“The Commander in Chief of the British Fleet had invited the Hellenic Navy to take part in that battle, but because of a misunderstanding the R.H.N. ships didn’t have the time to reach the battle grounds in time. I will not describe in detail this battle – that has already been described many times- but I will only present the causes of this encounter, from which useful conclusions can be drawn.
The Italian attack against the British transports was based on three conditions, considered absolutely necessary: the surprise factor, the efficient air reconnaissance and the effective air coverage of the Fleet against enemy reconnaissance and for the protection of the ships. For that reason the following had been agreed between the Italian Navy and the two allied Air forces;
The German Air force from Sicily would execute on the eve of the operation reconnaissance over Alexandria and the Central Mediterranean, bomb Malta and stop airplanes flying out o Malta to the specific area. On the day the Italian ships would be sailing in the Sea of Crete, the Italian airplanes would bomb the airfields of the island, execute reconnaissance in that area and the British transport routes from Alexandria towards the Aegean Sea and would offer full coverage to the Fleet up to the Apollonian meridian. At the same time the German Air force would execute reconnaissance in the between Cyrene and Crete and would provide coverage till 2 hours before night fall. Finally, the Italian Air force from Rhodes would provide fighters on the morning of the operation for the protection of the ships in the area of Crete. In addition, because the German Air force would be cooperating for the first time with the Italian Navy on the day the Italian naval forces would be leaving the Messina straits, escort and ship reconnaissance maneuvers were to take place with the participation of a large number of German airplanes.
The central idea for this operation was a cruisers attack supported by the battleship RN VITTORIO VENETO, on board of which was Admiral Iachino, Commander in Chief of the Fleet. The force included 6 heavy cruisers, 2 light cruisers and 13 destroyers. The ships was scheduled to sail from various bases at around 11:00 of March 27, 1941 and rendezvous at a position around 60 miles East of Augusta. Next the whole force was to sail towards Apollonia, Libya until 20:00 and then separate into two parts that would execute two different sweeps.
The 1st squadron of heavy cruisers made of the ships RN ZARA, RN POLA, RN FIUME and 4 destroyers and the 8th squadron of light cruisers with the ships RN ABRUZZI, RN GARIVALDI and 2 destroyers would sail towards the Aegean Sea up to the East Cape of Crete, where it should arrive at around 08:00 of March 28, 1941. Then the ships were to change direction and at around 15:00 be at a position 90 miles South-West of Navarino bay, where they would be joined with the other naval force and they the whole force would then return to their bases.
The other force, made of the battleship RN VITTORIO VENETO with 4 destroyers and the 3rd squadron of heavy cruisers with the ships RN TRIESTE, RN TRENTO, RN BOLZANO and 3 destroyers would sail to a position 20 miles south of the small island Gavdos (located south of Crete) and at around 07:00, if they made no encounter, would change direction towards the meeting position referred to previously.
From the start of the operation what had been agreed with the air force was not respected. In the morning of March 27, the German airplanes didn’t appear to execute the scheduled maneuvers. At 12:20 it was reported that a British reconnaissance plane was flying near the 3rd cruiser squadron that was sailing ahead of the Italian force. As it was decrypted from the airplane’s report, because of low visibility, it had neither detected the presence of RN VITTORIO VENETO nor the other cruiser squadrons sailing behind it.
Although the first condition of the operation – surprise – had disappeared, it continued as planned. However, because no information had been received on the movements of the enemy, after the report given by its reconnaissance plane the Supermarina ordered at 22:00 of March 22, the 1st and 8th cruiser squadrons heading towards the Aegean Sea to change direction, so as in the morning of the following day to join the team of the RN VITTORIO VENETO. And that was done.
At 06:35 of March 28, while the whole Italian force was located south of Gavdos, a small reconnaissance plane of the RN VITTORIO VENETO detected 4 British cruisers with 4 destroyers sailing south, at a distance of about 50 miles. The 3rd cruiser squadron that was sailing ahead of the Italian formation was ordered to gain contact with the enemy, while the RN VITTORIO VENETO was following for support. At 08:12 the Italian squadron opened fire against the British ships from a distance of 25,000 meters and thus started the battle of Gavdos.
Because at around the end of March 1941 it became known that the German attack against Greece was approaching and enemy reconnaissance south and west of Crete had increased, the British side had come to the conclusion that an important operation of the Italian Fleet was being prepared. From all the possible actions, most probable appeared an attack against the military convoys heading to Greece and most probably south of Crete.
To face this case, the best course of action for the British would have been to place their battle Fleet west of Crete. In that case, the Italians could be informed of their presence by reconnaissance and would postpone the operation till the British would sail to Alexandria for refueling. Accordingly, to oblige the Italians to confront the British ships, the Alexandria Fleet should sail at night fall –so as not to be detected before the following morning- but only once it had been confirmed that the Italian Fleet was at sea. It was also required that the movements of the British convoys appear normal, but without risking being attacked.
When on the morning of March 27, the British reconnaissance plane reported the presence of the Italian cruiser squadron at about 80 miles of the southeastern Cape of Sicily on a southeast direction, it was concluded that it was quite probable that heavy Italian ships were sailing close-by and that the probable objective of the Italians were the convoys towards Greece. On that day only one convoy was at sea heading to Piraeus [Captain Mezeviris, Superior Destroyer Commander of the R.H.N., on board the destroyer R.H.N. KING GEORGE was the Commander of the escort ships of that convoy. See: “The naval operations of March 1941” ]. The convoy was ordered to continue its course till nightfall and then tack about. Another convoy from Piraeus heading south was ordered not to sail.
The main force of the British Fleet, made of the battleships HMS WARSPITE, HMS BARHAM and HMS VALIANT and the aircraft carrier HMS FORMIDABLE with 9 destroyers, sailed from Alexandria on March 27, at 19:00 with a northwest direction. In addition, a British formation with 4 cruisers and 4 destroyers under Vice-Admiral Wippel that had been sailing in the Aegean Sea was ordered to be at dawn of March 28, southwest of the island of Gavdos. It is this formation that the 3rd Italian cruiser squadron met.
As soon as Admiral Cunningham received Wippel’s report about his encounter with the Italian ships, he rushed at a full speed of 22 miles – a failure in the refrigerator of HMS WARSPITE didn’t allow higher speed- to meet him, while Admiral Wippel was changing direction to drag the Italians towards the British force.
After an exchange of fire between the opponent cruisers that lasted about 40 minutes, with no result for both sides, Admiral Iachino ordered the 3rd squadron to change direction and a while later the whole Italian force was heading to her bases. The Italian Admiral took that decision – which at first sight at least seems somewhat hasty- because it was pointless to keep his force in that area since no convoy had appeared and at any moment enemy air attacks could materialize and the fighters he was expecting hadn’t been sent.
However when the Italian cruisers put about so did the British ships, to keep contact with the former. Soon after the British formation movement, the RN VITTORIO VENETO changed direction and sailed towards the British and as soon as it came into sight contact – at 10:50 – the 3rd cruiser squadron was ordered to put about, so that the British ships be placed between two fires.
The British ignored the presence in the area of the RN VITTORIO VENETO, were surprised and the force under Admiral Wippel went through difficult moments. Thanks to skilled maneuvering, however, and under the coverage of a smokescreen, he escaped towards the friendly main force. In the meantime, Admiral Cunningham sent torpedo planes from the HMS FORMIDABLE to attack the RN VITTORIO VENETO and rushed with the battleships to support the cruisers.
This first air attack was unsuccessful but, as a result, Admiral Iachino realizing the beginning of the air attacks that he had foreseen came back to his initial decision and at 11:30 ordered all his ships to return to their bases.
More air attacks followed in which R.A.F. bombers from Greece and some naval airplanes from Crete also took part. Again, these attacks didn’t cause any damage to the enemy ships. An attack however, at 15:20, against the RN VITTORIO VENETO with bombers and torpedo planes had more serious results. A torpedo that hit the left propellers immobilized the battleship and from the breach in flowed 4,000 tons of water. Soon the ship succeeded to continue its course towards Taranto with its right propellers, initially at a speed of 10 miles that progressively increased to 20 miles.
Admiral Iachino had repeatedly but vainly requested the air coverage with Italian and German fighters that he had been promised, but was not given even after the torpedoing of the RN VITTORIO VENETO. It seems that around 17:30 he got an answer from the German Aviation that it couldn’t undertake such mission because their airplanes could hit by misunderstanding Italian ships, since the position of the British was unknown. It is worth noting that at around 11:00 Italian torpedo planes unsuccessfully attacked the HMS FORMIDABLE and therefore at that time at least the position of the main British force should have been approximately known.
On the other hand, the reports submitted by the British reconnaissance planes concerning the Italian forces at sea and their exact position were vague. Among other reports they reported an inexistent force comprising 2 Cavour type battleships. In addition, the reported speeds of the RN VITTORIO VENETO after being torpedoed were significantly less than the real. When the battleship was hit, its distance from the British force was about 80 miles. The reduction of the distance separating the two Fleets was then slow, while the reconnaissance had reported that the Italian battleship speed was only 8 knots.
It was evident that the main British force couldn’t catch-up the RN VITTORIO VENETO before nightfall. Thus, the force under Admiral Wippel was ordered to sail at full speed to gain contact with the battleship, while an attack force of 8 destroyers under Captain Mack onboard the HMS JERVIS was ordered to execute a night torpedo attack, in case the cruisers detected the battleship. One more attack was ordered before nightfall for the torpedo planes of HMS FORMIDABLE.
Admiral Iachino being certain that during the duration of the whole day he would be receiving air attacks, sent back to base the 8th light cruiser squadron and positioned the remaining ships in an unusual formation. The RN VITTORIO VENETO was placed at the center with one destroyer ahead and one at the back, at right the 1st heavy cruiser squadron was positioned in a production line followed by its destroyers and at left the 3rd heavy cruiser squadron with its destroyers, similarly positioned.
During the last torpedo plane attack – at around 19:25 – the 1st squadron cruiser RN POLA was hit and was immobilized. The Commander in Chief of the Italian Fleet had then to face the problem of giving help to the ship in danger and the means that had to be provided to that end, also taking into account the existing information on the enemy forces of the area. The presence of the cruisers of Admiral Wippel and of the aircraft carrier was known, but he had no information on the 3 British battleships. Nevertheless the Italians explained the absence of information on the British forces as indication that they had put about and were heading to Alexandria and on the basis of this assumption they determined the movements of the Italian ships. This is however even more unexplainable given that at 17:45 radio goniometry had then shown the presence of a British formation at a distance of about 75 miles from the position of the RN VITTORIO VENETO. The Italians had wrongly assumed that they had detected destroyers.
The Commander of the 1st cruiser squadron – to which RN POLA belonged – had requested the approval of the Commander in Chief of the Fleet to send 2 destroyers to her help. However Admiral Iachino, under the fixed idea that there were no superior enemy forces in the area, ordered the remaining ships of the 1st squadron – the cruisers RN ZARA και RN FIUME and 4 destroyers- to rush and help RN POLA.
It seems that the Commander of the squadron had reached the conclusion that the British ships were far away because, instead of placing the destroyers as screen for the cruisers – as it was imperative – he positioned all the ships in a production line, with the cruisers at the head.
Admiral Cunningham received newer information on the enemy in the afternoon. At 17:45 a reconnaissance plane from the HMS WARSPITE reported that the RN VITTORIO VENETO was at a distance of about 45 miles and was sailing west at 15 knots. At 19:30 Admiral Wippel reported that the enemy ships were North West at a distance of 9 miles and the returning from the last attack torpedo planes reported that they had hit the enemy ships. On the basis of this information the Commander in Chief of the British Fleet decide to pursue the chase as planned. The time of encounter with the 1st cruiser squadron was approaching.
At 22:15 a British cruiser detected with the radar an unknown ship immobilized at a distance of 5 miles. When the battleships approached, HMS VALIANT’s radar detected the same ship. It was the RN POLA, but the British assumed that it was probably the RN VITTORIO VENETO and the battleships got ready to open fire against it. After a while however, on the other side of the flagship – the HMS WARSPITE – , 2 large cruisers with a smaller one in front were detected in a course crossing the battleships’ line. The 2 large ones were the RN ZARA and the RN FIUME, but there was no small cruiser according to the Italian version.
The British battleship with no delay turned their guns against the new target from a distance of about 3,500 meters and in a few minutes the 2 cruisers were transformed to amorphous burning masses. They were completely taken by surprise and their large guns didn’t even turn to face the enemy.
The destroyers that were escorting the cruisers attacked the British battleships, but the later avoided the attack by changing direction, while the destroyers that were escorting the main British force counterattacked. What followed was the usual melee of ships, unavoidable in such night encounters, and by pure chance a British destroyer avoided HMS WARSPITE’s friendly fire. The Italian cruisers were finally sunk by British torpedoes, after their crews had abandoned ship.
At around 23:00 Admiral Cunningham ordered all his forces that were not busy with sinking enemy ships to withdraw towards North East and at the same time the 8 destroyers under Captain Mack – situated at about 20 miles ahead – were ordered not to withdraw before executing their attack.
As the Admiral himself writes, this order was unfortunate because Wippel complied and interrupted his efforts to contact the RN VITTORIO VENETO. Another coincidence brought Captain Mack’s Flotilla away from the Italian battleship, which was finally not detected and succeeded to reach Taranto.
At around midnight the destroyer HMS HAVOCK, that until then was busy sinking an enemy destroyer, reported that was in contact with a battleship. Captain Mack then, assuming that it was the RN VITTORIO VENETO rushed to the indicated position and thus wandered away for about 60 miles. He continued that movement even after the HMS HAVOCK reported an hour later that the ship at sight was no battleship but a heavy cruiser. It was the RN POLA immobilized and half sunk. When 3 British destroyers approached, its crew was assembled on the deck and the cruiser didn’t put up any resistance. In the meantime Captain Mack arrived onboard the HMS JERVIS, drew alongside the cruiser, picked up its crew and then sunk it with torpedoes.
As reported by Admiral Cunningham, indescribable confusion prevailed on the RN POLA, there was no discipline at all and many men were drunk. The Italians reject this and give the following explanations: The RN POLA couldn’t put up any resistance because its damages were such that the handling of its heavy guns was impossible and so was the re-ammunition of the secondary guns. Awaiting the arrival of the British ships that would complete its sinking, its Commander had ordered the opening up of the taps and abandon ship. However, because the time was passing by and the British were not appearing and the ship was sinking very slowly, some of the men – 258 boarded the HMS JERVIS and the Commander among them – instead of waiting in the cold water preferred to climb back on the ship. Hoping that maybe help was on its way, the Commander had ordered to stop the sinking procedure.
It is quite possible that what Admiral Cunningham reported was somewhat exaggerated. On the other hand the explanations that were given don’t seem quite persuasive. In any case, it is not correct to try to judge the whole war activity of the Italian Navy from this single case. In this book are reported many cases of brave action and self-sacrifice of its personnel.
No trace of enemy ship was detected on the morning of the following day, March 29, 1941. The British Fleet returned to the battle field and the destroyers took up the salvation of the Italian shipwrecked sailors. They were however obliged to interrupt this operation, when they were attacked by German airplanes. Next, the Fleet headed towards Alexandria, where he arrived safely on March 30, after being fiercely but ineffectively attacked by the enemy air force the previous day.
The Italian Navy lost in this adventure 3 heavy cruiser and 2 destroyers and about 3,000 men, including Admiral Cattaneo, Commander of the 1st squadron, and the commanders of the cruisers RN ZARA and RN FIUME and the 2 destroyers.
The only loss of the British was a plane. However, the RN VITTORIO VENETO escaped and thus the main target of Admiral Cunningham wasn’t reached”