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Monday, August 14, 2006

The Relief of Malta, August 15, 1942

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Today in 1942, Operation Pedestal came to an end as a British-led convoy steamed into the Grand Harbor at Malta. The fuel and supplies carried by the convoy helped the beleaguered island continue to stave off attacks from German and Italian military forces and remain a thorn in the side of the Axis powers.

Malta is an archipelago of seven islands found in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Sicily is to the north, Tunisia to the west and Libya to the south. Early in the 19th century, Malta became part of the British Empire. After the Suez Canal was finished later in the century, Malta's location was seen as a strategic gold mine, an unsinkable fortress from which the British could maintain the open sea lanes between Europe and the Far East.

In the summer of 1942, Malta was under attack from all sides. Barely 100 miles to the north, Sicily was home to German fighters and bombers. To the south, the Germany Army still controlled most of North Africa. The island, caught between two giant pincers, was pounded mercilessly in the hope that the garrison there would surrender. But the people and the military forces on the island held out, hoping that the outside world had not forgotten about them.

Convoys had tried to run through the German- and Italian-controlled waters between Gibraltar and Malta, but they had met with terrible losses. With fuel running low and aircraft in short supply, the island had to either receive a large shipment of aid or face defeat. With this in mind, the Royal Navy assembled a huge relief convoy. There were 14 merchant ships including the SS Ohio, the largest oil tanker in the world at that time. For protection, the group had two battleships, four aircraft carriers, seven cruisers and 32 destroyers.

The force sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar on August 9, 1942. The first two days of the operation were relatively uneventful. On the 11th, the Germans attacked with a vengeance when the U-73 torpedoed and sank the HMS Eagle, one of the convoy's four aircraft carriers. Another of the carriers, HMS Furious, did not have her normal compliment of aircraft but was instead carrying land-based Spitfires for Malta. These were in range of the island and were launched. Without planes, the Furious became a huge target, so she changed course and headed back towards Gibraltar. There were two carriers left.

On the 12th and 13th of August, the Axis powers hit the convoy again and again, inflicting heavy damage to three merchant vessels and sinking four of them. One of the vessels that was damaged was the SS Ohio, carrying most of the much-needed fuel. She lost all power and had to be taken under two by three destroyers and a minesweeper. Once safely at Malta, the ship broke in two. The two halves, still afloat, were used as a barracks and storage facility for the rest of the war.

In all, the Axis attacks on the Operation Pedestal convoy sank nine merchant ships, one aircraft carrier, two cruisers and one destroyer. The British sank one Italian submarine and shot down 39 German and Italian aircraft. Because of the convoy's success, Malta once again had formidable air defenses and enough fuel, ammunition and other supplies to continue the fight.

Malta proved a thorn in the side of German attempts to re-supply their forces in North Africa and her air garrison harassed Axis bases on Sicily until that island was invaded by Allied forces in 1943. Through it all, the people of Malta braved daily bombings and deprivations of every kind. For their courage and bravery, the entire population of the island was awarded the George Cross. Today, that cross can be found on the flag of Malta.

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