New feature exhibition at the Anzac Memorial, Sydney, opening 27 March 2023.

In 1913 the Royal Australian Navy’s brand-new fleet sailed through the Heads and into Sydney Harbour. Since then the RAN has served on all the world’s oceans in times of peace and war.

During the Second World War, the RAN reached its maximum strength. Approximately 37,000 men and women wore a RAN uniform. The war inflicted a heavy toll on ships and personnel. Thirty-eight cruisers, destroyers, sloops and smaller vessels were sunk and almost 2,200 sailors died on active service.

Since the end of the Second World War, the RAN’s fortunes have fluctuated dramatically between lavish acquisitions and slashed defence budgets.

The RAN has sent ships and service personnel to war in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. The service has participated in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations all over the globe, at sea, on remote islands and in tri-service deployments. It has played a vital role in protecting our borders and interrupting the international drug trade.

Today the RAN is a highly technical force of state-of-the-art equipment staffed by skilled and dedicated people serving the white ensign in the best traditions of Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson.

To recognise the generations of Australians who have gone to war on great waters the Anzac Memorial will open a year-long exhibition on the Royal Australian Navy on the anniversary of the Battle of Cape Matapan, 27 March 2023.

The Battle of Cape Matapan

By MIDN John McClelland – winner of the Naval Historical Society Prize.

John McClelland grew up on a sheep property near Bendigo in central Victoria. His primary and secondary education was completed in Bendigo and tertiary education studying Computer Science at Monash University in Melbourne. Upon graduation, he worked in I.T. and then worked as a travelling salesman around Australia. He spent winters working as a ski and snowboard instructor at Mt Buller. He entered the RAN as a Midshipman in July 2014 and thereafter joined the New Entry Officer Course (NEOC) 51. His career goals within the RAN are to complete flight training and conversion for the Seahawk Romeo, particularly as flying has been a passion of his since he first took the controls of an aircraft at age 12.

At 0812 on 28 March 1941, off the south-east coast of Greece, ships of the Italian Regia Marina 3rd Cruiser Division opened fire upon HMS Gloucester at a distance of 24,000 yards, marking the beginning of the Battle of Cape Matapan. Within the next 15 hours the Italian’s would lose three heavy cruisers, two destroyers, over 3,000 men and access to the Mediterranean for the remainder of their war.

This essay outlines the timeline of events before and during the battle. It focusses on key areas of strength and deficiency on both sides which had bearing on the outcome. Particular attention is paid to technological, doctrinal and command differences. In doing so it explains how the British were able to achieve such a clear victory over the Italians. The essay will then describe the significance of this victory in the context of the war.

From the perspective of the RAN, the essay will then look at the significance of the battle, what lessons were learned, and how they can be applied. It will also describe how the Australian involvement at the Battle of Cape Matapan relates to the way the RAN operates contemporarily.

Prelude to Battle

In March 1941 the British and Italian navies were fighting for control of the Mediterranean. The prize for the victor would be the security of their own sea lanes, and the ability to harass those of the other. This would have serious implications for the ability to wage a land war across the theatre, most importantly in Greece and North Africa.

The Italians were under pressure to assert their strength at sea. The Italian fleet had been badly damaged in Torranto by an allied air raid in November 1940, and had not sailed in force since. On land, the Italian 9th Army had been stalled by the Greeks since November 1940 and the Italian 10th Army had been defeated and taken captive in Egypt in December.  April would see German intervention on both these fronts, and so there was German pressure on the Italian Navy to be in a position to support these campaigns.

When the Italian fleet sailed on 26 March, it was under the name Operation Gaudo. Its purpose was to attack allied convoys around Crete re-enforcing Greece. The operation was well planned, “with every prospect of success. Except for the happy chance of British intelligence obtaining prior information of the Italian plan”.(Stuart 1981, p26).

Intelligence played a major role in setting up the Battle of Cape Matapan. Unbeknownst to the Italians, British Signals Intelligence (ULTRA) had decrypted signals indicating the enemy’s intentions.  In a great feat of deception, the British cleared the area of vulnerable convoys and positioned their fleet without tipping off the Italians. In contrast, the Italians were failed by the poor intelligence that two British battleships had been disabled by German air raids.

Battle is met

First contact between the two fleets was made after one of the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto’s three reconnaissance aircraft spotted the Royal Naval 7th cruiser squadron consisting of three destroyers and four light cruisers, including HMAS Perth. Seeing an easy target for his 3rd cruiser division, and unaware of the three British battleships steaming toward him, the Italian Admiral Iachino ordered pursuit.

The British squadron laid a course south, enticing the Italians to follow them toward the British battleships. Whilst the Italian cruisers outgunned and outpaced the British cruisers, “their gunnery systems were antiquated and the shells all fell short”(Scalzo 2001, p1). This combined with accurate fire from the British cruisers meant the Italians were unable to close on the British and inflict any damage. When the Italians broke chase and headed north toward their fleet, the 7th cruiser squadron turned to follow them. This time it was the Italians drawing the British into range of their battleship. The British cruisers followed the Italian cruisers back towards the pride of the Italian Fleet Vittorio Veneto where with her superior range she readily opened fire.

At this point the difference in air power of the two forces makes its mark on the battle. The British had access to air assets launched from the island of Crete, as well as organic air assets embarked aboard the carrier HMS Formidable. By contrast, the Italian fleet had limited air cover. “The Italian Admiralty made arrangements for air support with the Italian and German Air Commands, but up to the moment of sailing Admiral Iachino protested that they were inadequate”(Stuart 1981, p30). These fears proved to be well founded, as the fleet was escorted by just two Junkers 88 medium fighters, and was unable to call upon additional air support at short notice.

At about 1100 aircraft launched from Formidable arrived to attack the Italian fleet providing the necessary distraction to allow the 7th cruiser squadron to escape. Whilst the attacking aircraft did not score any hits on the Italian ships, it was made clear to Admiral Iachino just how vulnerable his ships were without air cover. The Italian fleet turned and made for Torranto to escape the threat of further air attacks.

By 1230 the 7th cruiser squadron had joined the main fleet and was in pursuit of the Italians heading for home. The Italians, cruising at 30kts, were 60 miles ahead of the British, cruising at only 22kts. Air power continued to play a major role in the battle, with aircraft from Crete and Formidable continuing to track and attack the retreating enemy fleet. At 1530 Vittorio Venetowas struck by a torpedo disabling one propeller and slowing her down. Another attack at 1925 aimed to finish off the stricken Italian battleship. The Italians were able to defend the battleship by forming a defensive screen with destroyers and cruisers, laying smoke, blinding the pilots with searchlights and altering course. The defence of the battleship was successful, but the heavy cruiser Polawas struck by a torpedo and stopped dead.

At 2015 Admiral Iachino made the fateful decision to send the 1st cruiser division to assist Pola. There were a number of factors involved in making this decision: darkness was setting in, which would give the ships cover from air and sea attack; the enemy ships in the area were the 7th British cruiser squadron which the 1st Italian cruiser squadron outgunned; at stake was the possibility of Polabeing captured or sinking with the crew aboard. A lack of organic air power meant that Iachino was unable to perform accurate reconnaissance of the battle space, and was unaware of the pursuing battle fleet.

The Royal Naval fleet approached the Italian cruisers at around 2200. The British fleet had four major advantages: surprise, radar, flashless powder and superior night fighting training. The element of surprise meant that when the British ships opened fire they were within five miles of the Italian cruisers. Radar mounted aboard Valiantand Orion meant that when the RN ships open fire they were deadly accurate. Flashless powder meant the Italians were unable to use muzzle flash to guide their return fire. The following excerpt describes the different approaches the two fleets took to training for night fighting:

Cunningham had taken over a superb fleet whose training included night combat, which at that time was considered apostasy by most navies around the globe and ruled out as a matter of course. The British Mediterranean Fleet, however, excelled in night actions during pre-war manoeuvres and applied the lessons learned during the war years.

The result was short and one sided. Within minutes two destroyers and two heavy cruisers had been destroyed. The third cruiser, Pola, was scuttled after taking off her crew. The British fleet rescued over 1,000 men from the water before being driven off the scene by German air attacks the following morning. The Admiral Cunningham showing compassion sent a message to the opposing fleet command:

‘Have been endeavouring to pick up your survivors from last night’s action but forced to abandon them due to heavy bombing attacks. If you send fast hospital ship to position Lat… Long… it will be given safe conduct.’ (Date 1989 ,p6)

 Effect on the war

Warden (2002) argues that although the battle was a major operational success, the British victory had little effect in real terms on the war as a whole. He describes the effect of the battle in terms of numerical balance, supply routes and psychological effects. The numerical gains of the British were somewhat negated by the loss of two cruisers, York and Bonaventure, two days either side of the battle. In the entire Mediterranean campaign, twenty-eight major war ships were destroyed, only three of which were in the Battle of Matapan. The effect on Italian supply routes was limited as the journey from Italy to North Africa is short and defence could be given by air support and escorts. The effect on allied shipping was greater, as the Italian battle fleet could not interfere with convoys from their home port, where they were largely contained due to ULTRA. The Italian fleet’s freedom of movement was severely curtailed and they were unable to challenge the British fleet again. However, the arrival of the Luftwaffe in force caused more casualties to the British fleet than all previous engagements with the Italian fleet.

Perhaps the most import effect was psychological. The Battle provided a focal point. A large scale pitched naval battle involving proud capital ships, as opposed to other losses of ones and twos from aerial or submarine attacks.

The Italian fleet, both before and after the Battle of Matapan, was an effective fleet-in-being. Even without having to sail, the presence of a powerful fleet in Italy meant that the Royal Navy had to devote a large amount of its naval assets to protecting convoys from possible attack. In doing so, the Italians managed to exercise some degree of sea denial and limiting the freedom with which their enemy could use the sea. The Italians did not attain any measure of sea control, as they were never so strong that the British fleet would not engage them.

What lessons can we learn and how can they be applied?

A number of lessons were learned at Matapan, and still hold relevance today.

Lesson 1: don’t allow your adversary a technological advantage. The British having radar mounted on their ships, and the Italian lack of radar made for a huge technological disparity on which one side was able to capitalise. Flashless powder ensured that any return fire from Italians would be a literal shot in the dark. The RAN today maintains a highly modern fleet which is continually being updated and upgraded.

Lesson 2: train for all situations. The Italians failed to anticipate that the British would be able to fight at night, and therefore failed to train for such an event. The Regia Marina was completely surprised by the night attack, and was not even at action stations. The RAN today maintains a highly professional force which is continually training for different contingencies.

Lesson 3: the importance of accurate information. The British were able to decode Italian signals, learn of their movements, and orchestrate the battle of Matapan to their advantage. The Italian decision to send the 1st cruiser division back to help Pola was made on incomplete information about the size of the opposing force, and cost them dearly. The importance of accurate information regarding enemy intentions and movements is as important today as it was at Matapan, and indeed has been throughout the history of human conflict.

Lesson 4: the importance of co-operation between air and sea power. The British possessed organic air power, the ultimate in air/sea co-operation allowing for direct tasking of air assets by the fleet commander. The Royal Navy also possessed a direct line of communication to their land based air assets on Crete. In contrast, the Italian process for calling in air support was convoluted and slow. The RAN today trains regularly in a joint operations environment. Many current RAN vessels have some organic air power in the form of an embarked helicopter.


The British victory at the Battle of Cape Matapan was a resounding success. For the cost of one fighter aircraft and three crew, the British had destroyed three heavy cruisers, two destroyers, caused over 2,000 casualties and captured over 1,000 prisoners.

As discussed there were many factors leading to this victory. The British had superior signals intelligence and superior reconnaissance aircraft. The British had access to organic air power and a superior method of communication with land based air power. The Italians failed to imagine the British capital ships would fight at night, while the British trained for this event and had access to game changing technology, radar. The RAN has learned from and applied many of the lessons learned from Matapan.

The significance this Battle had on the outcome of the war is a subject of much discussion. Some commentators lauding it as a British victory of great importance for keeping the Italian fleet out action for a considerable time, others musing that it made little difference. What cannot be denied is that in the high intensity environment of WWII where the resolve of all the peoples of all the nations involved was severely tested, the Battle of Cape Matapan proved a beacon of good news for the British people, and another blow to Italians.




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