Features Operation Pedestal Operation Pedestal

‘In March 1942 there were 275 air raids, 96 at night and Malta suffered 154 days of continual day and night bombing (the longest number of consecutive days on which London was bombed amounted to only 57).6,700 tons of bombs fell on the towns and installations around Grand Harbour during the six weeks of March and April 42.Between 1 January 42 and 24 July there was only ONE raidless period of 24 hours.

3,000 people were evacuated to Gozo early in the war, but for those remaining on Malta shelter life became the norm for all living in Valletta and the Three Cities. Due to the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which people were forced to live and the growing malnutrition as the siege went on…many health problems arose. Vitamin deficiency diseases increased, particularly pellagra and ulcerative stomatitis and there were also cases of rickets (Vit D deficiency) and scurvy (Vit C deficiency). Trachoma and other eye diseases were widespread (caused by dust and blinding light). Tuberculosis spread unchecked, reaching a peak – along with everything else – during 1942. TB was also a major hazard for communications personnel in the dank tunnels below Lascaris Bastion. Typhoid had been on the increase since the beginning of the war but reached epidemic proportions during the summer of 42. Bacillary and amoebic dysentery were its attendants.

These diseases were inevitable as masses of people were cooped up in terrible circumstances with house drains out of action and main sewers badly damaged by bombing. The disposal of human excreta and household refuse was a huge problem that continued well after the siege was over. In the main shelters water closets were installed whenever possible, although the pail system was generally used in houses and private shelters where water was not available. Refugee centres and public shelters could be kept under supervision by hygiene officers, and ablution rooms were organised and walls, floors and beds regularly sprayed with disinfectants and insecticides.

A black market thrived in the besieged Malta, the demand not for luxuries but for the basics of life, the competition to supply it increased in ratio to the price that can be obtained. Malta, dependant on imports for all forms of manufactured goods, lacked everything from clothing to razor blades and soap. Second hand clothing, clothes stolen from bombed houses, old shoes, belts, shirts, linen of every kind…there was not a thing of the most ordinary household use that had not acquired under siege conditions a value far beyond normal comprehension. NNaturally, the real black market existed in food, from any form of meat (as rare as caviare might have been in peacetime) to bread, eggs and even vegetables. The result of a government policy of buying up a large part of the green vegetables, onions and potatoes for use by the Victory Kitchens, the services and the hospitals meant that little was left for the private suppliers, the pitkali, who sold from baskets or carts direct to the public. The foundations of many small fortunes was inevitably laid by farmers large and small in Malta and Gozo during the siege, but particularly during the desperate summer of 1942 when starvation was very close and the island was only a few weeks away from surrender.

The island was in very real and imminent danger of starvation. The normal exercises and marches undertaken by the troops to keep them fit had to be abandoned and in their place were instituted compulsory rest periods…or ‘sleep parades’ to conserve their energies for their duties and so as not to make them even more hungry than they already were, the troops were required to lie down and rest at set times.To keep the island alive until such time as the survivors on Malta could receive substantial help, the minelaying submarines from Alexandria continued to bring in such essential small bulk cargoes…medical stores, kerosene, bags of mail, powdered milk, armour piercing shells and petrol. This slender lifeline was kept open while preparations went ahead for a major relief.This was something that would be impossible to conceal once it had entered the Mediterranean and against which every available aircraft, submarine, surface ship and destructive device would be hurled.

Operation Pedestal was planned to pass a large convoy through from the Gibraltar end of the sea. The assembly of a large convoy – 14 ships in all were to be made available – almost inevitably the convoy would be sighted passing through the Straits of Gibraltar and once into the Med it would soon be found. The acceptance of grave losses from air attack was understood from the outset and the possibility that the Italians under pressure from the Germans would make some move with their fleet had always to be considered.

The heavy escort for the convoy was to be provided by the two sister ships, Nelson and Rodney, each 34,000 tons with nine 16 inch guns and twelve 6 inch secondary armament. Vice Admiral Neville Syfret, a South African, flew his flag in Nelson, being the flag officer in command of what was called Force Z. With him would go an aircraft carrier squadron under Rear Admiral Lyster, carrying his flag in the new Indomitable, together with the 1939 built Victorius and the old Eagle. 46 Hurricanes, 10 Marlets and sixteen Fulmars aboard the carriers would provide fighter cover. With this main escort would be the three fast 5.25 inch anti-aircraft cruisers, Charybdis, Phoebe and Sirius and fourteen destroyers. As close escort to the merchantmen were the heavy cruiser Nigeria (Rear Admiral Burrough) together with the similar Kenya and Manchester, and the anti-aircraft cruiser Cairo. Designated Force X it would be their task together with eleven destroyers to cover the convoy through to Malta after Force Z had turned back at the Tkerki Narrows. Separate from the main operation ‘Pedestal’, but designed to take place at the same time, the carrier Furious with a destroyer escort was to fly off thirty eight Spitfires as reinforcements for Malta. As back up to the fleet there were two fleet oilers with a corvette escort, a deep sea rescue tug and another salvage vessel. All in all, it was the largest naval operation ever set in motion until that time in the Mediterranean.

13 of the fast modern merchantmen which formed the raison d’etre of this armada carried the usual mixed cargo for Malta – flour, ammunition and petrol in cans. This combination of food fuel and war fuel was a direct reflection of the islands needs and requirements – but no one on board any ship could have the comfortable feeling that they carried harmless goods…since all were almost equally burdened with a highly explosive mixture on the most dangerous convoy run in the world. The 14th ship, the Ohio, was a large tanker, pure and simple, a new ship from the Texaco Oil Co. She had been loaned for the occasion to the British, was manned by British seamen and commanded by Captain Mason of the Eagle Oil and Shipping Co. American owned and also American manned were two general cargo ships, Santa Elisa and Almeria Lykes. The remainder comprised some of the finest and fastest British merchantmen then afloat….

Although no attempt was made to pass a second convoy through from the eastern end of the sea a cover plan was devised whereby Ad. Harwood would mount a dummy operation from Alexandria in company with Ad. Vian from Haifa. A total of five cruisers, fifteen destroyers and five merchantmen would sail as if bound for Malta, and then on their second night out disperse and turn back. It was hoped that this would tie down some of the enemy and possible cause dissension among the Italian navy as to the choice of targets. Meanwhile Air Vice Marshal Park in Malta was to hold in readiness a torpedo bombing force in case the Italian fleet might be tempted to leave Taranto, the rest of his air forces including over 130 fighters, being kept for support of the convoy. Six British submarines from Malta would be on patrol west of the island in case the Italian fleet should try to interfere in the region of Pantellaria, while two were on patrol to the North of Sicily….

Operation Pedestal was scheduled to start with the assembly of the convoy off the mouth f the Clyde on 2 August 1942. Upon it Malta would stand or fall, and upon it directly and indirectly depended the fate of millions.

Fact BoxAs Malta edged towards starvation and surrender the Operation Pedestal convoy set out with 85,000 tons of supplies that were loaded at the Clyde in Scotland…53,000 tons of these supplies ended up at the bottom of the sea, but the remaining 32,000 tons enabled Malta to survive.Cargo on the convoy included:

  • Aviation fuel
  • Petrol
  • Kerosene
  • Medical supplies
  • Corned beef
  • Mutton
  • Tinned fish
  • Dehydrated vegetables
  • Hard tack biscuits
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Tins butter
  • Dehydrated potatoes
  • Powdered milk
  • Wheat flour
  • Cotton bales
  • Cement
  • Whisky
  • Cigarettes and tobacco
  • Maize
  • Guns
  • Shells
  • Aircraft consignments
  • Cars
  • Lorries
  • 7,000 tons of water (* Sydney Star)
Extracts from:

Author: Ernle Bradford:
Book: ‘Siege-Malta 1940-1943
Publishers: Penguin Group, London, England