The Battle of Calabria
An excerpt from Victory at Sea 2.0
On 9th July 1940, the Italian battle fleet clashed with the British Mediterranean fleet off Sardinia. The Italian fleet, led by Admiral Campioni, included two modernised fast battleships, the Conte di Cavour and the Giulio Cesare, along with 16 cruisers, all protecting a convoy of merchants taking supplies to land forces in Libya.
The British had broken the radio codes the Italians were using, and knew what they were up to – this was confirmed by aerial reconnaissance. The Mediterranean fleet, based at Alexandria, sailed to intercept.
The British were protecting a convoy too, ships destined to take supplies to Malta and then carry evacuees from the island, back to Alexandria. Despite this, Admiral Cunningham, leading the British fleet, was determined to bring the Italians to battle. He steered his fleet for Taranto, hoping to put his ships between the Italian force and their principle naval base.
However, the Italians had broken the British codes too, and were hoping to lure Cunningham into range of their land-based bombers. Indeed, they had no intention of actually engaging until this happened and the British ships had been weakened or, better yet, sunk.
Cunningham’s fleet included his flagship, Warspite, as well as the battleships Malaya and Royal Sovereign. His single aircraft carrier, Eagle, carried nothing more than Fairey Swordfish and three Gloster Gladiators (the fleet’s only fighter protection) – hardly state of the art.
72 bombers of the Regia Aeronautica rained down bombs on the fleet, but their weapons were too small to seriously effect warships and were not all that accurate in the first place – their pilots had not been trained to attack moving ships, and the resulting lack of solid hits was evident. The light cruiser Gloucester was the only seriously damaged ship, having taken a hit to the bridge which killed the captain and several others present.
A Sunderland flying from Malta located the Italian fleet and Cunningham moved to engage, with the Eagle then launching Swordfish to find and shadow the Italians. By this time, the Regia Aeronautica had completely lost the British fleet and had no idea where they had sailed to. However, Campioni launched a seaplane from the Giulio Cesare which managed to locate the incoming British. Campioni presumed the land bombers had taken their toll on Cunningham’s ships and forged ahead for battle, expecting a weakened enemy. In any case, Campioni knew his battleships could both out-run the British and out-gun them. His cruisers too were superior in both number and firepower. What was there to risk?
Initially, a flight of five Swordfish were launched by the Eagle, but failed to score any hits with their torpedoes.
By mid-afternoon, the two fleets finally came into sight of one another and the Italian heavy cruisers started firing their 8 inch guns at the British cruiser screen at a range of about 13 miles. The British cruisers replied with their own fire but were outmatched until the Warspite moved in and began using its big guns.
The Italian cruisers did not want to duel with the larger ship, and so turned away under the cover of smoke. Now, the battleships came within range of one another, and started to trade long-ranged fire.
The Giulio Cesare soon had fires raging on its decks, and this caused Campioni to turn away, again under smoke. Cunningham’s ships could not match the speed of the Italians and eventually gave up the chase.
It was at this point that the heroes of this piece, the Regia Aeronautica, decided to show up and have another go at a bombing run. Unfortunately for Campioni, they mistook his fleet for the British. Fortunately for him, they proved no more effective than they had earlier, and Campioni’s fleet was able to sail back to Italy while under their repeated attacks.