Cape Matapan: The Defeat That Crushed Mussolini's Dream of a Second Roman Empire
Pola sighted shapes to the north and, believing they were friendly, fired a red flare to advertise her location. Zara, south of Pola, saw the flare forty degrees off her port bow and turned in that direction. The British, meanwhile, closed with Warspite, Valiant, Formidable, and Barham in a line of bearing. All lookouts focused to port, where they expected the enemy ship to appear. One officer on the admiral’s bridge, however, was sweeping the seas to starboard and at 2225 noticed large warships off the bow. Cattaneo was unwittingly crossing the British T.
Cunningham swiftly ordered his three battleships to turn towards the enemy and open fire at a range of just two or three miles. This time, it was the turn of Italian cruisers to face the fifteen-inch guns of battleships—and the British didn’t miss. All three heavy cruisers, as well as two Italian destroyers, were sunk.
Materially, the loss of three heavy cruisers was a disaster for a nation that lacked resources to replace them. Yet Italy could still muster four battleships, which was enough firepower to worry the hard-pressed Royal Navy through 1942. Nor was the defeat unique: the U.S. and Australian navies managed to lose four heavy cruisers in a single night to the Japanese at Savo Island.
However, the psychological devastation of Cape Matapan was immense. The Regia Marina realized that despite operating near Italian airbases, it couldn’t rely on land-based air cover—and it had no aircraft carriers to compensate. Technologically, it lacked radar, which put the Italians at a disadvantage in night combat (though the Japanese did quite well at Guadalcanal using well-trained lookouts).
If Italy’s fleet couldn’t fight the British in open combat, that meant it had to stay in port as a fleet-in-being, always threatening the enemy but rarely venturing forth into battle. It preserved the Regia Marina, but only at the price of allowing the British to operate their convoys and to strike at the Italian convoys supplying Rommel’s army in North Africa.
More than sunken ships, Cape Matapan sunk the dream of Italy’s Mediterranean empire. Mare nostrum was not to be.
Image: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, June 1940. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain