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Main battles

Battle of Punta Stilo of 9 July 1940.

One large Italian, formation composed by two battleships Cesare and Cavour (illustrated to side), by 16 cruisers and 18 destroyers, after to have escorted a convoy to Bengasi, is going to Taranto. The English fleet is going towards Malta, where a convoy is waiting for it, when the two adversaries come to know the respective positions. English try to cut the way to the Italian warships, but they avoid the interception and, on order by Navy command, go to wait for English near Punta Stilo, because was feared an attack to the Italian ports. battleships Cesare and Cavour

Here there was a short combat, the first one between battleship of the Italian naval history, without appreciable consequences, little blows to target with little damages, for both the parts. Not wanting to risk too much, the contact was broken and both the fleets direct for the own bases, without fighting any more. There was also the famous incomprehension between the Italian air forces with Naval units: also the Italian ships were bombed, luckily without damages.

Battle of Capo Teulada of 27 November 1940.

One Italian fleet of two battleships and six cruisers, with the customary escort of destroyers, was going, on order of Navy headquarters, to the south-west of the Sardinia, in position of ambush. It received, but late, news on the position of the enemy, when the adversary is already to north of Tunisia, moreover there were not information on the nature of the mission of the enemy which was the protection of a convoy directed to Malta. The Italian fleet directs in order to intercept the English one, that, from its side, turns towards the Italian fleet to avoid the contact with the convoy. The forces are about the same (English have 2 battleships and 5 cruisers, apart from the DDs), and the admiral who commands the Italian fleet has the order of Navy High Command to avoid the combat if not in superiority conditions: therefore the Italian Fleet, in sight of the enemy, maneuvers to go away: the English shoot with the heavy front guns and the Italians with aft ones. The distances between the two formations of cruisers are around the 20000 meters, the battleships are farther and, for the moment, outside shooting range; the Italian shooting seems effective: at 12.22 a first blow hits the English cruiser Berwick to stern, at 12.35 hits another one; some English sailors die but the damages are light and the combat goes on without particular events; little after the Italian destroyer Lanciere is hit, emitting a smoke curtain, it retreat; the two Italian battleships (Vittorio Veneto and Cesare), at this point, make a wide tacking and they go into the enemy; at 13.00 the Vittorio Veneto opens fire, at the enormous distance of 29000 meters, with its heavy 381 millimeter guns (15"). It only shoots nineteen volley but it is sufficient: the English cruisers break off the contact, satisfied to have caught up their purpose moving the Italians from the convoy that, in meantime, is going undisturbed to Bon Cape; on the other hand, also the Italians are satisfied to have faced the English fleet without having losses, as a few days were passed from the attack of Taranto (that had shaken their moral, apart from the damaging of several of their warships). The battle of Capo Teulada finished as a draw for mutual consent.

Battle of Gaudo of 28 March 1941.

Three Italian cruisers (Trento, Trieste and Bolzano) saw, at 07.55, four English cruisers, that changed their route and went away towards south-east, where it was the rest of the English fleet, thinking of being in inferiority conditions (they had guns of smaller caliber). The three Italian cruisers, at 08.12 opened fire by the distance of approximately 22000 meters but the volleys was too dispersed to be effective; the English cruisers, knowing that, for their guns, the adversaries are outside shooting range, shot a little, just to not remain idle. The pursuit went on for an hour and then the Italian cruisers inverted the route. But also the English made the same thing and they followed at great distance, standing outside shooting range, to had Italians under observation. In meantime arrived the BB Vittorio Veneto which, as soon as it reached shooting range, at 10.55, opened fire by the distance of 23000 meters: the British cruisers could not make other than to escape under the shooting of Italian heavy guns, that suffered from the usual dispersion: of the 94 "381" shot, no one hit. In the pursuit the Italian formation entered in the range of the English aircraft and therefore arrived a first torpedo bombers attack against the Vittorio Veneto: the attack made no hits, but the maneuvers carried out to avoid the torpedoes caused to lose the contact with the enemy. At 12.20 the Italian Commander suspended the pursuit. Returning towards the base, the Italian formation, at 15.09, without warning was heavily attacked by a combined force of bombers and torpedo bombers. A torpedo bomber (piloted by the Lieutenant commander Dalyell-Stead) succeeds to reach the distance of 1000 meters from Vittorio Veneto and launched his torpedo: in spite of an emergency maneuver the Vittorio Veneto was hit at the external left propeller and shipped 4000 tons of water. In a first moment the warship was forced to stop, then, at 16.42, could move: from this moment on the Italian battleship could move at the max. speed of 19 knots; it begins the evening that will see the Battle of Matapan.

Battle of Capo Matapan of 29 March 1941.

During its returning to Taranto, Italian fleet, without air cover, was attacked two times by bombers and torpedo bombers, all taken off from the English carrier Formidable. All attacks, apart from a torpedo that, in the afternoon, hit the BB Vittorio Veneto, were avoided without consequences. Another heavy torpedo bombers strike, between 19.36 and 19.50, hit and crippled cruiser Pola, which was forced to stop. In meantime, the English fleet based on Alexandria was closing to strike BB Vittorio Veneto, which was slowed down by the torpedo, but Italian warships knew not the English fleet existence, because they had imprecise reports (it were reported only some enemy cruisers). So the 1st Division, composed by cruisers Zara, Fiume and four destroyers (Alfieri, Gioberti, Carducci and Oriani), inverted the route to rescue Pola, also if belated, for delays in messages decoding; unfortunately the Division encountered the main of the English fleet. This, unseen, move itself near the Italian warships, located thanks to the radar, and lighted them with powerful searchlights: it was a massacre. At 22.30, at the distance of only 3500 meters the shells of over a thousand Kg. shot by English battleships tore the two Italian cruisers and two destroyers (Alfieri e Carducci) of four. Lately, the Pola, immobilized, was found and sank. BB Vittorio Veneto and the remains of the squadron went on undisturbed. That night, a true Caporetto (a major Italian defeat in W.W.I) on the sea, died 2303 Italian sailors: 782 on Zara, 813 on Fiume, 328 on Pola, 211 on Alfieri and 169 on Carducci.

Battle of Matapan Cape

First battle of Sirte ( December 1941 ).

The 16 December 1941 leave Naples an Italian convoy of four large cargo ships escorted by eight destroyers. South of Messina strait it is reached by a support escort composed by the BB Duilio and by cruisers Aosta, Montecuccoli and Attendolo, and 4 destroyers. Farther a strong group is sailing: the BBs Littorio, Cesare and Doria and moreover cruisers Gorizia and Trento and ten destroyers. An enormous deployment for four cargos only, but it is to be considered that the Italian Navy command wanted to break, at all costs, the English blockade on Libya route, because too much cargo ships and escort destroyers were sank on that route. The 17 December an Italian reconnaissance aircraft finds out, north of Sidi el Barrani (Egypt) an English formation, that was a convoy going to Malta, but exchanged at that time, for a lot of signaling and recognition mistakes, for a true enemy task force, at sea to attack the Italian convoy. To excuse this mistake it is to say that was part of the English convoy (that, however, was escorted also by three cruisers) the tanker Breconshire, which was disguised in warship shape and was exchanged for a battleship. Admiral Cunningham, commander of the English fleet based in Alexandria, informed of the Italian fleet's going out, convinced himself that it was going to attack the English convoy; so he ordered to admiral Vian, (convoy escort units commander) to maneuver so to avoid battle in order to protect the precious tanker, and later to attack Italian fleet, but only after the sunset. From Italian part, admiral Iachino (fleet commander), receiving the recognition signaling the English fleet, maneuvered to intercept it, but with great caution, erroneously convinced that the English was a battle formation. The Littorio group entered in contact with the enemy at great distance (over 30000 meters) only just after sunset (it was 17.53 and the sunset was at 17.40) and, seen the known limitations of Regia Marina in night combat, without results. The English, seen their numerical inferiority, had to free themselves from the contact and, in spite of the orders to attack during the night, admiral Vian preferred to attend to the convoy security and escort, so it arrived without problems to Malta. Same thing made admiral Iachino, losing touch toward west, to go with the fleet to defend the Italian convoy, fearing a night attack that never was. The shooting last only about 15 minutes: no one of every shells shot hit. Considering that both convoys and escorts arrived to destination, either Iachino as Vian had achieved their objectives. From a merely military point of view, the first battle of Sirte was an English success, considering the difference of force ratio, but Italians had achieved the very important objective to escort a convoy to Libya without losses, earning morale and trustworthiness after the failures series in sea transport toward Libya. Moreover, after tanker escort, English warships came to know that Italian ones were in escort mission too and so they tried to intercept it; little time after midnight of 19 December, English fleet ran, at 15 miles from Tripoli, into a very large mine field, which was been prepared by Italians, with great precognition, just to avoid an English raid. English formation, called "K force" lost CA Neptune and DD Kandahar, while cruisers Aurora and Penelope were heavily damaged also if, with difficulty, they returned to Malta. Considering these elements too, it is correct to say that the Italian operation was a success. There was also a moral victory: Littorio group was all day long on offensive, against an English formation that had retreated and that, during the night, it had tried no reaction, also if it was advantaged by having radar. Above all to operation' success, least, had contributed the fact that English had not carriers among them and Italian warships, at least this time, were effectively protected by Italian-German aviation. If admiral Iachino would be informed in time and exactly on enemy warship position, and of their composition, probably English force would have been more damaged.

Attack to Alexandria port of 18 December 1941.

The evening of 17 December at 18.40, Italian submarine Scire' was at about a mile from west entrance of Alexandria port. At 20.47 three S.L.C. (slow running torpedo), the "maiali" (Italian word for "pigs") were put into the water, everyone rode by two commandos of X flotilla MAS, who went to, underwater, towards the harbor entrance. Luckily three English destroyers were returning, so the nets at the entrance were opened to let the ships pass, saving Italian commandos the long and hard work to break open them. The three pigs followed English destroyers and entered in enemy base, directing toward their assigned objectives. Their work was slow, laborious but succeeded; at 06.00 a 8000 ton. tanker exploded, followed at 06.15 by an explosion that heavily damaged battleship Valiant, and the worst had to come: a few minutes after, at 06.19 battleship Queen Elizabeth, Cunningham's flagship, leap on the water, shaking for a large explosion. The Alexandria raid was fully successful: six Navy commandos (Durand De La Penne, Emilio Bianchi, Antonio Marceglia, Spartaco Schergat, Vincenzo Martellotta and Mario Marino) succeeded to inflict on English ships a great defeat: two powerful battleships were out for a long time. The six commandos were captured and put into detention.

Durand De La Penne   Durand De La Penne, mission commander, returned in Italy after the armistice of 8 September 1943 and was decorated for valour, for Alexandria raid, in March 1945. At the ceremony was present also English admiral Charles Morgan, BB Valiant commander, who pinned up the gold medal on Italian commando breast.

Blockade of Malta. First six months of 1942.

The dramatic experiences in convoy escort during the last months of 1941 and the heavy risk that Malta, with its strategic position, had roused to Libya supplies had not more to be ignored. Consequently, Italian and German Commands decided to radically face the problem. The blockade of Malta, which in the first six months of 1942 was near absolute, was achieved by the combined action of naval forces, M.a.s. (torpedo boats), mine fields in Sicily channel and near Malta, and Italian-German air forces. The battles described below are the most important in that time, that saw in Mediterranean sea a deployment of forces that lost nothing in comparison with the more famous air-naval battles of the Pacific theater.

Second battle of Sirte of 22 March 1942.

An Italian submarine, Platino, pointed out, north of Cirenaica, a convoy of 4 steamboats going to Malta, under the escort of 5 cruisers and 11 destroyers of Alexandria fleet, which was in that time without battleships. 3rd Cruiser Division (Bolzano, Trento and Bande Nere) from Messina, and battleship Littorio from Taranto, followed by a total of 10 destroyers, left to intercept the convoy. In the afternoon of 22 March, at 14.26, Italian cruisers were in contact with English ones and retreated to lure them to the Littorio, which was arriving: meanwhile the convoy has moved south covered behind smoke curtains. English formation followed the Italian one, but in the shooting no damage was done; at 15.20 English cruisers lost touch, convinced to have moved out Italians from the convoy (indeed, at 15.35, they signaled to their Alexandria Command: "enemy repelled"). In the meantime Italian forces met and the formation's commander, admiral Iachino, decided to follow a southwest route, that permitted him to "cut the T" to the enemy formation; this was a choice the was, later, criticized: indeed it was a faster route but risky, because at the contact Italian formation would be leeward respect to English one, at the risk to be blinded by smoke and fog-screens emitted by enemy fleet. However, at 16.31, Italian fleet was at view contact with English one: the visibility was very bad, there was a strong Sirocco wind at 5 force and sea was rough; at 16.43 began the battle between the two naval groups: fire was open from both parts at the distance of 17000 meters, moreover English emitted smoke-screens, that reduced Italian visibility; a Bande Nere's "152" shell achieved its target: cruiser Cleopatra, English flagship, was hit; 15 sailors died and a.a. targeting station was out of use: English formation hid itself behind smoke-screens; there was a moment of stasis and fire was ceased, when English four destroyers attacked in order to protect their cruisers: Italian fleet opened fire, and that time also the powerful "381" guns of BB Littorio shot; having find, and only at this point, that in Italian fleet was present a battleship, English destroyers began the tactic to go periodically in and out of smoke-screens, and this to avoid to shorten the distance, because the Italian fleet feared a torpedo attack if they would have gone too near to the smoke-screens. Meanwhile Italian destroyer Grecale had to return to base for a rudder breakdown due to the rough sea. At 17.40 Italian units, however, shortened the distances and opened fire again: CA Trento hit English destroyer Sikh but without heavy damages. The sea by that time was stormy, Italian cruisers had a rolling between 10 and 27 degrees, destroyers hardly held the sea, it was 17.52 and fire was ceased. At 17.59 English attacked, coming out the smoke-screens, Cleopatra ahead, and shot from the distance of 12000 meters on Littorio launching 3 torpedoes that missed. At 18.31 Italians form a line and charged into English formation, Littorio ahead. English destroyers launched themselves in the very middle of Italian units, challenging the "381" volleys to save their cruisers. It seemed a suicide charge, and Italian officers who, from their bridges, observed them arriving in the stormy sea later will say to have admired them: DD Kingstone took a shell by CA Trento that roused fire aboard but it succeeded in disengage itself, DD Lively was hit by a volley of the Littorio aft turret and had to retreat; however at the distance of only 5000 meters English destroyers succeeded in launching their torpedoes, forcing the Italian formation to make evasive maneuvers. No torpedo hit the target (an aircraft aboard Littorio caught fire for the flash of the ship own guns, and English thought to have hit the battleship), but had given English time to lengthen the distances; admiral Iachino, it was 18.51, seen the coming of the night, ordered to cease fire: at 18.58 the last shootings ceased. The second battle of Sirte was ended. Considering only the battle we can easily say that it was an English victory (indeed in Alexandria they celebrated victory), seen the enormous difference in the force ratio: a cruiser division succeeded to block a much stronger formation without losses, also if it did not made any. But Italian main objective was that to attack the convoy, and here was successful: battle maneuvers forced English convoy to go far south and it was delayed, so the next morning, at dawn, German aircraft could attack it: at 10.30 of 23 March the first cargo ship was sunk, then, at 8 miles from Malta, tanker Breconshire was hit , that, forced to ran aground, was then destroyed. The last two cargo ships entered in Malta and docked, but here were attacked too by aircraft and destroyed: of the 25000 supply tons left for Malta it were unloaded only 5000. After the second battle of Sirte there was a painful historical page for the Regia Marina: Italian formation, returning to Taranto, lost in the storm destroyers Lanciere and Sirocco: of the 470 members of the two crews were rescued only 18. Also cruiser Bande Nere was damaged by the storm but succeed to reach Messina. It was sunk some days later, 1st April, near Stromboli island, while was going to La Spezia for the necessary repairs, by English submarine Urge: all of its crew of 287 sailor followed it in the depth of the sea.

Battle of half June 1942 ( Intercepting of Alexandria convoy)

The English fleet based in Alexandria was bound for Malta, escorting a large convoy composed by nine cargo ships. The Italian fleet, commanded by admiral Iachino left the port of Taranto to intercept it; it was 13.00 of 14 June. At 18.00 an Allied reconnaissance aircraft spotted Italian fleet and alerted English Command; the convoy, which, in the meantime, had lost two cargo ship to German dive bombers attacks, was alerted of the menace: continuing on that route at 7.00 a.m. of 15 June it would have encountered the Italian fleet in a strong inferiority condition (8 light cruisers and 25 destroyers for the English against two battleships, 4 cruisers and 12 destroyers for the Italians): what there was to do? The convoy went on, with prudence, trusting in its own aircraft, until 1.00 a.m., then inverted the route. During the night, at dawn and in the first morning hours the English would have to violently attack with their aircraft but, for the very first time, Italian fleet had the radar: aboard DD Legionario was installed a German Dete (radar). Maneuvering with radar help, Italian fleet avoided English chase till the morning, when it was spotted and attacked: CA Trento was hit by a torpedo and immobilized (it was sunk some hours later by English submarine P.35, who surprised the cruiser during towing operations by part of two destroyers, which were detached from the Italian formation); Italian formation went on. In the night English convoy had its bad time too: attacked by German E-boote (torpedo motorboats) it had a destroyer sunk and a cruiser, the Newcastle, damaged. At 4.30 convoy newly inverted route, believing to have damaged so heavily the Italian fleet to force it to return base. At 8.00 a.m. English are alerted by their spotters that Italian fleet was practically intact: at this point English gave up their plans and, definitively inverted the route, were bound for Alexandria: but they had to pass in the sea between Crete and Egypt, a very dangerous zone, so much that English sailors called it "bomb valley", and indeed they were attacked by German stukas: two destroyers were sunk and cruiser Birmingham was crippled. The convoy went on, always pursued by Italian formation, and succeeded in returning Alexandria, also it lost cruiser Hermione, sunk by a German submarine. English operation is completely failed.

Battle of half June 1942. (Battle of Pantelleria).

While Taranto based Italian fleet was intercepting Alexandria's convoy, another English convoy, composed by seven cargo ships, was bound for Malta coming from west, protected by Gibraltar fleet. Off Sardinia, the convoy was attacked by aircraft and submarines: a cargo ship was sunk and cruiser Liverpool, damaged, had to retreat to Gibraltar. Before reaching Capo Bon, English fleet inverted route, while the convoy went on under escort of a cruiser, nine destroyers and 16 minesweepers and armed motorboats. To intercept English convoy, at 19.24 of 14 June, under command of admiral Da Zara, the 7th Division, composed by cruisers Eugenio di Savoia and Montecuccoli, and 7 destroyers (reduced then to 5 because two of them had engine breakdown), left Palermo port. At dawn of 15 June, it was 5.30, 25 miles southwest off Pantelleria, there was the spotting. At 5.39 the units opened fire and, while English escort was engaged in combat, cargo ships were attacked by aircraft. At 8.30 admiral Da Zara broke contact, sure of a great victory (he then entered in port whit his ships' gun at maximum elevation in sign of victory and he was welcomed by great celebrations; Mussolini himself decorated the admiral for valor). During afternoon English ships are again attacked by aircraft and, in the night, they went into a large minefield near Malta; only two cargo ships succeeded in entering the port. What happened in the shooting? Reports were contrasting and, however, admiral Da Zara was sure of the sinking of a "Kenya" class cruiser and two destroyers, besides the heavily damaging of other three destroyers. Later on the official Italian's reconstruction, and the crossed control with English ones, demonstrated that in the shooting between the two formations Italians heavily damaged English destroyer Bedouin, damaged DD Partridge and hit with a single shell cruiser Cairo, slightly damaging it. From their part Italians had few damages: DD Vivaldi, hit and aflame, was forced to return to base and the two cruiser were hit both by a single shell, with very little effect. Also if the battle of Pantelleria was an Italian victory it was not seen through to the end, and English operation had the partial success to reach Malta with two cargo ships with their supply, which, for the besieged island, was a true breather.

Battle of half August 1942.

The 10 August 1942, south off Balearic islands, was gathering a 60 ships complex: it was operation "Pedestal", the greatest ever made by English to supply Malta. There were 16 cargo ships, two battleships (Nelson and Rodney), four carriers besides a lot of cruisers and destroyers. Having had early the information from Gibraltar' spies, Axis Command prepared countermeasures alerting submarines and deploying over 700 aircraft in Sardinia bases. The morning of 11 August Italian and German submarines attacked: the English carrier Eagle was sunk by German submarine U 73. Italian submarine Dagabur was rammed and sunk by an English destroyer. The morning of 12 August, south of Sardinia, intervened Italian aviation, which sunk a cargo ship. At 18.30 another resolute Italian-German aircraft attack: a destroyer sunk and some bombs on the bridge of carrier Indomitable which, aflame, returned to Gibraltar. Off Biserta, the main of English formation inverted route and the convoy went on escorted by 5 cruisers and 12 destroyers. In the evening of 12 August, English convoy met Italian submarines, that, at least, were deployed with the "pack of wolves" tactic in passage points; successes did not lack: Italian submarines sunk cruiser Cairo and two cargo ships and damaged cruisers Nigeria, Kenya and other two cargo ships (in particular submarine Axum with a single four torpedo salvo contemporaneously hit the Cairo, removing its stern and forcing it to auto-sinking, the Nigeria and the only tanker of the convoy, the Ohio). During night, Italian M.A.S. (torpedo motorboats) intervened, and sunk cruiser Liverpool and four cargo ships. The 13 August, before survivor ships could arrive in Malta (it would arrive two undamaged cargo ships and three damaged ones), aircraft sunk another cargo ship. If the morning of 13 August, in Pantelleria' sea there would have been also a little part of Italian surface fleet, no English ship would have escaped to destruction; instead Italian ships were ordered to return to base, for the lack of air cover, by Navy High Command, authorized by Mussolini. Italian crews did not like this decision, also if understandable, because it tasted of surrender; moreover, on returning route, cruisers Bolzano and Attendolo were damaged by English submarine Unbroken, proving, in Italian sailors' eyes, that if people do not risk, people loose. The battle of half August cost English high losses, but, thanks to American help, they could afford them; moreover they succeeded in supply, also if only partially, Malta. For the Italian surface fleet this was a battle to forget, while assault crafts, submarines and M.A.S. had achieved a great success.

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