This was a British naval operation by Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet in support of the MF.1 fast and MS.1 slow convoys from Malta to Egypt, which had been rescheduled after the British cruisers’ very high ammunition expenditure in ‘MA3’, through the eastern basic of the Mediterranean Sea, and leading to the Action off Calabria or, as it was known to the Italians, the Battle of Punta Stilo (7/14 July 1940).
The action occurred some 30 miles (48 km) to the east of Punta Stilo in Calabria on 9 July, and was one of the few major battles of the Mediterranean campaign in World War II involving large numbers of ships on each side. The operational scene for the battle was set by the fact that when Italy entered World War II on 10 June, the forces in its North African territory of Libya were ill-equipped for offensive operations, and the Italian fleet was obliged to begin the operation of major supply convoys in order to bring them up to fighting condition.
On 6 July a convoy of four Italian merchant ships (11,398-ton Esperia carrying troops, and 4,013-ton Calitea, 6,405-ton Marco Foscarini and 6,339-ton Vettor Pisani carrying weapons and supplies) departed Naples on their way to Benghazi, while attempting to persuade the British that they were in fact heading toward Tripoli, somewhat farther to the west. The close escort comprised the large torpedo boats Orione, Orsa, Pegaso and Procione of the 4a Divisione Torpediniere. During the evening of the same day, the 6,343-ton transport Francesco Barbero departed Catania under escort of the torpedo boats Giuseppe Cesare Abba and Rosolino Pilo, and joined the larger convoy on the following day.
Cover was provided by Ammiraglio di Divisione Ferdinando Casardi’s light cruisers Giovanni delle Bande Nere and Bartolomeo Colleoni (2a Divisione Incrociatori) and destroyers Maestrale, Libeccio, Grecale and Scirocco (10th Divisione Cacciatorpediniere).
Informed that a British ‘cruiser force’ had reached Malta on 7 July, the Supermarina ordered a reinforcement 1, and Ammiraglio di Squadra Inigo Campioni, the Italian fleet commander, also sortied to provide cover for the entire operation with the 1a Squadra 2.
Italian submarines were also ordered to patrol in the area to the east of Gibraltar (Barbarigo, Dandolo, Emo and Guglielmo Marconi), to the north-west of Sardinia (Argo, Diaspro, Iride and Scirè), in the area to the south of Sardinia (Ascianghi, Axum, Glauco, Luciano Manara, Ciro Menotti and Turchese), in the Sicilian Channel (Santorre Santarosa), off Malta (Pier Capponi and Durbo), in the Ionian Sea (Brin, Antonio Sciesa, Luigi Settembrini and Ruggiero Settimo) and between Derna and Gavdos island (Beilul, Lafole, Smeraldo and Tricheco).
The Italian transport vessels were carrying 2,190 troops, 72 M11 tanks, 232 vehicles, 10,445 tons of supplies and 5,720 tons of fuel, and their escort comprised three groups of warships in the form of eight destroyers and four torpedo boats as the close escort, a second group of six heavy cruisers and four destroyers some 35 miles (55 km) to the east, and the main battle group of two battleships, eight light cruisers and 16 destroyers. A substantial number of the Italian destroyers took no part in the battle as a result of mechanical problems and the need to refuel.
Meanwhile, the British were involved in a similar convoy undertaking as a major part of the Mediterranean Fleet had departed Alexandria on 7 July as Force ‘A’, Force ‘B’ and Force ‘C’ within the ‘MA5’ operation 3. Another group of four destroyers, which were to escort MS.1M and MF.1, constituted Force ‘D’, and meanwhile at Malta there were three more destroyers, including Jervis, which were to join Force ‘D’.
Off Alexandria, Force ‘C’ was sighted and reported by a group of 11 Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers of the 39o Stormo, which were on a bombing attack on Alexandria. At about 01.30 the Italian submarine Beilul sighted Force ‘B’ and reported the fact to the Supermarina. Thus the Italians were well aware that the Mediterranean Fleet was at sea.
The ships of the Mediterranean Fleet made for Malta, where the destroyers were to deliver supplies and a limited number of specialist reinforcements. At the same time, the single fast and slow convoys had been arranged to remove vital fleet stores and civilians from Malta, which was clearly under direct and major Italian threat, to Alexandria. Two groups of merchantmen sailed, a fast convoy at 13 kt and a slow convoy at 9 kt.
At 14.40 on 8 July two Cant Z.506 aircraft operating from Tobruk sighted the British fleet and shadowed it for almost four hours. Campioni ordered his fleet to shield the convoy by turning to the east and preparing for action. The Italian high command was reluctant to risk its warships in a nocturnal encounter, however, and ordered Campioni to avoid contact. During the initial positioning phase of the forthcoming encounter, the Italians suffered technical problems on three of their destroyers and two of their light cruisers, so these and several other destroyers were detached to repair or refuel in Sicily. In order to make up for these losses to their strength, the Italians despatched another destroyer group from Taranto, and at this point the Italian fleet had 16 destroyers.
Meanwhile, the British too were having problems of their own. Between 10.00 and 18.40, 72 Italian land-based bombers from the mainland attacked the ships of the Mediterranean Fleet. While the Germans favoured dive-bombers for low-level attacks on point targets such as warships, the Italian preferred during the early part of the war to use bombers operating in formations flying at about 11,975 ft (3650 m). Thus the Italians dropped large numbers of bombs, but their only success was a single hit on Gloucester: this bomb hit the light cruiser’s bridge, killing the captain, six officers and 11 ratings, and wounding three officers and six ratings were wounded. The forward fire-control director and the steering equipment were destroyed, and for the rest of the battle the ship had to be commanded from her emergency station.
At 15.10 on 8 July, well-informed about the composition, location, course and speed of the Italian fleet, Cunningham ordered the Mediterranean Fleet to steam toward Taranto, in order to cut the Italian ships' return route and then, at dusk, ordered a change of course from 310° to 260°, and also a reduction of speed. During the early hours of 9 July, the British ships switched to a heading of 305° to avoid the Italian air reconnaissance while keeping their fleet between the Italian squadron and the Gulf of Taranto. By 12.30, the Italian high command was unaware of the location of the British fleet, and Campioni had instructed his ships to steam about 60 miles (100 km) to the south-east of Cape Spartivento by 14.00 in search of their opponents. Campioni eventually received reports of the British position at 13.30, and six Meridionali Ro.43 floatplanes launched shortly after this from Italian cruisers spotted the British warships some 30 miles (50 km) closer than had been supposed.
At 12.00 on 9 July the two fleets were 90 miles (145 km) apart. Cunningham could not close the distance to engage with Royal Sovereign and Malaya, which were capable of only 18 kt to Warspite’s 23 kt and the other ships’ 28 kt, and pressed forward with Warspite as his only capital ship. Meanwhile, at 13.15, Eagle launched several Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers in unsuccessful sorties against the Italian heavy cruisers, which they took for battleships. Five minutes earlier, the Italian high command had ordered Campioni to engage one of the two British forces facing him, but in fact had planned to keep the action close to Italy, and was deliberately moving the Italians ships to the north in order to draw the British ships closer to the air bases from which major air attacks could be launched. By 14.00, however, Cunningham’s plan to cut off the Italian fleet from Taranto had succeeded.
The British cruiser group was extended ahead of Warspite, and at 15.15 spotted the Italian main battle force. The two groups opened fire at each other at a range of 23,500 yards (21500 m). The Italian rangefinding was better than that of the British, and within three minutes the Italians had found the range even though they were firing at something approaching the upper limit of their guns' range capability. Although the British rangefinding was not as good and the British had trouble with their rounds falling short, their gunlaying was superior and they were able to drop their rounds in much tighter groups. In general, though, the gunnery of the two sides was fairly well matched. After only a few minutes the range was down to 21,875 yards (20000 m), and the British guns became more useful. However, by 15.22 the Italian fire was coming dangerously close to the British cruisers and Tovey decided to disengage. At this point splinters from a 6-in (152-mm) shell from Giuseppe Garibaldi hit Neptune, damaging her catapult and her reconnaissance aeroplane beyond repair. The cruisers continued to open the range, and by 15.30 the engagement had come to an end.
One group of Italian light cruisers, mistaken for the heavy cruisers of the 'Zara' class, was on the British side of the battle line and was soon within range of the oncoming Warspite. Once again the British rounds fell short, and neither of her targets, Alberico da Barbiano and Alberto di Giussano, received any damage in the initial exchange of salvoes. However, by this time Warspite was also out of position, and she circled in place to allow Malaya to come up with her. Meanwhile, the still slower Royal Sovereign was still well to the rear.
The Italian commander decided to tackle Warspite, and started to manoeuvre his two battleships into position. At 15.52 Giulio Cesare opened fire at a range of 28,870 yards (26400 m). Conte di Cavour did not fire as the Italian tactics were to target only one ship at a time, as it it had been learned from analysis of the Battle of Jutland in 1916 that with more than one ship firing at a single target it became very difficult for the rangefinding party of any particular ship to tell which rounds had been fired from its ship’s guns. Conte di Cavour had been assigned to engage Malaya and Royal Sovereign, which were farther back and did not enter the engagement.
Unaware of the Italian firing tactics, Warspite divided her fire between the two Italian battleships. During the exchange one of Giulio Cesare’s rounds fell long and caused splinter damage to Warspite’s escorting destroyers, Decoy and Hereward, which had taken up station on the far side of the action. At 15.54 Malaya started to fire, through she was still well out of range, hoping to cause some confusion on the Italian ships. Meanwhile, the Italian heavy cruisers came into action and started to engage Warspite at 15.55, but had to break off as the British cruisers returned.
At 15.59 two of Giulio Cesare’s 320-mm (12.6-in) main armament shells fell very close to Warspite. Almost immediately after this, one of Warspite’s 15-in (381-mm) rounds hit the after part of Giulio Cesare, exploding in the funnel and setting off the stored ammunition for one of her 37-mm anti-aircraft guns. The physical damage suffered by he Italian battleship was quite superficial, but 66 men were killed and 49 wounded, this representing some 10% of the entire crew. The fumes from the burning ammunition were sucked down into the engine room, which had to be evacuated and half of its boilers shut down. Giulio Cesare’s speed therefore dropped quickly to 18 kt and Conte di Cavour took over her role. Giulio Cesare and Warspite were considerably more than 26,250 yards (24000 m) apart at the time of the hit, which was one of the longest-range naval artillery hits in history.
Warspite was now well positioned to deal some serious blows to the slowing Giulio Cesare, but once again she executed another tight turn to allow Malaya to come up to her. With her guns suddenly silenced during the turn, the rangefinders on Malaya discovered what the Italians had been hoping that they would not, namely that Malaya’s rounds were falling 2,700 yards (2470 m) short of Giulio Cesare, and that they had been watching Warspite’s rounds rather than their own ship’s fire.
At 16.01 the Italian destroyers started to make smoke and the battleships got under cover. There is some debate about this move, the British claiming that the battleships were leaving the action, the Italians that they were attempting to make a torpedo attack with their destroyers from within the smoke.
At 15.58 Fiume reopened fire on Liverpool, her opposite number in the British line, and soon two groups of Italian cruisers opened fire: first were Zara, Bolzano and Pola, and then Gorizia and Trento, as they came within range of the main British cruiser group. Firing continued as both groups attempted to form, and at 16.07 Bolzano was struck by three 6-in (152-mm) shells from Neptune, temporarily jamming her rudder and causing the death of two men in the torpedo room. A near miss on the destroyer Vittorio Alfieri caused minor damage.
Meanwhile the engineers on Giulio Cesare had been able to repair two of the four damaged boilers, allowing the battleship to reach 22 kt. Considering the possibilities of his remaining battleship, Conte di Cavour, against three British battleships and one aircraft carrier, Campioni decided to order the battleships to withdraw toward Messina. Giulio Cesare was then unserviceable for 30 days as her damage was repaired.
Over the next hour each of the fleets attempted long-range torpedo runs with their destroyer groups, but gained no success. At 16.40, the Italian air force made an attack with 126 aircraft, reporting damage on Eagle, Warspite and Malaya; and as a result of some misunderstanding, 50 of the Italian aircraft also attacked the Italian ships, without causing any damage. The battle ended at 16.50 as each side withdrew.
One final victim was the destroyer Leone Pancaldo: sent to Augusta in Sicily, she was hit by a torpedo launched from a Swordfish torpedo bomber at 09.40 on the following day and sank in shallow water. The ship was later refloated, and returned to service in December 1941.
After the battle both fleets turned for home. This allowed the Italians to claim a victory of sorts, as their transport ships were already past the action by this time and reached Libya safely. Meanwhile, the ships of the British convoys reached Alexandria, together with their escorts. Although the battle was indecisive, Allied sources claimed that the British had gained an important moral ascendancy over the Italians.
A question which remains problematical is why the Italians did not send their two operational ‘Vittorio Veneto’ class battleships, altogether more capable that the two older battleships which had been despatched, from their base at Taranto. Both were almost completely ready for action and were only a few hours’ steaming from the scene. Both capital ships were still undergoing trials, and Littorio had suffered an electrical mishap on one of her 381-mm (15-in) main turrets. The availability of Littorio and Vittorio Veneto would have tipped the balance of fire decidedly to the Italian side.
Even without these ships, the fleets were fairly even. Despite Italian superiority in aircraft, as a result of the availability of large number of land-based aircraft, the Italian air attacks proved ineffective, achieving little apart from the damage to Gloucester. Despite this, the air arm’s battle reports were inflated to the point of claiming damage to half of the British fleet.
In overall terms, the gunnery of the British ships proved superior, for the Italian salvoes were too widely dispersed as a result of technical factors, and this was a problem which was not overcome until the end of the conflict.
Within this same basic period, it should be noted, following its ‘Catapult’ attack of his Force ‘H’ on the French fleet at Mers el Kébir, just outside Oran in the French North African territory of Algeria, Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville was ordered by the Admiralty to operate against the west coast of Italy, Sicily or possibly Sardinia in an operation to coincide with the Mediterranean Fleet’s ‘MA5’ undertaking and thereby divert Italian attentions from ‘MA5’ to area area in the western basin of the Mediterranean Sea.
Although Somerville was reluctant to take Force ‘H’ on an operation until its ships had been more fully trained and exercised as a fleet, he nevertheless complied and opted to deliver a carrierborne air attack on Cagliari on the island of Sardinia with the support of the whole of Force 'H' 4.
The operation began on schedule as Force ‘H’ departed Gibraltar in daylight at 07.00 on 8 July in a sortie which Somerville hoped would be seen and reported by Italian agents in the Spanish town of Algeciras opposite Gibraltar, and was spotted and reported at about 14.00 on the following day by an Italian aeroplane. At 15.45 Force ‘H’ was attacked from high altitude by about six Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 bombers. These targeted Ark Royal and also Hood, and both ships were near-missed. At 17.50 a further wave of 12 SM.79 aircraft bombed Force ‘H’ from high altitude, and again Ark Royal was near-missed. Between 18.20 and 18.40 two more waves of 22 SM.79 aircraft bombed Force 'H', again from high altitude and again with Ark Royal as their primary target. The Italian aircraft were of the 10a Brigata, and included including machines of the 8o Stormo from Villacidro airfield and the 32o Stormo from Decimomannu airfield on Sardinia.
Ark Royal’s Blackburn Skua warplanes managed to shoot down one of the SM.79 bombers.
After this, in light of the loss of tactical surprise and the possibility of serious damage to Ark Royal in an undertaking which was only a diversion, Somerville ordered the abandonment of the operation and a return to Gibraltar at 22.15. The ships regained Gibraltar at 08.00 on 11 July after the destroyer Escort had been torpedoed in the forward boiler room by the Italian submarine Guglielmo Marconi at 02.15. The destroyer Forester saw the attack and made an unsuccessful attempt to ram the submarine. Forester then tried to take Escort in tow, stern first, with Faulknor providing escort. The damage was too great, however, and Escort sank at 11.15 after her crew had been taken off by the other two destroyers.