The action off Cape Spartivento (Sardinia) of 27 November 1940 was an inconclusive clash between elements of the British and Italian fleets which came about because of Italian efforts to interfere with Operation Collar. This operation saw Force H from Gibraltar under Admiral James Somerville and elements of the Mediterranean Fleet from Alexandria cooperate to allow a number of merchant ships to reach Malta. At the same time the battleship Ramillies and the cruisers Berwick and Newcastle were to leave the Mediterranean Fleet to operate in the Atlantic, while the cruisers Manchester and Southampton and four mine-sweeping corvettes were to move east to join Cunningham at Alexandria.
At this point Force H consisted of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the battlecruiser Renown, and the cruisers Sheffield and Despatch. Somerville also had nine destroyers and the ships intended for Alexandria. The plan for Operation Collar would see this force joined by the Ramillies, the Berwick and the Newcastle in time to help escort the merchant ships through the Sicilian Narrows, the narrowest part of the central Mediterranean, between Cape Bon in North Africa and the western tip of Sicily. Somerville was worried that this force was not strong enough to deal with any potential Italian sortie. The Ramillies was too slow to keep up with the fast Italian battleships, the Swordfish crews on the Ark Royal were still inexperienced and the Manchester and the Southampton were both weighed down with 700 soldiers and RAF aircrew heading for Alexandria.
When the Italians discovered the British naval movements they did indeed decide to launch an attack. The Italian squadron consisted of the battleships Vittorio Veneto and Giulio Cesare, seven 8 inch cruisers and sixteen destroyers, under the command of Admiral Campioni. The two Italian battleships were a more powerful force than Somerville’s single battlecruiser and slow battleship. The only material advantage held by the British was the presence of the Ark Royal and her aircraft.
On the morning of 27 November 1940 the British squadron from Alexandria reached Malta. The Ramillies and her escorting cruisers continued on to the north west and passed through the Sicilian Narrows on their way to join Somerville. At 6.30am a Sunderland flying boat based at Malta discovered the Italian squadron, sailing to the south of Cape Spartivento, the southern tip of Sardinia. Soon afterwards aircraft from the Ark Royal confirmed this discovery.
Somerville’s first priority on learning that this powerful Italian squadron was at sea was to join up with the Ramillies and her cruisers. At 11.30am, four hours after the first sighting of the Italian ships, and with Ramillies close by, Somerville turned north. Admiral Holland and the cruisers formed the vanguard, with Ramillies and Renown following on behind.
The Italian fleet was sailing towards the British in a similar formation, with the cruisers split into two groups in advance of the two battleships. At 12.20pm the British cruisers came into contact with the westernmost group of Italian cruisers, and a long range gunnery duel began. Although this only lasted for ten minutes both the Ramillies and the Renown were able to fire a number of salvoes, although without any effect. Just before the fighting began Admiral Campioni, convinced that he faced a superior British force, had ordered his cruisers not to get involved in a battle. In accordance with these orders the Italian cruisers turned away to the north east, hoping to draw the British cruisers onto the Italian battleships.
The next action involved eleven Swordfish torpedo bombers from No.810 Squadron, based on the Ark Royal. They had launched at 11.30am, and at 12.40pm made an attack on the Vittorio Veneto. One hit was claimed, but none were actually scored. Twenty minutes later, at 1.00pm, the British cruisers sighted the Italian battleships, and came under fire from their heavy guns. The British cruisers retired towards the Renown, hoping the Italians would follow, but instead they continued on to the north east, heading back for their bases.
At 1.12pm Somerville ordered his ships to abandon the chase and return south to rejoin the convoy. He was well aware that Italian battleships were faster than the Ramillies and more powerful than the Renown, and that there was little chance of catching the battleships Vittorio Veneto and the Giulio Cesare unless something happened to slow them down. He was also aware that the three merchant ships were about to reach the most dangerous part of the passage to Malta. One further attack was made by aircraft from the Ark Royal, which saw nine torpedo bombers attack the Vittorio Veneto while seven dive-bombers attacked some of the Italian cruisers. Neither attack met with any success, and nor did an attack by Italian aircraft against the Ark Royal. At 5pm Somerville’s ships rejoined the convoy, and escorted it safely to Malta, before turning back to return to Gibraltar.
When Somerville did return to Gibraltar he was greeted by Admiral Lord Cork and Orrery and a board of enquiry with orders to investigate Somerville’s decision not to continue the pursuit. Given that in one of Lord Cork’s first messages to Somerville he congratulated him on a “successful action”, the results of the enquiry can hardly have been in doubt, and the board was probably a result of Churchill’s frustration at this stage of the war. The board of enquiry supported all of Somerville’s decisions made during the brief encounter with the Italian fleet.
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