Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s strategy of aggressive patrolling in the Mediterranean paid off when a force of Royal Navy destroyers encountered two Italian cruisers. The two larger Italian ships should have had a significant advantage. However they did not know that there was a second Royal Navy force less than an hours sailing time away. The action off Cape Spada was an unusual naval battle for World War II because at no point before or during the engagement were aircraft involved.
While the Giovanni Belle Bande Nere and the Bartolomeo Colleoni were fully engaged in a battle with the destroyers from 0724 they were unaware of the approach of HMAS Sydney, which had kept radio silence and not responded to the reports of the battle from the destroyers. It was only when HMAS Sydney opened up with her 6 inch guns from 20,000 yards at 0829 that the Italians realised that they were also being attacked from another direction:
Early in the morning of the 19th July H.M.S. Sydney with H.M. Destroyers Hyperion, Hew, Havock, Hero and Hasty were engaged in carrying out a sweep between Greece and Crete in search of Italian shipping.
At 0724 two Italian cruisers, the Bartolomeo Colleoni and another of the same class, probably the Giovanni Belle Bande Nere, were sighted by four of the destroyers in the Antikithera Channel, north-west of the western end of Crete. The destroyers retired to the north-eastward while H.M.S. Sydney, with H.M. Destroyer Havock in company, closed to engage the enemy.
As soon as Sydney opened fire on the leading enemy cruiser, the Colleoni, our destroyers closed in support, and the Italian cruisers endeavoured to escape back through the Antikithera Channel. Early in the action a hit by Sydney in Colleoni’s engine room brought her to a standstill, and Sydney, leaving our destroyers to complete her destruction with torpedoes, continued the engagement with the other cruiser. The latter, however, succeeded in escaping after a chase lasting ninety minutes, in the course of which she was hit several times by Sydney.
A force sailed from Alexandria in an attempt to intercept her but was unsuccessful. 545 survivors from the Colleoni were picked up by H.M.S. Havock, which was bombed by enemy aircraft while engaged in their rescue and had one boiler room flooded, but was able to proceed without assistance.
There were no casualties in H.M. ships in this action. The Captain of the Colleoni died of wounds received in the action on the 23rd July at Alexandria.
See TNA cab/66/10/17
The official Australian Naval history summarised the action:
The action off Cape Spada was practically a duel between the Sydney and two adversaries, each of which was her equal in force, though the presence of the British destroyers undoubtedly influenced Admiral Casardi’s tactics. Several points of interest emerge from the narrative.
It will be noted that this was one of the few surface actions of the war in which aircraft — either for reconnaissance, spotting or attacking — played no part. Admiral Casardi had not catapulted any of his aircraft in the early morning because he considered it too rough, and he also thought it certain that reconnaissance by shore-based aircraft over the area of the Aegean he had to pass through would have been arranged by Headquarters at Rhodes.
The Sydney had no aircraft embarked – a circumstance characterised by Captain Collins as “unfortunate” ; she had lost her aircraft at the bombardment of Bardia on 21st June, and a replacement had been damaged by bomb splinters before it could be embarked.
The initial mistake of the Italian Admiral in steering north and engaging the destroyers at long range instead of immediately chasing them and trying to overwhelm them with his superior weight of metal has been remarked on.
It is true that the formation of the destroyers may well have looked like a screen for heavier craft; but if a superior force were always to hold off till perfectly certain of what might be out of sight beyond the enemy few surface actions would ever take place.
Per contra Captain Collins’ unhesitating attack on a force practically double his strength, after having duly gauged the risks and taken steps to minimise them by keeping wireless silence and skilfully exploiting the advantage of surprise, achieved the success it deserved. The effect of the surprise was helped by the presence of the Havock, which, as he suspected, was mistaken by the enemy for a cruiser in the first shock of the attack.
It is also of interest to note the encouragement Captain Collins derived from the Italians’ early use of smoke, which he immediately recognised as evidence that his enemy was fighting with one eye over his shoulder.
Perhaps the Italians were particularly unfortunate in meeting the Sydney, which had been in action twice during the preceding three weeks. “ I was thus,” wrote Captain Collins, “ in the happy position of taking a ship into action that had already experienced two successful encounters with the enemy.”
The superiority of the Sydney’s gunfire both for accuracy and rate was most marked throughout the action.
The shooting of the Italians was poor. Though described as accurate for range at first, it was slow, erratic and spasmodic, and fell off under punishment.
It is remarkable that between them the two enemy ships only succeeded in scoring a single hit. Any advantage they might have had from superior speed was discounted by their violent zig-zagging, which enabled the Sydney to keep the range steady, while opening her “ A ” arcs.
The destroyers also were ably handled and fought both in retirement and on turning back immediately after sighting the Sydney at right angles to the enemy’s course — a movement that possibly prevented the Italians from trying to escape to the eastward.
This and a full account of the action can be read at:
Meanwhile in Britain:
COASTAL convoys and patrol and minesweeping forces have been constantly attacked by enemy aircraft, particularly in the vicinity of Dover. There has been little U-boat activity. Minelaying by enemy aircraft has continued to increase in intensity. There has been a successful cruiser action in the Mediterranean.
3. In an enemy raid on Dover on the 19th July, H.M. Destroyer Beagle was heavily bombed and slightly damaged by near misses, and on the 20th July, while on passage to Devonport she was again attacked off Portland, when further minor damage was caused. No casualties were sustained in these attacks, during which two of the attacking aircraft were shot down by pom-poms.
In a dive bomber attack on Dover later on the 19th July, H.M. Destroyer Griffin was damaged and rendered unseaworthy, and the R.F.A. Oiler War Sepoy had her back broken, necessitating the pumping out of her oil. On the same day H.M. A/S Trawler Crestflower was sunk by bombs off St. Catherine’s Point, Isle of Wight, and Motor A/S Boat No. 8 was attacked with machine-gun fire by enemy aircraft off Aldeburgh with the loss of two ratings killed and two officers and one rating wounded.
See TNA CAB/66/10/29