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Sunday, August 05, 2018

A "finest hour": Operation Pedestal

Mortally wounded, the Ohio staggers into Valletta

August 1942: Malta remained a thorn in the side of the enemy, who had been besieging the island since June 1940. Rommel had said in 1941 that unless Malta fell, North Africa would be lost to the Axis.

Disastrously, in September 1941 the US Embassy in Cairo had been secretly burgled by the Italians, who copied the code book; and the "Black Code" had also been cracked by the Germans soon after, so the enemy were reading translations of the American reports within hours of transmission.

In June 1942 two British supply convoys had been sent - Operations Vigorous and Harpoon - and owing in part to the intelligence intercepts were successfully attacked, with heavy losses to our side.

By the August, then, the situation in Malta was desperate, and another large convoy was put together under Operation Pedestal. As well as food and - crucially - fuel, the flotilla carried a squadron of Spitfires that took off once past Gibraltar and headed for the island via a circuitous route to evade trouble. These planes would be key not only to the defence of Malta but to future attacks on Axis forces in North Africa and Sicily.

Young Battle of Britain veteran and Pedestal participant Geoffrey Wellum noted that because of the need to carry extra fuel for the long flight, the Spitfires' ammunition was removed and replaced with rations of cigarettes - good for the defenders' morale!

The squadron got safely to Malta, and waited.

West of them in the Mediterranean, fourteen merchant ships and thirty-eight ships of war including four aircraft carriers came under an intense air and submarine attack that had begun even as the Spitfires were taking off. The Navy lost a carrier (the Eagle), two light cruisers and a destroyer, and nine merchant ships went down also.

But the Ohio* got through, carrying 10,000 tons of fuel oil and saving the island's capacity to defend itself. She only just managed to get into the Grand Harbour, severely damaged and with a destroyer lashed to either side of her, sinking even as her cargo was being pumped out, subsequently breaking into two and having to be towed out to sea and scuttled by naval gunfire.

Fourteen ships sunk, thirty-four aircraft destroyed, hundreds dead. But a gamble that paid off.

*Requisitioned from her resentful US owners after reaching the Clyde in Scotland. She had arrived there on 21 June 1942, only three days after the C-in-C of the Mediterranean Fleet, looking at the recent failures of Operations Vigorous and Harpoon, had cabled Churchill to advise against another attempt to breach the Malta blockade.


wiggiatlarge said...

Before these events the island had no serviceable airstrip but did have three operational but obsolete Gloster Sea Gladiators bi planes from another era, flown by pilots with no fighter training they were known as Faith, Hope and Charity, they were kept flying by using some others in crates for spares so there were always three flying.
This followed by some Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, also outdated and then some Hurricanes that became clapped out as there were no spares, amazing the island survived, and what heroics from those pilots against such odds.

Sackerson said...

@W: thanks for the additional info. Yes, by the skin of our teeth - not for the first or last time.