Operation Pedestal, Max Hastings

Malta a strategic point in the middle of the Med. Frustrated Italian and German efforts to supply their African campaigns.


However. By 1942 Germany had already attacked Russia. No forces available to occupy the island. Earlier instead German forces had taken Crete - an island or almost no strategic worth.


Hitler instructed that the island needed to be taken out by bombing alone. The land forces, earmarked by Rommel and others for an assault on Malta were instead sent into Russia.

So instead, German bombers by night and Italian bombers by night. It was 20 mins flight time from Sicily.


The damage was horrendous. Anti aircraft guns and outdated RAF aircraft couldn't put up much resistance. In one month the 60 aircraft on Malta had been reduced to just 6. When 46 Spirfires were flown from USS Wasp to relieve the island they were mostly all destroyed on the ground in the days the followed.


Feb and August, 95 British vessels , 24 sunk and 21 turned back. 1 third of all Egyptian supplies lost and 43% of all sent from Britain. Air attack was lethal for the convoys.


However, its existence in Allied hands proved to be so much of a thorn in the side of Axis supply lines in Africa. Rommel failed I'm Africa, and Montgommery succeeded because of the continued hold out of Malta. According to Hastings.


So a plan was put in motion to relieve the island in force. Operational Pedestal. Only the fastest merchant ships would be used, including the US tanker Ohio (who's sister ship, Kentucky, was sunk the previous year trying to reach Malta). It was however the biggest and fastest tanker in the world. Protecting this merchant grouping would be a number of aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers. Simultaneously another carrier would be carrying a different Op, to fly spitfires from the deck at 600 miles and then turn back for home. The spitfires would exhaust their range and land in Malta.


The larger battleships sailed only half the distance before returning to Gib, the risk of mines, subs and ac was too much to risk the bigger ships.


Upon their departure subs and e-boats took their toll. Brave sailing by the Italian and German sailors saw them in to point blank range to ensure their torpedoes hit. Rn destroyers had little success in trying to locate or intercept subs or e-boats before they fired. Several merchants and RN ships were scuttled when upon reflection they need not have been. Arguments between the American merchant sailors and the RN broke out across the convoy. Many in lifeboats made it to the Tunisian coast and were held by Vichy French for months until the Allies liberated North Africa.


At this point an Italian cruiser force was at sea and looking to engage. However, a series of events spared Pedastal of their attention which would certainly have been fatal. Firstly, British reconnaissance aircraft had been pestering them, radioing in positions to an imaginary B24 force in the area (in plain language so as to be intercepted). Secondly the Luftwaffe refused to provide sufficient escort or reconnaissance aircraft which gave the Italians reason to break off the hunt.


As they returned to base however they had the bad luck to run close to an out of position HMD Unbroken. Hardly believing his luck the CO, Alastair Mars, fired 4 torpedoes and sank 2 of the 4 cruisers in the squadron, evading the 8 escorting destroyers and making it back to Malta.


The Ohio...


Worthy of a movie. This tanker, the fastest in the world, with the most compartments of any ship afloat took a beating unlike anything else - and survived. A mix of the British and US sailors, towed the last few miles while slowly sinking. Almost all of its oil reached Malta. Two dive bombers crashed onto the deck and remained there. Blown out of the water on more than one occasion she lost pumps, propellers most of its superstructure. Incredible story and an incredible sight when it limped into Malta.


Only 4 merchant vessels made it. A psychological victory more than a strategic one. Anti-air fire from ships was almost totally ineffective, only air cover from carriers and shore (Malta) based aircraft proved effective in protecting the fleet.


George Mashall was watching an adjusted his Operation Torch plans to move planned beach landings further away from Luftwaffe land bases. The oil and other materials made a small but uplifting different to rations on Malta. It allowed Churchill to recover the Navy's reputation following the humiliating PQ17 Artic Convoy in which, so Stalin told Churchill, "your navy ran away".


Another heroic defeat by the British? Possibly.


Worthy of a great film? Definitely.