If one looks at the Battle of Matapan as part of a broad canvas, it may be likened to the central segment of a triptych, the complementary parts of this picture are: the mauling of the Italian fleet at Calabria by the Royal Navy, and, Admiral Cunningham's Fleet Air Arm's successful sortie against the Italian Navy at Taranto, in December 1940.
All of these three actions interlock, as part of the Naval jigsaw for control of the Mediterranean, the British grimly holding on to Malta, and assisting the Greeks fighting to survive in their homeland against the German invaders.
Italy was being urged by Germany to move their Navy against the British Mediterranean Fleet, and suggesting to them that, Valiant, was the only British battleship available for any action.
From Rome, the German Naval Staff promised air reconnaissance over the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and, better still, daytime fighter cover for the Italian Fleet, to reach eastwards to Cape Matapan.
The stage was set
Admiral Angelo Iachino sailed from Naples on the 26th. of March 1941, his flagship the new battleship Vittorio Veneto, in his accompanying fleet were the eight inch cruisers, Bolzano, Fiume, Pola, Trieste, and Zara, the six inch cruiser Abruzzi, and Garibaldi, plus thirteen screening destroyers, a most formidible group.
Italian battleship Vittoria Veneto, taken from HMS Warspite
The Italian flagship's 9 by 15 inch guns were of a superior calibre to those fitted in Cunningham's older battleships.
Contrary to their promise, no German air cover appeared, and, even worse, a British reconnaissance aircraft, in bad weather, spotted a portion of the Italian fleet off Sicily.
As a result of intelligence of the imminent sailing of the Italian Fleet, Admiral Cunningham, prudently, was already at sea. His flag flying in Warspite, with Barham and Valiant, plus the carrier Formidible, with nine destroyers forming the escort, Greyhound, Griffin, Havock, Hotspur, Janus, Jervis, Mohawk, Nubian, and the old Royal Australian Navy V & W destroyer Stuart.
The cruisers under the command of Vice Admiral Pridam - Wippell, his flagship Orion, plus Ajax, Gloucester, and the RAN's six inch cruiser Perth, their anti-submarine screen, Hasty, Hereward, Ilex, and another member of the Australian Scrap Iron Flotilla, Vendetta.
Pridham-Wippell guessed that the Italians would steer to converge on the route taken by British convoys sailing to the aid of their Greek allies.
Throughout the night of the 27/28th. of March, both the Italian Fleet,and the British cruiser group,were inexorably setting up a clash on the 29th. for what we now call, The Battle of Matapan.
As day broke, the Italians were steaming south east in three discrete groups, the eight inch cruisers in the centre, the Vittorio Veneto on their starboard side, and the six inch cruisers on their port side.
Still no German aircraft in support, in desperation, at 0600 (6 AM) the Admiral ordered his flagship to fly off their own aircraft, with specific instructions " Find the British."
Within the hour, Success, the enemy report read " 4 cruisers, 4 destroyers, course South East, distance 60 miles from Flagship."
By 0812, (8.12 AM) the two sets of opposing forces sighted each other, and at almost 13 miles range, the engagement commenced, with the Italians opening fire on Gloucester. After the range had closed somewhat, the British cruiser opened fire, but her three salvoes all fell short, the Italian ships turned away, steadying on a course just west of North West.
The British ships trying to maintain contact with the enemy followed around to a similar course, at this stage, the Australian Vendetta, developed engine problems and was ordered to withdraw, and join up with the battle fleet.
Cunningham's battle fleet was sailing eastwards, endeavouring to catch up with the Italian Fleet. The fact that Formidible needed to turn into the following wind, to launch her aircraft, slowed down the advance of these ships, and Valiant, was sent on ahead to add fire support to Pridham-Wippell's cruiser force.
Aircraft reports reaching the flagship were confusing, one report even indicated the existence of another enemy force, including battleships further to the north of the Italian forces, but this aircraft lost touch with them.
It is a fact, that aircraft reporting enemy ships at sea, and even in harbour, have a tendency to report heavy cruisers as battleships, eg. the Japanese float plane that flew over Sydney Harbour prior to the Japanese Midget Submarine attack on May 31/ June 1 1942, mistakenly reported USS Chicago, an 8 inch gun cruiser for a battleship.
Now at 1100 (11 AM) Warspite intercepted three emergency signals emanating from the British cruiser force:-
"Make smoke by all available means."
"Turn together to 180 degrees."
"Proceed at your utmost speed."
Admiral Cunningham was quick to interpret that these messages indicated that his cruisers had run into the Italian battle fleet, and that they were in dire danger.
The Italian Admiral was in the dark about having a total picture about his enemies' disposition, he was obviously aware of the positioning of his own three groups of ships, and that he had just run into the British cruiser force led by Vice Admiral Pridham-Wippell, but he did not have the slightest idea that Admiral Cunningham with his battleships was even at sea, let alone that this fleet was but 70 miles away from him.
The British cruisers were steaming southwards at about 31 knots, in fact as fast as their individual engineering officers could drive them, making pungent smoke, trying to escape from the accurate fire of the Italian flagship pursuing them.
Formidible was ordered to launch an aircraft torpedo attack against Vittorio Veneto, and at 1127 (11.27 AM) a probable torpedo hit was scored on the Italian flagship. The cork was now out of the bottle, Iachino, suddenly aware of a British carrier operating near by, and he turned away to the north west.
The British now stopped making smoke, and at 1148 (11.48 AM) when it had dissipated, not an enemy ship was to be seen, these cruisers now proceeded eastwards to join up with Admiral Cunningham, which they achieved by 1230 (12.30 PM)
It was not until 1530 (3.30 PM) that an aircraft from Formidible found the Italian flagship once more, she was being screened by 4 destroyers, and was 65 miles north west of Warspite.
A second torpedo attack was made by carrier aircraft, and this time three hits were claimed, and reportedly slowing Vittorio Veneto down to an 8 knot speed. But, this speed estimate was far too optimistic, she was still steaming between 12 to 15 knots, and it would be dark before she could be overtaken.
It was eventually learned that but one torpedo had found it's mark, and the Italian flagship could still steam at 19 knots.
The British cruisers were despatched to again gain contact, and, on sighting the enemy, their escorting destroyers were to launch an attack.
By 1915 (7.15 PM) at last, Cunningham had a clear appreciation of the tactical situation, The Italian forces had converged on Vittoria Veneto, and at 15 knots were in 5 columns steering west north west, at a distance of 45 miles from Warspite.
The Italian battleship was in the centre, with four destroyers ahead, and two astern, in the inner column were Trento, Trieste, and Bolzano, in the inner starboard column, Zara, Pola, and Fiume. Three more destroyers made up the port outer column, whilst the last two destroyers were located in the starboard outer column.
The prior report of battleships to the north, were in fact, the cruisers Garibaldi and Abrzzi accompanied by destroyers.
At 1925 ( 7.25 PM) Pridham-Wippell and his cruiser group came into radar range of the enemy, and visually sighted AA fire from the Italians as they fought off attacking aircraft from Formidible.
Admiral Cunningham decided to commit his ships to a night action, keeping Stuart and Havock to starboard, and Griffin and Greyhound to port, (his staff in jest, described these destroyers as "the halt, the maimed and the blind.") he now ordered his remaining destroyers to attack.
The cruiser Pola took a torpedo in her engine room, and quickly stopped, Iachino turned to the south west, and after steaming for 30 minutes, he then turned to the north west, and by 2048 (8.48 PM) was making for Taranto.
The Italian Admiral now ordered Zara and Fiume with four destroyers to turn back and search for the stricken Pola.
Radar in Orion picked up Pola at a distance of 6 miles, at first Pridham-Wippell thought this contact was Vittoria Veneto, but then decided that the battleship still eluded him, and he proceeded to the north. Valiantís radar also discovered Pola, and Cunningham altered course to close this contact, but as a precaution he ordered his destroyers to the starboard side, ie. on the farthest side away from the unknown ship.
At 2225 (10.25 PM) unexpectedly at a distance of only 4 miles, crossing the British battle fleetís bows from right to left were Zara and Fiume, plus their attending destroyers, all returning to find and support Pola.
The British ships turned into line ahead, and Formidible pulled out to starboard, the two forces closed each other port side to port side, at only 3,800 yards range the director layer reported "seeing the target." Ding Dong went the firing bells, and the 15 inch guns in Warspite went into action with an enormous roar, and their flash lit the night sky as if it were daytime, then the searchlights were snapped on to catch the enemy ships in their glare, just as a hunter at night might illuminate his prey with a spotlight.
Within a short five minutes, the Italian cruisers were blazing wrecks, their war very quickly, all over.
At 2230 (10.30 PM) the enemy destroyers attacked with torpedoes, and the British Fleet turned away 90 degrees to starboard, and their destroyers counter attacked.
In another 5 minutes, Cunningham had reformed in line ahead, and was steaming northwards, his four screening destroyers were sent off to despatch the two burning Italian cruisers.
Stuart spent an hour engaging both enemy cruisers and dsetroyers, using up her full outfit of torpedoes against the cruisers, Captain Waller certainly damaged the destroyer Alfieri, and Hacock was responsible for sinking the destroyer Carducci. At 2318 (11.23 PM) Stuart withdrew to rejoin the fleet which was finally achieved at 0700 (7 AM) the next morning, the 29th. of March.
Just after midnight on the 28/29th. Havock found Pola still afloat, and reported her as a battleship, this brought Captain P.J.Mack rushing back in Jervis, which he took alongside Pola, he later reported that many of her crew were drunk, and lacked both discipline and order. The crew were taken off, and at last Pola was sunk with torpedoes, in the same way that Zara had been sent to the bottom.
When day broke, the British forces surveyed the night's battle scene, many Italian survivors were rescued, in all, some 900, including those from Pola.
German dive bombing attacks put paid to further rescue attempts, leaving many Italian sailors to an inevitable fate, Cunningham then signalled their position to the Italian Admiralty, who despatched a hospital ship, and they picked up another 160, whilst Greek destroyers plucked 110 from the sea on the 29th. of March.
Enroute to their base at Alexandria, the British Fleet was harried and heavily bombed, but managed to escape further damage, they were safely back at base on the 30th. of March.
Perth, Ajax, Stuart and Griffin had been detached earlier so they might resume their convoy duties in the Aegean.
The Battle of Matapan was over
The balance sheet read thus:-
Sunk: 3 by 8 inch cruisers, Pola, Zara, and Fiume. 2 destroyers, Alfieri and Carducci.
Personnel killed: 2,400 Officers and sailors.
5 aircraft lost, but one crew saved.
Matapan carried a strategic impact, it acted as a deterrent for the Italian Fleet, stopping them from interfering in later operations, particularly those in Greece and Crete.
Cunningham in his despatch wrote:
"Much of these later operations, may be said to have been conducted under the cover of Matapan."
The German Vice Admiral E. Weichold, writing about Matapan, said:
"The unhappy result of this action, the first offensive operation which the Italian Fleet had undertaken through German pressure after nine months of war, was a shattering blow to the Italian Navy and it's prestige. If they attributed blame to the false German report of the torpedoeing of Battleships, and failure of Aircraft support, there at any rate remained an inner reaction, a more stubborn refusal to undertake offensive operations against a superior British sea power."
Admiral Cunningham and his Fleet had, at Matapan, struck a mighty blow, both physical and physological against the Italian Navy.
Gill,G.H. Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942. Austraslian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957.
The Marvel of Matapan. Admiral Cunningham's Victory Hour by Hour.( Issued by the Minister of Information) The War Illustrated, April 25, 1941.