This was an Italian fleet sortie in the Mediterranean against British ships operating in the area of Crete as part of the operation to reinforce the Greeks (26/29 March 1941).
This sortie led on 27/29 March to the Battle of Cape Matapan, which was fought between Cape Matapan on the south coast of the Peloponnese of mainland Greece and the western tip of the island of Crete, and resulted in a decisive British victory.
Largely in response to German wishes, the Italians planned this undertaking but only on the basis of faulty intelligence (erroneous German reports that their aircraft had damaged two large British warships, probably battleships) and with the promise of powerful German support from the warplanes of General Hans Geisler’s X Fliegerkorps.
Ammiraglio di Squadra Angelo Iachino’s Italian fleet sortied from bases including Brindisi, Messina and Naples to meet on 27 March to the south of the Strait of Messina. The fleet was centred on a main squadron with the modern battleship Vittorio Veneto (Iachino’s flagship) escorted by destroyers of the 13a Squadriglie Cacciatorpediniere (Alpino, Bersagliere, Fuciliere and Granatiere). There were also three squadrons of cruisers in the form of the heavy cruisers of Ammiraglio di Divisione Carlo Cattaneo’s 1a Divisione Incrociatori (Zara, Fiume and Pola) escorted by the destroyers of the 9a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere (Alfredo Oriani, Giosué Carducci, Vincenzo Gioberti and Vittorio Alfieri); the heavy cruisers of Ammiraglio di Divisione Luigi Sansonetti’s 3a Divisione Incrociatori (Trieste, Trento and Bolzano) escorted by the destroyers of the 12a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere (Ascari, Corazziere and Carabiniere); and the light cruisers of Ammiraglio di Divisione Antonio Legnani’s 8a Divisione Incrociatori (Luigi di Savoia Duca degli Abruzzi and Giuseppe Garibaldi) escorted by the destroyers of part of the 6a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere (Emanuel Pessagno and Nicoloso da Recco).
The destroyers of the 13a Squadriglie Cacciatorpediniere (Grecale, Libeccio, Maestrale and Scirocco) were also involved.
At Bletchley Park in the UK, meanwhile, the British had decrypted two Italian messages from Rome to Rhodes, as well as one German message to the X Fliegerkorps, indicating the imminence of an operation around Crete. This ‘Ultra’ intelligence was quickly forwarded to Alexandria, where Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham was thus able to dispose the forces of his Mediterranean Fleet to maximum effect.
The British and Australian warships of the Mediterranean Fleet were centred on Cunningham’s Force ‘A’ with the fleet carrier Formidable and battleships Warspite (Cunningham’s flagship), Barham and Valiant, supported by the fleet destroyers of Commander H. Waller’s 10th Destroyer Flotilla (Greyhound, Griffin and Australian Stuart), and Captain P. J. Mack’s 14th Destroyer Flotilla (Jervis, Janus, Mohawk and Nubian), as well as Hotspur and Havock. A second and lighter force, Vice Admiral H. D. Pridham-Wippell’s Force ‘B’, was based on the light cruisers Ajax, Gloucester, Orion and Australian Perth, together with the destroyers Hasty, Hereward and Ilex of the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla.
Further strength was available, if required, in the form of those other warships currently in the area as escorts for the AG.9 convoy from Alexandria to Greece and the GA.8 convoy from Greece to Alexandria: these included the light anti-aircraft cruisers Calcutta and Carlisle, and the destroyers Defender, Jaguar and Australian Vampire with the AG.9 convoy, and the light anti-aircraft cruiser Bonaventure and the destroyers Decoy and Juno with the GA.8 convoy.
A decisive element in the battle that was about to take place was the fact that none of the Italian ships had radar but several of the British ships did possess this invaluable asset.
As noted above, moreover, the interception was made possible by ‘Ultra’ intelligence, stemming from the fact that the British cryptanalysis team at Bletchley Park had broken the Italian C38M code in September 1940, which indicated that the Italians had, under German pressure, decided to intercept and destroy British convoys transporting men and equipment from Egypt to Greece. This fact was, of course, carefully concealed from the Italians 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 aeroplane which was readily visible to the Italians and therefore construed as the source of the British intelligence.
At the same time there was the failure of Axis intelligence, which had erroneously informed the Italians that the Mediterranean Fleet had only one operational battleship, whereas the actuality was three, and moreover that a lost British carrier had been replaced. In addition to its radar advantage, the British force was well served by its night fighting experience, which would tell against the Italian ships which had neither equipment nor experience for this demanding aspect of naval warfare.
At about 12.00 on 27 March a Short Sunderland maritime reconnaissance flying boat located and reported the Italian fleet. In the absence of the promised German air support, and now knowing that the British were aware of his strength and position, Iachino was minded to abandon his plan to force his way into the Aegean Sea as there was no chance of obtaining surprise, but was ordered by the Supermarina to proceed as his ships were faster than those of the British, and as the Italians also wished to persuade their German allies that they were prepared to fight.
Then, at 06.35 on the morning of 28 March, a Meridionali Ro.43 reconnaissance floatplane launched by Vittorio Veneto spotted and reported the light cruisers of Force ‘B’, and the heavy cruisers of the 3a Divisione Incrociatori altered course in an effort to secure an interception. At 07.55 the 3a Divisione Incrociatori located Force ‘B’ to the south of the Greek island of Gavdos (Guado in Italian), itself to the south of Crete. The British squadron was steaming to the south-east and, in the belief that it was attempting to escape, the Italians gave chase before opening fire at 08.12 at a range of 24,060 yards (22000 m). The Italian guns had trouble grouping their rounds, which thus had little effect, and with the exception of those of Bolzano, the Italian rangefinders also performed poorly. Up to 08.55 the three Italian heavy cruisers fired 535 203-mm (8-in) rounds: Trieste fired 132 armour-piercing rounds, Trento 204 armour-piercing and 10 HE rounds, and Bolzano 189 armour-piercing rounds. In response Gloucester fired three salvoes of 6-in (152-mm) shells, and while these salvoes fell short they had the effect of causing the Italians to change course.
After an hour of pursuit, the Italian cruisers were ordered by Iachino to break off the chase and turn to the north-west in order to rejoin Vittorio Veneto.
The ships of Force ‘B’ also reversed course, and followed the Italians at extreme range. Iachino’s plan was to lure the British cruisers into the range of Vittorio Veneto’s 381-mm (15-in) guns. At 10.55, Vittorio Veneto and the cruisers once more joined forces, and the battleship immediately opened fire on the shadowing cruisers of Force ‘B’. Vittorio Veneto fired 94 381-mm (15-in) rounds from a range of 25,155 yards (23000 m): the salvoes were well aimed, but again suffered from a high degree of dispersion.
Unaware until then of the presence of a battleship, the British cruisers withdrew, suffering light damage from shell splinters.
At this time Force ‘A’ was trying to link with ‘Force B’, and at 09.38 Formidable had launched six Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers, whose attack at 11.27 was unsuccessful. But Iachino now appreciated that the need to manoeuvre had made it difficult to continue an effective pursuit and further exposed his fleet to another British air attack that might achieve better success. At 12.20 therefore, Iachino ordered a general retirement toward Taranto and the promise of Italian air cover.
Groups of three, three and six Bristol Blenheim light bombers from Crete made attacks on the Italian ships at 12.05, 14.20 and 14.50 but scored no hits. A second attack by five carrierborne Albacore aircraft at 15.09 achieved one torpedo hit on Vittorio Veneto, but this inflicted only moderate damage which slowed the ship slightly but did not prevent her escape as the warships of the Mediterranean Fleet closed. Three further attacks by Crete-based Blenheim bombers, comprising four, 11 and six aircraft respectively, targeted the Italian cruisers at 15.20, 15.15 to 16.45 and 17.00, but again had no success. A third and final torpedo-bomber attack (six Albacore and two Fairey Swordfish aircraft from Formidable’s Nos 826 and 828 Squadrons and two Swordfish aircraft of No. 815 Squadron from Máleme on Crete) attacked the cruisers between 19.36 and 19.50, and achieved a single hit on Pola, which was left dead in the water.
Unaware of the proximity of the ships of the Mediterranean Fleet, Iachino ordered the rest of the 1a Divisione Incrociatori and the escorting destroyers of the 9a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere to turn back and protect Pola.
The British detected the Italian vessels on radar shortly after 22.00, and in the dark the British ships used radar to close without detection until the battleships Barham, Valiant and Warspite were able to open fire at 22.30 at a range of only 3,000 yards (2750 m). The searchlights of the British ships then illuminated the Italian vessels, and in just five minutes two of the heavy cruisers, Fiume and Zara, had been totally destroyed. The Italian destroyers moved to attack the battleships but were intercepted by the British destroyers, and two of them, Vittorio Alfieri and Giosué Carducci, were sunk; Alfredo Oriani managed to escape in damaged condition, and only Vincenzo Gioberti got away unscathed.
The British considered taking the very badly damaged Pola in tow to Alexandria, but with night drawing to an end there was a much increased danger of air attack, so this ship was torpedoed and sunk by Jervis and Nubian after the 258 remaining members of her crew had been taken off.
On 29 March the ships of Force ‘A’ came under unsuccessful attack by 16 Junkers Ju 88 bombers of Hauptmann Sigmund-Ulrich Freiherr von Gravenreuth’s III/Kampfgeschwader 30.
During the night Cunningham had despatched Mack with eight destroyers of the 2nd and 14th Destroyer Flotillas to search for the damaged Vittorio Veneto, but the destroyers passed the Italian battleship without spotting her.
In the Battle of Cape Matapan, the British had lost just one aeroplane with its three-man crew, while the Italians had lost 2,303 men including Cattaneo. British and Greek ships rescued 55 officers and 850 men, and after the British had broadcast the location the Italian hospital ship Gradisca was able to locate and recover another 13 officers and 147 men.
Thus the Italians wholly failed in their attempt to destroy the AG.9 convoy from Egypt to Greece, and the GA.8 convoy from Greece to Egypt. After its defeat in the Battle of Cape Matapan, the Italian navy never ventured again into the eastern Mediterranean, effectively conceding this theatre to the Mediterranean Fleet, and lost all faith in German promises to provide air protection for their fleet.