It was called Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) by Benito Mussolini and his Fascist stalwarts, but the Italian navy, or Regia Marina, still understood it was an open question as to who would rule the Mediterranean in 1941. In fact, Operation Gaudo, a plan to sweep the Royal Navy from the waters surrounding Crete, was intended to demonstrate, after a number of one-sided encounters, that the Italians were still a force to be reckoned with.
Admiral Angelo Iachino, an experienced and intelligent naval officer, was given command of the operation. The plan called for a strong naval force to patrol the area north and south of Crete, sinking any British convoys or escort warships it might encounter. From the beginning, Iachino was disturbed by the dependence of the operation upon forces outside his control, namely air support. He could only request Italian and German aircraft through Italian naval headquarters, a fatal division of command for the mission. Cooperation between the various branches of the Italian armed forces was nonexistent. The Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) repeatedly made its appearance at the end of a battle. Perhaps even more frustrating, the Italian airmen frequently bombed their own ships as well as British vessels.
The deteriorating military situation in Africa and Greece in 1941, however, made it clear that some offensive response by the Regia Marina was necessary if these theaters were to remain viable for the Axis powers. The Germans were now becoming more insistent that something be done to restore the situation in the Mediterranean. At their urging, and because of the general feeling at Supermarina (Italian naval headquarters) that an attempt should be made to re-establish the dynamics of conflict in the area, Operation Gaudo was born.
Supermarina committed the brand-new Littorio-class battleship Vittorio Veneto, sporting nine 15-inch guns and displacing 45,000 tons, as well as six of its seven 10,000-ton heavy cruisers and two of its best light cruisers to the operation. Usually reluctant to risk its capital ships, Supermarina had outdone itself for this mission. The Italians were further motivated by Luftwaffe reports on March 15, 1941, indicating that two of the three British battleships in the Mediterranean had been severely damaged and were not operational. Perhaps Supermarina officials would have been less sanguine had they known that those two battleships and their sister ship were not damaged, but anchored comfortably in Alexandria Harbor and quite ready to fight. Moreover, the British ships were led by one of the most competent and aggressive sailors in the Royal Navy.
Admiral Sir Andrew B. Cunningham, affectionately known as “ABC” to his men, had entered the Royal Navy as a cadet at age 14. While nurtured in a battleship navy, he was an early convert to air power. Cunningham had taken over a superb fleet whose training included night combat, which at that time was considered apostasy by most navies around the globe and ruled out as a matter of course. The British Mediterranean Fleet, however, excelled in night actions during prewar maneuvers and applied the lessons learned during the war years.
Cunningham understood that the Germans, exasperated by Italian military reverses, were assigning both men and materiel in large quantity to the North African theater. Among the German reinforcements, and most dangerous to the British fleet, was the Luftwaffe‘s newly arrived Fliegerkorps X, or X-CAT (X Commando Aereo Tedesco). He realized his task was to bring the Italians to battle as quickly as possible before these new forces could become fully operational. The Italians, however, proved uncooperative, generally remaining either in port or in their own coastal waters for protection. Cunningham solved this dilemma in part by going after Italians wherever they could be found.
On July 9, 1940, the Royal Navy caught the Italians off the coast of Calabria, where a first-round hit was scored by the battleship HMS Warspite on the battleship Giulio Cesare, disabling her for months. On July 19, at the Battle of Cape Spada, the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney, along with five destroyers, attacked two Italian light cruisers, sinking one and damaging the other. During night action on October 12, Italian destroyers and torpedo boats challenged a British cruiser south of Malta. Unfortunately for the Italians, the cruiser turned out to be the veteran HMS Ajax, which was equipped with radar, a technological advancement unknown in the Italian navy. Ajax was able to sink a destroyer and two torpedo boats, leaving the Italians defeated and bewildered. On November 11, the British Fleet Air Arm bombed the port of Taranto. The results were impressive by any standard, with three battleships sunk including the new 42,000-ton Littorio, at a cost of two Fairey Swordfish biplanes.
When Ultra intelligence reported in March 1941 that Italian warships were to set sail, even the normally phlegmatic Cunningham was delighted by the opportunity this presented. Fortunately, because of recent operations around Greece, the bulk of the Royal Navy was already deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. The 2nd Destroyer Flotilla and the light cruiser squadron under Vice Adm. Henry D. Pridham-Wippell at Piraeus, Greece, were alerted. At Alexandria lay the 1st Battleship Squadron, consisting of three of the proudest battleships in the Royal Navy — Warspite, Barham and Valiant — along with four destroyers from the 14th Destroyer Flotilla. In support, having just arrived in the area, was the aircraft carrier Formidable, loaded with 14 torpedo bombers. Most were Fairey Albacores, the marginally improved successor to the Sword-fish biplane. Also on board were 13 Fairey Fulmar fighters, slow but heavily armed.
On the night of March 26, 1941, Admiral Iachino left the port of Naples on his flagship Vittorio Veneto with four destroyers to rendezvous with three additional cruiser divisions in the Strait of Messina. From Brindisi came the 8th Division, composed of two of the best light cruisers in the Italian navy, Garibaldi and Abruzzi, along with two destroyers. These cruisers carried 10 6-inch guns as well as heavier armor protection.
The 1st Division from Taranto, under Admiral Carlo Cattaneo, consisted of the heavy cruisers Pola, Zara and Fiume, along with four destroyers. Last was the 3rd Division from Messina, Sicily, under Admiral Luigi Sansonetti, with the heavy cruisers Trieste, Trento and Bolzano, accompanied by three destroyers. With the exception of Bolzano, these warships were poorly designed and functionally obsolescent, having been launched in the mid-1920s. Above all else, what Iachino’s ships lacked was the technological breakthrough of the age — radar. Iachino also lacked confidence in his intelligence service and brought along his own cryptographer, who would be useful in deciphering some types of messages.
Things seemed to go wrong for the Italians from the start. Promised air support for the morning of March 27 never materialized. That afternoon, a British Short Sunderland reconnaissance plane from Crete spotted the Italian ships while they were still in the Aegean.
Iachino now knew that he had lost the element of surprise. Nevertheless, he decided to wait for Rome to make the decision to terminate the operation. Rome, however, was more influenced by political ramifications than military considerations and decided to modify, rather than terminate, the mission. At 1800 hours Iachino was advised that as a consequence of the Sunderland identification the sweep north of Crete by the 1st Cruiser Division would be canceled, and the fleet would concentrate its forces south of the island and sweep northward past Cape Matapan at the southern tip of Greece. When Cunningham received the decoded message from the Sunderland confirming that the Italians were at sea, he ordered Pridham-Wippell to rendezvous with his 1st Battleship Squadron south of Gaudo. Should Pridham-Wippell encounter the Italians prior to the meeting, he was to lure them southeastward toward the 15-inch guns of his battleships.
At first light on March 28, the Italians launched two Imam Ro.43 reconnaissance planes. One plane was ordered north of the fleet, the other south-southeast. Iachino’s operational orders were that he would return to Taranto if no encounter occurred by 0700. At 0650, however, the Ro.43 pilot flying the southern course advised that he had made visual contact with four British light cruisers accompanied by four destroyers. This was Pridham-Wippell’s force, consisting of the light cruisers HMS Ajax, Orion, and Gloucester, and HMAS Perth, accompanied by four destroyers en route to join Cunningham.
Admiral Iachino realized that he was confronted by a far less powerful force than he already had concentrated in that area. Seeing an opportunity for a cheap victory, he ordered the closest Italian division, Sansonetti’s 3rd, to alter course, increase its speed to 30 knots and intercept the British cruisers. Changing his own course and the course of the 1st Division in support of his cruisers, he ordered Vittorio Veneto‘s speed increased to 28 knots. Sansonetti’s force made contact with the British ships at 0800, with the first Italian salvos fired at 0812 hours from a distance of 25,000 yards. All the Italians’ guns were directed at the last ship in the line, the cruiser HMS Gloucester.
Pridham-Wippell’s immediate response was to order smoke and begin zigzagging. He had been warned earlier by one of Formidable’s search planes that a cruiser force along with destroyers had been spotted in the area, but he mistakenly believed the sighting was his own cruiser squadron rather than an enemy force. Now he raced toward the protection of Cunningham’s fleet. While the Italian cruisers were fast, their gunnery systems were antiquated and the shells all fell short. As the Italians approached Gloucester’s range, her crew gamely returned fire with her 6-inch guns, accurately enough to dissuade her pursuers from closing. Staying out of reach of Gloucester’s guns, the 3rd Division continued its inaccurate fire.
As the British light cruiser squadron continued to make a dash for safety, it became clear to Iachino that the battle was moving away from his supporting ships and well within the range of British air cover. The 3rd Division was already halfway to the North African coast. Rightly fearing the intervention of the Royal Air Force (RAF), he ordered Sansonetti to terminate his pursuit and turn to a course 300 degrees west, toward home. The 3rd Division broke off at 0850, turning to port for the return journey and believing that it was leaving the British force behind. However, as the Italians would find out on more than one occasion during the war, it was far easier to start a fight with the British than to end one.
The British light cruiser squadron turned about and followed the Italians, carefully remaining out of range of their guns. Annoyed by Pridham-Wippell’s boldness, Iachino quickly formulated a plan to envelop his arrogant enemy. With no knowledge of the British battleship squadron heading his way at 22 knots, at 1035 he ordered Vittorio Veneto to alter course toward Pridham-Wippell’s light cruisers and destroyers. He ordered the 3rd Division to do the same. With luck, they could catch the smaller British force between them.
As the British were shadowing the Italians, HMS Orion’s crew noted a ship far to its north. When flashed the recognition signal, the ship responded with a salvo of shells. The salvos had come from Iachino’s flagship, Vittorio Veneto. Unknowingly, Pridham-Wippell had maneuvered himself between the jaws of a rapidly closing Italian trap. Given the circumstances, the British admiral again decided on a swift retreat. Laying smoke and using speed and evasive action, the British cruisers still had a difficult time leaving the Italians behind. Vittorio Veneto alone fired 94 15-inch rounds at the cruisers, mostly at Gloucester. Orion then attracted the attention of Vittorio Veneto, sustaining some damage from several near misses.
At approximately 1100, a group of torpedo bombers that had been launched from Formidable arrived on the scene. After being fired on by nervous sailors in their own fleet, the six Albacores flew on toward Vittorio Veneto. When first spotted by the Italians, they were misidentified as friendly aircraft stationed at Rhodes.
Upon realizing their mistake, the Italian gunners put up a screen of anti-aircraft fire while Vittorio Veneto maneuvered to avoid British torpedoes. Although they did not score any hits, the Albacores kept the Italians occupied for about 30 minutes, which allowed the British light cruisers to escape. Having survived the torpedo attack unscathed but still uneasy about the presence of enemy aircraft, Iachino ordered a return to Italian waters. With no air cover of his own, he had decided again to repair to the safety of Taranto as quickly as possible.
Admiral Cunningham had not only Formidable‘s aircraft under his command but also land-based bombers stationed in Crete and Greece. The plan called for these planes, along with reconnaissance aircraft from Formidable, to shadow and continually report on the location, speed and composition of the Italian flotilla. However, the two opposing fleets were still more than 60 miles apart. Cunningham’s 1st Battleship Squadron was slow compared to the Italian ships. Only air attacks could delay the Italian warships long enough for his ships to intercept. As the British admiral watched the noon flight taking off from Formidable, he could only hope that these pilots, the best of the Fleet Air Arm, would buy him the time he needed. Formidable then recovered the returning aircraft from the morning attack, at which time their pilots wrongly reported that an Italian battleship had suffered a probable hit.
In the interim, land-based Bristol Blenheim bombers from Crete repeatedly attacked Iachino’s force from a high altitude. Each division received some attention from these planes, which returned to their bases reporting additional probable hits. Cunningham believed that his hopes for delaying the enemy force were being realized, but the reality of the situation was quite the opposite. No hits had been scored, and the Italians continued to widen the distance between the two forces.
The second carrier-based air attack consisted of three Albacores and two Swordfish torpedo bombers accompanied by two Fulmar fighters. At approximately 1510, they sighted the Italian battleship fleet as it was being attacked by some of the high-altitude bombers from Crete. Flying low, they were not immediately noticed. Once identified, however, they received an intense barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Ignoring the tracers closing on his aircraft, the leader dropped his torpedo 1,000 yards off Vittorio Veneto‘s port side shortly before being killed by enemy fire. A tremendous explosion soon rocked Vittorio Veneto. The Italian battleship shook under the explosion and stopped dead. Within minutes the ship had taken on some 4,000 tons of water. Vittorio Veneto was a resilient ship with a modern flood-control system, and she was served by a dedicated and well-trained crew. Through their efforts, the battleship was moving again in minutes. Her crew got her speed up to 10 knots, maneuvering solely with her starboard screws. Although the British had failed to sink the enemy battleship, they had damaged it sufficiently to slow it down.
Iachino now formed the fleet columns around his wounded flagship. Not wanting to jeopardize all of his ships, he ordered the light cruiser division to set off for home. He placed the 1st Cruiser Division on his starboard side with its destroyer squadron on the outer flank, and the 3rd to his port side, also flanked by its destroyers. Iachino’s destroyers were placed both fore and aft of Vittorio Veneto. Thus there were five columns of ships, with Vittorio Veneto in the center of the protective screen. Iachino was determined to return his flagship safely to port.
Although the fleets were still some 60 miles apart, Cunningham now had reason for hope, as the returning pilots were quick to relate their leader’s success and other possible hits. Vittorio Veneto had last been seen dead in the water and burning. A final strike for the day, consisting of six Albacores and two Swordfish, was launched from Formidable at 1735. At 1823 the pilots sighted the Italian formation but remained out of range, circling the enemy fleet, waiting for the cover of darkness to attack.
For more than an hour Iachino scanned the skies, waiting for the vultures to deliver the coup de grâce to his ship. At 1925 the British aircraft began their attack. The Italians had already created a smoke screen, and the cruisers and destroyers switch-ed on their searchlights to blind the attacking pilots. Demonstrating skilled seamanship, the Italians changed course twice in the dark and smoke without mishap.
Suddenly a torpedo hit the heavy cruiser Pola and she lay dead in the water, with her electrical system out and her boiler rooms flooded. At 2015 Iachino ordered Cattaneo to turn back with his division and decide whether to scuttle or tow the stricken ship while the rest of the Italian fleet, including the damaged Vittorio Veneto, headed for Taranto and safety. Iachino mistakenly believed a British force sighted 70 miles to the south was the light cruiser squadron he had fought earlier in the day. It was, in fact, Cunningham’s battleships, led by Pridham-Wippell’s light cruisers and destroyers. This force had joined Cunningham’s after its escape from Vittorio Veneto. The entire British force was now less than 40 miles to Iachino’s south.
Darkness gave the crews of the Italian heavy cruisers a false sense of security. But the darkness hid little from Pridham-Wippell, sailing westward aboard Ajax. A blip appeared on the cruiser’s radar screen at 2030. Believing this lone blip to be the derelict Vittorio Veneto succumbing to earlier torpedo attacks, Pridham-Wippell advised Cunningham of the sighting.
Cunningham’s force reached the area at 2200, and Valiant‘s radar indeed confirmed the blip as a stopped ship, some 700 feet long, about six miles off Valiant‘s port bow. Excitement spread among the men of the fleet, thinking this must be Vittorio Veneto. At action stations, the fleet changed course to close on its target. At 2220, Valiant reported the target was 4 1/2 miles away. Then other blips began to appear. Almost simultaneously, the destroyer Stuart reported two large enemy ships, a smaller one in front and followed by three smaller ships, bearing 250 degrees. This was the entire 1st Cruiser Division coming to the rescue of Pola, responding to her request for a tow. The British battleships, ready for action, needed only the new bearing for the enemy ships. Pola, mistaking the approaching British battleships for Fiume and Zara, fired a recognition flare.
The Italian rescue ships had formed a column, led by one destroyer and followed by the heavy cruisers Zara and Fiume, which were then followed by the three remaining destroyers. Half the crew of Fiume was busy rigging their ship for tow after seeing Pola‘s starshell, when, to their surprise, a searchlight lit up their ship. It was from the British destroyer Greyhound, assisting the accurate gunnery of Cunningham’s battleships.
Then 24 15-inch guns lit up the night sky as their 2,000-pound, armor-piercing projectiles slammed into Fiume at only 3,000 yards. A second broadside followed 30 seconds later. Fiume immediately became one large ball of orange flame. Her after turret took a direct hit and was blown overboard. Meanwhile, Valiant fired five 15-inch broadsides at the lead cruiser, Zara. Barham fired six additional 15-inch broadsides into the doomed Zara. In a matter of minutes, two of Italy’s newest cruisers had become scrap iron, both listing heavily and uncontrollably on fire.
Recovering from their shock, the Italian destroyer crews attempted a torpedo attack on the British warships but were intercepted by the British destroyers. Two more Italian destroyers were lost, and one badly damaged but able to escape. Of the entire division, only the destroyer Gioberti escaped undamaged. Fiume sank at 2300, and Zara, torpedoed by the destroyer Jervis, at 0240.
Pola, dead in the water, was witness to the catastrophe that befell her sister ships. Resigned to their fate, Pola‘s crew abandoned all discipline. British sailors boarding Pola after the battle found empty wine bottles and drunken sailors. After Pola‘s crew was evacuated, British destroyers torpedoed and sank her at approximately 0300.
The British then began picking up survivors of the ordeal. Some 3,000 Italian sailors had been lost, including the captains of Fiume and Zara and the division commander, Admiral Cattaneo. At daybreak, German bombers finally made their appearance and began to bomb the British ships involved in rescue operations. Cunningham wired Rome, advising Supermarina where it could find more survivors of the battle, then left the area after saving some 900 sailors. An Italian hospital ship that arrived later that day was able to rescue an additional 160 sailors.
For the Italians, the battle had been a disaster. They had lost three heavy cruisers and two destroyers. Supermarina now realized that if the fleet were to put to sea again it would need its own fighter protection. A crash program was initiated to modify existing passenger ships to serve as aircraft carriers. One of those ships was completed prior to the surrender of Italy in 1943.
While Taranto may have been a tremendous psychological defeat, Matapan was the military defeat that finished the Italian navy. The next time the Italian fleet came out in force was two years later, to surrender to Admiral Cunningham at Malta.
This article was written by Anthony M. Scalzo and originally appeared in the January 2001 issue of World War II.