Battle of Cape Matapan

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The Battle of Cape Matapan was a naval battle between British and Italian ships in the Mediterranean theater of World War II, which took place on March 28, 1941. It was a strategic victory for the Royal Navy.

The Mediterranean Sea had been a battleground since June 1940, when Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. In November of that year, the Royal Navy had achieved a decisive victory over Italy when British planes attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto, sinking or damaging three battleships. In March, following an unsuccessful Italian invasion of Greece, the Greek government allowed British troops to be stationed there. Winston Churchill hoped eventually to create a Balkan front to threaten the Axis on its southern flank.[1]

In March 1941, the Italian fleet moved into waters south of Crete to intercept Greece-bound convoys. The ships were discovered by British reconnaissance aircraft, and ships were sent from Crete and Alexandria to engage them on March 28. The Italian force, commanded by Admiral Angelo Iachino, consisted of the battleship Vittorio Veneto, eight cruisers, and 14 destroyers. The British fleet, under Admiral A.B. Cunningham, included the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable; the battleships Warspite (flagship), Valiant, and Malaya; four cruisers; and 13 destroyers.[2]

Admiral Iachino hoped to trap the British between his battleship and his cruisers, but when aircraft from the Formidable attacked, he ordered his ships to retreat, as he had no air cover. The Italian ships were faster than the British ships, so Cunningham called for air strikes by RAF bombers based on Crete, hoping to slow his opponents down. The land-based planes did no damage, but a second carrier strike scored a torpedo hit on the Italian battleship. A last strike from the Formidable, at dusk, damaged the heavy cruiser Pola, leaving her dead in the water.

Iachimo believed that the British ships were far away and not an immediate threat, so after night had fallen, he sent the heavy cruisers Zara and Fiume, along with some destroyers, back to aid the Pola. They ran straight into the guns of the British battleships, which reduced the Zara and Fiume into wrecks in a matter of minutes. Two of the Italian destroyers were sunk, and one was badly damaged. British sailors evacuated the Pola’s surviving crew, and Royal Navy destroyers sank her at approximately 0300. The British rescued more survivors from the battle, but were forced to withdraw under the threat of Luftwaffe air attacks.[3]

The battle was a disaster for the Italian fleet, having lost three heavy cruisers, two destroyers, a battleship and a destroyer damaged, and over 2400 men killed, wounded, or captured. British losses consisted of one torpedo bomber and its three-man crew, shot down by the guns of the Vittorio Veneto. British naval superiority in the Mediterranean was confirmed, and the Italian navy never presented a serious threat to the Allies again. The Allied position worsened when Greece and Crete were overrun by the Germans, but the Royal Navy controlled the sea lanes in the Mediterranean to the end of the war.

References

  1. The Second World War: The Mediterranean 1940-1945, by Paul Collier, Osprey Publishing, 2003
  2. A History of War at Sea, by Helmut Pemsel, Naval Institute Press, 1975
  3. Battle of Cape Matapan: World War II Italian Naval Massacre

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