During World War II, both Axis and Allied navies were vying for control of the Mediterranean. The Regia Marina — the Italian Navy — working with intelligence from other Axis powers, including Germany, tried to maintain control of the waters around Italy, Greece and Crete but the Allied victory at the Battle of Cape Matapan made that impossible. Despite the contrast in loss of life, the defeat of the Regia Marina at the Battle of Cape Matapan was not utter defeat. The Italian ships involved inflicted damage on the Allied ships and even had the upper hand in several instances.
The Battle of Cape Matapan was fought between contingents of the Royal British Navy and the Royal Australian Navy against a contingent of the Regia Marina. The commander of the Allied forces was Admiral Andrew Cunningham. The commander of the Italian forces was Admiral Angelo Iachino. Cunningham had 3 battleships, 1 aircraft carrier, 17 destroyers and 7 light cruisers. Iachino had 1 battleship, 17 destroyers, 6 heavy cruisers and 2 light cruisers.
Admiral Angelo Iachino was sent out on Operation Guado — an attempt to patrol north and south of Crete and take out all enemy ships they encounter. He and his fleet were under the impression that Cunningham was short two battleships and an aircraft carrier, thanks to bad intelligence from the German air force. On March 27, 1941, he got a better idea of what he was up against when his men decrypted a message regarding Admiral Cunningham’s aircraft carrier — Formidable. Iachino himself was in command of the new battleship Vittorio Veneto, but it would not be enough.
After learning about the British aircraft carrier, Iachino and the Regia Marina decided to move forward with their mission. Cunningham’s fleet spotted Iachino’s fleet the same day, though they already knew Iachino and his fleet were coming. Cunningham decided to hold his ground in the area and take out the Italian fleet.
The fleets vying for position finally encountered each other on March 28, 1941. This initial encounter in the larger Battle of Cape Matapan is also known as the Battle of Guado. Despite the name Battle of Cape Matapan, the actual fighting was not on Cape Matapan but out to sea in several locations. The fighting began after an Italian pontoon plane caught sight of the squadron of British cruisers. A little more than an hour later, the cruiser squadron was seen going southeast near Gavdos Island in Greece.
Seventeen minutes after the Italians caught sight of the Allied cruiser fleet, they fired the first shots of the battle. They followed the British squadron for about an hour, but were unable to do significant damage, so they moved off to the northwest hoping to get the cruisers to approach the Vittorio Veneto. It worked, giving the Italian force another chance to fire on the Allied force.
The cruisers encountered Vittorio Veneto at about 10:55 a.m. The battleship bombarded the Allied ships, firing 94 times and forcing them to withdraw. However, the damage inflicted was not crippling and no lives were lost. Allied aircraft made it impossible for Iachino’s ships to pursue the fleeing cruisers and finish them. However, the battleship was not struck by Allied air strikes until hours later. At 3:09 p.m., the ship was badly damaged by aircraft. It was repairable and the crew was able to patch it up and move along by 4:42 p.m.
At 7:36 p.m., Allied aircraft struck again. The attempt on the Vittorio Veneto was made for 14 minutes. Admiral Iachino was able to keep his battleship from being struck with anti-aircraft fire, smoke and spotlights. He saved the bulk of the ships in his immediate area. However, one ship — Pola — was damaged. Unfortunately for the Italian fleet, this damaged ship would be enough to make the battle go from relatively equal to severe Italian defeat.
Admiral Iachino’s next move was to send ships out to aid his ailing ship. The rest of his fleet, including his battleship, moved on. It is generally though that Admiral Iachino was unaware that British ships, including the aircraft carrier, were nearby. Others believe that the relief the Admiral sent to one damaged ship was a poor decision that lost the battle. Poor decision or uninformed decision, it certainly did lose the battle for the Italian fleet.
Between 10 and 11 p.m., the Allies approached the Pola and those sent to save her. When they were in firing distance, they attacked, sinking four ships — Fiume, Zara, Vittorio Alfieri and Giosué Carducci — in a matter of minutes — two cruisers and two destroyers. Pola was lost hours later. Allied ships did bring some of the survivors on board their own ships and even sent word to Axis forces regarding where their survivors could be found. Despite this effort and more than 1,000 rescued Italian sailors, 2,300 more of them were dead. Another 160 were rescued by Italian ships when the Allied ships left the area, but the battle was won. Only three Allied soldiers were killed and they were airmen shot down in a bomber by Italian anti-aircraft guns.
Historynet, Battle of Cape Matapan, retrieved 3/11/12, http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-cape-matapan-world-war-ii-italian-naval-massacre.htm