My Weekly Reader 14 June 2021.

            “We had won” Winston Churchill later wrote of American entry into full belligerency after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  A “long and hard road” still had to be travelled to victory.  By August 1942, the Japanese had conquered the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya and Burma, and were on the frontiers of India.  By the same point, German armies were advancing on Stalingrad in Russia and on Alexandria in Egypt. 

            The war in the Mediterranean linked the two greater Theaters of Operations.  Gibraltar controlled the western entrance to the sea, while also serving as a key naval base protecting Atlantic Ocean convoys.  Suez controlled the eastern entrance, while also anchoring the British position in the Middle East.  In 1942, the Germans and Italians mounted a deadly threat to Suez from the Italian colony of Libya.  The Afrika Korps joined with the Italian army to advance deep into Egypt.  In one sense, holding onto the British position in the Middle East came down to a question of merchant shipping.  The Italian army in North Africa and the Afrika Korps had to be supplied by the short sea route from Sicily to the Libyan port of Benghazi.  The British in the Middle East had to be supplied by the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.  Under these unequal circumstances, the British fought hard to disrupt the Axis supply line. 

            In this effort, the little island of Malta played an over-sized role.  Located at the choke point between the western and eastern parts of the Mediterranean, it also stood astride the Sicily-Libya supply route.  Initially judging Malta to be indefensible in modern war, the Royal Navy had largely withdrawn to the Egyptian port of Alexandria at the outbreak of war.  However, the war in North Africa made it essential to hold Malta as a base for submarine attacks on the Italian supply line.  Holding Malta meant running convoys through Italian and German air and naval attacks without much British air cover. 

            In 1940 and 1941, the Royal Navy generally got the better of the Italian “Regia Marina.”[1]  The situation changed dramatically in 1942.  In December 1941, Italian frogmen disabled two British battleships in Alexandria Harbor.  The Japanese assault required the dispatch of other ships to the Indian Ocean.  The German “Luftwaffe” also began to play a larger role.  Britain lost naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean.  Three convoys in March and June 1942 suffered heavy losses or were turned back entirely.[2]  Yet Malta had to be held.  Courage and skill would have to make good the deficiency in ships. 

            In August 1942, the British sent off a do-or-die convoy code-named “Pedestal.”[3]  Running eastward past Gibraltar under heavy escort, the convoy came under sustained naval and air attack.  Three days of pure Hell followed. The British lost a carrier, two light cruisers, a destroyer, and nine merchant ships to bombs and torpedoes.  Yet the essential supplies—including a tanker full of fuel oil for submarines and aviation gasoline—got through.  Malta not only hung-on, attacks on the Axis supply line revived. 

            By the end of 1942, the tide of battle had turned against the Axis.  Tobruk, Guadalcanal, and Stalingrad are well-remembered milestones.  So, too, should be “Pedestal.” 


[1] Look up the Battle of Cape Matapan and the attack on the Italian fleet anchorage at Taranto. 

[2] A fictionalized and propagandistic account of the experience of one British cruiser, HMS “Artemis,” on one of these convoys is given by C.S. Forester, The Ship (1943).  Fine stuff. 

[3] Max Hastings, Operation Pedestal (2021), reviewed by Jonathan W. Jordan, WSJ, 12-13 June 2021. 

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