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Battle of Cape Matapan 1941 : Italy’s Greatest Naval Defeat

Battle of Cape Matapan 1941 : Italy’s Greatest Naval Defeat

In late March of 1941 a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park(an English country house and estate in Bletchley, Milton Keynes that became the principal centre of Allied code-breaking during the Second World War) named Mavis Batey had made serious strides breaking the Italian military codes and had finnally broken the Italian naval Enigma. “Today’s the day minus three,” was the first code Batey read followed by a second message about the sailing of a major Italian squardron.

The doomed Italian squadron

Admiral Cunningham received the news in Alexandria and left his golf club stealthily after midnight to board his flagship HMS Warspite. The Admiral had even told a number of others about a party that would take place on his boat the following night, which would of course never happen. 

To make matters worse for the Italians, they had been given faulty information by the Germans on the Royal Navy’s lack of strength in the Meditteranean, which was simply not the case. The Royal Navy had a substantial fleet.

Italy’s ruler Benito Mussolini had famously called the Meditteranean “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea). The Royal Navy would soon correct that thinking.

Up close of Zara’s big guns

The Italian fleet was commanded by Admiral Angelo Iachino and his orders were to sink any Allied convoys or escort ships and he had been upset by how hard it was for him to access air support in this endeavor north of Crete. Anytime he needed either the Luftwaffe(German Air Force) or the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) the request would need to be made through central Italian naval command. A long and tedious process that made no sense during a battle where every minute counted. Plus, the Regia Aeronautica had a poor on-time performance record, they had a tendency to arrive at the end of the battle and attack the wrong ships.

 

Around 2230 hours on March 27th, lookouts spotted the Italian cruisers in line-ahead formation.

Admiral Cunningham ordered all three of his battleships including battleships the HMS Barham, Valiant, and Warspite on a parallel course. Their 15-inch guns were laid in at a range of only 3,800 yards.

At a signal, the destroyer HMS Greyhound illuminated the Fiume with her searchlights. All three battleships opened up with their 15-inch guns.

Fiume, Zara, and the destroyer Alfieri were turned into burning wrecks within five minutes. The remaining Italian destroyers closed for an impotent torpedo attack before withdrawing into the night.

The British battleships made a 90-degree turn to retire and escape the counterattack. Cunningham ordered his destroyers to give chase. The action became highly confused in the night as the opposing destroyers sought each other in the darkness. In the firefight, the destroyer Carducci was also sunk. The remaining two Italian destroyers sped off to the northwest.

Star shells were fired from the destroyer HMS Havock over the position where the crippled Zara was presumed to be. Instead, the listing Pola was illuminated. She was mistaken for the Littorio-class battleship Vittorio Veneto, an impressive ship which had nine 15-inch guns and displacing 45,000 tons. Havock fired twice into her bridge and reported finding the Italian battleship “undamaged and stopped.

A prize crew was sent over to Pola to take command. Some 200 Pola crewmen were still aboard, having abandoned ship and then returned. They were soaking wet and shivering while drinking wine to stay warm. This would give rise to later rumors that the Italian crew was drunk. The British prize crew debated towing Pola back to Egypt, but soon abandoned the notion. They took off the surviving crewmen and sank the hapless Italian cruiser.

Pridham-Whippell’s cruisers, which were trailing the actual Italian battleship, reported that they had spotted Very lights over her position.

Admiral Cunningham believed this sighting to be a new Italian squadron entering the fray and, to avoid confusion in the dark, ordered all of his ships not engaged with the enemy to turn northward simultaneously, allowing the remaining Italians to escape.

The searching British destroyers found the stricken Zara in the darkness and sank her. More Italian seamen were then in the water than the British destroyers could handle, though they picked up all they could. Some 900 Italians were plucked from the sea before 0800 the next morning when German dive-bombers arrived and chased the rescuers off. The British transmitted the location of the sailors still in the water to the Italian high command. Another 300 men were rescued by that evening 

With the battle lost, the wounded Vittorio Veneto and her remaining escorts made it safely back to Italy. The British fleet prudently retired rather than face aerial assaults. The Battle of Cape Matapan was the last offensive operation of the Italian Navy in World War II. From then on only the destroyers and submarines and the occasional cruiser would play any part in staving off the growing power of the Allies in the Mediterranean.

In fact the last time the Italian Navy would make a major fleet formation would be to surrender to Admiral Cunningham.

Total Italian Losses:

1 battleship damaged

3 heavy cruisers sunk

2 destroyers sunk

1 destroyer heavily damaged

2,300+ killed

1,015 POW

Battle of Cape Matapan 1941 : Italy’s Greatest Naval Defeat Written by Harry Gillespie

Harry Gillespie is a military historian who resides with his wife in the United Kingdom.

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