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Bartolomeo Colleoni

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HMAS Sydney
HMAS Sydney
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Force "B" comprising the Sydney and the Havock sailed from Alexandria at 0430 on 18th July 1940, and after passing through Kaso Strait at 2345, steered a mean course of 295 at 18 knots, zigzagging on account of the full moon and improving visibility. Captain Collins seems to have found the double object given to him in the operation orders something of an embarrassment, for he subsequently wrote that in the morning of the 19th "I was proceeding on a westerly course about 40 miles north of Crete in accordance with my instructions to afford support to (D)2 and destroyers. My instructions included the second object of the destruction of enemy shipping in the Gulf of Athens. I decided however that it was my duty to remain in support of the destroyers until 0800, by which time they should have cleared the Antikithera Strait, although this precluded the successful achievement of the second object."

Bartolomeo Colleoni before the war
Bartolomeo Colleoni before the war
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Meanwhile, unknown to the British, two Italian cruisers under Vice-Admiral F. Casardi, the Giovanni delle Bande Nere (flag) and Bartolomeo Colleoni had sailed from Tripoli at 2200 on 17th July, for the Aegean. Throughout the 18th they steered east for a point 30 miles north of Derna, which they reached at 2307, on the 18th, and then turned north. At 0700 on the 19th, they were steering to enter the Aegean through the Antikithera Channel, just as Commander Nicolson's destroyers were approaching it from the E.N.E.

At 0722 on the 19th July, two Italian cruisers were sighted ahead by the Hero, the second destroyer from the northward. The Italians had sighted the destroyers about five minutes earlier, and apparently turned to head them off, as they seemed to the Hero to be steering 160, but Admiral Casardi, suspecting from their formation that they were screening heavy craft, hauled round to port at about 0723 and steadied on 360. However prudent this may have been, it lost him an opportunity of inflicting serious damage on the destroyers with his heavier armament.

On sighting the enemy at 0722 Commander Nicolson at once turned his division to starboard together to course 060, and increased speed, the destroyers concentrating in sub-divisions on the Hyperion, in accordance with previous instructions.

It was estimated that the Sydney at 0900 would be in position 010, 53 miles from Cape Spada (North-west extremity of Canae Bay, Crete), and while steering for this position Commander Nicolson endeavoured to work round to the northward. Actually, thanks to Captain Collins decision to give precedence to supporting the destroyers, the Sydney was a good deal nearer, and when at 0733 she received Commander Nicolson's enemy sighting report ( two enemy cruisers steering 160 bearing 255, distant ten miles ) her position was 010 Cape Spada 40 miles. The Hyperion gave her own position as 340 Agria Grabusa (Island off Cape Busa, north-west extremity of Crete) Light 3 miles. Acting on this information Captain Collins altered course at 0736 to 240 to close the destroyers but on receipt a minute later of an amplifying report giving the Hyperion's course as 060 and the enemy's as 360, he hauled round to 190 and commenced to work up to full speed.

By this time (0737) Commander Nicolson's destroyers had been in action for 11 minutes. One of the enemy cruisers had opened fire at 0726 on the Hyperion and Ilex, and the latter returned the fire. With their engines working up fast, the speed of the destroyers reached 31 knots by 0735, and the Hyperion then opened fire with her after guns at maximum range, but ceased firing very soon as all of her shots fell short. The enemy's shooting was erratic. His salvoes fell short, throwing up red, yellow and green splashes, possibly due to the use of identifiers. The Italian report stated that the destroyers were scarcely visible, either because of mist or the slanting rays of the sun, which was bearing 070 at 11 elevation.

Although the range was opening rapidly, the enemy instead of heading in chase of the destroyers held on his course north, "manoeuvring so as to keep at the limit of enemy gun range and to avoid the chance of an effective torpedo attack". These tactics again lost him a favourable chance of utilizing his superior gun power. At 0738 the enemy bore 270, 11 miles, and the Hyperion at 0740 ordered her division to cease firing as the enemy was out of range. Five minutes later the enemy's fire also ceased.

At 0747 the enemy, then bearing 270, 14 miles, was still steering north. With the object of gaining ground and of identifying the class of the enemy cruisers, the destroyer division altered course to 360. At 0753, when the enemy turned to close, course was altered back to 060. A signal from the Commander-in-Chief to join the Sydney was received by the Hyperion at 0800, and four minutes later course was altered to 030, with the enemy then bearing 265, 17 miles, steering 090. These positions were signalled to the Sydney at 0805, and course was altered a minute later to 060. At about this time there was sighted a Greek steamer ahead, which turned away quickly to the northward.

Still trying to work to the northward, the destroyers' course was altered to 040 at 0814 and to 030 at 0821. The enemy reopened fire at 0825, but again his shooting was very short and erratic. He ceased fire after five minutes, and was then observed to be altering course to the southward.

This was due to the sudden arrival of the Sydney. Commander Nicolson had kept her informed of his movements and those of the enemy. Captain Collins on the other hand had been careful to preserve W/T silence to avoid disclosing the presence of the Sydney ("I realised that I was placing Commander Nicolson in an awkward position and running a certain degree of risk of non-contact by not informing him of my position, course and speed by W/T on getting his enemy report. I was however determined to make full use of surprise . . . I appreciated that if I made a wireless signal, the enemy would learn that other forces were in the vicinity and make away back through the straits"). In this he was entirely successful. He had altered course at 0800 to 150 and shortly afterwards signals arrived from the Commander-in- Chief directing the destroyers to join the Sydney and the latter to support them.

Further alterations of course was made at 0815 to 160 and at 0820 to 120; at 0826 the enemy ships, steering 090, were sighted bearing 188, range 23,000 yards, about 20 before the starboard beam, and three minutes later the Sydney opened fire on the Bande Nere at a range of 20,000 yards.

the destroyer Havock
the destroyer Havock
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The gun flashes were seen away on the port beam of the Hyperion and at 0832 the Sydney and Havock could be seen bearing 290, 10 miles - a welcome sight. Commander Nicolson by then steering 020 at once altered course, first to 240 then to 260 and formed the division in line ahead (from 0747 to 0832 all alterations of course by the destroyer division were made by White pendant, i.e. leaders together the rest in succession). The enemy cruisers, then 17,400 yards distant, were by that time steaming fast to the south-eastward making heavy black smoke, and at 0836 the Hyperion led round to 170, in order to get to a position of torpedo advantage on their bow.

When the Sydney opened fire on the Bande Nere at 0829, she took the Italians completely by surprise. They were then engaged with the destroyers on their other side and the first intimation they had of her presence was the arrival of her salvoes. Low-lying mist partially concealed the new enemy, which was thought to be of two cruisers. Admiral Casardi at once altered course some 40 away steadying on about 115, and at 0832 the Italians returned the fire, concentrating on the Sydney's gun flashes, which were all they could see. Their salvoes fell short at first, then over, with an occasional straddle.

The Sydney continued on a south-easterly course to meet the destroyer division and at the same time to close the enemy. At 0835 her fire appeared effective (it is now known that the Bande Nere had already been hit by a 6-inch shell which passing through the foremost funnel and exploding near the after part of the aircraft discharge machinery killed four ratings and wounded four more.) and the enemy was seen to turn away, making smoke.

Three minutes later at 0838 Commander Nicolson's destroyers hove in sight fine on the port bow about six miles off, steering 170; at that moment they opened fire in divisional concentration at extreme range on the left-hand cruiser, but ceased fire after five minutes as all their salvoes were falling short. The Havock at once proceeded to join Commander Nicolson and at 0841 Captain Collins ordered the destroyers to - "Close and attack the enemy with torpedoes"; but at the time the signal got through (0844) a drastic alteration of course to the south-westward by the enemy at 0840 had rendered this impossible. Commander Nicolson therefore altered course together to 215 and forming the division on a line bearing 350, chased at his best speed. The Sydney also turned to 215 at 0845, a manoeuvre which brought her on the beam of the destroyers; from then onwards the action was a chase.

It was not until about this time that Captain Collins was able definitely to identify the class of his opponents and "was relieved" to find that they were not 8-inch gun ships. He had been "even more pleased" to observe the enemy making smoke in the early stages, which implied that they were already thinking of evasive tactics.

At about 0846 the Sydney's original target was so obscured by smoke that fire was shifted to the rear cruiser (Colleoni), which was engaged by "A" and "B" turrets on bearing 203, range 18,000 yards. The destroyer division also renewed its fire at extreme range for a couple of minutes. At 0851 the enemy altered course to port, and the Sydney conformed, which had the effect of opening her "A" arcs; but two minutes later the enemy, making vast quantities of smoke, altered course to starboard, 16 points in succession (the purpose of these manoeuvres gave rise to some speculation at the time, but Admiral Casardi's report states that they were merely "to lessen the effect of the enemy's fire."), and the Sydney, observing them steadying on course 230 at 0856, resumed the chase in a south-westerly direction.

Bartolomeo under shell fire
Bartolomeo under shell fire
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For a minute, at 0901, the Sydney checked fire while she shifted target again to the Bande Nere. When this ship, at 0908, again became obscured by smoke, fire was shifted back again to the Colleoni then bearing 210, range 18,500 yards. At 0915 the Sydney altered course 30 to starboard to open her "A" arcs, and it was soon evident that her fire was having considerable effect. With the range down to 17,500 yards at 0919, the Sydney also came under an accurate fire, receiving her only hit at 0921. This projectile, bursting on the foremost funnel, blew a hole about three feet square in the casings, causing minor damage to three boats and some fittings, but only one slight casualty.

the shell hole in Sydney's funnel
the shell hole in Sydney's funnel
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Throughout the chase the destroyers steaming at 32 knots had made every effort to reduce the range, but until 0918, when the range of the Colleoni was down to 17,000 yards and closing rapidly, they were unable to do so.

At 0923 the Colleoni was seen to be stopped, apparently out of action in a position about five miles E.N.E. of Cape Spada. Survivors afterwards stated that she was brought to by a shell in the engine or boiler room. The electrical machinery failed, including the turret power hoists and steering gear. All her lights went out and ratings stationed in the magazines groped their way out by means matches and cigarette lighters! The Bande Nere, after a tentative turn towards her wounded consort, left her to her fate, and made off at high speed to the southward, rounding Agria Grabusa Island at a distance of about a mile, with the Sydney in hot pursuit, leaving the destroyers to finish off the Colleoni.

Commander Nicolson altered course to 240 and opened fire in divisional concentration at a range of 14,500 yards. By 0930 the range was down to about 5,000 yards. The Colleoni was drifting and silent ; for some minutes she had been hit repeatedly, chiefly below the bridge; her control had been put out of action and some H.A. ammunition set on fire. The whole bridge structure was soon in flames. But she was still afloat, and at 0933 the Sydney signalled the one word "Torpedo". Ordering Commander Biggs of the Hero to take charge of the other destroyers and follow the Sydney, Commander Nicolson in the Hyperion with the Ilex approached his quarry. By then the Colleoni was on fire amidships, her colours on the mainmast had been shot away or, as some thought, struck, and a heavy explosion had occurred forward.

Bartolomeo Colleoni on fire and her bows blown off
Bartolomeo Colleoni on fire and her bows blown off
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Bartolomeo Colleoni - slightly different angle from the photo above
Bartolomeo Colleoni - slightly different angle from the photo above
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Bartolomeo has already lost her bows in this photo, so this must be Hyperion firing her torpedoes
Bartolomeo has already lost her bows in this photo, so this must be Hyperion firing her torpedoes
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the final torpedo hits Bartolomeo
the final torpedo hits Bartolomeo
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Bartolomeo rolls over and sinks
Bartolomeo rolls over and sinks
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Sydney arrives in Alexandria - taken from Eagle
Sydney arrives in Alexandria - taken from Eagle
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At 0935 the Hyperion fired four and the Ilex two torpedoes at a range of 1,400 yards. One torpedo from the Ilex hit the Colleoni forward, blowing away about 100 feet of her bows and her aircraft. The Hyperion's torpedoes, owing to too great a spread, passed two ahead and two astern, and ran on to explode ashore on Agria Grabusa Island.

The Hyperion then closed in, and observing the Colleoni more or less abandoned, but not sinking or too heavily on fire, Commander Nicolson decided as he passed down her starboard side to go alongside and see if anything could be salved. Barely two minutes elapsed, however, before a large fire broke out in the forward superstructure which was followed by an explosion which blew the whole bridge away in a cloud of smoke.

The Hyperion then fired another torpedo at short range, which hit the doomed ship amidships at 0952, and seven minutes later the Colleoni heeled over and sank bottoms up in position 029 Agria Grabusa Light 4.5 miles.

The Hyperion and Ilex immediately began to rescue survivors, in which work they were joined by the Havock, which had been to far off to read Commander Bigg's signal to join him and had apparently missed a signal from Captain Collins at 0943 to Commander Nicolson to leave one destroyer to deal with the Colleoni, and follow him with the rest. According to survivors' accounts, the men of the Colleoni had started to jump overboard as soon as the ship stopped, and many of them were in the sea before the Ilex's torpedo struck the ship. She had suffered many casualties forward, on the upper deck and round the bridge, among them her Captain seriously wounded (Captain Umberto Novaro died from his wounds on board the hospital ship Maine at Alexandria on 23rd July). There seems to have been little or no attempt to launch any boats or rafts, but all the crew had life belts.

The Italians were much impressed by the rate and accuracy of the British gunfire, as well as the tactical superiority of the British Commanders. Some prisoners even insisted that the calibre of our guns must be more than 6-inch. During the rescue work several signals were received from Captain Collins directing the destroyers to join him as soon as possible, but it was not till 1024 that the Hyperion and Ilex proceeded at high speed to do so (Vice-Admiral Tovey subsequently remarked that "it was an unfortunate and serious mistake that all destroyers did not continue the pursuit of the second cruiser without delay" - an opinion concurred in by the Commander-in-Chief ), leaving the Havock to continue picking up survivors. The Ilex had some 230 prisoners aboard. Most of them were naked and 58 wounded, 25 seriously, three of whom died that night. At 1138 the Havock signalled to the Sydney that survivors stated that the Italian cruisers had expected to meet strong supporting forces that morning. This signal did not surprise Captain Collins, who since 0845 - from the Bande Nere's determination to escape to the southward, instead of to the westward (which would have been easier) and later her desertion of the Colleoni - had suspected she was leading him on to superior forces. There is, however, no confirmation from Italian sources that any such support had been contemplated.

At 1237, when she had picked up some 260 survivors, six Savoia bombers were sighted, approaching from the southward. Thus threatened with attack the Havock was forced to abandon her humane task and proceed at full speed for Alexandria.

Altogether, 525 survivors out of a complement of 630 had been picked up by the three destroyers, and it was afterwards learned from the Naval Attache, Athens, that seven others were rescued off Crete, after swimming for from 26 to 42 hours. Meanwhile the Bande Nere, after passing between the island of Pondiko Nisi and the Cretan mainland, at 0945 bore 192 at a range of 20,000 yards from the Sydney.

At 0950 the Italians received a second hit; a shell penetrated the quarter deck and exploded on a bulkhead, killing four and wounding 12 ratings. But ammunition in "A" and "B" turrets was running low and the Sydney checked fire; the Bande Nere, however, continued firing her after guns, the shots from which fell consistently 300 yards away on the Sydney's quarter. At 0955 Captain Collins repeated his signal to Commander Nicolson to finish off the Colleoni and rejoin him, and three minutes later reopened fire on the Bande Nere, still 20,000 yards distant, but checked fire again at 1011. By this time the range was increasing and the visibility of the target and the fall of shot becoming more indistinct. A final couple of salvoes at 1022, range 21,000 yards, could not be observed ; the Mediterranean haze combined with the enemy's smoke had rendered spotting impossible. The Sydney then had remaining only four rounds per gun in "A" turret and in "B" turret one round per gun of C.P.B.C. shell. Shortly afterwards the Bande Nere, 11 miles off, disappeared in the haze, going 32 knots on course 200. The Hero and Hasty, gradually drawing further ahead of the Sydney, had continued the chase at 31 knots, firing ranging salvoes at intervals in the hope that the enemy's frequent alterations of course would bring him in range, but they all fell short. At 1020 the Hero signalled to the Sydney "Regret, I am not catching her", and eight minutes later in compliance with a signal from Captain Collins she and the Hasty dropped back to form a close screen on the Sydney. At 1037 Captain Collins reluctantly abandoned the chase, and altered course to 150 for Alexandria, reducing speed to 25 knots to allow the Hyperion and Ilex to come up. The last seen of the Bande Nere was from the Hero at 1044 - a smudge on the horizon bearing 177, 15 miles away.

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