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Renowned historian Max Hastings recreates one of the most thrilling events of World War II: Operation Pedestal, the British action to save its troops from starvation on Malta—an action-packed tale of courage, fortitude, loss, and triumph against all odds.
In 1940, Hitler had two choices when it came to the Mediterranean region: stay out, or commit sufficient forces to expel the British from the Middle East. Against his generals’ advice, the Fuhrer committed a major strategic blunder. He ordered the Wehrmacht to seize Crete, allowing the longtime British bastion of Malta to remain in Allied hands. Over the fall of 1941, the Royal Navy and RAF, aided by British intelligence, used the island to launch a punishing campaign against the Germans, sinking more than 75 percent of their supply ships destined for North Africa.
But by spring 1942, the British lost their advantage. In April and May, the Luftwaffe dropped more bombs on Malta than London received in the blitz. A succession of British attempts to supply and reinforce the island by convoy during the spring and summer of 1942 failed. British submarines and surface warships were withdrawn, and the remaining forces were on the brink of starvation.
Operation Pedestal chronicles the ensuing British mission to save those troops. Over twelve days in August, German and Italian forces faced off against British air and naval fleets in one of the fiercest battles of the war, while ships packed with supplies were painstakingly divided and dispersed. In the end only a handful of the Allied ships made it, most important among them the SS Ohio, carrying the much-needed fuel to the men on Malta.
As Hastings makes clear, while the Germans claimed victory, it was the British who ultimately prevailed, for Malta remained a crucial asset that helped lead to the Nazis’ eventual defeat. While the Royal Navy never again attempted an operation on such scale, Hasting argues that without that August convoy the British on Malta would not have survived. In the cruel accountancy of war, the price was worth paying.
Military historian Hastings (Operation Chastise) delivers a sterling account of the August 1942 mission to bring food, oil, and other supplies to the besieged island of Malta. By December 1941, when the Luftwaffe launched a months-long bombing campaign against the island, Malta was the sole "haven" for British naval and air forces in the Mediterranean between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Egypt. After numerous failed attempts to bring relief to the islanders, 14 merchant vessels set sail from Scotland and met up with 50 warships to make the journey across the Mediterranean. The convoy was bombed, torpedoed, and even rammed by German and Italian planes, submarines, and motorboats. Some heavily damaged vessels returned to Gibraltar, overloaded with survivors from sunken ships, while the rest of the fleet surged ahead in "two vague and straggled columns." Hasting details heated disagreements between commanders on both sides of the conflict, and pays close attention to chaotic events, including a near-mutiny and the looting of food and rum, aboard the USS Ohio, an oil tanker that eventually limped into port at Malta "with the wrecks of two enemy aircraft protruding from her deck piping and derricks." Buoyed by prodigious research and vivid prose, this is a brilliant illumination of one of WWII's most dramatic episodes.