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Max Hastings on Operation Pedestal

Posted on 9th May 2021 by Mark Skinner

By 1942, the Allied position in World War II was looking desperate and Churchill was determined to ensure a military success - as much to boost morale as for strategic gain. In this exclusive piece, master military historian Max Hastings outlines the brutal battle for Malta - an operation that the Allies simply had to win, at any cost.  

Because we know how World War II ended, we sometimes forget that there was a time when its outcome was still a suspense mystery. August 1942 was its mid-point, at which the civilized world still feared that the forces of evil might triumph. The popularity of Winston Churchill was at its lowest ebb. Ernest Bevin, Labour’s political giant, exploded at a war cabinet meeting: ‘We must have a victory!  What the British public wants is a victory!’. But where was this to be won, when the British army in North Africa had just suffered its most crushing defeat by Rommel?

Malta, last allied bastion in the central Mediterranean, faced surrender, because its 300,000 people could no longer be fed. Convoy after convoy had failed to break through Hitler’s ring of steel-German and Italian U-boats, more than 600 aircraft. Churchill believed that, after so many other recent disasters, for reasons of national prestige it would be intolerable to allow Malta to fall. He ordered that the largest fleet the Royal Navy deployed in the Western war, led by two battleships and four aircraft-carriers, should escort a new convoy to Malta. At any cost. 

On the first day the fleet sailed east into the Mediterranean, 10 August 1942, every man of the twenty thousand crewing its ships was keyed to expect the worst, from enemy aircraft, submarines; perhaps also from the massive Italian surface fleet. The tension was electric, for fighter-pilots in their cockpits under the blazing sun; for ratings manning Asdic anti-submarine detectors, pinging every few seconds in pursuit of an echo that indicated a U-Boat; for lookouts and above all ships’ captains, who would scarcely sleep that week.

Amidst the warships steamed the single oil tanker and thirteen merchantmen, which represented the purpose of this vast operation. They were crewed by civilians, and defended only by a handful of anti-aircraft popguns. Each was a floating bomb, laden not merely with food but also with coal, ammunition and explosives, together with thousands of cans of fuel. It was no wonder that, from the moment they passed Gibraltar, every cargo vessel had its lifeboats permanently swung out on the davits, ready for lowering. On 11 August a Spitfire pilot was just gunning his engine when he saw mechanics around him on his carrier’s deck gesturing in shock and horror. The carrier Eagle had suffered four successive hammer blows, as a salvo of torpedoes from a German U-Boat tore open the old ship. She immediately listed steeply to port- then turned turtle. Men scrambled to escape, to dodge aircraft toppling off her deck, to ignore screams and shouts seeping up through ventilators from the doomed engine-room crew. The huge vessel vanished in just eight minutes, leaving the sea dotted with the bobbing heads of hundreds of sailors. Thanks to the Med’s generous warmth, 930 oil-soaked survivors were hauled from the water - and lived. But 136 were dead. A sailor on a destroyer wrote pathetically to his fiancée in South London that he now clung to his most precious possessions day and night: ‘I’ve got my wallet in my pocket with £4.15 in it and a door key’. After seeing Eagle go, some men wore lifejackets even in their bunks.

At 4.30am on 12 August, destroyer captain Roger Hill was sipping cocoa on his bridge. ‘What do you think on a morning like this ?’, he recalled later. ‘Do you think ‘a lot of people are going to get killed today’. No, not a bit, once the game is on. With all your young men dependent on you, you never think anything will happen to you’.       

Submarines soon launched fresh attacks. All day depth-charges exploded. In the early hours, one destroyer rammed an Italian boat. Then the first air attacks came, and continued all day. Tension, stress, mortal peril were constants for captains repeatedly ordering drastic course changes - hard a port, hard a starboard - as bombs fell and gunners struggled to hit torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers, high-level Junkers.

By late afternoon every ship and pilot had endured terrifying experiences, but Malta was less than 300 miles distant. Yet the 24 hours that followed proved among the bloodiest of the entire war at sea. At 7pm, a procession of German Stuka dive-bombers swooped upon the carrier Indomitable. Roger Hill wrote: ‘It looks as if it had disturbed a hive of bees. Our own fighters, desperately protecting their home, were following the enemy planes right down into the carrier’s gunfire’. Amid a storm of shells, two 1000lb bombs hit the carrier’s flight-deck and a third exploded alongside, inflicting devastating damage.  Thousands of men watched in horror as the great ship almost disappeared amidst columns of smoke and flame, plumes of water thrown up by near-misses. They expected Indom to sink as Eagle had. 

A man aboard the carrier wrote ‘I was scared out of my wits, I thought the end was nigh’. 46 crewmen had been killed: the carrier had become useless for flying off planes. And the fleet was now approaching the Sicilian Narrows, within a few minutes flying time of Axis air bases. The admiral signalled that his battleships, carriers and their escorts must turn back, towards Gibraltar. For the last, most perilous phase of Pedestal, the merchantmen would be escorted only by a cruiser squadron and a dozen destroyers. 

Just before 8pm, the Italian submarine Axum delivered one of the most devastating attacks of the sea war. One of her torpedoes hit the cruiser Cairo, which began to sink. Another struck the flagship Nigeria, which had to turn back for Gibraltar. The last hit the most precious merchant ship in the convoy, the tanker Ohio. As columns of flame shot forth into the sky, she seemed likely to follow Cairo to the bottom. Miraculously, however, the seawater which rushed through the gaping hole in her side helped to quench the fires. The tanker’s ordeal had scarcely begun, but she was able to restart her engines.

As dusk descended, the merchantmen and their diminished guardians were still in disarray, moving very slowly. Radar-operators failed to give the alarm before yet another massed German air attack. Two merchantmen were hit and abandoned. Think of all those cans of petrol, the stacked ammunition - and of what happened when bombs exploded amidst them. Another straggling cripple was hit anew, and sank. Two more ships were damaged, but proved able to keep steaming. A torpedo fired by yet another Italian submarine slammed into the cruiser Kenya, causing her to plough so deep into the sea that her bridge was momentarily submerged. Kenya came through, however. 

By 1am on 13 August the leading destroyers were 200 miles from Malta, when a dozen Italian and German high-speedtorpedo boats, braving a storm of ineffective British gunfire, began racing attacks which continued for three hours.   Their first victim was the big cruiser Manchester, hit by two torpedoes.  Her captain decided that she was doomed, and ordered her scuttled.  Four more merchant vessels were hit andabandoned.  Just five now survived of the 14 that had set out, with one more straggling along the coast, and the crippled tanker Ohio labouring to catch up.  In the wake of the convoy’s overnight passage, scores of survivors bobbed in lifejackets in the oil-soaked sea, or clung to rafts.   

Just after 8am, yet another wave of German Junkers hit the explosives-laden freighter Waimarama, which promptly blew up. Amazingly, there were survivors, but they struggled in a blazing sea. Two dozen despairing sailors and gunners from the following ship jumped overboard. Roger Hill drove his little destroyer Ledbury headlong into the fiery sea, playing hoses to keep the blaze at bay while his crew hauled men from the water. Charlie Walker the ship’s cook stripped off his apron, dived into the sea and towed out every victim he could reach.   

Meanwhile twenty-six bombers fell on the tanker Ohio, inflicting on her also a succession of near-misses. Others descended on the freighter Dorset, near-missing so-closely thatthe crew abandoned her, to be sunk later. Yet that evening, ecstatic crowds and bands welcomed three surviving merchantmen into Grand Harbour, Malta. Next day another vessel arrived, having survived a lone passage. Those four delivered just enough food to keep the island’s people fed: 32,000 tons of cargo were offloaded, though a further 52,000 tons lay on the sea bed.   

One more ship remained:the vital tanker, without which Malta’s aircraft could not fly. All that interminable afternoon of the 13th, with her engines now useless, two and then three destroyers towed her, agonizingly slowly. Air attacks kept coming. Crews knew that if just one bomb detonated in the fuel, not only Ohio but probably the escorts too would be doomed. Yet the Navy’s men kept towing, and fighting, though by now also sleepwalking. After a tense, exhausted night, they found that the tanker was sinking - but so slowly that, if they could keep her moving through one more day, they might yet reach Malta.

One destroyer captain put a gramophone on the bridge and played his most upbeat record, Glenn Miller’s Chatanooga Choo Choo, again. And again. And again. That afternoon, what proved the final Axis air attack sprang more of Ohio’s plates. There was a sort of madness in the mood of those exhausted men. In a locker on the tanker, a sailor found a cache of party hats, and some men donned these to man their guns. Every hour brought them five or six miles nearer to Malta. Darkness came. Hundreds of sailors fell asleep at their action stations. At daylight, Ohio was dragged through the final miles. Just after 9am she entered Grand Harbour.

Many people, both on the ships and the shore, wept unashamedly. 85% of the tanker’s priceless fuel remained, 12,000 tons, which was soon pumped ashore. A ship’s wireless-operator said ‘after the hell of the past three days, it was unspeakable joy. A band was playing and crowds were lining the quayside, cheering. It was real Boys’ Own stuff. You actually felt you had done something’. And so, of course, they had. No admiral achieved this final brilliant success against odds - instead it was done by a few hundred, mostly very young, officers and men.   

The cost of Pedestal was shocking - one carrier sunk and another crippled; two cruisers sunk and two more reduced to dockyard cases; a destroyer gone together with nine precious fast cargo-liners, 40 fighters; 467 men killed. Yet war is above all a contest of wills. At a time when many people around the world were expressing harsh doubts about Britain’s will to fight, they were answered in the Mediterranean in August 1942. Churchill wrote personally to Stalin, saying that thanks to Pedestal, ‘the fortress Malta, which is of great consequence to the whole Mediterranean position, can hold out’. Seaman Reg Gunn wrote to his family from the battleship Nelson, now safe at Gibraltar: ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that a boat on the Serpentine is more in my line than being in the front line with the Navy. Still, strictly in retrospect, I’m glad I was there’. My book seeks to pay homage, not only to the men who fought the epic Pedestal battle, but also to the achievement of the entire Royal Navy and Merchant Navy in World War II.

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