The Battle of Cape Spada was a naval battle during the Battle of the Mediterranean in Second World War. It took place on 19 July 1940 in the Mediterranean Sea off Cape Spada, the north-western extremity of Crete.
The battle occurred when an Allied squadron patrolling the Aegean encountered two Italian cruisers transferring from Tripoli to Leros, at that time an Italian colony in the Dodecanese Islands. The Allied squadron was commanded by the Australian Captain John Collins aboard the light cruiser HMAS Sydney and included the British H-class destroyers HMS Havock, Hyperion, Hasty, Hero and the similar I-class destroyer Ilex. The Italian 2nd Cruiser Division was commanded by Vice Admiral Ferdinando Casardi and consisted of the high-speed light cruisers Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and Bartolomeo Colleoni.
When the Italians encountered the Allied destroyers at about 07:30, Sydney and Havock were 40 mi (35 nmi; 64 km) to the north on a sweep for submarines. The other destroyers led the Italian cruisers on a chase northwards to give Sydney time to come to the rescue. Sydney sighted the Italians at 08:26, opening fire at 08:29, and the Italian cruisers turned away to the southwest.
In the running battle which followed, Bartolomeo Colleoni was hard hit by Sydney and after a shell hit the boilers at 09:23 she stopped dead in the water. She fought on but was unable to manoeuvre or use the main battery; despite the fire from her 100 mm (3.9 in) guns, she was sunk by three torpedoes launched from Ilex and Hyperion at 09:59. Sydney continued to fire against Bande Nere. She was hit in the funnel by a single Italian shell, but managed to hit Bande Nere at least twice, killing eight in the bow and the hangar. Later, Sydney disengaged because she was short of ammunition and Giovanni delle Bande Nere returned to Benghazi, shadowed by the battleship HMS Warspite and a screen of destroyers. 555 survivors of Bartolomeo Colleoni were rescued; 121 died. The British destroyers were bombed by Italian aircraft in the aftermath, resulting in damage to HMS Havock, whose nº 2 boiler was flooded. A floatplane from Warspite, which was searching for Bande Nere, ditched in the sea and was lost near Tobruk. The crew was captured by the Italians. Allied convoy AN.2 was ordered to sail back to Port Said and remain there until it was eventually known that Bande Nere had reached Benghazi.
Despite their speed advantage, the Italian cruisers failed to outrun HMAS Sydney because they had to steer south-southwest, instead of the most obvious route of escape to the south, in order to avoid being trapped between the enemy and the shores of Crete. This gave the Australian cruiser the chance to close the range, as she did. The light armour of Colleoni and Bande Nere was unable to defeat Sydney´s rounds. The lack of aerial reconnaissance was another factor contributing to the successful Allies’ chase.
Order of battle
- Rear Admiral Ferdinando Casardi – 2nd Cruiser Division
- Captain John Collins – 2nd Destroyer Flotilla
- Ammiraglio di Divisione. equivalent to Vice Admiral.
- Coulthard-Clark 2001, pp. 170–171.
- O’Hara 2009, p. 46.
- Titterton, p. 48
- Greene & Massignani, pp. 84–85
- Coulthard-Clark, Chris (2001). The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles. Sydney: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-86508-634-7. OCLC 48793439.
- Greene, Jack & Massignani, Alessandro (1998). The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1943. Chatam Publishing, London. ISBN 1-86176-057-4
- O’Hara, Vincent P. (2009). Struggle for the Middle Sea: The Great Navies at War in the Mediterranean Theater, 1940–1945. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-648-3.
- Titterton, G. A.(2002). The Royal Navy and the Mediterranean. Volume 2. Routledge. ISBN 0-7146-5179-6