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Battle of Cape Matapan 1941

Light cruiser HMS Ajax
Battleship HMS Valiant

I myself was inclined to think that the Italians would not try anything. I bet Commander Power, the Staff Officer, Operations, the sum of ten shillings that we would see nothing of the enemy. Admiral Andrew Cunningham

At the end of March 1941 the campaign in Greece was approaching a climax. Hitler decided that German forces were needed and had ordered an invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia to begin in April. A British expeditionary force was despatched to bolster the Greek defences, arriving in convoys from Alexandria in Egypt. The Germans wanted the convoys disrupted and the Italian Navy was the only force capable of achieving this.

German dive-bombers had seriously damaged the aircraft carrier Illustrious in January and their intelligence believed that Mediterranean Fleet possessed only one operational battleship. Accordingly the Italians, whose battlefleet was crippled at Taranto, calculated that a force of heavy cruisers supported by the battleship Vittorio Veneto would be sufficient to deal with light British forces around Crete.

In fact the British were in much better shape. All three battleships were intact and another carrier, Formidable, had recently arrived. With torpedo-bombers in Crete and R.A.F. bombers from Greece, Cunningham held a crucial advantage over an Italian Navy with no air cover. Some British ships possessed radar sets and many were experienced in the art of night fighting, of which Cunningham was the navy's foremost expert. Ultra had broken Axis codes and warned when the Italian fleet sailed on 26 March.

Cunningham cleared the area of convoys and despatched Vice Admiral Pridham-Wippell's cruiser squadron to the south of Crete. On 27 March a reconnaissance aircraft from Malta spotted three Italian cruisers and four destroyers heading for Crete. Cunningham sailed with his battlefleet that evening.

The battle commenced at 0745 on 28 March when Pridham-Wippell's four light cruisers sighted a squadron of three Italian heavy cruisers. The Italians 8 inch/203mm guns opened fire at a range at which the 6 inch/152mm weapons of the British ships could not initially reply.

Pridham-Wippell retired towards Cunningham's force at the full speed in the hope of drawing the enemy into a trap, but at 0855 the Italians suddenly withdrew.

The Italian commander, Admiral Iachino, planned to annihilate the British cruisers involving a pincer movement with the battleship Vittorio Veneto. The action began well for the Italians when the Venetoís 15 inch/381mm guns opened fire at 1055 to the complete surprise of the British. Pridham Wippell's cruisers laid a smokescreen, but were caught in the crossfire between the Veneto and the Italian cruisers.

Cunningham's air forces now changed the course of the battle. Formidable's Albacore torpedo-bombers attacked the Italian battleship without success, but having no air cover Iachino realised his vulnerability and ordered his forces to retire. The chase was on. In a further attack at 1510, the Veneto was hit by one torpedo and her speed was reduced. Cunningham knew he had no chance of catching the Italian battleship unless she was hit again, so he ordered at final air strike at dusk. Instead the heavy cruiser Pola was torpedoed and stopped dead in the water.

The Italian Admiral, unaware of the Cunningham's pursuing battlefleet, now made fateful error. He ordered a squadron of cruisers and destroyers to return and protect the Pola. None of the Italian ships were equipped for night fighting. The British battlefleet detected the Italians on radar shortly after 2200. In one of the most dramatic moments in the war at sea during World War Two, the battleships Barham, Valiant and opened fire at only 3500 metres annihilating two Italian heavy cruisers in five minutes. In the melee that followed British destroyers sank two Italian destroyers and the unfortunate Pola.

Although Vittorio Veneto escaped, the accolades given to Cunningham for continuing the pursuit at night, against the advice of his staff, cannot be overstated. There was no doubt how much the Italians wanted an Admiral of a similar calibre.

After the disaster at Taranto the defeat at Cape Matapan dealt another crushing blow to the Italian Navy's morale as much as its material. Five ships were sunk and around 2,400 Italian sailors were killed, missing or captured. The British lost only three aircrew when one torpedo bomber was shot down. Cunningham lost his bet, but added another famous victory to the annals of the Royal Navy. Chastened by its defeat the Italian Navy did not intervene in the evacuations of Greece and Crete later in 1941, but much heavy fighting lay ahead until the battle for the Mediterranean was finally won in 1943.

Further reading:

  • A.B. Cunningham of Hyndhope, A Sailor's Odyssey (London, 1951)
  • J. Goldrick, Cunningham: Matapan, 1941 in E.J. Grove (Ed.) Great Battles of the Royal Navy (London, 1994).
  • S.W.C. Pack, Battle of Matapan (London, 1961).