Battle of Cape Matapan

Battle of Cape Matapan

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The Battle of Cape Matapan was a Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 naval battle
Naval battle
A naval battle is a battle fought using boats, ships or other waterborne vessels. Most naval battles have occurred at sea, but a few have taken place on lakes or rivers. The earliest recorded naval battle took place in 1210 BC near Cyprus...

 fought from 27–29 March 1941. The cape
Cape Matapan
Cape Tainaron , also known as Cape Matapan , is situated at the end of the Mani, Laconia, Greece. Cape Matapan is the southernmost point of mainland Greece. It separates the Messenian Gulf in the west from the Laconian Gulf in the east.-History:...

 is on the southwest coast of Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

's Peloponnesian peninsula. A force of British Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

 ships accompanied by several Royal Australian Navy
Royal Australian Navy
The Royal Australian Navy is the naval branch of the Australian Defence Force. Following the Federation of Australia in 1901, the ships and resources of the separate colonial navies were integrated into a national force: the Commonwealth Naval Forces...

 ships, under command of British Admiral Andrew Cunningham
Andrew Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope
Admiral of the Fleet Andrew Browne Cunningham, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope KT, GCB, OM, DSO and two Bars , was a British admiral of the Second World War. Cunningham was widely known by his nickname, "ABC"....

, intercepted and sank or severely damaged the ships of the Italian Regia Marina
Regia Marina
The Regia Marina dates from the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 after Italian unification...

under Admiral Angelo Iachino
Angelo Iachino
Angelo Iachino was an Italian admiral during World War II.-Early life and career:Born at Sanremo, Liguria, Iachino entered the Italian Naval Academy at Livorno in 1904, and graduated in 1907....

. The opening actions of the battle are also known in Italy as the Battle of Gaudo.


As ships of the Mediterranean Fleet covered troop movements to Greece, intelligence was received reporting the sailing of an Italian battle fleet with one battleship, six heavy and two light cruisers plus destroyers to attack the convoys. The interception was made possible by Ultra
Ultra was the designation adopted by British military intelligence in June 1941 for wartime signals intelligence obtained by "breaking" high-level encrypted enemy radio and teleprinter communications at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. "Ultra" eventually became the standard...

Cryptanalysis is the study of methods for obtaining the meaning of encrypted information, without access to the secret information that is normally required to do so. Typically, this involves knowing how the system works and finding a secret key...

 of intercepted signals, but, as ever, this was concealed from the enemy by ensuring there was a plausible reason for the Allies to have detected and intercepted the Italian fleet. In this case, it was a carefully directed reconnaissance plane. As a further deception, Admiral Cunningham is said to have made a surreptitious exit from a club in Egypt to avoid being seen going on board ship.

At the same time, there was a failure of intelligence on the Axis side. The Italians had been wrongly informed that the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet had only one operational battleship. In fact, there were three, and a lost British aircraft carrier had been replaced.


The Allied
Allies of World War II
The Allies of World War II were the countries that opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War . Former Axis states contributing to the Allied victory are not considered Allied states...

 force was the British Mediterranean fleet, consisting of the aircraft carrier
Aircraft carrier
An aircraft carrier is a warship designed with a primary mission of deploying and recovering aircraft, acting as a seagoing airbase. Aircraft carriers thus allow a naval force to project air power worldwide without having to depend on local bases for staging aircraft operations...

 , the modernised World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

A battleship is a large armored warship with a main battery consisting of heavy caliber guns. Battleships were larger, better armed and armored than cruisers and destroyers. As the largest armed ships in a fleet, battleships were used to attain command of the sea and represented the apex of a...

s , and (as flagship
A flagship is a vessel used by the commanding officer of a group of naval ships, reflecting the custom of its commander, characteristically a flag officer, flying a distinguishing flag...

). The main fleet was accompanied by two flotilla
A flotilla , or naval flotilla, is a formation of small warships that may be part of a larger fleet. A flotilla is usually composed of a homogeneous group of the same class of warship, such as frigates, destroyers, torpedo boats, submarines, gunboats, or minesweepers...

s of destroyer
In naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast and maneuverable yet long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy or battle group and defend them against smaller, powerful, short-range attackers. Destroyers, originally called torpedo-boat destroyers in 1892, evolved from...

  • 10th Flotilla: , and commanded by Commander Hec. Waller, RAN
  • 14th Flotilla: , , and commanded by Philip Mack
    Philip Mack
    Philip John Mack was an officer of the British Royal Navy.He was born in Paston Hall near Norwich, the son of Paston Mack, a Major in the 12th Royal Lancers, British Army...

Also present were and .

A second force, under Admiral Sir Henry Pridham-Wippell, consisted of the British light cruiser
Light cruiser
A light cruiser is a type of small- or medium-sized warship. The term is a shortening of the phrase "light armored cruiser", describing a small ship that carried armor in the same way as an armored cruiser: a protective belt and deck...

s , and , the Australian light cruiser and the British destroyers , and . The Australian had returned to Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...


In addition, Allied warships attached to convoy
A convoy is a group of vehicles, typically motor vehicles or ships, traveling together for mutual support and protection. Often, a convoy is organized with armed defensive support, though it may also be used in a non-military sense, for example when driving through remote areas.-Age of Sail:Naval...

s were available: , and waited in the Kithira Channel and , , , and were nearby.

The Italian fleet was led by Iachino's vessel, the modern battleship . It also included almost the entire Italian heavy cruiser force: (under Vice-Admiral Carlo Cattaneo), Fiume and Pola; four destroyers of the 9th Flotilla (Alfredo Oriani, , Vincenzo Gioberti and ). The heavy cruisers Trieste (carrying Vice-Admiral Luigi Sansonetti), Trento and Bolzano were accompanied by three destroyers of the 12th Flotilla (Ascari, Corazziere and Carabiniere), plus the light cruisers (Vice-Admiral A. Legnano) and (7th cruiser division) and two destroyers of the 16th Flotilla (namely Emanuele Pessagno and Nicoloso de Recco) from Brindisi
Brindisi is a city in the Apulia region of Italy, the capital of the province of Brindisi, off the coast of the Adriatic Sea.Historically, the city has played an important role in commerce and culture, due to its position on the Italian Peninsula and its natural port on the Adriatic Sea. The city...

. None of the Italian ships had radar, although several Allied ships did.

The 13th Flotilla of Italian destroyers, Alpino, Bersagliere, Fuciliere, Granatierewas also involved screening the flagship.


On 27 March, Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell—with the cruisers Ajax, Gloucester, Orion and Perth and a number of destroyers—sailed from Greek waters for a position south of Crete. Admiral Cunningham with Formidable, Warspite, Barham and Valiant left Alexandria on the same day to meet the cruisers.

The Italian Fleet was spotted by a Short Sunderland
Short Sunderland
The Short S.25 Sunderland was a British flying boat patrol bomber developed for the Royal Air Force by Short Brothers. It took its service name from the town and port of Sunderland in northeast England....

 flying boat
Flying boat
A flying boat is a fixed-winged seaplane with a hull, allowing it to land on water. It differs from a float plane as it uses a purpose-designed fuselage which can float, granting the aircraft buoyancy. Flying boats may be stabilized by under-wing floats or by wing-like projections from the fuselage...

 at noon, thus Iachino lost the advantage of surprise. The Italian Admiral also learned that Formidable was at sea thanks to the decryption team aboard Vittorio Veneto. Nevertheless, after some discussion, the Italian headquarters decided to go ahead with the operation, in order to show the Germans their will to fight and confidence in the higher speed of their warships.

Action off Gavdos

On 28 March, an IMAM Ro.43
IMAM Ro.43
|-Newsreel clip:An Italian newsreel footage of a Ro.43 launching from a catapult aboard the Italian light cruiser Eugenio di Savoia can be viewed at YouTube as .-References:...

A floatplane is a type of seaplane, with slender pontoons mounted under the fuselage; only the floats of a floatplane normally come into contact with water, with the fuselage remaining above water...

 launched by Vittorio Veneto spotted the British cruiser squadron at 06:35. At 07:55, the Trento group encountered Admiral Pridham-Wippell's cruiser group south of the Greek island of Gavdos
Gavdos is the southernmost Greek island, located to the south of its much bigger neighbour, Crete, of which it is administratively a part, in the peripheral unit of Chania. It forms a community with surrounding islets and was part of the former Selino Province. It is the southernmost point of...

. The British squadron was heading to the southeast. Thinking they were attempting to run from their larger ships, the Italians gave chase, opening fire at 08:12 from 24059 yd (21,999.5 m). The Italian guns had trouble grouping their rounds, which had little effect. The rangefinder
A rangefinder is a device that measures distance from the observer to a target, for the purposes of surveying, determining focus in photography, or accurately aiming a weapon. Some devices use active methods to measure ; others measure distance using trigonometry...

s also performed poorly, with the exception of those of Bolzano. After an hour of pursuit, the Italian cruisers broke off the chase and turned northwest, under orders to rejoin Vittorio Veneto. The Allied ships also reversed course, and followed the Italians at extreme range. Iachino's plan was to lure the British cruisers into the range of Vittorio Venetos guns.

An officer eating a sandwich on 's bridge remarked to a companion, "What's that battleship over there? I thought ours were miles away." The Italians eavesdropped on 's signal that she had sighted an unknown unit and was going to investigate. At 10:55, Vittorio Veneto met the Italian cruisers, and immediately opened fire on the shadowing Allied cruisers. She fired 94 rounds from a distance of 25153 yd (22,999.9 m), all well aimed, but again with the excessive spreading of her individual salvoes. The Allied cruisers, until then unaware of the presence of a battleship, withdrew, suffering slight damage from 15 in (381 mm) shell splinters. A series of photographs showing the Italian salvoes falling around the Allied warships and taken from HMS Gloucester was published by Life magazine
Life (magazine)
Life generally refers to three American magazines:*A humor and general interest magazine published from 1883 to 1936. Time founder Henry Luce bought the magazine in 1936 solely so that he could acquire the rights to its name....

 on 16 June 1941.

Air attacks

By this point, Cunningham's forces, which had been attempting to join up with Pridham-Wippell's, had launched a sortie of Fairey Albacore
Fairey Albacore
The Fairey Albacore was a British single-engine carrier-borne biplane torpedo bomber built by Fairey Aviation between 1939 and 1943 for the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and used during the Second World War. It had a three-man crew and was designed for spotting and reconnaissance as well as delivering...

 torpedo bomber
Torpedo bomber
A torpedo bomber is a bomber aircraft designed primarily to attack ships with aerial torpedoes which could also carry out conventional bombings. Torpedo bombers existed almost exclusively prior to and during World War II when they were an important element in many famous battles, notably the...

s from HMS Formidable at 09:38. They attacked Vittorio Veneto without direct effect, but the required manoeuvring made it difficult for the Italian ships to maintain their pursuit. Realising that they might not be so lucky next time, Iachino broke off the pursuit at 12:20, retiring towards his own air cover at Taranto
Taranto is a coastal city in Apulia, Southern Italy. It is the capital of the Province of Taranto and is an important commercial port as well as the main Italian naval base....


A second sortie surprised the Italians at 15:09. Lieutenant-Commander Dalyell-Stead flew his Albacore to 1094 yd (1,000.4 m) from Vittorio Veneto, hitting her outer port propeller and causing 4000 LT (4,064.2 t) of water to be taken on. The ship stopped while damage was repaired, but was able to get underway again at 16:42, making 19 kn (23.1 mph; 37.2 km/h). Cunningham heard of the damage to Vittorio Veneto, and started to pursue her. Dalyell-Stead and his crew were killed when their aircraft was shot down by AA fire from the battleship.

A third strike by six Albacores and two Swordfish from 826 and 828 Squadrons on Formidable—as well as two Swordfish from 815 Squadron on Crete—was made between 19:36 and 19:50. Admiral Iachino deployed his ships in three columns and used smoke, searchlights and a heavy barrage to protect Vittorio Veneto. This tactic succeeded, but one torpedo hit Pola, which had nearly stopped in order to avoid running into Fiume and could not take avoiding action. This blow knocked out five boilers and the main steam line. Pola lost electric power and drifted to a stop. The torpedo was apparently dropped by Lieutenant F.M.A. Torrens-Spence
Michael Torrens-Spence
Captain Frederick Michael Alexander Torrens-Spence DSO, DSC, AFC was a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot in the Second World War...

. Unaware of Cunningham's pursuit, a squadron of cruisers and destroyers were ordered to return and help Pola, formed on Polas sister ship
Sister ship
A sister ship is a ship of the same class as, or of virtually identical design to, another ship. Such vessels share a near-identical hull and superstructure layout, similar displacement, and roughly comparable features and equipment...

s, Zara and Fiume. The squadron did not start to return towards Pola until about an hour after the order had been given by Iachino, officially due to communication problems, while Vittorio Veneto and the other ships continued to Taranto.

Night action

At 20:15, HMS Ajax´s radar picked up a ship six miles to port, apparently dead in the water; she was the crippled Pola. The bulk of the Allied forces detected the Italian squadron on radar shortly after 22:00, and were able to close without being uncovered. Italian ships were not supposed to meet enemy ships by night and had their main gun batteries disarmed; they also had no radar and could not detect British ships by means other than direct sight. They managed to spot the Allied squadron at 22:20, which they thought to be Italian ships. Therefore the British battleships Barham, Valiant and Warspite were able to close to 3828 yd (3,500.3 m) unnoticed by the Italian ships – extremely close range for battleship guns – from where they opened fire. The Allied searchlights illuminated their enemy. Some British gunners witnessed the cruiser's main turrets popping up dozens of metres into the air. After just three minutes, two Italian heavy cruisers—Fiume and Zara—had been destroyed. Fiume sank at 23:30, while Zara was finished off by a torpedo from the destroyer HMS Jervis at 02:40 of 29 March.

Two Italian destroyers, and , were sunk in the first five minutes. The other two destroyers, Gioberti and Oriani, managed to escape, the former with heavy damage. Towing Pola to Alexandria as a prize was considered, but daylight was approaching and it was thought that the danger of enemy air attack was too high. The British boarding parties seized a number of the much needed Breda
Breda M37
The Breda Modello 37 was an Italian heavy machine gun adopted in 1937. It was the standard machine gun for the Royal Italian Army during World War II...

 anti-aircraft machine guns.

Pola was eventually sunk with torpedoes by the destroyers Jervis and Nubian after her crew was taken off, shortly after 04:00. The only known Italian reaction after the shocking surprise was a fruitless torpedo charge by some destroyers and the aimless fire of one of Zaras 40 mm guns in the direction of the British warships.

The Allied ships took on survivors, but left the scene in the morning, fearing Axis air strikes. Admiral Cunningham ordered a signal to be made on the Merchant Marine emergency band. This signal was received by the Italian High Command. It informed them that due to air strikes the Allied ships had ceased their rescue operations, and it granted safe passage to a hospital ship for rescue purposes. The location of remaining survivors was broadcast and the Italian hospital ship Gradisca came to recover them.

Allied casualties during the battle were a single torpedo bomber shot down by Vittorio Venetos 3.5 in (88.9 mm) anti-aircraft batteries, with the loss of the three-man crew. Italian losses were up to 2,303 sailors, most of them from Zara and Fiume. The Allies rescued 1,015 survivors, while the Italians saved another 160.


Matapan was Italy's greatest defeat at sea, subtracting from its order of battle a cruiser division, but the battle was hardly decisive. The British in the Mediterranean lost the heavy cruiser "York" and the new light cruiser "Bonaventure" in the same period (26-31 March 1941). The fact that the Italians had sortied so far to the east established a threat potential that forced the British to keep their battleships ready to face another such sortie during the operations off Greece and Crete. After the defeat at Cape Matapan, the Italian Admiral Iachino wrote that the battle had "the consequence of limiting for some time our operational activities, not for the serious moral effect of the losses, as the British believed, but because the operation revealed our inferiority in effective aero-naval cooperation and the backwardness of our night battle technology." In fact the Italian fleet did not venture into the Eastern Mediterranean again until the fall of Crete
Battle of Crete
The Battle of Crete was a battle during World War II on the Greek island of Crete. It began on the morning of 20 May 1941, when Nazi Germany launched an airborne invasion of Crete under the code-name Unternehmen Merkur...

 two months later.
Despite his impressive victory, Admiral Cunningham was somewhat disappointed with the failure of the destroyers to make contact with Vittorio Veneto. The escape of the Italian battleship was, in the words of the British Admiral, "much to be regretted".

There is still controversy in Italy regarding the orders given by the Italian Admiral Angelo Iachino
Angelo Iachino
Angelo Iachino was an Italian admiral during World War II.-Early life and career:Born at Sanremo, Liguria, Iachino entered the Italian Naval Academy at Livorno in 1904, and graduated in 1907....

 to Zara division in order to recover Pola, when it was clear that an enemy battleship force was steaming from the opposite direction.


  • Ammiraglio di squadra (equivalent to Vice Admiral
    Vice Admiral
    Vice admiral is a senior naval rank of a three-star flag officer, which is equivalent to lieutenant general in the other uniformed services. A vice admiral is typically senior to a rear admiral and junior to an admiral...

     for RN) Angelo Iachino
    • 1 battleship
      A battleship is a large armored warship with a main battery consisting of heavy caliber guns. Battleships were larger, better armed and armored than cruisers and destroyers. As the largest armed ships in a fleet, battleships were used to attain command of the sea and represented the apex of a...

      : (damaged)
    • 4 destroyers (13a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere): , , ,

  • Ammiraglio di divisione (equivalent to Rear Admiral
    Rear Admiral
    Rear admiral is a naval commissioned officer rank above that of a commodore and captain, and below that of a vice admiral. It is generally regarded as the lowest of the "admiral" ranks, which are also sometimes referred to as "flag officers" or "flag ranks"...

     in RN) Antonio Legnani
    • 2 light cruiser
      Light cruiser
      A light cruiser is a type of small- or medium-sized warship. The term is a shortening of the phrase "light armored cruiser", describing a small ship that carried armor in the same way as an armored cruiser: a protective belt and deck...

      s (8a Divisione Incrociatori): ,
    • 2 destroyers (6a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere): ,

  • Ammiraglio di divisione Luigi Sansonetti
    • 3 heavy cruiser
      Heavy cruiser
      The heavy cruiser was a type of cruiser, a naval warship designed for long range, high speed and an armament of naval guns roughly 203mm calibre . The heavy cruiser can be seen as a lineage of ship design from 1915 until 1945, although the term 'heavy cruiser' only came into formal use in 1930...

      s (3a Divisione Incrociatori): , ,
    • 3 destroyers (12a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere): , ,

  • Ammiraglio di divisione Carlo Cattaneo
    • 3 heavy cruisers (1a Divisione Incrociatori): (sunk), (sunk), (sunk)
    • 4 destroyers (9a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere): (sunk), (sunk), ,


Force A, 14th Destroyer Flotilla, 10th Destroyer Flotilla (of Force C), Force B, 2nd Destroyer Flotilla, Force D
  • Admiral Andrew Cunningham
    • 3 battleships: , , and
    • 1 aircraft carrier
      Aircraft carrier
      An aircraft carrier is a warship designed with a primary mission of deploying and recovering aircraft, acting as a seagoing airbase. Aircraft carriers thus allow a naval force to project air power worldwide without having to depend on local bases for staging aircraft operations...

    • 9 destroyers: , , , , , , and , and
  • Admiral Sir Henry Pridham-Wippell
    • 4 light cruisers: , and , and
    • 3 destroyers: , and
  • AG 9 convoy (from Alexandria to Greece)
    • 2 light cruisers: and
    • 3 destroyers: and , and
  • GA 8 convoy (from Greece to Alexandria)
    • 1 anti aircraft cruiser:
    • 2 destroyers: and
    • 1 merchant ship: Thermopylæ (Norwegian)

External links

"Battle of Cape Matapan: World War II Italian Naval Massacre" by Anthony M. Scalzo at Battaglia di Gaudo at Plancia di Comando La notte di Matapan at Plancia di Comando