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The Battle of Cape Spada was a short, violent encounter on the 19th of July, 1940 where the cruiser HMAS Sydney of the Royal Australian Navy sank one Italian cruiser and severely damaged another off the coast of Crete. In this article, we go over the events of that day, as well as what life was like for the crew of the ship.

By Fergus O’Sullivan

By July 1940, the HMAS Sydney had been in the Mediterranean for about a month. At the start of the year it had patrolled closer to home waters, through the Indonesian archipelago and between Singapore and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and even been part of the hunt for the Graf Spee, a German heavy cruiser which had been falsely rumoured to be preying on ships in the Indian Ocean.

The HMAS Sydney in 1940.

As the summer approached in the European theatre, things were heating up in more ways than one. Not only had Germany activity in the Mediterranean increased, it looked more and more likely that Fascist Italy would act on its dreams of once again making it a Roman lake by joining Berlin in its war against Britain and France.

The Royal Australian Navy sent several ships to support the British fleet in heading off Axis ambitions in the Med. In late May the HMAS Sydney joined the British fleet operating out from Alexandria, Egypt, which was then a British protectorate, just in time for the Italian declaration of war on June 10th. Fleet admiral Andrew Cunningham wasted no time and immediately sent out the fleet to go and pick a fight with the would-be heirs of Rome.

Oriel Ramsay, a crewmember on HMAS Sydney recalled in a 2004 interview with the Australians at War Film Archive that the ship quickly became a bit of a celebrity as one of the first Australian ships in the war: it was the first one to bombard an Italian port (the Libyan port of Bardia in early June) and also the first to sink an Italian ship, the destroyer Espero.

Sinking the Espero

The Sydney has the distinction of being involved in the very first surface battle between allied and Italian fleets during the Second World War, the battle of the Espero convoy. Though small, the battle proved that the British meant business in the Med.

The Espero in dock in Taranto.

On June 28th, the Sydney was part of a task force that interdicted a small group of Italian destroyers. During the initial engagement one, called the Espero, had its engines disabled and the Sydney was tasked to finish the ship off and pick up any survivors. 

The Espero fired off a desperate volley which fell short, and then the Sydney returned the courtesy with four of its eight 6-inch (152mm) guns, all of which hit on the stationary target and wrecked it even further. The ship sank quickly, but the Sydney continued its approach to see if it could pick up any survivors. 

The Italian sailors were, in Mr. Ramsay’s words, “floating around in a mess of oil and debris and Christ knows what.” To get them out of the water and aboard, Mr. Ramsay recalls that a large net was dropped into the water from the gun deck and then the Australian sailors would clamber down it. Once at sea level, they’d swim toward the survivors and try to get them into the net and so onto the Sydney

According to Mr. Ramsay, in the middle of all this “their bombers would come over, and they would bomb even their own men in the water.” The Italian Navy seemed to have no scruples bombing even their own men when presented with stationary targets, something which would be a recurring theme during the war in the Mediterranean.

The Battle of Cape Spada

Having proved its worth, the HMAS Sydney briefly returned to Alexandria to resupply before going out with the fleet again for escort and sweeper duty. It played its part in the Battle of Calabria, a huge naval engagement that ended up fizzling out a bit: in the words of Mr. Ramsay “they invited the Italian ships to come out and fight, and see who was going to be King of the Med, and they showed up a little bit, but they backed off and they didn’t come out.”

A few weeks later, though, things were set to heat up. The HMAS Sydney was sent out on a submarine sweep to the north and west of Crete, together with five British destroyers. The Sydney’s captain, John Collins, decided that his ship and one of its escorts, the HMS Havock, would venture north of Crete, close to the Greek mainland, while the four other destroyers would stick closer to the island, near Cape Spada, a promontory on the northwest part of Crete. This proved to be a fortuitous decision (and also not the last time Crete played a part in Australian feats of arms).

The Action Off Cape Spada 1940
Map of the Battle of Cape Spada.

On the morning of July 19th, 1940, two light Italian cruisers, the Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and the Bartolomeo Colleoni, some of the fastest cruisers ever created — capable of reaching up to 40 knots (75km/h) thanks to massive engines and having virtually no armour — rushed into sight of the destroyer wing off Cape Spada. The Italians were on their way from Tripoli to Leros, an Italian colony in the Dodecanese islands northeast of Crete.

Giovanni dalle Bande Nere

Seeing just a handful of destroyers, the Italians decided to attack. The British ships knew the Sydney and the Havock were to the north, though a little unsure of the exact location. Knowing they couldn’t handle two light cruisers on their own, they turned tail to try to lure the Italians toward the HMAS Sydney. The Colleoni and Bande Nere took the bait and the chase was on. The destroyers sent out a radio message to Captain Collins asking for assistance, Collins turned towards them at top speed, but didn’t reply as the radio transmission might give away their position to the Italians. This also meant the destroyers didn’t know how far away their support was.

After about an hour, the Sydney came into sight and the Italian ships broke off pursuit and veered away instead, adding a cruiser to the fight shifted the odds against them. They probably expected to be able to outrun the Sydney, which could muster 32 knots (about 60km/h), fast for a cruiser, but nothing compared to the Bande Nere and Colleoni’s 40 knots. However, they were already well within gun range of the Sydney and couldn’t escape because the most direct route away from their pursuer would have led them directly into the Cretan coast.

The running battle lasted about an hour, but in the end the Colleoni was hit several times by the Sydney’s massive 6-inch shells, which tore through her unarmored hull, disabling her boiler and guns. She was dead in the water, and easy prey for the British destroyers’ torpedos, which duly finished her off.

The Bande Nere was a little luckier: according to Thomas Fisher, a gunner aboard the Sydney, they “did get one salvo right on her quarterdeck. There was a flash there, you know. So she did get some damage.” It would turn out later that the hit had caused some casualties, but not enough to keep the Bande Nere from returning fire, which scored a superficial hit on the Sydney. 

Cheering sailors look out through the hole created by the Bande Nere’s shell in HMAS Sydney’s funnel.

After trading blows for over an hour, though, the Sydney was forced to break off the engagement after almost running out of ammunition. The Bande Nere made good her escape, probably counting her lucky stars.

For a more detailed look at how the battle of Cape Spada happened, we recommend the below video.

HMAS Sydney at the Battle of Cape Spada.

After the Battle

The escorting destroyers went back to the site where the Colleoni had sunk to pick up survivors while the HMAS Sydney went on ahead. According to Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Fisher both, they were under constant attack from Italian bombers all the way, and at one point, close to Egypt, had to make their way back to help screen the following destroyers from the aerial attacks. 

In the end, though, the Sydney made its way back to Alexandria in one piece, where the crew found a surprise waiting for them. In Mr. Fisher’s words, “when we got back to harbour it was a proud day in my life because the whole of the Mediterranean fleet and all the civilians had lined the harbour on the foreshore and all cheered us into harbour.” A sign that the Australian Navy had made its mark on the war in the Mediterranean.

Shortly after, Mr. Ramsay and Mr. Fisher were transferred off the Sydney, which ended up being a blessing in disguise: on November 19, 1941, the Sydney got into a naval duel with the German cruiser Kormoran off the coast of Western Australia, a duel that resulted in the loss of both ships. It sank with over 600 souls aboard and the wreck wasn’t rediscovered until 2008. A sad fate for a ship that saw so many Australian firsts.

This project commemorating the service by Victorians in the Mediterranean theatre of WW2 was supported by the Victorian Government and the Victorian Veterans Council. Sign up to the newsletter at the bottom of the page to be notified when the next article in this project is released.

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