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Tuesday, 1 October, 2002, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Operation Pedestal: Saving Malta
Operation Pedestal to relieve British-controlled Malta took place in August 1942.

The epic attempt to run some 80 ships past bombers, minefields and u-boats has gone down in military history as one of the most important British victories of the Second World War - though at a cost of more than 400 lives.

It was one of the small number of operations of the Second World War where you can say, without a doubt, that it alone made a difference

Peter Smith, military author

Malta, then part of the British Empire, was strategically important because it lay in the heart of the Mediterranean. To its north was Italy and to its south the north Africa coast, both controlled by the Axis powers.

But at the eastern and western entrances to the sea were the British naval bases of Gibraltar and Alexandria.

Whoever controlled tiny Malta, would almost certainly control the Mediterranean and the outcome of the war in southern Europe.

For two years, the Italian forces bombarded Malta, protected by a limited military force.

Convoys of supplies were picked off one by one as they approached. One of the worst single losses came on 13 November 1941 when the Ark Royal, a modern aircraft carrier, was torpedoed and sunk.

Open in new window : Remembering Malta
Veterans tell their stories in sound and pictures

By the summer of 1942, King George had already awarded Malta the George Cross for the bravery of its civilians.

The Ohio oil tanker limps into Malta, 1942
Ohio: Sandwiched by warships
But military planners knew Malta would be forced to surrender if fuel, grain and ammunition did not get through before the end of August.

Operation Pedestal would involve 14 merchant vessels guarded by 64 warships, almost more than the current Royal Navy has in active service.

Britain had improved the odds slightly with a number of successful runs by aircraft carriers to deliver more air support to Malta.

But waiting to greet the flotilla were Italian and German air forces based in Sardinia and Sicily, and u-boats prowling the depths. On 10 August 1942, the convoy passed the Straits of Gibraltar in three groups.

Within 24 hours disaster had struck when a U-boat slipped around four destroyers to torpedo HMS Eagle, one of the three aircraft carriers in the formation.

Within six minutes she sank, taking 160 men and a large part of the air defences with her.

Many of the attacks were against the SS Ohio, an American oil tanker essential to the mission's success.

A merchant ship explodes during the Malta convoy
Attacks: Waves of bombers targetted vessels
Ohio was torpedoed on 12 August and then caught by two more bombs the following day.

Although crippled, she did not immediately sink, giving the forces one last chance to bring her in. HMS Ledbury, working with other warships, came alongside.

Through a combination of trial, error and sheer determination, the ships succeeded in propping up the Ohio and towing her into port before she could be hit again.

As the Ohio was dragged into Valletta Grand Harbour, the sailors were greeted by scenes of jubilation on the medieval battlements around the capital. Malta knew it had been saved.

Within months, the Axis powers had effectively given up trying to take Malta and the way was open for the Allies to go on the offensive.

'Pedestal made a difference'

Peter Smith, author of the definitive book on Operation Pedestal, said that the mission's importance could not be underestimated.

Warships sunk
HMS Eagle
HMS Manchester
HMS Cairo
HMS Foresight
"It was one of the small number of operations of the Second World War where you can say, without a doubt, that it alone made a difference," said Mr Smith.

"You have to look at Pedestal from the point of view of what might have happened if they had not succeeded.

"If Malta had fallen, the first impact would have been that General Rommel in north Africa would have been able to ship in supplies.

Operation Pedestal: Merchant ships lost:
Almeria Lykes
Clan Ferguson
Empire Hope
Santa Elisa
"He may have taken the Suez canal and opened the route for Hitler to the oil fields.

The whole nature of the war would have changed. "Malta was a lynchpin. After Pedestal's success, the taking of Sicily was easy by comparison."

Mr Smith said that the bravery of the servicemen involved had been a key part of the success.

"At all times the axis powers were just minutes away from Malta. The Royal Navy and merchantmen had to come thousands of miles and then run through submarines, bomber lines and then mine fields.

"But it was the determination that got them through, determination from the likes of Capt Roger Hill of the Ledbury and his men who refused to let the Ohio sink.

"I don't think we can imagine what it would have been like out there.

"Yet all these men who survived are very modest. If I did half of what they did in Pedestal, I would be a very proud man."

Archive pictures courtesy American Merchant Marine at War website. See links on right hand side.

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30 Sep 02 | Europe
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