Battle of Cape Matapan

Battle of Cape Matapan

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Cape Matapan
partof=the Mediterranean Theater of World War II

caption="Vittorio Veneto" after the torpedo hit at Matapan
date=March 27March 29, 1941
place=Mediterranean Sea off Cape Matapan, Greece
result=Decisive Allied victory
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
flagicon|Australia Australia
commander1=flagicon|United Kingdom|naval Andrew Cunningham
strength1=1 aircraft carrier
3 battleships
7 light cruisers
17 destroyers
strength2=1 battleship
6 heavy cruisers
2 light cruisers
17 destroyers
casualties1=4 light cruisers lightly damaged
1 torpedo bomber destroyed
3 dead
casualties2=1 battleship heavily damaged
3 heavy cruisers sunk
2 destroyers sunk
2,300+ dead

The Battle of Cape Matapan (Battle of Tenaro) was a World War II naval battle fought off the Peloponnesian coast of Greece from March 27 to March 29, 1941. A force consisting primarily of British Royal Navy ships accompanied by several Royal Australian Navy ships under the command of the British Admiral Andrew Cunningham intercepted and sank or severely damaged those of the Italian "Regia Marina", under Admiral Angelo Iachino.

The battle, or at least its opening actions, is also known as the Battle of Gaudo in Italy.

Orders of Battle

The Allied force was the Mediterranean fleet, consisting of the aircraft carrier HMS "Formidable", the modernised World War I battleships HMS "Barham", "Valiant" and "Warspite" (as flagship). The main fleet was accompanied by two flotillas of destroyers:

* 10th Flotilla: HMS "Greyhound", HMS "Griffin" and HMAS "Stuart"

*14th Flotilla: HMS "Jervis", HMS "Janus", HMS "Mohawk" and HMS "Nubian" commanded by Philip Mack

Also present were HMS "Hotspur" and HMS "Havock".

A second force, under Admiral Sir Henry Pridham-Wippell, consisted of the British light cruisers HMS "Ajax", HMS "Gloucester" and HMS "Orion", the Australian light cruiser HMAS "Perth" and the British destroyers HMS "Hasty", HMS "Hereward" and HMS "Ilex". The Australian "HMAS Vendetta" had returned to Alexandria.

In addition, Allied warships attached to convoys were available: HMS "Defender", HMS "Jaguar" and HMS "Juno" waited in the Kithira Channel and HMS "Decoy", HMS "Carlisle", HMS "Calcutta". HMS "Bonaventure" and HMAS "Vampire" were nearby.

The Italian fleet was led by Iachino's vessel, the modern battleship "Vittorio Veneto". It also included almost the entire Italian heavy cruiser force: the "Zara" (under Vice-Admiral Carlo Cattaneo), "Fiume" and "Pola"; four destroyers of the 9th Flotilla ("Alfredo Oriani", "Giosué Carducci", "Vincenzo Gioberti" and "Vittorio Alfieri"). The heavy cruisers "Trieste" (carrying Vice-Admiral Luigi Sansonetti), "Trento" and "Bolzano" were accompanied by three destroyers of the 12th Flotilla ("Ascari", "Corazziere" and "Carabiniere"), plus the light cruisers "Luigi di Savoia Duca Degli Abruzzi" (Vice-Admiral A. Legnano) and "Giuseppe Garibaldi" and nine destroyers of the 6th Flotilla (including "Emanuel Pessagno" and "Nicoloso de Recco"). None of the Italian ships had radar, although several Allied ships did.

The 10th and 13th Flotillas of Italian destroyers: the "Alpino", "Bersagliere", "Fuciliere", "Granatiere", "Grecale", "Libeccio", "Maestrale" and "Scirocco" were also involved.


As ships of the Mediterranean Fleet covered troop movements to Greece, intelligence was received reporting the sailing of an Italian battle fleet with one battleship, six heavy and two light cruisers plus destroyers to attack the convoys. The interception was made possible by Ultra (cryptanalysis of intercepted signals) but, as ever, this was concealed from the enemy by ensuring there was a plausible reason for the Allies to have detected and intercepted the Italian fleet. In this case, it was a carefully directed reconnaissance plane. As a further deception, Admiral Cunningham is said to have made a surreptitious exit from a club in Egypt to avoid being seen going on board ship.

At the same time, there was a failure of intelligence on the Axis side. The Italians had been wrongly informed that the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet had only one operational battleship. In fact, there were three and a lost British aircraft carrier had been replaced.

The battle

On the 27th, Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell with the cruisers "Ajax", "Gloucester", "Orion" and the "Perth" and destroyers sailed from Greek waters for a position south of Crete. Admiral Cunningham with "Formidable", "Warspite", "Barham" and "Valiant" left Alexandria on the same day to meet the cruisers.

At 07:55, on the 28th, the "Trento" group encountered Admiral Pridham-Wippell's cruiser group, which was heading to the southeast. Thinking they were attempting to run from their larger ships, the Italians gave chase, opening fire at 08:12 from 22,000 metres. As was always the case, the Italian guns had trouble grouping their rounds, and had little effect. After an hour, the Italians broke off the chase and turned northwest to rejoin the "Vittorio Veneto". The Allied ships also reversed course, and followed the Italians at extreme range.

At 10:55 the "Vittorio Veneto" met the Italian cruisers, and immediately opened fire on the shadowing Allied ships from about 23,000 metres. The Allied cruisers withdrew, with slight damage from 15" shell splinters, although the Italians started a pursuit.

Air Attacks

By this point Cunningham's forces, which had been attempting to join up with Pridham-Wippell's, had launched a sortie of Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers from HMS "Formidable". They attacked the "Vittorio Veneto" without direct effect, but the required manoeuvring made it difficult for the Italian ships to maintain their pursuit. Realising that they might not be so lucky next time, Iachino broke off the pursuit at 12:20, retiring towards his own air cover at Taranto.

A second sortie surprised the Italians at 15:09. Lieutenant-Commander Dalyell-Stead flew his Albacore to 1,000 metres from "Vittorio Veneto", hitting her outer port propeller and causing 4,000 tons of water to be taken on. The ship stopped while damage was repaired, but was able to get underway again at 16:42, making 19 knots. Cunningham heard of the damage to the "Veneto", and started to pursue her.

A third strike, by six Albacores and two Swordfish from 826 and 828 Squadrons on "Formidable" as well as two Swordfish from 815 Squadron on Crete was made between 19:36 and 19:50. A torpedo, apparently dropped by Lieutenant F.M.A. Torrens-Spence, crippled the cruiser "Pola", forcing her to stop. Unaware of Cunningham's pursuit, a squadron of cruisers and destroyers were ordered to return and help "Pola", formed on the "Pola"'s sister ships, the "Zara" and "Fiume". The squadron did not start to return towards "Pola" until about an hour after the order been given by Iachino, officially due to communication problems, while the "Vittorio Veneto" and the other ships continued to Taranto.

Night Action

The Allies detected the Italians on radar shortly after 22:00, and were able to close without detection. Italian ships were not supposed to meet enemy ships by night and had their main gun batteries disarmed; they also had no radar and could not detect British ships by means other than direct sight, so the British battleships "Barham", "Valiant" and "Warspite" were able to close to 3,500 metres unnoticed by the Italian ships, from where they opened fire. The Allied searchlights illuminated their enemy. Some British gunners witnessed the cruiser's heavy turrets popping up dozen of metres into the air. After just three minutes, two Italian heavy cruisers, "Fiume" and "Zara", had been destroyed.

Two Italian destroyers ("Vittorio Alfieri" and "Giosué Carducci") were sunk in the first five minutes. The other two destroyers, "Gioberti" and "Oriani", managed to escape, the former with heavy damage. Towing "Pola" to Alexandria as a prize was considered, but it was getting light and it was thought that the danger of enemy planes was too high. The British boarding parties seized a number of the much needed "Breda" anti-aircraft machine guns. "Pola" was eventually sunk with torpedoes by the destroyers "Jervis" and "Nubian" after her crew had been taken off. The only known Italian reaction after the shocking surprise, was a fruitless torpedo charge by some destroyers and the aimless fire of one of "Pola"´s 40 mm guns in the direction of the British warships.

The Allied ships took on survivors, but left the scene in the morning, fearing Axis air strikes. The location of remaining survivors was broadcast and the Italian hospital ship "Gradisca" came to recover them. Allied casualties were a single torpedo bomber shot down by "Veneto"'s 90 mm antiaircraft batteries, with the loss of the three-man crew. Italian losses were up to 2,303 sailors, most of them from "Zara" and "Fiume".

Effects of the Battle

After the defeat at Cape Matapan, the Italian fleet never again ventured into the Eastern Mediterranean, conceding it to the Allied navies until the Fall of Crete. The Italian naval command lost all faith in German promises to protect their fleet from attack here. Hence, Cape Matapan was an important strategic victory for the Allies who could now concentrate most of their stretched resources against the Afrika Korps in North Africa under General Rommel after the fall of Greece to German forces in late April 1941.

There is still controversy in Italy regarding the orders given by the Italian Admiral Angelo Iachino. In fact, one or two destroyers could easily have towed "Pola" away from the British battleships and managed to escape in the case of an enemy encounter, while an entire division of heavy cruisers ("Zara", "Fiume" and four destroyers) was completely useless both for towing operations and in protecting "Pola": Italian heavy ships (all ships heavier than destroyers) were, in fact, not trained or equipped for night fighting and had orders to avoid enemy contact at night.

Order of battle

From [ Ordine di Battaglia Italiano] .


* Admiral of Squad Angelo Iachino
** 1 battleship: "Vittorio Veneto" (damaged)
** 4 destroyers ("10a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere"): "Grecale", "Libeccio", "Maestrale", "Scirocco"
** 4 destroyers ("13a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere"): "Alpino", "Bersagliere", "Fuciliere", "Granatiere"

* Commodore Antonio Legnani
** 2 light cruisers ("8a Divisione Incrociatori"): "Luigi di Savoia Duca degli Abruzzi", "Giuseppe Garibaldi"
** 2 destroyers ("6a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere"): "Emanuele Pessagno", "Nicoloso da Recco"

* Admiral of Division Sansonetti
** 3 heavy cruisers ("3a Divisione Incrociatori"): "Bolzano", "Trento", "Trieste"
** 3 destroyers ("12a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere"): "Ascari", "Carabiniere", "Corazziere"

* Admiral of Division Carlo Cattaneo
** 3 heavy cruisers ("1a Divisione Incrociatori"): "Fiume" (sunk), "Pola" (sunk), "Zara" (sunk)
** 4 destroyers ("9a Squadriglia Cacciatorpediniere"): "Vittorio Alfieri" (sunk), "Giosué Carducci" (sunk), "Vincenzo Gioberti", "Alfredo Oriani"


Force A, 14th Destroyer Flotilla, 10th Destroyer Flotilla (of Force C), Force B, 2nd Destroyer Flotilla, Force D
* Admiral Andrew Cunningham
** 3 battleships: HM Ships "Barham", "Valiant" & "Warspite"
** 1 aircraft carrier: HMS "Formidable"
** 9 destroyers: HM Ships "Greyhound", "Griffin", "Jervis", "Janus", "Mohawk", "Nubian", "Hotspur" & "Havock" and HMAS "Stuart"
* Admiral Henry Pridham-Wippell
** 4 light cruisers: HM Ships "Ajax", "Gloucester" & "Orion" and HMAS "Perth"
** 3 destroyers: HM Ships "Hasty", "Hereward" & "Ilex"
* AG 9 convoy (from Alexandria to Greece)
** 2 light cruisers: HM Ships "Calcutta" & "Carlisle"
** 3 destroyers: HM Ships "Defender" & "Jaguar" and HMAS "Vampire"
* GA 8 convoy (from Greece to Alexandria)
** 1 anti aircraft cruiser: HMS "Bonaventure"
** 2 destroyers: HM Ships "Decoy" & "Juno"
** 1 merchant ship: "Thermopylæ" (Norwegian)


* [ Royal Navy Website history section, Battle of Cape Matapan]
* [ Operation Gaudo & Battle of Cape Matapan]
* [ Battle of Cape Matapan]

External links

* [ "Battle of Cape Matapan: World War II Italian Naval Massacre"] by Anthony M. Scalzo at
* [ Battaglia di Gaudo] at Plancia di Commando
* [ La notte di Matapan] at Plancia di Commando

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