Convoy of carnage: MAX HASTINGS writes about one of the most dramatic forgotten ...

Since 1815, the island of Malta had been viewed as one of the jewels in Britain’s crown of empire — a vital way-station to the East and a sun-baked fortress that showcased the Royal Navy’s dominance of the Mediterranean.

But in the summer of 1942 it was the only surviving British bastion in the central Mediterranean, beleaguered, tottering and close to capitulation.

Constant attack from as many as 300 aircraft in 24 hours — the Italians by day, the Germans by night — had left more than a thousand people dead, 4,500 injured and 15,500 homes destroyed. Its Grand Harbour was a lagoon of stagnant oil from sunken ships, amid which bobbed debris and decomposing corpses.

Starvation threatened to break the spirit and resistance of garrison and people alike. Mothers went door to door with young children, begging for food. Men scoured the streets for cigarette ends. Office letters were typed on toilet paper. People wore shoes that lacked soles. Unless food, fuel and ammunition could be shipped before the leaves fell at home, Malta’s surrender was inevitable.

Some unsentimental Allied officers argued this might be the best course of action anyway, leaving the enemy with the burden of feeding the island’s 300,000 people.

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Constant attack from as many as 300 aircraft in 24 hours ¿ the Italians by day, the Germans by night ¿ had left more than a thousand people dead, 4,500 injured and 15,500 homes destroyed. Pictured: Operation Pedastal as an depth-charge explodes behind the stern of a destroyer

Constant attack from as many as 300 aircraft in 24 hours — the Italians by day, the Germans by night — had left more than a thousand people dead, 4,500 injured and 15,500 homes destroyed. Pictured: Operation Pedastal as an depth-charge explodes behind the stern of a destroyer

But in World War II, as in all conflicts, huge moral issues were at stake, beyond the territorial and strategic ones. Among Winston Churchill’s foremost qualities as Britain’s warlord was his understanding of the importance of sustaining an appearance of momentum in the war effort, even when substance was lacking, as it was in 1942.

The British people were also weary of the defeats that seemed all their bellicose prime minister could contrive. Most recent were the surrenders at Singapore and Tobruk, while Hitler’s grasp on the European continent was unshaken. Malta’s loss, after so many other humiliations, would be a crushing blow to national spirit.

Thus, in the summer of 1942, the decision was taken that Malta must be sent sustenance at almost any cost, and in August that year, the largest fleet the Royal Navy had committed to action since Jutland in 1916 set out to fight a four-day battle that became an epic of courage, determination and sacrifice, one that deserves to be much better known to posterity than it is.

The task of the 50-odd ships of Operation Pedestal — among them two battleships, four aircraft-carriers, seven cruisers and 32 destroyers — was to escort 14 merchant vessels bringing the supplies without which Malta would be forced to surrender.

The convoy of merchant ships set out into the Atlantic from the Clyde estuary in Scotland and picked up the bulk of its escort north of Ireland on August 3 before steaming south.

‘The mood on board was cheerful, resolute, taut as a wire,’ according to Fleet Air Arm pilot Hugh Popham. ‘Excitement, fear, suspense were a physical thing, tickling the skin, and danger something to be made light of.’ On the night of August 9/10, the fleet passed through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, arrayed in five columns and led in the centre by Vice-Admiral Neville Syfret on the flag bridge of the 34,000-ton battleship Nelson.

Ahead lay a journey of more than 900 miles to reach their destination — 50 hours’ fast steaming but at least 100 hours for ships zigzagging and fighting. Syfret dispatched a Churchillian signal to all ships: ‘Malta looks to us for help. We shall not fail them.’

A newspaper war correspondent, Norman Smart, gazed in wonder from the cruiser Cairo at the assembly of ships ten miles wide, stretching ‘almost to the blue bowl of the horizon’. He mused: ‘When this war is a misty memory in the minds of old men, they will still talk of the convoy for Malta which entered the Mediterranean in August 1942.’

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That first morning, the sea was glassy calm, the sky blue and brilliant, the air windless. The tranquillity was deceptive. Waiting to crush Pedestal, Germany and had deployed more than 600 aircraft, 21 submarines and two score torpedo-boats. No one on board the British fleet had any doubt the enemy would come. One of the bloodiest air-sea battles of the war in the West was about to begin.

FOR captain Helmut Rosenbaum of the German submarine U-73, on patrol in the Mediterranean, the first indication of the approach of the Pedestal fleet came when his submarine’s hydrophone operators detected propeller noises.

When next he raised his periscope, it was to behold the aircraft carrier Eagle approaching fast. As he peered through the lens, the carrier changed course to zig away, but he understood that well before she reached him she would zag back, into the path of her doom.

The task of the 50-odd ships of Operation Pedestal ¿ among them two battleships, four aircraft-carriers, seven cruisers and 32 destroyers ¿ was to escort 14 merchant vessels bringing the supplies without which Malta would be forced to surrender. Pictured: Aircraft carrier H.M.S. Eagle after being torpedoed

The task of the 50-odd ships of Operation Pedestal — among them two battleships, four aircraft-carriers, seven cruisers and 32 destroyers — was to escort 14 merchant vessels bringing the supplies without which Malta would be forced to surrender. Pictured: Aircraft carrier H.M.S. Eagle after being torpedoed

Dropping the periscope, he took his boat deeper for a couple of minutes, then rose once more to see Eagle almost bow-on to him and ‘looking like a giant matchbox on a pond’.

He slowed to three knots and allowed himself a shot of brandy before ordering the torpedoes set to run at a depth of 20 ft, which should strike their huge target in her engine rooms, the very guts of Eagle.

At 13.05 Rosenbaum fired four torpedoes in a narrow pattern. In the sky above, Hurricane pilot Douglas Parker was making a downwind approach to land back on the deck of the aircraft carrier Victorious after a reconnaissance flight. To his horror, he glimpsed torpedo tracks below in the water, streaking towards Eagle.

He had no time to radio a warning; he watched, impotent, as the German torpedoes struck successive giant hammer blows against the hull of the carrier. From the moment of those thunderous detonations, there was no doubt of Eagle’s fate. She took an immediate list to port, which steepened swiftly as thousands of tons of water poured into her machinery spaces.

Below decks, every stoker in B boiler-room perished, along with all the greasers in the port engine room, plus a hapless defaulter confined in the ship’s punishment cells.

Up top on the flight deck, a pilot in the very act of taking off sought to claw his Hurricane into the air, but instead the aircraft slid unstoppably towards the sea.

A more fortunate flier was in the midst of lunch in the wardroom. ‘My soup plate flew up and hit me in the face,’ wrote Mike Crosley, ‘and all the lights went out. Shattering explosions lifted every one of us off our seats and onto the floor.

‘The slope of the deck was increasing by the second. Black smoke was coming up from the open hatchways. The old girl was obviously not going to last long.’

As he reached the upper deck, Crosley saw the forward ladders jammed solid with men. He heard ‘the screams and pitiful shouts of men’s voices echoing up the engine room ventilators as they lay trapped below in darkness’.

Eagle listed dramatically, almost to her port rails, sending 100 lb, six-inch shells cascading out of their racks and rolling and bumping past, threatening life and limb. Men leapt from the high side towards the sea, only to smash themselves on the exposed keel.

War correspondent Arthur Thorpe scrambled up a ladder to the upper deck to find the sea,

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