Italian fleet surprised at ‘The Battle of Matapan’

The Royal Navy battleship HMS Warspite during gunnery practice

The Royal Navy secured a famous victory over the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean, the official summary at the time did not mention that ‘Enigma’ decripts had played an important role in the action:

Air reconnaissance on the 27th March reported a force of enemy warships to the eastward of Sicily steering east. On the morning of the 28th March our light forces sighted one L i t t o r io class battleship, accompanied by cruisers, to the south-west of Crete steering south-east, while air reconnaissance reported two battleships, cruisers and destroyers to the north of this position. On being sighted the enemy turned westward, proceeding at high speed.

During the day the Littorio class battleship was repeatedly and successfully attacked with torpedoes by the Fleet air arm which caused serious damage. A successful attack was also made by bombers of the R.A.F. on cruisers and destroyers. The loss of speed resulting from these air attacks enabled our heavier ships to gain contact with the enemy at dusk, and a short but decisive action took place, resulting in the loss of three enemy 8-inch cruisers (Pola, Zara and Fiume) and two destroyers, Vincenzo Gioberti and Maestrale.

It is probable that the 6-inch cruiser Giovanni Delle Bancle Nere and one other destroyer were also sunk. Two dive-bombers were shot down during daylight operations. Apart from three Naval aircraft which are missing, no damage or casualties were sustained by any of our ships.

On the morning of the 29th nearly a thousand Italian survivors were rescued, which number would have been considerably increased had not German bombers attacked the rescuing ships. The Commander-in-Chief informed the Chief of the Italian Naval Staff of the position of the survivors, which he had been forced to abandon, and suggested that a hospital ship should be sent. A reply of thanks was received indicating that the hospital ship Piscana had already sailed. Greek destroyers which were rushed through the Corinth Canal arrived too late to take part in the action, but assisted to pick up survivors. Opposing forces consisted of British : three battleships, one aircraft carrier, four cruisers and twelve destroyers; Italian : three battleships, eleven cruisers and fourteen destroyers.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week, see TNA CAB/66/16/1

Admiral Cunningham’s account of the action paints a vivid picture:

Using short-range wireless the battle fleet was turned back into line ahead. With Edelsten and the staff I had gone to the upper bridge, the captain’s, where I had a clear all-round view. I shall never forget the next few minutes.

In the dead silence, a silence that could almost be felt, one heard only the voices of the gun-control personnel putting the guns on to the new target. One heard the orders repeated in the director tower behind and above the bridge. Looking forward, one saw the turrets swing and steady when the fifteen-inch guns pointed at the enemy cruisers.

Never in the whole of my life have I experienced a more thrilling moment than when I heard a calm voice from the director tower – ‘Director layer sees the target’, sure sign that the guns were ready and that his finger was itching on the trigger. The enemy was at a range of no more than 3,800 yards – point-blank.

It must have been the Fleet gunnery officer, Commander Geoffrey Barnard, who gave the final order to open fire. One heard the ‘ting- ting-ting’ of the firing gongs. Then came the great orange flash and the violent shudder as the six big guns bearing were fired simultaneously.

At the very same instant the destroyer Greyhound, on the screen, switched her searchlight on to one of the enemy cruisers, showing her momentarily up as a silvery-blue shape in the darkness. Our searchlights shone out with the first salvo, and provided full illumination for what was a ghastly sight. Full in the beam I saw our six great projectiles flying through the air. Five out of the six hit a few feet below the level of the cruiser’s upper deck and burst with splashes of brilliant flame. The Italians were quite unprepared. The guns were trained fore and aft. They were helplessly shattered before they could put up any resistance.

The plight of the Italian cruisers was indescribable. One saw whole turrets and masses of other heavy debris whirling through the air and splashing into the sea, and in a short time the ships themselves were nothing but glowing torches and on fire from stem to stern.

See A Sailor’s Odyssey : The Autobiography of Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope

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