The 75th Anniversary - HMS AJAX and the Battle of Cape Matapan: 28th – 29th March 1941
By Clive Sharplin (Associate Member)
The sea fight of the Second World War known as the “Battle of Matapan” was actually the second of that name to occur in naval history. The first occurred on 19th July 1717 when a mixed force of fifty-seven ships and galleys, Spanish, Portuguese, Venetian and Papal were attacked off Cape Matapan by a Turkish squadron of about the same size. After a fierce fight with losses on both sides the Turks withdrew.
The ship HMS Ajax was a Leander Class light cruiser, the seventh ship to bear the name, relatively young having been launched in 1934, first commissioned in 1935. Displacing 9,563tons fully laden, her main armament consisted of 8 x 6”guns mounted in pairs over four turrets with 8 x 21 “ torpedo tubes in two quadruple mountings, steam turbine driven, with a wartime crew of 680. After participating in the first major sea battle of the second World War, the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939 and defeating the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee she returned to Chatham Dockyard for a 7 month long repair and refit during which my Father, Bob, joined her on 10th February 1940 as a Petty Officer Mechanician, he was to be a crew member for more` than a year until September 1941 when he was drafted to the battleship Valiant, thus enduring one of the Royal Navy’s most hostile periods. Ajax emerged back into the fleet on September 30th 1940 being deployed to the 7th Cruiser Squadron in the Mediterranean. The major refit items included the most visually obvious, her single pole masts converted to tripods with the fitting of Type 279 radar, the 46ft aircraft catapult and seafox aircraft was replaced by a 56ft one with a walrus* aircraft and zarebas to the secondary armaments 4” Guns. Since 31st January 1941 Ajax had been mainly involved with Operation LUSTRE, escorting convoys or actively transporting the troops from Suda Bay to Greece.
(*Editor’s Note - can any of our members from that time shed any light on what planes Ajax flew as there is some debate on this point?)
So 224 years later in March 1941 the Mediterranean had been named Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) by Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini in his bizarre claim that it was Italy’s Mare Nostrum but it was far from being Italy’s or for that matter the Royal Navy’s, being most bitterly contested by both. That three year-long contest is now viewed, with the benefit of hindsight, by some naval historians and strategists as being prolonged and as critical as was the battle of the Atlantic and just as fundamental to the Allies winning World War 2 and Ajax was usually in the thick of it.
In March 1941 the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet was in a situation of having added to its normal duties the final onerous stages of transporting 60,000 British, Australian and New Zealand troops and their material from Alexandria to Greece to bolster the Greek army’s resistance to an expected German invasion to rescue the Italian’s embarrassingly failed invasion of Greece whose invading army had been pushed back into Albania by the Greek army. The eventual German entry to this theatre of war with their formidable air superiority greatly increased the bitterness and ferocity of the entire conflict as well as completely changing its strategic directions and management. The Italians were still licking their wounds from the Royal Navy’s previous brushes with their own Regia Marina (their navy) over the previous nine months. Then starting in July 1940 intelligence gained by each side lead them to issue fleet orders that was to bring their respective navies into conflict on July 19 at what became known as the Battle of Cape Spado, this transpired to be the matinée to the Battle of Matapan which was itself decisive in setting the future course of the war. The Italian Supermarina (Italian Naval Headquarters) dispatched Admiral Ferdinando Casardi, with the 2nd Division to sail from its base at Tripoli on July 7th to enter the Aegean Sea via the Antikithera Strait northwest of Crete to search for and destroy a suspected British convoy of small Tankers leaving Romania transiting into Greek waters, his ships were spotted the next day by British aircraft. The British meanwhile had their own warships sweeping along the same route for enemy submarines in the path of a different convoy under their escort en-route from Port Said to Greece. The Australian light cruiser Sydney with the British 2nd destroyer flotilla comprising Ilex (Flag), Hasty, Hero, and Hyperion were found cruising independently forty miles to the nor-noreast in the gulf of Athens. Following both sides initially making different manoeuvres and course changes a gunfight started before they settled into a stern chase at 32 knots with the British in pursuit of the Italians who fired spasmodically at the British ships but their poor gunnery failed to inflict any hits upon their pursuers whereas the Sydney scored a critical shell hit on the Bartolomeo Colleoni taking out two of her boilers and the main steam line bringing the Italian to a dead stop whereupon she was quickly sunk by three torpedoes from the British destroyers Ilex and Hyperion. Sydney also got two hits on the Bande Nere, one on the bow the other destroying her seaplanes’ hanger. Sydney had to then withdraw due to a lack of ammunition having expended 1300 shells in the space of two hours with only ten left for her forward turrets. The Bande Nere eventually made it back to port in Benghazi minus 545 of her crew including her wounded captain who were picked up by Ilex, Hyperion and Hasty, of whom 121 later died.
There had also been the much earlier brilliant audacious air attack in November 1940 on the Italian Taranto naval base when aircraft from the carrier Illustrious halved the Regia Marina’s strength in one blow by sinking the battleships Italia, Conti di Cavour with the Caio Dulio being severely disabled in the bow, the cruiser Trento damaged and two destroyers damaged by near misses. As a result the Italians had promptly withdrawn the rest of their fleet north to Naples. The price paid by the Royal Navy at Taranto was astonishing, just one aircraft lost with its crew of three who were captured by the Italians. (It has since been widely claimed that the Japanese used this action as their stimulus, model and template in attacking the U.S Navy’s base at Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 in declaring war on the USA). This added insult to the injury the Italians had been given from a thrashing by the Greeks following what Mussolini thought would be a walk in the park and he needed the Germans to help rescue his Greek campaign from being a total disaster.
The Taranto attack had a profound effect on the naval strategical situation in the Mediterranean as well as providing heartily welcomed news back in a hard pressed Britain. It placed a lust for revenge by the Regia Marina, as together with increasing pressure from the German High Command who for months were becoming more insistent that their Italian partners implement a more aggressive strategy to restore the situation in the Mediterranean forcing the Super marina to take action, they developed Operation Gaudo. The Supermarina, usually reluctant to risk its capital ships but anxious to demonstrate to the arrogant Germans what its Regina Marina was made of, assigned to Operation Gaudo the new 45,000 ton 9 x 15-inch gun battleship Vittorio Veneto, six of its seven 8-inch 10,000 ton heavy cruisers, Trieste, Trento, Bolzano, Zara, Fiume and Pola, two light 6-inch cruisers Duca degli Abruzzi and Garibaldi plus 17 Destroyers. Gaudo tasked the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Angelo Iachino to take the bulk of his remaining surface forces to sea to engage the British, the plan being to patrol the waters around Crete to seek out and destroy allied convoys, their escorts and any other ships they might discover. Iachino was concerned that the operation depended upon German and/or Italian air support which he could only request through Supermarina. Experience told him that this was invariably futile as co-operation between the different arms of the Italian armed forces was non-existent. He was however heartened by intelligence received from the Germans which indicated that the British Mediterranean fleet possessed only one operational battleship and no aircraft carriers. The intelligence however was completely wrong, three British battleships, Warspite, Barham, Valiant and an aircraft carrier, Formidable were in fact safely in Alexandria harbour at full battle readiness. The aircraft carrier Illustrious had been bombed and badly damaged on 16th January in Malta’s Valletta Harbour but replaced by the Formidable, a scenario at that time not then discovered by the Germans.
On 23rd March Cunningham received an Ultra signal from the Admiralty. Ultra was a name to disguise signals that had originated from Britain’s most secret code breaking establishment at Bletchley Park where the Italian Enigma naval code had only just been broken, alerting him to an Italian naval operation commencing in three days’ time. On the 25th a further Ultra signal advised the interception of another Italian signal giving one days’ notice to their fleet commanders.
Ajax had already made her name known to the Italians in a previous action in October 1940 when together with the Cruiser Malaya, the veteran battleship Ramillies, the aircraft carrier Eagle and a screen of eight destroyers had completed escorting convoy MF4 to Alexandria with supplies from Libya, when in a position some 110 miles east of Malta at 0200 on the 12th of October three Italian destroyers were sighted, identified as Ariel, Artigliere and Arione. Ajax opened fire hitting the Ariel at 4,000 yard range - she literally exploded then sank with great loss of life. Next Ajax fired on the Arione and sank her. The Italian destroyer Artigliere fired on Ajax disabling one of her gun turrets and her radar but gunfire from Ajax soon silenced her. By this time two other Italian destroyers had arrived on the scene that no doubt imbued with the lesson hard won that starting anything with the Royal Navy was very difficult to successfully finish, the two together with Artigliere withdrew behind a smoke screen. The York later sank Artigliere, Ajax lost two officers and ten ratings with twenty injured while the Italians lost 200 dead plus the three destroyers. Later that same day Ajax when south of Malta was challenged by an Italian destroyer and two torpedo boats, Ajax responded quickly with gunfire promptly securing a hat trick by sinking all three!
The Royal Navy’s Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew B Cunningham was on record in early March as believing that something significant was about to happen. The German attack on Greece was expected at any time, there could be further attacks on his convoys to Greece, possibly a landing in Cyrenaica, an all-out attack on Malta or even the Italian fleet could finally come out to fight, or any combination of these threats.
On the 24th March Ajax was escorting yet another convoy to Piraeus from Alexandria in company with sister ship Orion flying the flag of the squadron commander Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell, with the cruisers Gloucester and Ajax’s frequent companion the Australian Perth.
Like thoroughbred chess players each side started to make their moves.
On the night of the 26th Operation Gaudo commenced as Admiral Iachino left Naples on his flagship, the battleship Vittorio Veneto with a screening force of four destroyers, his first objective to rendezvous with three separate cruiser divisions in the Strait of Messina. The 8th Division from Brindisi consisting of two light cruisers generally thought to be two of their best under Vice-Admiral A Legnani, both with 10 x 6-inch guns, the Garibaldi and Abruzzi with two destroyers. From Taranto the 1st Division commanded by Admiral Carlo Cattaneo with the heavy cruisers, Pola, Zara and Fiume with four destroyers, lastly from Messina the 3rd Division under Admiral Luigi Sansonetti, with the heavy cruisers Trieste, Trento and Bolzano with three destroyers. On the 27th to hide his receipt of the Ultra signals Cunningham ordered three flying boats from Malta to seek out any Italian units, if found to show themselves such that the Italians would believe it was the flying boats that had “discovered” them putting to sea. One flying boat was successful in reporting an Italian force of three cruisers and a destroyer 80 miles east of the south-east corner of Sicily steering roughly in the direction of Crete. At 1900 that evening Cunningham in Warspite took his 1st Battleship Squadron to sea together with Barham, Valiant and the carrier Formidable screened by the 10th destroyer flotilla comprising, Jervis, Janus, Nubian, and Mohawk from the 14th destroyer flotilla Greyhound, Griffin, and the Australian Stuart and from the 2nd Destroyer Flotilla Hotspur, and Havock.
Vice Admiral Pridham-Wippell was ordered to be in a position south-west off Gavdo Island by 0630 on the 28th with his squadron (the cruisers Orion, Ajax, Gloucester and Perth) plus the remaining destroyers from the 2nd Flotilla Ilex, Hasty, Hereward and Vendetta to join Cunningham’s Battle Squadron. Pridham-Wippell squadron was found by an Italian Ro.43 reconnaissance aircraft on the morning of the 28th and reported to Iachino who ordered Sansonetti and Cattaneo to attack the British force. Having lost the element of surprise, Iachino received revised orders from Rome instructing him to concentrate his forces south of Crete then sweep north towards Cape Matapan.
At 0650 on March 28th, one of Iachino’s reconnaissance planes spotted the British cruiser force. Seeking a cheap victory, the Italian admiral dispatched Sansonetti’s division to deal with Pridham-Wippell, while he followed with the remainder of the fleet. Sansonetti spotted the British at 0800 and opened fire on HMS Gloucester twelve minutes later. Taking evasive action, Pridham-Wippell ships began laying smoke and turned to race towards Cunningham’s approaching battleships hoping to draw the Italians towards Cunningham’s Battleships. Falling into the trap the Italians failed to score any major hits on the bait due to their poor gunnery. At 0850 realizing that Sansonetti was moving away from the fleet and into the range of British air cover, Iachino ordered him to break off and turn northwest. Turning, Pridham-Wippell’s ships followed at a safe distance. Annoyed at the boldness of the British commander, Iachino developed a plan to catch the British ships between his two squadrons. Around 1055 the trap was sprung as Vittorio Veneto came into range and opened fire on Pridham-Wippell. Realizing his mistake the British commander ordered his ships to flee at high speed.
As the light cruisers departed, six Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers from Formidable arrived on the scene and made an ineffective attack on Vittorio Veneto, though the attack was initially thought to be a failure it did buy time for Pridham-Wippell to make good his escape as they scored a hit on Vittorio Veneto causing heavy damage which slowed her speed down considerably. Not wishing to press his luck, Iachino broke off the pursuit at 1220 and turned for home. Enduring nuisance attacks from British aircraft based on Crete, Iachino’s ships failed to immediately notice the second flight of torpedo bombers from Formidable when they arrived around 1510. Re-forming his fleet to protect his flagship, Iachino sent his light cruisers home. At 1925 shortly after dark, a final British air strike assaulted the Italian formation and crippled Pola bringing her to an immediate stop. With the cruiser dead in the water and unaware of Cunningham’s approach, Iachino detached Cattaneo’s division to protect the ship whilst the rest of the fleet continued northwest.
Utilizing radar, which the Italians lacked, Cunningham undetected approached the stricken Pola and the heavy cruisers Zara and Fiume. Highly skilled at night fighting the British closed to 3,500 yards and opened fire. Taken by surprise, Zara and Fiume were quickly destroyed by the battleships’ broadsides delivering approximately one ton of splintering metal into each ship with every salvo. In less than ten minutes of fighting, two heavy cruisers were sunk along with two destroyers. Taking possession of the crippled Pola by having the destroyer Jervis go alongside to take off her crew by putting a brow out to the Pola’s quarterdeck which was found to be crowded by her crew who were in a state of utter confusion with all discipline and order completely broken down, many being drunk from breaking into the officers wine store, Cunningham abandoned his initial intention of towing Pola to Alexandria and instead had it sunk by torpedoes after first removing the crew. The ocean’s surface became littered with Italian survivors from the two cruisers and two destroyers, the British ships rescued some 900. During the rescue process that afternoon the ships were heavily attacked by eight German J.U.88’s who failed to hit any ship. Considering it unwise to delay longer the British force reluctantly withdrew leaving some hundreds of Italians still in the water, but Cunningham had a plain language signal made to Rome alerting them to the number of their survivors with their exact position and a promise not to interfere with any Italian rescue efforts. The Italians sent out the hospital ship Gradisca which next day picked up another 160 survivors.
Thus the Battle of Cape Matapan was a decisive victory for the Royal Navy and gave it control of the eastern Mediterranean until the fall of Crete in June. In the battle the British lost three airmen (the crew of one torpedo bomber), while the Italians lost three heavy cruisers, 2 destroyers and over 2,400 dead. Also, the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto had been badly damaged in the fighting. After the night engagement, Cunningham, against the advice of his officers, continued his pursuit of the Italians, but was forced to turn back when German bombers appeared overhead. An unmitigated naval disaster for the Regina Marina, the battle of Cape Matapan effectively broke its back such that apart from the Italian Charioteers and their manned torpedoes, never sought fleet action again, the next time it emerged in any force at all was only to surrender to the Royal Navy in 1943.