The Battle of Matapan took place off the Western coast of Crete on 29th March 1941.   
Under the command of Vice Admiral Pridham-Wippell, the cruisers PERTH, ORION, AJAX, and GLOUCESTER , then patrolling in the Aegean Sea, were ordered to a point off Gavdhos Island  south of Crete.    Here they would protect troop convoys bound for Greece, from  attacks by the Italian Navy.

       The Italian Fleet, comprising one 15" battleship, six  8" and two  6" cruisers, plus destroyers, was conducting sweeps west of Crete trying to find the convoys.  The Italians cancelled these sweeps and sent the cruisers to also rendezvous off  Gavdhos Island.  Unknowingly, our ships were sailing into a potential disaster.

      At 6am PERTH and company were sighted by Italian aircraft and reported. At the same time aircraft from the carrier HMS FORMIDABLE sighted the Italians.  This sighting was discounted by Admiral Cunningham who thought they had sighted our ships and mistaken them for Italians.

     At 7.45am PERTH sighted the 8" Italian cruisers, BOLZANO, TRIESTE, and TRENTO.  At 8.12am the Italians opened fire . Our 6" cruisers were outranged and outgunned.  The Italian fire was very accurate and they were closing rapidly.  GLOUCESTER, who had received most of the shelling, opened fire and at 8.53 ORION started to make smoke to try and attract our battlefleet.  At 9am the Italians broke off the engagement so our cruisers turned to shadow them.



Unfortunately, at 10.58am they ran into the new 15" Italian battleship, VITTORIO VENETO.  They were now caught between the battleship and three Italian cruisers.  VITTORIO VENETO commenced very accurate fire on our ships, firing ninety four 15" shells. However because the spread of shots was too wide, only slight damage was done to PERTH and ORION.   Hopelessly outgunned ,our cruisers set up a huge smokescreen and turned south at full speed to try to escape.   Our cruisers were now in a very dangerous position as the Italian battleship was driving them towards the Italian cruisers.  At 11.27, just as disaster seemed about to strike, aircraft from HMS FORMIDABLE attacked VITTORIO VENETO and she broke off the pursuit.







15" Shell falls between

Smokescreen from the cruisers at Matapan. HMAS PERTH in foreground

HMAS Perth gets near-misses

PERTH, ORION, AJAX seen from GLOUCESTER's aircraft catapult

and the others now turned to follow VENETO and, until the close of the battle later that night, acted in a shadowing capacity for the main battlefleet.   An attack by FORMIDABLE's aircraft stopped the Italian cruiser POLA.  The Italian admiral, not realizing the British Fleet was so close, ordered her sisters ships, ZARA and FIUME to go to her assistance.

       At 22.10 the radar on HMS VALIANT detected the three cruisers at a range of only six miles. Illuminated by searchlights, the ships were pounded by 15" salvos from HMS WARSPITE and VALIANT at point blank range.  The Italians lost the three cruisers and the destroyers, ALFIERI and CARDUCCI plus 2400 men.   PERTH then returned to Piraeus and then resumed patrols of the Aegean sea.   


Vice Admiral H.Pridham Wippell
Survivor of the sinking of HMS BARHAM

Admiral A.B.Cunningham
Service History



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