The “MOVM” is the Italian acronym for “Gold Medal for Military Valour”, the highest military recognition of the Italian armed forces, still in use today. It is awarded for deeds of outstanding gallantry. During the night clash off Cape Matapan, 8 officers of the Regia Marina got (posthumously) the MOVM for their actions during those dramatic moments. These are only 8 men out of the 2331 that died that night. Almost no information is available in English regarding the stories of these men that died in tragic circumstances.
To briefly recall the context, the night action off Cape Matapan was the result of a series of events, unfolded between the 27th and 28th of March 1941. The heavy cruiser Pola had received a torpedo hit while the Italian fleet was sailing back home. The torpedo paralyzed the engine compartment, and the commander requested the ship to be towed.
Admiral Iachino, leading the Italian formation ordered to the I cruiser division (Admiral Cattaneo) and the IX destroyer flotilla (Captain Salvatore Toscano) to change course and aid the crippled Pola. Such decision has been criticized by many but given the information available to Iachino back then, the order made sense. We have to bear in mind that the Italians ignored the presence of radar on British ships, nor they were aware of the British night fighting capabilities.
What happened next is very well known. The I division was annihilated by the British battleships in a very short engagement. Only the destroyers Oriani and Gioberti escaped the massacre, while the cruiser Zara, Fiume, Pola, the destroyers Alfieri and Carducci went down with most of their crews.
When news came that the Pola was hit, Cattaneo initially thought to dispatch two destroyers, probably imagining to save the crew of the crippled cruiser and then scuttling it. The communication from the Pola, requiring a tow, coupled with Iachino’s order to reverse course eventually sealed his fate. On board his flagship Zara, the ship was invested by the British 381mm shells, devastating the superstructures and starting several fires. When he realized that the Zara was doomed, he kept on leading and encouraging the crew together with his staff. He then agreed with Captain Corsi to scuttle the ship. The circumstances of his death are quite obscure but most probably he disappeared with other officers in the icy waters of Cape Matapan.
Captain Luigi Corsi
After the Zara was hit several times, he tried in vain to coordinate the crew’s efforts to save the ship. When everything was lost, he agreed with Admiral Cattaneo to scuttle the ship and gave the order to abandon the Zara. He disappeared into the sea before giving his life jacket to an injured sailor.
Embarked on the Zara, Bastianini was the officer of the naval engineering corp in charge of the I cruiser division. Once any chance to save the Zara had vanished, he agreed with Admiral Cattaneo and Captain Corsi on their decision to scuttle the ship. He then descended into the lower (flooded) decks of the ship to open the valves to hasten the sinking of the Zara. After doing so, he plunged into a water vortex after an internal explosion, disappearing inside the crippled cruiser.
Deputy commander of the Zara. Soon after the ship was hit by British gunfire, he kept on directing his men in extinguishing fires and repairing the damages. When the Captain Corsi ordered to scuttle the Zara, he immediately went down to the ammo depots with Umberto Grosso to ignite the explosive charges. He disappeared with the ship around 2.30 on the night of the 29th of March.
Lieutenant of the naval engineering corp, embarked on the Zara. When the order to scuttle the ship was given, he volunteered to reach the ammo depots where he could trigger the charges and prevent the enemy to capture the ship. He disappeared together with Vittorio Giannattasio in the internal explosion.
Captain of the cruiser Fiume. The Fiume was following the Zara when they were simultaneously hit by enemy fire. In the action, he got wounded in the face. Notwithstanding the injure, he then descended to the main deck among his sailors, inviting them to remain calm and try their best to save the ship.
Once he realized the Fiume was doomed, he ordered the ship to be abandoned after giving a final salute to the King and to Italy. He left the ship on a raft together with other men. Totally exhausted, Giorgis disappeared into the water when the raft rolled over amid the chaos of that night.
Captain of the destroyer Alfieri and commander of the IX flotilla. After the Zara and Fiume were hit, also the Alfieri was hit several times and immobilized, Toscano urged his crew to return fire amid the confusion, this was the only Italian reaction during the massacre of Cape Matapan. Once he realized the ship was doomed, he gave the order to abandon ship. Refusing to board a raft, he went down with the Alfieri.
Captain of the naval engineering corp, embarked on the Alfieri. After his ship was crippled by British fire. He tried his best to keep the engine in function till the last moment, then he joined other crew members in extinguishing the fires and helping the wounded men.
After the captain ordered to abandon the ship, he was among the last men to leave the Alfieri. He then jumped into the water, clinging to the edge of a raft. From that position, he kept leading his men, allowing the wounded to find space on the tiny raft. Modugno remained in the water the entire night and died of hypothermia near his fellow sailors.
A special thank goes to Matteo Fornoli and his passion. He retrieved the pictures of these men, carrying out an outstanding job of restoration and colorization.
Giorgernini, G. (2001). La Guerra Italiana sul mare, La marina tra vittoria e sconfitta 1940-1943.
Iachino, A. (1957). La sorpresa di Matapan.
Miozzi, O. (1992). Le medaglie d’oro al valore militare.