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The battle of Calabria, July 1940 – Italian_military_archives

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Battleship Giulio Cesare firing during the battle (Pictures from “Archivio Centrale dello Stato”)

A brief account of the first clash in history between the Italian and British Navies.

7th July — Prelude

The first major (and biggest) naval engagement between Italian and British battlefleets in the Mediterranean during WW2 was the result of a mainly random encounter, with both fleets at sea pursuing different goals and not expecting to meet their opponents.

The Italians were busy in organizing a consistent convoy aimed at reinforcing the army in Libya for the upcoming invasion of Egypt (September 1940) and deployed a huge portion of their naval strength to escort the convoy: 2 battleships, 6 heavy cruisers, 12 light cruisers and 33 destroyers, destination Benghazi under Admiral Campioni.

On the other side the British had to evacuate civil personnel from Malta and set up a convoy of 8 ships escorted by a considerable portion of the Mediterranean fleet (3 battleships, 1 aircraft carrier, 5 cruisers and 17 destroyers under Admiral Cunningham) while Force H (based in Gibraltar) was tasked to launch an air strike against Sardinia, hoping to divide and fool the Regia Marina.

The 320mm guns of Battleship “Giulio Cesare” (picture from naviearmatori.net)

8th — Towards the Battle

Both fleets departed from their ports on the 7th and already on the 8th the two sides had spotted each other thanks to submarines and air recognisance. During the day Italian planes based in Libya attacked Cunningham’s formation, damaging heavily the cruiser Gloucester (which sailed back to Alexandria) and slightly damaging battleships Warspite and Malaya.

In the afternoon, Admiral Campioni believed that Cunningham wanted to shell the port of Benghazi while the convoy was still unloading its cargo and thus sailed towards the British aiming to intercept them. At 18.45 the Italian navy command in Rome (“Supermarina”) ordered Campioni to change course and sail back to Italy to avoid risking his ships (they believed that Cunningham had 4 battleships at sea, thus having a wider fire power). Meanwhile Cunningham had changed course too, aiming to block the way home to the Italian formation.

9th — “Open fire!”

At 13:15 Italian heavy cruisers were attacked by British torpedo bombers from HMS Eagle and slightly afterwards an Italian seaplane spotted the British formation 80 miles north east of the Italian battlefleet. In that moment Campioni realized that the British were threating to cut his way back to Taranto and decided to close the distance and engage Cunningham’s forces. Around 15:00 British and Italian cruiser divisions started to fire at each other at great distances (18–23 km) with no significant results.

At 15:23 HMS Warspite had arrived on the scene firing on the Italian cruisers which retreated towards the battleships Cesare and Cavour, which then opened fire at 15:53 with their 320mm guns. At 15:59 a 381mm shell from HMS Warspite hit the Giulio Cesare provoking considerable damages that forced the crew to halt half of the ship’s engine reducing its speed to18 knots.

Campioni pulled back his battleships and ordered his destroyers to cover the manoeuvre with smoke screens and torpedo attacks, with this manoeuvre the Italian fleet ultimately managed to break contact. Meanwhile Cunningham tried to circumvent the smoke screen to pursue the Italian squadron but was then attacked by land-based aircrafts which delayed his action. At 18.30 Cunningham assessed that pursuit would have dangerously brought him too close to the Italian waters and turned the bow towards Alexandria.

The battle had ended inconclusively for both sides but some lessons were drawn nonetheless. The Regia Marina experienced the total lack of cooperation with the airforce, resulting also in being targeted by their own planes. This episode sparked another conflict between the two armed forces but also openly exposed the problem, which led to the adoption of manual for Airforce-Navy cooperation in late 1941.

Sources:

Riccado Nassigh “Le Battaglie Navali Italiane”, Delta Editrice (2011).

Giorgio Giorgerini “La Guerra Italiana sul mare”, Edizione Mondadori (2001).



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