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Action off Calabria

by Cristiano D'Adamo

The Warspite opened fire against the Da Darbiano and the Di Giussano which, according to the British, were attempting a sortie against the Eagle and the damaged Gloucester. The Eagle and the Gloucester, along with a few destroyers, were left about 10 miles behind so that they would be properly protected. The Eagle did not have sufficient armor and was therefore very exposed. Furthermore, an aircraft carrier did not have any practical use during a ballistic exchange. The Gloucester, on the other hand, had been badly damaged by an aerial attack, which had devastated the bridge killing her captain and many officers. Admirably, the ship was been governed from her emergency station.

Once again, the British salvos were accurate, but did not score any hits. It is during this phase that the Warspite first complete a full loop and then a large S, thus allowing for the slower Malaya to catch up. The much slower Royal Sovereign will instead never be able to actively participate. Still, if Campioni had decided to continue fighting, the Royal Sovereign would have entered the picture within minutes and the Italian battle group would have been badly overpowered.

At around 15:23, following the cruiser action, the two Italian battleships and the heavy cruisers had changed course pointing decisively against the British capital ships. The Italians launched a RO 43 from the Eugenio di Savoia that was, shortly after, followed by a Sea Gladiator flown by the Eagle to oppose it. This British plane was the only fighter available on the aircraft carrier. Immediately after, the Warspite launched her hydroplane, which was to assist with the firing control. At around 15:45, and through 15:52, the destroyer screen around the Warspite clear out moving to the starboard of the battleship (3).

At 15:52 the Cesare finally opened fire against the Warspite at a range of 26,400 meters. The Italian followed a capital ruled learned from the reports following the battle of the Jutlund and each battleship was assigned a single target. The Cesare would engage the Warspite while the Cavour would aim at the incoming Malaya and eventually the Royal Sovereign. Following the battle, many would critique this strategy claiming that a combined fire from both Italian battleships against the Warspite would have had a better chance of scoring a hit. Unfortunately, these critics forget that during a combined action it is difficult for the firing control personnel to identify their own shells and therefore make the necessary adjustment.

At 15:53 the Warspite began firing without realizing that only the Cesare was engaging her. Fire was split in what is commonly known as volley firing with the aft turrets trained at the Cesare and the stern ones at the Cavour. During this exchange a "long" shot from the Cesare overshot the Warspite and landed (in the water, of course…) near the destroyers Hareward and Decoy, causing some minor damage. These fortuitous hits were also confirmed by Cunningham, but the fact that repair work was not completed until the end of August might suggest that damage might have been a bit more than just "minor".

At 15:54 the Malaya also opened fire and kept it on until 15:58. Her distance was too great to reach the target but still it was giving the Italians the impression that she was attacking the Cesare. Campioni hoped that the 203mm guns of the Italian heavy cruisers could assist, but they were not yet in formation. Since Admiral Palladini, the commander of the cruiser group, was aboard the last cruiser in the formation, Admiral Cattaneo, on the leading Pola, commanded the action.

At 15:55 the Trento opened fire against the Warspite, firing three salvoes. The Bolzano could not join her since she was already engaging Towey’s cruisers which were returning to the scene. At 15:59 two shells from the Cesare were clearly seen fall near the Warspite. In 1948 Cunningham would confirm it judging the distance at about two "cables"; this is a very old unit of measurement, which correspond to about 360 meters. Some historians have placed the hits much closer.

Immediately afterward, a 381-mm shell from the Warspite found its target hitting the aft stack of the Cesare and then landing on her deck. Fortunately for the Italians, the British projectile failed to work properly exploding against the thin metal of the stack instead of the much thicker deck as it should have. Damage was immediate. Shrapnel from the shell causes several fires and the ready-use stowage of the nearby 37mm gun blew up. About two dozen sailors lay dead; many were wounded. The turbo fans sucked the thick smoke down into the engine room causing four out of eight boilers to be shut down. Speed decreased to 25 knots and within two minutes was down to 20 to then leveling at 18. Electrical power was lost to the entire ship for about 30 seconds. The Cavour, which was about 800 meters behind quickly reached her sister ship.
The damage was actually less than immediately feared. The ship had retained all of her fighting capabilities, but it had lost speed which, would soon after be restored with the activation of two of the four boilers. From here on, the Italian and British records are quite contradictory. The Australian records seem to confirm the Italian theory that both the Cesare and the Warspite disengaged almost at the same time. As a matter of fact, one minute after the hit, the Warspite altered course to port side in a tight turn, which decreased speed from 24.5 knots down to 17. The maneuver was immediately detected by the Italian range finders, and by the RO 43 launched by the Da Barbiano. This sudden change of course caused the British guns to be temporarily silenced and the last salvo was fired by the aft upper turret at about 16:04 (16:03 according to the Italians).

The Malaya continued firing, but realizing that her shells were falling over 2,700 meters short to their target, she also changed course and rejoined formation. At 16:01 Campioni ordered a change of course, which took place two minutes later. Here the interpretation could not be wider; Cunningham called it a retreat while Campioni claims that he was executing a textbook maneuver allowing for the intervention of the torpedo launchers (destroyers). The smoke screen, which Cunningham stated came from the Italian cruisers defending the crippled battleships, was instead being generated by the Italian destroyers which were preparing for the attack. This is a well-established technique, which the British so brilliantly employed in the Second Battle of Sirte. The idea is to create a wall of smoke from which, suddenly, the destroyers would appear at high speed to launch their torpedoes. The smoke seen by Cunningham is the one generated by C.F. Amleto Baldo’s group, which included the destroyers Saetta and Freccia.
Probably, considering that between 15:52 and 15:58 the Cesare had properly found her target and that her shots were getting dangerously closed to the Warspite, Cunninghman had decided to disengage or wait for the Royal Sovereign. The sinking of the Warspite, or any serious damage to her, so far from home would have placed the whole fleet in the most dire straits.

The battle between the capital ships was over; and only seven minutes had passed since the beginning of the exchange!

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