Meanwhile, the Italians continued to steam eastward toward the same waters south of Crete, still hoping to bag a fat British convoy. In a major failure of Italian reconnaissance, no flights were made over Alexandria on the 28th. This oversight kept Admiral Iachino from knowing that the main British fleet had departed the harbor and was steaming westward in the Mediterranean to join in the hunt.
But if the Italians had problems with their chain of command and intelligence, the British had to deal with ships that had been in almost constant service since the war began. Generally older, slower, and less well armed than their Italian counterparts, many British ships, especially the destroyers, had gone for long periods without routine maintenance. Some ships could not even leave port, while others had to turn back, and still others slowed down the newer, faster ships.
Outgunned by the Faster Italians, Pridham-Whippell Ordered a Retreat Toward the Safety of the Distant Battleships.
On the morning of the 28th, Iachino launched a short-range scout plane from the deck of the Vittorio Veneto at 0600 hours. The little plane would have to fly on to land, as the battleship was not equipped to retrieve and reuse her scouting planes as the British could.
The scout hit pay dirt. Only 50 miles ahead of the leading Italian cruiser squadron was the British squadron of Pridham-Whippell. The British cruisers were steaming in the area awaiting the expected convergence with the rest of the fleet.
The combined Italian fleet increased speed from 23 to 30 knots to engage the outnumbered enemy. By 0745, lookouts on the cruiser HMS Orion sighted smoke from Italian cruisers. Knowing that he was outgunned by the faster Italians, Pridham-Whippell ordered a retreat toward the safety of the distant battleships. By 0812, the nearest Italian cruiser, Trieste, opened fire with her 8-inch guns on the slower moving cruiser HMS Gloucester, which was straggling at the end of the British line. Gloucester fired back with her 6-inch guns, but her shells fell short.
Aboard the Vittorio Veneto, Admiral Iachino distrusted the hasty British withdrawal. This timidity vexed him. He sensed a trap and ordered his cruisers to withdraw.
Meanwhile, the main British fleet under Cunningham had closed to within 70 miles. The British admiral was frustrated by the uneven speed of his fleet. The World War I-vintage Barham could barely keep up. Warspite, the flagship, struggled with mechanical problems and also lagged behind. The Australian cruiser HMAS Vendetta, another World War I veteran, was so slow she was ordered back to Alexandria.
When he learned of the Italian attack on Pridham-Whippell’s cruisers, Cunningham ordered the newest and fastest of the British battleships, the Valiant, to steam ahead with a brace of destroyers as escort. The Formidable was then ordered to launch her Fairey Albacore biplanes for a torpedo attack, but it would be nearly 1000 hours before they were all away.
Iachino was still unable to determine his enemy’s true strength. His own air reconnaissance was woefully inadequate, and the promised German and Italian air cover had not materialized. When he received news from an Italian aerodrome in Rhodes telling of two British battleships, an aircraft carrier, cruisers, and destroyers headed his way, he disregarded the message, thinking that the observers had spotted his own returning cruiser squadrons instead. He knew only that Pridham-Whippell had turned west once more, shadowing his cruisers. With the spotty information that he had, Iachino decided to attack the British cruisers once more.
By 1100 hours, the Orion once again sounded the alarm as smoke from Vittorio Veneto was spotted only 16 miles away. For the second time Pridham-Whippell ordered an about face while 15-inch shells from the Italian battleship rained down among his ships. Two cruisers were slightly damaged from near misses as the Italians closed in rapidly.
The attack was spoiled by the timely arrival of the first flight of Albacore torpedo planes, which caused the Vittorio Veneto to take evasive action, allowing the British cruisers to escape.
With no convoys spotted, reduced fuel reserves, and no air cover, Iachino decided to withdraw. The Albacore attack had alerted him to the presence of at least one British aircraft carrier. All the Italian ships were ordered to turn northwest for home. Yet, Iachino did not yet feel any urgency to get away and steamed at an economical speed to conserve precious fuel. The Italian admiral had been cautious, fearing the aggressiveness of the Royal Navy. Now, he ignored the thought that the British would seek every means to destroy him.
In fact, the British were just getting started. Formidable prepared to launch a second wave of planes, even while being attacked by Italian torpedo bombers. When the Italian attack ended, more planes were launched. By 1500 hours, three Albacores had found the Italian battleship and closed in. The Italians already had their hands full with a flight of Blenheim bombers that had joined in the chase.
While Italian gunners focused on the high- altitude Blenheims, the Albacores flew at low level out of the afternoon sun to completely surprise the Vittorio Veneto. At a range of 1,000 yards, one of the biplanes slammed a torpedo home before being shot out of the air. This single torpedo bomber would be the only British loss of the battle.
The Vittorio Veneto, hit in the stern below the waterline, took on water, lost power, and began settling by the stern. Her crew’s frantic efforts were enough to get her moving again but at a greatly reduced speed. Iachino now wanted nothing more than to reach the safety of Italy. Even though he still did not know it, the main British fleet under Cunningham was just 65 miles away and closing fast.
Fountains of Antiaircraft Fire Rose up from the Italian Ships in a Chaotic Display of Tracers, Searchlights, and Explosions.
At 1700 hours, Iachino was alerted that the two British cruiser groups were closing in on his stricken battleship. Still unseen, the three British battleships were right behind them.
By 1900 hours, the third and final aerial attack was shaping up. Six Albacore and four Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes from Formidable pressed toward the Italian fleet, which formed a protective cordon around the Vittorio Veneto. The main British fleet was closing to within 50 miles and preparing for night action. Racing at 30 knots, the leading destroyers spread out over a seven-mile area in an advanced screen looking for the enemy.
At 1930, the ancient-looking biplanes made their third attack of the day. Fountains of antiaircraft fire rose up from the Italian ships in a chaotic display of tracers, searchlights, and explosions. Only one hit was made by the attackers, but it proved critical to the outcome of the battle. The heavy cruiser Pola was struck by a torpedo and stopped dead in the water. Three of her wards were flooded, including her engine room. All electrical power was lost. The remaining Italian ships, ignorant of her plight, steamed westward into the growing darkness.
Cunningham had new worries of his own. If he pressed his night attack against the fleeing Italians, the morning might find him within range of Italian and German land-based planes. Subordinates warned him against pursuit, but he ignored their timid counsel and charged ahead. Valiant slowed to allow her sister battleships to catch up.
Night brought the advantage of radar to the British. They had secretly developed shipboard radar in the 1930s and were using it to good effect. In the early 1930s, the great Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, father of the radio, had been actively working on shipboard shortwave radio-location, but with his death in 1937 his advances were not pursued. The Italians did not know that British ships were equipped with the device.
In the darkness, HMS Orion picked up the helpless Pola on her screen. At about the same time, Iachino finally learned of the plight of Pola. Still unaware of the onrushing British fleet, he impulsively dispatched the other cruisers of Pola’s squadron, Zara and Fiume, with their four destroyers, into the night to tow their stricken sister to safety.
The Italians were ordered to steam at 16 knots to conserve fuel. They were expected to complete the rescue mission and reach the safety of port before dawn exposed them to danger.
The leading British battleship in the nocturnal chase was now Warspite. Cunningham ordered a change of course for his battleships to intercept the invisible targets that radar had identified. The Italians were totally unaware of their presence. Neither navy had ever intentionally fought a battle at night, but the British, using their top secret radar, had been practicing during the 1930s for just such an occasion. The moment of truth had arrived.
Around 2230 hours, lookouts spotted the Italian cruisers in line-ahead formation. Admiral Cunningham ordered all three of his battleships on a parallel course. Their 15-inch guns were laid in at a range of only 3,800 yards.