Battle of Calabria

Battle of Calabria

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Calabria

caption=Italian battleship "Giulio Cesare" firing during the battle
partof=the Mediterranean Theater of World War II
date=July 9, 1940
place=Near Calabria, Italy
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
flagicon|Australia Australia
commander1=flagicon|United Kingdom|naval Andrew Cunningham
strength1=1 aircraft carrier
3 battleships
5 light cruisers
16 destroyers
strength2=2 battleships
6 heavy cruisers
8 light cruisers
16 destroyers
casualties1=1 light cruiser damaged
2 destroyers damaged
casualties2=1 battleship damaged
1 heavy cruiser damaged
1 destroyer damaged|

The Battle of Calabria, also known as the Battle of Punta Stilo, was a naval battle between vessels of Italian Royal Navy ("Regia Marina") on one side and vessels of the the British Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy on the other. The battle occurred thirty miles to the east of "Punta Stilo", the "toe" of Italy (Calabria), on 9 July 1940. It was one of the few pitched battles of the Mediterranean campaign during World War II involving large numbers of ships on both sides. Both sides claimed victory, but in fact the battle was a draw and everyone returned to their bases as soon as possible. After the battle a massive propaganda effort on the part of the Allies tried to convince the Italian forces that the Allies had won outright; Italian propaganda also depicted this battle as an Axis victory.


When World War II opened, it was much to the surprise of the Italian forces who, like many in Europe, did not expect war until 1941 at the earliest. At the time their forces in Libya were woefully underprepared for war, and the Italian fleet was forced to start large supply operations in order to bring them up to fighting condition.

On 6 July a convoy of four merchant ships left Naples on their way to Bengazi, while attempting to fool the Allies into thinking they were making for Tripoli. The next day their escort force joined them from Taranto after being informed that the Allies had recently left port in Alexandria. The escort consisted of three groups; directly protecting the cargo ships were eight destroyers and four torpedo boats, while a second group sailed 35km to the east and contained six heavy cruisers and another twelve destroyers. Finally the main battle group contained two battleships ("Giulio Cesare" and "Conte di Cavour"), eight light cruisers and another thirteen destroyers.

Meanwhile the Allies were involved in a similar convoy action. The fleet sailed from Alexandria bound in the direction of Malta where the destroyers would deliver supplies and a limited number of specialist reinforcements. Two convoys were arranged to take off fleet stores and civilians from Malta to Alexandria. Two groups of merchantmen were arranged, one at 13 knots and another at 9 knots. Protecting them were three groups of ships, one with five cruisers and a destroyer, Force A, another, Force B, with the battleship "Warspite" and five destroyers and the main battle group, Force C, with the battleships "Royal Sovereign" and "Malaya", the aircraft carrier "Eagle" and eleven destroyers (One, HMS Imperial had to return to Alexandria with a burst steam pipe on the early hours of 8th July.)

On the night of 8 July, Italian command deciphered Allied radio signals and told their fleet to prepare for action about 65 miles south east of Punta Stilo. Some sources suggest that the Italians had turned to avoid battle as they were moving north when encountered, but in fact they planned to keep the action close to Italy and were deliberately moving north in order to draw the Allies closer to their airbasesFact|date=September 2007. During the initial positioning the Italians suffered technical problems on three destroyers and two light cruisers, so these ships were formed up with several additional destroyers and sent to refuel in Sicily. In order to make up for these "losses", another destroyer group was called for from Taranto. At this point, the Italian fleet had 16 destroyers.

Meanwhile the Allies were having problems as well. The day before the battle, land-based bombers of the Italian Royal Air Force ("Regia Aeronautica") from the mainland had attacked their fleet and hit "Gloucester"'s bridge, killing the captain and many bridge crew, six officers and eleven ratings. In addition, three officers and six ratings were wounded. For the rest of the battle, she would be commanded from the emergency station. While a serious enough blow, it was perhaps more damaging to the Italians, who were convinced that their aircraft had inflicted serious damage to a good deal of the Allied fleet and had reduced their fighting power considerably. Rome radio claimed several ships as being struck, some set on fire, and one sunk.

Unlike the dive-bombers favored by the Germans, Italian bombers operated in formations at high altitudes. The Italian aircraft usually dropped their bombs together at about twelve-thousand feet. At Calabria, the Italians carried out the ultimate test of the claims of pre-war air-power theorist concerning massed bombers being able to sink modern warships. However, fast-moving ships proved to be a far more difficult target than anticipated. In addition, ship Captains waited until the bombers released their sticks of bombs and, in the remaining seconds, took evasive action. While hundreds of bombs were dropped by the Italians, the single hit on the "Cloucester" represented the outcome of the air attacks. [Miller, "War at Sea", pg. 113]

Cruiser engagement

At noon on 9 July the two fleets were 90 miles apart. Vice Admiral Cunningham could not close the distance to engage with the significantly slower "Royal Sovereign" and "Malaya" (18 knots vs 28 knots) and took "Warspite" in on its own. Meanwhile, at 13:15, "Eagle" launched several sorties by Fairey Swordfish against the Italian heavy cruisers, with no success.

The Allied cruiser group was spread out in front of "Warspite" and at 15:15 they caught sight of the Italian main battle force and the two groups opened fire at 21,500 metres. Italian rangefinding equipment was better than the Allied, and within three minutes they had found the distance even though they were firing at extreme range. Although the Allies' rangefinding was not as good and they had trouble with their rounds falling short, the Allied gunlaying equipment was better and they were able to place their rounds in much tighter groups. Generally the gunnery of the two forces was fairly well matched. After only a few minutes the range was down to 20,000 metres and the Allied guns became useful.

However, by 15:22, the Italian fire came dangerously close to the Allied cruisers and Vice Admiral John Tovey decided to disengage. At this point splinters from a 6" shell fired by the cruiser "Giuseppe Garibaldi" hit "Neptune", damaging her catapult and the reconnaissance aircraft beyond repair. The cruisers continued to open the range and by 15:30 fire ceased.

Battleship engagement

One group of Italian light cruisers, mistaken for the very latest heavy cruiser Zara class, was on the Allied side of the battle line and was soon within range of the charging "Warspite". Once again the Allied rounds fell short, and neither of her targets, "Alberico da Barbiano" and "Alberto di Giussano", received any damage in the initial salvos. However by this time "Warspite" was also out of position, and she circled in place in order to allow "Malaya" to catch up ("Royal Sovereign" was still well to the rear).

The Italian commander, Vice Admiral Inigo Campioni, decided to take on "Warspite", and started moving his two battleships into position. At 15:52 "Giulio Cesare" opened fire at a range of 26,400 metres. "Conte di Cavour" did not fire, a decision many have questioned. Their strategy was to have only one ship targeted at a time, as it was learned during the Battle of Jutland that with more than one ship firing at a single target it became very difficult for the rangefinding parties to tell which rounds were theirs. "Conte di Cavour" was responsible for "Malaya" and "Royal Sovereign", which were further back and did not enter the engagement.

"Warspite", not aware of the Italian firing patterns, split her guns between the two ships. During the exchange one of "Giulio Cesare"'s rounds fell long and caused damage to "Warspite's" escorting destroyers ("Hereward" and "Decoy") which had formed up on the far side of the action. At 15:54 "Malaya" started firing, well out of range, hoping to cause some confusion on the Italian ships. Meanwhile the Italian heavy cruisers came into action and started firing on "Warspite" at 15:55 but had to break off as the Allied cruisers returned.

At 15:59 two shells from "Giulio Cesare" fell very close to "Warspite". Almost immediately after one of "Warspite"s 381 mm rounds hit the rear deck of "Giulio Cesare", setting off the stored ammunition for one of her 37mm anti-aircraft guns. The fumes from the burning ammunition were sucked down into the engine room, which had to evacuate and shut down half of the boilers. "Giulio Cesare"'s speed quickly fell off to 18 knots and "Conte di Cavour" took over. "Giulio Cesare" and "Warspite" were well over 24,000 metres (26,000 yards) apart at the time of the hit, setting the record for naval gunnery against a moving target that stands to this day.

It would appear that "Warspite" was in an excellent position to deal some serious blows to the slowing "Giulio Cesare" but she once again executed another tight turn to allow "Malaya" to catch up. With her guns suddenly silenced during the turn, the rangefinders on "Malaya" discovered what the Italians had been intending to avoid, that her rounds were falling 2,700 yards short of "Giulio Cesare" and they had been watching "Warspite"'s rounds.

At 16:01 the Italian destroyers generated smoke and the battleships got under cover. There is some debate about this point today, the Allied position being that the battleships were leaving battle, the Italian that they were attempting to make a torpedo attack with their destroyers from within the smoke.

Final actions

The Italian heavy cruisers were a serious threat and could have evened the battle between the main battleships, but with "Warspite" in the battle the Allied cruisers returned and the Italians turned to restart their initial fight with them.

At 15:58 "Fiume" re-opened fire on her counterpart in the Allied line, "Liverpool" and soon two groups of Italian cruisers were in combat with the main Allied cruiser battle group. Firing continued as both groups attempted to form up and at 16:07 the Italian cruiser "Bolzano" was hit three times, temporarily locking her rudder. A near miss on the destroyer "Vittorio Alfieri" caused minor damage.

Meanwhile the mechanics on "Giulio Cesare" were able to repair two of the four damaged boilers, allowing the battleship to reach 22 knots. Admiral Campioni, considering the possibilities of his remaining battleship, "Conte di Cavour" against three enemy battleships and an aircraft carrier, decided to withdraw the battleships towards Messina.

Over the next hour both fleets attempted to make torpedo runs with their destroyer groups without success. At 14:40, the Italian air force made an attack with 126 aircraft, reporting damage on "Eagle", "Warspite" and "Malaya"; because of some misunderstanding, 50 of the Italian aircraft attacked the Italian ships, without damage. The battle ended at 16:55 with both sides withdrawing.

One final victim was the destroyer "Leone Pancaldo", sent to Augusta in Sicily, which was hit by a torpedo launched from a Swordfish at 09:40 the next day.


After the battle both fleets turned for home. This allowed the Italians to claim a victory of sorts, as their cargo ships were already past the action by this time and sailed safely for Libya, while the Allied ships turned for home along with their escort. However, Allied gunnery proved superior and while the damage to "Giulio Cesare" was light and repaired within a month, the Allies claimed that they had suffered no damage at all and eventually it seems the Italians came to believe them. While the battle was a draw, it was an Allied win from the propaganda point of view.

One question is why the Italians did not send their two remaining battleships at Taranto, both ready for action and only a few hours from the scene. The answer appears to be that they were afraid to send them out without the destroyer escort, which had been sent out earlier to make up for "losses" in the main fleet. These two ships would have tipped the balance of fire well onto the Italian side.

Even without these ships the fleets were fairly even. The Italian superiority in aircraft due to the nearby land-based aircraft of the Italian Royal Air Force ("Regia Aeronautica") should have been overwhelming. In fact they played almost no part at all, with the exception of the damage to "Gloucester", yet their battle reports were inflated to the point of claiming damage to half of the Allied fleet.

Order of battle


Force A made up of the 7th Cruiser squadron and HMAS Stuart under Admiral Tovey; Force B commanded by Vice Admiral Andrew Cunningham who was the Commander in Chief of the entire Mediterranean Fleet; and Force C commanded by Vice-Admiral H. A. Pridham-Wippel.
* 3 battleships: "Warspite", "Malaya", and "Royal Sovereign".
* 5 light cruisers: "Orion", "Neptune" ("damaged"), HMAS "Sydney" II, [cite web |url= |title=HMAS Sydney (II) |accessdaymonth=23 August |accessyear=2008 |publisher=Royal Australian Navy] "Gloucester" ("damaged"), and "Liverpool".
* 1 aircraft carrier: "Eagle".
* 16 destroyers: "Nubian", "Mohawk", "Hero", "Hereward" ("damaged"), "Decoy" ("damaged"), HMAS "Stuart", [cite web |url= |title=HMAS Stuart (I) |accessdaymonth=23 August |accessyear=2008 |publisher=Royal Australian Navy] "Hyperion", "Hostile", "Hasty", "Ilex", "Dainty", "Defender", "Juno", "Janus", HMAS "Vampire", [cite web |url= |title=HMAS Vampire (I) |accessdaymonth=23 August |accessyear=2008 |publisher=Royal Australian Navy] and HMAS "Voyager". [cite web |url= |title=HMAS Voyager (I) |accessdaymonth=23 August |accessyear=2008 |publisher=Royal Australian Navy] The destroyer HMS "Escort" (sunk), was sunk in the Western Mediterranean where Force H was providing a feint and demonstration against Sardinia to distract the Italian fleet from the sailing of the Allied convoys. HMS Escort was torpedoed on 11 July during Force H's return passage.

Reference: G. Hermon Gill "Royal Australian Navy, 1939-1942" (1957)

Regia Marina

Italian force commanded by Vice Admiral Inigo Campioni.
* 2 battleships: "Conte di Cavour" and "Giulio Cesare" ("damaged").
* 6 heavy cruisers: "Zara", "Fiume", "Gorizia", "Pola", "Bolzano" ("damaged"), and "Trento".
* 8 light cruisers: "Eugenio di Savoia", "Duca d'Aosta", "Muzio Attendolo", "Raimondo Montecuccoli", "Alberico da Barbiano", "Alberto di Giussano", "Duca degli Abruzzi", and "Giuseppe Garibaldi".
* About 16 destroyers, among which "Vittorio Alfieri", "Artigliere", "Lanciere", and "Leone Pancaldo".



*Miller, Nathan: "War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II", Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995. ISBN 0-19-511038-2 (Pbk.).

External links

* [ Action off Calabria]
* [ Naval-History.Net]
* [ Battaglia di Punta Stilo] - Plancia di Commando

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