minutes, the Italian cruisers were blazing wrecks, their war very quickly, all over.

At 2230 (10.30 PM) the enemy destroyers attacked with torpedoes, and the British Fleet turned away 90 degrees to starboard, and their destroyers counter attacked.

In another 5 minutes, Cunningham had reformed in line ahead, and was steaming northwards, his four screening destroyers were sent off to despatch the two burning Italian cruisers.

Stuart spent an hour engaging both enemy cruisers and dsetroyers, using up her full outfit of torpedoes against the cruisers, Captain Waller certainly damaged the destroyer Alfieri, and Hacock was responsible for sinking the destroyer Carducci. At 2318 (11.23 PM) Stuart withdrew to rejoin the fleet which was finally achieved at 0700 (7 AM) the next morning, the 29th. of March.

Just after midnight on the 28/29th. Havock found Pola still afloat, and reported her as a battleship, this brought Captain P.J.Mack rushing back in Jervis, which he took alongside Pola, he later reported that many of her crew were drunk, and lacked both discipline and order. The crew were taken off, and at last Pola was sunk with torpedoes, in the same way that Zara had been sent to the bottom.

When day broke, the British forces surveyed the night's battle scene, many Italian survivors were rescued, in all, some 900, including those from Pola.

German dive bombing attacks put paid to further rescue attempts, leaving many Italian sailors to an inevitable fate, Cunningham then signalled their position to the Italian Admiralty, who despatched a hospital ship, and they picked up another 160, whilst Greek destroyers plucked 110 from the sea on the 29th. of March.

Enroute to their base at Alexandria, the British Fleet was harried and heavily bombed, but managed to escape further damage, they were safely back at base on the 30th. of March.

Perth, Ajax, Stuart and Griffin had been detached earlier so they might resume their convoy duties in the Aegean.

The Battle of Matapan was over
The balance sheet read thus:-

Italy.

Sunk: 3 by 8 inch cruisers, Pola, Zara, and Fiume. 2 destroyers, Alfieri and Carducci.

Personnel killed: 2,400 Officers and sailors.

5 aircraft lost, but one crew saved.

The Battle
Matapan carried a strategic impact, it acted as a deterrent for the Italian Fleet, stopping them from interfering in later operations, particularly those in Greece and Crete.

Cunningham in his despatch wrote:

"Much of these later operations, may be said to have been conducted under the cover of Matapan."

The German Vice Admiral E. Weichold, writing about Matapan, said:

"The unhappy result of this action, the first offensive operation which the Italian Fleet had undertaken through German pressure after nine months of war, was a shattering blow to the Italian Navy and it's prestige. If they attributed blame to the false German report of the torpedoeing of Battleships, and failure of Aircraft support, there at any rate remained an inner reaction, a more stubborn refusal to undertake offensive operations against a superior British sea power."

Conclusion
Admiral Cunningham and his Fleet had, at Matapan, struck a mighty blow, both physical and physological against the Italian Navy.

Bibliography
Gill,G.H. Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942. Austraslian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957.

The Marvel of Matapan. Admiral Cunningham's Victory Hour by Hour.( Issued by the Minister of Information) The War Illustrated, April 25, 1941.

This site was created as a resource for educational use and the promotion of historical awareness. All rights of publicity of the individuals named herein are expressly reserved, and, should be respected consistent with the reverence in which this memorial site was established.


World War II Database


ww2dbase Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto, eight cruisers, and 13 destroyers under the command of Admiral Angelo Iachino set to sea to hunt for a detected British convoy. As soon as the Italian ships left port, British intelligence decoded the messages indicating their sortie. As a result, Admiral Andrew Cunningham was sent with fleet of three battleships, one carrier, and nine destroyers from Alexandria to face the Italian fleet. On the morning of 28 Mar 1941, forward cruisers supported by Albacore torpedo-bombers of carrier Formidable met the Italian warships off the Peloponnesian coast of Greece. Italian Battleship Vittorio Veneto was only lightly damaged in the initial engagement, but it made Iachino realize that without air cover his fleet was at a disadvantage, therefore he ordered his fleet to return to port. Two follow-up air strikes failed to damage Vittorio Veneto, though successful in disabling the cruiser Pola.

ww2dbase Iachino's biggest failure entering this battle was caused by failings of Axis Intelligence. When he launched the sortie, he had the wrongful impression that the British fleet only had one battleship and no carriers at its disposal, so when the battleships opened fire at the distance of less than 4,000 yards, he was caught in a surprise. His quick response to withdraw his forces at the face of superior surface and air power would have saved his fleet, but he did not realize Cunningham's persistence. After sundown, aided by radar, Cunningham's ships detected Italian destroyers guarding the disabled Pola. Within five minutes of bombardment from battleships Barham, Valiant, and Warspite from a short range, the cruisers Fiume and Zara were destroyed. Italian destroyers Vittorio Alfieri and Giosué Carducci fought back, but were intercepted and sank by British destroyers. Pola was sunk by torpedoes after her crew had been taken off. When day broke, German bombers mounted a retaliatory strike on the British fleet, though to little effect.

ww2dbase By the time the remaining Italian ships escaped to port, they had already lost 2,400 men, including Vice Admiral Carlo Cattaneo of the cruiser Zara. The Italian loss of three heavy cruisers and two destroyers was a stark contrast from the damage suffered by the British. The British had only lost one torpedo bomber during the entire battle.

ww2dbase The Battle of Matapan is still highly regarded in British naval history, often compared with the famous victory at Trafalgar. This battle marked British naval dominance in the Mediterranean Sea for the rest of the war. Without the Mediterranean Sea under Italian Control, Germany could no longer supply its war efforts in North Africa with ease.

ww2dbase Sources: the Second World War, Wikipedia.

Last Major Update: Mar 2006

Battle of Matapan Interactive Map

Battle of Matapan Timeline

26 Mar 1941 Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto, 5 cruisers, and 10 destroyers sortied out of Naples, Taranto, and Brindisi in Italy to patrol the area of the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Greece the goal was to attack Allied convoys bringing troops and supplies to Greece.
27 Mar 1941 Battleship HMS Warspite, battleship HMS Barham, battleship HMS Valiant, carrier HMS Formidable, and nine destroyers of the British Mediterranean Fleet departed Alexandria, Egypt to hunt for an Italian fleet known to have departed bases in Italy. Four cruisers and four destroyers also departed from Piraeus, Greece, launching spotter planes to search for the Italian fleet, locating it at noon.
28 Mar 1941 150 miles off Cape Matapan, Greece at 0635 hours, Italian seaplane spotted a group of four Allied cruisers, and three Italian cruisers moved in to attack, engaging in combat at 0812 hours, to be joined by the big guns of Italian battleships at 1055 hours after the morning's exchange of shellfire, all four Allied cruisers were damaged by near misses. At 1200 and 1509 hours, Allied torpedo bombers from HMS Formidable attacked, putting battleship Vittorio Veneto out of action for about 90 minutes at the cost of one aircraft. At 1936 hours, HMS Formidable's aircraft returned, joined by land-based aircraft from Crete, Greece, putting cruiser Pola out of action, but failed to catch Vittorio Veneto as she had received temporary repairs and was already en route back to Taranto, Italy. After dark, British battleships HMS Barham, HMS Valiant, and HMS Warspite moved in within 3.5 kilometers of the Italian cruisers undetected, opening fire at 2330 hours on the unsuspecting Italians.
29 Mar 1941 British battleships HMS Barham, HMS Valiant, and HMS Warspite continued to shell the Italian fleet off Cape Matapan, Greece. Italian cruiser Fiume, cruiser Zara, destroyer Alfieri, and destroyer Carducci were sunk, while destroyer Oriani was heavily damaged. At 0400 hours, British destroyers HMS Jervis and HMS Nubian approached damaged Italian cruiser Pola, captured her crew, and sank her with torpedoes. British ships rescued 905 Italian sailors but hurriedly departed at daybreak, fearing Luftwaffe attack the Royal Navy would provide coordinates of remaining survivors to Italian ship Gradisca to continue to rescue. The Battle of Cape Matapan would close with 5 Italian warships lost, killing 2,303 men the British suffered only 3 killed, the air crew of a single torpedo bomber lost on 28 Mar 1941.
31 Oct 1943 The Hallfried, a Norwegian freighter of 2,968 tons, owned by P. Kleppe of Oslo was on route to Ardrossan in southwestern Scotland, United Kingdom with the combined convoys MKS-28/SL-138. The German submarine U-262 (Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Heinz Franke) fired 4 torpedoes (2 FAT and 2 T-3 types) then fired a GNAT torpedo at a destroyer that was acting as esc1943-10-31 The Hallfried, a Norwegian freighter of 2,968 tons, owned by P. Kleppe of Oslo was on route to Ardrossan in southwestern Scotland, United Kingdom with the combined convoys MKS-28/SL-138. The German submarine U-262 (Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Heinz Franke) fired 4 torpedoes (2 FAT and 2 T-3 types) then fired a GNAT torpedo at a destroyer that was acting as escort. Franke reported four detonations but only the Hallfried had been hit. Two of them struck her on the port side, first just forward of the bridge followed by the second at the engine room which caused the vessel to sink immediately. Only three of the crew managed to get away and were picked up after 45 minutes by the British destroyer HMS Wrestler (D35) 2 of the survivors in the water had lifevests on, but the third, who had been asleep when the attack occurred did not (in the same cabin there had also been 2 stokers and 1 of the British messboys, who all made it up on deck). They were pulled under by the suction as were the rest of the crew who were on deck. The English Able Seaman Thomas Shaw was able to get onto a raft that had floated free, while the other 2 were too far away to reach it. It was not unusual for British lads to join Norwegian ships and the Hallfried had 8 British in her crew, the eldest 22, the others just 17 years of age.46.01,-20.45ort. Franke reported four detonations but only the Hallfried had been hit. Two of them struck her on the port side, first just forward of the bridge followed by the second at the engine room which caused the vessel to sink immediately. Only three of the crew managed to get away and were picked up after 45 minutes by the British destroyer HMS Wrestler (D35) 2 of the survivors in the water had lifevests on, but the third, who had been asleep when the attack occurred did not (in the same cabin there had also been 2 stokers and 1 of the British messboys, who all made it up on deck). They were pulled under by the suction as were the rest of the crew who were on deck. The English Able Seaman Thomas Shaw was able to get onto a raft that had floated free, while the other 2 were too far away to reach it. It was not unusual for British lads to join Norwegian ships and the Hallfried had 8 British in her crew, the eldest 22, the others just 17 years of age.

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Derrick says:
20 Jun 2019 10:09:10 PM

The Battle of Matapan highlighted that the Italian Navy was something of a show pony. Their ships were fast, well armed and aesthetically elegant. This was a look good, feel good fleet. Unfortunately, their tactics and training had been limited to daylight encounters, without interference from naval aviation. Their lack of flashless gunpowder, radar, aviation support, good anti-aircraft cover and night fighting skills caused their doom. The Royal Navy forced them into a fight for which their training had not prepared them.

All visitor submitted comments are opinions of those making the submissions and do not reflect views of WW2DB.


Battle of Cape Matapan, 27–29 March 1941

The deteriorating military situation in Africa and Greece in 1941, however, made it clear that some offensive response by the Regia Marina was necessary if these theaters were to remain viable for the Axis powers. The Germans were now becoming more insistent that something be done to restore the situation in the Mediterranean. At their urging, and because of the general feeling at Supermarina (Italian naval headquarters) that an attempt should be made to re-establish the dynamics of conflict in the area, Operation Gaudo was born.

Vittorio Veneto firing upon Allied cruisers during the daytime phase of the Battle of Cape Matapan near the Island of Gavdos.

Supermarina committed the brand-new Littorio-class battleship Vittorio Veneto, sporting nine 15-inch guns and displacing 45,000 tons, as well as six of its seven 10,000-ton heavy cruisers and two of its best light cruisers to the operation. Usually reluctant to risk its capital ships, Supermarina had outdone itself for this mission. The Italians were further motivated by Luftwaffe reports on March 15, 1941, indicating that two of the three British battleships in the Mediterranean had been severely damaged and were not operational. Perhaps Supermarina officials would have been less sanguine had they known that those two battleships and their sister ship were not damaged, but anchored comfortably in Alexandria Harbor and quite ready to fight. Moreover, the British ships were led by one of the most competent and aggressive sailors in the Royal Navy.

Admiral Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, affectionately known as “ABC” to his men, had entered the Royal Navy as a cadet at age 14. While nurtured in a battleship navy, he was an early convert to air power. Cunningham had taken over a superb fleet whose training included night combat, which at that time was considered apostasy by most navies around the globe and ruled out as a matter of course. The British Mediterranean Fleet, however, excelled in night actions during prewar maneuvers and applied the lessons learned during the war years.

There were those in the Italian Naval Operational Command Centre (Supermarina). Admiral Riccardi, the Italian Chief of Naval Staff, and other leading members of the RMI, such as Admirals Campioni and Iachino, were particularly anxious to deliver a knock-out blow to Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. There is more than a suspicion that they entertained and even cherished the thought of bringing about some form of massive set piece battle in which the British could be put to the sword in the Mediterranean – a type of new style Jutland with a different result from the original encounter in the North Sea. These ideas were all very well in theory, but the reality of the situation was what counted in Berlin and Wilhelmshaven. Appreciating that something needed to be done to improve its standing in the eyes of its Axis partner, Supermarina strove to orchestrate a plan (codename Gaudo) that would succeed in restoring some pride to the Italian Navy. One effective way of doing that would be to intercept and destroy a couple of lightly screened Allied convoys scheduled for late March: AG.9 en route from Alexandria to Piraeus and GA.9 going in the opposite direction. As John Winton suggests, it was an excellent plan which might well have succeeded had it not been discovered in advance.

Its secrecy was compromised to some extent by the Italians themselves. Their rather understandable eagerness in checking repeatedly on the location of the Mediterranean Fleet through increased surveillance patrols of both Alexandria and the convoy routes south of Crete in the days leading up to the launching of Gaudo certainly alerted Cunningham and his staff to the likelihood of some imminent action in the Eastern Mediterranean. These suspicions were confirmed by the latest ‘Ultra’ intercepts provided for the Admiralty by the members of Hut 6 (working on the Luftwaffe’s ‘Light Blue’ code) and Dilly Knox and Mavis Lever (who concentrated on the RMI’s ‘Alfa’ code) at Bletchley Park. This signals intelligence suggested that German exasperation at the Italian failure to deal effectively with the Allied convoys to Piraeus and Suda Bay was such that the Supermarina intended to send its main surface fleet south of Crete in search of the troop transports and supply ships that had so far eluded its submarine arm and that 28 March was scheduled as D-Day for this operation.

Forewarned of Admiral Iachino’s intended operational sortie off Crete, but not the composition of the force that would be undertaking it, the Admiralty swiftly re-routed and then recalled its two merchant convoys. If the Italians were spoiling for a fight, so was Cunningham. Risks had to be accepted in such a situation, but the prospect of doing real harm to the Italian Fleet was too good an opportunity for him to miss. He sought to make the most of his advantages by sending Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Pridham-Wippell’s Force B (four light cruisers and four destroyers) out from Pireaus to act as live bait for Iachino’s warships in the waters off Crete and lure them unwittingly into the steely embrace of Cunningham’s Force A (the carrier Formidable, three battleships and nine destroyers) coming up from the southeast. If this could be done successfully, Cunningham felt his warships could then set about the enemy with some gusto.

On the same day (27 March) that Pridham-Wippell’s Force B left port to get into its pre-arranged position south of Crete to begin trailing its cape for Iachino’s fleet to follow, the very ships it was hoping to attract rendezvoused south of the Straits of Messina and moved off south-eastwards towards Crete – and the convoy routes to and from Greece that lay further to the south. Although the RMI had no carriers to rely upon, the force that gathered in Sicilian waters was still quite impressive. Apart from his flagship the battleship Vittorio Veneto and four destroyers that had come from Naples, Iachino had gathered a fleet of six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and nine other destroyers from their bases at Taranto, Brindisi and Messina. It was a fleet that could have done an awful lot of damage to any Allied convoy it came across, but it lacked constant air cover and reconnaissance support. In the absence of a carrier, however, Supermarina had fully expected to have at its disposal the planes of Fliegercorps X operating from their base in Sicily – so the aerial deficiency was not regarded as being critical at this stage.

Whatever the Fliegerkorps might have done for the Italians, the fact remained that Cunningham was far better served by aerial reconnaissance than his opponents. At lunchtime on 27 March, an RAF flying boat based on Crete reported that three Italian heavy cruisers of the Trento class and a destroyer were at sea and heading towards the island. This report confirmed the accuracy of the earlier signals intelligence and convinced Cunningham that action was in the offing. Despite his aggressive instincts, he didn’t want to reveal his hand too soon lest the enemy fleet break off the operation and return to its home bases. Wishing to deceive Italian agents in Alexandria about his intentions to leave port and go out for a showdown with Iachino’s warships, Cunningham behaved ashore as if hoisting anchor was about the last thing on his mind on the evening of 27 March. What Michael Simpson describes as an ‘elaborate charade’ seemed to work perfectly. Force A left Alexandria after dark undetected by spies and sped towards its pre-arranged meeting with Force B south of Crete later in the morning of 28 March.

Over the course of the next thirty hours a fleet action that had promised so much for the Italians turned into another grievous defeat every bit as bad as the earlier Taranto débâcle, if not worse. Whether the Battle of Matapan deserves the ringing epithet of ‘a naval Caporetto’ given to it by the Italian critic Gianni Rocca is arguable, but what is clear is that it was a tragedy and one that had been largely, and sadly, self-inflicted. While aircraft and radar both had a critical role in assisting the British cause on 28 March, the stunning victory that would come his way after nightfall was gifted to Cunningham by his adversary Iachino. Aware from a lunchtime air raid that the Gaudo operation had already lost its surprise element, Iachino had opted for a safety-first policy by turning westward in a bid to put his ships beyond the range of what he assumed had been purely shore-based RAF units. Once the Vittorio Veneto had been hit and holed in the stern during a torpedo attack in the mid-afternoon, he could do no more than abandon the operation and – after sterling work by his damage control party – make course for home at the best possible speed. As the Italian Fleet limped westward it was spotted by one of Warspite’s reconnaissance planes and targeted again at dusk by both carrier and land-based aircraft. As luck would have it in trying to finish off the battleship an Albacore 5A, the last carrier plane to make an attack, succeeded in totally immobilizing the heavy cruiser Pola at 1946 hours. As she remained dead in the water, the rest of the fleet retired from the scene as hastily as possible. After exchanging a series of messages about the plight of the Pola and her crew with Carlo Cattaneo, one of his divisional commanders, Iachino made a gross tactical error at 2018 hours in sending back two other Zara class heavy cruisers and four destroyers to go to the aid of the crippled warship. While Iachino’s humanity cannot be faulted for trying to rescue her officers and men, the return of Cattaneo’s entire group to retrieve the Pola by towing her to safety when he knew by this time that the Mediterranean Fleet was at sea is simply unfathomable. One can only imagine he thought the British ships weren’t close enough to be an active threat during the hours of darkness and that by morning he would have arranged sufficient air cover for Cattaneo’s entire group that Cunningham wouldn’t dare to intervene. It was an egregious error. Iachino may have thought that the British wouldn’t risk engaging in any night fighting, but if he did he didn’t know his opposite number. Cunningham was determined not to let the battleship get away and was prepared to bring the enemy fleet to action in the dark if need be, even though his ships had not practised night fighting for some months and the skills necessary to become good at it still remained rudimentary at best.

In the end, of course, the night action that took place didn’t involve Iachino’s entire fleet, but just Cattaneo’s division of it. They had the wretched luck to return to the stricken Pola just when Cunningham arrived at the same spot with Force A. Martin Stephen describes the scene graphically: ‘With flashless cordite and radar the British were sighted men in a world of the blind.’ At what amounted to point blank range the result was never in doubt. Fiume and Zara were soon rendered into smoking hulks by the broadside they received. In a little over four minutes the Zara class of heavy cruiser had, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. As Cunningham described it later it was ‘more like murder than anything else’. Removing his battlefleet from what Barnett describes perfectly as a ‘chaotic mêlée’, Cunningham left his own destroyers to deal with their Italian equivalents. During the course of the evening, two of the four enemy destroyers were sunk (Alfieri and Carducci) while Oriani was damaged but managed to escape along with the unscathed Gioberti.

It was a magnificent victory for Cunningham, but it might have turned out even better had he not sent a sloppily phrased signal to the rest of his ships shortly after putting the heavy cruisers out of action that seemed to imply that all those not engaged in dealing with the enemy should withdraw to the northeast. While the ambiguous message was not intended for his light cruiser squadron, Pridham-Wippell didn’t realise that at the time. He broke off his pursuit of the Vittorio Veneto and withdrew to the northeast to conform with his C-in-C’s apparent orders. By the time that Cunningham had become aware of what had happened, Iachino’s flagship and her accompanying warships had escaped to live and fight another day. That was more than could be said for Vice-Admiral Cattaneo and 2,302 officers and men of the Regia Marina who perished in these engagements. Correlli Barnett calls it ‘the Royal Navy’s greatest victory in a fleet encounter since Trafalgar’. Is it churlish to suggest that it could have been even greater? It might well have been but for the ambiguously worded signal Cunningham had sent while basking in the glow of his battlefleet’s destructive blitz against Cattaneo’s heavy cruisers. Michael Simpson, the editor of Cunningham’s papers, draws another valid conclusion about the Battle of Cape Matapan, namely, that the C-in-C would have been far better served had he had two carriers rather than only one with him on this operation. Extra aircraft would have given him far more systematic reconnaissance and firepower than was available to him from only having Formidable and some of the land-based RAF torpedo-bombers at his disposal.

One thing that all the leading naval analysts who have reviewed the action off Cape Matapan agree upon is that this crushing defeat for the Regia Marina was as much psychological as it was material. It dealt a real blow to the esteem in which the Italian fleet was held and made the Supermarina far more cautious than it otherwise might have been. This attitude of restraint was further reinforced by yet another rout its forces suffered at the hands of the British only a few days later in the Red Sea, in what became an ultimately fruitless Italian quest both to attack Port Sudan as well as to retain their base of Massawa on the coast of Eritrea. In the face of a sustained land and aerial offensive launched by the enemy which closed in on the port on 6 April and captured it two days later, the Italians would lose six seaworthy destroyers, a torpedo boat, five MAS (fast motor torpedo boats) and nineteen of their merchant vessels, while six German ships, including the passenger ship Colombo, suffered the same fate. Somehow the degree of hopelessness into which the Italian naval cause had sunk was typified by the scuttling of the vast majority of these craft by their own crews at a total cost of 151,760 tons.


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