Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle
Action Battle Dress
BATTLE OF MATAPAN
The range was still too great for the smaller British 6" guns.
The broadsides of the enemy, first short, had laddered up in neat spouting, greyish white columns. Each deadly pattern, controlled by the Italian gunnery officers, creeping nearer to their targets.
Our British Vice Admiral waited until his enemy had almost found the range. Then by a series of very neat manoeuvres altered course at high speed towards the splashes. This had many times upset the Italian gunnery calculations. But despite this the British cruisers had been frequently straddled over and short by many enemy shells. The spouts of water, as high as 150 feet had wet their decks and bridges. But no hits had been scored on the cruisers.
The grey muzzles of the Squadron's 6" guns were lifted at maximum elevation waiting - waiting - waiting - for the enemy to come within range so they could hit back.
The Admiral kept up his game of "dodge the splashes" and each of his four cruiser captains snaked the line astern of him to add further confusion to the Italian spotters.
The sun was now well up. It was getting warm with a slight Mediterranean haze on the blue horizon.
The cruisers were exchanging ranges by radio onto their computer tables. These were the early war days before all ships had radar for ranging or spotting.
Like angry bull dogs, with teeth bared before a fight, the smaller ships manoeuvred for their chance.
The Admiral kept edging to the South. Drawing his Italian foe, little by little, away from their home base. He knew - what they did not - just over the horizon to the South were our battle fleet with an aircraft carrier and protecting destroyers - all steaming North.
This was a British trap. The Italian ships were some knots faster than ours. We could not bring them to action decisively if they wished to deny it. But this day the stage had been set and the trap baited in the form of a large British convoy. It was sailed from Port Said North to Greece then turned 180_ to the South by order (after dark) after being sighted and reported by Italian reconnaissance planes. This reported British convoy had lured out the Italians. The convoy was no longer there but it was essential not to scare away the Italians too soon. The British cruisers had to draw their superior enemy towards the South East as if they were actually protecting a convoy. The battleships must not come on the field until after dark. Then take advantage of surprise. All very tricky timing.
Suddenly away to the right of the Italian cruisers and at a longer range eight orange gun flashes were seen. They were far larger than 8" cruiser gun flashes. This was it.
35 seconds later eight screaming shells, each weighing about one ton, landed just short of our cruisers. These 200 foot columns of water made by screeching armour piercing shells from the Italian battleship Littorio instantly created a new threat to our plan.
The "Littorio", at high speed, unobserved in the horizon haze had closed to within 40,000 yards (20 nautical miles) and opened fire. The lightly armoured British cruisers, unable to fire at this range, were no match for this juggernaut and the Italian 8" cruisers.
Our Admiral must open the range to protect his squadron. This he did by a rapid alteration of course and a smoke screen. Out on his flank, very naked and exposed, he stationed a destroyer and all ships were ordered to make smoke. The oily, black palls of belching smoke poured out from all ships funnels. In two minutes, so clever was the course set, all were obscured except the little left flank destroyer. All ships at maximum speed. The noise of 8" and 15" broadsides screaming angrily midst the smoke was very terrifying. But somehow the protection afforded by the black smoke screen was comforting. The enemy could not see accurately his fall of shot let alone identify it. They concentrated on the lone destroyer. Italian shell splashes at times completely obliterating her from our view.
Soon we were out of range of those screaming shells and relief came - especially to the destroyer.
But our Vice Admiral's light forces had drawn his superior enemy even more to the South - towards the trap, and under most trying conditions he had not suffered a single hit to his force. It was remarkable ship handling. We had all been under fire over 40 minutes and this seemed an eternity when you can't hit back.
After the initial strain of action our Captain was making some inquiries to see if anybody had sighted the "Littorio" before she opened fire.
"Please ask the action mast-head lookout if he saw and reported the battleship - this is VERY serious."
"Aye aye, Sir."
The Gunnery Officer pressed the buzzer to call up the mast-head lookout - high above the ship. He then said:
"Mast-head Lookout, did you see and report that Italian battleship that fired on us."
A very muffled and unintelligible reply came down the voice pipe. The Gunnery Officer tried again with the same result. So he tried a different method.
"Go to the Petty Officer of the watch and get him to relieve the Mast-head Lookout and please send him to me on the bridge."
"Aye aye, Sir."
A long pause during which time the Captain, quite rightly, was becoming a little impatient. Then a tall figure, clad in action battle dress, very shaken and rather embarrassed, reported to the Gunnery Officer - the Captain and, of course, all on the bridge were listening.
"Mast-head Lookout, did you report that ship/"
"Yeah, Sir. Me false teeth fell down the ruddy pipe, Sir. I couldn't make you hear. They're still there, Sir."
Situation saved completely by the very popular Captain saying:
"Lost his teeth down the voice pipe, Guns? Tell the Chief Shipwright to open up the bottom of the voice pipe here on the bridge."
After 15 minutes hard work, the pipe was opened. There were the false teeth, intact.
They were presented on the bridge to the Lookout. Everybody was still at action stations. The Captain laughed, the Bridge Staff shook with laughter and so did the Lookout. The wearer of at least one action battle dress was highly relieved that day.
And when, after 1600, the British cruisers steaming South met their Commander-in-Chief, three battleships, one aircraft carrier and destroyers steaming North, he made them a signal:
The Italian fleet were unlucky that day and also later after dark when they were defeated. The search light from one of our battleships that first illuminated the enemy was controlled by a certain Midshipman Mountbatten.