The Battle of Cape Passero

In December 1939, the Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Ajax became famous as part of the small squadron that took on the German pocket battleship and commerce raider, Admiral Graf Spee, in the Battle of the River Platte, and forced her crew to scuttle her (Britain’s first real victory of the Second World War). In October 1940 the Ajax was screening a convoy in the Mediterranean to resupply Malta.

On the night of 11-12 October, 1940, the Ajax was just southeast of Sicily on the last leg of the journey to the small fortress island. Around 0030, an Italian patrol boat spotted the lone light cruiser, and the ships of the Regina Marina (Italian Royal Navy) were alerted for what they thought would be an easy kill before descending upon the convoy. An hour later, the Ajax made contact with an Italian destroyer squadron of three torpedo boats and four destroyers, supported by a slow moving heavy cruiser. The battle should have been no contest: the Ajax was out maneuvered, out gunned, and outnumbered by her nimbler, more modern, and heavier hitting Italian foes.

30 minutes after first contact, the Italians broke off the engagement, thoroughly humiliated. Two torpedo boats and two destroyers were sunk, and the rest of the Italian flotilla was damaged in some way. The heavy cruiser turned around without firing a shot. The Italians fought valiantly but only landed two hits on their lone adversary, whereas every shell fired from the Ajax seemed to hit its mark. The mighty Ajax was waiting seemingly in ambush at every instance she was spotted, when she was seen at all, usually only by her gun flashes.

The Italians attributed the lopsided British victory to excellent gunnery skills and superb use of star-shells. They were only partly correct. The Ajax had an asymmetric advantage unknown to the Italians. The Ajax was retrofitted with radar after the Battle of the River Platte, and the Battle of Cape Passero was the first use of radar in a naval engagement in history.

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