The Battle of the Mediterranean largely involved the Royal Navy and Regia Marina in the Mediterranean Sea from 1940 to 1943. As Italy's army invaded Egypt in 1940, a new front opened in North Africa. During this period, naval superiority in the Med was essential for both sides to ensure that supply convoys reached their intended destinations in Africa and the Balkans.
Before 1941, the Royal Navy had gained the edge in the Mediterranean after the Battle of Taranto. There a British aircraft carrier bombed the Italian naval base at Taranto. Their Planes took out three battleships in the shallow-water port. At the Cape Matapan battle, in 1941, the carriers were again influential.
When the Italians detected a Greek-bound convoy in the Mediterranean, they sent out a large fleet to wipe it out. However, Britain's code breakers also provided the Royal Navy with details of the enemy warships that had left port. To intercept this fleet, the U.K. dispatched its own battleships and the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable.
The meeting point was the Peloponnesian coast off Greece. This was some 150 miles off Cape Matapan. The Royal Navy engaged the Regia Marina's fleet on March 28, 1941 with an opening salvo from its battleships. Carrier-based planes later took off from the HMS Formidable. The Italians lacked any notable air cover, and this gave the U.K.'s navy a big advantage during the battle.
The U.K.'s aircraft first targeted the battleship Vittorio Veneto. As the Veneto was hastily patched up, it made a quick retreat back to its naval base. Other Italian warships were also bombed by the British planes.
A barrage of shells showered the enemy cruisers and destroyers with some precision. Thousands of Italians were left in the water as their cruisers and destroyers sank. The Royal Navy picked up about 905 sailors from the sea before withdrawing from the battle.
When both fleets departed, Italy had lost three cruisers and two of destroyers. The British lost none of the surface fleet ships they sent into the battle. It had been a decisive victory that went some way to winning the Mediterranean Campaign. Now the Axis' supply line to Rommel's Afrika Korps could be circumvented by Britain's navy, which would be vital to the Allied armies in North Africa.
What was left of the Italian fleet returned to ports. Among them was the large battleship Vittorio Veneto, which had retreated from the battle before the British could finish it off. The battleship was out of action for five months, but returned to the Mediterranean Sea in 1942.
Despite the victory, which ensured that the Greek-bound convoy remained intact, Greece could not be held. Once the Nazis sent notable reinforcements in to support the Italian army, the Axis defeated Greece. Britain could only send so many troops to support its ally, and Athens fell. The defeat left the Allies all but out of the Balkans.
Nevertheless, the Cape Matapan battle was still a big victory for the Royal Navy. The triumph ensured the Allies retained naval dominance in the Mediterranean. The Regia Marina's fleets seldom ventured out into the Mediterranean again. With the Italian navy decimated, a regular flow of supplies for the Afrika Korps could no longer be guaranteed.
As the Mediterranean Campaign continued, that was the case. Even though the German army later won the Battle of Crete (1941), which fell to the Axis, the Allies gradually consolidated their positions in the Mediterranean. Most notably in 1942 when the Allies lifted the Siege of Malta. The Nazis' plan to occupy Malta was effectively scuppered, which ensured that this vital Allied base was held.
The Afrika Korps' supply lines diminished all the more after the Allies' victory at Malta. With Allied reinforcements in North Africa also expected, the Axis had to advance quickly or not at all. At the Battle of El Alamein, in late 1942, their advance was all but defeated as German and Italian troops retreated. All the momentum now lied with the Allies, and in 1943 the Afrika Korps surrendered.
It cannot be doubted that Britain's victory at Cape Matapan was one that won the North Africa and Mediterranean Campaign. Had the U.K. not won that battle, many more supplies might well have found their way through to the Afrika Korps. Then the Afrika Korps would surely have been more effective at the Battle of El Alamein. As such, the Cape Matapan battle was the Trafalgar of the Mediterranean.