This is the second part in MHM’s special feature. In the first part (read here), Graham Goodlad analyses the achievements of Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham.
The Battle of Cape Matapan, fought off the southern tip of Greece, was Admiral Andrew Cunningham’s most significant victory, and also the last major fleet battle in the history of the Royal Navy. It was not just that British forces had an outstanding commander. They possessed clear advantages over their Italian opponents in naval aviation, radar, and intelligence, too. They took the fascist navy, or Regia Marina, largely by surprise and inflicted a stinging defeat. Matapan effectively ended Benito Mussolini’s dream of turning the Mediterranean into an ‘Italian lake’.
In spite of the damage that it suffered at Taranto in November 1940, Italian sea power was far from negligible. The heavily armoured battleship Vittorio Veneto displaced more than 35,000 tons. Bristling with nine 15-inch guns, 12 smaller armaments and an array of anti-aircraft weaponry, it could make 30 knots, which made it some 6 knots faster than any of the battleships deployed by the Royal Navy at Matapan. Accompanying it were six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and 13 destroyers. But the Italian fleet had some serious disadvantages. Mussolini had been reckless in taking his country to war in an unprepared state. The navy really needed two more years to make good its technical deficiencies, especially its lack of radar.
Shortage of fuel was another serious limitation – a consequence of the regime’s over-confident belief that Italy would fight a war lasting no more than ten months. At the start of the conflict in June 1940, Italy’s oil reserves totalled 1,800,000 tons. By February 1941, 1,000,000 tons had been consumed, prompting Mussolini to give orders to stretch the remaining reserves to last 20 months.
A further critical weakness was Italy’s failure to build an aircraft carrier. In peacetime, a complacent political leader- ship had neglected the development of naval air power. Mussolini usually sided with the air-force chiefs in their perpetual rivalry with the Regia Marina. He accepted the unfounded argument that the homeland offered an adequate base for launching aircraft over the Mediterranean. Too late, following the defeat at Matapan, the dictator ordered the conversion of two liners to aircraft carriers. Neither platform would be complete by the time his regime was toppled two years later.
By contrast, the British deployed the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable to the Mediterranean shortly before Matapan, after its sister-ship Illustrious had been damaged by German dive-bombers. Inaccurate reports by Luftwaffe pilots had persuaded the Italians that only one British battleship, HMS Valiant, remained fully operational. But, in fact, the Royal Navy was also fielding Cunningham’s flagship, HMS Warspite, and HMS Barham. These three Queen Elizabeth-class battleships (see box on p.44), all of World War I vintage, had been modernised to differing degrees in the 1930s; Valiant had also been equipped with radar. They were accompanied by nine destroyers. In addition, Cunningham had access to four light cruisers and four destroyers, based at Piraeus in Greece, under the command of Vice-Admiral Henry Pridham-Wippell.
The Italian fleet fought the Battle of Cape Matapan under pressure from its German allies – to a growing extent, its overlords. Mussolini’s assault on Greece had gone badly, and in March 1941 Germany was preparing to intervene there. Lacking sufficient naval forces of their own, the Germans asked the Italians to cut the vital sea route between the British base at Alexandria and the Greek mainland. In return, the Luftwaffe’s 10th Air Corps would provide them with air cover. The Germans suspected that the Italians were not pulling their weight, and they may have had some grounds for this belief. It seems likely that Mussolini was trying to save as much of his fleet as possible, to strengthen his bargaining hand in any post-war negotiations.
In spite of their misgivings, the Italians felt that they had no alternative but to accept the demands of their Axis partner. Fleet commander Admiral Angelo Iachino left port on 26 March with an expectation that he would at least have the advantage of surprise. In this belief, he was to be proved fatally wrong. A Short Sunderland flying boat sighted the Italian ships 75 miles east of Sicily, heading towards Crete. Code-breakers at Bletchley Park had already decrypted crucial Luftwaffe and Regia Marina signals, alerting Cunningham to the fact that the Italians were on the move. Although the Ultra intelligence was incomplete, it was enough to prompt Cunningham to order Pridham-Wippell to rendezvous with him, south of Crete, early on 28 March. To deceive any watching spies, the commander-in-chief went ashore in Alexandria with a suitcase, giving the impression that he was staying there over- night. He rejoined his ship under cover of darkness before putting out to sea.
Iachino now knew that his cover was blown, but the politics of the Rome–Berlin relationship made it virtually impossible to abandon the operation. Another disadvantage for the Italians was the cumbersome nature of their command structure. Their admiral had to request air support from naval command headquarters, which in turn relayed the message to the supreme command for approval. By contrast, the decentralised British system enabled Cunningham to make his own tactical decisions without reference to higher authority.
Despite repeated pleas, Iachino never secured the air cover that he had hoped for. In a sorry admission, Axis air headquarters on Sicily declined to undertake support missions ‘because there was a danger that its planes might accidentally attack the Italian ships, since the position of the British ships was not known’. Iachino was at a disadvantage when it came to aerial reconnaissance as well. Whereas British ships could retrieve their spotter aircraft from the water, the Italian IMAM Ro.43 floatplane aboard the Vittorio Veneto had to land at a shore base after completing its mission.
Early on 28 March, an Italian heavy cruiser division under Vice-Admiral Luigi Sansonetti sighted Pridham-Wippell’s slower-moving force. The British cruisers’ 6-inch guns were a poor match for the 8-inch weapons of their opponents. Recognising that he was outgunned, Pridham-Wippell tried to lure the Italians within range of Cunningham’s battleships. The cruisers gave chase until Iachino, sensing a trap closing, recalled them. The British then took on the role of pursuers, while taking care not to come within range of the enemy’s guns. But then they found themselves caught between Sansonetti’s cruisers and Iachino’s battle fleet, headed by the Vittorio Veneto.
At this moment of maximum peril for the British, their aerial superiority came into play. Six Fairey Albacore biplane torpedo bombers – slightly faster and with a heavier bombload than the classic Swordfish – took off from HMS Formidable in a bid to slow down the Italian ships. A first attempt failed to land a hit, but a second strike was more successful. With the Italian anti-aircraft gunners distracted by high-level attack from RAF Blenheim medium bombers, the Fleet Air Arm planes came in at low level. A direct torpedo strike on the Vittorio Veneto from a distance of 1,000 yards let in thousands of tons of water, causing it to stop dead. The ship was able to restart its engines, but the flooding severely reduced its speed. Too late, German Me 109 fighters arrived to offer support, staying for less than an hour before they had to return to base to refuel.
Combat at night
In the attack, the lead Albacore was shot down by anti-aircraft fire from the Vittorio Veneto. Remarkably, the pilot, Lieutenant-Commander Dalyell-Stead, and his two crew members were to be the only British losses of the entire battle. From the battleship’s bridge, Iachino saw the biplane come under concentrated fire as it tried to gain height after launching its torpedo. Later he recalled that it ‘must have been hit many times as the machine was seen to stagger and then dip violently [and] fall at last into the sea about 1,000 metres to starboard of the Veneto. The bold pilot perished without having the satisfaction of seeing the successful result of his shot.’
Albacore and Swordfish pilots launched an attempt to finish off the Vittorio Veneto as dusk fell. Amid a heavy barrage, in fading light with searchlights flashing in all directions, it was difficult to pick anything out clearly below. Instead, the attacking aircraft hit the heavy cruiser Pola, knocking out its main engines and electrical power, and disabling its gun turrets.
Cunningham ordered pursuit as night fell – a risky strategy, in the opinion of some of his staff, whom he reportedly dismissed in typically forthright language as ‘a pack of yellow-livered skunks’. The admiral judged that it was better to press home the attack at once rather than to wait for daylight, which would invite attack from land-based Luftwaffe aircraft on Sicily.
The radar-equipped cruiser Ajax now picked up three unknown ships. Shortly afterwards, there came a report of a large stationary ship just 20 miles away. Cunningham’s hopes were high that this was the Vittorio Veneto. In fact, the British had come across two Italian cruisers, the Fiume and Zara, and their destroyer escort, heading to protect the stricken Pola.
The whole episode was a perfect illustration of Clausewitz’s famous dictum about the ‘fog of war’. It was not merely that the British were unsure of the opposition they faced. On the Italian side, in the absence of radar, Iachino believed that his ships were at least 170 miles from the Royal Navy’s battleships – whereas they were, in fact, just 45 miles away.
The Queen Elizabeth-class battleships
HMS Warspite, Valiant, and Barham were examples of the Queen Elizabeth-class of so-called ‘super-dreadnoughts’, laid down just before World War I. Each was more than 600ft long, displacing more than 32,000 tons. Capable of 24 knots, and armed with eight 15-inch guns, they were the most advanced fighting ships of the time. By 1939, however, despite being refitted, they were beginning to show their age. Barham was sunk by a U-boat off the Egyptian coast, eight months after Matapan. Valiant and Warspite went on to take part in the Battle of Crete, also seeing action in the Far East and in support of the 1943 Italian campaign. Warspite, nicknamed the ‘grand old lady’ by Admiral Cunningham while serving as his flagship, bombarded German positions in the Normandy landings. Both it and Valiant were scrapped after the war.
Denouement after dark
At the time, standard Admiralty instructions were that a battle fleet should turn away rather than risk an encounter with enemy destroyers at night. This was to avoid the danger of torpedo attack. Yet Cunningham, without knowing what kind of ships might be in the vicinity, ordered the attack regardless.
At a range of less than 4,000 yards, Warspite’s six 15-inch guns trained on the enemy ships. Cunningham later wrote that ‘never in my whole life have I experienced a more thrilling moment’. The roar of Warspite’s guns was followed by those of Valiant and Barham, while searchlights illuminated the scene. One of these lights was manned by a 19-year-old Prince Philip (later the Duke of Edinburgh) aboard Valiant.
In the words of one eye-witness, Fiume ‘dissolved into a mane of shearing flame. She heeled, stricken under the onslaught, transformed in a few awful seconds from a proud fighting ship to a twisted tangle of iron.’ Zara was hit too, along with Pola and two destroyers, Alfieri and Carducci. Cunningham later recalled seeing ‘whole turrets and masses of other heavy debris whirling through the air’, leaving the ships ‘nothing but glowing torches on fire from stem to stern’. The whole action had taken less than ten minutes.
Captain Philip Mack, commanding the 14th Destroyer Flotilla, was sent to finish off the ailing Zara and Pola. The latter’s crew presented a sorry sight. Some had abandoned ship but then climbed aboard again after realising that the Pola was not sinking. A British boarding party found them either inebriated with looted drink or overcome by fumes from the crippled engine room. After the survivors had been rescued, torpedoes from the destroyers Nubian and Jervis administered the coup de grâce in the early hours of 29 March.
The Italians had failed to make significant advances in night-fighting since the First World War. Unlike the British, they had failed to develop the use of searchlights to enable the steady illumination of a target. As Iachino later ruefully acknowledged, in close-quarters night combat, ‘whoever succeeds in firing first is certain of success, and also has every probability of destroying the enemy without himself sustaining serious damage’.
Cunningham was to describe the action as ‘more like murder than anything else’. But he was disappointed that, even after the torpedo strike cut the battleship’s speed, the Vittorio Veneto was able to escape. The Italian vessel reached Taranto, where repairs kept it out of action for the next five months.
In an unexpectedly sympathetic interview a few days after the battle, Mussolini confided that Iachino had been assigned a thankless task for political reasons. He also acknowledged – far too late – that the navy had failed through lack of cooperation from the Axis air forces, leaving his ships ‘like a blind giant who is suddenly attacked by a number of men with good eyesight and armed with dangerous weapons’.
Matapan was a remarkably one-sided encounter. The Italians lost three cruisers, two destroyers, and 2,400 sailors; the British, just one aircraft and its crew. The battle showed the tremendous power of even a small number of slow-flying, carrier-based torpedo planes, used against vulnerable surface ships. It also underlined the importance of radar and intelligence-gathering in modern warfare.
Cunningham’s insistence on pursuing the enemy fleet at night was a tribute to his skill and daring as a commander. In the run-up to the battle, in gunnery officer Geoffrey Barnard’s vivid phrase, he was like a ‘caged tiger’, pacing the bridge and focused single-mindedly on getting to grips with the enemy. His leadership was a vital factor contributing to the victory.
It was not, of course, the end of the naval war in the Mediterranean. Two months later, Cunningham found himself covering the evacuation of Greece and Crete, one of the greatest reverses of the Allied war effort. Yet Matapan was still a significant victory. It meant that the Italian surface fleet was confined to coastal waters, unable to disrupt the naval rescue operation. Looking further ahead, the Germans and Italians now had to rely on aerial and submarine attacks as they struggled for control of the Mediterranean. Matapan also made it much easier to supply British land forces in North Africa. Cunningham’s success played a crucial part in making possible the final defeat of Axis forces in the Middle East. •
Graham Goodlad teaches History and Politics and is a regular contributor to MHM.
Correlli Barnett (1991) Engage the Enemy More Closely: the Royal Navy in the Second World War (Hodder and Stoughton).
Mark Simmons (2011) The Battle of Matapan 1941: the Trafalgar of the Mediterranean (Spellmount)