With neither side entirely certain of the other's precise order of battle or position, despite aerial reconnaissance, elements on each side sighted their opponents south of Crete on the morning of 28 March, and they exchanged fire off the island of Gaudo. When he learned of the presence of an aircraft carrier (the HMS Formidable) from his radio decrypters, Iachino reasoned that a more powerful British force lay beyond the several cruisers currently engaged by his flagship, Vittorio Veneto. Having lost the advantage of surprise—and now expecting imminent air attacks—he turned the Italian force northwest toward home.
In steady pursuit behind him followed Cunningham's Royal Navy task force, composed of the Formidable and the battleships Warspite, Valiant, and Barham, together with 4 cruisers and 13 destroyers, bolstered by British aircraft operating from nearby shore bases. The Italian force received little useful air cover from its own air force or its German allies and suffered accordingly. Despite withering antiaircraft fire from Vittorio Veneto and escorting ships, attacking British planes managed to torpedo the battleship at midafternoon on 28 March.
Cunningham judged that the progress of the Italian force, now drawn in around its wounded flagship, would likely be slow, and he plotted it at about 12 knots. But despite having shipped 4,000 tons of water and making way on only two of four propellers, the Vittorio Veneto worked up to a speed of 19 knots and thus moved its formation farther along than expected on the run toward home waters.
With night falling, however, Iachino received the unwelcome news that the heavy cruiser Pola had been stopped dead by an aerial torpedo attack. Believing that the British were still some 170 miles astern, he instructed the cruisers Zara and Fiume (with four destroyers) to turn back and tend to their sister ship. In fact, from a distance of less than 50 miles, Cunningham was closing as fast as his flagship, the old battleship HMS Warspite, and her sister ships Valiant and Barham could make way.
By 8:30 p.m., radar sets aboard the vanguard cruisers Ajax and Orion had picked up the derelict Pola, about 6 miles distant; it was presumed to be the Vittorio Veneto. As the main British force drew closer and prepared to attack the Pola, an in-line formation of six more unknown ships (the Zara, Fiume, and their escorts) was suddenly detected at 10:25 p.m. at 4,000 yards, which shifted the British targeting and drew a wall of concentrated fire from the British battleships' main and secondary batteries at nearly point-blank range. The Zara and Fiume were reduced to flaming wrecks within several minutes; the Fiume, along with the destroyers Alfieri and Carducci, sank within an hour. The Zara and Pola remained afloat until early the following morning, finally dispatched by scuttling charges and by torpedoes from British destroyers. Some 40 miles ahead, the main body of the Italian force pressed onward, arriving in Taranto on the afternoon of 29 March after evading the renewed chase given by Cunningham.
Using radar, which the Italians still lacked, and vastly superior air cover to great advantage, Cunnningham had, in the Battle of Cape Matapan, established Royal Navy primacy in the Mediterranean. The loss of five valuable warships and 2,300 lives would call Iachino's judgment into question, and the Italian navy would not again venture from its harbors in force until the first Battle of Sirte Gulf in December 1941.
Gordon E. Hogg and Charles R. Shrader
Giorgerini, Giorgio. Da Matapan al Golfo Persico. Milan, Italy: Mondadori, 1989.; Greene, Jack, and Alessandro Massignani. The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1943. London: Chatham Publishing, 1998.; Pack, S. W. C. Night Action off Cape Matapan. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1972.; Stephen, Martin. Sea Battles in Close-Up: World War 2. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991.