WEB SPECIAL - The Battle of Matapan


In the latest installment of his series on the Royal Navy in WW2, Consultant Editor Syd Goodman tells the story of how the british fleet achieved a stunning victory in March 1941.

As she maintains a speed of 18 knots, in pursuit of the Italian fleet at the Battle of Matapan, the British Med Fleet flagship HMS Warspite prepares to pick up her Swordfish floatplane. Image: Dennis Andrews

As she maintains a speed of 18 knots, in pursuit of the Italian fleet at the Battle of Matapan, the British Med Fleet flagship HMS Warspite prepares to pick up her Swordfish floatplane. Image: Dennis Andrews. See below.

The transfer of thousands of British and Dominion troops from North Africa, to fight the Italians in Greece, entailed heavy convoy movements from the British base in Alexandria. Along with the troopships, escorted by Royal Navy destroyers, cruisers were used to transport large numbers of men. In response the Germans pressed the Italian Navy to go on the offensive against the British fleet operating in Aegean and Cretan waters and they offered air cover by Fliegerkorps X, to encourage the Italians to deploy their fleet. The plan was to surprise the British Mediterranean Fleet, while comprehensive air cover by the Luftwaffe would ensure that the Italians would not in turn be caught out. The Germans promised air cover over the Straits of Messina, while the Italian Air Force would provide protection from Rhodes, when the Italian fleet was in Cretan waters. Suda Bay, on Crete, had become a valuable staging post for the British Army on the route to Greece, and was also the hub of Royal Navy activity in the campaign.

The elderly British cruiser HMS York, sunk at Crete. Photo: Goodman Collection.

It soon drew the attention of the Axis powers and the cruiser HMS York was badly damaged while at anchor there - on March 21 she was hit by Italian explosive motorboats carrying 660lbs charges.

With both boiler rooms and the forward engine room quickly flooded, York was beached and came under enemy air attack several times thereafter, eventually being declared beyond all salvage on May 22.

FIVE days after the Italian motorboat attack on the York, the Italian fleet had sailed from Naples, under the command of Admiral Angelo Iachino in the flagship Vittorio Veneto.

The heavy cruisers Trieste, Trento, Bolzano and destroyers were in the vanguard and, the following day, the Italian fleet passed safely through the Straits of Messina. Sixty miles east of Augusta they were joined by the cruisers Zara, Pola and Fiume, from Taranto, and Abruzzi and Garibaldi from Brindisi, along with more destroyers.

The Italian warships then headed for a position to the south of Crete, near Gavdo Island, but the promised German air cover failed to appear.

A British Sunderland reconnaissance plane was able to spot and report to Alexandria the presence of Italian cruisers and that evening the Mediterranean Fleet, commanded by Admiral Andrew Cunningham, slipped out to sea.

The battleships Warspite, Barham, Valiant and the recently arrived aircraft carrier Formidable, along with their destroyer escort, had weighed anchor after dusk and headed for the vicinity of Gavdo Island, to protect the convoy route to Greece.

Already on patrol in the Aegean were four 6-inch gun cruisers.

Shortly before 7.30 the following morning the cruisers sighted a superior Italian force of 8-inch gun heavy cruisers, which commenced firing at the RN ships at 8.12 from a range of 13 miles.

The Italians concentrated on HMS Gloucester, which zig-zagged vigorously to avoid being hit. The enemy soon caught up, but when Gloucester opened fire at close range, the Italians withdrew, despite the British cruiser scoring no hits.

The Gloucester, Ajax and Orion and the Australian cruiser, Perth, turned around and gave chase to the enemy.

A few hours later, they sighted the Vittorio Veneto just 16 miles to the north. She opened fire with her nine 15-inch guns and quickly straddled the British cruisers, creating huge shell splashes.

The RN warships turned away, making smoke.

Cunningham, while desperately trying to get into the action, was forced to reduce speed by mechanical problems in the flagship, Warspite and he ordered Valiant to assist the cruisers at full speed. At the same time he ordered the Formidable to launch a wave of Albacore torpedo bombers.

The air strike saved the cruisers, some 80 miles distant, but unfortunately caused the Vittorio Veneto to turn away and head for her base. Cunningham was still struggling to catch up, and not only had Formidable constantly turning into wind for flying operations but also the slow, unmodernised, Barham holding him back.

ONE of Warspite's Swordfish floatplanes had been searching for the Italian fleet for nearly five hours without result.

With only 15 minutes of fuel left, the pilot, Petty Officer 'Ben' Rice had two options- ditch the aircraft or attempt recovery by the Warspite on the move. Suda Bay, the nearest friendly landfall, was too far away. Admiral Cunningham was not slowing down for anything, but Petty Officer Rice elected for recovery rather than ditching in the sea, and although the manoeuvre had never been tried before, the sea state was flat and therefore conditions couldn't have been better. However, it still took all the pilot's skill, and the key moment came when the massive warship, bearing down at 18 knots, came abreast the taxiing floatplane and the overtaking bow wave threw the Swordfish violently off course.

Once under control, though, the plane was quickly and smoothly hooked to the strop and swung inboard, allowing the British force to continue the chase unhindered. While the British cruisers continued to maintain contact with the enemy, late in the afternoon the Swordfish was airborne again. Just over half-an-hour later the aircraft was over the Vittorio Veneto and reported her heading west at 15 knots with an escorting group of six cruisers and 11 destroyers. The Swordfish observed the enemy fleet until sunset, when another wave of Albacores arrived to attack the Italian ships, which responded with heavy flak, smokescreens and searchlights to dazzle the pilots.

Low on fuel again, Petty Officer Rice this time headed for Crete, while an Albacore took up his observation duty. The result of both attacks was just one torpedo hit on the Italian battleship, below the waterline and above a propeller, which stopped her dead in the water. Frantic efforts by the crew succeeded in getting the ship underway again, but at a greatly reduced speed.

With about 45 miles between Cunningham's force and Iachino's limping ship, the British C-in-C had to decide whether to head north-west, and catch up with the Vittorio Veneto the following day, or steam flat out and engage her in the night. He decided to send a destroyer strike force of eight ships after the enemy and also maintain the pursuit with his capital ships.

The British cruisers by now had lost contact with the main Italian force, although the Vittorio Veneto was only 33 miles away from Warspite and still making slow progress.

But the RN cruisers reported a mystery ship dead in the water, which Warspite picked up on her radar soon afterwards. With the vessel off Warspite's port bow and just six miles distant, Cunningham took the unusual step, at night, of turning the whole battle fleet toward the enemy and into the unknown. Cunningham's Chief of Staff, Commodore Edelsten, was searching the darkness through his binoculars, when he saw two large ships and a smaller vessel passing across the British fleet's path, from starboard to port.

The time was 10.25 pm and the British battleships turned into line ahead, ignoring the mystery ship to concentrate on the new arrivals. These were two Zara Class 8-inch heavy cruisers, the Fiume and Zara, with a destroyer escort. They had been sent back from the main force to assist the stopped ship, the Pola, another Zara Class cruiser, which had been damaged earlier by a British aerial torpedo. Admiral Iachino had wrongly believed the British were 90 miles astern of his ships and had sent the cruisers to certain death.

Not only were the Italians visually unaware of the close proximity of Royal Navy ships, they carried no radar either and were observed to be in an unsuitably relaxed state. Through binoculars they could be seen casually walking the decks, having their after-dinner smokes.

As the distance to the enemy got closer and closer, the tension mounted in the British battleships. With the range point-blank at 3,800 yards there came the order to fire.

At the same time the destroyer HMS Greyhound highlighted an enemy cruiser with her searchlight - it was the Fiume, which was third in line. As the shells carved their path of death, silhouettes of the Zara and the destroyer Alfieri could be seen. Men were also visible running along Fiume's upper deck. Warspite's searchlights blazed forth just in time to catch five of her six shells hitting the enemy cruiser just below her upper deck.

Warspite's second broadside left the Fiume listing heavily to starboard. She managed to limp away into the darkness only to sink a short time later. Directly astern of Warspite was the Valiant, whose main guns completely destroyed their target - the Zara. Behind Valiant in the British line was the aircraft carrier Formidable. Having no place in a gun fight, she was pulled out of the line to starboard. Before doing so, she briefly joined in with her 4.5-inch anti-aircraft guns, before retiring to safety. Following the carrier was the Barham, her guns pounding the Alfieri, before switching to the unfortunate Zara, which was the focus of all three battleships. Turned into a blazing wreck, she too drifted off into the night and was scuttled later. Within five minutes total devastation had been inflicted on the Italian ships, although more enemy destroyers now appeared and the British line turned 90 degrees to starboard, in order to comb the tracks of torpedoes which had been unleashed. It was a night of action for the British destroyers, which eagerly engaged their Italian counterparts.

The Havock, having sank the Carducci and witnessed the Alfieri capsizing, next found the Pola, on which many of the crew were drunk and mad with despair. However, it was HMS Jervis that took the Italian sailors on board and then she and HMS Nubian sank the Pola with torpedoes. The next day an aerial search by planes from Formidable was made for the Vittorio Veneto, but she had gone. The final account for the resounding victory at Matapan was three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers sunk, with the loss of 3,000 sailors, against the total British loss of a Fleet Air Arm Albacore and two aircrew. An easy fight against the Italian Navy was one thing, but prevailing against Germany's Luftwaffe would prove a far tougher contest. For the Royal Navy, the sinking of York in Cretan waters was a taste of things to come.

The 'Swordfish at Matapan' illustration, above, is an original work by marine artist Dennis Andrews. He has a range of paintings, drawings and illustrations on a naval theme available from him direct.

Contact details: Dennis Andrews, Marine Artist,
3 Chesterfield Road, Plymouth, Devon, PL3 6BD, England.
E-mail: enquiries@dennisandrewsart.co.uk