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Battle of Matapan
by Marc De Angelis
Eloquently expressing how, for the Italians, that episode was the worst naval defeat in the history of the Regia Marina, the journalist Gianni Rocca, in his book Fucilate gli Ammiragli (Shoot the Admirals), called it "Caporetto at sea", referring to the Italian Army's catastrophic First World War rout. More than 2,300 died at Matapan, with 800 men taken prisoner, a battleship damaged, three heavy cruisers and two destroyers sunk; all with a desolate lack of positive results to show for it. Not even the British air attack at Taranto had extracted such a fearsome toll. The doomed ships arrived at their unexpected night encounter at the end of a long chain of errors made up of delays, omissions, faulty assessments and anomalies. Although many were of relatively small import, added together and sparked by chance they had a devastating effect. It is therefore logical to ask whether the defeat might have been avoided if only one or two of the many things that went wrong had instead gone right.
It is the very attempt to answer this question that brings out the paradoxical aspect of Matapan. When one focuses strictly on the events of the 28th and 29th of March, 1941, one generally reaches the conclusion that the tragedy could have definitely been avoided, or at least greatly alleviated. However, when a broader view is taken, it is almost impossible not to see how its seeds had been sown both in the days immediately preceding the operation and, more importantly, many years before. Stating the paradox in more explicit terms, if on the one hand the tactical and judgment errors made as the operation unfolded were avoidable, the way the operation itself was conceived and, more in general, the fallacies in the Regia Marina's doctrine and war planning had long before and irreversibly compromised the fleet's effectiveness as an instrument of war, paving the way to the debacle. Thus, from this point of view, the lesson taught by Matapan is as pertinent today as it was in 1941: a Navy based on yesterday's employment criteria cannot win today.
In the foreword to Roskill's Matapan: Two Fleets Surprised, Admiral Cunningham, who commanded the British battle fleet at Matapan, had this to say about the Italians:
While their fighting techniques were hopelessly outdated - roughly equivalent to our own during the First World War - their individual deeds were, in some cases, very gallant. In his essential, unadorned prose, the British Admiral went right to the heart of his adversary's fundamental problem. Undoubtedly, the Italians lacked many elements that could have made their Navy more effective: carrier borne aircraft, radar, active sonar, flashless powder, a sufficient supply of fuel and raw materials, and so on. But on the other hand - and far more importantly - they lacked ideas. More specifically, they lacked the will, the courage, and in some cases the means to put them in practice.
To avoid misunderstandings, it must be stated clearly that there was no lack of intelligent and farsighted men in the Regia Marina; but all too often they went unheeded, or heeded only half-heartedly. In the Thirties, in fact, a rudimentary active sonar had already been built in Italy, the basic principle of radar operation was definitely known there, and nearly all Italian naval officers agreed on the need for aircraft carriers. So the basic elements needed to close, at least in part, the technological gap between the Regia Marina and the Royal Navy were in place. Yet, not only did the construction of ships of debatable usefulness continue, but performance parameters that in practice turned out to be irrelevant were emphasized to the detriment of those that could really have enhanced the ships' effectiveness. Thus, for instance, hull protection was sacrificed for the sake of speed, and firing rate was sacrificed for the sake of increasing projectile range. Such choices were clearly driven by a narrow, antiquated notion that ships would be employed alone against other ships instead of being integrated with air power. And yet in Italy the possibility of using aircraft as torpedo bombers had been explored as early as the Twenties! The project got shelved because no one was able to see beyond the technological hurdles which needed to overcome to go from the idea to practical results. With very few exceptions, the most notable being the well known mezzi díassalto, many other budding innovations requiring additional development met the same end before they could bear fruit.
Admiral Da Zara, in his book Pelle díAmmiraglio (Admiral's Skin) recounts in clearly frustrated tones that, in his view, the Regia Marina would have been better off trying to be the strongest of the second-tier Navies instead of the weakest of the first-tier ones. In other words, the Admiral believed that trying to compete in terms of capital ships against nations whose industrial potential far exceeded Italy's was ultimately self-defeating. It would have been better, therefore, to devote available resources to the development of innovative and promising tactics and weapons rather than applying old fashioned criteria with no hope of producing more and better materiel than the likely adversaries. Yet this was in fact the route taken by the Regia Marina, which laid out its construction program following the dubious criterion of naval parity with France. Thus, when the "hour of irrevocable decisions" came, a fleet conceived to fight a small, 1916 style, Jutland-like engagement in the Mediterranean found itself instead bogged down in a protracted, wearisome convoy battle, for which it was neither trained nor equipped.
Matapan must be re-examined in this light, because the factors listed in the preceding paragraphs, without directly influencing its outcome, prepared the way for it. Understandably, the first authors to write about the subject focused mostly on the more proximate causes of the defeat. Subsequently, the importance of contingent effects whose existence was revealed only later was first overestimated and then reconsidered. This was the case for radar shortly after the battle, for code breaking during the Seventies, and for the evidence collected by Mattesini in Il Giallo di Matapan, Revisione di Giudizi (The Matapan Mystery: Revised Judgments), which belies or in any case sheds a different light on Admirals Iachino's and Fioravanzo's writings, in the Eighties. The many pieces of the Matapan puzzle offer endless temptations to get lost in the details, and analyzing all such details, while interesting, would be impossible: better to observe the overall view from a safer distance.
In a nutshell, the story of Matapan is simply the story of six ships that, unaware of the nearby presence of the enemy battle fleet, sailed on to meet their doom in the darkness of a March night. Their presence in the waters south of Greece was the result of a wrong decision: almost certainly the most egregious, but definitely not the only one made in the course of an ambitious operation undertaken by the Italian fleet. As we shall see, the operation was flawed not only because of the deficiencies in its preparation, but also by the fact that, just a few hours after its start, some of its premises were in doubt and its objectives had vanished.
Translation by Sebastian De Angelis
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