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Action off Calabria

by Cristiano D'Adamo

In his quasi-official history of the Royal Navy in World War II, Captain S.W. Roskill wrote: "This "Action off Calabria" as it came to be called, had far more important consequences than the material damage inflicted on the greatly superior enemy; for it established the moral ascendancy over the Italian Navy…". The battle of Punta Stilo, as it should more properly be called, was the largest concentration of firepower in the Mediterranean war and is one of the most debated episodes of the struggle between the British and Italian fleets.

R.N. Giulio Cesare.

Following the battle, both sides immediately claimed victory, and from the waters of the Ionian sea the skirmish continued on grossly falsified war bulletins and radio announcements. Ultimately, the moral ascendancy claimed by Roskill, and other authors since, was the result of an excellent propaganda campaigned orchestrated in London. A more accurate reading of the historical records presents a different reality, but ultimately the same conclusion can be drawn: the battle of Punta Stilo was a draw. This battle should be classified as a consensual accidental engagement. Consensual because both commanders at sea decided to give battle after their primary mission, convoy escort, had been accomplished or, in the case of the British, postponed. Accidental because, as just said, the primary mission was escorting the convoys and not battle itself (1). Also Punta Stilo should be defined as a battle because the forces involved where very large, including five capital ships and an aircraft carrier. Defining Punta Stilo an encounter, rather than a battle, just because there were no major losses does not give credit to the commitment of the two fleets and especially their level of readiness and military skills. This was the perfect battle, the one fought so many times in the classrooms of naval academies all over the world. The battle proved, or in some cases disproved, many tactical theories and gave the basis, especially within the Mediterranean Fleet, for a substantial reevaluation of the rules of engagements. If one is to look only at Admiral Cunningham’s writing, it is immediately noticeable how this brilliant commander recommended a different use of the capital ships (2), the immediate transfer to his fleet of anti-aircraft cruisers and armored aircraft carriers. The battle was the result of two transport operations. The British Fleet was preparing for the coverage of two convoys, one to and one from Malta, evacuating civilians. The Italian Fleet was at sea escorting a convoy to Benghazi, Libya. The Italian convoy included the cargo ships Esperia, Calitea, Pisani, Foscarini e Barbaro, transporting 2,190 men, 232 trucks, 10,445 tons of was material and 5,720 tons of fuel and lubricants. The Benghazi-bound convoy was the first large Italian attempt to supply Libya since the outbreak of the hostilities. The impromptu declaration of war had left the Italian armed forces in Libya utterly unprepared. The convoy was to deliver urgently needed supply of personnel, fuel and ordnance. The primary goal of M.A. 5, the concurrent British operation, was the transit of two convoy MF and MS. MF would include three cargoes at a speed of 13 knots, while MS would include 4 at a slower speed of 9. Part of the British plan also contemplated the possibility of a direct confrontation with the Italian Fleet "if the occasion arises". These convoys were to be escorted by three different forces. Force A, 7th Division, under Admiral Tovey, included 5 cruisers (Gloucester, Liverpool, Neptune, Orion, Sydney) and 1 destroyer. Force B, with the battleship Warspite and 5 destroyers (Nubian, Mohawk, Hero, Herewad,Decoy) under the command of Adm. Cunningham. Force C, with the battleships Royal Sovereign and Malaya, the aircraft carrier Eagle, and 10 (3) destroyers (Hyperion, Hostile, Hasty, Dainty, Defender, Juno, Janus, Stuart, Vampire, Voyager) under the command of Adm. Pridham-Wippel. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- (1) .It is to be noted that at the outbreak of the battle the Italians had already completed their escort missions while the British had delayed it and would not complete until after it. (2) The specifics are simple. During the battle the Warspite offered her broadside to the Italians while Cunninghams recommends using only the forward turrets thus, giving a much smaller profile to the enemy. (3) The 11th had to return to base.

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