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Action off Calabria

by Cristiano D'Adamo

At 15:59 on July 9th 1940 an Italian Lieutenant aboard the destroyer Freccia, which was just ahead of the battleships Cesare and Cavour, at that time engaged in an exchange of salvos with the Warspite, saw several Italian shells fall near the British battleships. Suddenly, a plume of blue smoke was seen rising from the British ship. Other personnel, including some aboard the Cesare and on the highest viewing point, confirmed the same sighting. The official British records, published after the war in the London Gazette, do not report any hit aboard the famous battleship. To be precise, the actual wording used by Admiral A.B. Cunningham varied from the original report to his, later published, memoirs. The complete denial of any damage claimed by the report was later replaced by a most vague "heeling over to check damage". In fact, when the Warspite entered the port of Alexandria with a noticeable inclination, most thought that it had been damaged. In reality, according to Cunningham, the crew was only checking for eventual damage under the waterline.

Aboard various Italian ships there were many journalists whose professional integrity can be hardly challenged. Among them the famous Alberto Mondadori and Vero Roberti, not to mention Paolo Monelli, Aldo Paretti and Alfio Capellini. In one way or another, they all confirmed the sighting of the mysterious hit. Following the trail of these discrepancies between the official Italian reports and the one published by the British, the author Enrico Cernuschi conducted a lengthy research at the Public Record office in New Garden, England. His research, which lasted over five years, extended to the Australian record office and other sources.
A real clue was found in ADM199, "Wartime damages to ships: Reports 1939-1945". This is a large and poorly organized collection of wartime records, some of which are hand written, but mostly typed. The reports on the Warspite are missing and replaced by a typed page saying "Not available". Although the prescribed period for keeping these documents secret has long expired, it appears that the original will not make it back to the archive. This "absentia" confirms the theory presented by the author of a possible British cover up or better, a concerted effort to keep any damage suffered by the Royal Navy during the battle of Punta Stilo absolutely secret. As a matter of fact, it appears that the whole period 1940 through 1941 in the Mediterranean was systematically purged.

The reasons presented are plausible. The Royal Navy was under heavy political pressure to demonstrate its power in a decisive engagement against the much-vilified Regia Marina. This engagement was to destroy the Italian fleet and allow England to maintain control over the Mediterranean. Despite the bombastic announcement made by London after the battle, Cunningham’s desperate cry for more ships tells a very different story.

Still, continuing his research, Cernuschi discovered the minutes of a meeting held on August 7th, 1940 at the Admiralty with the purpose of discussing changes to the design of the battleships of the "Lyon" class following the lessons learned during "the recent action fought in the Mediterranean". During the meeting, presided by the Vice-Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Thomas S.V. Phillips, two important issues were discussed: the damage from shrapnel under the waterline and the performance of the ammunition depots for the smaller guns.
The damage caused by near misses under the waterline was the result of the different post-explosion trajectory patterns between aerial and naval shells. British ships were designed for protection from aerial bombs where the shrapnel tends to blast upward, while fragments of naval shells moved downward. Therefore, a near miss from a naval shell would inevitably spray a relatively large amount of shrapnel under the water line. Considering the absorbing factor provided by the water, to be effective, the near miss would have to be close enough. According to British reports, at times their ships were fully engulfed by towers of water.

Another topic of discussion was the damage caused by a 12.6" shell hitting the ship at a speed of about 4,000 feet per second. The shell had caused damage to the magazine of a twin-gun 102/45 model MK XIX. The only 12.6" guns used by the Italians during the battle were installed on the Cesare and Cavour, while the 102/45 was the secondary armament of the Warspite. This twin-barrel gun was mounted near the single funnel just behind the bridge. The only discrepancy is the model number: the Warspite had Mark VIII while the report refers to Mark XIX. One must assume that there was a typo, unless the damage was to the Malaya, since this ship had eight such guns. The report went on to confirm the efficiency of the magazine venting system, which allowed for the explosion to be properly released upward. These redesigned magazines had been installed in 1923 and allowed for the explosion of the shells contained in the area to blast through an appositely designed venting system.
Probably we will never know to what extent the British ships were damaged. It is sure that the repair facilities in Alexandria were kept quite busy, including the only available dry dock. Ultimately, the damage to the Cesare which, in writing as recent as Santoni’s "L’Italia in Guerra: Il primo anno – 1940"is still reported as very serious, was probably similar to that which was inflicted on the British by the Italians. We would have to conclude that the difference in the damage suffered by the two Navies was essentially minimal. Nevertheless, considering that Great Britain was the most powerful naval force in the world, one might want to provide the Regia Marina with more credit than what was so sparingly given by so many historians.

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