Chapter XXXII: Second Battle of Taranto Part II.
As the two forces collided together, both equally surprised at the others sudden appearance, the balance appeared to tip towards da Zara. With numerical, if not actual, parity in battleships, superiority in cruisers and light units and a 'trick' of his own up his sleeve Vice-Admiral Blake's appearance appeared to present an opportunity not a problem. However before da Zara had finished deciding if this was a genuine mistake to be exploited, an attempted distraction or a trap the flaw in his reasoning became clear; the lookouts reported that instead of the expected Queen Elizabeths the approaching battleships were actually HMS Revenge, HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney. HMS Warspite and HMS Valiant might be out of the fight, but they had been replaced by two of the most heavily armed ships afloat, ships that Italian Intelligence had believed were committed to the Royal Navy Home Fleet.
The Nelson class, while indeed remaining in Home Waters for the initial stages of the conflict, had always been scheduled for deployment to the Mediterranean by the Admiralty, becoming First Sea Lord had not removed Admiral Keyes aggression, just tempered it and given it a wider focus. Thus for Keyes reinforcing the only active theatre in the Empire at the cost of running down the quieter ones was the obvious choice, especially as the risk to the Home Isles was considered slim, the four Revenge class battleships along with HMS Glorious at Scapa Flow were more potent a force than anything any potential European rival could muster. The reason for the delay then was therefore not political or strategic but practical, the Nelsons were in dire need of refit and war equipping, the weight saving measures introduced to make her Treaty compliant had to be reversed to make her effective. Aside from the adding of as much new armour as was practical there were several other smaller changes; replacing fir wood decking with hardened teak, removing aluminium formwork and supports and replacing them with steel, fitting reinforced glass in place of plate glass as well as countless other alterations. While seemingly cosmetic those changes were in fact vital to contain the power unleashed when all nine 16" guns fired at once, being mounted so close together the immense forces unleashed were concentrated into a very small area, far in excess of what the weight saving designed Nelsons could take unaltered. Despite initial work having started almost as soon as the London Naval conference was abandoned it had nevertheless taken almost four months for the ship yards to rush finish their work and for the ships to be despatched.
As Blake's squadron shortened the range da Zara realised that he would have to fight, the approaching British outpaced his slowest units so would only get closer if he ran, the fight was going to happen the only question was when. Determined to seize the initiative he formed up his battleships and a few key escorts and surged forward to meet the onrushing British, leaving Ammiraglio di Squadra Paladini to lead the merchants and transports to safety.
The Second Battle of Taranto. Both sides split their forces into two squadrons, leaving the battle to be conducted as two separate engagements, the Italian forces attempted to escape in different directions to increase their chances of evasion while the British tried to pursue them both.
Unlike the previous engagement, and much to the surprise of the Italian crews, neither side had a range advantage, the 16" guns of HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney opening up at the same time as the small but high velocity 12" guns of the Conte di Cavour, the Giulio Cesare and the Andrea Doria. Sadly for the Royal Navy this was not the only similarity with the BL 16"/45s lacking the accuracy of their 15" brethren instead displaying a large dispersion pattern making accurate shooting difficult. Despite this admittedly expected disappointment the Second Battle Squadron's heavier weight of fire began to tell, especially when the 15"/42s of HMS Revenge came into range. Easily the most accurate heavy guns in the world at that time these fearsome weapons further added to their immense reputation, shattering the heavy cruisers Trieste and Trento in short order.
While Blake's squadron appeared to be gaining the upper hand Cunningham's First Battle Squadron sighted Paladini's fleeing transports, aware that Blake believed he had the situation under control Cunningham ordered an intercept course, unwilling to let the transports and tankers escape. The engagement that followed was scarcely worthy to be called a battle so one-sided was it, the long ranged gunnery of the three Queen Elizabeths devastated many of the Italian cruisers before they had even closed to firing range. Having seen at the Battle of the Coast of Tobruk how highly the Regia Marina valued their heavy cruisers, even to the point of sacrificing other units to save them, Cunningham struck while he could, HMS Barham and HMS Queen Elizabeth hammering the Zara with shells leaving HMS Malaya to target the escorting Condottieri light cruisers. Once again it was Cunningham's flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, that sank the enemy's flagship, the Zara, a coincidence that was not ignored back in the UK, especially by those in the media hungry for a new naval hero. After the Zara succumbed, taking Paladini and his staff with it in a hellish explosion, the Italian formation lost direction and it's only long range firepower. In quick succession HMS Queen Elizabeth sunk the Luigi Cadorna while the Armando Diaz and the Alberto da Guissano both fell to the guns of HMS Malaya, once again the vaunted 37knot speed of the early Condottieri cruisers not being enough to compensate for their paper thin armour.
The tanker Aventino burning furiously shortly before the vast fuel stocks she was carrying exploded, devastating the rest of her convoy. The lack of convoy experience in the ranks of the Regia Marina had led to the ships adopting a tight formation for the perceived advantage of mutual protection.
With the escorting cruisers gone Cunningham called on the remaining ships to surrender, unwilling to engage in the massacre of a force that had no chance of defending itself. This call went unheeded as the Italian formation surged for the safety of Catanzaro Harbour, hoping to shelter under the protection of its harbour guns and minefields. A last attempt by Cunningham to force a surrender went tragically wrong when the warning broadside from HMS Malaya did not land in the sea but instead smashed into the side of the Aventino, a tanker carrying aviation fuel for the Regia Aeronautica. The detonation of that ship and it's cargo decimated the tightly grouped convoy, those ships that did not sink instantly under the force of the explosion caught fire.
As Cunningham watched the remains of Paladini's squadron burn Blake was discovering just what da Zara's surprise for Cunningham was; the Explosive Motor Boat. An EMB was, literally, a torpedo motor boat, a 19ft hull consisting of little more than an engine and 660 pounds of high explosives that was steered towards it target by its two man crew who would jump overboard before impact. Although slower than a torpedo, barely capable of 28knots, the vast improvement in targeting and accuracy a human crew provided made them a fearsome weapon, more so as the crews were generally die-hard Fascista men prepared to take immense risks for a cause they believed in.
On their approach runs the EMBs were initially identified as Motor Torpedo Boats and their destruction left to the escorting cruisers, the battleships focusing their fire on their opposite numbers. As the Italian crews pressed on through withering fire the cruisers' spotters reported the lack of any obvious weapons or indeed space for weapons, as this information was digested valuable time was wasted by Blake and his staff working out what the EMBs were. By the time the correct conclusion had been reached the range had got perilously low and time had ran out for HMS Revenge, broadside on she was the biggest and easiest target and moreover was the least maneuverable. Locking their rudders the crews of the two remaining EMBs bailed out and left their craft to run, one was taken out by the 6" secondary guns of Revenge the other smashed into her amidships, flooding the port engine room and seriously reducing her already poor stability.
The Italian EMB, operated by the 10th Light Flotilla it had been developed by the Regia Marina to provide them with a striking force that did not risk their capital units.
As Blake tried to restore order to his dispersed fleet da Zara capitalised, making smoke and sending his destroyers on a follow up torpedo attack he attempted to flee back to Taranto while the Second Battle Squadron was distracted. Such was his determination to escape he sacrificed his slowest unit, the Conte di Cavour battleship, reducing her to a skeleton crew then ordering her to escort the destroyer attack, prepared to lose one battleship to avoid losing them all. While Blake neatly despatched the Conte di Cavour, HMS Nelson claiming the killing blow, he did not vigorously pursue da Zara, for the simple reason he was in no fit state too. Revenge needed towing back to port for urgent repairs while the rushed work done on Nelson and Rodney was showing, the temporary reinforcements having failed to fully contain the force of the 16" guns. While Cunningham attempted pursuit the lead da Zara had gained was too great and the battered remains of the Prima Squadra escaped back to Taranto harbour.
It is a mark of the high expectations people had of the Royal Navy that Second Taranto, although a clear tactical victory, was lamented by some as a missed opportunity; two of the Regia Marina's battleships had escaped and the decisive battle that was craved had been avoided by da Zara. This is to miss the absolute strategic victory that was won, denied of reinforcements, resupply and hope Italian forces in North Africa collapsed and surrender on mass to Gort's advancing forces. Within two weeks of the Battle Operation Templar officially ended with the Sitre and Homs garrison surrendering to VI and II Corps respectively. Although final mopping up and securing the towns would take longer Italian resistance in North Africa was over, a victory only made possible by the victories of the Royal Navy.
This good news from North Africa was balanced by bad news both at home and from South Africa, events that would have far reaching consequences for Britain and her Empire.
Up Next: News from Africa and from the Home Front all mixed up with some political shenanigans.