Battle of Matapan - 29 March 1941
The Battle of Matapan took place off the Western coast of Crete on 29th March 1941 and involved the Australian ships HMAS Perth and HMAS Stuart. Under British command, the cruisers HMAS Perth, HMS Orion, HMS Aajax, and HMS Gloucester, were ordered to a point off Gavdos Island, south of Crete to protect troop convoys bound for Greece, from attacks by the Italian Navy.
The Italian Fleet, comprising one battleship, eight cruisers, plus destroyers, was looking for the convoys also off Gavdos. The Allied ships were sailing into a potential disaster.
6am HMAS Perth and company were sighted by the Italians but at the same time the carrier HMS Formidable sighted the Italians.
7.45am HMAS Perth sighted the Italian cruisers, Bolzano, Trieste, and Trento.
8.12am the Italians opened fire. The Italian fire was very accurate and they were closing rapidly. HMS Gloucester, who had received most of the shelling, opened fire and at
8.53am HMS Orion started to make smoke to try and attract the covering battle fleet.
9am the Italians broke off the engagement so the allied cruisers turned to shadow them.
10.58am The new Italian battleship, Vittoria Veneto, appeared on the scene. The Allied ships were now caught between the battleship and three Italian cruisers. Vittorio Veneto commenced very accurate fire, firing ninety four shells. Fortunately the spread of shots was too wide, and HMAS Perth and HMS Orion were only lightly damaged. Hopelessly outgunned, the four Allied cruisers made a run for it under cover of a large smoke-screen.
They were now in a very dangerous position as the Italian battleship was driving them towards the Italian cruisers.
11.27am Fortuitously aircraft from HMS Formidable found and attacked Vittorio Veneto and she broke off the pursuit. HMAS Perth and the others now turned to follow and shadow the Vittorio Veneto. An attack by Formidable’s aircraft stopped the Italian cruiser Pola. The Italian cruisers Zara and Fiume to go to the assistance of hte Pola.
At 22.10 the radar on HMS Valiant detected the three cruisers at a range of only six miles. Illuminated by searchlights, the ships were pounded by 15” salvos from HMS Warspite and Valiant at point blank range. The Italians lost the three cruisers and the destroyers, Alfieri and Carducci plus 2400 men. HMAS Perth then returned to Piraeus and resumed patrols of the Aegean Sea.
The Battle of Matapan, was a resounding and essential Allied naval victory. Had the Italian cruisers managed to break into the sea routes between Egypt and Greece the result could have been disastrous for the Lustre Force convoys. The Italian fleet did not again factor in the campaign in Greece and Crete thereby enabling the evacuation of tens of thousands of Allied troops who would have otherwise been lost.
Submitted 26 April 2016
by Steve Larkins