Italian fleet surprised at ‘The Battle of Matapan’

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.

Short Sunderland Mark 1, N9029 'NM-V', of No. 230 Squadron RAF Detachment based at Scaramanga, Greece, in flight over the Greek islands. It was from this aircraft that Flight Lieutenant A Lywood, reported the Italian fleet movements leading to the Battle of Cape Matapan, while flying out of Scaramanga on 27-28 March 1941.
Short Sunderland Mark 1, N9029 ‘NM-V’, of No. 230 Squadron RAF Detachment based at Scaramanga, Greece, in flight over the Greek islands. It was from this aircraft that Flight Lieutenant A Lywood, reported the Italian fleet movements leading to the Battle of Cape Matapan, while flying out of Scaramanga on 27-28 March 1941.
Fairey Albacore Mark Is of Nos. 826 and 829 Squadrons ranged on board HMS FORMIDABLE before taking off to attack the Italian Fleet during the Battle of Matapan, 28 March 1941.
Fairey Albacore Mark Is of Nos. 826 and 829 Squadrons ranged on board HMS FORMIDABLE before taking off to attack the Italian Fleet during the Battle of Matapan, 28 March 1941.
The first torpedo bomber, - A Fairey Albacore Mark I of No. 826 Squadron, - taking off from HMS FORMIDABLE for the morning strike against the Italian Fleet during the Battle of Matapan, 28 March 1941. (Port threequarter front view).
The first torpedo bomber, – A Fairey Albacore Mark I of No. 826 Squadron, – taking off from HMS FORMIDABLE for the morning strike against the Italian Fleet during the Battle of Matapan, 28 March 1941. (Port threequarter front view).
The Battle Of Matapan. 28 March 1941, an aerial photograph from one of the attacking British aircraft An Italian cruiser (BOLGANO?) firing her guns.
The Battle Of Matapan. 28 March 1941, an aerial photograph from one of the attacking British aircraft An Italian cruiser (BOLGANO?) firing her guns.
Lt (A) Clifford's torpedo being released, as seen by Mid (A) Wallington, Observer in second aircraft.
Lt (A) Clifford’s torpedo being released, as seen by Mid (A) Wallington, Observer in second aircraft.

The Royal Navy secured a famous victory over the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean on 28th March. The official summary at the time did not mention that ‘Enigma’ decrypts had played an important role in the action, a matter not revealed until many years later:

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 Littorio 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

The Royal Navy battleship HMS Warspite, probably later in the war – see comments below.

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. Their 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

In 1941 Prince Philip of Greece was serving as a midshipman on HMS Valiant. He was 19 at the time of the action.

On board HMS Valiant was Prince Philip of Greece, then a Midshipman in charge of searchlights. He was to earn a mention in despatches for his role:

I seem to remember that I reported I had a target in sight, and was ordered to “open shutter”. The beam lit up a stationary cruiser, but we were so close by then that the beam only lit up half the ship.

At this point all hell broke loose, as all our eight 15-inch guns, plus those of the flagship and Barham’s started firing at the stationary cruiser, which disappeared in an explosion and a cloud of smoke.

I was then ordered to “train left” and lit up another Italian cruiser, which was given the same treatment.

See Dark Seas: The Battle for Cape Matapan

 The 15 inch guns of HMS Valiant firing a broadside. In the background HMS Barham and HMS Warspite. These three battleships wiped out the three Italian cruisers in the Battle of Matapan.
The 15 inch guns of HMS Valiant firing a broadside. In the background HMS Barham and HMS Warspite. These three battleships wiped out the three Italian cruisers in the Battle of Matapan.

At 2111 hours Force B reported a radar contact on an unknown ship stopped 5 miles to port (This was the damaged POLA). On receipt of this report WARSPITE and the battle fleet altered course to 280¼ to pass nearer the position. (Force B continued on course and took no further part in the action).
At 2210 hours VALIANT, using her Type 279 radar, reported radar contact 6 miles off her port bow, estimated to be 600 feet long (This was the POLA).
Cunningham decided to investigate this contact and the battle fleet altered course together at 2213 hours on to bearing 240¼ into line ahead.
At 2225 hours 2 heavy cruisers (ZARA and FIUME) and 4 destroyers (ALFIERI, CARDUCCI, GIOBERTI and ORIANI) were sighted from WARSPITE on her starboard bow. The battle fleet which comprised WARSPITE, VALIANT, FORMIDABLE, BARHAM in line ahead, with GREYHOUND and GRIFFIN on their port side and STUART and HAVOCK on their starboard side, turned on to 280¼.
At 2228 hours with ZARA and FIUME now on the port side of the battle fleet, FORMIDABLE hauled out of line to starboard and GREYHOUND illuminated FIUME with her searchlight and the battle fleet opened fire with 15in broadsides on FIUME and ZARA, at the same time the battleships switched on their searchlights.
(Prince Philip was mentioned in dispatches for his command of a section of the ship’s searchlight control).
(Part of VALIANT’s Report on the action reads:- “Shortly before this action, telephonic communication between the 15in transmitting station and the radar office, and also, range transmission from the gunnery attachment RBL.10 to a range receiver in the 15in transmitting station had been fitted by ship’s staff. .After sighting the ZARA and FIUME, the guns and radar were put on the FIUME, the right hand ship, and fire was opened, the AFC (Admiralty Fire Control) Table being tuned so that True Range was set to RDF Range. The broadside was seen to hit”)
VALIANT hit the FIUME with one 15in salvo of four shells and seven 4.5in salvos totalling approximately 70 shells.
VALIANT then switched to the cruiser ZARA and fired five 15in salvos, a total of 35 shells and five 4.5insalvos totalling approximately 50 shells.
At 2235 hours fire was checked, leaving FIUME, ZARA, ALFIERI and CARDUCCI seriously damaged, and course was set on to bearing 010¼, with FORMIDABLE on the starboard side.
At 2238 hours the screening destroyers GREYHOUND, GRIFFIN, STUART and HAVOCK were released and ordered to finish off the 2 cruisers.
At 2330 hours the battle fleet altered course to 070¼ speed 18knots.

HMS Valiant, the Queen Elizabeth class battleship launched in 1914, pictured in the 1930s.

One thought on “Italian fleet surprised at ‘The Battle of Matapan’”

  1. I believe the heading photograph actually shows WARSPITE firing in support of the Army at Normandy on D-Day. A clue is X turret, which is stowed fore and aft, while the other three are in action. The ship was heavily damaged by a glider bomb off Salerno on 16 September 1943 and X turret was unusable from then on. Also, Prince Philip of Greece was aboard WARSPITE’s sister HMS VALIANT as a Midshipman in charge of her searchlights and controlled her illumination of the Italian cruisers.

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