Cape Matapan (World War 2, 28 March 1941 to 29 March 1941)

About This Campaign

The Battle of Matapan 28th March 1941 – Greece / Crete

As ships of the Mediterranean Fleet covered troop movements to Greece for 'Operation Lustre (/explore/campaigns/10)', 'Ultra' intelligence was received reporting the sailing of an Italian battlefleet comprising one battleship, six heavy and two light cruisers plus destroyers to attack the convoy routes.

On the 27th, Vice-Adm Pridham-Wippell with cruisers HMS Ajax, Gloucester, Orion and the Australian HMAS Perth in company with a flotilla of destroyers, sailed from Greek waters for a position south of Crete.

Adm Cunningham with the carrier HMS Formidable and battleships Warspite, Barham and Valiant left Alexandria on the same day to rendezvous with the cruisers.

By 08.30 on the 28th, south of Crete, Adm Pridham-Wippell was in action with an Italian cruiser squadron.  The Itallian cruisers were faster and more heavily armed than the Allied cruisers with 8 in guns as opposed to the British 6 in.  Just before noon he found himself between them and the "Vittorio Veneto", a fast modern and very heavily armed (9 x 15 inch guns) which had now closed up.  He turned away to avoid a disaster.

An attack by Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers from Formidable failed to hit the Italian battleship, but enabled the British cruisers to extricate themselves.  

Fig 1.  Map showing the conduct of the battle from 0700 on the morning of the 28th March to 2400 that night.  Map by Gordon Smith (2006) of

The Mediterranean Fleet heavy units arrived, but their only chance of action was to slow down the Italians before they could reach Italy.  The Italians were making 19 knots and had opened a gap the RN ships could not close.  Aircraft, on the other hand, could. 

At 15.00 A second Swordfish strike hit and slowed "Vittorio Veneto", but only for a short while.

Fig 2.  The legendary 'Stringbag', a Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber of the Fleet Air Arm

At 19.30 a third strike by Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers, southwest of Cape Matapan, despite being lathered with anti-aircraft fire, resulted in one aircraft scoring an amidships hit that stopped heavy cruiser "Pola". All this time, RAF Blenheim light bombers were attacking in poor visibility without success, but they drew a lot of anti aircraft fire.  

Later that evening (still on the 28th), the Italian comander Admiral ianchino, detached two heavy cruisers - "Fiume" and "Zara" with four destroyers to help recover "Pola".

Before reaching her, Adm Cunningham's ships detected them by radar and "Fiume", "Zara" and destroyers "Alfieri" and "Carducci", lacking radar blundered into the British battleships and in minutes were crippled by the close range gunfire "Valiant", "Warspite" and "Barham". All four Italian ships were finished off with torpedoes fired by four destroyers led by the Australian HMAS Stuart.

Fig  3.  HMAS Stuart during the major engagement of the Battle between 2225 and 2235 28th March 1941.  British Battleships engage the Italian cruiser and destroyers at near point blank range (3500m).  AWM ART 27623 by Frank Norton

Early next morning on the 29th, "Pola" was found, partly abandoned. After taking off the remaining crew, destroyers "Jervis" and "Nubian" sank her with torpedoes. The Royal Navy lost one aircraft.

Matapan was a stunning victory for the Royal Navy and a strategic defeat for the Italians.  It secured supply for the Allies in Greece at least temporarily, although as the German land advance continued, ships came increasingly within range of German strike aircraft like Junker Ju 87 Stukas and Junkers Ju 88s twin-engined bombers.

Matapan did however, compromise any notion of Axis superiority in the sea lanes around Greece and Crete for the time being.  That ultimately led to the assessment that the only way the Axis forces could cross to Crete without unacceptable risk of interdiction, would be by airborne forces.

Radar and the RN’s torpedo planes, albeit apparently clumsy and outdated ‘Swordfish’ and Albacore biplanes, had shaped the outcome.  The crippling of the Pola had drawn the rest of the cruisier squadron within range of the RN ‘heavies’ with their heavy gunnery.  The Italians had no answer.  It is as well to remember that the same ‘Swordfish’, nicknamed the ‘Stringbag’, had inflicted a crippling strike on the Italian base at Taranto the previous year, and in May 1941 in the Atlantic, more ‘Stringbags’ would cripple the Bismark leading to its ultimate destruction.  The Japanese were to use Taranto as their template for Pearl Harbour later in the year.


Compiled by Steve Larkins March 2021


'Battle for the Med' Ch 2 'Royal Australian Navy' Australians at War 1988 ISBN 0 949118249 Alun Evans 2020. The Battle Of Crete. [online] Available at: <>  (accessed 14 March 2021) 2020. Battle Of Crete. [online] Available at: (accessed 14 March 2021)