In 1940 Adolph 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 were dropped on London during 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 British submarines and surface warships were withdrawn, and the remaining forces were on the brink of starvation.
Drawing on his new book Operation Pedestal, historian Max Hastings recounts the story of the ensuing British mission to save those troops. Over 12 days in August, German and Italian forces faced off against British air and naval fleets in one of the fiercest battles of the war. In the end only a handful of the Allied supply-laden ships made it, most important among them the SS Ohio, carrying much-needed fuel to the men on Malta.
While the Germans claimed victory, the British ultimately prevailed and Malta remained a crucial asset that helped lead to the Nazis’ eventual defeat. The Royal Navy never again attempted an operation on such scale, but Hastings analyzes why without that August convoy, the British on Malta would not have survived.
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