At a signal, the destroyer HMS Greyhound illuminated the Fiume with her searchlights. All three battleships opened up with their 15-inch guns. Fiume, Zara, and the destroyer Alfieri were turned into burning wrecks within five minutes. The remaining Italian destroyers closed for an impotent torpedo attack before withdrawing into the night.
The British battleships made a 90-degree turn to retire and escape the counterattack. Cunningham ordered his destroyers to give chase. The action became highly confused in the night as the opposing destroyers sought each other in the darkness. In the firefight, the destroyer Carducci was also sunk. The remaining two Italian destroyers sped off to the northwest.
The Sailors were Soaking Wet and Shivering While Drinking Wine to Stay Warm, Which Would Give Rise to Later Rumors That the Italian Crew was Drunk.
Star shells were fired from the destroyer HMS Havock over the position where the crippled Zara was presumed to be. Instead, the listing Pola was illuminated. She was mistaken for the Vittorio Veneto. Havock fired twice into her bridge and reported finding the Italian battleship “undamaged and stopped.”
A prize crew was sent over to Pola to take command. Some 200 Pola crewmen were still aboard, having abandoned ship and then returned. They were soaking wet and shivering while drinking wine to stay warm. This would give rise to later rumors that the Italian crew was drunk. The British prize crew debated towing Pola back to Egypt, but soon abandoned the notion. They took off the surviving crewmen and sank the hapless Italian cruiser.
Pridham-Whippell’s cruisers, which were trailing the actual Italian battleship, reported that they had spotted Very lights over her position. Admiral Cunningham believed this sighting to be a new Italian squadron entering the fray and, to avoid confusion in the dark, ordered all of his ships not engaged with the enemy to turn northward simultaneously, allowing the remaining Italians to escape.
The searching British destroyers found the stricken Zara in the darkness and sank her. More Italian seamen were then in the water than the British destroyers could handle, though they picked up all they could. Some 900 Italians were plucked from the sea before 0800 the next morning when German dive-bombers arrived and chased the rescuers off. The British transmitted the location of the sailors still in the water to the Italian high command. Another 300 men were rescued by that evening. Curiously, Prime Minister Winston Churchill reprimanded Admiral Cunningham for this gallant action.
With the battle lost, the wounded Vittorio Veneto and her remaining escorts made it safely back to Italy. The British fleet prudently retired rather than face aerial assaults. The Battle of Cape Matapan was the last offensive operation of the Italian Navy in World War II. From then on only the destroyers and submarines and the occasional cruiser would play any part in staving off the growing power of the Allies.
Their one-sided victory did not let the British off the hook. The next two months witnessed considerable British naval losses in the Mediterranean from German bombers and U-boats. Many of the victorious ships and crews involved in the Battle of Cape Matapan were lost in the evacuation of Crete as Great Britain continued to stand alone against the Axis tide.
Glenn Barnett is a frequent contributor to WWII History. He is a freelance writer and an instructor of history at Cerritos College in Norwalk, California.
This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.