The British Mediterranean Fleet 1940-41

A Legend in her lifetime.” The beautiful H.M.S Warspite, a Queen Elizabeth-class battleship of the Royal Navy, in Tanz’ 1942

With Italy in the war, France knocked out, and a question mark hanging over the French fleet, whose main units had steamed to French North Africa, the British position in the Mediterranean was critical, particularly so because its central base, Malta, was inadequately defended against air attack from Sicilian air bases only a hundred miles to the north, and its eastern base, Alexandria, was threatened by Italian forces in Libya. However the decision was taken to hold the Mediterranean, the French heavy ships were destroyed or neutralized by gunfire, air attack and (in one case) negotiation, and during the following months the British Mediterranean Fleet gave a remarkable demonstration of one of the favourite recurring themes of the historical school, the supreme importance of moral factors and training over purely material factors; its commander-in-chief, A. B. Cunningham, was an ‘offensive’ admiral in the most triumphant British tradition, the ships had been superbly trained between the wars.

The first engagement occurred off the toe of Italy in July 1940 soon after the actions against the French heavy ships. Cunningham was flying his flag in the modernized ‘Queen Elizabeth’ class battleship, Warspite, with one other unmodernized ship of the same class, another unmodernized and even slower veteran of the First War, Royal Sovereign, and the small aircraft carrier, Eagle. He was covering two convoys. An Italian squadron headed by two battleships was meanwhile covering an Italian convoy to North Africa. As Cunningham recalled afterwards, the action which resulted ‘followed almost exactly the lines of the battles we used to fight out on the table at the Tactical School at Portsmouth’. The Italian heavy ships were first sighted by long range reconnaissance aircraft from the Eagle, their position, course and speed were reported back, a strike force of torpedo bombers went in to attack—in the event unsuccessfully—and the British cruisers, spreading on a line of bearing ahead of the battle fleet, pressed in and were engaged by the enemy cruisers as they made visual contact. Shortly afterwards the Warspite came into action at 26,000 yards range against the Italian flagship, Guilio Cesare, a First War ship which had been modernized in the thirties with ten 12.6-inch guns on high-angle mountings which permitted long range fire. Her fire and that of her similar consort was excellent and the Warspite was soon straddled; however, the Warspite’s salvoes, flashing out in rapid ranging ladders, were also straddling in short time and seven minutes after the main action opened she scored first: Cunningham saw ‘the great orange-coloured flash of a heavy explosion at the base of the enemy flagship’s funnels. It was followed by an upheaval of smoke and I knew that she had been heavily hit at the prodigious range of 13 miles.’ The Italian Admiral then broke off the engagement under cover of smoke. Cunningham followed, but his squadron speed was too slow and as he approached the Italian coast and came under heavy bombing attack from the Italian Air Force, he gave up the chase.

Here let me settle once and for all the question of the efficiency of the Italian bombing and general air work over the sea . . . To us at the time it appeared that they had some squadrons specially trained for anti-ship work. Their reconnaissance was highly efficient and seldom failed to find and report our ships at sea. The bombers invariably arrived within an hour or two. They carried out high level attacks from about 12,000 feet pressed home in formation in the face of the heavy AA fire of the fleet, and for this type of attack their accuracy was very great. We were fortunate to escape being hit . . .

This first action in the Italian war had important consequences; the single hit by the Warspite reinforced the moral ascendancy that the British fleet already had over the Italian fleet, who never thereafter stood to receive the fire of British battleships. From Cunningham’s point of view, it demonstrated the need for at least one other modernized ship which could fire at the range at which the Warspite had been straddled, and the need for a larger carrier than the Eagle to provide fighter cover over the fleet. He asked for both, and the following month received the modernized ‘Queen Elizabeth’ class battleship, Valiant, the new fleet carrier, Illustrious, which had an armoured flight deck and capacity for 70 aircraft, also two anti-aircraft cruisers fitted with radio direction finding (radar) apparatus. These essential tools for detecting and meeting any air threat over the fleet shifted the balance against the Italians, and Cunningham established a remarkable surface command over the Mediterranean; however, this did not make it possible to push merchant convoys through the narrow sea without loss from air or submarine attack, and the shipping route through the Mediterranean was closed to British merchant ships apart from those needed to supply the fleet base at Malta. Practically all British supplies for the land campaign against Italian North Africa had to go the long way round the Cape—as did shipping serving India, Australasia and the East. As for Italian shipping supplies for their North African army, these naturally had to come through the Mediterranean; the quantity that arrived safely was, throughout the campaign, inversely proportional to the British ability to operate naval and air forces from Malta, itself largely dependant on British control of the air over Malta. It is clear from this that air power had completely upset the literal interpretation of Mahan battlefleet theory; surface command based on battleships was no longer adequate for real command at sea.

Towards the end of the year there was a more dramatic demonstration of this: the main strength of the Italian fleet, including four modernized First War battleships and two new 15-inch gun, 30-knot battleships of the ‘Littorio’ class which should have tipped the balance of surface power decisively against the British fleet, was lying in the fortified harbour of Taranto when Cunningham launched an aircraft torpedo strike against them from the carrier, Illustrious. Although a number of other aircraft were involved in the operation, first in reconnaissance, then in flare-dropping and diversionary bombing attacks, the number of torpedo planes was only 20; these took off from the carrier in the evening of 11 November 1940 in two waves, flew 170 miles to Taranto and pressing in under balloon defence in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire scored a total of six hits, four on the new Littorio (later re-named Italia) and one on each of the modernized older battleships Duilio and Cavour, sinking all three at their moorings for the loss of only two planes. It was, as Cunningham remarked, an unprecedented example of economy of force; he wrote afterwards:

November 11th-12th, 1940 should be remembered for ever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy had its most devastating weapon. In a total flying time of about six and a half hours—carrier to carrier—twenty aircraft had inflicted more damage upon the Italian fleet than was inflicted upon the German High Seas Fleet in the daylight action at the Battle of Jutland.

The lesson was not lost on the Japanese, nor for that matter on the Germans. Since their earlier comparative failures at bombing ship targets they had trained several dive bombing squadrons up to extraordinary standards of precision against ships and at the end of 1940 these were sent to the Mediterranean to relieve their Italian allies by attacking Cunningham’s fleet. It is significant that in their first major assault against the fleet at sea they concentrated on the carrier, Illustrious, almost to the exclusion of the battleships.

At times she was completely hidden in a forest of great bomb splashes. One was too interested in this new form of dive-bombing attack really to be frightened, and there was no doubt that we were watching complete experts. Formed roughly in a large circle over the fleet they peeled off one by one when reaching the attacking position . . . The attacks were pressed home to point blank range and as they pulled out of their dives some of them were seen to fly along the flight deck of the Illustrious below the level of her funnel.

The carrier suffered six hits and several near misses in short time, and was put out of action, only her armoured deck saving her from complete destruction; however, she managed to limp into Malta after dark, and later she escaped to Alexandria from where she was sent to America to be repaired fully. Her sister ship, Formidable, was ordered to the Mediterranean, but in the meantime Cunningham had lost command over the central basin, and Malta came under attack and siege from the air which virtually neutralized it as a fleet base.

The major surface action in the Mediterranean occurred three months later at the end of March 1941. Aircraft reconnaissance revealed that an Italian fleet headed by their new ‘Littorio’ class battleship, Vittorio Veneto, and several powerful 8-inch gun cruisers was steaming into the eastern part of the Mediterranean to attack British convoys, and Cunningham set out to intercept with a powerful force of three ‘Queen Elizabeths’, the Warspite (flag), Barham and Valiant, followed in the line by the Formidable. As in the earlier action off the toe of Italy the engagement followed the pattern anticipated in pre-war tactical instruction, at least in the early stages: first the Formidable’s reconnaissance aircraft reported the enemy forces, then the British cruiser squadron ahead of the battle fleet made contact with the enemy cruiser and battleship divisions, and then Cunningham sent in a carrier strike force to relieve the cruisers, also to slow the Vittorio Veneto so that his battleships could bring her to action. In the event the torpedo planes failed to obtain any hits, but the Italian forces made off westward for home. It is interesting that before the British cruisers were relieved, the Vittorio Veneto had been straddling them at the remarkable distance of 16 miles, and they had to retreat under cover of smoke and snake the line to avoid very close shooting; this was approximately twice the range at which Beatty’s advanced cruiser division had twisted from the fire of the High Seas Fleet at Jutland.

The action then settled into a chase, with the Italians some 60 miles ahead and Cunningham sending off air strike forces to try and slow them; five torpedo planes attacked the Italian battleship scoring one hit—20 per cent success—and six attacked a cruiser division in the evening also scoring one hit—16 per cent. These hits slowed the battleship and stopped the heavy cruiser, Pola, whereupon the Italian commander-in-chief, believing the British fleet to be further behind than it actually was, ordered two other heavy cruisers, together with a division of destroyers, to stand by the crippled cruiser. Cunningham was unaware of this. His information was that the battleship he was chasing was 45 miles ahead, making 15 knots, and that the latest air strike had scored four torpedo hits, although whether any of those were on the battleship was not clear. As darkness fell he had to decide whether to continue the chase and put his valuable ships within reach of enemy dive bombers the following morning, besides exposing them to torpedo attacks from the retreating destroyers during the night, or whether discretion was the better part, as some of his staff advised. He mulled the problem over with his dinner.

My morale was reasonably high when I returned to the bridge, and I ordered the destroyer striking force off to find and attack the enemy. We settled down to a steady pursuit . . .

Soon afterwards his advanced cruisers’ radar picked up an unknown ship—actually the cruiser Pola—stopped to port of their course and about five miles ahead; Cunningham altered to close her and an hour later the radar-fitted Valiant picked up the echo of the ship under eight miles, still to port. Cunningham swung all his heavy ships towards her together, still at full speed, and all his main armament guns turned on to the reported bearing. Then before the stopped ship could be made out visually the Chief-of-Staff, sweeping the starboard bow with his binoculars, reported two large cruisers and a smaller ship crossing ahead of the new course from starboard to port; Cunningham, using short-wave wireless, turned the battleships together to starboard, thus back into line ahead again.

I shall never forget the next few minutes. In the dead silence, a silence that could almost be felt, one heard only the voices of the control personnel putting the guns on to the new target. One heard the orders repeated in the director tower behind and above the bridge. Looking forward one saw the turrets swing and steady when the 15-inch guns pointed at the enemy cruisers. Never in the whole of my life have I experienced a more thrilling moment than when I heard a calm voice from the director tower—’Director layer sees the target’; sure sign that the guns were ready and that his finger was on the trigger. The enemy was at a range of no more than 3,800 yards—point blank . . .

Then came the ‘ting-ting-ting’ of the fire gongs, great orange flashes, shudder and heel of the ship and at the same time the searchlights opened to illumine the cruiser target as a ‘silvery blue shape in the darkness’. Six 15-inch shells could be seen flying towards her through the beams of light and the next instant five of them struck with devastating effect. The other two battleships astern meanwhile opened on the other heavy cruiser, and in a short time the unfortunate Italian vessels, caught entirely unprepared, ‘were nothing but glowing torches and on fire from stem to stern’. After the battleships had wheeled away at speed the destroyers were ordered in to finish off the wrecks, and did so, adding the third cruiser and two destroyers in company to the bag. So ended the Battle off Cape Matapan, for the Vittorio Veneto succeeded in making her way home the following day while Cunningham was forced to break off the chase as he came within range of enemy land-based bombers. Although the battleship had eluded him the result of the action was a tonic for the British; the enemy had lost three powerful cruisers and two destroyers, against one aircraft.

The whole engagement is also an interesting demonstration of how the new technology, aircraft, radar and effective wireless, had given to the battlefleet all the sensory attributes it lacked at the time of Jutland—just at the point when the same technology used against the battlefleet was about to destroy the concept altogether. Thus the fleeing enemy had been spotted, reported and slowed by aircraft, then in darkness found by radar and held until within visual range. The action also revealed the effectiveness of British night-fighting training between the wars; the Italians had scarcely advanced beyond the British position at the time of Jutland, and they lacked radar.