The Fleet that Battled to Malta, 1942
London: William Collins, 2021
Hardback 464pp RRP $35.00
Reviewer: Brian Surtees, May 2022
It is always with great anticipation that one opens a book by Sir Max Hastings. Operation Pedestal, his first book devoted primarily to naval operations, does not disappoint.
In 1942 British affairs were in a parlous state. Rommel was threatening Alexandria and Cairo and the Eastern Mediterranean was dominated by Axis forces. This meant that convoys sent to resupply British forces in North Africa and points East had to sail via the Southern route around the Cape of Good Hope.
British Air and Naval forces based on Malta were a thorn in the side of the enemy, interdicting supply routes serving Rommel’s forces in North Africa. However, by mid-1942 the island was so short of all kinds of supplies that the population was only weeks away from starvation and running out of war stocks and fuel. It was largely ineffective as a strategic asset. There were some senior government advisers who considered that the effort and losses involved in supplying the island were not justified and that it should be abandoned to the enemy who would then have to feed the population.
However most, including Churchill, believed that this would be very damaging to British morale on top of all the recent reverses and could not be entertained. It was determined that a maximum effort would be made to resupply Malta with a convoy of fourteen merchantmen, including a modern tanker - the Ohio recently transferred from the US merchant fleet. The convoy escort would comprise three aircraft carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers and 24 destroyers.
The operation was named Pedestal and had the largest Royal Navy escort devoted to any convoy of the war. The convoy sailed from England in early August 1942 and by 10th August had passed Gibraltar. German observation posts on both sides of the strait in Spanish territory passed the information to Berlin and large naval and air forces were positioned to attack the convoy. These consisted of 400 Italian and 200 German aircraft, 21 submarines of both navies and 23 motor torpedo boats lying in wait for the ships that survived and passed the Sicilian Narrows. The Italian Navy capital ships were also a threat should they sortie to attack.
Unfortunately, it was planned that the British capital ships, the battleships and carriers, would have to turn back to Gibraltar at the Narrows as there was insufficient sea room for them to manoeuvre and they would be too vulnerable to air attack. This meant the convoy would be protected by the cruisers, destroyers and air assets based in Malta for the final 200 nautical miles or so. This would prove to be the most dangerous and lethal part of the voyage. The first loss was the aircraft carrier Eagle which was hit by four torpedoes launched by the U73 German submarine, and it sank in eight minutes with the loss of 260 lives. Thereafter the tempo of attacks increased employing bombs, torpedoes and parachute mines. Initially the British carrier aircraft and ship anti-aircraft defences were quite effective but as the attacks increased both remaining carriers were damaged. However, 36 Spitfires destined for Malta were successfully flown off. After the capital ships departed for Gibraltar, the losses mounted including both merchantmen and warships. It is this part of the story that is covered in the book particularly well with an engrossing coverage of the action and the personal narratives of the participants of both sides.
It is not possible to cover the scale of the destruction and suffering in this review other than to say that it is a harrowing read. Worthy of mention is the successful attack by the Italian submarine Axum which fired four torpedoes and had three hits: sinking one cruiser, badly damaging another and hitting the Ohio. The Ohio was bombed several times, torpedoed, and had a Stuka crash onboard. The ship lost power and was twice abandoned and re-boarded by the crew. It was finally towed into Valetta harbour in a sinking condition and delivered its cargo before sinking at its mooring. Overall, nine of the fourteen merchantmen and four naval ships were sunk with the loss of 350 lives.
There had been heroism, panic, chaos and at times some cowardice shown; but overall, it had been demonstrated that without the assistance of a major surface navy, Axis submarines, aircraft and light surface units could not stop a determined well-escorted convoy. The Italian Navy initially sortied some capital units, but they returned to port, a decision reinforced by spoof radio traffic indicating allied air activity nearby. Two Italian cruisers were so damaged by a British submarine torpedo attack during their return to port that they took no further part in the war. Thereafter further Malta bound convoys gradually ended the supply problem. The major benefit was the reopening of allied shipping supply routes via the Suez Canal and the throttling of supply to Rommel’s Africa Corps, leading to its eventual defeat.
This fine book is based on official records and personal diaries and interviews. As the author explains personal memories are sometimes unreliable and subjective but as far as is possible this must be the most detailed and well researched account of this operation recently published. Highly recommended.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for providing this copy for review.