The Battle of Cape Matapan

Background on the Battle of Cape Matapan

Both Axis and Allied navies were vying for control of the Mediterranean in World War Two. The Regia Marina, working with intelligence from other Axis powers, including Germany, tried to maintain control of the waters around Italy, Greece, and Crete but the Allied victory at the Battle of Cape Matapan made that impossible. Despite the contrast in loss of life, the defeat of the Regia Marina at the Battle of Cape Matapan was not utter defeat. The Italian ships involved inflicted damage on the Allied ships and even had the upper hand in several instances.

Admiral Angelo Iachino (L) and Admiral Andrew Cunningham (R). Battle of cape matapan.

Admiral Angelo Iachino (L) and Admiral Andrew Cunningham (R).

The Battle of Cape Matapan involved contingents of the Royal British Navy and the Royal Australian Navy against a contingent of the Regia Marina. The commander of the Allied forces was Admiral Andrew Cunningham. The commander of the Italian forces was Admiral Angelo Iachino. Cunningham had three battleships, one aircraft carrier, 17 destroyers, and seven light cruisers. Iachino had one battleship, 17 destroyers, six heavy cruisers, and 2 light cruisers.

Operation Guado

The initial encounter in the larger Battle of Cape Matapan is referred to as the Battle of Guado. Admiral Angelo Iachino was ordered to patrol north and south of Crete and take out all enemy ships they encounter. He and his fleet were under the impression that Cunningham was short two battleships and an aircraft carrier, thanks to bad intelligence from the German air force. On March 27, 1941, Iachino obtained a better idea of what he was up against when his men decrypted a message regarding Admiral Cunningham’s aircraft carrier — Formidable. Iachino himself was in command of the new battleship Vittorio Veneto, but it would not be enough. The fleets vying for position finally encountered each other on March 28, 1941.

Italian Battleship Vittorio Veneto opens fire at the Battle of Guado.

Italian Battleship Vittorio Veneto opens fire at the Battle of Guado.

After learning about the British aircraft carrier, Iachino and the Regia Marina decided to move forward with their mission. Cunningham’s fleet spotted Iachino’s fleet the same day, though they already knew Iachino and his fleet were coming. Cunningham decided to hold his ground in the area and take out the Italian fleet.

Despite the name Battle of Cape Matapan, the actual fighting was not on Cape Matapan but out to sea in several locations. The fighting began after an Italian pontoon plane caught sight of the squadron of British cruisers. Allies spotted the cruiser squadron going southeast near Gavdos Island in Greece a little over an hour later.

The Battle Begins

Seventeen minutes after the Italians caught sight of the Allied cruiser fleet, they fired the first shots of the battle. They followed the British squadron for about an hour but were unable to do significant damage, so they moved off to the northwest hoping to get the cruisers to approach the Vittorio Veneto. It worked, giving the Italian force another chance to fire on the Allied force.

The cruisers encountered Vittorio Veneto at about 10:55 a.m. The battleship bombarded the Allied ships, firing 94 times and forcing them to withdraw. However, the damage inflicted did not cripple the ships or cause fatalities. Allied aircraft made it impossible for Iachino’s ships to pursue the fleeing cruisers and finish them. However, Allied airstrikes did not damage the battleship until hours later. At 3:09 p.m., aircraft badly damaged the ship. It was repairable and the crew was able to patch it up and move along by 4:42 p.m.

Map of the Battle of Cape Matapan. Image Credit: Warfare History Network

Map of the Battle of Cape Matapan. Image Credit: Warfare History Network.

Helping the Pola

At 7:36 p.m., Allied aircraft struck again. The attack on the Vittorio Veneto lasted 14 minutes. Admiral Iachino kept his battleship from getting hit with anti-aircraft fire, smoke, and spotlights. He saved the bulk of the ships in his immediate area. However, one ship — Pola — obtained damage. Unfortunately for the Italian fleet, this damaged ship would be enough to make the battle go from relatively equal to an Italian defeat.

A photo of the Bolzano being attacked by Swordfish at the Battle of Cape Matapan. This image was taken from a second Swordfish that just dropped a torpedo at the bottom left of the image.

A photo of the Bolzano being attacked by Fairey Swordfish Torpedo Bombers at the Battle of Cape Matapan. This image was taken from a second Swordfish. Note the splash of a torpedo at the bottom left of the image. The Bolzano successfully evaded the torpedos.

Admiral Iachino’s next move was to send ships out to aid his damaged ship. The rest of his fleet, including his battleship, moved on. It is generally thought that Admiral Iachino was unaware that British ships, including the aircraft carrier, were nearby. Others believe that the Admiral’s decision to send help to the Pola was a poor decision that lost the battle. Poor decision or uninformed decision, it certainly did lose the battle for the Italian fleet.

A Fairey Albacore torpedo bomber takes off the HMS Formidable.

A Fairey Albacore torpedo bomber takes off the HMS Formidable.

Between 10 and 11 p.m., the Allies approached the Pola and those sent to save her. Once in firing distance, they attacked, sinking four ships — Fiume, Zara, Vittorio Alfieri, and Giosué Carducci — in a matter of minutes — two cruisers and two destroyers. Pola sank hours later.

Rescue Efforts

Allied ships did bring some of the survivors on board their own ships and even sent word to Axis forces regarding where their survivors could be found. Despite this effort and more than 1,000 rescued Italian sailors, 2,300 more of them were dead. Italian ships rescued another 160 people after Allied ships left the area, but the battle was already over. Only three Allied soldiers lost their lives. Italian anti-aircraft guns show down a bomber manned by airmen.

Order of Battle

British Fleet

Italian Fleet

Battleships

Warspite
Valiant
Barham

Aircraft Carrier

Formidable

Cruisers

Orion
Ajax
Perth
Gloucester

Destroyers

Jervis
Janus
Mowhawk
Nubian
Stuart
Greyhound
Griffin
Ilex
Hasty
Hereward
Havock
Hotspur

Battleship

Vittorio Veneto

Cruisers

Zara
Fiume
Pola
Trieste
Trento
Bolzano
Abruzzi
Garibaldi

Destroyers

Da Recco
Pessagno
Gioberti
Alfieri
Carducci
Maestrale
Libeccio
Scirocco
Grecale
Corazziere
Carabiniere
Ascari
Granatiere
Fucillere
Bersagliere
Alpino

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Shelly Barclay writes on a variety of topics from animal facts to mysteries in history. Her main focus is military and political history. She is a writer for the Boston History Examiner, Military History Examiner and the Boston American Revolution History Examiner. She also writes for a local historical society newsletter.