Action off Calabria (Punta Stilo)


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.

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.

R.N. Cavour -and R.N. Cesare
(Foto USMM)

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 Cunningham recommends using only the forward turrets thus, giving a much smaller profile to the enemy. (3) The 11th had to return to base.

The Italian Convoy

The Esperia, Calitea, Pisani, Foscarini left Naples at 18:00 on July 6 under escort from the 14th “Squadriglia” (leader R.N. Procione), while the Barbaro left Catania (Sicily) at 11 on July 7th. In route the speed on the convoy was 14 knots (fast convoy) then, not too far from Benghazi, the convoy split and the Esperia and Calitea proceeded at 18 knots and the rest of the convoy at 14 knots. The general plan was to deceive the British into believing that the final destination would be Tripoli, when instead the destination would be the smaller port of Benghazi.

The convoy, considering its importance, was provided with several levels of protection.

A direct escort included the
2nd Division
10 Sq. Destroyers (4), 4 Sq. Destroyers. (4) Section Torpedo Boata Pilo Missoni.

A remote escort
1st Division
3 div. 12 Destroyers, 9 Destroyers. 11 Destroyers (6 Cruisers, 12 Destroyers) 35 miles east of the convoy.

While the main battle group would include
5 div. Battleships (2), 4 and 6 div Cruisers. (6) 7, 8, 15, 16 Destroyers. (13)

The commander at sea for the Italian force was Admiral Inigo Campioni.

At 07:58 on July 7th, when all the Italian Naval Groups (Divisioni) were still in port, Supermarina gave news of the imminent operation. At 00:40 on July 8th, Supermarina informed the fleet that radio location conducted at 20:00 of the previous day, had localized the British Fleet at about 60 miles north of Ras el Tin with a second group at about 45 miles more to the east and bound for Malta. Meantime, aerial reconnaissance located five transports in harbor at Malta. At 12:15 on the same day, it was confirmed that a large naval group (Group B) had left Alexandria at 16:00 of the previous day. The first information was accurate, while the subsequent ones were erroneous. The British Force (M.F.) left port late on the 7th and it cleared the harbor (Cunningham) by midnight; 00:00 on the 8th.

The 00:40 message reached Admiral Campioni not sooner than 01:50. Until then, the Italian Fleet had followed the prearranged plan, but after the message, Campioni thought best to alter the plan. The Benghazi convoy on a 147 degree course was redirected to a 180 degrees one for the possible change of destination to Tripoli. The “Pola” group was to be prepared to reunite with the “Cesare” group at 05:30. At down, two planes from the 4 Div. Cruisers would explorer the area between 90 and 140 from the battleship Cesare up to 100 mile radius.

In the meantime, the submarine Beilul had informed Supermarina that at 23:40 on the 7th it had attacked a British destroyer (1) and that the countermeasure had been particularly harsh. The submarine was informing base of its return to Leros. At 07:10, after the negative reconnaissance conducted by the two planes, (simply due to the fact that the British fleet was not there), Campioni ordered the convoy back on course for Benghazi, along with the 7th Div and the smaller escort.
At 15:20 Campioni decided to move toward a previously detected British force of three battleships and 8 destroyers, which had been signaled by a plane from the Abruzzi and planes from the Regia Aeronautica. His intent was to interdict any British attempt to bomb the port of Benghazi. In the meantime at 18:20, Supermarina, having been able to decipher British signals, ordered Campioni not to engage the enemy. At 19:20, Campioni turned to 330 degree (almost due north) and moved the whole group back towards Italy. During this maneuver, at 19:20, some of the ships were attacked by British bombers which did not score any hits.

Reportedly, during the night, the Italians avoided two distinct torpedo attacks conducted by their own destroyers. At 04:30 the group Pigafetta, having misidentified shades in the dark, went on the attack without hitting the incoming heavy cruisers “Trentos” which were later recognized by the group Folgore. At 10:30-12:30 the destroyers Dardo, Da Noli, Strale return to Taranto due to technical failure, and at 14:00 they were followed by the light cruisers Diaz and Cadorna also victims of engine failure.

In the meantime, Supermarina had already forwarded the necessary instructions to Campioni, ordering the fleet to converge at 14:00 to a point around 37″40’ 17″20’, about 65 miles south east of Punta Stilo, in preparation for the expected engagement with the British. This is an important point because many British books assert that Cunningham was seeking battle while the Italians were running away. Multiple sources confirm that the Italian Fleet was waiting for the British and that it had position itself in a strategically appropriate position. Campioni sent some of the destroyers back to the Sicilian bases to refuel and recalled the “Vivaldi” group, which had been left in Taranto. These destroyers left port at 06:18 on the 9th.
The departure of the Vivaldi group will have an important bearing on the soon to develop polemic over the failed intervention of the two “Vittorio Veneto” class battleships at anchor in Taranto. In fact, with the departure of the Vivaldi group, the two capital ships were left without a proper screen and their adventuring into the submarine-infested Gulf of Taranto would have been a serious gamble.

Initial Skirmish

At 12:00 hours Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, while still 90 miles east of the Italian Fleet, decided to leave the slower Malaya, Royal Sovereign and Eagle behind while he set forth in the Warspite at 24 knots. At 11:45 and at 15:45 hours the Eagle launched 15 Swordfish in the hope of hitting the Italian battleships; both sorties failed to achieve a hit. At the same time, Admiral Tovey’s cruisers spread 10 miles in front of Warspite and at 1510 hours the Neptune sighted the Italian fleet (1).

According to the 1948 “official” British report the battle began when, at 15:15, the four Italian heavy cruisers opened fire at a range of 21,500 meters against the 7th Cruiser Squadron of Admiral John Towey. The Italian report differs, claiming that the first shot came from the 152/50 guns of the British cruisers at around 15:17. Considering that the Cesare kept the Italian records and that communication between ships was not instant, we should consider that the British might be correct. Nevertheless, the battle had begun.

The Italian fleet followed a textbook firing succession using high explosive shells to straddle the enemy ships. Despite the extreme distance, which was at times past the maximum allowed range, the Italian found their range in about three minutes. At 15:05, the VII Division had turned to 70 degrees, decisively pointing against the British cruiser squadron. At 15:12, Cunningham ordered the 7th Squadron to change course to 350 degrees and by 15:20 distance between the two groups was down to a bit more than 20,000 meters.

The British cruisers fired at the VII Division and then at the oncoming IV Division, which included the light cruisers Da Barbiano and Di Giussano under the command of Admiral Alberto Marengo. The two Italian cruisers, mistaken by the British for the much feared “Zara” class heavy cruisers, received much of the attentions from the Australian cruiser Sydney and the British Orion. At the same time, Towey fired at the Italian destroyers of the IX Squadron, which was under the command of Lorenzo Dorsetti. The Italian destroyers were able to identify units behind the enemy cruisers and at the same time the Alfieri, Oriani, Gioberti and Carducci opened fire against the British cruisers. At 15:20 fire would cease and the destroyers would change course to reach their assigned tactical position.

During this first exchange, the British fire was not disperse, problem this always experience by the Regia Marina (2), but range was usually off. The British difficulty to accurately find range was an issue first noticed aboard the Espero during the action of June 28th. Between 15:22 and 15:23 the Italian fire became dangerously close to the British cruisers and Adm. John Towey decided to disengage. At this point a shell from the Garibaldi hit the Neptune causing damages to the catapult and the reconnaissance plane. At 15:12 even the IV Division began firing at a distance of about 24,100 meters. Here the British records talk of a hit against one of the Italian cruisers, which is not confirmed by the Italian records. The cruisers began drifting apart and at 15:30 fire ceased, ending the first part of the battle.

The Battleships Enter the Fight

The Warspite opened fire against the Da Darbiano and the Di Giussano which, according to the British, were attempting a sortie against the Eagle and the damaged Gloucester. The Eagle and the Gloucester, along with a few destroyers, were left about 10 miles behind so that they would be properly protected. The Eagle did not have sufficient armor and was therefore very exposed. Furthermore, an aircraft carrier did not have any practical use during a ballistic exchange. The Gloucester, on the other hand, had been badly damaged by an aerial attack, which had devastated the bridge killing her captain and many officers. Admirably, the ship was been governed from her emergency station.

Once again, the British salvos were accurate, but did not score any hits. It is during this phase that the Warspite first complete a full loop and then a large S, thus allowing for the slower Malaya to catch up. The much slower Royal Sovereign will instead never be able to actively participate. Still, if Campioni had decided to continue fighting, the Royal Sovereign would have entered the picture within minutes and the Italian battle group would have been badly overpowered.

At around 15:23, following the cruiser action, the two Italian battleships and the heavy cruisers had changed course pointing decisively against the British capital ships. The Italians launched a RO 43 from the Eugenio di Savoia that was, shortly after, followed by a Sea Gladiator flown by the Eagle to oppose it. This British plane was the only fighter available on the aircraft carrier. Immediately after, the Warspite launched her hydroplane, which was to assist with the firing control. At around 15:45, and through 15:52, the destroyer screen around the Warspite clear out moving to the starboard of the battleship (3).

At 15:52 the Cesare finally opened fire against the Warspite at a range of 26,400 meters. The Italian followed a capital ruled learned from the reports following the battle of the Jutlund and each battleship was assigned a single target. The Cesare would engage the Warspite while the Cavour would aim at the incoming Malaya and eventually the Royal Sovereign. Following the battle, many would critique this strategy claiming that a combined fire from both Italian battleships against the Warspite would have had a better chance of scoring a hit. Unfortunately, these critics forget that during a combined action it is difficult for the firing control personnel to identify their own shells and therefore make the necessary adjustment.

At 15:53 the Warspite began firing without realizing that only the Cesare was engaging her. Fire was split in what is commonly known as volley firing with the aft turrets trained at the Cesare and the stern ones at the Cavour. During this exchange a “long” shot from the Cesare overshot the Warspite and landed (in the water, of course…) near the destroyers Hareward and Decoy, causing some minor damage. These fortuitous hits were also confirmed by Cunningham, but the fact that repair work was not completed until the end of August might suggest that damage might have been a bit more than just “minor”.

At 15:54 the Malaya also opened fire and kept it on until 15:58. Her distance was too great to reach the target but still it was giving the Italians the impression that she was attacking the Cesare. Campioni hoped that the 203mm guns of the Italian heavy cruisers could assist, but they were not yet in formation. Since Admiral Palladini, the commander of the cruiser group, was aboard the last cruiser in the formation, Admiral Cattaneo, on the leading Pola, commanded the action.

At 15:55 the Trento opened fire against the Warspite, firing three salvoes. The Bolzano could not join her since she was already engaging Towey’s cruisers which were returning to the scene. At 15:59 two shells from the Cesare were clearly seen fall near the Warspite. In 1948 Cunningham would confirm it judging the distance at about two “cables”; this is a very old unit of measurement, which correspond to about 360 meters. Some historians have placed the hits much closer.

Immediately afterward, a 381-mm shell from the Warspite found its target hitting the aft stack of the Cesare and then landing on her deck. Fortunately for the Italians, the British projectile failed to work properly exploding against the thin metal of the stack instead of the much thicker deck as it should have. Damage was immediate. Shrapnel from the shell causes several fires and the ready-use stowage of the nearby 37mm gun blew up. About two dozen sailors lay dead; many were wounded. The turbo fans sucked the thick smoke down into the engine room causing four out of eight boilers to be shut down. Speed decreased to 25 knots and within two minutes was down to 20 to then leveling at 18. Electrical power was lost to the entire ship for about 30 seconds. The Cavour, which was about 800 meters behind quickly reached her sister ship.

Damages to the Cesare
(Photo USMM)

The damage was actually less than immediately feared. The ship had retained all of her fighting capabilities, but it had lost speed which, would soon after be restored with the activation of two of the four boilers. From here on, the Italian and British records are quite contradictory. The Australian records seem to confirm the Italian theory that both the Cesare and the Warspite disengaged almost at the same time. As a matter of fact, one minute after the hit, the Warspite altered course to port side in a tight turn, which decreased speed from 24.5 knots down to 17. The maneuver was immediately detected by the Italian range finders, and by the RO 43 launched by the Da Barbiano. This sudden change of course caused the British guns to be temporarily silenced and the last salvo was fired by the aft upper turret at about 16:04 (16:03 according to the Italians).

Cavour’s battle flag
(Photo USMM)

The Malaya continued firing, but realizing that her shells were falling over 2,700 meters short to their target, she also changed course and rejoined formation. At 16:01 Campioni ordered a change of course, which took place two minutes later. Here the interpretation could not be wider; Cunningham called it a retreat while Campioni claims that he was executing a textbook maneuver allowing for the intervention of the torpedo launchers (destroyers). The smoke screen, which Cunningham stated came from the Italian cruisers defending the crippled battleships, was instead being generated by the Italian destroyers which were preparing for the attack. This is a well-established technique, which the British so brilliantly employed in the Second Battle of Sirte. The idea is to create a wall of smoke from which, suddenly, the destroyers would appear at high speed to launch their torpedoes. The smoke seen by Cunningham is the one generated by C.F. Amleto Baldo’s group, which included the destroyers Saetta and Freccia.
Probably, considering that between 15:52 and 15:58 the Cesare had properly found her target and that her shots were getting dangerously closed to the Warspite, Cunninghman had decided to disengage or wait for the Royal Sovereign. The sinking of the Warspite, or any serious damage to her, so far from home would have placed the whole fleet in the most dire straits.

The battle between the capital ships was over; and only seven minutes had passed since the beginning of the exchange!

Cruisers and Destroyers

At 15:55, when the battleships were exchanging salvos, 9 Swordfish from the Eagle flew over the battleground and attacked two of the Pola class cruisers, believing them to be battleships. The attacks, despite the close distance reached by the aircrafts, failed and at 17:05 the planes were already back on the Eagle. Starting at 15:58 the Italian cruiser Fiume, followed two minutes later by the Zara, Bolzano and Pola had opened fire.

The 7th Italian Naval Division (Eugenio di Savoia, Duca d’Aosta, Attendolo, Montecuccoli)
(Photo USMM)

The Gorizia and Trento followed soon after. Between 16:01 and 16:05 the guns of the Alfieri’s group had also joined the fight. The Fiume, under the command of C.V. Giorgio Giorgis, was engaging the Liverpool, which was later to receive the attentions of the Gorizia as well. The British cruisers quickly changed course causing some confusion amongst the British squadron and realigning the line. At the end of the shuffle the Sidney was the last of the line. This change made accurate firing almost impossible, and not much became of it even if at 16:07 the destroyer Afieri received a near miss which caused some minor damages. It is during this phase that the Bolzano received three direct hits, one of which temporarily locked her rudder, causing the ship to complete a full revolution. Repair work was quickly completed and the unit was back on line. At 16:41 the destroyers’ action continued until 16:50 when the battle came to an end. The actions conducted by the Italian destroyers were many, therefor we will limit ourselves to a brief summary.

16:069th Sq.C.V. Lorenzo DarettiAlfieri4
16:187th Sq.C.F. Amleto BaldoFreccia2
16:2011th Sq.C.V. Carlo MargottiniArtigliere4
16:2212th Sq.C.V. Carmine D’ArienzoLanciere4
16:2814th Sq.C.V. Giovanni GalatiVivaldi2
16:4512th Sq.C.V. Carmine D’ArienzoLanciere4

At 21:40 on the 10th, despite the warning already sent by Supermarina advising the Sicilian bases of possible air attacks, and thanks to a bright lunar glow, a formation of British bombers was able to launch four torpedoes in the harbor of Augusta. Three of the weapons failed their target, but the last one hit the destroyer Pancaldom (1), under the command of C.F. Luigi Merini, causing it to sink. The ship suffered 16 casualties and was later recovered and lost again of April 30th, 1943 near Cape Bon. The Bolzano and Cesare, the only two Italian units which had received direct hits, were transferred to la Spezia under the escort of 5 destroyers. Repair work commenced immediately and was soon completed. The Cesare’s damage was fully repaired in less than 30 days.

The Western Front

Force H left Gibraltar at 8:15 AM on the 8th with the Hood, Revenge, Valiant, Ark Royal, Enterprise, Emerald, Arethusa and 13 destroyers. The action was purely diversionary and was intended to confuse the Italians. At 19:00 on the 9th the R.A. dropped 144 250 Kg bombs probably hitting the Escort which would be later sunk by the submarine Marconi just 80 miles from the safety of Gibraltar. Surely, this unit had been badly damaged by the Italian planes otherwise, at the time indicated, it should have already reached port. Possibly, following information later received from Gibraltar, the Hood, the Ark Royal and another destroyer also received direct hits.

The Regia Aeronautica Fails to Deliver

Of all lessons learned at the battle of Punta Stilo, the most worrisome for the Italian was the Regia Aeronautica’s failure to sink any British ship. Although we now know that the British failed to disclose severe damage suffered by many vessels, still the R.A.’s threat, at least in the eye of the enemy, had partially evaporated. Even worst was the fact that about 50 Italian airplanes, instead of pursuing the enemy fleet, wrongly attack their own losing one plane to antiaircraft fire.

After the war, Gen. Santoro, the historian of the Regia Aeronautica, published a detailed list of all operations conducted by the R.A.,. The aircraft involved were mostly Savoia Marchetti S.79, S. 81 and Cant Z. 506. None of the airplanes carried torpedoes and this weapon had not yet been approved for use despite several successful tests. In total, 126 airplanes dropped 8 500 kg bombs, 236 250 kg , and 270 100 kg. Some of the aircraft returned, having failed to locate their target, with their payload. Of the aircraft involved in the fighting, 24 were slightly damaged by antiaircraft fire while one, as we just said, was downed.

Following the battle, the already existing contention between the two services reached its climax. Under political pressure, the Italian war bulleting credited the R.A. with a hardly credible list of successes. Count Ciano, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote in his diary “”La vera polemica in materia di combattimenti navali , non è tra noi e gli inglesi, bensì tra l’Aviazione e la Marina…”. The real issue in the area of naval engagement is not between the British and us, but between the air force and the navy. Ciano went on to state that he was skeptical about the many successes claimed by the R.A., but Mussolini was not; he truly believed that he had already destroyed half of the British naval power in the Mediterranean.

Blue Smoke

At 15:59 on July 9th 1940 an Italian Lieutenant aboard the destroyer Freccia, which was just ahead of the battleships Cesare and Cavour, at that time engaged in an exchange of salvos with the Warspite, saw several Italian shells fall near the British battleships. Suddenly, a plume of blue smoke was seen rising from the British ship. Other personnel, including some aboard the Cesare and on the highest viewing point, confirmed the same sighting. The official British records, published after the war in the London Gazette, do not report any hit aboard the famous battleship. To be precise, the actual wording used by Admiral A.B. Cunningham varied from the original report to his, later published, memoirs. The complete denial of any damage claimed by the report was later replaced by a most vague “heeling over to check damage”. In fact, when the Warspite entered the port of Alexandria with a noticeable inclination, most thought that it had been damaged. In reality, according to Cunningham, the crew was only checking for eventual damage under the waterline.

Fragment of a 381-mm shell (15″) which hit the battleship Giulio Cesare at the battle of Punta Stilo (7-9-40)
Museo Navale di La Spezia
(Photo Cristiano D’Adamo)

Aboard various Italian ships there were many journalists whose professional integrity can be hardly challenged. Among them the famous Alberto Mondadori and Vero Roberti, not to mention Paolo Monelli, Aldo Paretti and Alfio Capellini. In one way or another, they all confirmed the sighting of the mysterious hit. Following the trail of these discrepancies between the official Italian reports and the one published by the British, the author Enrico Cernuschi conducted a lengthy research at the Public Record office in New Garden, England. His research, which lasted over five years, extended to the Australian record office and other sources.
A real clue was found in ADM199, “Wartime damages to ships: Reports 1939-1945”. This is a large and poorly organized collection of wartime records, some of which are hand written, but mostly typed. The reports on the Warspite are missing and replaced by a typed page saying “Not available”. Although the prescribed period for keeping these documents secret has long expired, it appears that the original will not make it back to the archive. This “absentia” confirms the theory presented by the author of a possible British cover up or better, a concerted effort to keep any damage suffered by the Royal Navy during the battle of Punta Stilo absolutely secret. As a matter of fact, it appears that the whole period 1940 through 1941 in the Mediterranean was systematically purged.

The reasons presented are plausible. The Royal Navy was under heavy political pressure to demonstrate its power in a decisive engagement against the much-vilified Regia Marina. This engagement was to destroy the Italian fleet and allow England to maintain control over the Mediterranean. Despite the bombastic announcement made by London after the battle, Cunningham’s desperate cry for more ships tells a very different story.

Still, continuing his research, Cernuschi discovered the minutes of a meeting held on August 7th, 1940 at the Admiralty with the purpose of discussing changes to the design of the battleships of the “Lyon” class following the lessons learned during “the recent action fought in the Mediterranean”. During the meeting, presided by the Vice-Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Thomas S.V. Phillips, two important issues were discussed: the damage from shrapnel under the waterline and the performance of the ammunition depots for the smaller guns.
The damage caused by near misses under the waterline was the result of the different post-explosion trajectory patterns between aerial and naval shells. British ships were designed for protection from aerial bombs where the shrapnel tends to blast upward, while fragments of naval shells moved downward. Therefore, a near miss from a naval shell would inevitably spray a relatively large amount of shrapnel under the water line. Considering the absorbing factor provided by the water, to be effective, the near miss would have to be close enough. According to British reports, at times their ships were fully engulfed by towers of water.

Another topic of discussion was the damage caused by a 12.6″ shell hitting the ship at a speed of about 4,000 feet per second. The shell had caused damage to the magazine of a twin-gun 102/45 model MK XIX. The only 12.6″ guns used by the Italians during the battle were installed on the Cesare and Cavour, while the 102/45 was the secondary armament of the Warspite. This twin-barrel gun was mounted near the single funnel just behind the bridge. The only discrepancy is the model number: the Warspite had Mark VIII while the report refers to Mark XIX. One must assume that there was a typo, unless the damage was to the Malaya, since this ship had eight such guns. The report went on to confirm the efficiency of the magazine venting system, which allowed for the explosion to be properly released upward. These redesigned magazines had been installed in 1923 and allowed for the explosion of the shells contained in the area to blast through an appositely designed venting system.
Probably we will never know to what extent the British ships were damaged. It is sure that the repair facilities in Alexandria were kept quite busy, including the only available dry dock. Ultimately, the damage to the Cesare which, in writing as recent as Santoni’s “L’Italia in Guerra: Il primo anno – 1940″is still reported as very serious, was probably similar to that which was inflicted on the British by the Italians. We would have to conclude that the difference in the damage suffered by the two Navies was essentially minimal. Nevertheless, considering that Great Britain was the most powerful naval force in the world, one might want to provide the Regia Marina with more credit than what was so sparingly given by so many historians.


As a result of this battle, the British supposedly achieved a psychological ascendancy which they never relinquished, even in the desperate days of 1942, or so claim Erminio Bagnasco and Mark Grossman. The historian James J.Sadkovich disagrees: according to his book “The Italian Navy in WW II”, the British showed their inability to interdict Italian traffic to Libya, while the true Italian failure was in the long delays in getting the cargo off the ships. Militarily speaking, Punta Stilo was a draw, but the Italians had shown that they could face the mighty Royal Navy. As recently as February 1998, the Italian author Enrico Cernuschi makes an excellent case for a full reevaluation of this battle. Ultimately, the British, who thought it possible to win the Mediterranean front relying solely on their Navy, relinquished most of the initiative to the Army. Not without the subsequent American intervention would the balance of power tilt against the Axis. The debate is still open…