Supermarina, the Italian navy command, decided to counteract the increasing British traffic in the Aegean by transferring two light cruisers under the command of Admiral Casardi to the Italian base of Leros in the Dodecanese. The two units, part of of the Second Division, were the light cruisers Bande Nere and Colleoni of the Di Giussano class and left Tripoli on the evening of July 17th, 1940. While transferring, in the morning of July 19th, the Bande Nere and Colleoni met several British destroyers of the Second Flotilla off the island of Crete and went into pursuit (Hyperion, Ilex, Hero, and Hasty).
R.N. Bartolomeo Colleoni
Despite the fact that these cruisers were built to fight destroyers, and probably due to the very rough sea, the attack was not successful. The British destroyers immediately cruised North where the Australian cruiser Sydney and the destroyer Havock set up a mortal trap.
An hour later, at 0730 the cruiser division entered into contact with the second British force composed of the cruiser H.M.A.S. Sydney, the destroyer Havock and immediately turned South. The four destroyers of the Second Flotilla joined in. The heavy sea made the Italian fire control almost impossible and only a single hit reached the Sydney on a funnel.
R.N. Bartolomeo Colleoni during the battle
After about one hour of an intense exchange of salvos, at 0824 the British scored a hit on the Colleoni, which locked the rudder. A second hit immediately disabled the cruiser. Without power, the Colleoni fought on using the manually operated 100mm guns, but it soon succumbed to torpedoes, sinking at around 8:30. The H.M.A.S. Sydney, short of ammunition, disengaged from the remaining Bande Nere which made it safely to Benghazi, despite a hit from a 6″ gun. The Italian air force, only one hour flight time from the scene, did not arrive if not no thwart British attempts to rescue the survivors of the Colleoni.
he R.N. Colleoni dead in the water without its bow.
(Photo Imperial War Museum)
The destroyers Hyperion, Ilex and Havock were able to rescue over 525 sailors, while 4 officers, 17 non-commissioned officers and 100 sailors died. Captain Umberto Novaro of the Colleoni was rescued, but died of severe wounds four days later in Alexandria where he was buried with full military honors, with Captain Collins of the Sydney being one of the officers baring the coffin.
The Bande Nere was sunk by a British submarine on April 1st, 1942 while the H.M.A.S. Sydney was sunk by the German Raider Kormoran during an epic battle near Fremantle (Australia).