Page 1 of 5


Posted: Wed May 29, 2019 8:30 pm
by paul.mercer
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?

Re: Matapan

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

Re: Matapan

Posted: Thu May 30, 2019 9:21 am
by paul.mercer
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!

Re: Matapan

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

Re: Matapan

Posted: Wed Jun 12, 2019 9:38 pm
by Dave Saxton
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.

Re: Matapan

Posted: Wed Jun 12, 2019 9:42 pm
by Dave Saxton
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.

Re: Matapan

Posted: Wed Jun 12, 2019 9:50 pm
by Dave Saxton
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!

Re: Matapan

Posted: Wed Jun 12, 2019 9:55 pm
by Dave Saxton
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.

Re: Matapan

Posted: Thu Jun 13, 2019 7:04 pm
by Byron Angel
Well done, Dave. Thank you.


Re: Matapan

Posted: Sat Jun 15, 2019 8:02 pm
by Alberto Virtuani
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 (56.23 KiB) Viewed 1737 times

Apparently, 3 full stops in it (alt).

Bye, Alberto

Re: Matapan

Posted: Sat Jun 15, 2019 8:04 pm
by Alberto Virtuani
...that produced this intelligence report for Cunningham from ULTRA (already at 17:05 on MArch 25...) :

Figura_2_1.jpg (55.17 KiB) Viewed 1737 times

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

Bye, Alberto

Re: Matapan

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

Re: Matapan

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

Re: Matapan

Posted: Mon Jun 17, 2019 3:42 am
by Dave Saxton
Yes, the chronology given by me above does need some correction. It was on the 27th, or X-1, that the second message, a long message, and the fatal, message was received. The source for this is Mavis Batey herself, as she wrote in her book: ... utQAAACAAJ
Although it was unlikely that Bletchley Park received any of the instructions sent directly to the Italian fleet, Supermarina repeated them to the commander on Rhodes using the Enigma machine and these were intercepted. EGEOMIL the official tile of the commander on Rhodes had become a good friend and a very useful crib. The Rhodes message reached Cunningham, and enabled him to make his battle plan....
That this specific message was different from the Today is X-3 message is made plain in another (but very similar) writing by Mrs. Batey for a chapter in Michael Smith’s book on Bletchley Park:
To our delight we read a message dated March, 25, 1941, which simply said "today is X-3" with a little top and tailing…. Each of the three (following) days had a different setting, of course, this was the Cottage triumph at the Battle of Matapan. When Cunningham came down to see us, he was particularly anxious to see the actual encoded messages to his opposite number…
The message was apparently quite detailed with specific locations and times.
…the actual rendezvous position given in our message as 20 miles south of the island of Guado at 7:00 AM…
Also given in her writing for Smith and in her own book, the actual message was in the possession of the admiral in charge of naval history when Dr. Guilio Divita (his name is spelled differently depending on source) sought to confirm it with her in about 1980. From the Smith book:
Nevertheless, losing no time, Dr. Divita (the spelling she uses) brought the admiral in charge of history to see me and when I held the message headed SUPERMARINA in my hand it was if time stood still and I was nineteen again and wearing a green jumper. I (had) spotted the word incrociatore, the Italian for cruiser, for which we had a (crib) chart. I remembered it was new recruit named Phillipa Cross who found the clinching click.. Margaret Rock and I had been able to rod it out enough to ensure that we had the right wheel positions. It had been raining all day and it was still pelting when I rushed it over to the machine room. Dilly was rung up at home…
If you have the time you may find this interview interesting: ... avis-batey

Re: Matapan

Posted: Mon Jun 17, 2019 9:31 am
by Alberto Virtuani
Hi Dave,

thanks for the reference and the interview.
you wrote: "Yes, the chronology given by me above does need some correction. It was on the 27th, or X-1, that the second message, a long message, and the fatal, message was received."
I see now what is this message.
On March 27 at around 18:00 in the evening, a long detailed message was actually sent to Rhodes, containing the name of Vittorio Veneto and all the units involved + movements and positions. Here it is (in the original Italian version, my underline that shows this is the message you were referring to).

Figura 4.JPG
Figura 4.JPG (68.31 KiB) Viewed 1641 times

I was not aware, however, that this message was ever broken but, if it was, I don't believe that it was broken in time to be sent to Cunningham in time, as I could not find any such message sent from Admiralty to Cunningham on March 27 reporting Ultra intelligence information, except a couple of non-fundamental (for Cunningham, at that time) messages in which Rome was informing Rhodes about the known British naval situation at sea.

These only two known Ultra broken messages forwarded to Cunningham were a message sent to Rhodes on March 26, broken only on March 27 and sent to Cunningham at 15:10 on March 27, with the Italian estimation (quite precise) of the British naval dispositions in the Med and in Atlantic + another message sent to Rhodes at 15:25 on March 27 , with another (more generic) estimation of the British naval movements that day that was broken and sent to Cunningham only at 21:43 on March 27 (when the Med Fleet was already at sea...). I can post here both the two ("most secret") Ultra broken messages in case it may be interesting, but no mention in them to any unit name or movement of the Italian divisions.
Also, as you see in the message I have posted (viewtopic.php?f=9&t=8567&p=83976#p83971 , but also in the others I have), it looks like (but I may be wrong interpreting it this way) that all the Ultra info were sent through "Green Line 3" (does it possibly mean a sure telephone line, as it seems plausible due to the secrecy of these transmission?). Once Cunningham was at sea no telephone line was available anyway to provide him any info.

The long detailed message was sent on March 27 at 18:00 and, due to its length and complexity, surely it could not be broken until March 28, when Cunningham was already at sea and possibly when everything was clear for him already. Mavis Batey accounts for Cunningham who decided to sail from Alexandria when he heard VV was at sea, but this is just impossible, as the Med Fleet had already sailed from Alexandria based apparently only on the info of the short March 25 "fatal" message(viewtopic.php?f=9&t=8567&p=83976#p83970), the one Mrs.Batey mentiones in the interview.

The first ship to sail from Alexandria was HMS Formidable at 15:30 (she had to embark the airplanes that were coming from an airport) while the battleships followed after sunset at 19:00 to lure the Italian air recognition. Even, at 13:00 the cruisers of Force B had already left the Pireo harbor.

I have not found any message with the content of the long detailed message (broken and sent to Cunningham).
Does the Batey's book (or Smith's book) give any reference to this message ?
At what time was it transmitted (via "safe" telephone line or via radio ?) to Cunningham (who was already sailing toward Crete) ?
Can you post this message (or the Batey's book page or the Smith's page in case any detail is given) here ?

I would be very interested to see how (and when) the decoded message was sent to Cunningham, because in case he received it in time to make any plan, of course the whole Matapan episode would be quite different and Cunningham's merits a bit (but not totally, of course) diminished by having had such a detailed information...

Bye, Alberto