The Battle Of Matapan
in March the tingling thrill of approaching battle was felt throughout
the entire Fleet as Admiral Cunningham led them out from Alexandria.
This was to be no mere "Mediterranean sweep".
a dozen occasions he had tried to bring the Wops to battle. At Calabria
he had almost succeeded, but since then the vaunted Italian Fleet had
been harbour-bound. This time, though, prospects were brighter. Reconnaissance
planes had reported a large Italian force to the eastward of Cape Passera,
Sicily. And the enemy were steering east! East-away from their harbours
of Taranto and Messina. East-towards the supply lines from Egypt to
Greece. East-towards the slow convoy guarded only by Voyager and Vampire,
taking precious cargoes of war to stricken Greece. This time, perhaps,
there would be action!
Of Matapan Map
of the dirty, man-made harbour, past the scudding feluccas and dirty
fishing-boats, the Fleet steamed quietly to battle. Inquisitive eyes
watching from the shore saw nothing unusual in its departure. The crew
were at their stations just as they always were-smart, efficient, carrying
out their duties without fuss or show.
was the same on board, too. The same as it had always been. But this
time there was a little more eagerness, temples throbbed a little faster.
The destroyers were out ahead, Stuart and Vendetta the only
Australians among them. Then the cruisers, then the battleships. And
then the aircraft carrier Formidable, whose planes were to play so important
untried Fleet this. Havoc was there, still commanded by Captain Watkins
who took her into Narvik with Captain Warburton Lee's flotilla. Ajax,
proud of her year-old victory over the vaunted Graf Spee, steamed alongside
H.M.A.S. Perth. Wars pite, hero of Narvik, Calabria and a thousand bombings,
wallowed unconcernedly in the van.
speedier light forces did not stay with the battle fleet. Under Vice-Admiral
Henry Pridham Wippell, wearing his flag in Orion, the four cruisers
and the aircraft carrier Formidable raced off to seek out the enemy.
With their destroyer screen was Vendetta.
Italians, Admiral Cunningham well knew, could make very rapid exits
from the battle area! So with the first streaks of dawn on 28 March,
torpedo bombers streaked away from Formidable's long flight deck, trails
of white smoke weaving strange patterns in the damp morning air.
7.49 a.m. the Italians were sighted. Quickly the planes sent back reports-one
battleship, six cruisers, seven destroyers, thirty-five miles south
of Cavdo Island. Quickly the position was plotted. Orion was just to
the south-east, a foaming bow-wave surging almost over her fo'c'sle
as she led the three other cruisers at full speed towards the enemy.
Two more Italian cruisers and two destroyers had joined the force ahead,
but these were odds the Englishmen liked.
pite was ninety-five miles south-east of Orion, and it seemed impossible
for her to catch the fleet Italians. They had been designed for speed,
and knew how to use it.
time, however, they were not to be so lucky. Orion made contact at 8.2
a.m., and turned away to the south-east, the enemy cruiser squadron
following for an hour. Then they turned away, and Orion followed until
she was brought under fire from a Littorio class battleship. The British
battle fleet was still many miles away, and the Italians were already
beginning to move round to the northwest. Formidable again sent up her
flock of torpedo bombers and they pounced eagerly on the fleeing ships.
Once, twice, three times, aerial torpedoes launched from short ranges
tore gaping holes in the battleship's thick armour. A heavy cruiser
reeled as she was struck and a destroyer listed heavily, badly damaged.
and Vampire had been ordered to turn back with their valuable convoy,
but, as they steamed towards Alexandria at slow speed and plotted the
positions of both the Italian and the British fleets, it seemed that
nothing could stop the Italians from reaching them first. As they heard
that the cruisers had made contact they were cheered considerably-two
aged destroyers are hardly a match for a battle fleet!
too, watched the action with more than passing interest! Her engines
had broken down soon after Orion had made contact with the Italians
and the ancient destroyer was creeping away at slow speed, almost in
the path of the enemy battle fleet. For almost twenty-four hours she
was unable to move, but the Italians had already turned for home, and
when faint smudges were sighted on the horizon early on 29 March, it
was the British Fleet and not the enemy that steamed towards them.
in Stuart, officers and men heartily cursed their bad luck. Ciphers
and signals were eagerly read and news of the battle was flashed from
ship to ship. There were cheers when the success of the torpedo bombers
was broadcast, but the very success made the tiny destroyer's crew madder.
were stuck back there with the battleships, with only an outside chance
of seeing the Italians! Throughout the afternoon the tension grew. Orion
was flirting with the battered battleship, enticing her and her flock
of attendants towards the 15-inch guns of Wars pite, Valiant and Barham.
more battleships, three cruisers and four destroyers had been sighted
by our planes just off Gavdo Island, and R.A.F. Blenheims had scored
hits on three ships in this force. It looked like action if they could
only get there in time. Captain Wailer and his officers had only the
reports from Orion and Formidable to console them and, plotting positions
eagerly, they could see that the two fleets were closing.
shortly after dusk, came the blow which almost crushed their hopes of
seeing action. A destroyer striking force, under Captains (D) of the
14th and 2nd Flotillas, was detached to destroy the damaged Italian
battleship. Stuart was left behind. Officers and men, weary-eyed from
long, vain searching of the horizon, watched them go, and saw their
last chance of action fading into the dusk. With Havoc, Greyhound and
Griffin, they were to screen the battleships.
even the damaged Wop battleship, its speed reduced to a bare fifteen
knots, would escape them now as the darkness grew. This time, perhaps,
there would be action-but not for Stuart. Evening came, crisp and clear.
The Mediterranean was strangely calm and the slight swell seemed barely
to lap against Stuart's slender bows. The sea was monotonous in its
very stillness. Look-outs strained to catch a glimpse of flame on the
horizon which would herald their approach to the battle which must surely,
by now, he raging. It was tiring work- eyes moving slowly from one end
of the horizon to the other looking for the dark shapes of ships looming
out of the dark.
on "A" gun someone began to sing, softly, "We are waiting
for ships which never come in." The others laughed. It's easy to
laugh when you're tired, tense, expecting battle. Then it was silent
again. Nothing but the lapping of the sea and a quiet rippling gurgle
as the bows cut through the water. Lapping and gurgling. Gurgling, rippling.
The monotony of it beat into the crew, harder to bear than the silence.
Wearying, oppressive, unnerving. On deck a lookout lazily wiped his
hand over a stanchion, licked the salt from his fingers. Astern, the
feathery wake was a brilliant white, studded with a thousand glittering
phosphorescent lights. Ahead there was nothing but the calm, shimmering
water. Spray flicked back across the foredeck, "slap-slapping"
over the guns where men huddled, waiting. .
at 10.10 p.m. an enemy cruiser was reported hove-to to port of the battle
fleet. Stuart altered course. Her crew watched as she swung round, looked
questioningly at the bridge, saw that the other ships were altering,
too. Quickly the "buzz" went round. From gun to gun, from
searchlight to the tubes, from bridge to supply parties in the magazines-
it spread within seconds. Action . . . at last!
the shellrooms and magazines supply parties talked with studied unconcern.
They would see nothing of the lightning of the battle; they would only
hear its thunder. No glamorous job, theirs. Just drag and hoist, drag
and hoist, until their bodies were covered with tiny beads of sweat.
Drag and hoist, until the sweat became rivulets that splashed on the
deck; rivulets that would run until the guns ceased fire.
fellows, these, too. Perhaps braver than those above who could see the
way the battle went and who could see escape if the ship was mortally
hit. But those below would know nothing of the battle but that the guns
were hungry for ammunition, and that other guns were firing near by
off. Cooks, stewards, engine-room artificers, stokers and seamen - they
talked of many things. But, listening for the noise of battle, they
heard only the soft gurgling of the sea as it bubbled along the ship's
was tense now and the breathless thrill of battle could almost be felt
in the crisp night air. The destroyers raced away at full speed, foam
cresting their slender bows, while the battleships, sedately rising
and falling to the swell, steamed ponderously in their wake. Look-outs,
from vantage points all over the ships, peered eagerly through powerful
glasses. The horizon, dimly moonlit, was clear and unbroken against
the sky. Then, on the wing of the bridge, a young able seaman saw a
dark shape looming in the distance.
shape became clearer. Not one ship, but two, three, four! He rubbed
his eyes, stared harder. Could this be some trick of the night? No,
it was real enough. He shouted, hardly knowing what he said, but on
the bridge they heard his report.
bearing green four-oh."
Wailer and his officers had seen the ships. Calmer than the excited
seaman, they had already flashed a report back to the flagship. It was
to be action right enough!
Italians drew nearer, clear against the horizon. No damaged ships these,
hove-to and helpless, but 8-inch cruisers, fast, powerful and in full
fighting-trim, attended by light cruisers and destroyers.
too, had seen them and opened up with starshell. The pallid, yellow
streaks seemed to float into the air and then, just as they burst, there
was a rumble of guns from astern. Giant shells screamed over Stuart.
The 10,000-ton Italian cruiser flume, struck by a full 15-inch salvo,
at three thousand yards range, exploded with a roar. Sheets of yellow
and red flame lit up' the horizon. Mangled debris,
hundreds of feet into the air, rained down on friend and foe alike.
The few Italians who survived the dreadful, bursting inferno, flung
themselves, screaming, into the water. It was exactly 10.30. With thundering
broadsides, and flame, and death, the Battle of Matapan was born.
minute later Stuart opened up, her tiny 4.7's snapping viciously as
they poured two salvos into the blazing cruiser, hoping to finish her
off. Then an enemy destroyer raced past, wildly firing red and white
and green tracer into the air as she dashed out of the glare of the
fiercely burning Fiume. Lieutenant-Commander Robison checked Stuart's
fire, altered target rapidly, and sent a salvo into the Italian as he
Guns Opening Up
sky was pocked with slowly burning starshell and split by the knife-like
beams of powerful searchlights. Multicoloured tracer streamed into the
air and 'guns of every calibre flashed red and yellow flame as they
spewed destruction. Two more cruisers were sighted farther south and
Stuart and Havoc raced away to meet them, while Griffin and Greyhound,
to the north, more than held their own with a number of destroyers.
Wars pite had crippled the 8-inch cruiser Zara with a single salvo and
she burned slowly, her guns still firing at the tiny destroyers which
raced round her, guns blazing and tubes trained.
Wars pite's giant searchlight flashed on, trained directly at Stuart's
Not a man breathed or spoke. They did not hear the crashing of guns
as the other ships fought. They did not hear the shells which screeched
overhead or plopped in the sea near by. It was all silent, eerie and
silent, as they waited. They could almost see Wars pite's mighty guns,
which had reduced Fiume and Zara to rubble, measuring them for the kill,
wisps of black and yellow smoke trickling from their greedy muzzles.
searchlight went out. The guns crashed again. The battle went on.
"Thank God they aren't panicky like the Wops," someone gasped.
were two 10,000-ton cruisers left-Pola, damaged by our torpedo bombers,
and Zara, stricken and burning as a result of Wars pite's murderous
11 o'clock Zara and Pola were together and Stuart, closing the range
rapidly, prepared to torpedo the pair. On the bridge, Captain Wailer
watched the two cruisers through his glasses. Either one could reduce
Stuart to mangled rubble with a single salvo.
Gunner (T), "Shorty" Ley, spun his torpedo disk. Night settings
had been fixed and Captain Waller decided that he would fire his full
outfit of six torpedoes at the two Italians.
came the moment the torpedo men had been waiting for.
"Turning to fire torpedoes."
began to spin round, foam gushing from beneath her bows and a creamy,
swirling wake astern.
Ley, his eye fixed to the torpedo sight, shouted:
degrees to go, sir." Twenty degrees to go, sir. "Ten degrees
to go, sir."
one. Fire two. Fire three."
port look-out could see the torpedoes' feathery wakes, phosphorescent
and white against the dark water. On the bridge a dozen pairs of eyes
strained as glasses were focused on the Italians. Low down on one of
the cruisers there was a flash of fire, then another. Amid the crack
of gunfire Captain Waller and his men heard two muffled explosions.
followed up her advantage with rapid salvos, her gun crews sweating
as they rammed home shell after shell, her supply parties laughing and
cursing alternately as they hoisted ammunition up to the insatiable
guns. Each time the "fire" gong rang the 4.7's vomited flame
and black and yellow smoke. The burning cruiser returned the fire, then
was silent. Stuart poured another salvo into her, then turned away to
engage the other cruiser.
was sighted four minutes later, about three thousand yards away, listing
heavily and apparently stopped, but her 8-inch guns were ready, and
greeted Stuart with heavy and accurate fire.
Wailer altered course slightly to bring all his guns to bear and Stuart's
first two salvos caused big explosions. The Italian began to burn fiercely
just as a look-out reported a ship close on the port bow.
a'port," shouted Captain Waller and the destroyer Vittorio Alfieri
passed a scant one hundred and fifty yards away on the starboard side.
The control officer snapped new orders:
target bearing green six-oh, moving left to right." Guns swung
round, trained by eager crews. In split seconds they reported: "Guns-target."
command to fire was drowned by the crack of the 4.7's. One shell struck
Alfieri's bridge, shattering the entire superstructure, a second buckled
the forward gun into twisted scrap, a third struck aft, piercing her
second salvo ripped into her before she had gone one hundred yards,
completing the destruction of the lower bridge and steering-gear and
again damaging her aft.
third salvo, this time fired only from the after guns, sent another
shell smashing through her stern.
Alfieri began to go round in circles out of control. Nearly all the
lifeboats had been destroyed by Stuart's two minutes of fire at pistol-shot
range. She listed to starboard and began to
sink by the stern, racked by explosions and lit up from end to end.
Then Havoc poured a salvo into her and Alfieri shuddered and sank.
the weird light of falling starshell, Griffin, who had been engaged
with two Italian destroyers, saw Pola barely two hundred yards away.
Quickly her guns were brought to bear on what appeared to be an undamaged
8-inch cruiser ready to open fire, Then Pola lurched slightly. The after
turret doors swung open with a dull clang and struck hollowly against
the side of the turret. The Italian's gun crews had fled. There were
a few men still aboard, some of them German control officers and layer
ratings. They were at their posts, but there were no Italians to load
the guns or to man them.
raced up, her guns trained, her crew flushed by their quick victory
over an Italian destroyer. Captain Watkins saw that Pola had been almost
deserted, saw that there was no fight left in her, and signalled: "Shall
I go aboard or blow off her stern with depth charges? I have no more
there were other destroyers nearby, eager to finish off the stricken
cruiser. Jervis (who had rejoined the battle fleet) and Greyhound took
over and Havoc dashed off to engage another destroyer.
did not fire a round as Greyhound circled slowly round her with her
searchlight trained and guns ready, and Jervis ran her sharp bows alongside.
of struggling Italians in the water testified to the enemy's panic.
A white cloth was draped over the quarterdeck, token of surrender, while
the rest of the crew, with the twenty-one officers who had not jumped
overboard, crossed a gangplank to the Jervis.
ship's books were burning in a big heap under the after
gun turret and her guns were facing fore and aft. The Italian flag still
fluttered sadly from the mast, but there was no fight left in the mangled
cruiser. Someone on the quarterdeck flashed rapidly with an aldis lamp,
probably trying to attract attention to the large white cloth. They
had seen Flume disappear in a sheet of flame and mangled debris. Take
no risks, was their motto!
sheered off, opened the range a little, and sent a torpedo ripping into
Pola's belly. She heeled over and sank by the stern, her guns still
fore and aft, her flag forgotten at the masthead, her waist red hot
by Flume's sudden end, she had taken practically no part in the battle.
Half her crew jumped over the side before she had fired a round-indeed,
before a round had been fired at them. Others followed them, so that,
damaged by our torpedo bombers earlier in the day, she had floated helplessly
through the amazing night battle, abandoned by three-quarters of her
crew and by all but twenty-one of her officers. Pola, one of Mussolini's
most powerful cruisers, had been sunk without firing more than a couple
was now that Stuart's luck held good. Turning to port, she narrowly
missed ramming an enemy cruiser, probably the Giovanni delle Bande Nere,
sister ship of the Bartolomeo Colleoni, sunk by H.M.A.S. Sydney. The
cruiser, undamaged and ready to open fire, could have blasted Stuart
out of the water with a single salvo from her 6-inch guns, but she passed
without firing a shot.
the engagement the Italians had fired red, white and green recognition
tracer into the air and Stuart had fired this tracer from a Breda captured
at Tobruk. The Bande Nere had seen this, and had mistaken Stuart for
At the tubes Stuart's torpedomen cursed their luck they had no more
torpedoes and there was a cruiser just asking for trouble.
"Shorty" Ley, who had wrought havoc with his "fish"
a few minutes before, could hardly hold back the tears. It would have
needed only one torpedo! He couldn't have missed at five hundred yards.
Stuart drew off to pour salvos into Zara, which replied briefly and
then was silent. As more salvos went home, bringing muffled explosions
but no answering fire, Stuart left to engage the other ships.
the northward Havoc was spiritedly attacking another destroyer and,
as her second salvo struck, the Italian exploded.
11.18 all ships received a signal from the commander-in-chief, ordering
those ships not "actually engaged in sinking the enemy" to
retire to the north-east. Those Italians which had kept out of the fight
had fled at high speed. The ones who had been caught had been battered
and beaten. There was only the "mopping up" to be done.
at 11.30, an hour after the battle opened, Captain WaIler, still looking
for battle, sighted a cruiser to the northeast, and immediately opened
Italian returned the fire wildly, and had apparently been badly hit.
second salvo struck her amidships, starting a fire, and a few more salvos
produced no reply.
Jervis, who had arrived late and was the only British ship with torpedoes
left, blew up Zara, who was still burning fiercely, and the battle drew
to a close.
and searchlight failed to pick out any enemy ships still afloat. Everywhere
was floating debris and the glaring searchlights lit up the faces of
struggling Italians, clinging to lifebelts, improvised rafts and wreckage.
continued her retirement to the north-east and rejoined the battle fleet
at 7 a.m. the next day.
except for the picking up of survivors, ended the Battle of Matapan.
Admiral Cunningham's ships had steamed more than seven hundred miles
before they brought the Italians to action, and in a little more than
an hour had sunk three 8-inch cruisers, badly damaged a 6-inch cruiser,
sunk three destroyers and had damaged at least three other ships.
morning British ships had picked up sixty-one officers and eight hundred
and forty-nine men. Among the officers was Captain Despisi of the Pola,
who asserted that the battleship damaged by Formidable's torpedo bombers
was Vittorio Veneto, flagship of the Italian commander-in-chief, and
that it had been sunk.
Admiral Cunningham, asked for his opinion after he had returned to Alexandria,
said that Vittorio Veneto had been badly damaged at Taranto, and had
probably not gone to sea since. It seemed that the battleship, whatever
her name, had fled as quickly as she could, being lost in the night
when our ships were busily engaged with the other Italian ships.
the hundreds of Italians who perished was Admiral Cantoni, commander
of the 8-inch cruiser squadron. Among those saved was the strangest
collection of seamen our men had ever seen. The Italians were eager
to talk and very humble. The Germans were silent, arrogant.
German officer, fished out of the water as the Nazi dive bombers tried
to smash the British ships, stood on the deck of the destroyer Mohawk,
raised his arm, cried. "Hell Hitler." Big, brawny Australian
seaman McAuliffe caught him by the scruff 0f the neck and the seat of
the trousers and threw him back. Then he leant over the side, wagged
his finger at the German, and said with quiet determination:
to salute properly when you come over the side of a British ship."
he threw a rope to the Nazi, and hauled him aboard.
German stood at attention, faced the White Ensign, saluted, and walked
sheepishly towards a group of rescued men. He saw that they were Italians,
wheeled and stood apart from them.
Italians were a sorry lot. Among those who huddled together in Stuart's
forward messdecks were some without clothes, and some with blankets
wrapped round them.
who called himself something which sounded like "Breeches"
(but probably wasn't), had just turned eighteen. He was a slim youngster,
with big black eyes and dark, curly hair, and he was still scared when
he was landed at Athens. He had been conscripted into the navy when
he turned eighteen, just eight days before. Kitted up at Taranto, he
spent his fourth day at sea as a survivor and prisoner of war!
yeoman of signals from the Pola said that he was asleep in his hammock
when he heard a terrific explosion.
"They were running all round me. I went out on deck and I saw one
of our cruisers blow up. Every one seemed to be jumping overboard, so
I grabbed two lifebelts and jumped, too.
heard someone cry, 'Mamma mia, I cannot swim,' but he was also jumping
Polo, according to prisoners, had been hit amidships by an aerial torpedo.
Many of her stokers had been burned by steam and the engineer officer,
who joined the ship the day she sailed, was overcome by smoke and fumes.
He, too, jumped overboard when the battle began.
and Griffin left at 9 a.m. to go to Athens for fuel, and landed their
them, the Fleet was still picking up survivors, but this work was destined
to cease soon afterwards. German dive bombers came over and Admiral
Cunningham ordered his ships to leave the Italians.
signal was sent to the chief of the Italian naval staff giving the position
and suggesting that a hospital ship should be sent. The Italian replied
you for your communication. The hospital ship Gradisca left Taranto
last night at five o'clock."
old-world chivalry brightened the fiercest and bloodiest sea battle
of the war. So the victor offered assistance to the vanquished and the
enemy offered his thanks.
Cunningham's action, of course, brought criticism from those who were
demanding "total war" against the Axis. But as the monthly
journal The Navy had declared only a few months before:
Majesty's ships in action do not make war with kid gloves. . . . It
is not kid-glove fighting to refrain from massacring the helpless. .
. . Nothing is going to stop British seamen from succouring other seamen
in danger of drowning, even if they are enemies who have just been defeated."
was nothing resembling "kid-glove" fighting ahout Matapan.
The enemy had been brought into action, and had been thoroughly beaten-to
aid the survivors was but humane.
flying a victory ensign at the mainmast, passed Voyager and Vampire
later in the day. The two destroyers, still guarding their slow convoy,
flashed messages of congratulation.
with victory, his ship's company proud, tired and happy, Captain Wailer
signalled: "Here the conquering heroes come," as he passed.
There were cheers from the convoy and then Stuart and Griffin sped away.
was Stuart's part in the great sea battle that is called "Matapan".
enough news of the fight, flashed all over the world, referred to it
as the "lonian Sea Battle". Admiral Cunningham, in every signal,
had referred to it as "Matapan", and so the Admiralty, days
later, announced that the battle was officially to be known as the "Battle
of Cape Matapan".
and Vampire arrived at Piraeus unmolested except for a fruitless torpedo
bombing attack. The two destroyers were ordered to remain there until
the sea was clear of Italian warships. They barely had time to fuel
before they sailed again! The Italians hadn't waited long at sea.
after landing her prisoners at Piraeus, sailed with a large convoy from
the Greek port on 29 March in company with Griffin, Hereward and the
light cruiser Bonaventure. The night was cloudy and dark. The shapes
of the convoyed ships could barely be distinguished and look-outs were
keeping a close watch when there was a heavy explosion astern. Then
there was another crash and flame leapt into the air. Bonaventure had
Stuart wheeled, dashed back to take off survivors, but Bonaventure sank
almost immediately. Barely fifty yards astern in Stuart's foaming wake
there was another explosion. But the submarine had missed that time!
dashing in now, and Stuart, who had detected the U-boat, dropped a pattern
of depth charges. Seconds later another pattern was dropped and the
submarine broke surface astern, lurched for a moment in Stuart's wake,
then slipped below again. Herewcird, racing in at top speed, almost
rammed the U-boat, then dropped a pattern of charges. Wreckage began
to float to the surface as Stuart began her third attack. Bonaventure
had been quickly avenged.
the last Sunday in March victory services were held throughout the fleet.
young seamen, still flushed by their victory, sang hymns and prayed
for "those in peril on the sea".
for the Wops," Stuart's men declared. "They are the only ones
in peril, though they are not often on the sea."
is not the full story of Matapan. It does not pretend to do more than
sketch Orion's matchless "flirting" with the enemy, the amazing
success of Formidable's swarm of planes, or the part played by the other
British ships. There is no time here to tell of the hundreds of ragged,
frightened survivors who were washed up on Greek Islands days later,
clinging to jagged pieces of what had once been ships.
is the story of a twenty-three year old midget who, in the space of
an hour, engaged three cruisers, sank a destroyer, and played more than
her part in the destruction of two others.
else will tell the full tale about Matapan. This is Stuart's story.