Pedestal (Part 1)

Aug 8, 2021 | World War II

The Siege of Malta

Malta is a small archipelago of islands lying between Sicily and Africa. In 1942, at the height of World War II, it was the only British base in the Mediterranean between Gibraltar and Egypt.

Malta was strategically positioned to disrupt the supply chain supporting the Axis forces—the German and Italian armies commanded by Erwin Rommel—in Africa. Capturing Malta was therefore essential to Axis control of the Mediterranean.

The Axis powers were determined to bomb Malta into submission or starve it to death—or both. Malta was besieged for almost two years, bombed almost every day; British relief convoys sailing from Gibraltar and Egypt were repeatedly attacked by bombers, U-Boats, mines, and surface ships.

A SM-79 ‘Sparviero’ bomber above Malta in 1942, and glimpses of the destruction on the ground.

In my new novel A Slender Thread, Eleanor Shaux explains Malta’s strategic importance:

Park had a map on the wall behind his desk and she stood and pointed at it.

“In practical terms, the enemy either directly controls or dominates almost all the coastal countries around the Mediterranean. Just look at the map: in the western Med, Vichy France and its African territories, and Spain, are theoretically neutral but pro-Axis in practice. The central Med is controlled by Italy and Italian Libya. Then, to the east, Germany and Italy have overrun Greece and occupied Crete. The Med is now more or less an Axis lake.”

She shook her head.

“We British are hanging on, just hanging on, to part of one country in one corner at the far end—Egypt. And we still have two little islands: Gibraltar and Malta. That’s all we have: Gib at western end and Egypt at the other, twenty-three hundred miles apart. And one tiny island sitting slap dab in the middle, at the crossroads—Malta.”

She shrugged.

“If we lose Malta we lose the Med. If we lose the Med we lose the Suez Canal and our access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. If we lose that we lose the war.”

So great was the destruction caused by the non-stop bombing of Malta that Albert Kesselring, the German Commander in Chief in the South (Oberbefehlshaber Süd) reported to German high command in Berlin in 1942 that ‘there is nothing left to bomb.’

Operation Pedestal

Operation Pedestal was a relief convoy from Gibraltar to the besieged island of Malta. It sailed from Gibraltar on August 9th 1942. Pedestal consisted of 14 merchant ships escorted by a total of 73 Royal Navy ships, with approximately 100 aircraft. Opposing Pedestal were 62 ships of the German and Italian navies, and approximately 600 German and Italian aircraft.

Five of the merchant ships reached Malta on August 14th. Thirteen British ships were sunk and a further 6 were damaged; 34 aircraft were destroyed and approximately 550 British lives were lost. On the Axis side, 2 ships were sunk, 3 were damaged, 60 aircraft were lost and approximately 100 men died.

The ships of Pedestal: Ohio, Eagle, and Brisbane Star

In A Slender Thread, Eleanor Shaux considers the vital importance of the Malta convoys:

This morning she had told Harry Hopkins that Malta would survive. Now she was not so sure. If even a single convoy didn’t get through, then the fighters might not be able to fly, the navy might not be able to sail, and the population would begin to starve. Part of her job was to review requests for provisions and supplies to be included in the convoys’ bills of lading. She had calculated, with a sort of grim sadism, exactly how long Malta could last; exactly how long it would be before the children would stop being just hungry and start actually starving…

The navy was committing enormous resources to the convoys—sometimes forty or more fighting ships to guard a dozen merchantmen—but the enemy had proved remarkably skillful in attacking them, using a combination of bombers, torpedo bombers, submarines, and fast attack boats, one after the other…

A hundred years ago, in a half-forgotten war, some general or other had sent cavalry up a valley with enemy artillery firing down from both sides. It had been a bloodbath, memorialized in a poem Eleanor half-remembered from school, something about ‘into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell,’ and ‘theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die …’ The Malta convoys were just like that, she thought, men and ships sailing into a killing field, a shooting gallery all the way from Sardinia and past Sicily to the north, and Algeria and Tunisia to the south, sent to do or die.

This part of the Med was called the Strait of Sicily, but ‘Jaws of Death’ was more appropriate…

The story of Pedestal will continue in my next blog.