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Calabria, Battle of (9 July 1940)

Mediterranean air and naval battle fought between the British and Italians off the Calabrian coast of Italy; the Italians and Germans know it as the Battle of Punta Stilo. Beginning on the evening of 6 July 1940, the Italians dispatched a large convoy from Naples to Benghazi. At the same time, the British commander in the Mediterranean, Vice Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham, sent two small convoys with numerous civilians on board from Malta to Alexandria. On 7 July, the Italians learned of the British ship movements and immediately sent naval units from several bases to sea. Vice Admiral Inigo Campioni had command, concentrating the ships in the Ionian Sea. Campioni had the modernized but small battleships Cesare and Cavour, with 12.6-inch guns; 6 heavy and 10 light cruisers; and 41 destroyers and torpedo boats. Also at sea but scattered throughout the Mediterranean were 25 Italian submarines.

Cunningham planned to cover the convoys with his naval force at Alexandria, consisting of the battleships Warspite, Malaya, and the unmodernized Royal Sovereign, all armed with 15-inch guns; the aircraft carrier Eagle; 5 light cruisers; and 23 destroyers. Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville sortied from Gibraltar with Force H as a feint, which resulted in the loss of a destroyer to an Italian submarine and some minor splinter damage from high-altitude bombing.

Following the safe arrival of the Italian convoy at Benghazi, Campioni decided to try to intercept the British convoy and its escorts steaming from Alexandria. He hoped that by the time of the naval encounter, the Italian air force would have been able to damage the British ships as they approached the Italian coast. Indeed, more than 100 Italian aircraft conducted attacks on the British vessels, but the high-level bombing did little damage: all but one bomb missed. The bomb that hit its target damaged the light cruiser Gloucester, and a near miss damaged the Eagle sufficiently to keep her from participating in the subsequent air attack on Taranto. The Italians planes also carried out several attacks in error on their own warships, again with no result.

Meanwhile, Cunningham was maneuvering to position his own ships so as to block the Italian ships from returning to Taranto. The Eagle launched several air attacks. Although not hitting any Italian ships, these attacks disrupted their movement, and British fighters did shoot down and chase off Italian reconnaissance aircraft. As a consequence, by the morning of 9 July, the Italians were not cognizant of the exact location of the British ships, whereas the British had fairly reliable information on the location of the Italian vessels.

The battle opened on the afternoon of 9 July as the two fleets at last came into contact, and it lasted nearly two hours. The fight was initially a long-range cruiser gunnery duel, resulting in no damage to either side, although the British salvo spreads tended to be much tighter than those of the Italians.

As the Italian battleships came into action, they were opposed by Cunningham's flagship, the Warspite, the fastest of the three British battleships. In the ensuing action, three British 6-inch-shell hits on the Italian heavy cruiser Bolzano and one 15-inch-shell hit on the Cesare slowed both and compelled the Italian main force to retire. The fact that three British battleships had outgunned the entire Italian fleet deeply affected Italian tactics.

As the Italian main force pulled back, both sides ordered their destroyers forward. At long range, the Italians fired torpedoes through their smoke screens but registered no hits. The ships in the Italian fleet then retired to their home ports. The Germans later criticized the Italians for not having launched night torpedo attacks with their numerous destroyers.

On 10 July, the Eagle mounted an air strike on Augusta, Italy. An Italian destroyer was sunk but was later raised and repaired, and an oiler was damaged. Meanwhile, the British Malta convoys arrived safely at Alexandria.

The Battle of Calabria raised British morale, for the Royal Navy had successfully engaged a numerically superior enemy force close to its own coast. The Italians' failure could be traced to poor coordination between their air and naval assets, although this situation steadily improved in the course of the war. The Italians also came to realize the ineffectiveness of high-altitude bombing against warships maneuvering at high speed and firing back. The Battle of Calabria demonstrated the fallacy of the decision made by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his navy to completely embrace land-based aviation at the expense of aircraft carriers. Thereafter, Italian naval leaders were reluctant to commit major naval units beyond the range of their land-based aircraft.

Jack Greene


Further Reading
Greene, Jack, and Alessandro Massignani. The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1943. London: Chatham Publishing, 1998.; Mattesini, Francesco. La Battaglia di Punta Stilo. Rome: Ufficio Storico Della Marina, 1990.; Sadkovich, James J. The Italian Navy in World War II. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.; Smith, Peter C. Action Imminent. London: William Kimber, 1980.
 

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