Operation Battle of Cape Spartivento

The 'Battle of Cape Spartivento', known in Italy as the 'Battle of Cape Teulada', was a naval battle fought between British and Italian naval forces off Sardinia (27 November 1940).

On the night of 11 November 1940, in he 'Judgement' operation, the British incapacitated or destroyed half of the Italian fleet’s battleships in a daring aerial assault on the harbour of Taranto in southern Italy. Until this time, the Italians had left their capital ships in harbour, hoping their mere presence as a fleet in being would deter British shipping through the area, though they would not decline battle if given the opportunity. Six days later, on the night of 17 November, an Italian force comprising the battleships Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare as well as a number of supporting units attempted to intercept two British aircraft carriers, Ark Royal and Argus, and their cruiser escorts while steaming toward Malta in the 'White' (ii) attempt to provide aircraft to reinforce that island’s defences. The British were warned of the Italian force’s approach and immediately turned about and returned to Gibraltar, launching their aircraft (two Blackburn Skua single-engined machines as navigational leaders and 12 Hawker Hurricane single-engined fighters) prematurely. One Skua and eight Hurricane aircraft were lost at sea as they ran out of fuel well before arriving at their destination, with the loss of seven airmen.

The Italian success in disrupting the reinforcement of Malta cast serious doubt on British plans to send 'Collar' (ii) as another convoy to supply the island. However, the passage of this convoy was attempted, with increased support, including ships from Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville’s Gibraltar-based Force 'H' and Force 'D' out of Alexandria. The convoy was spotted by the Italian intelligence service, and once again the Italian fleet sortied to intercept it. The first Italian naval unit to make visual contact with the convoy was the torpedo boat Sirio on the night of 26 November, and after the long-range launch of two torpedoes, which missed, Sirio reported seven British warships heading to the east.

Aware of the Italian fleet’s movements, the British sent their forces to the north to intercept the Italian ships before they could come anywhere near the convoy’s cargo ships. At 09.45 on 27 November, a Meridionali Ro.43 single-engined reconnaissance floatplane from the heavy cruiser Bolzano located a British squadron steaming to the east, 20 miles (32 km) to the north of Chetaďbi on the northern coast of Algeria.

Shortly after this, at 09.56, Somerville received the report of his own aircraft from Ark Royal about the presence of five cruisers and five destroyers, and assumed that these were Italian units closing for battle. Force 'D' had not yet arrived from Alexandria and the British were outgunned, but 15 minutes later Force 'D' was spotted and the tables were thereby turned. The two forces were fairly even: although the Italian ships possessed larger-calibre and longer-ranged main guns, while the British had an aircraft carrier, which had shown several advantages over the battleship at Taranto. However, the Italian Ammiraglio di Squadra Inigo Campioni had ordered to avoid combat unless the situation was heavily in his favour, so a decisive battle was out of the question.

Under Campioni’s immediate command were the battleships Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare together with the destroyers Alpino, Bersagliere, Fuciliere, Granatiere, Dardo, Freccia and Saetta; under the command of Ammiraglio di Squadra Angelo Iachino were the heavy cruisers Bolzano, Fiume, Gorizia, Pola, Trieste and Trento together with the destroyers Ascari, Carabiniere, Lanciere, Alfredo Oriani, Vittorio Alfieri, Giosuč Carducci and Vincenzo Gioberti.

The Italians had organised their fleet into three groups, two composed of the six heavy cruisers and seven of the destroyers, and the third of the two battleships and seven escorting destroyers bringing up the rear. At 12.07, after a report received from the cruiser Gorizia's floatplane, Campioni realised the closeness in strengths of the two forces and in accordance with his orders commanded the cruiser groups to re-form on the battleships and prepare to depart. However, by this point, the lead cruiser formation had already angled toward the British ships and was beginning to engage them.

The British forces were centred on Somerville’s Force 'H' from Gibraltar with the battle-cruiser Renown, the fleet carrier Ark Royal carrying 12 Fairey Fulmar single-engined fighters, 12 Blackburn Skua single-engined dive-bombers and 30 Fairey Swordfish single-engined torpedo bombers, the light cruisers Sheffield and Despatch, and nine destroyers. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Force 'D' from Alexandria comprised the battleship Ramillies, the heavy cruiser Berwick, the light cruisers Coventry and Newcastle and five destroyers. Rear Admiral L. E. Holland’s Force 'F' was the convoy escort with the light cruisers Manchester and Southampton, the destroyer Hotspur and the corvettes Gloxinia, Hyacinth, Peony and Salvia'

The force detached under Holland were the heavy cruiser Berwick and the light cruisers Manchester Newcastle, Sheffield and Southampton. Destroyers which approached the battle were Encounter, Faulknor, Firedrake, Forester, Fury and Hotspur, which escorted Ark Royal during the battle were Jaguar and Kelvin, and which covered the convoy (freighters Clan Forbes, Clan Fraser and New Zealand Star) during the battle were Defender, Duncan, Gallant, Greyhound, Griffin, Hereward and Wishart.

Somerville deployed his force into two main groups with five cruisers under Holland in front and two battleships and seven destroyers in a second group following to the south. Meanwhile, and even further to the south, Ark Royal was preparing to launch her complement of Swordfish torpedo bombers.

At 12.22, the leading groups of both cruiser forces came into range of each other and Fiume opened fire at a range of 25,700 yards (23500 m). Rapid fire between the two forces continued as the distance between them closed, but as the range shortened Italian firepower began to put pressure on the outgunned British. The arrival of the battleship Ramillies on the British side helped to even the odds, but she was too slow to maintain formation and dropped out of battle at 12.26 after firing only a few salvoes. Four minutes later, Iachino, commanding the Italian cruiser group, received orders to disengage, although the battle had swung slightly in the Italian ships' favour. Iachino ordered an increase in speed to 30 kt, laid smoke and started to withdraw.

At this time, the Italian destroyer Lanciere was hit by a broadside from Manchester and seriously damaged, although she was towed to port after the battle. The heavy cruiser Berwick was hit at 12.22 by a single 203-mm (8-in) shell, which knocked out her 'Y' turret, killed seven men, wounded nine others and ignited a fire that took an hour to subdue. A second hit at 12.35 destroyed the after electrical switchboard room and cut power to the ship’s after section, including the remaining after turret. Most sources believe that the first hit was scored by an Italian heavy cruiser of the 1a Divisione Incrociatori, either Fiume or Pola while the second round came from the 3a Divisione Incrociatori, either Trieste or Trento, which at the time were the only Italian warships within range.

At about 12.40, 11 Swordfish aircraft from Ark Royal attacked Vittorio Veneto with torpedoes but scored no hits.

For the next few minutes, the tables turned in favour of the British when the battle-cruiser Renown closed the distance on the Italian cruisers and straddled Trieste with two salvoes, splinters from which struck the Italian cruiser. This advantage was soon negated, however, when at 13.00 Vittorio Veneto opened fire from 29,525 yards (27000 m). Vittorio Veneto fired 19 rounds in seven salvoes from long range and this was sufficient for the now outgunned British cruisers, which turned back at the fourth salvo. In fact, as water-spouts erupted around Berwick and Manchester, Holland ordered smoke, and his ships steamed to the south-east to close on Renown. Manchester was holed by splinters from Vittorio Veneto's rounds. Both forces withdrew, the battle lasting a total of 54 minutes and causing little damage to either side.

After the battle the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, wished for the replacement of Somerville, having questioned the admiral’s offensive spirit ever since his objections to the 'Catapult' attack on the French ships at Mers el Kébir in the aftermath of France’s defeat in June 1940. However, a board of inquiry exonerated Somerville, who enjoyed the strong support of several fellow admirals. Although ordered to be conservative, Campioni had presided over the loss of Italy’s best opportunity to deal the British a sharp setback in a fleet action. His days of command at sea were numbered. As Iachino remarked, 'the use of these ships, which constituted at that moment nearly all of our fleet’s effective units after the blow at Taranto, was decided by Supermarina mainly for reasons of morale, and to demonstrate that our combative spirit remained intact'.