“The blow that the British inflicted to the Italian Fleet on the night of March 28 to 29, 1941, is due to several reasons. Undoubtedly however, the most serious one is the inefficiency of air reconnaissance. Her vague and conflicting reports were so unsettling for the Commander in Chief of the Fleet that he couldn’t believe them, even if they were exact.
It seems for instance that on the morning of March 28, a German aircraft reported the presence of the main British force, but Admiral Iachino, judging from the reported position, concluded that the plane had taken the Italian Fleet as British.
The promised coverage of the Italian force by air fighters didn’t materialize and during the whole day of March 28, the British reconnaissance planes were following unobstructed the movements of the enemy ships.
The fateful decision of the dispatch of the 1st cruiser squadron to the help of RN POLA was taken on the wrong assumption that the British Fleet was far away, while events prove the opposite.
Equipping some of the British ships with radars, the existence of which the Italians ignored, was surely a major factor for the success of the British.
The battle of Tainaron showed that the Italian Navy, in contrast with the British, was completely unprepared for night battle. This was rather strange because from many sides the war preparation of the Italian Navy was very good and the fire of its ships at daylight battles was quite exact.
On the other hand the British made mistakes thanks to which the RN VITTORIO VENETO was saved, as Admiral Cunningham recognizes with his characteristic frankness. Because of the signal he had sent – as we have already mentioned- the cruisers abandoned their effort to contact the Italian battleship. When an hour later the HMS HAVOCK canceled its first signal and let it be known that the immobilized ship was not the battleship but a cruiser, it would have been more natural for Captain Mack to revert to his previous course and search for the RN VITTORIO VENETO. In addition, the Commander of the cruisers at reception of that very general order of the Commander in Chief of the Fleet, could have eventually asked if that order also concerned his own mission, in which case it is quite possible that the initial mistake could have been corrected.
However, as Admiral Cunningham very correctly observes, a calm and ex-cathedra reasoning is quite different from the direction of operations from the deck, at night and in the presence of the enemy, when decisions have to be taken in seconds. Clear reasoning is not that easy, when ships are moving at high speed in thick formations and under the thundering noise of the canons.
The battle of Tainaron, besides the heavy losses inflicted on the Italian Fleet, had a much deeper consequence to its whole war action. Immediately after the battle, the Supreme Command ordered that the battleships should not undertake missions beyond the range of protection of the fighter planes. It is very possible that the inertia of the Italian Fleet that was next observed during the withdrawal of the British armies from mainland Greece and Crete was due to that reason.
The lessons drawn from that naval battle contributed to Mussolini and the Air force finally realizing that a Navy can’t complete its mission in a satisfactory way, without proper and sufficient air co-operation. Thus, it was decided to retrofit 2 ocean liners to aircraft carriers, this project were not however completed during the war period.
When analyzing in Italy the reasons of this catastrophic encounter, the suspicion was advanced that eventually the British were aware of the Italian plans, by means of a spy network or by deciphering radiograms. In that respect, the Italians point out that surely both sides received valuable information from such sources. In Gibraltar for instance, the Italian Navy disposed one of the best spy services and their enemy signal deciphering personnel were very experienced in that mater. On the other hand the Italian naval codes were very difficult to break, but this wasn’t the case for those of the Italian and German Air forces. Another good source of information were the supposedly neutral diplomatic representatives, the Germans in Greece during the Greek- Italian war and the Americans in Italy, until they joined the war.”