The dramatic attack by the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm at the Battle of Taranto had disabled significant parts of the Italian Navy. The effect was to make the Italians cautious about risking of their remaining capital ships, and particularly wary about engaging with Royal Navy aircraft.
The Royal Navy clashed with the Regia Marina again on the 27th November. The Italians were initially in a good position to attack a British convoy headed to Egypt, one of their main objectives.
But the Italian Force was under orders to attack only if assured of success – so when discovering that they facing a roughly equal sized force, it retired at speed, leading to an inconclusive engagement.
The Italian commander Admiral Campioni later gave a candid account of how his decision making was affected by the changing information he received about the forces opposing him:
The sighting report (at 1015) persuaded me to alter course to 135° in order to close the English forces, and if possible intercept them. This appeared possible at the time, also I had in mind that the English forces were inferior to the Italian. Furthermore the encounter would be brought about in waters closer to Sicily than Sardinia, that is in conditions favourable to us.
But whilst our forces were taking up station on the new course I received at 1155 a signal, originally made at 1110 by an aircraft from Armera, giving the position of the Renown’s group. This position was 20 miles nearer to the Vittorio Veneto than the one shown by the plot based on previous sighting reports, and was near enough to the other British forces to render their meeting very easy.
A state of affairs was thus created which on the best hypothesis was unfavourableto us numerically and qualitatively. Particularly important was the presence of an aircraft-carrier, which with well-directed action properly synchronized with action of their ships, that were certainly not inferior to ours, would have brought about a situation of the utmost gravity.
It was a situation not only at variance with the directive given to me by the Ministry of Marine, but with that imposed by military necessity.” [The Admiral then explains that in this latter term he was referring to the effect on the Italian navy of the F.A.A. attack on Taranto on 11th November, and the fact that the battleship Andrea Doria was not yet ready.]
Under these conditions, in conformity with the spirit and letter of the orders received and with what at that moment I deemed to be my duty I decided not to become involved in a battle. In theory I should have been able to take into calculation an effective intervention by our shore-based aircraft, but my previous experience discouraged me from putting too much faith on such intervention, having learnt from experience what to expect.
The British aircraft will damage our ships, the Italian aircraft will not damage theirs, the enemy are not inferior in numbers or quality to us, and at present we cannot afford any further reduction in capital ship strength.
From the subsequent British Naval Battle Summaries, available from the Royal Australian Navy.
From the British Naval Situation Report for the week:
On the 27th November contact was made with Italian naval forces to the southward of Sardinia. The Italian force, which was sighted by aircraft in a position about 30 miles S.S.W. off Cape Spartivento, consisted of two battleships and a number of cruisers and destroyers.
The British force was in two parts : one, consisting of H.M. Ships Ramillies, Berwick, Coventry and Newcastle and some destroyers, was about 50 miles to the south of the Italian force; and the other, consisting of H.M. Ships Renown and Ark Royal with some cruisers and destroyers, was about 90 miles to the south-westward of the Italians when they were first sighted. Both our forces proceeded to make contact, and some three hours later the Renown sighted the Italian battleships at a range of 20 miles. The Italians retired at high speed towards Cagliari and a chase developed.
Our forces engaged the enemy at extreme range, but were unable to overtake them. Fleet Air Arm aircraft from H.M.S. Ark Royal, however, succeeded in attacking with the following results : one torpedo hit on a battleship of the Littorio class; and one almost certain torpedo hit on an 8-inch cruiser. Another 8-inch cruiser was observed to be in difficulties, and a dive-bombing attack was made on three 6-inch cruisers, probably causing some damage by near misses. The Italians are also believed to have sustained the following casualties by gunfire : one 8-inch cruiser probably severely damaged, one destroyer severely damaged and another damaged.
On our side H.M.S. Berwick was twice hit by 8-inch shell, resulting in slight structural damage and ” Y ” turret being put out of action. Her casualties were one officer and six ratings killed, two ratings seriously wounded. and six slightly wounded. All our aircraft returned except one Fulmar, and another which crashed on landing and was lost overboard.
After the action our forces were twice bombed by enemy aircraft without result. In the second attack the Ark Royal was missed by only ten yards by one bomb. Both attacks were intercepted by fighters and two enemy aircraft were shot down.
Only much later was it established that the Swordfish pilots were mistaken, none of their torpedoes had struck home.