Book: Operation Pedestal – The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942

Posted By on July 14, 2021

Progress has been slow in my latest nightly book reading, in part due to being wiped-out by full days with our granddaughters last week and more recently watching a few episodes each night of an old 1965-1971 sitcom called Hogan’s Heroes (mention once before). OperationPedestal_Book210702_mSo for a update on reading Operation Pedestal by Max Hastings, “I know NOTHING” (you’d have to have been a fan of the TV sitcom).


Here’s a brief WSJ book review rundown on the British naval battle story known in Malta as Santa Maria Convoy or Operation Pedestal in 1942

“Operation Pedestal” is the story of a convoy sent through hell in August 1942 to rescue the pivotal island of Malta.

British strategy required that the Allies prevent Germany and Japan from joining hands through Egypt’s Suez Canal. The fortress island of Malta, with its airfields and harbors, guarded the vital juncture of Mussolini’s Sicily, Britain’s Egypt, and the battleground deserts of Libya and Tunisia. Should Malta fall, the Suez mouth would lie under the bombsights of Axis warplanes.

Malta and its 300,000 inhabitants endured a violent siege as an Axis bombing campaign larger than the London Blitz engulfed the island in smoke. “Grand Harbour,” Mr. Hastings writes, “became a lagoon of stagnant oil from sunken ships, amid which bobbed debris and decomposing corpses.”

As the islanders withered to the brink of starvation, Britain’s merchant fleet couldn’t move enough food, ammunition and fuel through the Italian-German blockade to keep the forces there fighting. “The passage from the west was menaced by Axis air bases on the islands of Sardinia, Sicily, Pantelleria; also on the North African mainland and the toe of Italy,” Mr. Hastings explains.

Into this maelstrom steamed Force F, the largest fleet the Royal Navy had assembled since World War I. Commanded by an introverted vice-admiral named Neville Syfret, Force F boasted two battleships; five aircraft carriers; seven cruisers; two squadrons of destroyers, submarines and minesweepers; and dozens of escort and support vessels. Their mission: to protect 14 merchant vessels carrying fuel, food, ammunition and medical supplies to the beleaguered garrison. What Spitfires did for Londoners, Hawker Hurricanes, antiaircraft batteries and obsolete biplanes would attempt for the Maltese.

Sea lords in London knew the losses would be heavy. “The Admiralty’s dispositions assumed that more than a few ships of the convoy would be lost,” Mr. Hastings acknowledges. But “the survival and successful passage of even a few would provide the beleaguered island with sufficient provisions and ammunition to hold out for months more—if only the tanker [Ohio], with her priceless oil, could be among them.”

For all its paper strength, the British fleet had its shortcomings. Its carriers held fewer planes than their American counterparts, Mr. Hastings notes, and many of those fighters performed poorly against German Messerschmitts. Ships were commanded by hereditary nobles, and many conscripted sailors—“almost as much prisoners as were galley slaves of old”—lacked discipline and courage.

“And somehow, out of this conglomeration of the willing and unwilling, the brave and not so brave, the proficient and the fumblers, the wartime Royal Navy contrived something that was often wonderful,” Mr. Hastings writes. “There was indeed a romance, a profound sense of the glorious history of their service, which suffused a host of those who fought [on] its ships, from admirals to junior ratings.” Mr. Hastings’s obvious affection for the Royal Navy, warts and all, gives his book a gloss reminiscent of Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” novels.



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