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Cape Spada

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19 July 1940

HMAS Sydney off Cape Spada >>

The action took place off Cape Spada, the tongue of land which, with Agria Grabusa a little to the westward, forms the north-western extremity of Crete and is that island's furthermost projection into the Aegean Sea. The lure of the enemy submarine had taken the British ships north of Crete. They were on a hunting sweep, Sydney and Havoc away to the north, controlling the approaches to the Gulf of Athens, and the other four destroyers within sight of the Cretan coast. The day broke fine on July 19, still and calm, with a pride of the morning haze that the rising sun touched to life as a silver sea and sky. The southern destroyers were westward of Cape Spada at this time, and to the north-westward of Agria Grabusa, steering a westerly course. 


Dawn action stations were over, the sun having risen astern of the ships, and, as an observer in Hyperion put it:

'Soon the smell of frying bacon floated up the bridge voice pipes, and those on watch glanced at the clock, impatient for relief. "Two cruisers on the starboard bow, sir!" said the starboard bridge lookout, adding convincingly, but as an afterthought-"and they're Italian, too."

It was twenty minutes past seven, and at once the heart-lifting clanging of alarm bells brought half-clothed men tumbling up from below. They saw from heeling decks, as the destroyers turned away under full rudder, two Italian cruisers- ghost-like, yet clear and in full view-which had come out of the mist ahead, no more than 10 miles away.

Sydney, some 40 miles to the northward, received the destroyers' enemy report by wireless at 0733, and immediately turned south, and started working up to full speed.

To the two Italian cruisers the four destroyers must have looked easy game. The cruisers had not only the advantage of weight and range of gunfire, they also had a margin of some knots speed over the destroyers. Sydney and Havoc, whose presence was unknown to the Italians, were some miles away, and it was going to be what would, in the circumstances, be a considerable time before they could throw their weight in to even things up a bit. Commander Nicolson, in charge of the destroyer division in Hyperion, decided to play the Italians carefully in the right direction, so as to shorten both space and time as much as possible. He led off, therefore, to the northward under fire from the cruisers, which took up the chase with mounting confidence, themselves being out of range of the destroyers' guns. The destroyers, for their part, could only, while conforming to the general line of advance, watch and dodge the fall of the Italian shot, a form of amusement described by a destroyer participant as "an unpleasant pastime".

Meanwhile Sydney and Havoc were interested auditors of the goings on ahead of them, for Hyperion kept them advised by wireless of the progress of events. Hyperion's "smell of frying bacon" may have been wasted on the Aegean air, but Sydney had time to send hands to breakfast before action was sounded at O8I5. She sighted the enemy on the starboard bow at 0826, and opened fire at 0829.

This was a pleasing sight to the Hyperion and her consorts. As one of them put it:
At 0829 bridge lookouts in the destroyers-who could still discern nothing to the northward except the island of Milo, gradually taking shape over the haze-saw, on the port bow, the orange flashes of the Sydney's opening salvo, the most welcome sight in the world. She came rushing to the southward, on the port beam of the Italians, guns flashing, battle ensigns streaming, and such a smother of foam at bow and stern that from the destroyers one seemed almost to hear the high-tensioned scream of the machinery driving her across the water.

At 0835 Sydney's fire appeared to be effective on the leading Italian, and at 0841 the enemy turned away and retired south-westwards, and the action developed into a chase, with Sydney and her five attendant destroyers as the pursuers. The British force, was tearing through the water almost in line abreast, the retiring enemy making heavy smoke, so that Sydney had to shift fire as one or the other target became obscured. It soon became apparent that the rearmost Italian cruiser-the Bartolomeo Colleoni-was, coming under very effective fire from the Sydney, which herself suffered her one hit at 0921, an enemy shell tearing a large hole in the foremost funnel. There was, only one slight casualty in the whole action, caused on this occasion by a splinter.

Again the destroyers paint the picture:
The haze of the morning had now lifted. The sun shone clearly on the water suddenly becoming a brilliant blue, and the first of the day breeze whipped the sparkling tops of the little waves and, lifted their fresh spindrift over the destroyer forecastles. The white wakes, the bright bunting, the orange flash of cordite and its brown smoke blown back across the straining grey ships-all in the brilliant light of the early Aegean forenoon, would have made the scene a delight to any painter of sea battles.

The Bartolomeo Colleoni

It was now seen that the Bartolomeo Colleoni was damaged to the extent of reducing her speed, and with the closer range her punishment increased. At 0923 she was observed to be stopped and apparently out of action, between Cape Spada and the island of Agria Grabusa. Her consort-the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere-after a momentary hesitation, abandoned her to her fate and disappeared around Agria Grabusa, making to the southward at her best speed. Leaving Hyperion, Ilex and Havoc to finish off Bartolomeo Colleoni, the Sydney continued the chase with Hasty and Hero, but the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere had too much speed and drew gradually away in the smoke laden Mediterranean haze, and the chase was abandoned at 1037.

Meanwhile, the Bartolomeo Colleoni, torpedoed by Ilex and Hyperion, had rolled over and sunk at 0959, having previously been abandoned by those of her company not killed in the battle. Of her complement, 555 were rescued by the destroyers, the operation being hampered by Italian bombers, who bombed the rescuers.

Their work completed, the British ships set course for Alexandria, making port safely, after a number of severe bombing attacks, on the forenoon of July 20. Sydney received an ovation from the assembled fleet as she steamed up the harbour with the Australian jack at the fore. The following day His Majesty the King made Captain Collins a Commander of the Order of the Bath, and, among other awards to personnel engaged in the action, Commander Nicolson, of Hyperion, received a bar to his D.S.O.

One of those rescued from the Bartolomeo Colleoni was her commanding officer, Captain Umberto Narvi. He was, however, badly wounded, and died in Alexandria aboard a British Hospital Ship. He was buried in the British military cemetery with full naval honours, commanding officers, officers, and ratings from British ships in harbour attending his funeral.

The cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere, although damaged by gunfire, managed to outrun HMAS Sydney and was believed to have taken refuge at Tobruk. HMS Eagle's Swordfish were ordered to attack Tobruk and although the cruiser was not present they nevertheless found and sunk two destroyers.

So ended a notable cruiser duel, an action similar, in that respect, to the fight between the Emden and the Sydney's famous predecessor, off Cocos Island in 1914, and with a similar result.


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