(Edit: fixed a link.)
Operation Pedestal (9--15 August 1942): The Santa Marija Relief of Malta.
Operation Pedestal (9--15 August 1942): The Santa Marija Relief of Malta.
Oh. the title. Well, if I'd referenced the movie this came from, no-one would know what I was talking about. Think "Smoky and the Bandit," but instead of Burt Reynolds mugging, there's an attractive young couple (Kristy McNichol's brother and the first TV Nancy Drew!) who bond. With car chases. And the boy is wearing a tuxedo for plot-related reasons that are still a class-something-something. Inversion affirming social order? Uhm, some kind of charivari? Is the New Cultural History still taking calls? I should find out.
So, okay, that's a light hearted and digressive start. Believe me, if you don't want light-hearted, you only have to click on this link to see how the great relief run from Gibraltar to Malta ate the lives committed to it. So no more eating precious lives.
i) The strategic context of 1942:
Remember: after the successive, appalling defeats of Singapore and Gazala, the House of Commons was pushed to the point of moving a Vote of Non-Confidence in the Ministry on July 1st. To the ambitious politicians behind it, the analogy with Lloyd George's rise to office in WWI was obvious. To everyone else, John Wardlaw-Milne's cynical attempt to set business against labour just seemed dangerous. A month later, there have been no victories of any consequence. The "Army of the Nile" is holding the Axis at a train station called El Alamein, but it held them at Gazala, too, until it didn't. The Royal Australian Navy has shared in the humiliation of the Battle of Savo Island. That the marines who were just abandoned there are going to hold and go on to take the island is not at all clear. In South Russia, the Axis is advancing.
And on 27 July, the stout-hearted Governor of Malta sent an official request for relief, setting a close but indefinite deadline of several weeks ahead. By the laws of war, if that deadline were passed, he would be allowed to surrender his command, and probably would, for widespread starvation was imminent. If Malta fell, so would Egypt. If Egypt fell, so would the Middle East. If the Middle East went, so would south Russia. If south Russia went, the Axis would have officially won a war that the economic determinists claimed they had no business winning. Or, at least, it is a plausible chain of consequences to keep the Prime Minister up at night as he prepared for his face-to-face meeting with Stalin.
ii) The strategic context of the Mediterranean:
As we all know, the British Mediterranean Fleet has been based on the tiny (122 square miles) but fertile island (archipelago) of Malta. Islands are easy for fleets to defend. Malta is also in the middle of the Sea, and has an excellent port on its southeast corner, facing towards Italy and Crete. A century into Malta's (and the Fleet's) steam age, the island has settled into its role as an industrial home-away-from-home to one of the two key commands of the Royal Navy. I'm afraid that I have to argue from indirection here in trying to build a picture of what that implies. Here is an account of the effort to build up an alternate fleet base at Alexandria in the years between the Abyssinian Crisis and Italy's entry into the war. Notice just how far short the greatest port of the eastern Mediterranean falls in manufacturing/design capability, skilled labour and even port security. (Although this last has much to do with the port's origins as an artificial harbour set in the estuarine marshes of the Nile.) The official historian to whom I link above strains not to say what he thinks of the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, who chooses to leave the ultra-modern floating dock newly built for Malta in that port until it is far too late, leaving Alexandria to be supplied at the very last moment by a pre-WWI floating dock built in a very different context in 1913 that cannot dock a ship larger than 31,000 tons or, apparently, a County-class cruiser. (Which is a little confusing, since the 8" Counties were a bit shorter than the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships that were docked there. Maybe it was an issue of the number of ships that could be handled? I think I recall reading that somewhere. Again: scholarship. I has it!)
I would sure like to argue for the transformation of Malta's labour force by a century of interaction with the Royal Navy. It seems intuitively likely that this happened, but people seem less interested in this than the minutiae of the Maltese labour movement. I do find that in 1946, 48% of the Maltese labour force was enrolled in labour unions, but these include "multi-sector broad membership" unions, albeit working in a "fortress-dominated" economy. This economy was bad news to Malta during the retreat of the Mediterranean Fleet, but possibly not to the heavy emigration to America, Australia, and even Canada during Malta's postwar baby boom. (Which I find interesting that it had, for my usual monocausal-explanation-for-the-travails-of-the-modern-retail-sector reasons.)
iii) The Industrial/strategic/land siege Context:
Anyway, the point is that in the summer of 1942, the garrison of Malta included 13 battalions of infantry and the supporting administrative apparatus of a poorly-defined number of coastal defence guns,* 230 AA guns, including 104 heavies, making Malta a "Class A" defended locality, comparable to London in the number of guns that could be brought to bear on an individual aircraft in the skies over the island. This also rather understates the firepower at hand, since the AA gunners had long since tired of being strafed from the off-engagement bearing by Axis fighters, and had appropriated some of the vast quantity of machine guns and cannons left over from the many aircraft condemned on the ground over the previous two years. So by this time, every AA battery had its own (improvised) light AA battery. Like 9 of the infantry battalions
This makes it sound as though Malta was awash in surplus labour. Which it was. It was also awash in the kind of labour that could be turned into a massive militia of infantry and gunners. All I'm saying is that if you look at Singapore and Hong Kong, which should be in the same case, you do not find anywhere near as large a militia. Is this a consequence of racism, or of the internal transformation of the Maltese economy having been carried further over a greater length of time?
Oh, and if you've ever heard the one about how the Axis missed their chance to win the war by taking Malta with a parachute coup de main, you are now in a position to understand why the Italians were demanding the resources for a multi-corps descent on a low-lying peninsula in the northwest corner, free of coastal defences but inconveniently located on the wrong side of a high cliff running across the island capped by the fortresses of the Victoria Line because, well, the Admiralty had seen this one coming for a while now. How much good the long-abandoned fortresses would have actually done is an open question, but they framed the logistical underpinnings of the invasion plan and quite successfully established that a war machine that hesitated to sortie its battleships for lack of fuel oil was not going to undertake such a project without major assistance from its ally. The Germans, underwhelmed by plans that tended to include provisions for mobilising the gondoliers of Venice to punt lighters so as to land water for a hundred thousand men, had been demanding that Rome come up with a magic plan instead. One can only wonder why, magic being on the table, they didn't just take Washington instead.* Instead, the Axis partners agree to take Alexandria instead.
So there is Malta, ripe to fall, not that the Axis knows it, but not be taken. There is Egypt, a near-run thing, if Malta does fall. There is the Governor's appeal. The Admiralty must move. Reeling from the fiasco of PQ17, the Arctic Convoys are cancelled, and the full might of the fleet reconcentrated south. The classic switching of centres of gravity will strand the He111 torpedo bombers of KG I/26 and the Ju88s of KG30, the Germans' expert anti-shipping force, in Norway. Not that that mattered very much to a fleet that was about to sail into the teeth of the entire Royal Italian Air Force. In the spring, the entirety of Luftflotte 4 had been hammering Malta, but with the opening of the campaigning season in Russia, that force had been redeployed to the steppe.**
iv) The Allied Force Committed:
When I say "fleet," I do mean fleet. Air attack is only one aspect of the threat. The Italians retain their surface arm, a highly credible coastal force, and good submarines. Thus, Admiral Neville Syfret will have two battleships, 5 aircraft carriers, 7 light cruisers and 32 destroyers under command. Unfortunately,while the Admiralty is willing to send this entire force into the teeth of Axis air power, it will not commit the heavy units in the Sicilian narrows, for fear of the sheer strength of enemy torpedo forces. ***
When I say "5 aircraft carriers," I am admittedly inflating things to bring the total to the highest of any air-sea operation of 1942. Which is cheating in a lot of ways, since the Kido Butai of 7 December 1941 was six carriers, above and beyond Furious and Argus both having Pedestal-related but distinct missions in this mighty battle, and only operating together in the earliest stages of the operation, before the fleet passed the Straits of Gibraltar. But I think it's an inflation worth making, just to get a sense of how big this operation was. The order-of-battle-by-aggregate totals that I cite from Wikipedia, above, is highly incomplete. It leaves out the Mediterranean Fleet forces committed in the east as a diversion, the British submarines deployed in the narrows, the ASW corvettes covering refuelling operations, the fleet tugs, the fleet oilers, the minesweepers, the fast minelayers. "Only" three fleet carriers were committed to the main force of Operation Pedestal, but that's still tied with Midway for the largest force of carriers deployed by the Allies in 1942.
The force is:
Battleships: Nelson, Rodney
Carriers: Victorious, Indomitable, Eagle
Cruisers: Sirius, Charybdis, Phoebe, Nigeria, Kenya, Manchester, Cairo
DD: Ashanti, Eskimo, Somali, Tartar, Penn, Foresight, Fury, Intrepid, Ithuriel, Icarus, Matchless, Pathfinder, Penn, Derwent, Badsworth, Bramham, Ledbury, Bicester, Zetland, Wolverine,
Tankers: Abbeydale, ,Dingledale, Brown Ranger
Ocean Salvage Tug:
Plus the 14 transports to which all this force is dedicated, including the brand new American tanker Ohio, two equally-new fast American "C3" transports, and an assortment of brand-new British fast cargo-passenger liners built for the Antipodes trade and celebrated recently by James Belich for their ability to deliver chilled Antipodean meat along with passengers, and so inaugurating the rapid economic development of Australia and New Zealand. Admittedly, the beginning of that era is 70 years in the past, but the newest generation of these ships are still shining examples of mercantile marine technological cutting edge. Too bad that most of them are going to go down to a hurricane of Axis bombs and torpedoes, intermittently assisted by the vast technological inventiveness of the Italian air force, making wild with radio-controlled bombs, aerial and surface, of various vintages.
Finally, the carriers, inclusive of those committed to the force, are equipped with 46 Hurricanes, 10 Wildcats,^ 16 Fulmars, and 28 Albacores, (381;499). The fleet is eager to commit their brand-new torpedo strike aircraft against the Italian fleet. They may be poky biplanes, but they have a far more impressive lifting capacity than their Swordfish predecessors, and can thus strike at very long ranges.# This consideration does not, of course, at all change the fact that the carriers are along to provide fighter cover. This is Rear Admiral Aircraft Carriers Lumley (seriously) Lyster's job, and the loss of Eagle to submarine attack on the first day was not a good start.
v) The Campaign:
I start as early as 19 June, when the survivors of Operation Harpoon entered the Grand Harbour, because the latest extraordinary supply run by an Abdiel-class cruiser-minelayer had just made port, with Welshman arriving on the 16th with a 350 ton cargo of necessities. The minelayer concept is basically an aggressive mine warfare ship intended to appear off places like Livorno and lay minefields that go undetected because the Italians never notice the ship leaving Gibraltar. Or the Clyde, for that matter. To achieve this, British naval architects "only" have to cram 72,000hp into 2700 tons standard displacement. It's an extraodinary achievement in an age when the naval press is celebrating the 106,000hp, 7500t standard Muzio Attendolo as a 44 knot light cruiser. It's not the most remarkable engine plant of the era. In order to extract both 48,000hp and a single-funnel design out of the L and M class destroyers of the 1938 building programme, British naval machinery builders will extract a whopping 24,000hp from a single boiler, and it is still possible that steam reheat, introduced just before the war, appeared in a late prewar British warship in the odd position of being condemned before its power plants was declassified. (That would be one of the 1939 aircraft carriers. Note that this is pure, wild-assed speculation.) The Abdiels, whether or not technologically innovative, would be rewarded for their extraordinary performance with a nearly suicidal commitment to the Mediterranean. But this summer was not going to see Welshman's sinking through two hair-raising relief sailings to Malta. (Also proceeding independently were submarine resupply missions, which brought in all of Malta's avgas and ammunition needs, these cargoes being judged too volatile for even cargo liners already loaded with tinned kerosene.) Welshman would last until next spring, and suffer a much more mundane operational loss on an uncharted minefield.
Like Welshman, Eagle was having its own little private war over Malta, launching one Spitfire flyoff after another to bring the air garrison up to strength. Its last mission pre-Pedestal was 15 July, coinciding with another run into and out of Malta by Welshman which broke out of Malta on the 18th, wildly-evading air attack and picket lines of submarines and torpedo boats, plus a flying squadron of the afore-mentioned Condottiere-class light cruisers at “speeds approaching 40 knots." I am beyond rational belief at the thought of the human cost of what was asked of Welshman's Captain Freidberger in this year of 1942.
Now, Pedestal was on. Furious would fly off the first 38 Spitfire VBs sent to Malta. Lyster would have his carriers, plus three anti-aircraft cruisers for dedicated AA support, Sirius, Phoebe, and Charybdis. Rear Admiral Burroughs would have Nigeria, Kenya, Manchester and Cairo (CLA), with 20 DD for the "through force" that would escort all the way to Malta, engaging with torpedoes if the Italian battleships (or even heavy cruisers, since Burroughs, and indeed Syfret, had nothing but 5.25" and 6" cruisers). Eight submarines patrolled in support,. Inasmuch as these were the RN's main reliance for anti-battleship work, we are seeing modernity sneak up on us. Or the Jeune Ecole. Whichever.
Syfret's command, including Lyster's was supposed to refuel at sea westward of Gibraltar, with Argus flying ASW air patrols as a diversion from its more usual role as an aircraft ferry, but the new equipment on Abbeydale intended to make this possible failed. In spite of the resulting intel fail, my source, Richard Woodman, reports that the fleet's morale was not much dampened. Many of the fleet's DD captains, notably including the commanders of 4 "Hunt" class escort destroyers with specialised AA armament, were just off the PQ 17 fiasco. They were eager fora bit of revenge in the air-surface fight. (383).
To the east, the Admiralty intended to run a pure diversion from Alexandria. CinC Mediterranean 'River Plate' Harwood would be overall command of a force of 10 merchant ships, with escort combatants under Vian ("the navy's here") of two CLAs Cleopatra and Dido plus 5 DD in one column, mostly the highly modern J, K, L, M, and N classes with their heavy twin-4.7" HA/LA armaments with dual-purpose fire control. (In other words, as much AA firepower as prewar naval architects could extract from the heavy 4.7" gun.) The other column, under Captain Chapman as senior officer, consisted of Arethusa, Euryalus and Coventry plus 10 DDs, including "Hunt" class DDEs for yet more AA.
With the fleet passing Gibraltar, the Italian GHQ concentrated 300 Italian a/c, mostly big birds, but also Re2001 fighter bombers for the mission. Things almost immediately got easier for them as Eagle was torpedoed at noon on the 11th. The first air attack came in shortly later. Sea Hurricanes were scrambled, but the speedy Ju88s avoided them with ease, and the pilots had to make their return to the fleet through the barrage. I'm imaging some scenes from the second season of Battlestar Galactica here. Sigh. Captain Troubridge, seeing the plight of the fighters, took Indomitable out of the screen to land on the remaining FAA fighters, steaming 26 knots in a straight course. The attacking force is rated by Woodman at 36 Ju88s and He111s. I find it useful from a logistics standpoint to rate this as 72 "engine sorties."
Well before sunrise, at 5:30 on the 12th, radar picked up shadowers. Two Hurricanes and two Fulmars were launched, but could not get the shadowers. Recall that the ability to vector onto shadowers is the main argument for a two-seat carrier fighter in the first place.##. At 9, 19 Ju88s attacked. At noon came an Italian raid, with 10 SM84s delivering radio-controlled bombs, a squadron of CR 42s strafing the ships, escorted by Mc.202s, and no indications of totals in this ….innovative raid The next wave, intended to have arrived simultaneously, comprised 33 SM79s and 10 SM84s in a torpedo bomber role, escorted by 26 Re201 fighters. 37 Ju88s arrived a moment later, diving from 15,000ft, too high for the Hurricanes but not the Fulmars, per Woodman, which is odd, to say the least.
The evening strike consisted of 9 Italian Stukas, 29 German Stukas, 14 SM79s, and who knows how many fighters, because Woodman isn’t saying. Indomitable took 3 bombs delivered by Stukas, putting the rear flight deck out of action. Destroyer Foresight was torpedoed in this action. Indomitable was very heavily hit, and 827 Squadron’s air crew, off duty waiting for their chance to attack the Italian battleline with torpedoes, were “killed,” per my source, with a total loss of Fifty KIA and 39 W. It was too late, however. The Sun was setting, and Admiral Syfret had to retire anyway. The "through force" would face one full night and part of a day passing through the Narrows. Hopefully, it was strong enough to make the passage.
A few minutes later, a brilliant spread of torpedoes from Italian submarine Axum got Nigeria, Cairo, and Ohio. The force was stripped of firepower, including its single CLA, disorganised, and lost both ships especially equipped with experimental shipboard VHF radios to control the Beaufighters sent out from Malta to provide air cover. Along with the improvised fighter direction facilities on the carriers, this arrangement gave the Royal Navy a chance to learn from experience, and at great cost.
The rest of the story, which involves a brilliant Italian torpedo boat attack, the most successful of the war, and the heroic saga of the salvage of the Ohio, can be read about elsewhere. As much as I admire the efforts of the salvage crews in particular, they don't really belong in this blog. (Though I will link to the inevitable Stan Rogers now.) Four liners and Ohio got through at terrible cost, including two cruisers scuttled because they could not be salvaged. Malta was saved, the war, perhaps, won. And, this time, the Royal Navy did not abandon the merchant marine. While Admiral Lyster was passed over for promotion in 1943 in spite of being the architect of Taranto, Thomas Hope Troubridge received his flag as Rear Admiral Aircraft Carriers in 1943, was appointed Fifth Sea Lord in 1946, and ended his career as Second-in-Command of the Mediterranean Fleet.
vi) Something approaching a point:
So what am I trying to say here? I've begin with the Malta industrial complex and moved on to sship biographies for a reason here. I've mentioned the 40(!) huge new destroyers of the L--N classes laid down in 1938/9, themselves descendants of the "Tribals" of 1937, and 2 of the 4 carriers laid down in the single year of 1937. The floating dock issue explains why none of the 5(!) brand new King George V-class battleships laid down in 1937 could be involved in the operation. I've noted the "Hunt" class, which started out as a thrown-together building programme of 25 1000 ton escorts, given a 4" HA armament and honest-to-God ship stabilisers to improve their AA accuracy because the technology seemed vaguely feasible, and why the heck not? The same thinking seems to be behind the cruiser-minelayers (although they do have a precursor class). I've mentioned "CLAs," which is to say, anti-aircraft cruisers, by which I mean the Didos and refit "C" (1916) class.
What I haven't mentioned, perhaps because cruisers get no respect, is the sheer explosion of building in that class in the late 30s. To put it in perspective, Britain laid down 4 cruisers in the 1933--34 programme, and 8 in the 1934--35, all reasonably conventional 9100 ton ships armed with 12 6" guns. The 1936 programme was small, because it was folded into the 1937, and included 2 10,000t 6" cruisers.
Then the 1937--8 programme came in at 11 Didos. Next year saw the laying-down of 4 modified Didos and 7 "Fijis." 1939 was originally supposed to have another 11 cruisers, but the bulk of them were ordered from the south coast Royal Dockyards and cancelled because of the war, which instead saw the "Hunt" class expanded to 72 vessels at the same time along with comparable orders of low-complexity "War Emergency" Destroyers.
It is fashionable to say that the democracies almost lost in 1940 because they didn't prepare for war. As far as the British army goes, this is true. As far as the Royal Navy goes, as I've already stressed from a financial point of view, it is less accurate. Instead of money, this time I've talked about ships. British industry started a lot of ships in 1937--39. More to the point, it finished them in time for them to fight in Operation Pedestal. If there's a single thing to take away from the sight of this huge fleet of ships, laid down in anticipation of fighting a world war in the near future and available to fight precisely in the decisive battle of that war, it is the utter silliness of the notion that government is "inefficient," or "unproductive," that it can't do stuff.
The more interesting point, which we might be able to extract from the economic history of Malta, if someone were interested in doing that, or even a comparative economic history of Malta and Singapore, is the consequence of this kind of government spending on societies. I doubt that the Admiralty set out to create a society with a huge trade union membership and many local industries when it singled out Malta as its base in the Mediterranean, but that was the longterm result.
Again, government can drive social change, and transform economies. It is just that, hitherto, it has done so in the interest of winning wars. Must that, forever, be the only way in which governments are allowed to intervene at the nexus of labour market skills and technological progress?
*Perhaps "Capture Washington" is too high a level spell? Finally an explanation for the invasion of Russia. Hitler was grinding xps!
**Does someone need the concept of air forces as "inherently strategic" explained to them again?
#Somewhere in here, if you can find it. Yes, yes, it's a dropped reference. It's an interesting fact to highlight (goes to the significance of the mid-range Bristol sleeve valve engines. I just don't have time to go to campus today. Sorry.
##This is a hugely insightful link, if you're interested, by the way. And if you can get it to load. It's not coming up for me, today, but that's not uncommon with the Flight Archives. I'm going to hazard the wild-assed guess that the author lurking behind the pseudonym is future First Sea Lord John D. Cunningham.
^Apropos of nothing much, the Grumman F4F-3 versus the Macchi C. 200, data unashamedly dumped from Wikipedia:
F4F-3 versus the Macchi C. 200 (Figures are Wikipedia numbers for the F4F-3/Macchi C. 200)
Length: 28 ft 9 in (8.76 m)/ 8.25 m (27 ft 1 in)
Wingspan: 38 ft (11.58 m)/ 10.58 m (34 ft 8 in)
Height: 11 ft 10 in (3.60 m)/ 3.05 m (10 ft 0 in)
Wing area: ?/ 16.82 m² (181.00 ft²)
Loaded weight: 7,000 lb (3,200 kg)/ 2,200 kg (4,840 lb)
Powerplant: 1 × Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 double-row radial engine, 1,200 hp (900 kW)/ 1 × Fiat A.74 R.C.38 14-cylinder air-cooled radial engine, 650 kW (870 hp) at 2,520 rpm for takeoff
Maximum speed: 331 mph (531 km/h)/ 504 km/h (313 mph) at 4,500 m (14,765 ft)
Range: 845 mi (1,360 km)/ 570 km (354 mi)
Service ceiling: 39,500 ft (12,000 m) / 8,900 m (29,200 ft)
Rate of climb: 2,303 ft/min (11.7 m/s)/ 15.3 m/s (3,030 ft/min)
Power Loading: 0.17hp/lb / 0.176 hp/lb
Note the climb rates and power loading. Climb is what you need to do to protect fleets against air attack. Because of the nature of my sources, I'm stuck with citing a late variant of the Wildcat, by which time the original single-row 9 cylinder, 800hp engine had been replaced by the much larger two row, the comparison isn't at all direct. Still, there's enough here to see that the Wildcat was heavier than the Italian fighter, because it was designed for carrier operations. And that that weight had an effect on performance. This idea that carrier aircraft could be equal to land-based, and everyone who thought differently going into WWII was just stupid? It's wrong.