Battle of Matapan


Eloquently expressing how, for the Italians, that episode was the worst naval defeat in the history of the Regia Marina, the journalist Gianni Rocca, in his book Fucilate gli Ammiragli (Shoot the Admirals), called it “Caporetto at sea”, referring to the Italian Army’s catastrophic First World War rout. More than 2,300 died at Matapan, with 800 men taken prisoner, a battleship damaged, three heavy cruisers and two destroyers sunk; all with a desolate lack of positive results to show for it. Not even the British air attack at Taranto had extracted such a fearsome toll. The doomed ships arrived at their unexpected night encounter at the end of a long chain of errors made up of delays, omissions, faulty assessments and anomalies. Although many were of relatively small import, added together and sparked by chance they had a devastating effect. It is therefore logical to ask whether the defeat might have been avoided if only one or two of the many things that went wrong had instead gone right.

R.N. Vittorio Veneto

It is the very attempt to answer this question that brings out the paradoxical aspect of Matapan. When one focuses strictly on the events of the 28th and 29th of March, 1941, one generally reaches the conclusion that the tragedy could have definitely been avoided, or at least greatly alleviated. However, when a broader view is taken, it is almost impossible not to see how its seeds had been sown both in the days immediately preceding the operation and, more importantly, many years before. Stating the paradox in more explicit terms, if on the one hand the tactical and judgment errors made as the operation unfolded were avoidable, the way the operation itself was conceived and, more in general, the fallacies in the Regia Marina’s doctrine and war planning had long before and irreversibly compromised the fleet’s effectiveness as an instrument of war, paving the way to the debacle. Thus, from this point of view, the lesson taught by Matapan is as pertinent today as it was in 1941: a Navy based on yesterday’s employment criteria cannot win today. In the foreword to Roskill’s Matapan: Two Fleets Surprised, Admiral Cunningham, who commanded the British battle fleet at Matapan, had this to say about the Italians:

While their fighting techniques were hopelessly outdated – roughly equivalent to our own during the First World War – their individual deeds were, in some cases, very gallant. In his essential, unadorned prose, the British Admiral went right to the heart of his adversary’s fundamental problem. Undoubtedly, the Italians lacked many elements that could have made their Navy more effective: carrier borne aircraft, radar, active sonar, flashless powder, a sufficient supply of fuel and raw materials, and so on. But on the other hand – and far more importantly – they lacked ideas. More specifically, they lacked the will, the courage, and in some cases the means to put them in practice.

R.N. Vittorio Veneto in Naples just before its departure
(Photo Fraccaroli)

To avoid misunderstandings, it must be stated clearly that there was no lack of intelligent and farsighted men in the Regia Marina; but all too often they went unheeded, or heeded only half-heartedly. In the Thirties, in fact, a rudimentary active sonar had already been built in Italy, the basic principle of radar operation was definitely known there, and nearly all Italian naval officers agreed on the need for aircraft carriers. So the basic elements needed to close, at least in part, the technological gap between the Regia Marina and the Royal Navy were in place. Yet, not only did the construction of ships of debatable usefulness continue, but performance parameters that in practice turned out to be irrelevant were emphasized to the detriment of those that could really have enhanced the ships’ effectiveness. Thus, for instance, hull protection was sacrificed for the sake of speed, and firing rate was sacrificed for the sake of increasing projectile range. Such choices were clearly driven by a narrow, antiquated notion that ships would be employed alone against other ships instead of being integrated with air power. And yet in Italy the possibility of using aircraft as torpedo bombers had been explored as early as the Twenties! The project got shelved because no one was able to see beyond the technological hurdles which needed to overcome to go from the idea to practical results. With very few exceptions, the most notable being the well known mezzi d’assalto, many other budding innovations requiring additional development met the same end before they could bear fruit.

Admiral Da Zara, in his book Pelle d’Ammiraglio (Admiral’s Skin) recounts in clearly frustrated tones that, in his view, the Regia Marina would have been better off trying to be the strongest of the second-tier Navies instead of the weakest of the first-tier ones. In other words, the Admiral believed that trying to compete in terms of capital ships against nations whose industrial potential far exceeded Italy’s was ultimately self-defeating. It would have been better, therefore, to devote available resources to the development of innovative and promising tactics and weapons rather than applying old fashioned criteria with no hope of producing more and better materiel than the likely adversaries. Yet this was in fact the route taken by the Regia Marina, which laid out its construction program following the dubious criterion of naval parity with France. Thus, when the “hour of irrevocable decisions” came, a fleet conceived to fight a small, 1916 style, Jutland-like engagement in the Mediterranean found itself instead bogged down in a protracted, wearisome convoy battle, for which it was neither trained nor equipped.

Matapan must be re-examined in this light, because the factors listed in the preceding paragraphs, without directly influencing its outcome, prepared the way for it. Understandably, the first authors to write about the subject focused mostly on the more proximate causes of the defeat. Subsequently, the importance of contingent effects whose existence was revealed only later was first overestimated and then reconsidered. This was the case for radar shortly after the battle, for code breaking during the Seventies, and for the evidence collected by Mattesini in Il Giallo di Matapan, Revisione di Giudizi (The Matapan Mystery: Revised Judgments), which belies or in any case sheds a different light on Admirals Iachino’s and Fioravanzo’s writings, in the Eighties. The many pieces of the Matapan puzzle offer endless temptations to get lost in the details, and analyzing all such details, while interesting, would be impossible: better to observe the overall view from a safer distance.

In a nutshell, the story of Matapan is simply the story of six ships that, unaware of the nearby presence of the enemy battle fleet, sailed on to meet their doom in the darkness of a March night. Their presence in the waters south of Greece was the result of a wrong decision: almost certainly the most egregious, but definitely not the only one made in the course of an ambitious operation undertaken by the Italian fleet. As we shall see, the operation was flawed not only because of the deficiencies in its preparation, but also by the fact that, just a few hours after its start, some of its premises were in doubt and its objectives had vanished.


Almost all authors who wrote about Matapan gave quite a bit of attention to the Merano conference. The consensus is that, as a result of the discussions held during the conference, the Gaudo and Matapan operation was conceived to placate the Germans’ pressing demands. Doubtless there were pressures, not necessarily for an operation of such broad scope, but more in general to spur the Regia Marina to take on a more aggressive stance in the eastern Mediterranean basin. It was in those waters, in fact, that the British convoys which supplied the British expeditionary force operating in Greece had to transit. The Italians, indeed, had already hatched plans to disrupt that traffic long before, but such a vast operation, so far from home waters, was considered too hazardous because the enemy had local air superiority, thanks to the availability of airports in Greece and Crete. Such plans were, however, dusted off as a result of the Merano conference.

It has also been written that the scheme moved from the study to the planning phase when some German flyers claimed they had attacked and torpedoed two British battleships. The claim was later found to be in error, and Italian high commands were duly notified but, because of a procedural error, the correct information failed to reach the right people in time to be of any use. This version, which is widely known, is peremptorily contradicted by Mattesini, who provides quite convincing evidence that both Supermarina (the Italian Navy’s High Command) and the Comandante Superiore in Mare (Task Force Commander), Admiral Eaton, knew that the Royal Navy still had three operational battleships when there was still ample time to call off the operation. The generally accepted hypothesis that the operation had been based on the notion that the enemy force had been reduced to a single battleship, therefore, should be viewed with more than a little suspicion. It should also be noted that, regardless of which version may be closer to the truth, things would have been little different even if the two battleships really had been put out of commission. Cunningham was not the kind who would sit on his hands when the enemy was at sea as long as he had even a single battleship he could fight with.

Another interesting facet of Matapan’s preparatory phase lies in the difficulties faced in ensuring an adequate air cover in the waters where the ships would be more vulnerable to enemy air offensive. The Air Force’s inability to fight off British torpedo bombers’ attacks, coupled with the poor results obtained from aerial reconnaissance, were often used by Iachino and Supermarina as extenuating circumstances for their failings. But while it is undeniable that such deficiencies, especially the former one, were glaring, it should also be stated that, with the means available and the ineffective communications existing between Navy and Air Force, it would not have been logical to expect anything better. The fundamental problems were, in essence, two. First, the fact that Air Force and Navy, which had never actually cooperated in peacetime, were now totally unprepared to do so at war: the illusions of anyone who may have thought differently had been dashed at Punta Stilo. Second, the aircraft available in Aegean bases, few in numbers and obsolete in type, made a pressing argument against the idea of placing most of the onus of protecting the fleet on them. It is surprising that nobody thought about providing more modern and effective aircraft to the air wings entrusted with this most difficult task. Apparently, and this seems truly incredible, the Air Force leadership had not been informed of the operation’s importance and scope. Thus, ironically, the Regia Marina, which – as we shall see – had been unable to prevent the enemy from guessing its intentions, did in fact succeed in keeping its sister service in the dark.

Another bone of contention among those who studied the battle was the importance of Ultra, the British information service that succeeded in breaking encrypted messages transmitted through the German “Enigma” apparatus. Before discussing this subject, some clarification is called for. First of all, the version that Enigma was used only by German commands, which thus were unwittingly responsible for the leaks, is false: Italians used it too. Second, Ultra was not generally able to read messages in real time: using the rudimentary processors available to the Blechley Park specialists, “translating” the messages took quite some time, even days, and this was compounded by the frequent change in the codes used. The cryptographers’ skill, therefore, stemmed from their ability not only to read the text of the message, but also to decide which messages warranted top priority, because not all of them could be decrypted. Essentially, although some of the information available to Cunningham came from Ultra, guessing the Axis’ intentions would not have been an overwhelming task even without it. The increase in the volume of radio traffic and the location of the Commands that produced most of it provided the initial indications and warnings: little more was needed to determine the objective of the operation.

When the ships left their homeports, the enemy was certainly not surprised. However, there were many details that Cunningham still did not know, such as the composition of the Italian force, the area where it was to deploy, its course, etcetera. But if the target was the supply traffic headed for Greece, many of the unknowns could be inferred with fairly close approximation. Hence, the Britons’ first move was to stop that traffic. Later, when a reconnaissance plane signaled that Trento-class heavy cruisers were at sea, the British saw their suspicions confirmed while the Italians saw their hopes of achieving complete surprise vanish hopelessly.

It was roughly at this time that the Chief of Staff of the Navy, Admiral Riccardi, spoke with his Operations Officer, Admiral Campioni, to decide whether the operation should be continued. Lately, there had been no indications of British traffic towards Greece, but perhaps not much importance was attached to this fact, or it was ascribed to deficient reconnaissance. Still, although the main Italian force had not been discovered yet, the enemy must have known that at least a cruiser squadron was underway. In hindsight, there was ample cause to cancel, or at least postpone, the operation. Why was this not done? According to the most widely accepted version, the factors that influenced the decision were multifold. Canceling the operation would have had negative repercussions on crew morale, since the ships had gotten underway several times before only to return to port without accomplishing anything. Surprise, while not total, could at least be partial, as the battleship had not yet been spotted. Lastly, the operation had been conceived in part as a show of earnestness for the Germans, so its cancellation would have proven that the accusations of timidity and inefficiency implicitly moved against the Regia Marina by the German allies were well founded.

Adm. Riccardi (center) and Adm. Iachino (left)
(Photo U.S.M.M.)

Assuming that the two Admirals really did exchange these views, one can say, again with hindsight, that none of these arguments justifies the decision they reached: the first two are invalid, the third one irrelevant. Campioni and Riccardi were responsible for the effective use of the fleet as an instrument of war, and they would be held accountable first and foremost to the Italian nation. Since both the target and surprise, considered an essential prerequisite, had been eliminated, the military value of the operation would – at best – be left to luck. Hoping to make a good impression on the Germans without accomplishing anything was altogether inconceivable. Yet the fact is that the order to return to base, which the Commanding Officer of the cruiser Bolzano, Captain Maugeri, expected any minute after the reconnaissance plane was sighted, was never issued, and the ships kept on steaming, undisturbed, on a south-easterly course. The date: March 27th, 1941.

The Conference of Merano

The conference of Merano (Convegno Italo-Germanico di Merano) took place in the Tyrolean town of Merano, near the Austrian border, on the 13th and 14th of February 1941. The Krigsmarine delegation included Admiral Reader and Kurt Frike, and Captain Kurt Aschmann, while the Regia Marina was represented by Admiral Arturo Riccardi, Raffaele de Courten, Emilio Brenta and Carlo Giartosio. The conference was organized in three meetings, with the most important taking place the morning of the 14th.

Following the conference, Supermarina – the Italian High Naval Command – compiled some very detailed documentation of the discussions in form of memoranda. Admiral Riccardi himself signed the memorandum covering the meeting of the 14th. The conference had been planned for December 1940, but after the well-known shake up of the Regia Marina’s commanding structure, it had been postponed. The changes at the top was the result of the failure to protect Taranto and the unsatisfactory results of the Battle of Cape Teulada. Admiral Iachino, who had criticized Admiral Campioni for the lost opportunity of Teulada, was made Commander in Chief of a now reunified fleet. It was previously divided into two main battle groups. Following the conference, and according to Iachino, Supermarina failed to inform him of the results of the discussions. This point is very controversial since the person who supposedly briefed Iachino, Admiral Campioni, was later executed in Verona and therefore could not defend himself. Either way, with Campioni informing Iachino or Iachino failing to take notice, the results , as we shall see, would be disastrous.

On the second day of the conference, the morning meeting began with Admiral Reader’s examination of the current strategic situation in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Although Admiral Reader emphasized the importance of the interception of enemy traffic in the Atlantic, he did not diminish the importance of the Mediterranean sector. The presentation might have been just a matter of courtesy; the Germans truly believed that by interdicting all commercial traffic in the Atlantic, Great Britain could be brought to her knees. The Mediterranean, despite various assurances to the contrary, had not yet been identified as the crucial sector in which the fate of the Axis forces would mostly be decided. Although the debate is still open, later events tell us that if Axis forces had pushed forward and reached the Arabian oil field, the evolution of the conflict would have been substantially different. The Mediterranean was not just the door to rich oil fields, but eventually to the desperately needed raw material available in the East.

Admiral Riccardi, representing the Regia Marina’s opinions, replied that a major battle between the two opposing naval forces (British and Italian) was inevitable. Perhaps, he was envisioning a “Mediterranean” Jutlund. Reader reminded the audience that in early discussion with the Fuehrer, he had examined the possibility of excluding the British Fleet from the Mediterranean by seizing Gibraltar. Although discussions with Franco were in progress, it appeared that Spain was not ready to join the Axis. Ultimately, Franco’s decision was a wise one, and it was primarily driven by internal issues – Spain was recuperating from a brutal civil war – and early Italian military failures did not inspire much confidence. In the Germans’ view, on the eastern front Alexandria could have been eliminated utilizing forward-located air force bases. The Germans expressed concerns regarding the delayed neutralization of Malta, to which the Italians replied that their air force was pounding the island day and night. Ultimately, the Regia Aeronautica proved incapable of subjugating the island, which was eventually brought to near collapse by the intervention of the Luftwaffe. This is an important point; the German naval command truly thought that the air force alone could do the job. The Italians, at least at the beginning, agreed, but then all parties would realize that it was up to the foot soldiers to finish the job. Despite a comprehensive plan, the actual invasion never took place and eventually Malta came back with a vengeance.

Admiral Reader thought that Malta could also be blocked utilizing mines and naval forces, similar to what was done near the Thames, but the Italians described their difficulties approaching the island due to some sort of advanced warning system. Here the Germans failed to disclose their knowledge of British radar technology, and the Italians paid a high price for this failure to disclose such vital information. When the Xa Mas attempted to violate the port of La Valletta, Malta’s radar station followed their progress all the way to the harbor, to then unleash an overpowering avalanche of fire. Although not perfect, the radar installation in Malta allowed for early warning and proved to be extremely valuable.

Reader thought that the occupation of Greece would ease the general situation, and Riccardi agreed; in fact, the occupation did help. The German admiral, although admitting that the situation was difficult, was sure about some positive resolution. “Tripoli must be reinforced,” the Germans emphatically conveyed, and “the troops sent by the Fuehrer to North Africa should receive increased escort service.” The Italians confirmed the deployment of additional torpedo boats and two cruiser divisions. Ultimately, the German ally would become aware of the enormous sacrifices made by the Italian Navy to guarantee the shipment of personnel and war materiel to the North African front. Later on, General Rommel would be the only one loudly complaining about his supplies, but he was also the one voraciously consuming them. Reader was emphatic about the geopolitical importance of stopping the British offensive in North Africa and closing the Sicilian Straits. Riccardi replied that the British were never able to send battleships across the straits, excluding the Malaya, which crossed during operation M.B.9. At the time, North Africa was the only open front; the Germans had stopped at the Atlantic wall and Operation Barbarossa had not yet commenced.

Getting back to Malta, Reader restated the importance of eliminating Malta. Referring to experience acquired during the Norwegian Campaign, the admiral pointed out that with the concentration of efforts, the enemy would eventually be forced to withdraw. The discussion then covered Benghazi, with the Italians believing that the port was in very precarious conditions. What followed is important to the understanding of the Battle of Matapan. Many believe that it was the Germans who almost forced the Italians to take action in an operation against British traffic in the Aegean. Operation “Luster” had begun and the British were shipping large numbers of troops and supplies to Greece. The Germans were concerned about this build-up since they were ready to move in from Romania and occupy the Hellenic peninsula. Clearly, the Italian report does not convey any strong German demand, it states: “Reader believed that fast units, such as the Littorios, could operate under destroyer escort against light enemy forces, including cruisers.” Italian plans for a naval action were already on the drawing board, and Admiral Iachino himself had presented one. Iachino’s plan was similar to the Germans’; a fast super battleship (super for the time, since the Littorios were the first Washington class battleship) and destroyers. Faster than the British Queen Elizabeth stationed in the Mediterranean, a Littorio class battleship could have easily avoided battle if conditions were not appropriate. According to the Germans, the destroyers would have acted at night, while the larger unit would have finished off the enemy during the day. Riccardi replied by informing the German admiral that the British always provided heavy convoy escort, “two battleships and a carrier,” and that this should be kept in mind.

Although only marginally, we can detect that Supermarina was still envisioning a Jutland style confrontation, a duel to the death, while the Germans, who after all had witnessed the squander caused by such a confrontation, were proposing the equivalent of a naval blitzkrieg. Eventually, the only Italian surface victory came about during the Battle of Pantelleria when Italian cruisers implemented a tactic which would have pleased the Germans. Unfortunately, the Regia Marina was deeply entrenched in the idea of the “fleet in being” instead of earning the position of a “fleet in action”. The Royal Navy proved its worth and rarely did her ships show stern to the enemy.

Eventually, Supermarina departed from the idea of a fast battleship with a destroyer screen and included most of the Italian heavy cruisers (the Gorizia was undergoing refitting) and two light cruisers. The original German suggestion would have allowed for a much more mobile, flexible and better controllable force. Ultimately, it was the torpedoing of the Pola, and not of the Vittorio Veneto, which caused the Italian disaster. The Germans, and Iachino, were right. If during this operation even the British experienced communication problems between ships, how could have the Italians have avoided them? Simply, the Regia Marina deployed too many ships.

Back to the conference, Reader moved on to the Aegean sector where he foresaw the utilization of light forces during nocturnal actions. Reader also discussed the utilization of submarines, admitting their difficult operating conditions during daylight, but stressing their usefulness at night and against isolated ships. With the arrival of the U-Boot in the Mediterranean, he was proven right; while the Italians’ greater pray was a cruiser, the German submarines sank battleships and the mighty carrier Ark Royal. The two groups agreed on the need to occupy not only Greece, but also some of its islands, thus allowing the air force to operate against Egypt. Eventually, this design brought about the invasion of Crete. Interestingly enough, this was to be an airborne invasion in which the Regia Marina had a very marginal role.

Riccardi reminded the Germans that Italian aircrafts in Rodi were already operating against Alexandria. Before the loss of Cirenaica, it was possible to monitor the British fleet in Alexandria, but lately its whereabouts was unknown. The Aegean situation, according to the Italians, could only be solved with the opening of the Dardanelle so that fuel could be brought in from Romania. Naturally, with Turkish neutrality this never materialized.

The discussion moved on to cover France’s current political situation, including the occupation of Corsica and Algeria. By evaluating the length of the Italian report, the time spent on the topic must have been considerable. Ultimately, despite the time spent on the topic, German failure to allow the Italian occupation of Tunisia would have a substantial cost. The shorter routes could have saved many vessels, especially the newer ones which by the end of the Tunisian campaign (spring 1943) were all sunk.

Next, the two groups discussed the fuel situation and the Italians made their allies aware of the possibility of an imminent paralysis of most naval activities due to fuel shortage. The Italian position was that by June the surface forces would have run out of oil fuel, and that the submarine forces would have a few more months, but not many. The German admiral promised to support the Italian demands with the Fuehrer, but he also reminded all attendees of the general fuel crisis throughout Europe.

The conference concluded with the usual expressions of mutual support and commitments to the war effort, but what did the conference change? Much significance has been given to these two days of talks in Merano, probably due to the fact that within a few weeks the Italians lost three heavy cruisers and two destroyers in a devastating naval encounter with the Mediterranean Fleet. It should be agreed that the Germans did not particularly influence these events. Although Enigma intercepted Luftwaffe signals, the same can be said about orders issued by the Italians to their command in the Aegean Islands.

The true significance of Merano is that only within nine months from Italy’s entry into the war, the three basic strategic failures which will bring about her defeat had already been clearly identified. Malta was left in British hands, fuel was only available in small quantities, and Italian naval strategies were outdated. The issue of Malta could be easily pushed back to the Germans, and Rommel’s insistence that occupying Egypt had a greater priority. Still, the Italian forces had the means to conduct the operation on their own. Training of special troops and the construction of landing crafts show that, at one point, there was a will. The fuel situation is more complicated, especially because some historians have noticed discrepancies in the consumption and storage reports. Ultimately, one can say that, in September 1943, the Italian fleet did have enough fuel to steam all the way to Malta. Strategy was probably the greatest failure, but also the most difficult to criticize. Would the German battleship approach have worked? Considering that naval reconnaissance and aerial coverage of the fleet’s operation was always lacking, one might have much to ponder.

Finally, Merano was important because it was the end of the parallel war (the one originally wanted by the Italian government) and the beginning of Italian subjugation to the German will. Italy, once so proud, was quickly becoming a German vassal.

The Action off Gaudo

After their meeting, Campioni and Riccardi decided to make some slight changes to the operating plan. The information they had received indicated that British shipping traffic to Greece had been halted; perhaps hoping that they would still find game to be hunted South of Crete, the two admirals decided to reroute the Zara group, originally ordered to take position North of the island, and have it meet with the rest of the force, more to the South. This change, made at the last possible second, was at best a compromise solution and it probably did nothing to improve the likelihood of Italian success. However, one can hardly say that it was actually harmful, since both the waters to the North and to the South of Crete were devoid of merchant shipping.

The Italian ships had left their homeports in groups, with the Trieste squadron (Admiral Sansonetti) in the van, the Zara squadron (Admiral Cattaneo) to the rear, and the Vittorio Veneto, flagship for the whole force, more or less in the center of this long line of ships spread out over tens of square miles of Central Mediterranean. The haze and the south-easterly scirocco wind made station keeping difficult, but all escorting destroyers, i.e. the ships with the worst sea-keeping capabilities, were able to maintain the planned speed. When Sansonetti’s ships were detected by the reconnaissance plane, ordered course was 134, i.e. more southerly than necessary, because Iachino wanted the enemy to believe, if he sighted his ships, that they were steaming towards Libya. However, the British aircrew reported that the cruisers’ course was 120, which would have indicated a more easterly destination, Crete being the logical guess. The small error in the enemy aviators’ estimation, therefore, effectively defeated Iachino’s attempt to deceive reconnaissance planes, and in fact confirmed Cunningham’s suspicions. The Italian admiral was informed promptly of the text of the radio signal transmitted by the aircraft, thanks to the work of Commander Porta’s cryptographers, whom he had wisely brought along aboard the Veneto. Had he left the matter to Supermarina, he wouldn’t have found out until several hours later.

Admiral Sansonetti

Cunnigham’s preparations had been thorough and, as many authoritative writers observe, they had been aided by the more streamlined liaison between the various forces available to him which – being far quicker and more direct than those employed between the Italian commands – always made Air Force-Navy cooperation also much more effective. In addition to a number of aircraft available in airports in Crete, Greece, and North Africa, Cunninghan also had roughly thirty aircraft on the carrier HMS Formidable. Overall, although the number of available aircraft was less than overwhelming, British superiority stemmed from the far greater flexibility they enjoyed in deploying their forces. As we shall see, Cunningham was always able to issue orders to his aircraft in near real time, whereas Iachino’s requests had to go through Supermarina, which had to pass them on to Superaereo (the Italian Air Force High Command), which in turn would transmit them to local commands. The inevitable bureaucratic delays and the time taken up by encryption and decryption meant that such a process could take several hours.

In terms of ships, Cunningham commanded directly the Alexandria-based battle group (the flagship HMS Warspite, HMS Valiant, and HMS Barham), which were to steam with the previously mentioned Formidable, plus their escorting destroyers. It should be noted that, among the battleships, only Valiant was fitted with radar. Commanded by Admiral Pridham-Wippell and based in Piraeus, there were also four light (6 inch) cruisers with their own escorting destroyers. Cunningham ordered these ships to get underway early, and by the morning of the 28th they were positioned about eighty miles West of the main force, serving as the British vanguard during the operation. Their contribution to the British success was important, although – at least in the second part of the operation – their employment was not quite brilliant. To complete the picture, one should also mention three British destroyers, tasked with patrolling the Kythera Channel area, and several small Greek units which, because of a misunderstanding, ended up being employed only in rescue operations the morning of 29th of March.

H.M.S. Warspite, Cunningham’s flagship

The British battleships left Alexandria after sunset on March 27, to avoid having their departure promptly reported by spies. Iachino had taken similar precautions when Vittorio Veneto had sailed from Naples, but Cunningham was luckier: not only did no one report his departure, but the following day no reconnaissance aircraft overflew the harbor. As a result, throughout March 28 the Italians could never be quite sure of the enemy force’s order of battle, even after they had ascertained that the British were in fact underway. And that is not all: although one of the five Italian submarines in the area had detected the noise of the ships as they left Alexandria, no report was forwarded to Supermarina[1]. Cunningham did, however, hit a snag when the Warspite silted up her condensers on a mud bank while maneuvering out to get underway. The upshot was a temporary slowdown on the following morning, when the Admiral ordered the force to proceed at flank speed. The problem knocked a couple of knots off the battleship’s top speed, which would otherwise have been twenty-four knots for Warspite and Queen Elisabeth and twenty-two for Barham. However – as we shall see – the contretemps contributed to disperse the British formation. This, in turn, made it more difficult for Axis reconnaissance to attain a correct estimate of the force’s order of battle during most of the morning and the early afternoon hours of March 28.

In contrast with the enemy, communications between Axis aircraft and the Italian ships was, as stated, quite laborious, but on March 27 it was practically non existent because the haze prevented the successful completion of an exercise whereby the ships were be overflown. If successful, such a measure, while no more than an afterthought, would have at least kept alive the crews’ hope of receiving a modicum of air protection during the following day. Iachino, therefore, had every right to worry about its failure. The night between March 27 and 28 was, in any case, rather calm because the ships’ relatively high speed made them a difficult target for submarines and enemy reconnaissance was not yet equipped with the means required to be effective at night (it would be so equipped a few months later, and Axis merchant traffic to and from Libya would resent from this improvement).

Initial contact between the two forces occurred shortly after dawn on the 28th, when the float plane launched by the Italian flagship detected Pridham-Wippell’s ships just as Iachino was about to confirm the order for his units to turn back if no sighting were made by 0700. Shortly afterwards, two of the aircraft sent aloft by the British reported the presence of Italian ships. Initially, Pridham-Wippell thought that at least one of them had mistaken his own ships for the enemy’s. Later in the day, Iachino was to have similar doubts, but he could not benefit from the confirmation obtained by his British counterpart, whose doubts had to vanish when Sansonetti’s cruisers started to shoot at him.

Admiral Henry Pridham-Wippell
(Imperial War Museum)

Both cruiser groups had been tasked with luring the enemy into following them towards the main force, which in Sansonetti’s case was very close, whereas for Pridham-Wippell it was at least seventy miles away. A quick technical comparison between the opposing forces, a posteriori, would indicate that, had he allowed the distance between the opposing squadrons to fall within his guns’ effective range, Pridham-Wippell would have enjoyed fairly good odds of defeating Sansonetti[2]. Had he done so, however, his ships would then have had to deal with Iachino. Given his available data on the enemy ships, the British Admiral believed he was outgunned; in addition, his orders were to steam towards Cunningham’s main force and not to close the Italians. Sansonetti’s fruitless shoot-out went on until Iachino, noting that Italian fire was ineffective and that, rather than luring the enemy westward, his own ships were steaming too far to the East, ordered him to disengage. The action, which went down in history as the first phase of the Action off Gaudo, thus broke off a few minutes before 0900.

Almost simultaneously with the Italian ships’ course reversal, Iachino received a radio message from a reconnaissance aircraft belonging to the Italian Aegean Command, which reported that a large enemy force was at sea. The position indicated by the sighting, made over an hour previously, was close enough to that held by the Italian ships at the same time to make the mistake seem obvious. Actually, Cunningham’s force at that time was about ninety miles Southeast of the Veneto and Iachino was unaware of its presence, much as the British were unaware of the Italian battleship’s presence. In any case, Pridham-Wippell started to tag Sansonetti, maintaining his distance at the extreme range of visibility.

Iachino had undertaken the operation with offensive purposes, but had found no targets, except for those very cruisers which were now a few miles off his stern. After due consideration, the Italian admiral thus decided to attempt an ambush, turning his battleship to the South while Sansonetti reversed course to catch the British in the crossfire. The maneuver was executed well, but it failed because Pridham-Wippell was actually more to the North than Iachino thought, so the Vittorio Veneto’s fire did not cross that of the Trieste group as these cruisers reached the scene when the British were already in flight. Pridham-Wippell had some tense moments, but he was saved by the timely arrival of the Formidable’s torpedo bombers. While their attack failed, the planes forced the Veneto to turn, allowing the British to escape beyond the range of the Italians’ large-caliber guns. Around 1140, Iachino, who had neither sighted nor been told of any merchant traffic, having lost all hope of closing Pridham-Wippell and figuring that his destroyers’ fuel reserve did not allow them to steam much longer in the area, turned his ships homeward for the second time.

At that point, Cunningham was about seventy miles Southeast of the Italian flagship and, knowing that the enemy was faster, could only hope to force a fight if he would somehow succeed in slowing the Italians down. The only way to achieve this was through an air attack, and in fact, starting at noon, the Italian ships were attacked repeatedly, both by land-based and carrier-borne aircraft. It was in the course of these attacks, two of which – as we shall see – were successful, that one of the many failings in the Italian plan was exposed: no air escort had been planned for the afternoon of that fateful March 28[3].


[1] Apparently, not even the submarines’ captains had been told the details of the operation, so that the otherwise brilliant Lieutenant Mario Arillo did not consider such noise important enough to warrant an immediate transmission to Rome.
[2] This assessment, which in an academic discussion would definitely meet with many dissenting opinions, is based on the following factors: 1) although the Italian ships’ guns had larger caliber and longer range, their firing rate was slower than the enemy’s guns, which were also more numerous (36 six-inch British guns to the Italians’ 24 eight-inch guns); 2) Trento class cruisers had obsolescent fire control systems which, coupled with the known and endemic longitudinal dispersion of the salvos, made for very inaccurate shooting. In fact, during the Gaudo action, all Italian salvos fell short because target range was underestimated; 3) the Italian cruisers’ speed, superior on paper, was in practice equal or even lower than the British ships’, and in fact when the British increased speed, Sansonetti was not able to close them; 4) structurally, Trento class cruisers incorporated outdated technical solutions, making them more vulnerable than armor thickness (already marginal in itself) would lead to believe.
[3] As Mattesini rightly observes, although it was a severe shortcoming, one should also keep in mind that, in most cases, the Italian ships were attacked beyond both the Italian and the German fighters’ range, which further highlights the organizational failures of the operation and the technical failings of the Italian war-fighting apparatus.

The Chase

During the morning, Cunningham’s steaming had been slowed by Warspite’s clogged condensers and by Formidable’s course changes as the carrier had to head into the wind frequently to launch and recover her aircraft. Around 1400, however, after the wind had shifted or died down and the flagship’s condenser problems had been solved, the British were able to tighten up their formation. Pridham-Wippell’s cruisers, which in the meantime had gotten within visual range of Cunningham’s escorting destroyers, were in the van, followed by the battle force’s destroyers and lastly by the battleships in company with Formidable. While the force was still scattered, however, an event took place which could have radically changed the outcome of the operation. A section of Italian torpedo bombers, led by the famous Captain Buscaglia, resolutely but unsuccessfully attacked the carrier while she and the Barham were separated from the other units. The attack, which took place around 1215, was not only reported with a delay of about two hours, but was described as a mere sighting. The message rectifying this error, sent later by Buscaglia’s Command, reached Supermarina, which decided it would not be necessary to retransmit it to Iachino. Hence, the Italian admiral incorrectly went on believing that the sighting had been made by a reconnaissance plane. The report stated that a battleship and an aircraft carrier, with several cruisers and destroyers, were roughly seventy miles Southeast of the Italian ships, on a course of 210 and at a speed of sixteen knots. Neither the composition of the force nor its course and speed data were correct, but the position was fairly close to the actual one. Unfortunately, however, Iachino lent more credit to set of radio bearings that placed the British flagship 170 miles away from him.

Since these reports formed the basis for the extremely grave judgment error made by the Italian task force commander, a few points should now be made. There were well-founded reasons to deem the radio bearing position estimate less accurate than the other report[1]. However, Supermarina did nothing more than re-transmit the data it had received, not only introducing a time delay, but also failing to add any constructive interpretation and omitting important details. Therefore Iachino remained unaware of the built-in inaccuracy of the position estimate based on radio bearings and of the fact that the supposed Italian reconnaissance plane had actually been a torpedo bomber. He therefore assumed that the Italian aviators, having made yet another blunder, had once again mistaken his own ships for the enemy’s. As a result of this combination of incomplete data and incorrect conjectures, he mistakenly believed that the enemy was a hundred miles farther away than he really was. Had he known that the report had been made after an attack which, unlike a mere overflight, could not remain undetected, the admiral might have reached the conclusion that the sighted ships could hardly have been his own.
Several other sightings were made by Italian and German aircraft later on 28 March as well. Two in particular, received after the Italians were forced to reduce speed as a result of the torpedo hit on the Vittorio Veneto, should have alerted Iachino that Cunningham was not only closer than had initially been figured, but was also gaining on him. According to the official version[2], one of these reports was received with gross inaccuracies, while the other one never did reach the flagship. Aside from the serious doubts surrounding this version, it must have been far from easy to compile and interpret the data, which never arrived in real time because, due to another organizational failing, the aircraft transmitted on a different frequency from the ones the ships were tuned in to[3]. Besides, whether the British were fifty or one hundred and fifty miles away, after the torpedo hit on the flagship the Italians headed for home at a speed approaching the top one allowed by the Vittorio Veneto’s engineering plant[4], and at that point they could do no more. Iachino’s judgment error, therefore, did not turn into a critical factor until later, when the Pola went dead in the water following the final British torpedo attack.

R.N. Pola
(Photo AMPA)

Further muddying the already murky waters, just after 1700 Iachino was informed that a German reconnaissance airplane had sighted a group of light cruiser in the Kythera Channel, steaming westward. The admiral concluded, based on those ships’ course, that their task was to cut off his retreat. In fact, these were the three destroyers Cunningham had positioned Northwest of Crete with scouting duties, but Iachino had no way of knowing this. To parry the potential attack, the Italian admiral detached the Abruzzi group, with which he was to meet the following morning, ordering Admiral Legnani to return to Brindisi independently. He then gathered all remaining ships around the Vittorio Veneto, forming them in five columns, and told Cattaneo, whose ships would have been the most exposed to the alleged light cruisers’ action, to be ready to engage the enemy.

In closing the parenthesis on the topic of the sighting reports and their effects, let us now return to the chronological accounts of the events. On their way home, the Italian ships were – as stated – attacked several times by bombers and torpedo planes, and in the course of one such attack a torpedo struck the Vittorio Veneto astern, at around 1530. Cunningham’s wish had thus come true, but, even at his slower speed, Iachino could not be engaged during the daylight hours. In addition, by thrusting too far westward the British ships would become vulnerable to the attacks of those same German dive bombers which, a few months previously, had nearly sunk the Illustrious, veteran of the Taranto raid and Formidable’s sister ship. The Mediterranean Fleet C-in-C therefore ordered yet another air attack at dusk, accepting the possibility of a night time action against the recommendations made by some of the officers in his staff, whom he accused, in very colorful terms, of cowardice[5].

When his cryptographers intercepted and decrypted Cunningham’s message ordering the participating air squadrons to mount a torpedo attack immediately after sunset, Iachino was promptly informed, and he in turn alerted his task force. He also asked for long range fighter cover, but neither the Italians nor the Germans acted on this request. It should be noted that Superimarina, which had also intercepted Cunningham’s message with the details of the dusk attack, did not re-transmit it to Iachino until after the attack had already been carried out.


[1] The radio transmissions had been detected by two stations in relatively close locations, so that the bearings intersected at a rather narrow angle: in such cases, small bearing inaccuracies can easily lead to considerable errors in range. Moreover, the bearing taken by at least one of the stations could have been distorted by land masses.
[2] One should keep in mind that the most widely known versions of the history of Matapan were written, for the most part, by Iachino and by Admiral Fioravanzo or in any case based on information provided by these officers. The former’s lack of objectivity, if not justifiable, is easily understood. The latter was, during the operation, one of the three admirals alternating as watch standers at Supermarina (the other two were Ferreri and De Courten) and later became Head of the Navy’s Historical Department. The suspicion that in his writings he deliberately emphasized some details to the detriment of others is bolstered by many documents unearthed over the past twenty years.
[3] The British, too, had similar problems, but they were less generalized and hence of lesser import.
[4] After being hit in the stern area, the battleship’s outer port shaft was broken, while the inner one had to be stopped due to salt water seepage in the lube oil. The rudder jammed after both hydraulic pumps failed and the ship took on about 4000 tons of water, which caused her to set down by the stern and list to port. Initially, the ship went dead in the water, but the damage control teams were able to bring one of the hydraulic pumps back on line fairly quickly, and with the starboard engines operating at flank speed, the ship was able to reach 19 knots. Although this speed was actually maintained for some periods of time, it was considered hazardous because water seeping from the flooded compartments might contaminate the lube oil lines to the starboard engines which, at those rpm’s, would have suffered irreparable damage.
[5] Pack, in his Night Action off Cape Matapan states that the words used by Cunningham were “yellow-livered skunks”.

Torpedo Hit on Pola and Night Action

In the afternoon of March 28, British reconnaissance planes were more successful than the Axis’ in sighting the enemy. In particular, Cunningham’s trump card was an officer attached to his own staff: Lieutenant Commander Bolt. As an observer on the Warspite’s float plane, Bolt overflew the Italian ships for a long time, transmitting fairly accurate messages about the Italian force’s composition, course, and speed[1]. At this point, one may wonder why Iachino, who had several float planes available for reconnaissance, did not use them at this critical time. Perhaps, having convinced himself, based on his scanty information, that the British forces at sea were not sufficient in strength to imperil him, the admiral believed that a further reconnaissance flight could not have been very useful. In any case, as darkness approached, his attention was certainly turned to the enemy air attack, which took place much as expected.

At first, the aircraft kept their distance to stay outside the range of Italian AA batteries. Then, after sunset, they attacked from different directions to make escape maneuvers more difficult. Roskill, in the previously quoted book, praises the skill of the Italian captains who, in spite of the poor visibility and the understandable confusion brought about by the smoke screens and by the voluminous AA fire, were able to keep the tight formation Iachino had ordered. Although no aircraft were shot down, the use of searchlights and the high rate of fire caused considerable difficulty to the aviators’ aim. Nonetheless one of them – the last one to launch his weapon – succeeded in hitting the heavy cruiser Pola, and by 2000 the ship was dead in the water.

A the Albacore of S/Lt G.P.C. Williams, the one which eventually torpedoed the Pola
(Photo Imperial War Museum)

Several minutes went by before word of the torpedo hit reached Cattaneo, who commanded the ships of the First Cruiser Squadron, i.e. Zara, Pola, and Fiume, as well as the four destroyers of the Ninth Flotilla, (Alfieri, Carducci, Oriani, and Gioberti). Iachino found out even later, but just before receiving the disconcerting news he was given another, extremely important, report: a new set of radio intercept bearings put the enemy flagship a little over seventy miles Southeast of the Vittorio Veneto[2]. An exchange of messages then ensued between the Zara and the Veneto flag bridges; their texts and times of arrival show that signals got crossed in the attempt to obtain more detailed information about the stricken ship and to decide what to do, causing yet more confusion and delay. The gist of this flurry of messages leaves many open questions about Cattaneo’s train of thought, as he initially recommended sending two destroyers but then, once he found out that the Pola requested assistance and towing[3], requested permission to reverse course with the entire squadron, i.e. to do what Iachino had already ordered in a previous message which had not yet reached him. Whether Iachino’s staff generally agreed with the admiral’s decision is not certain, but at least an officer, the cryptographers’ leader Cdr. Porta, did express some misgivings. However, his arguments – which in truth were based more on his keen intuition than on objective facts – failed to convince his boss.

The Italian destroyer Carducci
(Photo U.S.M.M.)

While Cattaneo was reversing course, Iachino sent him two messages: the first one contained the last position estimate of the British flagship received from Rome, the other one ordered his junior to abandon the Pola rather than engage superior forces. If the second message was almost redundant, since it did nothing more than restate the Regia Marina’s general operating principle, in the first one Iachino, adopting Supermarina’s style, merely passed data on to his subordinate without giving him any clues as to how the data should be interpreted. In any case, although Iachino was far from explicit, it would seem that he did at least have some creeping suspicions that things could turn out for the worse. Cattaneo’s behavior, by contrast, can only be justified if the admiral had not considered as likely any possibility of an unpleasant night encounter or in any case he was convinced that, like his own, British capital ships were incapable of fighting at night. This judgment is not consistent with the statements made by some of the Zara’s surviving officers, who said that the message containing the latest British position estimate caused grave concern on that ship. Whatever the case, based on the fact that Cattaneo steamed in line astern, with the cruisers in the van, and taking into account that the crews were not kept at their battle stations, it is truly difficult to reach any other conclusion.[4]. On the other hand, the moderate speed ordered, sixteen knots – later changed to twenty-two – is easier to justify because the destroyers were low on fuel[5]. In keeping that questionable formation, Cattaneo de facto gave up any possible contribution from his destroyers, the only ships the Regia Marina considered suitable for night fighting. Had he positioned them a couple of miles forward of the cruisers, as provided by the standard tactics of the time, a timely and forceful attack by the Ninth Flotilla might have sown enough confusion in the enemy force to delay it and thereby allow the cruisers to flee. Unless one accepts the hypothesis that Cattaneo had no expectation of an encounter with the British, therefore, the explanation for his actions – since the admiral and his entire staff perished – is destined forever to remain one of the missing pieces in the Matapan puzzle.

While the Italians were carrying out the ill-fated rescue mission, Cunningham, to improve his chances of reestablishing contact with the enemy, had sent ahead both Pridham-Wippell’s cruisers and a group of eight destroyers commanded by Captain Mack. This decision was partly driven by the fact that, after sunset, he had received no more reports on Iachino’s movements from scouting aircraft. Unbeknownst to Cunningham, Iachino had in fact changed course shortly after the last air attack. The report of the outcome of this attack, which claimed a probable hit on a Littorio class battleship, reached the British admiral after some delay. The uncertain tone of the report induced Cunningham to doubt the actual results achieved by the aviators.

So far, the graver, more obvious mistakes had been made by the Italians, who had also met with the more serious setbacks. Pridham-Wippell’s and Mack’s search missions, if they did not altogether restore the balance, were at least proof positive that the Royal Navy itself was not altogether infallible during that perilous night. The data Mack was given by Cunningham were off, especially in terms of the Italian’s speed, but also of their course, thanks to Iachino’s last turn. As a result, Mack ended up too far South and remained always astern of the Italians. On the other hand Pridham-Wippell, to avoid interfering with Mack’s action, chose a more northerly course, which prevented him from reaching the Italian ships. Additionally, every time the British admiral was on the verge of arranging his cruisers in a more effective disposition to search for the enemy, new or unexpected events took place, so the formation always remained relatively tight.

Two of Pridham-Wippell’s ships, Orion and Ajax, were fitted with radar, although Orion’s was quite rudimentary and not very useful. In any case, shortly after their detachment from the main body, one of these radar-equipped units detected a ship dead in the water, identifying her incorrectly as the Vittorio Veneto. Since Pridham-Wippell’s orders were to reestablish contact with the Italian’s main body[6], the admiral reported that ship’s position, leaving the task of positively identifying her and finishing her off to others; however, Mack never received the report, so that the ship, which in fact was the Pola, remained afloat, powerless but undisturbed in spite of the time lost by the British cruisers to try to detect her visually – which they ultimately failed to do. Shortly thereafter, other ships were detected by radar but never visually; Pridham-Wippell identified them as Mack’s destroyers. As we have seen, one of the outcomes of this series of wrong calls was Pridham-Wippell’s excursion farther northward; the other one was that Cattaneo’s ships, which were in fact those detected by British radar, were able to pass through the meshes of the enemy vanguard, unchallenged and unaware of the danger they had been in[7].

H.M.S. Ajax

Their good fortune would not last long. As they approached the Pola, previously sighted by Cunningham’s force, the cruisers became an easy target for as many as three battleships which, in a few minutes and at ranges that in some cases dropped below two miles, utterly devastated them.

While it was the hand of fate that put Cattaneo and Cunningham in the same place at the same time, the fighting action rewarded the British gunners’ abilities and their admiral’s skill. The force had just changed course as a result of the detection report sent by HMS Valiant, whose radar had picked up the Pola, previously reported by Pridham-Wippell. However, before they had even gained visual contact with the stopped warship, Cattaneo’s cruisers appeared and were detected, almost simultaneously, on radar by HMS Valiant and visually from the Warspite’s bridge. The British thought they saw two Zara class ships preceded by a light cruiser[8], and Cunningham immediately maneuvered to take the new arrivals under the battleships’ fire, ordering the Formidable out of the line immediately afterwards. It should be noted, to highlight Cattaneo’s error even further, that the Royal Navy’s tactics, in such circumstances, called for turning away, to prevent escorting enemy destroyers from obtaining any lucky hits. Having rapidly ascertained that no destroyers were in a position to attack him, Cunningham, who had never lacked aggressiveness, ignored standard practice and forcefully maneuvered to place his own units in the best position to take the enemy under fire. His timely and sharply executed order was a tribute to the British Commander in Chief’s pluck and skill; what followed bore witness to his gunners’ ability.

The mast of a British radar model 286M (fixed) similar to the one aboard the Orion which was used to detect the Pola
(Photo Howse)

While Warspite, Valiant, and Barham made mincemeat of Fiume and Zara with broadside after broadside, the British destroyers, to make the task easier, put their searchlights to good use. The destroyers’ maneuvers were not always impeccable: some of them came into the capital ships’ field of fire, in some cases avoiding hits by sheer luck and being addressed rather rudely by Cunningham. For their part, Italian destroyers initially turned away, but in the bedlam that ensued three of them were hit all the same. Alfieri and Carducci sank shortly afterwards, Oriani – while damaged – was able to disengage, and Gioberti was miraculously left unharmed. Although these units never attempted to mount an attack[9], either as a group or individually, in the confusion of the fight Cunningham thought that they were maneuvering to do so. He consequently ordered a ninety degree turn away, leaving his destroyers free to “mop up”. Only Alfieri, when she was already sinking, succeeded in launching a few torpedoes, which missed, and returned gunfire against an enemy destroyer that had closed her to point blank range. The Carducci tried to lay a smoke screen, but she was soon hit by the battleships’ secondary (6 inch) armament and then finished off by a British destroyer. The other two destroyers in the Ninth Flotilla, probably unable to determine what was going on, could do no more than escape under cover of darkness.

When the British opened fire, the Italians had just sighted the Pola, whose crew had shot a red Very rocket upon seeing the British battleships, mistaking them for friendly units. By the time Cattaneo became aware of the enemy’s presence, it was too late: the cruisers’ vital systems were put out of commission by the battleships’ 15 inch rounds, so in a matter of seconds Zara and Fiume ceased being warships and became floating torches. The statements made by Captain[10] (Engineer) Parodi, a survivor from Zara, included both in Roskill’s book and in Arrigo Petacco’s Le Battaglie Navali del Mediterraneo nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale (Naval Battles In the Mediterranean during the Second World War), indicate that discipline was maintained on that cruiser even in those extreme hardships. Both while the various ships were in their death throes and after their sinking, there were actually several episodes of exceptional individual gallantry and a couple of examples are worth mentioning. After devoting himself to helping wounded crewmembers, Commander Giannattasio, the Zara’s Executive Officer, was ordered to blow up the ship’s self-destruction charges. He refused another officer’s offer to help and went off to complete the task alone, fully knowing it would cost him his life. The shipwrecked Captain of the Carducci, Commander Ginocchio, did his utmost to keep his men disciplined and their hopes up, thus avoiding the collective and individual madness episodes that led many to dive into the sea in the vain attempt to reach non existent ships or shores. These, indeed, were proof of that individual gallantry Cunningham did not hesitate to acknowledge in the enemy, but which could never offset the Regia Marina’s “hopelessly outdated” fighting techniques.

Having easily overpowered Cattaneo, Cunningham had to decide whether it would be worthwhile to continue the chase or whether he shouldn’t instead let his ships form up again and return to base. In choosing this latter course, he ordered all units not directly engaged against the enemy to change course and meet up with him the following morning. The order was not meant for either Mack or Pridham-Wippell, but the latter did not realize this and carried it out anyway. Mack instead, after changing course, asked for clarification, and Cunningham ordered him to resume the chase. Pridham-Wippell’s actions, marked by a lack of conviction and insufficient energy, were the target of thinly veiled criticism by the British Commander in Chief, who also put the blame on Mack for keeping a tight formation instead of spreading his ships apart. The reprimand might have been a valid one, but Mack wouldn’t have been able to come in contact with Iachino no matter what disposition his ships had been in for the simple reason that the information he based his search on was, as stated, wrong.

Thus, the commander of the British destroyer flotilla pressed on with his fruitless search for another couple of hours. He finally reversed course when he received a message from one of the destroyers left in the area of the action, which reported the presence of a Littorio class battleship dead in the water. In fact, this was the Pola, but when the correction came, Mack was already on his way back, with no hope left to catch Iachino. Having sighted the Pola, Mack took many survivors aboard and then torpedoed the cruiser, sending it to the bottom. The British crew had the impression that all semblance of good order and discipline had disappeared aboard Pola. In fact, after the hit taken several hours previously, many crewmen had been panic-stricken and had jumped overboard[11]. Once they realized the ship was not in any immediate danger of sinking, they asked and obtained to be brought back aboard. However, chilled to the bone and with no way to dry their wet clothes, they stripped and tried to fight off the cold with alcoholic beverages. This unseemly display of naked, drunken men, lying on deck among heaps of wet clothes and liquor bottles rolling to and fro, was the British sailors’ first impression of the Pola. It is hardly surprising that their propaganda, exaggerating the episode to their advantage, made it even more embarrassing to the Italians.

Like many of the Pola’s crewmen, most of those who survived Matapan were picked up by British ships the morning of March 29, i.e. when the British force was forming up for its journey home. Some Greek naval units also picked up survivors, who were freed after a short captivity when Greece surrendered to the Axis. Among them, Lieutenant (jg) Vito Sansonetti, son of the admiral commanding the Third Squadron. Ironically, the Luftwaffe attacked Cunningham’s ships during the rescue operations, so the admiral decided it would be best to move on. However, he did transmit to Rome, in the clear, the position data where most of the shipwrecked sailors could be found and Riccardi, in thanking him, let him know that the hospital ship Gradisca was already on the way. It is interesting to note that she had been steaming since 1700 on March 28: Riccardi, or someone on his behalf, had acted with foresight – or foreboding.

The Italian Hospital ship Gradisca which participated to the rescue operations following the battle
(Photo U.S.M.M.)

Tormented by the sun during the day and tortured by the cold during the night, the survivors saw their number, and their hopes, dwindle by the hour, with men succumbing to their wounds, their thirst, or to madness, while their weakened shipmates were unable to do anything to help them. When the Gradisca arrived, it picked up no more than 160 men and for some time it literally sailed in a sea of floating corpses. It is almost certain that the hospital ship’s slow speed, coupled with the insufficient power of her searchlights, which made night-time search operations very difficult, caused the number of the dead to swell even more.

The R.N. Vittorio Veneto returning to base. Note the R.O. 43 displaced and the destroyer Alpino on the right and Bersagliere on the left
(Photo Fraccaroli)

Before closing the sad recount of Matapan, we should briefly go back to the events on Veneto and Supermarina during Cattaneo’s rescue mission. Iachino duly informed Headquarters of the hit taken by the Pola and of his decision to detach the First Squadron to rescue her. The admiral took Rome’s lack of reaction as a silent consent and continued with his night steaming. Fioravanzo, in his Le Azioni Navali in Mediterraneo (Naval Battles in the Mediterranean), states that Supermarina wanted to take precautions in view of a possible British attack the morning of the 29th, and thus sent its own message to Cattaneo. Apparently no one at Headquarters has seriously considered the contingency of a night action: this observation is of significance and I will return to it. As for the text of the message, it repeated what Iachino had stated, but it explicitly added permission to sink Pola if necessary. However, within Supermarina this authorization, which should actually had already been implicit in Iachino’s message, was considered above the watch-standing admiral’s pay grade, so it was requested from the Navy’s Commander in Chief, Admiral Riccardi who, instead of granting it promptly, passed the request on to Mussolini. The outcome was that the needless message was sent to the Zara when the ship could no longer receive it. Unlike Mattesini, I doubt that it could have changed the course of events, but I do share that Author’s opinion when he states that the long and convoluted route taken by the message highlights the lack of initiative and the tendency to pass the buck that were so widespread in the Italians’ high commands in those unhappy times.

As for Iachino, he realized Cattaneo was in trouble when he saw flashes on the horizon and asked both subordinate admirals whether theirs ships were under attack. Trieste replied negatively; Zara, as can easily be imagined, did not reply.


[1] In sharp contrast with the excellent data transmitted by Bolt, the crew of another British aircraft at another juncture sent totally wrong information. Very luckily for Cunningham, the message was lost in the ether since, had it been received, it would have, by their own admission, greatly misled the British.
[2] Actually, by this time Cunningham was only fifty-five miles away. Later, Iachino said that the near simultaneous arrival of that message and of the news of the hit on the Pola prevented him from devoting the necessary attention to the report. Mattesini observes that the time interval amounted to six minutes, which should have been enough. Whether they were or not, however, it seems strange that no officer on his staff thought he should call the admiral’s attention to the message.
[3] The torpedo explosion had flooded various boiler rooms and damaged steam lines so severely that none of the remaining boilers could be brought on line, so the ship was “cold and dark”: dead in the water, without electrical power, and unable to use her principal armament.
[4] Mattesini, in his previously quoted work, provides another possible explanation: perhaps Cattaneo steamed in that questionable formation and at moderate speed because, in his fear of an encounter with the British force, he was trying to make sure the enemy would be sighted before his ships started the delicate towing operation. Had such an encounter taken place during or after this phase, disengagement would have been far more difficult. While I hold Mattesini in great esteem, I do not find this scenario very credible.
[5] In a little known book called Il Comandante Aspetta l’Alba (The Commander Awaits Dawn), the Author Guido Minchilli indicates that the Destroyer Flotilla Leader, Captain Toscano, was particularly worried about the Carducci’s low fuel reserve. Minchilli was not present at Matapan, but he was able to speak with some of the survivors off the Alfieri, the ship Toscano commanded, on which he had previously served as war correspondent.
[6] The British had received erroneous reports in which the two Abruzzi cruisers had been mistaken for battleships, as their silhouette was very similar to that of the Cavour class. Pridham-Wippell, therefore, believed that the ships he was chasing included at least two battleships and he gave priority to the search for them.
[7] It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty what would have happened had Pridham-Wippell engaged Cattaneo, but it is likely that the British, who were not only alert but were also capable of night time fighting, would have had the upper hand. Zara class cruisers, however, were rather sturdy ships, so they could have taken a fairly severe punishment in the form of 6 in shell hits before being forced to stop. Hence, it is possible, especially if Toscano’s destroyer had acted promptly, that Cattaneo’s ships might have gotten away, though somewhat worse for the wear. This consideration, like the previous one regarding the Trento class cruisers, is naturally destined to remain in the purely academic realm.
[8] It has been established that the ship could not in fact have been a cruiser, but no one ever found out for sure what it actually was. British versions of the night’s events mostly claim it was the Alfieri, and that the destroyer’s presence in the van was explained by Cattaneo’s intention to change the escort’s disposition in view of the difficult maneuver the cruisers would have to complete in order to tow the Pola. This, however, is not confirmed by the statements made by the Italian destroyer’s survivors, who instead claimed they had observed the effects of the explosions on the Fiume when the cruiser was ahead of the Alfieri, thereby indicating that their ship was the third one in line.
[9] Gioberti’s captain, Commander Raggio, did at one time try to steam towards the enemy but, blinded by the searchlights and the fires, and unable to make out the enemy ships, ultimately gave up. By then, the battleships had turned away and were proceeding northward.
[10] During WWII, the Italian Navy still used “Army” type ranks for all but the line officers. Therefore a Captain (Engineer) corresponded, seniority wise, to a Lieutenant.
[11] Among those who ended up in the water during the Matapan disaster, the men who survived were mostly those who had not only the good fortune of being rescued, but also the foresight of using heavy clothes and of avoiding putting their head underwater. The intense cold of the first night finished off many of those who had not been able to climb aboard the ships’ boats or life rafts.

Matapan’s Aftermath

When the surviving ships returned to their bases, Iachino had to report first to Riccardi and then, more briefly, to Mussolini. The admiral, in his meeting with the Navy’s top ranking officer, immediately tried to stress the failings of the organizations that were supposed to facilitate his tasks, specifically the Air Force and Supermarina, and he lamented the fleet’s lack of aircraft carriers[1]. Mussolini, who some time previously had given up, at least in his heart, the notion that Italy, as an “aircraft carrier extending into the Mediterranean”, did not need that type of ship, ordered to resume the work aimed at transforming two steamships into aircraft carriers. The decision, correct but late, ultimately was of no help to Italy’s war effort, as neither ship was ready at the time of the armistice. In any case, it was a classic case of too little, too late. The lessons learned by Japan, the United States, and Great Britain itself showed that a lengthy work-up period would be required before carrier aviation could be employed effectively. Italy simply did not have enough time, even if her Navy had tried to speed up the process by leveraging upon the experiences of others.

On the issues of radar and night fighting, Italian officialdom had been caught totally unaware. Both Rocca and Mattesini point out that, if the Regia Marina had paid more attention to events that had taken place in the previous months, it would have reached the logical conclusion that the British did not hesitate to use their capital ships in conditions of darkness. Yet the Italians had to come upon Matapan to realize this in full. The Germans, for their part, were surprised that their allies had not developed radar, whose principle – it is worth repeating it – was known. So a few Italian ships were fitted with German radars, just like later in the war some destroyers were equipped with German-designed active sonars to improve their effectiveness against submarines. Although beneficial, these measures always came too late to fill the technical gap between the Regia Marina and the Royal Navy. As to flashless powder on capital ships, this problem was never, to my knowledge, satisfactorily solved.

Gianni Rocca’s book unfortunately is not available in English
(Shoot the admirals; the tragedy of the Italian Navy in WW II)

Francesco Mattesini’s book unfortunately is not available in English
(Published by the Historical Bureau of the Italian Navy)

If the technical gap between the two navies served as the powder that exploded under Cattaneo’s ships, the mistakes made by that admiral and his immediate superior were the sparks that set it off. It has been stated already that one can only speculate about Cattaneo’s behavior. Iachino, for his part, always strenuously defended his decision to send the entire First Squadron to Pola’s rescue. To justify himself, he claimed that based on the deficient and incomplete data he had available to evaluate the enemy’s order of battle and intentions, his hapless choice was logical. Rightly or wrongly, there is no doubt that the picture the admiral formed in his mind during that 28th of March was way too optimistic as he convinced himself that the main force from Alexandria was not at sea. Others argued that, even if the information available to Iachino was only what he later admitted having (and on this question, as I have previously mentioned, doubts have been raised), there were still enough clues to believe that the British were on the chase. Hence, a bitter dispute, destined to last for years, arose from the very start, in a sense detracting attention from another consideration which I regard essential for a fuller assessment of Iachino’s mistake. Even if the Mediterranean Fleet had not been at sea in its entirety, in fact, it is unlikely that the British, knowing that at least one enemy capital ship was dead in the water, wouldn’t have done their utmost to sink it the following day. Therefore, had Zara and Fiume survived the night, they would have had to steam hundreds of miles, hampered by the Pola on the towline, while they were still vulnerable to enemy air and submarine attacks. In the final analysis, the risk was by no means limited to the possibility of a night time action against surface ships, so Iachino’s decision would have been questionable even if one chooses to ignore Matapan’s actual outcome.

The Garibaldi leading the Fiume, Pola and Zara the morning of March 28th, 1941
(Photo Angelo Iachino)

The shadow of Matapan would forever haunt Iachino individually and the Regia Marina as a whole. The consequences of the battle – if Matapan can be called that – were heavy in terms of losses, but heavier still in psychological terms. Matapan was a startling and dispiriting wake-up call for all those who, based on the actions off Calabria and Sardinia, had harbored the illusion that the Regia Marina was able to fight the Royal Navy on equal terms. The rumors of a secret device that allowed the enemy to see in the dark became widespread among the crews, along with the – never confirmed – suspicion that the British had been informed of the Italians’ intentions by traitors within the Regia Marina. The movements of the fleet, already partially hamstrung by fuel shortages, were further restricted to avoid sending the ships in areas were air cover could not be guaranteed. This was tantamount to admitting that the copious funds allocated between the wars to build those ships had been totally wasted, or nearly so.

An Italian newspaper of the time reporting the first news of the battle
(Photo Salvatore Romano)

The outcome of Matapan, which by Cunningham’s own later admission was only a partial success for the British, was as psychologically uplifting for the Royal Navy as it was depressing to the Regia Marina. Cunningham was neither an innovator, nor a great strategist, but he knew the Mediterranean as well as anyone, he was tenacious, resolute, and aggressive, and he was immensely respected by officers and crewmen alike. He was, in today’s phrase, a charismatic leader, nearly in Nelson’s mold. Matapan gave him an aura of invincibility and led to his being lionized, perhaps beyond his merits. In the hard times lying in wait for his ships, which just a few weeks later were to conduct the evacuation of the British expeditionary force in Greece, the memory of Matapan made more tolerable the deadly air attacks those units were subjected to in carrying out that thankless chore. Once the Greek and Cretan airports were lost, the British units had to steam for a long time through waters where the Luftwaffe held air supremacy, and many were sunk or severely damaged in the process. It would have been a golden opportunity for the Regia Marina, which instead failed to act upon it precisely because it was still licking the wounds it has suffered at Matapan[2].


[1] Ironically, in the years between the two world wars, Iachino wrote a paper claiming that the aircraft carrier could not be considered an essential element in a first rate fleet, since its effectiveness was as yet unproven.
[2] While the capital ships were not involved in this part of the campaign for Crete and Greece, it would be unfair not to recall the sterling contribution by the torpedo boats, and in particular by the two ships that on that occasion performed splendid deeds, i.e. Lupo (Cdr. Mimbelli) and Sagittario (LT. Cigala-Fulgosi).


he Gaudo and Matapan operation, based on a notion of surprise that vanished right from the start and whose objectives soon turned out to be non existent, was flawed both in its planning and in its execution. Unfortunately, that planning and that execution were all that could be logically expected from a military organization of limited means and of backward ideas in comparison with its opponent, which greatly surpassed it from the technical point of view.

In summarizing the factors that enabled the British to win at Matapan, it is clear that they were essentially the same elements that granted the Royal Navy superiority over the Regia Marina on many other occasions as well. These factors were, not necessarily in order of importance:

Ultra, i.e. the ability to decrypt messages transmitted through the Enigma apparatus;

The Fleet Air Arm, along with better communications with the Royal Air Force;


The ability to fight effectively at night.

Except for the first one, which in fact was more or less offset by the cryptographic methods used by the Axis, all others stemmed from a conceptual disparity between the two Navies. The Royal Navy was generally willing to look ahead and take new ideas on board if they were considered valid; on the contrary, the Regia Marina was skeptical towards any innovation and ended up stubbornly clinging to methods that the crucible of battle proved to be obsolete[1].

A possible objection to my analysis is that, had it not been for Iachino’s judgment errors and Cattaneo’s flawed tactics, the British, in spite of their technical superiority, would have achieved a far more modest result: this is undoubtedly true. But I would like to counter this objection with two observations of my own. First of all, if it had not been for Cunningham’s and Pridham-Wippell’s mistakes, perhaps the British might have even succeeded in closing the Italian main body and achieve complete success: so human errors affected both sides. Secondly, if there was a common thread linking together Iachino’s, Cattaneo’s, and Supermarina’s decisions, it was in fact the failure to take into due consideration the contingency that the enemy could be capable of effective night fighting. Conditioned as they were by the fact that their own capital ships were not suitable for night fighting, they projected this limitation onto the enemy as well: a consequence, albeit indirect, of that very conceptual inferiority we have already mentioned.

In the final analysis, the Italians found themselves, throughout the entirety of the war, facing an opponent whose technical superiority had its roots in his more advanced fighting concepts. The Regia Marina should still be credited for putting up a good fight on many occasions, mostly thanks to the individual feats of a few brave men. Matapan, by contrast, highlighted almost exclusively its limitations.

Author’s Note
Before I started writing this article, I tried to obtain as much information as I could, consulting documents published by both sides and in different eras, and trying to bring to light both the protagonists’ and the historians’ views. As I have tried to explain, I also avoided delving too deeply into specific details and I would not be surprised if, as a result of this choice, I ended up omitting facts or issues which others would deem worthy of discussion. If readers would like to make observations in this respect, or bring to my attention aspects of this article they consider incomplete or inexact, I urge them to let me know via email, if possible stating the source document they used as the basis for their comments. As regards the analysis and the personal views expressed in the article, I am sure that there will be no lack of dissenting opinions. Again, I urge all those who do not share my views and who have convincing arguments to let me know, so that, if necessary, amendments and corrections may be included to improve the essay.

Marc de Angelis (


Arlington, April 2001


[1] To give further evidence of this attitude, I would like to recall that during the Thirties, perhaps because he was tired of being told it was absolutely vital to build aircraft carriers, Admiral Cavagnari, then Under Secretary of the Navy, abolished the Maritime Warfare Institute. This agency had been established, in fact, to study the best methods for employing the fleet in case of war and it reflected the views of officers who had already served about twenty years, i.e., the future admirals. It should be said that, had Cavagnari advocated the Institute’s idea, Mussolini would probably have fired him on the spot.