Sunday 12 September 2021

Guest Review: Operation Pedestal: The Fleet that Battled to Malta 1942 By Max Hastings

In August 1942, beleaguered Malta was within weeks of surrender to the Axis, because its 300,000 people could no longer be fed. Churchill made a personal decision that at all costs, the ‘island fortress’ must be saved. This was not merely a matter of strategy, but of national prestige, when Britain’s fortunes and morale had fallen to their lowest ebb.

The largest fleet the Royal Navy committed to any operation of the western war was assembled to escort fourteen fast merchantmen across a thousand of miles of sea defended by six hundred German and Italian aircraft, together with packs of U-boats and torpedo craft. The Mediterranean battles that ensued between 11 and 15 August were the most brutal of Britain’s war at sea, embracing four aircraft-carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers, scores of destroyers and smaller craft. The losses were appalling: defeat seemed to beckon.
This is the saga Max Hastings unfolds in his first full length narrative of the Royal Navy, which he believes was the most successful of Britain’s wartime services. As always, he blends the ‘big picture’ of statesmen and admirals with human stories of German U-boat men, Italian torpedo-plane crews, Hurricane pilots, destroyer and merchant-ship captains, ordinary but extraordinary seamen.

Operation Pedestal describes catastrophic ship sinkings, including that of the aircraft-carrier Eagle, together with struggles to rescue survivors and salvage stricken ships. Most moving of all is the story of the tanker Ohio, indispensable to Malta’s survival, victim of countless Axis attacks. In the last days of the battle, the ravaged hulk was kept under way only by two destroyers, lashed to her sides. Max Hastings describes this as one of the most extraordinary tales he has ever recounted. Until the very last hours, no participant on either side could tell what would be the outcome of an epic of wartime suspense and courage.

Review: The island of Malta lies in the Mediterranean Sea approximately 60 miles south of the Italian island of Sicily. Its strategic importance during World War II stemmed from the fact that it was a staging post lying roughly halfway between the Royal Navy’s Western Mediterranean Fleet based in Gibraltar and Eastern Mediterranean Fleet based at Alexandria in Egypt. It was also an important base from which air and submarine attacks on Axis shipping could be mounted. Following Italy’s entry into the War on the Axis side in June 1940, Malta’s proximity to Italy left it vulnerable to blockade and aerial bombardment. By the summer of 1942, the situation was looking very bleak since, notwithstanding some limited supplies reaching the island, food and fuel supplies for the inhabitants and the garrison were running out. Hence, Winston Churchill ordered a convoy of 14 merchant ships with naval warship escorts to make the voyage from Gibraltar to Malta to relieve the situation.

This book is the account of that convoy, named Operation Pedestal, and its epic voyage. The merchant vessels and their escort assembled in the Firth of Clyde. During the passage to Gibraltar, they were joined by more Royal Navy ships, so that by the time they entered the Mediterranean during the night of 9/10th August 1942, there were up to 50 navy escorts comprising four aircraft carriers, two battleships, together with cruisers and destroyers. This, the most heavily escorted convoy of the war, was effectively a fleet. Over the course of the next few days, it ran the gauntlet of repeated air, submarine and motor torpedo boat attacks from German and Italian forces as it sailed towards Malta.

The author has painted a vivid picture of this operation, which includes accounts of individuals, ranging from statesmen and commanders to sailors and airmen, from both sides of the conflict. The book is a fitting tribute to the men of the Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and US Mercantile Marine (two of the merchant vessels were American with American crews; a third American vessel had a British crew) who undertook such a dangerous mission. Nine of the merchant ships and four of the navy ships were lost. On 13th August, three of the merchant ships sailed into Malta’s Grand Harbour. A further merchant vessel, that had been slowed by a torpedo hit, reached Malta the following day. The most important of the merchant ships, the tanker “Ohio” carrying fuel, had been torpedoed and bombed. With its engines out of action, two navy destroyers were lashed to its sides and it finally entered Grand Harbour on 15th August. Although some of it cargo had been lost, the majority of its precious fuel was offloaded. The supplies delivered by the convoy enabled Malta to hold out for longer until Allied successes in North Africa later in 1942 allowed air cover for further convoys to be provided.

Max Hastings assesses the value of the convoy, arguing that it was not so much the strategic value of Malta that was important as the morale boosting effect of the operation. It demonstrated the willingness of the United Kingdom to fight on after a number of military reverses earlier in 1942.

I found the book to be a detailed and enthralling account of this hazardous mission. There are some maps included, although I feel that more detailed maps would have been an improvement. There are also a number of black and white photographs. However, I should add a word of caution since, although some of them were taken during Operation Pedestal, not all of them were. In particular, there is one photograph captioned as HMS Fiji firing its main armament. However, HMS Fiji was sunk during the Battle of Crete in 1941 and, therefore, could not have participated in Operation Pedestal. On a similar vein, the port of Bône is stated as being in Tunisia whereas it is in Algeria, as shown in one of book’s maps. However, these minor errors aside, this book is an absorbing account of this particular episode, dramatically re-living the chaos, and sometimes the human side, of warfare.

To order your copy now, just click the link: UK or US

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