Sunday, 6 June 2010

The Battle of Cape Odamonte - November 1940

The following report has been released by the admiralty of an action fought between elements of the Gibraltar based Force H and that of the Italian Navy. For reasons of national security certain details pertaining to this action are currently subject to official censoring and so only the main details are currently available to the public in order not to compromise any future naval activity in the region.

At 1100 hours, November 4th 1940, cruising elements of Force H - HMS Gloucester, Southampton, Neptune and Kent (F) were heading due north in line abreast with the ships ordered as per the list i.e. HMS Gloucester on the port side of the line and HMS Kent on the starboard. The ships were in standard cruising formation and speed. Directly to the rear of this formation, some five miles distant and also heading due north was HMS Renown (FF) in company with HMS Valiant and four destroyers - HMS Janus, Jervis, Kandahar and Kingston. The aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal with the destroyers HMS Nubian and HMS Kimberley providing the escort.

At 1107 HMS Gloucester reported smoke clouds closing from the north west and immediately the entire formation went to battle stations. The smoke clouds originated from four enemy cruisers escorted by by four smaller vessels - these were determined to be the destroyer escort. The enemy formation was heading south east and the lead ship was observed to be dead ahead of HMS Gloucester when the enemy battle line opened a heavy fire. the enemy formation initially had the advantage of not only being more heavily armed (it was later discovered that the four cruisers were all of the heavy variety - RM Bolzano (F), Zara, Pola and Fiume - sailing in this order in line ahead) with 8" guns opposed to the 6" guns carried by all except the 8" armed county class cruiser HMS Kent. The enemy cruisers opened a heavy and accurate fire and within minutes of the action commencing HMS Gloucester was repeatedly and heavily hit with the range being down to some 10,000 yards. The enemy cruisers chose to concentrate their fire on the hapless HMS Gloucester and after a severe battering, having lost all power and with uncontrollable fires raging from stem to stern, the order was given to abandon ship as she settled by the bow.

The remaining three cruisers engaged the enemy force most gallantly and was rewarded with inflicting minor damage on the Pola and succeeding in crippling the Fiume - as well as sinking two of the four destroyers forming their escort.

In the twenty minutes or so since the outset of the action HMS Renown and Valiant had closed on the hotly engaged cruiser squadron and had headed north west in order to head off the enemy cruisers and provide much needed additional fire support. Unexpectedly, this served to reveal the location of the hitherto unknown enemy battle squadron that had been operating some ten miles off the enemy cruiser squadrons port side forward. At 1135 the signal was made by the fleet flagship (FF) HMS Renown "Enemy battleships in sight". Simultaneously, the enemy battleships were seen to swing due south, no doubt with the intention of providing fire support to their own cruisers and to engage our own heavy units.

The situation at 1145 was certainly not to the advantage of our own forces as the fight between the opposing cruiser squadrons was thus far in favour of the enemy (three heavy cruisers - discounting the crippled Fiume opposed to two light cruisers and a single heavy type) and, assuming that the advantage in this respect was duly pressed home, then the outlook for embattled squadron was not encouraging. Fate however, was about to intervene in the most bizarre manner imaginable and most certainly not in accord with the traditions of our own senior service.

The rearmost division of the enemy cruiser squadron - the Pola and the Fiume - that had thus far received minor damage in the case of the latter and crippling damage the former; proceeded to execute an about turn to head to the north west, thereby disengaging from the action with our forces. No doubt this decision was taken with the most understandable of reasons - both the need to preserve lives and also to ensure that the respective ships would return to serve again after repairs. Unfortunately, this had the short term effect of splitting the squadron as the two lead enemy cruisers then pressed on ahead to continue the engagement with our forces but now having two heavy cruisers against two light and one heavy. There is little doubt that had the squadron remained as a cohesive unit then the course of the action would have been very different as inevitably the weight of enemy fire would have told.

The relief at this turn of events was palpable and almost immediately the tables were turned to telling effect as both the enemy cruisers (Bolzano and Zara) were subjected to a withering fire from our own ships and within some twenty minutes were overwhelmed by both shells and torpedoes and were duly sunk.

Simultaneously the opposing battle lines of capital ships had squared up to one another at a range of around 20,000 yards with the enemy opening fire first. HMS Renown sustained damage from the Guilio Cesare but failed to score any hits with her return salvos. It was left to HMS Valiant to even the score and she duly obliged with an opening broadside that caused many of the bridge to believe that the enemy battleship had blown up. An enormous orange coloured flash was observed from the superstructure of the enemy vessel but she emerged from the smoke moments later, seemingly none the worse for her experience. The enemy flagship - the Vittorio Veneto - failed to score with her own guns.

Mention should be made at this point of the various air attacks undertaken - both by HMS Ark Royal and the enemy land based air force. Aside from the combat air patrol undertaken by the Sea Hurricanes (more of which later) the Swordfish torpedo bombers had a very active day - undertaking two air strikes, both of which were unsuccessful but without sustaining any loss. The first of these was against the two retiring enemy cruisers - despite the damage both vessels had sustained their anti aircraft fire was very effective and our aircraft were driven off with no hits being scored. The final attack came late in the action when the two retiring enemy battleships were unsuccessfully engaged.

The enemy launched a major airstrike against HMS Ark Royal with two squadrons of SM79 torpedo bombers escorted by an equal number of Folgore fighters. The carriers defending fighters quickly had their hands full with the enemy opposite numbers but neither side was able to gain a telling advantage. HMS Ark Royal was strafed by enemy fighters, suffering minor damage in the process but the defending anti-aircraft fire from the carrier and the two escorting destroyers was woefully ineffective and so both enemy torpedo bomber squadrons were able to press home what should have been a very telling attack. Fortunately, by dint of much frantic manoeuvring the task force was able to avoid all of the enemy torpedoes although the inefficiency of the gunnery is cause for much concern.

With the loss of the two cruisers the enemy decided that any further offensive action would be less than prudent and so commenced withdrawing from the engagement. The enemy battleships retraced their steps leaving the escorting destroyers to attempt to delay the expected pursuit. Fate took a further hand in the proceedings as the overstressed engines of HMS Valiant were no longer able to keep pace with HMS Renown (the difference in speed being some 10 knots) and in order to maintain the integrity of the squadron the two ships withdrew behind their destroyer screen as the enemy destroyers bore down on them.

The final act of the drama was the fight between the opposing destroyer flotillas. In a maelstrom of crossing wakes, curling bow waves and frantic turns the two sides engaged at ranges of less than 5,000 yards. The biggest difference though was that out forces were supported by two capital ships so the result was never in doubt. All four enemy ships were sunk for the loss of one of our own: HMS Kandahar, although the remaining ships had all sustained heavy damage.

By 1415 the two forces had disengaged and the action was over.

A further report will be available in due course after the court of enquiry has had sufficient time to deliberate the action after having interviewed the appropriate officers.

4 comments:

Geordie an Exiled FoG said...

Gripping Stuff :)

Robert (Bob) Cordery said...

An excellent battle report. I can almost imagine what it must have been like!

If you enjoyed the battle half as much as I enjoyed your report, it must have had a great time.

All the best,

Bob

Ogrefencer said...

Hi Bob,

A good time was had by all and it was very enjoyable taking part rather than umpiring the action. I flew my flag in HMS Renown so the slight RN bias may be forgivable!

It is a great game for a club night.

All the best and thanks as ever for the kind comments.

Ogre

Ogrefencer said...

Hi Geordie,

Many thanks - I enjoy this part of the hobby as much as the gaming side - it must be the frustrated author in me!

All the best,

Ogre