Fact File : Battle of Cape Matapan
28 March 1941
Location: Cape Matapan, off the southern coast of Greece.
Players: British and Italian navies, Admiral AB Cunningham, Vice Admiral Pridham-Wippwell.
Outcome: The Italian navy was defeated and did not seek battle with British ships again.
In the battle for supremacy in the Mediterranean, the British navy fought the Italian fleet off the coast of southern Greece on 28 March 1941. Increased enemy activity had been observed three days earlier by reconnaissance aircraft, and the British suspected that surface activity was being planned by the enemy. Ultra intelligence had broken the Italian code, and the British were aware that they planned to attack convoys.
A convoy transporting troops to Piraeus, Greece, was turned around and another about to depart Egypt for Greece was ordered to stay at anchor. Confirmation came that Italian ships were heading for Crete and a British battle fleet left Alexandria with Admiral Cunningham in command.
On 27 March he sailed with his battle squadron and the British carrier Formidable. The cruiser force under Vice Admiral Pridham-Wippell was also ordered to take up station south west of Gavdo Island at daylight on 28 March from its position in the Aegean. Admiral Cunningham managed to keep this movement secret from Italian and other intelligence services.
The Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto first opened fire on Pridham-Wippell, who was forced to turn about. British cruisers and aircraft launched from the Formidable pursued the Vittorio and caused her to break from engagement, saving Pridham-Wipwell. In a second attack the Vittorio was torpedoed, but not dangerously so. The cruiser Pola was stopped. Four Italian destroyers were sent to assist. The two forces were now steaming towards each other, but the Italians were taken by surprise.
Big guns from the battleships Warspite, Barham and Valiant attacked the Fiume - she was soon a wreck and sank - followed by the Zara and the destroyer Alfieri. In the battle between destroyers which followed the Carducci was sunk.
While the Royal Navy had in the end only fought an element of the Italian strength, Admiral Cunningham's tactics were successful and an objective was secured: the Italian navy had been checked and the two naval forces did not meet again.
The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.