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Battle of Cape Spada

The Battle of Cape Spada took place on 19 July 1940 off the north-western point of Crete during World War II naval action in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Allied squadron patrolling the Aegean Sea came across two Italian 6-inch cruisers making their way from Tripoli to Leros. The latter at that time was an Italian colony in the Dodecanese Islands. In command of the Allied ships was Captain John Collins in the modified Leander class light cruiser HMAS SYDNEY. The Australian cruiser was accompanied by the British Royal Navy destroyers HMS HAVOCK, HYPERION, HASTY, HERO and ILEX. The Italian 2nd Cruiser Division of the 2nd Squadron was under the command of Rear Admiral Ferdinando Casardi. The two ships were GIOVANNI DALLE BANDE NERE and BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI, both Condottieri class light cruisers. The latter was named after an Italian military leader of the 15th century.

On 18 July 1940, HMAS SYDNEY left Alexandria - accompanied by HMS HAVOCK - to join the H class destroyers in their search for enemy submarines off Crete. Their orders were to destroy any enemy shipping in the Gulf of Athens.

Early on the morning of the 19th (07.33) SYDNEY and HAVOCK were to the north of Cape Spada when the other British destroyers (HYPERION, HASTY, HERO and ILEX) came across the Italian cruisers. The British led the Italian cruisers northwards in an attempt to give SYDNEY time to reach them - which she did. SYDNEY sighted the Italians at 08.20 about 23,000 yards off the starboard beam and opened fire on the BANDE NERE with her 6-inch guns at 08.29. Faced with this gunpower, the Italians initially fired back but then turned south-west.

By this time the British destroyers had reached SYDNEY and HAVOCK and in line abreast all six Allied ships chased the Italians at full speed.

A running battle followed during which the Italians altered course several times - leaving large smoke screens in their wake. At 09.21 SYDNEY was hit in the foremost funnel, resulting in one injury. BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI was severely hit by SYDNEY gunfire - resulting in the engine room becoming disabled at 09.23. The COLLEONI bravely fought on but was unable to manoeuvre as the rudder had been destroyed. Death came at 09.59 in the form of torpedoes from ILEX and HYPERION which sank the Italian cruiser. 555 survivors were rescued from the ship by the Allies, despite air bombardment from the Italian air force; 151 COLLEONI sailors lost their lives that day.

SYDNEY, HERO and HASTY pursued the BANDE NERE southwards but the latter was faster. It was soon realised that catching up with the Italian was impossible - also SYDNEY was reduced to 10 rounds of 6-inch shells. SYDNEY was ordered back to Alexandria where the Australian cruiser and her British destroyers were accorded a heroes' welcome.

The BANDE NERE escaped to Benghazi with some damage.