Operation Pedestal 1942, The Battle for Malta’s Lifeline, Angus Konstam

Operation Pedestal 1942, The Battle for Malta’s Lifeline, Angus Konstam

Campaign 394

Operation Pedestal was one of the largest of the many attempts to get supplies through to Malta, and probably the most important, getting just enough material through to the island to prevent it from being forced to surrender.

The scale of this operation was impressive – three fleet carriers, two battleships and large numbers of cruisers and ddestroyers were allocated to the forces directly supporting the convoy, while a fourth carrier was there to fly Spitfires onto Malta.

Given the size of the British fleet and the fierce resistance offered by the Germans and Italians the Navy’s loses weren’t that severe – one carrier, two cruisers and a destroyer (and the carrier, HMS Eagle, was the oldest and smallest involved, and given how quickly she sank the losses on her were surprisingly low). In the Pacific the Americans invaded Guadalcanal at the same time, leading to a series of naval battles which often saw much heavier losses. What perhaps makes them look higher was the lack of surface opposition – the Italian battlefield remained in port, so the Axis response was carried out by aircraft and submarines. In many respects this is also similar to Pacific naval battles, where carrier aircraft dominated. Where Pedestal was different was that the British weren’t able to strike back against a military opponent but instead were focused on getting the merchant ships through to Malta.

On the Axis side we see a rather disjointed response. Although Kesselring was officially in overall command, he had limited influence over the Italian armed forces and even the German navy. Even so all of the relevant Italian and German forces knew what to do when the convoy appeared, so their response was still pretty effective.

The timing of Operation Pedestal is key to understanding its significance. Its supplies reached Malta in August 1942, allowing the island to continue to resist and for the forces there to attack Axis convoys heading to North Africa. This came just as Rommel was making his last attempt to break British resistance in Egypt, at the battle of Alam el Halfa. Two months later Montgomery attacked at El Alamein, and the Axis forces in North Africa were forced to retreat west. This was soon followed by Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. Rommel’s ability to react to Montgomery was greatly reduced by the losses Malta based forces inflicted on his supply ships.

This is an excellent account of this crucial naval battle, portraying it as just that – major battle – rather than as a simple convoy battle. We see how the various parts of the Axis attack developed, from the ineffective sortie of the main Italian fleet to the impressively succesful attacks by their motor torpedo boats. We also see how the determination of the British sailors, both Navy and Merchant Navy, meant that just enough supplies reached Malta. Well supported by maps, which show the progress of the convoy and the attacks on it, as well as Osprey’s detailed step by step battle plans, which help make sense of some of the more intense periods of the battle. 

Origins of the Campaign
Opposing Commanders
Opposing Forces
Opposing Plans
Operation Pedestal

Author: Angus Konstam
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 96
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2023

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