December 17th, 1941
Many historians divide the period of belligerence in the Mediterranean into the first, second and third convoy battles The first two periods saw two relevant naval engagements, the battles of the Sirte, while during the third period the large vessels of the Regia Marina were held prisoners by the relative safety of the northern Italian ports. During the end of 1941, the darkest days of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, the British land forces suddenly routed the Axis defenses in Libya quickly reaching and occupying Benghazi.
On December 16th, a large Italian convoy left Naples and by the time it had reached Sicily it was escorted by the battleship Duilio, the cruiser Aosta, Montecuccoli and Attendolo and a few destroyers. Not too far away, a second group, composed of the battleships Littorio, Doria and Cesare, the cruiser Trento and Gorizia and several destroyers, provided additional support.
Such a display of force was unnecessarily caused by the mistaken spotting of two British battleships in Malta. On the 17th, a Luftwaffe reconnaissance plane spotted a British formation proceeding from Alexandria toward the central Mediterranean. A battleship, identified as part of the group, was actually a tanker, but the faulty identification was repeated several times.
Both navies were actually simply escorting their convoys, but each thought of the other as in pursuit of a naval engagement. The British were actually trying a double convoy attempt, one eastbound and one westbound. While the British commander Admiral Cunningham ordered the convoy commander Admiral Vian to avoid direct contact, Admiral Iachino was in active pursuit of a direct confrontation.
The distance between the two groups, and some British avoidance maneuvers, did not allow the Littorio group to sight the British until almost dusk. The sighting was aided by the antiaircraft guns of the British forces which were actively trying to repulse an Axis aerial attack. The Littorio opened fire at about 32,000 meters from the British force; too far a distance for the British unit to reply. Admiral Vian immediately attempted a retreating maneuver with the aid of a smoke screen. British units received some direct hits, but they were able to disappear into the darkness of the night.
All Italian convoys made it safely to port, and the British, having entered an Italian mine field, lost their Malta-based cruiser Neptune and the destroyer Kandahar, while the cruisers Aurora and Penelope were severely damaged.
The Neptune was a 7,000-tons (approximate) cruiser with 6″ guns of the same class of the famous Ajax
Overall, for the first time in several months, an Italian operation was completed with success. Although materially the British did not suffer too many losses, the Regia Marina received a much needed boost, especially because, once again, the route to North Africa was open.