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Book Review Cape Matapan 1941 - Cunningham's Mediterranean Triumph

ARRSE Rating
5.00 star(s)
Yet another well-presented Osprey publication , no 397 in their campaign series.The author and artist have both been featured in numerous Osprey soft-cover titles and here they once more offer in 96 pages a concise, nicely illustrated and readable slice of WW2 history. The format of these short books is consistent: an introduction outlining the origins of the campaign, the chronology, in this case covering only 5 days, details of the opposing commanders, forces and plans, a description of the battle and notes on the consequences.

The takeaways are that the Italians had a modern professional navy, with competent commanders, but were hamstrung by interference from Mussolini, who was unwilling to expose his ships to combat in any but the most favourable conditions. The Royal Navy had the advantage of Ultra intercepts and radar, while Cunningham, arguably the finest British Admiral of WW2, had trained his fleet assiduously, including in fighting night actions, and British gunnery and gun control were superior.


During the battle the Albacore and Swordfish aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm carried out 21 torpedo attacks on the Italians, while other aircraft shadowed the enemy and reported his positions. 33 bombing sorties were also flown by RAF Blenheims from Greece and Crete.

Despite the Italian ships putting up massive anti-aircraft fire, and the torpedo bombers approaching below 100 feet at a closing speed around 60mph, the only casualty was one Albacore. The battleship Vittorio Veneto was disabled to the extent that her speed was reduced from 25 kts to an initial 10 kts. As a bonus the escorting FAA Fairey Fulmars shot down a German Ju88.

Unfortunately Cunningham was unable to chase down and sink the Vittorio Veneto but the Italians lost 2 heavy cruisers and a destroyer to naval gunfire, with 2303 killed or POWs. British losses were 3 killed; LtCdr Dalyell-Stead's Albacore crew who most likely launched the torpedo which disabled the Vittorio Veneto.

The outcome for the Italian navy was that they never again ventured so far East in the Mediterranean. They suffered from poor fire control of their AA, limited fire control and slow rate of fire of their main armament, poor intelligence and the non-performance of their air arm, whose failure to provide cover or locating information contrasted with the performance of the 27 aircraft carried by HMS Formidable. The Albacores and Swordfish, although old and slow, could stay airborne for up to 9 hours if reduced to a 2-man crew and given an extra fuel tank.

This action, which demonstrated the war-fighting capability of RN commanders and ships, unfortunately gained little strategically in the short term. Hitler's invasions of Greece and Crete which followed soon afterwards costing Adm Cunningham a heavy price in ships.

There are 3 double-page colour action pictures, 12 colour map/diagrams tracing the stages of the battle, numerous black and white photos and diagrams and, unusually, 3 small reproductions, 2 in colour, of battle scenes by other artists. There is the usual index and further reading list.

Angus Konstam illustrator Adam Tooby. Osprey ISBN 978-1-4728-5723-1 £16.99

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