17 Aug 2016
1941 was a dark time for the Allies. In the Mediterranean, the Royal Navy was called upon to evacuate the Army from Crete, there was little air cover and Navy was sustaining heavy losses.
Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East asked Admiral Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Fleet whether the evacuation should be called off. Cunningham responded "General, the Navy cannot, and will not let the Army down."; This spirit of defiance was apparent the following year in the daring Operation Pedestal, the convoy that saved Malta.
In WW2 Malta was strategically important. A British base, it allowed the Allies to attack Italian supply lines to the seesaw war of North Africa. For the same reason the Axis powers put the squeeze on Malta. The civilian population and garrison were on starvation rations and it was described as "the most bombed place on Earth."; Incoming Allied convoys were subjected to ferocious attacks, destroyed or forced to turn away with their precious cargo of desperately needed food, fuel and ammunition. Malta was on its knees.
In early August 1942, Operation Pedestal, a merchant convoy of 13 freighters and one tanker defended by three aircraft carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers, 24 destroyers and employing the assistance of eight submarines left Scotland bound, via the Strait of Gibraltar, for Malta. The military vessels formed a covering force which would peel away as the convoy neared Malta and a close escort of 12 destroyers and four cruisers which would see the convoy towards Grand Harbour.
The convoy entered the Mediterranean on August 10th and was immediately detected, first by German reconnaissance and then on the morning of the 11th by German U-boats. From that point on the convoy was subjected to numerous attacks, U-73 claimed HMS Eagle, one of the aircraft carriers at 1.15pm, she sank in eight minutes, taking with her a third of the Allied fighter force. Waves of bombers brought more casualties, both merchant and naval, U-boat attacks continued, torpedoes took HMS Cairo and damaged HMS Nigeria on the night of August 12th, leaving the convoy with no capability for fighter direction, there was confusion in the darkness.
By the morning of the 13th the convoy was some 18 hours from Malta and within range of Allied air cover but at 7.00am MV Waimarama and the tanker Ohio were hit. Minesweepers from Malta arrived at 2.30pm and at 4.00pm the close escort withdrew. At 5.00pm the remaining merchant vessels were set upon again by bombers and torpedo boats.
The convoy, now just four freighters and Ohio, the tanker, reached Malta on the 14th and 15 August. Ohio was lashed to destroyers on either side amid fears she would sink before arrival but reached her mooring before sinking. Her fuel was successfully taken off. Pedestal sustained Malta for two months.
Opinions on the success of the operation were mixed, Admiral Pound expected "more severe losses,"; Commander Blundell thought it "a tragic failure for the Allies.";
Churchill considered the Pedestal convoy so important he cancelled a planned arctic convoy. Malta was part of his plan announced on 10th August in Cairo, to "destroy Rommel’s forces in North Africa."; Roosevelt described Malta as "one tiny, bright light.";
We are grateful to SMHS Chairman Simon Bellamy for his talk on Operation Pedestal, the latest in his series of presentations on WW2 naval operations.
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