Matapan

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paul.mercer
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Matapan

Post by paul.mercer » Wed May 29, 2019 8:30 pm

Gentlemen,
just having a little read on the battle (slaughter) at Matapan.
From what I gather the RN fleet comprising of battleships, Warspite, Valiant and Malaya, plus the carrier Formidable and escorts were trying to find the Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto which was supposed to be stopped due to battle damage when they came upon three Italian cruisers, Zara, Fiume and Pola, Having closed to point blank range (3800 yards) and illuminated the cruisers by searchlight all three battleships opened fire with Broadsides resulting in Fiume being sunk, Zara having to be finished off by torpedoes and then trying (unsuccessfully) to take Pola under tow back to Gibraltar after which she was also sunk by torpedoes.
My question is this, even though the battleships were equipped with AP shells in anticipation of attacking another battleship, surely several broadsides from 24 15" guns should have literally blown the cruisers out of the water, yet only Fiume was sunk quickly and the others had to be finished off by torpedoes. Would this be because some of the AP shells fired at such close range were going straight through the cruisers without exploding?

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Alberto Virtuani
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Re: Matapan

Post by Alberto Virtuani » Thu May 30, 2019 8:06 am

Hi Paul,
I have studied Gaudo and Matapan at length years ago and your summary is correct except for:
"and then trying (unsuccessfully) to take Pola under tow back to Gibraltar "
Actually it was an idea from one of the destroyers Captain to board the Pola and possibly to tow it, but when the chief of the destroyers division arrived, he decided to rescue the Pola's crew and to sink the Pola with torpedoes instead. I don't have with me the names of the destroyers/Captains involved but I can provide you with the details.

However, at that time, the crew of Pola had already scuttled the cruiser, thus no tow could have taken place anyway because the ship was (slowly) sinking.



"several broadsides from 24 15" guns should have literally blown the cruisers out of the water"
The most interesting aspect of the action is the punishment the Italian cruisers Zara and Fiume were able to withstand: 107 15" shells were fired by the British battleships (40 Warspite, 39 Valiant and 28 Barham + their secondary armament guns..) in less than 7 minutes from 2000 to 3600 meters only. According to Barnard (Division Gunnery Officer of Cunningham) 5 out of the 6 shells of the first salvo from Warspite (fired from 2650 meters) hit the Fiume below the weather deck exploding inside the ship. I can find out other details about the damages sustained by the Italian ships as a "Board of Inquiry" was run after the survivors were carried back to Italy.

The reason why the Italian cruisers did not blow up is possibly that the distance was so close (point blank) that the shells had no descent angle at all and were unable to directly reach the main magazines, but surely they were fused and exploded because the main belt of Zara class was 150mm thick, more than able to fuse the British heavy shells (but of course not to stop them). The damages inside the Italian ships were catastrophic however, with uncontrolled fires raging inside and with e.g. one 8" twin turret lifted from the barbette and thrown overboard by a 15" salvo. However the cruisers showed a remarkable capacity to stay afloat and had to be finished with torpedoes and/or scuttled by the crews before abandoning the ships.
Much less was the capacity of the cruisers to withstand torpedoes, as a single airplane small torpedo was able to leave Pola dead in the water for hours...


Bye, Alberto
"It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition" (Adm.A.B.Cunningham)

"There's always a danger running in the enemy at close range" (Adm.W.F.Wake-Walker)

paul.mercer
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Re: Matapan

Post by paul.mercer » Thu May 30, 2019 9:21 am

Thanks Alberto,
As you say, the Italian Cruisers took an enormous amount of punishment and while they were not sunk immediately they were certainly incapacitated, so it shows how well built those ships were. I often wondered what would have happened if it had been Vittorio Veneto instead - I would guess she was very lucky to get under way and escape before the RN battlefleet arrived on the scene!

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Alberto Virtuani
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Re: Matapan

Post by Alberto Virtuani » Thu May 30, 2019 9:51 am

Hi Paul,
in such a situation as Zara and Fiume, VV would not have behaved better than the cruisers, had she proceeded without the destroyers screen in front of her.

Had she been dead in the water (instead of Pola) however, she would surely have had around a screen of potentially 13 destroyers + 6 heavy cruisers and a torpedo melee in the night would have occurred....Italians would have probably lost anyway due to better night combat preparation of the RN, but I'm not sure British could have escaped safe (having with only 4 destroyers with them) with all their battleships and the carrier...

Cunningham took a great risk ordering the turn against an unknown enemy in the night (4 blue instead of blue 4, contrary to any fighting instruction), but he acted right because, had he waited the daylight, probably Pola would have been already under tow of the other Zara cruisers, closer to Italy and possibly with air cover from RA and Luftwaffe. In daylight it would have been easier for the Italian cruisers to leave behind Cunningham "slow" force.


Bye, Alberto
"It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition" (Adm.A.B.Cunningham)

"There's always a danger running in the enemy at close range" (Adm.W.F.Wake-Walker)

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Dave Saxton
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Re: Matapan

Post by Dave Saxton » Wed Jun 12, 2019 9:38 pm

Matapan was a decisive battle. It determined the fate of the RM in the Med. This battle was brought about almost entirely through Ultra Intel.

Following the rules of using Ultra, they had to set up a plausible explanation to enemy analysis as to how they obtained the necessary Intel beforehand. Therefore, a Sunderland flying boat aircraft was sent to where it could locate the Italian fleet and where it in turn would be spotted by the Italians. However, the Italians and their German ally where not convinced that Cunningham was able place all his assets in exactly the right locations at exactly the correct times, based on a single aircraft recon flight. The Italians almost immediately dumped their Enigma cypher system for another machine cypher system, while the Germans were more inclined to suspect espionage.

As early as the 1950s, 20 years before the Ultra secret was revealed, historians suspected Matapan and the result were caused by broken codes. Bragadin wrote that especially Cunningham’s uncanny ability to sidestep the Italian submarine pickets indicated he had special intel.

Then in 1966 Montgomery Hyde published a book about a beautiful British spy code named Cynthia. Cynthia was the estranged American wife of a former British diplomat who claimed to seduced the Italian naval attaché to Washington. The price of keeping the Italian admiral’s alleged adultery secret was to turn over the code books of the Italian naval codes according to Hyde. This story had the makings of probably a great spy movie, but was in reality nonsense. When the Ultra secret became known in the 1970s this tale was proven false. It had been Enigma breaking instead. Looking at it more closely, the sex blackmail angle doesn’t make sense. The Italians were using their own version of Enigma not a book cypher with code books. If the code books in this case were the keys to the Italian naval Enigma, then all Bletchley Park would need do is set their reconstructed Italian cypher machine to the stolen keys, but that is not what happened.
Entering a night sea battle is an awesome business.The enveloping darkness, hiding the enemy's.. seems a living thing, malignant and oppressive.Swishing water at the bow and stern mark an inexorable advance toward an unknown destiny.

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Dave Saxton
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Re: Matapan

Post by Dave Saxton » Wed Jun 12, 2019 9:42 pm

Winterbotham got some details wrong in his description of how Ultra set up Matapan. Winterbotham implied that it was the German Luftwaffe Enigma that revealed the plans to the British. Iachino did not send any naval messages prior to Matapan but had arranged the operation by giving all orders via landline. This fact has led some historians to accept the implication that it must have been the arrangements for aircover communicated via the Luftwaffe Enigma. Bletchley had first broken into the Luftwaffe Enigma, which they called Enigma Red, in May 1940, and by March 41 could break into it on fairly regular basis. Then a fellow at Cambridge named De Vita began applying proper historical research protocols to the question. The evidence pointed more and more to the Italian naval Enigma, not the Luftwaffe Enigma.

Prior to the Spanish Civil War, the Italian Navy used a conventional book cypher, which British code breakers easily broke. Then as the Italians began operations supporting Franco they switched to Enigma. It was the commercial version of Enigma rather different from the Enigma systems used by the German military. It did not use a plug board and the routing used by the rotors was known. It did not present much of a challenge to British cryptanalysts.

In 1939 the Italians replaced the commercial Enigma they had been using by a new Enigma machine of their own design and construction. It did not use a plug board but it did use 5 rotors with unknown routing, and stymied all efforts to break in until September 1940.
Entering a night sea battle is an awesome business.The enveloping darkness, hiding the enemy's.. seems a living thing, malignant and oppressive.Swishing water at the bow and stern mark an inexorable advance toward an unknown destiny.

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Dave Saxton
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Re: Matapan

Post by Dave Saxton » Wed Jun 12, 2019 9:50 pm

The British cryptanalysts began to try and construct cribs under the assumption that the addressee of the message would be given with the phrase: “ per (the name of the addressee)”. A 19 years old linguist by the name of Mavis Lever discovered that the Italians were no longer using that phrase in their messages. The addressee was addressed beginning with the phrase: “ personales signor”. She tested this on a message and found it correct. She kept working on the message into the wee hours of the morning and by dawn she had solved the entire message. Miss Lever also discovered how the rotors of the new machine were wired a couple of months later.

She was presented with an RM message sent earlier that day but noticed that it didn’t seem to contain any L’s. It was a fake message routinely sent during times when the message traffic was slack to keep the traffic rate regular. One of the unique aspects of Enigma was that it never produced the same input letter in its place in the output. The Italian cypher clerk had simply held his finger down on the L key to compose the fake message. This opened the door to determining how the rotors were wired because it was all the same input letter. She requested the assistance of a mathematics expert and mathematician by the name of Batey was sent to help her. Batey was destined to become her husband. Together they quickly determined how the rotors were wired. Knowing how the rotors were wired meant messages using non plug board machines could often be solved using the rodding method.

By March 1941 BP had discovered another quirk in RM cyphers. Full stops in the message plain text were always indicated by the five characters phrase AXALT. Reconstructing a message was becoming probable.

In early March 1941 they were tipped off by the Luftwaffe analysis team that the Luftwaffe was preparing for something big in the Med. There were no details. And the RM was only sending routine fake messages. Then on March 25th the Supermarina sent a short message with a full stop. Breaking it down it appeared to read: “X- (minus) three is today.” They then knew that whatever was up was to commence in three days. X-2 passed with no new messages of significance. So did X-2. Even X day began with nothing out of the ordinary. Then the Supermarina sent a long message to the Italian commandant on Rhodes. It contained everything; Dates, times, locations, aircover schedules, order of battle: the whole shebang!
Entering a night sea battle is an awesome business.The enveloping darkness, hiding the enemy's.. seems a living thing, malignant and oppressive.Swishing water at the bow and stern mark an inexorable advance toward an unknown destiny.

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Dave Saxton
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Re: Matapan

Post by Dave Saxton » Wed Jun 12, 2019 9:55 pm

The information was quickly transferred to Cunningham at Alexandria. Cunningham sent the flying boat and planned to sail just after dark. He went ashore for a round of golf, knowing the Japanese consul would be at the golf course. He also knew that the Japanese consul would inform the Italians that he was ashore. He then snuck back aboard the Warspite and sailed just after dark.
Entering a night sea battle is an awesome business.The enveloping darkness, hiding the enemy's.. seems a living thing, malignant and oppressive.Swishing water at the bow and stern mark an inexorable advance toward an unknown destiny.

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Re: Matapan

Post by Byron Angel » Thu Jun 13, 2019 7:04 pm

Well done, Dave. Thank you.

Byron

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Alberto Virtuani
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Re: Matapan

Post by Alberto Virtuani » Sat Jun 15, 2019 8:02 pm

Hi Dave,
many thanks for so much info. I was not aware of Cynthia story, as well as the Mavis Lever's discovery, while I was re. the "decoy" of the flying boat that "located" the Italian fleet (actually, only the cruisers of the 3rd division were spotted) at noon on March 27 and re. Cunningham "golf" match...

you wrote: "The addressee was addressed beginning with the phrase: “ personales signor”"
Just for info, this should have been "personale, Signor..." ("personales" sounds a bit too Spanish for being Italian.... :wink: ).

"you wrote: "on March 25th the Supermarina sent a short message with a full stop. Breaking it down it appeared to read: “X- (minus) three is today.”"

The "fatal" message was this one (sent at 13:40 on March 25):

Figura_1.jpg
Figura_1.jpg (56.23 KiB) Viewed 71 times

Apparently, 3 full stops in it (alt).


Bye, Alberto
Last edited by Alberto Virtuani on Sat Jun 15, 2019 9:05 pm, edited 13 times in total.
"It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition" (Adm.A.B.Cunningham)

"There's always a danger running in the enemy at close range" (Adm.W.F.Wake-Walker)

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Alberto Virtuani
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Re: Matapan

Post by Alberto Virtuani » Sat Jun 15, 2019 8:04 pm

...that produced this intelligence report for Cunningham from ULTRA (already at 17:05 on MArch 25...) :

Figura_2_1.jpg
Figura_2_1.jpg (55.17 KiB) Viewed 71 times

An invitation to a "rich wedding", as you correctly said (but yet in an unknown location)...


Bye, Alberto
Last edited by Alberto Virtuani on Sat Jun 15, 2019 9:02 pm, edited 7 times in total.
"It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition" (Adm.A.B.Cunningham)

"There's always a danger running in the enemy at close range" (Adm.W.F.Wake-Walker)

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Alberto Virtuani
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Re: Matapan

Post by Alberto Virtuani » Sat Jun 15, 2019 8:19 pm

Hi Dave ,
you wrote: "...Even X day began with nothing out of the ordinary. Then Supermarina sent a long message to the Italian commandant on Rhodes. It contained everything; Dates, times, locations, aircover schedules, order of battle: the whole shebang!"
Here I have to disagree with you and I don't think this info can be correct.

I have just looked at the messages sent and received that "X" day (March 28, 1941) from/to Supermarina and Superaereo and I have not seen nor ever heard this story about a "long" detailed message containing such information: more, no message was probably sent to Rhodes anymore on March 28, as Rhodes was only involved in the operation for the aerial recognition over Alexandria before the "X" day, thus no need to inform Rhodes of anything on March 28...

What is your source, please ? Could you please give some more details/reference for this message ? Do you have the text ?




In any case, I don't think a message sent on March 28 would have changed things much, as the Mediterranean Fleet had already left Alexandria on March 27 evening and, in any case, the encounter of Gaudo, early on March 28 morning, had already given much info to Cunningham in order to understand that at least Vittorio Veneto was at sea, with heavy cruisers and destroyers.


Bye, Alberto
"It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition" (Adm.A.B.Cunningham)

"There's always a danger running in the enemy at close range" (Adm.W.F.Wake-Walker)

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Alberto Virtuani
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Re: Matapan

Post by Alberto Virtuani » Sat Jun 15, 2019 9:28 pm

Hi Dave,
you wrote "Bragadin wrote that especially Cunningham’s uncanny ability to sidestep the Italian submarine pickets indicated he had special intel."
The Italian submarines were not completely avoided by Cunningham and this is another very sad part of the story for the Regia Marina (I can understand that Bragadin, who worked in Supermarina at the time, might have not been happy to tell the whole story in his book).

There were 5 submarines as picket (Ambra, Galatea, Dagabur, Nereide, Ascianghi). They were not (due to the complex and inefficient command chain of the RM) under the command of Iachino (fleet) for the operation but under the Maricosom (submarines) command.
More seriously, they had been given generic orders (via cable line ("telearmonica"), not radio, thus in a safe way vs Ultra) to explore the routes west to Alexandria and to intercept the British, in case any ship had left Alexandria. They were not even aware that the Italian battlefleet was at sea for the operation in the same days...

It's true that none of them was able to intercept and torpedo the British Fleet, due also to their strange "positioning" (on a cross instead of a front line...). However, the Ambra (lieutenent M.Arillo) heard the British Fleet twice with her sonar, but due to this lack of the information, she did not report the fact to Maricosom, just trying unsuccessfully to get closer for the interception (source: official mission report of submarine Ambra, dated April 7, 1941).



The Ambra vindicated (only partially...) this failure (that was not her fault, anyway) by sinking the HMS Bonaventure (Dido class) on March 31, during the very same mission.


Bye, Alberto
"It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition" (Adm.A.B.Cunningham)

"There's always a danger running in the enemy at close range" (Adm.W.F.Wake-Walker)

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