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Action off Calabria

by Cristiano D'Adamo


At 12:00 hours Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, while still 90 miles east of the Italian Fleet, decided to leave the slower Malaya, Royal Sovereign and Eagle behind while he set forth in the Warspite at 24 knots. At 11:45 and at 15:45 hours the Eagle launched 15 Swordfish in the hope of hitting the Italian battleships; both sorties failed to achieve a hit. At the same time, Admiral Tovey's cruisers spread 10 miles in front of Warspite and at 1510 hours the Neptune sighted the Italian fleet (1).

According to the 1948 "official" British report the battle began when, at 15:15, the four Italian heavy cruisers opened fire at a range of 21,500 meters against the 7th Cruiser Squadron of Admiral John Towey. The Italian report differs, claiming that the first shot came from the 152/50 guns of the British cruisers at around 15:17. Considering that the Cesare kept the Italian records and that communication between ships was not instant, we should consider that the British might be correct. Nevertheless, the battle had begun.

The Italian fleet followed a textbook firing succession using high explosive shells to straddle the enemy ships. Despite the extreme distance, which was at times past the maximum allowed range, the Italian found their range in about three minutes. At 15:05, the VII Division had turned to 70 degrees, decisively pointing against the British cruiser squadron. At 15:12, Cunningham ordered the 7th Squadron to change course to 350 degrees and by 15:20 distance between the two groups was down to a bit more than 20,000 meters.

The British cruisers fired at the VII Division and then at the oncoming IV Division, which included the light cruisers Da Barbiano and Di Giussano under the command of Admiral Alberto Marengo. The two Italian cruisers, mistaken by the British for the much feared "Zara" class heavy cruisers, received much of the attentions from the Australian cruiser Sydney and the British Orion. At the same time, Towey fired at the Italian destroyers of the IX Squadron, which was under the command of Lorenzo Dorsetti. The Italian destroyers were able to identify units behind the enemy cruisers and at the same time the Alfieri, Oriani, Gioberti and Carducci opened fire against the British cruisers. At 15:20 fire would cease and the destroyers would change course to reach their assigned tactical position.

During this first exchange, the British fire was not disperse, problem this always experience by the Regia Marina (2), but range was usually off. The British difficulty to accurately find range was an issue first noticed aboard the Espero during the action of June 28th. Between 15:22 and 15:23 the Italian fire became dangerously close to the British cruisers and Adm. John Towey decided to disengage. At this point a shell from the Garibaldi hit the Neptune causing damages to the catapult and the reconnaissance plane. At 15:12 even the IV Division began firing at a distance of about 24,100 meters. Here the British records talk of a hit against one of the Italian cruisers, which is not confirmed by the Italian records. The cruisers began drifting apart and at 15:30 fire ceased, ending the first part of the battle.


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