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World War II: Battle of Cape Matapan

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World War II: Battle of Cape Matapan

Vittorio Veneto retreating from the battle after being torpedoed.

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Cape Matapan was fought March 27-29, 1941, and was part of World War II.

Fleets & Commanders:

British

Italians

  • Vice Admiral Angelo Iachino
  • 1 battleship, 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers, 17 destroyers

Battle of Cape Matapan Overview:

In early 1941, following a series of military reverses, including the surprise attack on Taranto, the Regia Marina (Italian Navy) decided to conduct Operation Gaudo with the goal of re-establishing its power in the eastern Mediterranean. Designed as a sweep of the waters around Crete, the operation called for Admiral Angelo Iachino to take the bulk of his remaining surface forces to sea to engage the Allies. Iachino was heartened by false intelligence received from the Germans which indicated that the British Mediterranean fleet possessed only one operational battleship and no aircraft carriers.

In actuality, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham had three battleships ready for service in HMS Warspite (flagship), HMS Barham, and HMS Valiant. Supporting the battleships was the carrier HMS Formidable which had recently arrived to replace the damaged HMS Illustrious. Departing port on March 26, Iachino flew his flag from the new battleship Vittorio Veneto and was accompanied by four destroyers. Sailing towards the Straits of Messina, he planned to rendezvous with three of his cruiser divisions.

Meeting as planned, his expanded force now included Vice Admiral Carlo Cattaneo's 1st Division consisting of the heavy cruisers Pola, Zara, and Fiume, as well as Vice Admiral Luigi Sansonetti's 3rd Division made up of the heavy cruisers Trieste, Trento, and Bolzano. The Italian force also included the light cruisers Garibaldi and Abruzzi and 17 destroyers. Alerted to Iachino's departure and intentions by Ultra intercepts, Cunningham dispatched a carefully directed reconnaissance plane to ensure a plausible reason for the British to be in position to intercept his fleet.

Having lost the element of surprise, Iachino received revised orders from Rome instructing him to concentrate his forces south of Crete then sweep north towards Cape Matapan. Secretly leaving a club in Alexandria, Cunningham boarded Warspite and set sail with his heavy units around dark on March 27. Clearing the waters around Crete of Allied convoys, Cunningham directed Vice Admiral Henry Pridham-Wippell, with four light cruisers and four destroyers, to sail south from Greece to rendezvous with the fleet. If Pridham-Wippell were to encounter the Italians first, he was to lure them south towards Cunningham.

At 6:50 AM on March 28, one of Iachino's reconnaissance planes spotted the British cruiser force. Seeking a cheap victory, the Italian admiral dispatched Sansonetti’s division for deal with Pridham-Wippell, while he followed with the remainder of the fleet. Sansonetti spotted the British at 8:00 and opened fire on HMS Gloucester twelve minutes later. Taking evasive action, Pridham-Wippell's ships began laying smoke and turned to race towards Cunningham's approaching battleships. Following, the Italians failed to score any major hits due to poor gunnery.

Realizing that Sansonetti was moving away from the fleet and into the range of British air cover, Iachino ordered him to break off and turn northwest at 8:50. Turning, Pridham-Wippell's ships followed at a safe distance. Annoyed at the boldness of the British commander, Iachino developed a plan to catch the British ships between his squadrons. Around 10:55, the trap was sprung as Vittorio Veneto came into range and opened fire on Pridham-Wippell. Realizing his mistake, the British commander ordered his ships to flee at high speed.

As the light cruisers departed, six Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers from Formidable arrived on the scene and made an ineffective attack on Vittorio Veneto. Though the attack failed, it bought time for Pridham-Wippell to make good his escape. Not wishing to press his luck, Iachino broke off the pursuit at 12:20 PM and turned for home. Enduring nuisance attacks from British aircraft based on Crete, Iachino's ships failed to immediately notice the second flight of torpedo bombers from Formidable when they arrived around 3:10 PM. Attacking, they scored a hit on Vittorio Veneto which slowed it and caused heavy damage.

Re-forming his fleet to protect his flagship, Iachino sent his light cruisers home. At 7:25, shortly after dark, a final British air strike assaulted the Italian formation and crippled Pola. With the cruiser dead in the water and unaware of Cunningham's approach, Iachino detached Cattaneo's division to protect the ship while the rest of the fleet continued northwest.

Utilizing radar, which the Italians lacked, Cunningham approached the stricken Pola and the heavy cruisers Zara and Fiume undetected. Highly skilled at night fighting, the British closed to 3,500 yards and opened fire. Taken by surprise, Zara and Fiume were quickly destroyed by the battleships' guns. In less than ten minutes of fighting, two heavy cruisers were sunk along with two destroyers. Taking possession of the crippled Pola, Cunningham decided against towing it to Alexandria and had it sunk after removing its crew.

Aftermath

The Battle of Cape Matapan was a decisive victory for the Royal Navy and gave it control of the eastern Mediterranean until the fall of Crete in June. In the fighting, the British lost three killed (the crew of one torpedo bomber), while the Italians lost three heavy cruisers, 2 destroyers, and over 2,400 dead. Also, Vittorio Veneto had been badly damaged in the fighting.

After the night engagement, Cunningham, against the advice of his officers, continued his pursuit of the Italians, but was forced to turn back when German bombers appeared overhead. Radioing Rome, he alerted the Italians to the location of the battle's survivors and then left the area. A military disaster for the Regia Marina, Cape Matapan effectively broke its back and the next time it emerged in force was to surrender to Cunningham in 1943.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Naval Warfare
  5. Naval Battles: 1900-Today
  6. World War II
  7. World War II at Sea - Atlantic & Mediterranean
  8. Battle of Cape Matapan - World War II Battle of Cape Matapan

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