Categories 1941

The aftermath of Matapan

The Anti-Aircraft ‘Pom-Pom’ gun on a British warship.

Bernard Hallas was on HMS Warspite:

On board ship in any action, there are not many people who can actually see what is happening. Obviously the best viewpoint is commanded by those fortunate to be on the bridge, excluding the fact that it is also one of the most dangerous, subject to shrapnel and even direct hits.

The four-inch AA crews on the upper deck and the pom-poms are some of the ship’s company who have a first class seat at the action. At the guns themselves who are doing the bombardment, only the gun layers peering through their telescopes can see the targets.

The remainder of the crews can only rely on the remarks of the layers as to what is happening. Suffice it to say that the news that night at Matapan was all good, the next morning, taking stock of the results of the night’s activities, it was a most distressing sight.

There was wreckage everywhere floating in oil-covered water, bodies floating alongside others who were signalling with any object they could find to try and attract attention to their sorry plight. One could feel sorry for the struggling seamen using the dead bodies of their shipmates to help keep them afloat. Our Destroyers were hard put to making some attempt to pick up survivors, but as the radar operators were picking up large groups of aircraft on their screens, this act of mercy had to be abandoned.

It was true to Cunninghams’s nature both as a human being and as a seaman, that a paragraph from the prayer of Admiral Lord Nelson at Trafalgar came to mind: “And may humanity after victory be the predominant feature of the British Fleet.” He signalled the Italian High Command and informed them of the situation and requested that they send assistance to give aid to the struggling men and only then, fearing attacks by submarines and aircraft, did he order the fleet to resume formation and proceed back to base.

As expected Stuka dive-bombers attacked us all the way home, but the planes from the carrier HMS Formidable dealt with the attackers successfully. The next day, ships’ companies cleared lower deck and held short thanksgiving services for the victory.

Read the whole of his account on BBC People’s War.

On 30th March 1941 Surgeon-Commander E. R. Sorley on the battleship HMS Barham wrote his account of the Battle of Matapan in a letter home:

“Here we are safely back in harbour after having taken part in what has been rightly described as “the greatest naval battle of the war.” At last our forces managed to bring the scurrying “Italians” to action, although needless to say we would not have done so unless we had taken them by surprise, so that their well-known speed did not avail them so much as usual. The whole action was quite thrilling, the duration of our firing being very short, but devastatingly effective.

We scored a direct 15-inch hit on a cruiser – the Fiume, I think – and the wretched ship was seen soon after to be ablaze and subsequently blew up with a shattering explosion and a mighty flame that lit the night sky. This took place at about 11.30 p.m. constituted our contribution to the victory, although we were attacked by aircraft. Naturally, I saw nothing of the spectacular side of the scrap, as I was at my action station.

On the following morning, however, we all saw in the distance a dot upon the ocean which we assumed was a float with Italian survivors. Our destroyers were busy rescuing the poor wretches. Altogether, in the action 1500 “Italians” must have lost their lives as the prisoners amounted to only 900. When you consider the “score”, you will agree that the victory will go down in history as one of the most decisive of all time. 3 enemy cruisers, 2 large destroyers sunk and one battleship damaged, about 1,500 “Italians” written off – and on our side not one single ship damaged and not one man with so much as a scratch.

The name which has been bestowed on the battle by the is Matapan, Cape Matapan being the nearest land to the site of the action. Cape Matapan is the most southerly point of the Greek mainland. Be sure to look it up and point it out to Graeme. The whole episode is very heartening and yesterday morning when the total enemy damage was announced to us by the, the sense of jubilation amongst our officers and men was good to see. One felt that one had been privileged to be in a force that had struck a great blow at the enemies of the King, and one was flushed with the knowledge of our naval power and courage. For remember that the whole Italian force was numerically superior to ours, but as we expected, their ships preferred to run away, but not before we could inflict terrible blows. If their force had stayed to fight, this would have been another Trafalgar; as it is, we doubt if the Italian Fleet will dare to challenge us again.

You have no doubt heard all about this glorious happening, in the press and on the radio. I feel that Winston Churchill will do full justice to the story in the House tomorrow. I can imagine his pungent and gleeful sentences, like those of a small boy who has punched his adversary well and truly on the nose.

Read the whole of his account on BBC People’s War.

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