“Baptism of Fire”: The Battle of Cape Matapan
HMAS Stuart welcomed a number of new ordinary seamen at Alexandria on 27 March 1941. Among this group of newly-joined crew members was an unnamed junior sailor who wrote an account of the unexpected action he experienced over the next two days, the battle of Cape Matapan. The historic engagement between the British Mediterranean fleet – including HMAS Perth, HMAS Vendetta and HMAS Stuart – and the Italian fleet was the first night action between main fleets in more than a century. This account largely focuses on the pursuit of the Italian fleet and the night action of 28 March. It offers a revealing insight into the experiences of a junior sailor at a critical stage of the Second World War as Allied and Axis naval and air forces battled for control of the Mediterranean.
Stuart departed Alexandria at dusk on 27 March and rendezvoused with the British Mediterranean fleet. After an uneventful night, on the morning of 28 March news was received that an Italian battle fleet – including the flagship Vittorio Veneto – was about 100 miles away, followed soon after by reports that Italian heavy cruisers had fired salvoes at the 7th Cruiser Squadron, opening the battle of Cape Matapan. The unknown junior sailor recorded his impressions of what followed:
All day we shadowed their fleet, until at dusk the 2nd and 14th destroyer flotillas were despatched to intercept and torpedo as many as possible. Previously a formation of six torpedo bombers from [HMS] Formidable succeeded in scoring hits on “Vittorio” and reducing her speed to 8 knots, a factor that greatly assisted us in eventually catching up and partially cutting them off from their home base.
The 10th D.F. [Destroyer Flotilla] consisting of HMAS Stuart as leader, Capt. Waller in command of the flotilla, HM ships Havock, Greyhound & Hotspur, were to act as rearguard and to pick up survivors. We were not pleased with this decision, but everybody was on the alert in case of action. My action station was after supply; my job being to pass cordite and projectiles to “Y” gun.
Soon after 10 pm the British fleet held the Italians on radar, tracked them and closed range to engage. A destroyer striking force from the British fleet left much of an Italian division engulfed in flames and listing heavily. The 10th Destroyer Flotilla was ordered to despatch the crippled Italian ships, as described by the junior sailor in Stuart:
At 10.15 pm we opened fire at 2500 yards with our five 4.7” guns. At the time I was beside my gun, which was trained on 50° on the starboard side of the ship; and the sudden violent explosion and vivid white flash temporarily deafened and blinded me, while the concussion blew me about the quarterdeck like a leaf.
For the next half hour supply parties fore and aft were kept busy supplying ammunition to the guns. At one period six Italian ships blazed, and at one particularly large vessel we fired six torpedoes. On the farside another ship was standing by for survivors, and she moved into view in time to be struck by two of our tin fish. She listed sharply and began to sink, so most of her crew dived over the side.
We then increased to full speed again, but lost two of our destroyers in the darkness, which left only Stuart & Havock. A little later we almost collided with 3 Italian cruisers and 2 destroyers, and at the same time, another cruiser lay astern, so that we were completely surrounded. We opened fire on a 3000 ton destroyer, shot away her bridge and set her on fire fore and aft. Havock put a torpedo into it. Our range was 100 yards, extremely close for comfort.
We then engaged two 10,000 ton cruisers at very close range again, and succeeded eventually, in sinking one and setting fire to the other. Two 8” shells passed between our funnels, 2 more struck the water 30 feet from our starboard bow, and several others were perilously close. During the action four enemy torpedoes exploded in our wake, just astern.
At 11.30 pm Stuart engaged a cruiser before retiring to re-join the main fleet. Captain Waller lectured his crew including gun crews largely composed of seamen who had never seen a gun fired at night, many of whom had joined Stuart at Alexandria less than two days before, on the night action. He light-heartedly remarked that these newly-joined sailors “were rather anxious to know if this was a normal Mediterranean night”. The unknown junior sailor recounted, “I shall never forget my own experiences and feelings in my Baptism of Fire”.
Recently digitised collections relating to HMAS Stuart, HMAS Perth and the battle of Cape Matapan.
2DRL/1262 – Macandie, G L (Paymaster Commander, OBE RAN)
3DRL/6478 – Cooper, James Duncan (Able Seaman, b.1907 - d. c.1979)
PR82/170 – Brown, Ralph (HMAS Stuart, RAN)
PR83/205 – Hamilton, Gerald E (Able Seaman, HMAS Perth, RAN)
PR03071 – Unknown (Gunner)
AWM2017.99.1 – Woodgate, George Ireland (Petty Officer, b.1914 - d.1942)
MSS1226 – 1.Clifford, Leslie Edward Stuart (Signalman, b: 1901) 2.Bowyer-Smyth, Sir Philip Weyland (Commodore, b: 1894 d. 1978)
AWM54 626/3/2 – [Naval Operations - Mediterranean:] Press Release on Battle of Matapan, March 1941