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The Naval battle between the British and Italian Navies off Cape Matapan.

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Engage the Enemy more closely"This timely and welcome victory off Cape Matapan disposed of all challenge to British naval mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean at this critical time."        Churchill.
As described elsewhere, Churchill was a strong exponent of the need to provide Greece with support against an expected German Blitzkrieg, and to that end operation 'Lustre' had begun on the 4th March to put a British expeditionary force ashore on Greece.  It was essential that the movement of troops and their supplies should not be interfered with by the Italian Navy.
Around the 25/26 March there were a number of Ultra decrypts that pointed to some operation to be undertaken in the eastern Mediterranean by the Italians, but Admiral Cunningham (C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet) did not know what form that would take.  However, he needed to take some action on this information.  A south-bound convoy from Piraeus was stopped before it sailed, while a north-bound convoy from Alexandria was turned round.  Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell (commanding the Light Forces, Force B) in the Aegean was told to take up position south-west of Gavdo Island, south of Crete, by daylight on the 28th.
At 12.20 on the 27th a RAF Sunderland of 230 Squadron, flying from Scaramanga and captained by Flg. Off. Bohm spotted three Italian Cruisers and a destroyer 75 miles east of Sicily, headed towards Crete.  This was the Italian 3rd Cruiser Division under Vics Admiral Sansonetti and consisted of the three heavy cruisers Trieste, Trento & Bolzano.  Behind them was the 1st Cruiser Division under Vice Admiral Cattaneo with three heavy cruisers and then the 18th Cruiser Division under Vice Admiral Legnani with two light cruisers.  There were also nine destroyers and they would all soon be joined by the C-in-C Admiral Iachino in the battleship Vittorio Veneto and an escort of four destroyers.  None of the ships had radar, though this was available to the British.  Cunningham planned to move.  His battle fleet slipped its moorings in Alexandria at 19:00 that night.  The forces available are on a separate page.
Spotted.   At a little before 07:30 on the 27th one of a flight of four Fairey Albacores and a Fairey Swordfish spotted four cruisers and four destroyers steering 230 degrees.  Twenty minutes later a second aircraft reported four cruisers and six destroyers.  As both position reports were roughly in the place where Pridham-Wippell was expected to be the first assumption was that the aircraft had spotted Force B.  At a little after 08:00 Pridham-Wippell reported seeing three cruisers, 18 miles north of him, heading east.  Cunningham altered course to 310 degrees to support Force B, but because of a small mishap leaving Alexandria, could only manage a best speed of 22 knots from the battleships Warspite and Barham.

The diagram below is taken from 'East of Malta, West of Suez' (available through the site Bookshop) and shows the action rather better than words.  Obviously the picture is a little easier to read in the book, but I hope it helps.

The Germans had pressed for the Italian fleet to take to sea to attack the convoys supporting the British expeditionary force in Greece.  As Germany and Greece were not at war, the German Military Attaché had been able to observe the British forces and equipment coming ashore at Piraeus.  On the night of 26th March Admiral Iachino sailed from Naples with the battleship Vittorio Veneto and four destroyers.  They were to be joined by the rest of their force.  These were deployed in three groups by dawn of the 29th,
The following three diagrams are from The Cunningham Papers Vol. 1 by the Navy Records Society.  I have split the diagram so that I can enlarge it and still get it on the page.  The 'legend' for the diagrams is in the middle.

At 06:43 the Italian flagship's spotter aircraft reported four cruisers and four destroyers 50 miles away, heading south-east at 18 knots, this was Pridham-Wippell and Force B.  Iachino believed this must mean the vicinity of a convoy and ordered his force to 30 knots.  The result was that at about 08:00 the Orion spotted the Italians while the Trieste spotted the British.  Pridham-Wippell knew that the three 8-inch gun cruisers had a speed and firepower advantage over his four 6-inch gun cruisers so he changed course and speed to 140 degrees and 28 knots to draw the Italians towards the battle-fleet and the carrier.  As the range between the two groups reduced to some 12 miles there was an exchange of fire but the Italians then changed course to the west.  Pridham-Wippell did the same to stay in contact, but did not know this was taking him towards the Vittorio Veneto.  They were completely surprised when the Italians opened fire on them; "What's that battleship over there?  I thought ours were miles away."  (An officer on the bridge.)  There was a flurry of signals between the British vessels.
First Cunningham saw the intercepts of the signals between the ships in Force B and knew this meant action.  At that time Cunningham was some 80 miles away, still with a maximum speed of only 22 knots.  To assist Pridham-Wippell he ordered 826 squadron to attack with six Albacore torpedo bombers.  While all six torpedoes missed they caused Iachino to steer 300 degrees for home, they had lost enough ships at Taranto to British naval aircraft and did not want to lose their prized battleship.
Pridham-Wippell's Force B was now out of danger, but the Italian fleet was escaping quicker than Cunningham could catch them.  His only recourse was a Fleet Air Arm attack from his carrier, Formidable, which carried only 27 serviceable aircraft; 13 Fulmar fighters, 10 Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers and 4 Swordfish.
Second air attack.  At 15:10 on the 28th one of Formidable's aircraft spotted the Vittorio Veneto about 65 miles ahead, steaming west.  Some ten minutes later a flight of three Albacores started their torpedo attack while the two escorting Fulmars strafed the battleship.  One torpedo hit the battleship in the stern and she took on water badly, her speed was reduced to some 15 knots, but as she was still some 60 miles ahead of Cunningham's force, he could not overtake before dusk as he was still limited to 22 knots.  He dispatched Force B at full speed to give pursuit.  At this time there was still confusion among the British as it was believed there were more battleships to the north west of Vittorio Veneto.  This was incorrect, they were in fact cruisers, but the situation was cleared up when Cunningham received an accurate aerial report from a reconnaissance aircraft about 18:30.
Dusk air attack.  The report indicated Vittorio Veneto with a supporting force of destroyers and cruisers steering 300 degrees, 12 knots and some 50 miles off on a relative bearing from Cunningham's force of 292 degrees.  Cunningham ordered another air strike of six Albacores and two Swordfish from 826 and 828 Squadrons on Formidable as well as two Swordfish from 815 Squadron on Crete.  One of those who would take part in this action was Lieutenant Torrens-Spence, 815 Squadron of who Cunningham wrote in his dispatch after the battle; "An example of the spirit of these young officers is the case of Lieutenant F.M.A. Torrens-Spence who rather than be left out, flew with the only available aircraft from Eleusis to Maleme ..... arranged his own reconnaissance and finally took off with a second aircraft in company and took part in the dawn attack."

One of those who flew from Formidable was Freddie Nottingham, he was in 829 Squadron flying Albacores.  His obituary was in the Times, June 14, 2005.  He died April 17, aged 88.  He had flown Swordfish as well as Albacores and Barracudas.  At the end of the war he was in the Pacific as CO of 854 Squadron flying Avengers.  He was shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire, his two crew men were killed but he was picked up by a US submarine.  He was a Lieutenant Commander at the end of the war.
It was now dusk and later they would discover that the only hit had been by Torrens-Spence on the cruiser Pola, of which more later.  Pridham-Wippell's force was now drawing up on the Italians, they were within 10 miles of each other.  Should Cunningham order a night sea battle that would be initiated by the Light Force of Pridham-Wippell, while the battle-fleet closed on the action.  At 20:37 he signaled his decision;

"Destroyer flotillas attack enemy battle-fleet with torpedoes.  Estimated bearing and distance of centre of enemy battle-fleet from Admiral 286 degrees 33 miles at 2030.

Enemy course and speed 295 degrees 13 knots."

Naval engagement.  In battle the "Fog of War" is never very far away.  By the time of Cunningham's signal the Italian Fleet was further away than Captain Mack (leading the destroyers) believed it to be, and was doing 19 knots, not the 13 that Cunningham had indicated.  Further confusion was a very large (Vittorio Veneto ?) stopped ship which was reported by Pridham-Wippell.  In case it was the Italian battleship he left it for the heavy guns of the approaching battle-fleet.  Standing instructions for a battle-fleet at night who may be in the vicinity of enemy destroyers was to turn away because of the risk of torpedoes.  If the stopped vessel were the Italian battleship then there may well be a destroyer screen.  Cunningham turned towards, not away.
At 22:20 the Valiant had a radar report of the stopped vessel at 4.5 miles off the port bow.  A couple of minutes later the Stuart reported six contacts off her starboard bow, and at about the same time Cunningham had visual confirmation of the vessels.  The largest among them were cruisers.  Cunningham reformed his force to line ahead ready for the expected action.  Both sides had been surprised, but the Italians were less well prepared.  The Italians did not believe there was a British battle-fleet anywhere in the area.  The force about to be attacked was going to the aid of the crippled cruiser Pola (struck by Torrens-Spence), they were not equipped with radar, and believing the British fleet to be a long way off, had their gun turrets trained fore and aft, they were not expecting action.  

"When we engaged that destroyer at such close range there wasn't a shot fired from her, her guns remained fore and aft."  From the diary of Chief Signals Yeoman Watkins, BEM, HMAS Stuart.  This gives an excellent account of the battle as seen by a serving member of the Stuart.  (See the link on my Links page.)

After an engagement of less than 5 minutes, during which the British battleships had wreaked a fair bit of destruction, Cunningham ordered the heavy ships away eastwards to avoid Italian destroyers.  The Italians had lost three heavy cruisers (Fiume, Zara & Pola), two destroyers an some 2,400 officers and men.  Churchill deemed Matapan to have been the greatest Royal Navy victory since Trafalgar.  The Italians would not interfere with the evacuation of Greece, not the later Naval actions in support of the defence and evacuation of Crete.