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Battle of Matapan

by Marc De Angelis

In the afternoon of March 28, British reconnaissance planes were more successful than the Axis’ in sighting the enemy. In particular, Cunningham’s trump card was an officer attached to his own staff: Lieutenant Commander Bolt. As an observer on the Warspite’s float plane, Bolt overflew the Italian ships for a long time, transmitting fairly accurate messages about the Italian force’s composition, course, and speed[1]. At this point, one may wonder why Iachino, who had several float planes available for reconnaissance, did not use them at this critical time. Perhaps, having convinced himself, based on his scanty information, that the British forces at sea were not sufficient in strength to imperil him, the admiral believed that a further reconnaissance flight could not have been very useful. In any case, as darkness approached, his attention was certainly turned to the enemy air attack, which took place much as expected.

At first, the aircraft kept their distance to stay outside the range of Italian AA batteries. Then, after sunset, they attacked from different directions to make escape maneuvers more difficult. Roskill, in the previously quoted book, praises the skill of the Italian captains who, in spite of the poor visibility and the understandable confusion brought about by the smoke screens and by the voluminous AA fire, were able to keep the tight formation Iachino had ordered. Although no aircraft were shot down, the use of searchlights and the high rate of fire caused considerable difficulty to the aviators’ aim. Nonetheless one of them - the last one to launch his weapon - succeeded in hitting the heavy cruiser Pola, and by 2000 the ship was dead in the water.

Several minutes went by before word of the torpedo hit reached Cattaneo, who commanded the ships of the First Cruiser Squadron, i.e. Zara, Pola, and Fiume, as well as the four destroyers of the Ninth Flotilla, (Alfieri, Carducci, Oriani, and Gioberti). Iachino found out even later, but just before receiving the disconcerting news he was given another, extremely important, report: a new set of radio intercept bearings put the enemy flagship a little over seventy miles Southeast of the Vittorio Veneto[2]. An exchange of messages then ensued between the Zara and the Veneto flag bridges; their texts and times of arrival show that signals got crossed in the attempt to obtain more detailed information about the stricken ship and to decide what to do, causing yet more confusion and delay. The gist of this flurry of messages leaves many open questions about Cattaneo’s train of thought, as he initially recommended sending two destroyers but then, once he found out that the Pola requested assistance and towing[3], requested permission to reverse course with the entire squadron, i.e. to do what Iachino had already ordered in a previous message which had not yet reached him. Whether Iachino’s staff generally agreed with the admiral’s decision is not certain, but at least an officer, the cryptographers’ leader Cdr. Porta, did express some misgivings. However, his arguments - which in truth were based more on his keen intuition than on objective facts - failed to convince his boss.

While Cattaneo was reversing course, Iachino sent him two messages: the first one contained the last position estimate of the British flagship received from Rome, the other one ordered his junior to abandon the Pola rather than engage superior forces. If the second message was almost redundant, since it did nothing more than restate the Regia Marina’s general operating principle, in the first one Iachino, adopting Supermarina’s style, merely passed data on to his subordinate without giving him any clues as to how the data should be interpreted. In any case, although Iachino was far from explicit, it would seem that he did at least have some creeping suspicions that things could turn out for the worse. Cattaneo’s behavior, by contrast, can only be justified if the admiral had not considered as likely any possibility of an unpleasant night encounter or in any case he was convinced that, like his own, British capital ships were incapable of fighting at night. This judgment is not consistent with the statements made by some of the Zara’s surviving officers, who said that the message containing the latest British position estimate caused grave concern on that ship. Whatever the case, based on the fact that Cattaneo steamed in line astern, with the cruisers in the van, and taking into account that the crews were not kept at their battle stations, it is truly difficult to reach any other conclusion.[4]. On the other hand, the moderate speed ordered, sixteen knots - later changed to twenty-two - is easier to justify because the destroyers were low on fuel[5]. In keeping that questionable formation, Cattaneo de facto gave up any possible contribution from his destroyers, the only ships the Regia Marina considered suitable for night fighting. Had he positioned them a couple of miles forward of the cruisers, as provided by the standard tactics of the time, a timely and forceful attack by the Ninth Flotilla might have sown enough confusion in the enemy force to delay it and thereby allow the cruisers to flee. Unless one accepts the hypothesis that Cattaneo had no expectation of an encounter with the British, therefore, the explanation for his actions - since the admiral and his entire staff perished - is destined forever to remain one of the missing pieces in the Matapan puzzle.

While the Italians were carrying out the ill-fated rescue mission, Cunningham, to improve his chances of reestablishing contact with the enemy, had sent ahead both Pridham-Wippell’s cruisers and a group of eight destroyers commanded by Captain Mack. This decision was partly driven by the fact that, after sunset, he had received no more reports on Iachino’s movements from scouting aircraft. Unbeknownst to Cunningham, Iachino had in fact changed course shortly after the last air attack. The report of the outcome of this attack, which claimed a probable hit on a Littorio class battleship, reached the British admiral after some delay. The uncertain tone of the report induced Cunningham to doubt the actual results achieved by the aviators.

So far, the graver, more obvious mistakes had been made by the Italians, who had also met with the more serious setbacks. Pridham-Wippell’s and Mack’s search missions, if they did not altogether restore the balance, were at least proof positive that the Royal Navy itself was not altogether infallible during that perilous night. The data Mack was given by Cunningham were off, especially in terms of the Italian’s speed, but also of their course, thanks to Iachino’s last turn. As a result, Mack ended up too far South and remained always astern of the Italians. On the other hand Pridham-Wippell, to avoid interfering with Mack’s action, chose a more northerly course, which prevented him from reaching the Italian ships. Additionally, every time the British admiral was on the verge of arranging his cruisers in a more effective disposition to search for the enemy, new or unexpected events took place, so the formation always remained relatively tight.

Two of Pridham-Wippell’s ships, Orion and Ajax, were fitted with radar, although Orion’s was quite rudimentary and not very useful. In any case, shortly after their detachment from the main body, one of these radar-equipped units detected a ship dead in the water, identifying her incorrectly as the Vittorio Veneto. Since Pridham-Wippell’s orders were to reestablish contact with the Italian’s main body[6], the admiral reported that ship’s position, leaving the task of positively identifying her and finishing her off to others; however, Mack never received the report, so that the ship, which in fact was the Pola, remained afloat, powerless but undisturbed in spite of the time lost by the British cruisers to try to detect her visually - which they ultimately failed to do. Shortly thereafter, other ships were detected by radar but never visually; Pridham-Wippell identified them as Mack’s destroyers. As we have seen, one of the outcomes of this series of wrong calls was Pridham-Wippell’s excursion farther northward; the other one was that Cattaneo’s ships, which were in fact those detected by British radar, were able to pass through the meshes of the enemy vanguard, unchallenged and unaware of the danger they had been in[7].

Their good fortune would not last long. As they approached the Pola, previously sighted by Cunningham’s force, the cruisers became an easy target for as many as three battleships which, in a few minutes and at ranges that in some cases dropped below two miles, utterly devastated them.

While it was the hand of fate that put Cattaneo and Cunningham in the same place at the same time, the fighting action rewarded the British gunners’ abilities and their admiral’s skill. The force had just changed course as a result of the detection report sent by HMS Valiant, whose radar had picked up the Pola, previously reported by Pridham-Wippell. However, before they had even gained visual contact with the stopped warship, Cattaneo’s cruisers appeared and were detected, almost simultaneously, on radar by HMS Valiant and visually from the Warspite’s bridge. The British thought they saw two Zara class ships preceded by a light cruiser[8], and Cunningham immediately maneuvered to take the new arrivals under the battleships’ fire, ordering the Formidable out of the line immediately afterwards. It should be noted, to highlight Cattaneo’s error even further, that the Royal Navy’s tactics, in such circumstances, called for turning away, to prevent escorting enemy destroyers from obtaining any lucky hits. Having rapidly ascertained that no destroyers were in a position to attack him, Cunningham, who had never lacked aggressiveness, ignored standard practice and forcefully maneuvered to place his own units in the best position to take the enemy under fire. His timely and sharply executed order was a tribute to the British Commander in Chief’s pluck and skill; what followed bore witness to his gunners’ ability.

While Warspite, Valiant, and Barham made mincemeat of Fiume and Zara with broadside after broadside, the British destroyers, to make the task easier, put their searchlights to good use. The destroyers’ maneuvers were not always impeccable: some of them came into the capital ships’ field of fire, in some cases avoiding hits by sheer luck and being addressed rather rudely by Cunningham. For their part, Italian destroyers initially turned away, but in the bedlam that ensued three of them were hit all the same. Alfieri and Carducci sank shortly afterwards, Oriani - while damaged - was able to disengage, and Gioberti was miraculously left unharmed. Although these units never attempted to mount an attack[9], either as a group or individually, in the confusion of the fight Cunningham thought that they were maneuvering to do so. He consequently ordered a ninety degree turn away, leaving his destroyers free to “mop up”. Only Alfieri, when she was already sinking, succeeded in launching a few torpedoes, which missed, and returned gunfire against an enemy destroyer that had closed her to point blank range. The Carducci tried to lay a smoke screen, but she was soon hit by the battleships’ secondary (6 inch) armament and then finished off by a British destroyer. The other two destroyers in the Ninth Flotilla, probably unable to determine what was going on, could do no more than escape under cover of darkness.

When the British opened fire, the Italians had just sighted the Pola, whose crew had shot a red Very rocket upon seeing the British battleships, mistaking them for friendly units. By the time Cattaneo became aware of the enemy’s presence, it was too late: the cruisers’ vital systems were put out of commission by the battleships’ 15 inch rounds, so in a matter of seconds Zara and Fiume ceased being warships and became floating torches. The statements made by Captain[10] (Engineer) Parodi, a survivor from Zara, included both in Roskill’s book and in Arrigo Petacco’s Le Battaglie Navali del Mediterraneo nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale (Naval Battles In the Mediterranean during the Second World War), indicate that discipline was maintained on that cruiser even in those extreme hardships. Both while the various ships were in their death throes and after their sinking, there were actually several episodes of exceptional individual gallantry and a couple of examples are worth mentioning. After devoting himself to helping wounded crewmembers, Commander Giannattasio, the Zara’s Executive Officer, was ordered to blow up the ship’s self-destruction charges. He refused another officer’s offer to help and went off to complete the task alone, fully knowing it would cost him his life. The shipwrecked Captain of the Carducci, Commander Ginocchio, did his utmost to keep his men disciplined and their hopes up, thus avoiding the collective and individual madness episodes that led many to dive into the sea in the vain attempt to reach non existent ships or shores. These, indeed, were proof of that individual gallantry Cunningham did not hesitate to acknowledge in the enemy, but which could never offset the Regia Marina’s “hopelessly outdated” fighting techniques.

Having easily overpowered Cattaneo, Cunningham had to decide whether it would be worthwhile to continue the chase or whether he shouldn’t instead let his ships form up again and return to base. In choosing this latter course, he ordered all units not directly engaged against the enemy to change course and meet up with him the following morning. The order was not meant for either Mack or Pridham-Wippell, but the latter did not realize this and carried it out anyway. Mack instead, after changing course, asked for clarification, and Cunningham ordered him to resume the chase. Pridham-Wippell’s actions, marked by a lack of conviction and insufficient energy, were the target of thinly veiled criticism by the British Commander in Chief, who also put the blame on Mack for keeping a tight formation instead of spreading his ships apart. The reprimand might have been a valid one, but Mack wouldn’t have been able to come in contact with Iachino no matter what disposition his ships had been in for the simple reason that the information he based his search on was, as stated, wrong.

Thus, the commander of the British destroyer flotilla pressed on with his fruitless search for another couple of hours. He finally reversed course when he received a message from one of the destroyers left in the area of the action, which reported the presence of a Littorio class battleship dead in the water. In fact, this was the Pola, but when the correction came, Mack was already on his way back, with no hope left to catch Iachino. Having sighted the Pola, Mack took many survivors aboard and then torpedoed the cruiser, sending it to the bottom. The British crew had the impression that all semblance of good order and discipline had disappeared aboard Pola. In fact, after the hit taken several hours previously, many crewmen had been panic-stricken and had jumped overboard[11]. Once they realized the ship was not in any immediate danger of sinking, they asked and obtained to be brought back aboard. However, chilled to the bone and with no way to dry their wet clothes, they stripped and tried to fight off the cold with alcoholic beverages. This unseemly display of naked, drunken men, lying on deck among heaps of wet clothes and liquor bottles rolling to and fro, was the British sailors’ first impression of the Pola. It is hardly surprising that their propaganda, exaggerating the episode to their advantage, made it even more embarrassing to the Italians.

Like many of the Pola’s crewmen, most of those who survived Matapan were picked up by British ships the morning of March 29, i.e. when the British force was forming up for its journey home. Some Greek naval units also picked up survivors, who were freed after a short captivity when Greece surrendered to the Axis. Among them, Lieutenant (jg) Vito Sansonetti, son of the admiral commanding the Third Squadron. Ironically, the Luftwaffe attacked Cunningham’s ships during the rescue operations, so the admiral decided it would be best to move on. However, he did transmit to Rome, in the clear, the position data where most of the shipwrecked sailors could be found and Riccardi, in thanking him, let him know that the hospital ship Gradisca was already on the way. It is interesting to note that she had been steaming since 1700 on March 28: Riccardi, or someone on his behalf, had acted with foresight - or foreboding.

Tormented by the sun during the day and tortured by the cold during the night, the survivors saw their number, and their hopes, dwindle by the hour, with men succumbing to their wounds, their thirst, or to madness, while their weakened shipmates were unable to do anything to help them. When the Gradisca arrived, it picked up no more than 160 men and for some time it literally sailed in a sea of floating corpses. It is almost certain that the hospital ship’s slow speed, coupled with the insufficient power of her searchlights, which made night-time search operations very difficult, caused the number of the dead to swell even more.

Before closing the sad recount of Matapan, we should briefly go back to the events on Veneto and Supermarina during Cattaneo’s rescue mission. Iachino duly informed Headquarters of the hit taken by the Pola and of his decision to detach the First Squadron to rescue her. The admiral took Rome’s lack of reaction as a silent consent and continued with his night steaming. Fioravanzo, in his Le Azioni Navali in Mediterraneo (Naval Battles in the Mediterranean), states that Supermarina wanted to take precautions in view of a possible British attack the morning of the 29th, and thus sent its own message to Cattaneo. Apparently no one at Headquarters has seriously considered the contingency of a night action: this observation is of significance and I will return to it. As for the text of the message, it repeated what Iachino had stated, but it explicitly added permission to sink Pola if necessary. However, within Supermarina this authorization, which should actually had already been implicit in Iachino’s message, was considered above the watch-standing admiral’s pay grade, so it was requested from the Navy’s Commander in Chief, Admiral Riccardi who, instead of granting it promptly, passed the request on to Mussolini. The outcome was that the needless message was sent to the Zara when the ship could no longer receive it. Unlike Mattesini, I doubt that it could have changed the course of events, but I do share that Author’s opinion when he states that the long and convoluted route taken by the message highlights the lack of initiative and the tendency to pass the buck that were so widespread in the Italians’ high commands in those unhappy times.

As for Iachino, he realized Cattaneo was in trouble when he saw flashes on the horizon and asked both subordinate admirals whether theirs ships were under attack. Trieste replied negatively; Zara, as can easily be imagined, did not reply.


[1] In sharp contrast with the excellent data transmitted by Bolt, the crew of another British aircraft at another juncture sent totally wrong information. Very luckily for Cunningham, the message was lost in the ether since, had it been received, it would have, by their own admission, greatly misled the British.
[2] Actually, by this time Cunningham was only fifty-five miles away. Later, Iachino said that the near simultaneous arrival of that message and of the news of the hit on the Pola prevented him from devoting the necessary attention to the report. Mattesini observes that the time interval amounted to six minutes, which should have been enough. Whether they were or not, however, it seems strange that no officer on his staff thought he should call the admiral’s attention to the message.
[3] The torpedo explosion had flooded various boiler rooms and damaged steam lines so severely that none of the remaining boilers could be brought on line, so the ship was “cold and dark”: dead in the water, without electrical power, and unable to use her principal armament.
[4] Mattesini, in his previously quoted work, provides another possible explanation: perhaps Cattaneo steamed in that questionable formation and at moderate speed because, in his fear of an encounter with the British force, he was trying to make sure the enemy would be sighted before his ships started the delicate towing operation. Had such an encounter taken place during or after this phase, disengagement would have been far more difficult. While I hold Mattesini in great esteem, I do not find this scenario very credible.
[5] In a little known book called Il Comandante Aspetta l’Alba (The Commander Awaits Dawn), the Author Guido Minchilli indicates that the Destroyer Flotilla Leader, Captain Toscano, was particularly worried about the Carducci’s low fuel reserve. Minchilli was not present at Matapan, but he was able to speak with some of the survivors off the Alfieri, the ship Toscano commanded, on which he had previously served as war correspondent.
[6] The British had received erroneous reports in which the two Abruzzi cruisers had been mistaken for battleships, as their silhouette was very similar to that of the Cavour class. Pridham-Wippell, therefore, believed that the ships he was chasing included at least two battleships and he gave priority to the search for them.
[7] It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty what would have happened had Pridham-Wippell engaged Cattaneo, but it is likely that the British, who were not only alert but were also capable of night time fighting, would have had the upper hand. Zara class cruisers, however, were rather sturdy ships, so they could have taken a fairly severe punishment in the form of 6 in shell hits before being forced to stop. Hence, it is possible, especially if Toscano’s destroyer had acted promptly, that Cattaneo’s ships might have gotten away, though somewhat worse for the wear. This consideration, like the previous one regarding the Trento class cruisers, is naturally destined to remain in the purely academic realm.
[8] It has been established that the ship could not in fact have been a cruiser, but no one ever found out for sure what it actually was. British versions of the night’s events mostly claim it was the Alfieri, and that the destroyer’s presence in the van was explained by Cattaneo’s intention to change the escort’s disposition in view of the difficult maneuver the cruisers would have to complete in order to tow the Pola. This, however, is not confirmed by the statements made by the Italian destroyer’s survivors, who instead claimed they had observed the effects of the explosions on the Fiume when the cruiser was ahead of the Alfieri, thereby indicating that their ship was the third one in line.
[9] Gioberti’s captain, Commander Raggio, did at one time try to steam towards the enemy but, blinded by the searchlights and the fires, and unable to make out the enemy ships, ultimately gave up. By then, the battleships had turned away and were proceeding northward.
[10] During WWII, the Italian Navy still used “Army” type ranks for all but the line officers. Therefore a Captain (Engineer) corresponded, seniority wise, to a Lieutenant.
[11] Among those who ended up in the water during the Matapan disaster, the men who survived were mostly those who had not only the good fortune of being rescued, but also the foresight of using heavy clothes and of avoiding putting their head underwater. The intense cold of the first night finished off many of those who had not been able to climb aboard the ships’ boats or life rafts.

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