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Battle of Matapan

by Marc De Angelis

After their meeting, Campioni and Riccardi decided to make some slight changes to the operating plan. The information they had received indicated that British shipping traffic to Greece had been halted; perhaps hoping that they would still find game to be hunted South of Crete, the two admirals decided to reroute the Zara group, originally ordered to take position North of the island, and have it meet with the rest of the force, more to the South. This change, made at the last possible second, was at best a compromise solution and it probably did nothing to improve the likelihood of Italian success. However, one can hardly say that it was actually harmful, since both the waters to the North and to the South of Crete were devoid of merchant shipping.

The Italian ships had left their homeports in groups, with the Trieste squadron (Admiral Sansonetti) in the van, the Zara squadron (Admiral Cattaneo) to the rear, and the Vittorio Veneto, flagship for the whole force, more or less in the center of this long line of ships spread out over tens of square miles of Central Mediterranean. The haze and the south-easterly scirocco wind made station keeping difficult, but all escorting destroyers, i.e. the ships with the worst sea-keeping capabilities, were able to maintain the planned speed. When Sansonetti’s ships were detected by the reconnaissance plane, ordered course was 134, i.e. more southerly than necessary, because Iachino wanted the enemy to believe, if he sighted his ships, that they were steaming towards Libya. However, the British aircrew reported that the cruisers’ course was 120, which would have indicated a more easterly destination, Crete being the logical guess. The small error in the enemy aviators’ estimation, therefore, effectively defeated Iachino’s attempt to deceive reconnaissance planes, and in fact confirmed Cunningham’s suspicions. The Italian admiral was informed promptly of the text of the radio signal transmitted by the aircraft, thanks to the work of Commander Porta’s cryptographers, whom he had wisely brought along aboard the Veneto. Had he left the matter to Supermarina, he wouldn’t have found out until several hours later.

Cunnigham’s preparations had been thorough and, as many authoritative writers observe, they had been aided by the more streamlined liaison between the various forces available to him which - being far quicker and more direct than those employed between the Italian commands - always made Air Force-Navy cooperation also much more effective. In addition to a number of aircraft available in airports in Crete, Greece, and North Africa, Cunninghan also had roughly thirty aircraft on the carrier HMS Formidable. Overall, although the number of available aircraft was less than overwhelming, British superiority stemmed from the far greater flexibility they enjoyed in deploying their forces. As we shall see, Cunningham was always able to issue orders to his aircraft in near real time, whereas Iachino’s requests had to go through Supermarina, which had to pass them on to Superaereo (the Italian Air Force High Command), which in turn would transmit them to local commands. The inevitable bureaucratic delays and the time taken up by encryption and decryption meant that such a process could take several hours.

In terms of ships, Cunningham commanded directly the Alexandria-based battle group (the flagship HMS Warspite, HMS Valiant, and HMS Barham), which were to steam with the previously mentioned Formidable, plus their escorting destroyers. It should be noted that, among the battleships, only Valiant was fitted with radar. Commanded by Admiral Pridham-Wippell and based in Piraeus, there were also four light (6 inch) cruisers with their own escorting destroyers. Cunningham ordered these ships to get underway early, and by the morning of the 28th they were positioned about eighty miles West of the main force, serving as the British vanguard during the operation. Their contribution to the British success was important, although - at least in the second part of the operation - their employment was not quite brilliant. To complete the picture, one should also mention three British destroyers, tasked with patrolling the Kythera Channel area, and several small Greek units which, because of a misunderstanding, ended up being employed only in rescue operations the morning of 29th of March.

The British battleships left Alexandria after sunset on March 27, to avoid having their departure promptly reported by spies. Iachino had taken similar precautions when Vittorio Veneto had sailed from Naples, but Cunningham was luckier: not only did no one report his departure, but the following day no reconnaissance aircraft overflew the harbor. As a result, throughout March 28 the Italians could never be quite sure of the enemy force’s order of battle, even after they had ascertained that the British were in fact underway. And that is not all: although one of the five Italian submarines in the area had detected the noise of the ships as they left Alexandria, no report was forwarded to Supermarina[1]. Cunningham did, however, hit a snag when the Warspite silted up her condensers on a mud bank while maneuvering out to get underway. The upshot was a temporary slowdown on the following morning, when the Admiral ordered the force to proceed at flank speed. The problem knocked a couple of knots off the battleship’s top speed, which would otherwise have been twenty-four knots for Warspite and Queen Elisabeth and twenty-two for Barham. However - as we shall see – the contretemps contributed to disperse the British formation. This, in turn, made it more difficult for Axis reconnaissance to attain a correct estimate of the force’s order of battle during most of the morning and the early afternoon hours of March 28.

In contrast with the enemy, communications between Axis aircraft and the Italian ships was, as stated, quite laborious, but on March 27 it was practically non existent because the haze prevented the successful completion of an exercise whereby the ships were be overflown. If successful, such a measure, while no more than an afterthought, would have at least kept alive the crews’ hope of receiving a modicum of air protection during the following day. Iachino, therefore, had every right to worry about its failure. The night between March 27 and 28 was, in any case, rather calm because the ships’ relatively high speed made them a difficult target for submarines and enemy reconnaissance was not yet equipped with the means required to be effective at night (it would be so equipped a few months later, and Axis merchant traffic to and from Libya would resent from this improvement).

Initial contact between the two forces occurred shortly after dawn on the 28th, when the float plane launched by the Italian flagship detected Pridham-Wippell’s ships just as Iachino was about to confirm the order for his units to turn back if no sighting were made by 0700. Shortly afterwards, two of the aircraft sent aloft by the British reported the presence of Italian ships. Initially, Pridham-Wippell thought that at least one of them had mistaken his own ships for the enemy’s. Later in the day, Iachino was to have similar doubts, but he could not benefit from the confirmation obtained by his British counterpart, whose doubts had to vanish when Sansonetti’s cruisers started to shoot at him.

Both cruiser groups had been tasked with luring the enemy into following them towards the main force, which in Sansonetti’s case was very close, whereas for Pridham-Wippell it was at least seventy miles away. A quick technical comparison between the opposing forces, a posteriori, would indicate that, had he allowed the distance between the opposing squadrons to fall within his guns’ effective range, Pridham-Wippell would have enjoyed fairly good odds of defeating Sansonetti[2]. Had he done so, however, his ships would then have had to deal with Iachino. Given his available data on the enemy ships, the British Admiral believed he was outgunned; in addition, his orders were to steam towards Cunningham’s main force and not to close the Italians. Sansonetti’s fruitless shoot-out went on until Iachino, noting that Italian fire was ineffective and that, rather than luring the enemy westward, his own ships were steaming too far to the East, ordered him to disengage. The action, which went down in history as the first phase of the Action off Gaudo, thus broke off a few minutes before 0900.

Almost simultaneously with the Italian ships’ course reversal, Iachino received a radio message from a reconnaissance aircraft belonging to the Italian Aegean Command, which reported that a large enemy force was at sea. The position indicated by the sighting, made over an hour previously, was close enough to that held by the Italian ships at the same time to make the mistake seem obvious. Actually, Cunningham’s force at that time was about ninety miles Southeast of the Veneto and Iachino was unaware of its presence, much as the British were unaware of the Italian battleship’s presence. In any case, Pridham-Wippell started to tag Sansonetti, maintaining his distance at the extreme range of visibility.

Iachino had undertaken the operation with offensive purposes, but had found no targets, except for those very cruisers which were now a few miles off his stern. After due consideration, the Italian admiral thus decided to attempt an ambush, turning his battleship to the South while Sansonetti reversed course to catch the British in the crossfire. The maneuver was executed well, but it failed because Pridham-Wippell was actually more to the North than Iachino thought, so the Vittorio Veneto’s fire did not cross that of the Trieste group as these cruisers reached the scene when the British were already in flight. Pridham-Wippell had some tense moments, but he was saved by the timely arrival of the Formidable’s torpedo bombers. While their attack failed, the planes forced the Veneto to turn, allowing the British to escape beyond the range of the Italians’ large-caliber guns. Around 1140, Iachino, who had neither sighted nor been told of any merchant traffic, having lost all hope of closing Pridham-Wippell and figuring that his destroyers’ fuel reserve did not allow them to steam much longer in the area, turned his ships homeward for the second time.

At that point, Cunningham was about seventy miles Southeast of the Italian flagship and, knowing that the enemy was faster, could only hope to force a fight if he would somehow succeed in slowing the Italians down. The only way to achieve this was through an air attack, and in fact, starting at noon, the Italian ships were attacked repeatedly, both by land-based and carrier-borne aircraft. It was in the course of these attacks, two of which - as we shall see - were successful, that one of the many failings in the Italian plan was exposed: no air escort had been planned for the afternoon of that fateful March 28[3].


[1] Apparently, not even the submarines’ captains had been told the details of the operation, so that the otherwise brilliant Lieutenant Mario Arillo did not consider such noise important enough to warrant an immediate transmission to Rome.
[2] This assessment, which in an academic discussion would definitely meet with many dissenting opinions, is based on the following factors: 1) although the Italian ships’ guns had larger caliber and longer range, their firing rate was slower than the enemy’s guns, which were also more numerous (36 six-inch British guns to the Italians’ 24 eight-inch guns); 2) Trento class cruisers had obsolescent fire control systems which, coupled with the known and endemic longitudinal dispersion of the salvos, made for very inaccurate shooting. In fact, during the Gaudo action, all Italian salvos fell short because target range was underestimated; 3) the Italian cruisers’ speed, superior on paper, was in practice equal or even lower than the British ships’, and in fact when the British increased speed, Sansonetti was not able to close them; 4) structurally, Trento class cruisers incorporated outdated technical solutions, making them more vulnerable than armor thickness (already marginal in itself) would lead to believe.
[3] As Mattesini rightly observes, although it was a severe shortcoming, one should also keep in mind that, in most cases, the Italian ships were attacked beyond both the Italian and the German fighters’ range, which further highlights the organizational failures of the operation and the technical failings of the Italian war-fighting apparatus.

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