At the start of World War 2 (1939-1945), Italy ranked as the fourth largest naval power in the world and looked to control the prized Mediterranean routes. Indeed Italian leader Benito Mussolini referred to the Mediterranean Sea as "Our Sea" clearly showcasing his ambitions moving forward. Couple this with the naval arms race against neighboring France and Italian naval prowess in the region grew substantially during the pre-war period - for each French design coming online, Italy responded with a new design of its own and vice versa. The Zara-class of heavy cruisers were developed in direct response to the French unveiling of the four-strong Suffren-class. As the lead ship of her class, Zara was followed by sisters Fiume, Pola, and Gorizia.
Zara saw her keel laid down on July 4th, 1929 at the OTO shipyard of Muggiano, La Spezia and was launched on April 27th, 1930 with commissioning following on October 20th, 1931. She displaced at 11,870 tons under standard load and up to 14,530 tons under full load. Her dimensions included a length of 600 feet, a beam of 67.6 feet, and a draught of 23.6 feet. On the whole, the Zara was heavier than the limitations set forth by the Washington Naval Treaty which was written up after World War 1 (1914-1919) in an effort to head off another global naval arms race. The vessel's machinery consisted of 8 x Thornycroft 3-drum boilers feeding 2 x Parsons steam turbines delivering 108,000 horsepower to 2 x shafts under stern. Maximum speed was 33 knots with an operational range out to 6,170 miles.
Compared to previous Italian cruiser designs (particularly the "Trento" class), the Zara sacrificed some of its speed for better armor protection. Despite this, the warship was a good balance of power and strength. Armor protection reached 150mm thickness at the belt with turrets reaching 140mm thickness. The barbettes ranged from 140mm to 150mm of protective steel.
Zara was given a profile that included a pair of funnels at amidships. The primary bulk of her superstructure was forward and included the bridge as well as communications and sensor systems. The main mast was aft of midships. Four primary turrets were featured, two forward and two aft for a strong dedicated broadside. Like other warships of the period, Zara was equipped with an aircraft launching and recovery system and thus carried two reconnaissance floatplane aircraft. Her total crew complement numbered 830 to 840 personnel made up of officers and sailors. No torpedo tubes were carried.
Armament was led by a battery of 8 x 8" (203mm) /53 caliber main guns arranged as two guns across four individual primary turrets (two fore, two aft). This was supported by 16 x 3.9" (100mm) Dual-Purpose (DP) /47 caliber guns fitted as eight twin-gunned turrets. 6 x 40mm /49 caliber guns supplied local air defense with the final line being defended by 8 x 12.7mm heavy machine guns. By the end of the 1930s, a pair of the 3.9" guns and all of the 40mm AA guns along with the 12.7mm AA machine guns were removed - succeeded by 8 x 37mm AA guns and 13.2mm heavy machine guns. In 1940, 2 x 4.7" guns were added.
Sea trials proved the vessel sound and she built up a service record during the remainder of the 1930s with participation in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) on the side of the Nationalists. While World War 2 began in September of 1939, Italy joined the war on the Axis side on June 10th, 1940 with its formal declaration against France and Great Britain. The Zara was set into action on July 7th, 1940 at the "Battle of Calabria" as the engagement pitted elements of the Italian Navy against a combined force made up of British and Australian ships. Despite the firepower showcased, the battle proved indecisive for all parties and no major ships were lost in the fracas. Regardless, both sides claimed the victory to their respective listening publics.
Then came the "Battle of Cape Spada" on July 19th, 1940 in which the two sides met again. The Italians lost a cruiser and 121 were killed while 555 were captured in this Allied victory. The Allies suffered just one wounded and a single light cruiser reported as damaged. Zara managed to escape the zone to fight another day and her subsequent participations were in "Operation Hats" (September 1st) and "Operation MB5" (September 29th) before the November 11th "Night of Taranto".
The latter was the British naval attack on Taranto Harbor which resulted in a major defeat for the Italian Navy - one battleship was sunk, two damaged, a pair of heavy cruisers also damaged, 59 servicemen killed and 600 wounded. The British reported two killed with two captured and the loss of two aircraft. The surprise attack was observed closely by other parties of the war - the Japanese in particular - and this helped to formulate the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor a year later. The attack also marked the beginning of the end of the battleship as a capital warship - the aircraft carrier had shown its value.
In March of 1941, the Italian Fleet set out to disrupt British convoys attempting to reach the island of Crete. The British set a trap to which the Italians carefully avoided but the enemy persisted and warplanes were launched from British carrier decks to run down the Italians attempting the escape. Zara's sister, Pola, was shut down by a British torpedo which committed the Zara and Fiume to assist along with a pair of accompanying destroyers. This provided the window of opportunity for British warships to close in and engage with their big guns - which they did, marking the "Battle of Cape Matapan" (March 27-29th, 1941).
The battle proved another disastrous loss for the Italian Navy as the British warships made short work of the enemy at close range. This resulted in three of the Zara-class ships lost in a single engagement - the Zara included - a rather unheard of event. Zara's damage was enough to force an evacuation of her crew under the captain's order as she burned. However, the vessel was to lose roughly three quarters of her crew which numbered 1,086 when she set sail - 799 were lost to the sea including her acting captain. A few managed to be rescued by Allied warships while an Italian hospital ship arrived three days after the battle to pick up any remaining survivors.
Thus ended the career of the Zara in service to the Italian Navy during World War 2. A prewar cruiser, she was a serviceable design that managed to find herself in a terrible circumstance which ultimately spelled her end.