Battle of Calabria

"Battle of Punta Stilo" redirects here. For the medieval battle between Byzantines and Aghlabids, see Battle of Stelai.
Battle of Calabria
Part of the Battle of the Mediterranean of World War II

Italian battleship Giulio Cesare firing during the battle
Date9 July 1940
LocationNear Calabria, Italy
Result indecisive
 United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Andrew Cunningham Kingdom of Italy Inigo Campioni
1 aircraft carrier
3 battleships
5 light cruisers
16 destroyers
2 battleships
6 heavy cruisers
8 light cruisers
16 destroyers
Casualties and losses
1 light cruiser damaged
2 destroyers damaged
1 battleship slightly damaged
1 heavy cruiser damaged
1 destroyer damaged

The Battle of Calabria, (known to the Italian Navy as the Battle of Punta Stilo) was a naval battle during the Battle of the Mediterranean in World War II. It was fought between the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) and the British Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. The battle occurred 30 miles to the east of Punta Stilo, Calabria, on 9 July 1940. It was one of the few pitched battles of the Mediterranean campaign during World War II involving large numbers of ships on both sides. Both sides claimed victory, but in fact the battle was a draw and everyone returned to their bases as soon as possible.


When Italy entered World War II, their forces in Libya were ill-equipped for offensive operations, and the Italian fleet was forced to start large supply convoys in order to bring them up to fighting condition.[1]

On 6 July a convoy of four merchant ships left Naples on their way to Benghazi, while attempting to fool the Allies into thinking they were making for Tripoli. That evening two torpedo-boats from Catania and another freighter met them off Messina and the next day their escort force joined the convoy from Taranto after being informed that the Allies had recently left port in Alexandria. The transports carried 2,190 troops, 72 M11 tanks, 232 vehicles, 10,445 tons of supplies and 5,720 tons of fuel. The convoy's escort, commanded by Admiral Inigo Campioni, consisted of three groups; eight destroyers and four torpedo boats directly protecting the cargo ships, a second group sailed 35 miles (56 km) to the east consisting of six heavy cruisers and another four destroyers. Finally, the main battle group consisted of two battleships (Giulio Cesare and Conte di Cavour), eight light cruisers and another 16 destroyers.[2] A substantial number of the Italian destroyers didn't take part in the battle due to mechanical problems and the need to refuel.[3]

Meanwhile, the Allies were involved in a similar convoy action. The fleet sailed from Alexandria bound towards Malta where the destroyers would deliver supplies and a limited number of specialist reinforcements. Two convoys were arranged to take off fleet stores and civilians from Malta to Alexandria. Two groups of merchantmen sailed, a fast convoy at 13 knots (24 km/h; 15 mph) and slow one at 9 knots (17 km/h; 10 mph). Protecting them were three groups of ships, one with five cruisers and a destroyer, Force A, another, Force B, with the battleship Warspite and five destroyers and the main battle group, Force C, with the battleships Royal Sovereign and Malaya, the aircraft carrier Eagle and eleven destroyers.[4] One of them, Imperial, had to return to Alexandria with a burst steam pipe on the early hours of 8 July.[5]All were under the direction of Admiral Andrew Cunningham.

At 14:40 on 8 July two Italian Cant Z.506 from Tobruk spotted the British fleet and shadowed it for nearly four hours. Admiral Campioni ordered his fleet to defend the convoy by turning eastward and preparing for action. The Italian Supreme Command, however, was reluctant to risk its warships in a night-time encounter, and they ordered the fleet to avoid contact.[6] During the initial positioning the Italians suffered technical problems on three destroyers and two light cruisers, so these ships, with several additional destroyers, were detached to refuel in Sicily. In order to make up for these "losses", another destroyer group was summoned from Taranto. At this point, the Italian fleet had 16 destroyers.[3][7]

Meanwhile, the Allies were having problems as well. From 10:00 to 18.40, 72 land-based bombers of the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) from the mainland attacked their fleet. Unlike the dive-bombers favored by the Germans, Italian bombers operated in formations at high altitudes during the early stages of the war, about twelve thousand feet. While scores of bombs were dropped by the Italians, a single hit on HMS Gloucester represented the outcome of two major attacks.[8] This was a serious hit on the bridge, killing the captain, six officers and eleven ratings. In addition, three officers and six ratings were wounded. The forward fire control and the steering equipment was destroyed, and for the rest of the battle, she would be commanded from the emergency station.[6][9]

At 15:10 on 8 July, Cunningham's fleet steamed toward Taranto, in order to cut the Italians' return route. At dusk, Cunningham changed course from 310° to 260° and slowed the fleet speed. During the first hours of 9 July, they took a 305° course, to avoid the Italian air reconnaissance while keeping their fleet between the Italian squadron and the Gulf of Taranto.[10] By 12:30, the Italian Supreme Command was unaware of the situation of the British fleet. Campioni told his fleet to scramble by 14:00 about 60 miles (97 km) south east of Cape Spartivento in search of the enemy. Campioni eventually received reports of the British position at 13:30, and six Ro.43 floatplanes launched shortly after by the Italian cruisers spotted the British warships 30 miles closer than supposed.[7]


Cruiser engagement

At noon on 9 July the two fleets were 90 miles (140 km) apart. Vice Admiral Cunningham could not close the distance to engage with the significantly slower Royal Sovereign and Malaya (18 kn (33 km/h; 21 mph) vs 28 kn (52 km/h; 32 mph)) and took Warspite in on its own. Meanwhile, at 13:15, Eagle launched several unsuccessful sorties by Fairey Swordfish against the Italian heavy cruisers, which they took for battleships.[7] At 13:10, the Italian Supreme Command had instructed Campioni to engage one of the two enemy forces facing him, but in fact they had planned to keep the action close to Italy and were deliberately moving north in order to draw the Allies closer to their airbases. By 14:00, however, Cunningham's plans to cut off the Italian fleet from Taranto had succeeded.[3]

The Allied cruiser group was spread out in front of Warspite and at 15:15 they caught sight of the Italian main battle force and the two groups opened fire at 21,500 metres (23,500 yd). Italian rangefinding was better than the Allied, and within three minutes they had found the distance even though they were firing at extreme range. Although the Allies' rangefinding was not as good and they had trouble with their rounds falling short, the Allied gunlaying was better and they were able to place their rounds in much tighter groups. Generally the gunnery of the two forces was fairly well matched. After only a few minutes the range was down to 20,000 metres (22,000 yd) and the Allied guns became useful. However, by 15:22, the Italian fire came dangerously close to the Allied cruisers and Vice Admiral John Tovey decided to disengage.[11] At this point splinters from a 6-inch (152 mm) shell fired by the cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi[12][13] hit HMS Neptune, damaging her catapult and the reconnaissance aircraft beyond repair.[14][15] The cruisers continued to open the range and by 15:30 fire ceased.[11]

Battleship engagement

One group of Italian light cruisers, mistaken for the heavy cruisers of the Zara class, was on the Allied side of the battle line and was soon within range of the charging Warspite. Once again the Allied rounds fell short, and neither of her targets, Alberico da Barbiano and Alberto di Giussano, received any damage in the initial salvos. However, by this time Warspite was also out of position, and she circled in place in order to allow Malaya to catch up. Meanwhile, Royal Sovereign was still well to the rear.[16]

The Italian commander decided to take on Warspite, and started moving his two battleships into position. At 15:52 Giulio Cesare opened fire at a range of 26,400 metres (28,900 yd). Conte di Cavour did not fire, a decision many have questioned. Italian strategy was to have only one ship targeted at a time, as it was learned during the Battle of Jutland that with more than one ship firing at a single target it became very difficult for the rangefinding parties to tell which rounds were theirs. Conte di Cavour had been assigned to Malaya and Royal Sovereign, which were further back and did not enter the engagement.[17]

Warspite, not aware of the Italian firing patterns, split her guns between the two ships. During the exchange one of Giulio Cesare's rounds fell long and caused splinter damage to Warspite's escorting destroyers Hereward and Decoy, which had formed up on the far side of the action.[18] At 15:54 Malaya started firing, well out of range, hoping to cause some confusion on the Italian ships. Meanwhile, the Italian heavy cruisers came into action and started firing on Warspite at 15:55 but had to break off as the Allied cruisers returned.[16]

At 15:59 two shells from Giulio Cesare fell very close to Warspite. Almost immediately after one of Warspite's 15-inch (381 mm) rounds hit the rear deck of Giulio Cesare, exploding in the funnel, and setting off the stored ammunition for one of her 37 mm (1.5 in) anti-aircraft guns. Two seamen were killed and several wounded.[19] The fumes from the burning ammunition were sucked down into the engine room, which had to evacuate and shut down half of the boilers. Giulio Cesare's speed quickly fell off to 18 knots and Conte di Cavour took over. Giulio Cesare and Warspite were well over 24,000 metres (26,000 yd) apart at the time of the hit, which was one of the longest-range naval artillery hits in history.[Note 1]

It would appear that Warspite was in an excellent position to deal some serious blows to the slowing Giulio Cesare, but she once again executed another tight turn to allow Malaya to catch up. With her guns suddenly silenced during the turn, rangefinders on Malaya discovered what the Italians had been intending to avoid, that her rounds were falling 2,500 metres (2,700 yd) short of Giulio Cesare and they had been watching Warspite's rounds, not their own.[16]

At 16:01 the Italian destroyers generated smoke and the battleships got under cover. There is some debate about this point today, the Allied position being that the battleships were leaving battle, the Italian that they were attempting to make a torpedo attack with their destroyers from within the smoke.[16]

Final actions

At 15:58 Fiume re-opened fire on her counterpart in the Allied line, Liverpool and soon two groups of Italian cruisers: Zara, Bolzano and Pola had opened fire. Gorizia and Trento followed soon and enter in combat range with the main Allied cruiser battle group. Firing continued as both groups attempted to form up and at 16:07 Bolzano was hit three times by 6 in shells from HMS Neptune, temporarily locking her rudder and suffering two fatalities at the torpedo room. A near miss on the destroyer Vittorio Alfieri caused minor damage.[21]

Meanwhile, the mechanics on Giulio Cesare were able to repair two of the four damaged boilers, allowing the battleship to reach 22 knots (41 km/h; 25 mph).[22] Admiral Campioni, considering the possibilities of his remaining battleship, Conte di Cavour against three enemy battleships and an aircraft carrier, decided to withdraw the battleships towards Messina.[23] Giulio Cesare was out of action for 30 days.[21]

Over the next hour both fleets attempted to make long-range torpedo runs with their destroyer groups without success.[24] At 16:40, the Italian air force made an attack with 126 aircraft, reporting damage on Eagle, Warspite and Malaya; because of some misunderstanding, 50 of the Italian aircraft also attacked the Italian ships, without damage. The battle ended at 16:50 with both sides withdrawing.[25]

One final victim was the destroyer Leone Pancaldo, sent to Augusta in Sicily, which was hit by a torpedo launched from a Swordfish at 09:40 the next day and sank in shallow water.[15][21] (She was refloated and returned to service in December 1941.[26])


After the battle both fleets turned for home. This allowed the Italians to claim a victory of sorts, as their cargo ships were already past the action by this time and sailed safely for Libya.[27] Meanwhile, the Allied ships also reached Alexandria along with their escort. Although the battle was indecisive, Allied sources claimed that the Royal Navy asserted an important "moral ascendancy" over their Italian counterpart.[28]

Other sources instead dispute those claims, pointing out that, in the immediate aftermath of the battle, the moods of the two commanders were quite different. Campioni wrote that, even having been able to employ only two old refurbished battleships, the battle gave to every man in the fleet, from the senior officers to the seamen, the impression to be able to cope with the British Fleet on equal terms. While Cunningham was dismayed by the performances of his two older units, whose lack of speed permitted to the Italians to dictate the course of the action, and whose cannons were outranged not only by those of the two Italian battleships, but by those of the heavy cruisers as well. Cunningham dismissed the Royal Sovereign as a "constant source of anxiety", and requested to the Admiralty two or three more Queen Elizabeth-class battleship possibly equipped with radars, a new carrier with an armoured deck, the heavy cruisers York and Exeter, and enough smaller ships to cover the major units.[29][30]

One question is why the Italians did not send their two operational battleships of Vittorio Veneto class at Taranto, both almost ready for action and only a few hours from the scene. Both capital ships were still undergoing trials, and Littorio had suffered an electrical mishap on one of her main turrets. Littorio and Vittorio Veneto would have tipped the balance of fire well onto the Italian side.[31]

Even without these ships the fleets were fairly even. Despite Italian superiority in aircraft due to the nearby land-based aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica the attacks proved ineffective, achieving little apart from the damage to Gloucester.[6] Despite this, the air arm's battle reports were inflated to the point of claiming damage to half of the Allied fleet.[32]

Overall, Allied gunnery proved superior, while the Italian salvoes were too widely dispersed due to technical reasons that were not to be overcome until the end of the conflict.[33] ,

Order of battle

(F) denotes flagship


Force A - Commanded by Vice Admiral John Tovey

7th Cruiser squadron

Force B - Commanded by Vice Admiral Andrew Cunningham who was the Commander in Chief Mediterranean Fleet;

1st Battle Squadron

Force C - Commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Pridham-Wippell.

1st Battle Squadron

The destroyer HMS Escort was sunk in the Western Mediterranean where Force H was providing a feint and demonstration against Sardinia to distract the Italian fleet from the sailing of the Allied convoys. She was torpedoed on 11 July by the Italian submarine Guglielmo Marconi during Force H's return passage.[38]

Regia Marina

Italian force commanded by Vice Admiral Inigo Campioni. Pola (F)

Convoy Close Escort

2nd Light Cruiser Division Bande Nere Colleone

10th Destroyer Squadron

14th Destroyer Squadron

Torpedo Boats – Pilo, Missoni

1st Squadron

Vice-Admiral Angelo Iachino – Commander

5th Battleship Division

4th (Light) Cruiser Division

8th (Light) Cruiser Division

7th Destroyer Squadron

8th Destroyer Squadron

15th Destroyer Squadron

16th Destroyer Squadron

2nd Squadron

(Vice-Admiral Riccardo Paladini) – Commander

1st (Heavy) Cruiser Division Vice-Admiral Matteucci – Division Commander

3rd (Heavy) Cruiser Division Vice-Admiral Luigi Sansonetti – Division Commander

7th (Light) Cruiser Division

9th Destroyer Squadron

11th Destroyer Squadron

12th Destroyer Squadron


  1. The German battleship Scharnhorst achieved a hit on the British aircraft carrier HMS Glorious at approximately the same range the previous month.[20]


  1. Greene & Massignani, p. 65
  2. Greene & Massignani, p. 67
  3. 1 2 3 Greene & Massignani, p. 72
  4. Greene & Massignani, p. 66
  5. HMS Imperial ( D 0 9 )
  6. 1 2 3 Greene & Massignani, p. 68
  7. 1 2 3 Greene & Massignani, p. 70
  8. Miller, War at Sea, pg. 113
  9. HMS Gloucester – Town-type Light Cruiser
  10. Greene & Massignani, pp. 68–69
  11. 1 2 Action off Calabria – Initial skirmish
  12. Action of Calabria by Christian D'Adamo
  13. Jordan, John (2008). Warship 2008. Conway maritime press, p. 32. ISBN 1-84486-062-0
  14. Smith, Peter Charles (1980). Action imminent: three studies of the naval war in the Mediterranean theatre during 1940. Kimber, p. 66. ISBN 0-7183-0197-8
  15. 1 2 Cunningham, Admiral Sir Andrew B. (28 April 1948). "REPORT OF AN ACTION WITH THE ITALIAN FLEET OFF CALABRIA, 9th JULY, 1940." (pdf). London Gazette. HMSO. Retrieved 30 July 2010.
  16. 1 2 3 4 D'Adamo, Cristiano. "Action off Calabria – The battleships enter the fight". Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  17. O'Hara, p. 40.
  18. Jordan (2008), p. 34
  19. Marina Militare italiana, part 1 1940-45, p 39, Albertelli Edizioni, Parma, 2015
  20. DiGiulian, Tony. "German 28 cm/54.5 (11") SK C/34". Archived from the original on 19 December 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-23.
  21. 1 2 3 Action off Calabria – Cruisers and destroyers
  22. Capital Ship Surface Actions World War 2, by Terry A. Gardner, EMC(SW) USNR ret
  23. Greene & Massignani, p. 75
  24. Greene & Massignani, pp. 74–75
  25. Greene & Massignani, p. 77
  26. Whitley, M J (2000). Destroyers of World War Two: An International Encyclopedia. London: Arms & Armour Press. p. 164. ISBN 1-85409-521-8.
  27. Sadkovich, James (1990).Reevaluating major naval combatants of World War II. Greenwood Press, p. 137. ISBN 0-313-26149-0
  28. Hill, J. R. and Ranft, Bryan (2002). The Oxford illustrated history of the Royal Navy. Oxford University Press, p. 358. ISBN 0-19-860527-7
  29. Bernard Ireland, The War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943 (1993), p. 37. ISBN 9781844150472
  30. O'Hara, Vincent P. (2009). Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, 1940–1945. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-648-3.
  31. Greene & Massignani, p. 69
  32. Knox, MacGregor (1986). Mussolini unleashed, 1939–1941: politics and strategy in fascist Italy's. Cambridge University Press, p. 146. ISBN 0-521-33835-2
  33. Greene & Massignani, p. 79
  34. "HMAS Sydney (II)". Royal Australian Navy. Archived from the original on 23 November 2008. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
  35. "HMAS Stuart (I)". Royal Australian Navy. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
  36. "HMAS Vampire (I)". Royal Australian Navy. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
  37. "HMAS Voyager (I)". Royal Australian Navy. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
  38. G. Hermon Gill "Royal Australian Navy, 1939–1942" (1957)


External links

Coordinates: 37°40′N 17°20′E / 37.667°N 17.333°E / 37.667; 17.333

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