“This first meeting between the main forces of the two opponent Fleets – among the few that took place during the war period- had no significant result, but was quite characteristic because it unveiled the shortcomings of the Italian Navy [see: “The Italian Navy” ].
The night of July 7, 1940, the Alexandria Fleet consisting of the battleships WARSPITE, MALAYA and ROYAL SOVEREIGN, the aircraft carrier EAGLE, 5 cruisers and 17 destroyers left the port of Alexandria for Malta, to escort from there back to Alexandria 2 convoys simultaneously, one fast and one slow.
On the night of July 7, 1940, on the other hand, an important Italian convoy had left Naples for Benghazi. A squadron of cruisers and destroyers had been assigned for close-range escort, 3 other cruiser squadrons covered the convoy from Malta’s side, while the 2 battleships in service, the GIULIO CESARE and the CONTE DI CAVOUR, with 2 cruiser squadrons were offering strategic protection.
Soon after leaving port on the night of July 7, the British formation was unsuccessfully attacked by an Italian submarine, which also reported that a British force with the above mentioned formation had left Alexandria and was heading west. At about the same time, in the morning of July 8, the Italians were receiving the information that a powerful British force from Gibraltar was heading east.
Upon receiving these reports, the Supermarina decided to concentrate all the units in the Central Mediterranean to protect the convoy and to fight the Alexandria Fleet, before the later was united with the Gibraltar force. The Italians were hoping that in the meantime their Air force would succeed some blows on the British battleships and thus obtain a balance of power in heavy ships. Concerning the Gibraltar force, they assumed that most probably it was a diversion aiming at confusing the enemy. Thus, reaction to this force was left to the submarines and aircrafts.
On the morning of July 8, the Commander in Chief of the British Fleet was being informed from submarine reports of the presence of 2 enemy battleships and 4 destroyers about 200 miles east of Malta, heading south. He therefore assumed that that this force was covering an important convoy sailing to Libya and ordered an airboat from Malta to take and keep contact with the enemy, while the British force was sailing northwest at 20 knots. On the afternoon of that same day the airboat reported that the enemy force of 2 battleships, 6 cruisers and 7 destroyers was spotted 100 miles northwest of Benghazi and was sailing south. An hour later the airboat reported change of course of the force, now sailing north. It was then confirmed that the naval force was covering a convoy to or from Benghazi.
It was indeed a convoy. Admiral Campioni, the commander of the force covering the convoy, after completing his mission out the outskirts of Benghazi changed course at 15:00 hours of July 8, and sailed to meet the Alexandria Fleet, reporting accordingly to Supermarina.
Admiral Cunningham could not leave such opportunity unexploited. Abandoning provisionally his original mission, he changed course and sailed in the direction of Taranto at full speed aiming to interpose himself between the enemy and his base.
In the meantime, when the Supermarina was informed of the intentions of the Commander in Chief of the Italian Fleet, they didn’t approve the movement that he had ordered because from decoded enemy radio telegrams they had concluded that at noon of the following day the British Fleet would be sailing outside the coast of Calabria and they considered preferable to give a battle in these waters, rather than in the less advantageous zone near the Libyan peninsula of Cyrene. Admiral Campioni was therefore ordered to adjust the course of the Italian force so that by noon of July 9, 1940, to be around 50 miles south east of Cape Stilo of Calabria.
In the morning of July 9, air reconnaissance informed the British C.I.C. that at least 2 large Italian battleships, 12 cruisers and many destroyers were at sea dispersed over a large area. Their position at 7:30 was reported to be at around 50 miles from Cape Spartivento.
At around noon of July 6, 1940, the two Fleets were at a distance of 90 miles the one from the other and their distance was continuously decreasing.
The concern of the Supreme Command of the Italian Navy was the disproportion of forces in battle ships, because the 3 British battleships disposed in total 24, 381 mm guns, against 20, 320 mm guns of the 2 Italian that also had lighter armoring. They stress however that this disproportion didn’t stop them from seeking to encounter the enemy.
Admiral Cunningham was also concerned of the very important superiority of the enemy in number and armament of the cruisers. [ In the Italian report no mention is made to the total number of Italian cruisers and destroyers that took part in this battle. However, in his book “La guerre navale en Méditerranée”, the French Admiral R. de Belot reports that the Italian force included 6 cruisers, 12 light cruisers and 24 destroyers. ]. The British force disposed only 4 cruisers –because one had suffered serious damage following an air attack – with 6″ guns, against 8″ guns of the heavy Italian cruisers. The British cruisers had already spent almost half of their anti-aircraft munitions. Nevertheless, Admiral Cunningham decided to give the battle because, as he explains, any opportunity that turned up was welcome.
In this case, the Admiral gives the information that at the battle of Calabria the British applied with precision the methods taught in the School of Tactics of Portsmouth and pays tribute to them. This opinion of a war Chief that had spent most of his career at sea and has studied at the big school of experience, gives the best answer to all those that criticize with some irony the conclusions of war games of the Schools of War.
The British Fleet received good support from the air reconnaissance. After the initial detection of the enemy force by an airboat, the aircraft carrier planes took over the task of keeping contact with the enemy forces. The well-trained airplane observers gave exact information on the enemy. Next, the torpedo planes of the aircraft carrier attacked without any success, because the Italian ships maneuvered successfully and evaded. In the mean time the British cruisers sailed to detect the enemy battle Fleet, while the battleship WARSPITE that was faster followed to offer his protection.
The Italian Admiral had received no information on the enemy’s position from air reconnaissance, but after the torpedo planes attack –that could only come from the aircraft carrier- he realized the enemy presence in the area. A small reconnaissance plane of the naval force was then sent that soon after observed the British formation at a distance of 80 miles. The Italian Fleet sailed to meet the British, despite the fact that the power of the main enemy force hadn’t been reduced by the Air force.
At about 15:00 hours, the enemy cruisers met and the Italian opened fire with their 8″guns from a distance of 25.000 meters, while the British replied when they came closer at 20.000 meters. Momentarily the British got into a difficult situation in front of the overwhelming supremacy of the enemy, but Vice Admiral Tovey skillfully maneuvered and they escaped with minor damages, until the battleship WARSPITE that was following approached at a distance of 10 miles. Then, thanks to few of her salvos, at around 15:30 hours, the Italian cruisers reversed course under the protection of a smoke screen.
In the mean time the remaining British battleships joined the flagship and at 15:53 hours they came upon the Italian battleships and opened fire from a distance of 25.000 meters. After a few minutes, at 16:00 hours, the WARSPITE hit with a 15″ shell the Italian flagship GIULIO CESARE and fire erupted under her deck. A number of boilers were extinguished and her speed fell from 26 knots to 19 knots. The Italian cruiser BOLZANO also received 3 hits, without heavy damage. Admiral Cunningham reports that the Italian battleships’ salvos were also good at such a big distance, even if they didn’t succeeded any hits.
Next, the Italian battleships withdrew under the protection of the smoke screen of the cruisers, while the destroyers attacked to cover the retreat. The British counter-attacked with no results for both sides.
What followed was very confusing, as nothing was visible through the smoke screen. The British Admiral wouldn’t risk the safety of his heavy ships going through the smoke screen.
Next, the British ships sailed to Malta to fulfill their initial mission.
The departure of the Italian Fleet, as soon as it received the first hit, received negative criticism. Admiral Cunningham makes sarcastic remarks on this event, writing that “this [the hit against the Italian flagship] was too much for the Italian Admiral”. His opinion is maybe too harsh. As we have already mentioned, the Italians accepted the battle hoping that before the encounter their Air force would have succeeded to bring about some balance of power between the heavy ships. Such balance wasn’t established. The Italian ships didn’t dispose any protection from fighter planes to protect them from the British torpedo plane attacks. The reduction of speed of one of the two battleships limited her ease to move. What was more important of all was the fact that the 2 battleships were the only main force of the Italian Fleet and is doubtful whether the larger number of cruisers was sufficient to protect them. It is probable that the big admirals of history in similar situations would have continued the battle, but the action of the Italian Admiral doesn’t lack sufficient reasons.
As it comes up from his memoirs, Admiral Cunningham believed that Admiral Riccardi was the Commander in Chief of the Italian force. In reality, C.I.C. was Admiral Igino Campioni. I knew well Admiral Campioni with whom we have served together as Naval Attachés in Paris and according to information given by Italians who knew him he was considered as a distinguished officer, cautious by character. It is eventually his cautiousness that drifted him in an extreme fixing to the directions he had received from the Supreme Italian Command. His end was tragic. After Italy’s capitation, as General Commander of the Dodecanese he obeyed to the orders of the legal Government of his country and didn’t order the immediate surrender of the islands to the Germans. They arrested him and Mussolini who had escaped in Northern Italy brought him to trial. He was condemned and executed.
On the night of July 9, 1940, The Admiral of Malta took advantage of the fact that the Italians were busy with the main force of the British Fleet and sent the fast convoy escorted by only 4 destroyers that reached Alexandria completely undisturbed. The slow convoy left Malta on July 11, escorted by the main part of the Alexandria force. These ships were detected by the Italian Air force and suffered heavy bombing, during the whole day of July 11, from planes coming from Libyan airports. These attacks were repeated the next day. They didn’t cause any material damages but only some human losses on one cruiser, following a close hit. The 3 fighters of the British aircraft carrier shot down a reconnaissance plane and 2-3 bombers.
Thus, both opponents executed their main objective, the safe arrival of the convoys they were protecting. The objective of both sides to inflict a crucial hit against the main enemy force was not achieved, for the reasons we have already presented.
The action of the Italian Air force during the battle of Calabria, is the main point of difference of opinion of the two sides.
According to Admiral Cunningham, during the whole day of July 8, 1940, airplanes coming from bases in the Dodecanese were attacking the British ships. They only inflicted a serious damage on the deck of the cruiser HMS GLOUCESTER. He adds that in the 1940-41 periods the Italian Air force developed an extraordinary action over the sea and gave the impression that she disposed air squadrons especially trained for operations against ships. He also mentions that their reconnaissance was especially efficient. Italian reconnaissance planes would rarely fail to detect the British ships at sea and after 1-2 hours the bombers would always come. They used to execute attacks from high altitude, of about 12.000 feet; they fired in formation under the heavy anti aircraft fire of the Fleet and for this kind of attack the exactitude was quite good.
During the operations we mentioned earlier, during the 5 days that the ships remained at sea, the HMS WARSPITE and the destroyers that were escorting her were attacked 34 times in 4 days with 400 bombs. It was by pure chance that the ships were not damaged. He also adds that during the first months of the war the Italian bombardments were the best that the Admiral had seen, much better than those of the Germans. It was later only, when the anti-aircraft of the British Fleet was improved and that the British fighters had shot down the trained squadrons of the Italian Air force, that the Italian air operations at sea were less successful. At the beginning of the war, he remarks, the British ships felt nude and unprotected.
The Greek ships -that disposed far less anti-aircraft protection than the British- had a similar feeling that was not due to attacks of the Italian aircrafts but of the German dive-bombers. During the Greek-Italian war the Royal Hellenic Navy had formed a completely different impression about the capabilities of the Italian Air force. It is however possible that the best trained Italian squadrons were destined to attack the British warships.
The reports of the above-mentioned events presented under the influence of the Italian Historical Service of the Navy, are completely different from those presented by Admiral Cunningham. In the Italian reports it is stressed that what became clear during these operations was the unsuitability of the Italian naval air reconnaissance and the insufficiency of the Sea – Air co-operation. The Italian Admiral was not kept informed of the enemy movements. While the battle took place near the Italian coastline, there was no fighter protection for the Italian ships. The bombers requested by the Italian Commander in Chief arrived too late; By contrast, the British torpedo planes attacked at the right moment. As if all this was not enough, the Italian bombers attacked unsuccessfully by mistake their own ships, when they were leaving the battle and were heading to Messina. A British airplane that was keeping contact with the enemy also confirmed this.
The Italian reports don’t especially mention the heavy bombardments against the Gibraltar force, mentioned by Admiral Cunningham. They stress that in general the action of the Italian bombers was very poor, as it is proved by the results.
Mussolini had formed the impression that by this air action half of the British naval force of the Mediterranean was placed out of action.
As it can also be deducted from other sources, this first encounter of the two fleets, even if it didn’t have any important material result, it had an important effect on Italian morale. The dispute that pre-existed between the navy and the Air force took a new more intensive turn. The aviators were announcing imaginary successes and the seamen got new serious arguments for the absolute need to create a naval air force. They were asking the change of methods and the development of a type of aircraft suitable for naval cooperation. It had been established that nothing could be achieved with high altitude bombings; torpedo planes and dive-bombers were needed. The preparation for war of a country that disposes rather limited industrial means is, however, a matter of long term planning and lost time couldn’t easily be replaced.
Thus, the most negative for the Italians result of the battle of Calabria was that the gap between Navy and Air force increased, at the expense of the efficiency of both Arms.
But the British Admiral also was not ay all satisfied from the results. With the strategy that the Italians applied during the whole duration of the war he got very few opportunities to meet the main force of the Italian Fleet and the first one didn’t produce the anticipated results. He stresses that if the Italians had synchronized better the attacks of all the weapons they had used, they could had seriously annoyed the British Fleet. On the other hand he believes that the hit he afflicted on the GIULIO CESARE had an adverse effect on the Italians’ morale, far greater with than the material damage, and as a result they never again confronted by their own initiative the fire of the British battleships, even in cases in which they could have given a battle with great superiority of forces.
The encounter of Calabria also showed several shortcomings of the naval forces of Alexandria that the C.I.C. of the Mediterranean Fleet requested from the Admiralty to complete. From the 3 battleships only the WARSPITE could fire from the distance the Italian battleships and heavy cruisers could. He therefore requested one more battleship with long range guns, cruisers equipped with 8″guns, one more aircraft carrier and an antiaircraft cruiser. According to Admiral Cunningham he disposed the means to confront the Italian Fleet, but not at the same time the Italian Air force.
Interpreting this request, Commander Bragadin considers it as an indication that the Battle of Calabria had created a feeling of respect of the Admiral towards the Italian Fleet. This interpretation is however rather superficial because it is not compatible with the opinions presented by the Admiral himself.”