In late March 1941, the British had the better part of three divisions in Greece and Crete, and supplying them required a steady stream of convoys from Egypt. Italian intelligence accessed that the British had just one battleship and no carriers in the Eastern Mediterranean, so Mussolini launched the pride of the Italian Navy, the ultra-modern battleship Vittorio Veneto (it was less than a year old), eight cruisers, and seventeen destroyers to raid convoys bound for Greece.
Italian intelligence was sorely mistaken. Admiral Cunnigham, the CinC of the British Mediterranean Fleet was reinforced by the ships that cleared the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea of Axis ships in February. He had three battleships, an aircraft carrier, seven cruisers, and seventeen destroyers, centered around his flagship, the First World War veteran HMS Warspite. Nevertheless, the Italian ships were faster, stronger, more heavily armed, and more modern. However, British intelligence could read the Italian enigma transmissions and knew exactly when the first raid would take place. Cunningham needed to get the Italians close, before the Vittorio Veneto’s higher speed, longer range and better fire control smashed the older British battlewagons.
Using a destroyer squadron as bait, Cunningham ambushed the Italians in the dark seas off of the tip of southern Greece’s Cape Matapan on 28 March 1941. All day Cunningham played a game of cat and mouse with the Italians with his destroyers and Swordfish torpedo planes. With the Italians suitably disorganized by dusk, and the VV slowed by multiple torpedo hits, Cunningham closed in for the kill that night. During the night fighting at point blank range the Italians’ more modern ships mattered little. Fearing the loss of the pride of Fascist Italy, the Italians broke off the fight before the heavily damaged Vittorio Veneto was sunk. The Italians lost three cruisers, three destroyers and nearly 2400 sailors. The British lost three sailors killed and two near obsolete torpedo bombers shot down.
For the rest of the war, the Mediterranean Sea was a British lake, especially with Malta still in Allied hands. Only with great difficulty and massive German air support could Rommel be supplied in North Africa.