Chapter XIV: First Blood.
It was late in the evening when the Prima Squadra of the Regia Marina sortied from Taranto, leading the line was the battleship Giulio Cesare
, on which Admiral Ghé had raised his flag, followed by her sister Conte Di Cavour
and her half-sisters Andrea Doria
and Caio Duilio
. That the ships were leaving harbour was something of a violation of the Italian plan of using the battleships as a fleet-in-being, certainly you could never be entirely passive or the enemy would be free to redeploy his covering force, but equally there was a reason that the strategy had been selected. Against a different opponent, or at a different time, the firepower of the Prima Squadra would have been most impressive, against the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet the Supermarina were well aware it was not enough. The departure was therefore not driven by the Italian Admirals but by the Comando Supremo and above that the orders of Il Duce. The perilous state of the Italian Army forces in North Africa will be looked at in detail in later chapters, for now it is enough to say they urgently need reinforcements; men, artillery and tanks. Given how crucial theses forces would be to the land campaign the Supermarina was ordered to give the convoy the strongest possible escort, which meant the battleships. Well aware of the problems he faced, Admiral Ghé had deliberately chosen a late hour of departure, intended to use the hours of darkness to sneak across the Gulf of Taranto and reach the Straits of Messina. The departure time had been a compromise between having the longest possible time to travel at night while avoiding having to transit the Straits in the dark.
The simplest option would have been to move the units by land to Taranto and form up the convoys there. As is often the case logistics dictated otherwise, the poor infrastructure in the south made Naples the preferred starting point; it had good transport links to Italy's industrial heart (the triangle of Genoa, Turin and Milan) while being considerably nearer to North Africa than La Spezia. Therefore the plan was for the Prima Squadra to make it's way around the 'toe' of Italy and out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Once there it could provide the distant cover for the convoys departing Napoli and heading for Tripoli and Tobruk. Optimistic elements of the Supermarina even hoped for a chance to ambush isolated British naval reinforcements moving to Valetta.
The Royal Navy had put a great deal of thought into the best way to mount a blockade, it was one of the cornerstones of their strategic approach almost regardless of the notional enemy. The Mediterranean Fleet's standing plan was for something like a distant blockade; the battleships kept back in Valletta waiting for intelligence before putting to sea, that intelligence being gathered by aerial, submarine and cruiser patrols, intercepted signals and other, murkier, 'human sources'. The largest debate had been about whether the Italian aerial threat meant the main fleet base should be moved to Alexandria or if the advantages of Malta's prime location were worth the risk. While agreeing with the plan in general, it had been developed by his staff after all, the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral William Fisher, decided on a different course of action for the opening weeks of the war. Aware of the large numbers of British convoys hurriedly steaming towards the Mediterranean, he correctly suspected the Italians were equally unprepared and would be rushing reinforcements to North Africa. He therefore kept the Battle Squadron at sea and had both the 1st and the 3rd cruiser squadrons running aggressive patrol.
The first action of the battle was the sighting of the Italian fleet by the HMS Devonshire
, or more technically by her patrolling Supermarine Walrus spotter aircraft. As was typically the nature of aerial observation this worked in both directions and Admiral Ghé was soon aware he had been sighted. While the Devonshire
's 'Shagbat' continued to circle Ghé was faced with a dilemma, he had been ordered to avoid facing the British battlefleet in order to preserve the 'fleet in being' so he would be justified in returning to Taranto. However he had yet to see a Royal Navy vessel and it was possible the circling aircraft was from a cruiser, if so there was the possibility of attacking an isolated enemy vessel or even cruiser squadron, something very much within his orders. In the end it was the late hour of the day that decided matters, Ghé and his staff being confident that at worst they could disappear safely into the night. As the Prima Squadra pushed on, Devonshire's
message had been received by Admiral Fisher on his flagship HMS Warspite,
it hardly needs saying that Fisher ordered the Battle Squadron to full speed on an intercept course.
A Supermarine Walrus launching from the catapult on HMS Devonshire. A quite incredibly ungainly aircraft the Walrus soon acquired the nickname 'Shagbat' due to it's unruly appearance. In a display of Imperial co-ordination it was the Royal Australian Air Force who had identified the need for a new catapult launched spotter aircraft for the Royal Australian Navy's cruisers and issued the requirement, the design soon ending up in Royal Navy service once it proved successful. With it's all metal airframe, and being stressed for catapult launches, the Walrus was a rugged and manoeuvrable aircraft, but no match for even a biplane fighter. Fortunately for the Walrus' crew the Regia Aeronautica was at least as bad as Coastal Command at naval co-operation, so by the time Ghé's request for fighter cover reached the correct air base the naval battle was long finished.
Scant hours later the two force met at the coast off Catanzaro, guided by information from his cruiser scout planes Admiral Fisher brought his fleet in behind the westward steaming Italians. Aside from cutting off their path of retreat this also silhouetted the Italians against the setting sun while hiding his own ships within the descending dusk. For the captain and crews of many of the Italian vessels they only realised they had been found when the seas erupted with the bracketing shots from the 15" guns of the British battleships. Ghé and his staff had planned for this eventuality and began issuing orders to react, however the British use of flashless powder for their main guns made it hard to determine quite where the enemy was. As star-shells lit up the darkening skies above the Italians the British gunners started to find the target, the Giulio Cesare
(Ghé's flagship) began to take serious hits from the combined gunnery of Warspite
. First a pair of colossal explosion marked the two forward turrets being knocked out by a good shot from Barham
, then a shell from Warspite
punched through to the engine room and the ships speed dropped and she began to fall out of formation. Ghé bowed to the inevitable and transfer his flag to the Caio Duilio
, leaving Giulio Cesare
to fight on as best she could. Barely had Ghé transferred than, in a symbolic blow, Fisher's flagship Warspite
fired the shell that sunk his former flagship.
The Giulio Cesare taking her final hit from Warspite. During the upgrade the Regia Marina had sought to guard against plunging fire by increasing the deck armour of the Caio Duilio class. Due to limitations of the original design the dockyard had been forced to stagger the armour across several decks and in multiple layers, so while the nominal total thickness was considerable the effective armour thickness was far lower. Warspite's shot graphically demonstrated this weakness by punching a shell through all the layers of deck armour and reaching the magazines, starting the conflagration that set of the ammunition explosion that broke the ships back and sunk her.
From his new flag on the Caio Duilio
Admiral Ghé realised the Royal Navy's night fighting skills were considerably better than the Supermarina had estimated. Already down one battleship, and with the rest taking damage, escape was his only option, but to achieve that he would need a distraction. There was only one option; a torpedo attack by his destroyer flotillas. Arguably the bravest men in the battle where the crews of the Italian 3rd and 5th destroyer flotillas, not only did they accept the virtual suicide mission of the torpedo attack they succeeded in landing several major hits on the HMS Valiant
. This success came at a heavy cost and the battleship's secondary weapons and the efforts of the Battle Squadron's escorts reaped a rich harvest, out of the ten Italian destroyers that launched the attack only the Nazario Sauro
survived. Their sacrifice was not in vain however, with the British battleships forced to turn away and their escorts focused on shooting up their Italian counterparts not keeping the star-shell coverage constant, darkness descended and most of the survivors of the Prima Squadra were able to vanish into the dark. The exception was the San Giorgio
, the old armoured cruiser had the misfortune to pass close to the un-engaged HMS Barham
and a few salvoes of 15" gunfire soon had the unfortunate cruiser ablaze from end to end.
As Admiral Fisher reviewed his fleet after the torpedo attack he was faced with a tough choice, continue the pursuit closer to the mainland or break off and preserve his force. The choice was made simpler by reports from the Warspite
's captain that an Italian 12.6" shell had damaged her perennially temperamental steering and the far more serious news that Valiant
had been hit by two torpedoes and was experiencing serious damage control problems. With the Italian's retreating and his own force damaged Fisher concluded that he should withdraw the Battle Squadron back to Malta and leave his cruisers to maintain the blockade. The battle was a clear tactical victory for the Royal Navy, no ships sunk and only the Valiant
seriously damaged. On the Italian side things looked bleak, in addition to the loss of the Giulio Cesare
and the San Giorgio
the destroyer flotillas had been decimated and barely any ship had escaped damage with the Conte di Cavour
in particular in desperate need of repair. Had the Valiant
succumbed to the damage from the torpedoes then the result would have looked far closer to even, in many ways vindicating Fisher's decision to withdraw rather than risk going closer to the Italian coast.
The effect of several 15-inch hits from various Queen Elizabeth class battleships on the Conte di Cavour. While to a degree the damage looks worse than it was, the Conte di Cavour would never return to full operating efficiency. Despite this the Battle of Taranto would not be her last engagement against the Royal Navy in the Abyssinian War.
Operationally things were less clear cut, while the Regia Marina had not achieved their mission their losses were far from crippling and the Prima Squadra remained a potent threat. For the Royal Navy there was a mix of celebration over the victory and disappointment that they had not achieved the decisive result many had hoped for. The blockade would need to be maintained as it was inevitable the Italians would try and break out again; they had no alternative. Strategically however it was a clear British victory, the Italian's had been unable to ships significant reinforcements to North Africa, significantly reducing the opposition the British Army would have to face in the upcoming land campaign.
Up next: The land campaigns begin.
Butterfly Redux Notes;
Having outlined that Italian doctrine was to be a fleet in being I then had to explain why the Regia Marina immediately sortied. Naples was indeed the main OTL port for shipping to North Africa so I think this all hangs together nicely.
A few changes from previous version. Main one on the British side is that Admiral Cunningham was Rear-Admiral (destroyers) in Med Fleet at this point and was nowhere near C-in-C Med. Instead we get Admiral Fisher (no relation to Jackie Fisher) who we will see more of later.
No idea who Admiral Gherzi was so that's been fixed and it's now Admiral Ghé who is a bit of a ghost. Definitely existed but not clear what he did. There was a Commander Alberto Ghé, Italian naval attache in Tokyo in 1934, who participated in the funeral of Admiral Heihachiro Togo (The Togo who was the commander at Tsushima). Then an Admiral Alberto Ghe pops up dying on the Cruiser Pola in 1941. In-between a howling void.