|English | Italiano|
by Andrea Piccinotti
The battle of Punta Stilo (Action off Calabria) had left much dissatisfaction within the high command of the Royal Navy. Admiral Cunningham had realized that two of his battleships, the Royal Sovereign and the Ramillies, were too slow and constituted an obstacle to the operations which the Mediterranean Fleet was conducting. To this point, during the battle of Punta Stilo, the Royal Sovereign had not been able to reach the battle zone in time. Furthermore, the Regia Marina was superior in terms of number of cruisers, and in some cases also in terms of quality; in particular, the Royal Navy did not have any 203mm-equipped vessel in the Mediterranean.
Therefore, Admiral Cunningham requested from the Admiralty that the heavy cruiser Kent be transferred from the Indian Ocean to Alexandria. Meantime, Force F with the battleship Valiant and the modern aircraft carrier Illustrious, along with two cruisers, would be also transferred to Alexandria. These two cruisers, the Calcutta and Coventry, were equipped with radar.
A predicted Italian offensive in North Africa prompted the organization of a fast convoy, which would be escorted by the cruisers Ajax and York along the safer route around the Cape of Good Hope. These two cruisers would then be incorporated in the Mediterranean Fleet. Taking advantage of all these movements, the Alexandria-based fleet would escort a convoy of three ships destined for Malta to then pick up a convoy coming from Gibraltar. This complex operation was codenamed "Hats".
The operation began in the afternoon of August 29th when three cargo ships, escorted by four destroyers, departed for Malta. The following day, Force B strong of the battleship Renown, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the light cruiser Sheffield, along with 12 destroyers, left Gibraltar in support of Force F. At the same time, the battleships Warspite and Malaya, the heavy cruiser Kent, the cruisers Orion, Sydney, Gloucester and Liverpool, along with 13 destroyers, left Alexandria with the dual task of escorting the Malta-bound convoy and the units arriving from Gibraltar. Also, on the way back to port, the same group would have bombarded some Italian airports.
Supermarina, having received news of some British activity on the 30th, the following day at 6:00 ordered the departure of the 9th Division ( battleships
Littorio, Vittorio Veneto), the 5th Division (battleships Cavour, Cesare, Duilio), the 1st Division (Heavy Cruisers Pola, Zara, Fiume, Gorizia ), the 8th Division (Light cruisers Duca degli Abruzzi. Garibaldi ) and several destroyer squadrons for a total of 27 units.
This naval force, once outside Taranto, was to move between Malta and Zante to intercept any enemy ship from reaching Italian waters. The Italian command was not aware of the presence of the British convoy. Before departure, the battleship Cesare experienced technical problems with the condensers and was left in port.
Doubts about British intentions vanished when, on the 31st, reconnaissance found a convoy of three merchant ships directed to Malta. This convoy was attacked by bombers, which scored a hit on the stern of the steamship Cornwall causing a small fire, locking the rudder and destroying two antiaircraft guns. Even when the intentions of the British fleet were quite clear, and Admiral Iachino’s forces were only 120 miles from the enemy, Supermarina, at 17:00, ordered the Italian fleet back to Taranto. At that moment Italian superiority would have been overwhelming.
Regia Marina Royal Navy
18 x 381 mm and 20 x 320 mm 2 Battleships
16 x 381 mm
1 carrier with 17 planesi
7 Heavy Cruisers
54 x 203 mm 1 Heavy Cruisers
6 x 203 mm
52 x 152 mm 4 Cruisers
32 x 152 mm
39 Destroyers 17 Destroyers
During the night, Admiral Campioni, aboard his repaired battleship Cesare, rejoined the fleet and was ordered back south with the order to intercept the enemy on their way back from Malta. This task proved impossible due to the quickly deteriorating weather conditions and the Italian destroyers’ inability to withstand the heavy sea. Once again, the fleet was ordered back to port, and during the return voyage several crew members were lost at sea and the destroyers suffered damages to the superstructures. The cruiser Duca degli Abruzzi was attacked by a submarine, which launched two torpedoes without finding its target.
On the 2nd of September, the British convoy reached Malta almost at the same time with Force F, which unloaded even more supplies. On the way back, the new ships engaged in other operations, including:
The escort of a convoy from Nauplia to Port Said.
The bombardment of the airport of Scarpanto.
An aerial attack on the airport of Rodi
During these operations, which were generally accident-free, four British planes were lost during the attack, which caused the destruction of 2 Savoia Marchetti S.79, and damage to another 7 aircraft. During the bombardment of Scarpanto, the Italians suffered the lost of MAS 537. On the 6th of September, all British ships were back in Alexandria.
Probably, Hats was the most important opportunity for the Regia Marina to inflict a definitive blow to the Royal Navy, but the Supreme Command inexcusably squandered it. The numeric superiority was crushing and for the first time the new modern battleships of the "Vittorio Veneto" class were part of the Fleet. The Regia Marina had twice as many cruisers and destroyers as the British, and the 17 old swordfish would not have influenced the battle too considerably. Instead of returning to base, the Italian Fleet could have waited a day longer at sea, possibly attacking at night with the destroyers and inflicting definitive losses.
The British had been very imprudent, but Malta had been replenished, the Mediterranean Fleet reinforced, and Italian airports bombed. The Regia Marina, instead, had several of her destroyers damaged in the storm along with the loss of several sailors. Worse, tons of precious oil fuel had been wasted and the morale of the crew, who were craving a good fight with the British, inexorably fell. The audacity of Punta Stilo, in which the Regia Marina fought in numerical inferiority, had transformed itself in fear, even in conditions of clear superiority.
Translated from the original Italian version by Cristiano D'Adamo
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