British mission to save Malta in 1942 seemed doomed, Max Hastings recounts what ...

By summer 1942, the island of Malta — the last British bastion in the central Mediterranean — was on the brink of surrender, its starving population enduring round-the-clock bombing by the Germans and Italians.

In Saturday’s Mail, best-selling historian Max Hastings told how Operation Pedestal, a convoy of 50 Royal Navy and merchant ships carrying vital food, fuel and ammunition, was launched.

Today, in a compelling account of heroism under fire, the remaining ships limp doggedly on . . .

After a night fending off attacks from enemy torpedo boats, almost every man of the convoy, young and old alike, was now sleepwalking. A rating on the escort destroyer Ashanti said: ‘Most of us were bloody knackered, absolutely exhausted by the effort, the constant concentration.’

There was to be no let-up. That morning in August 1942 the weather over the Mediterranean was good enough to favour new air attackers. Three Italian bombers were seen lingering on the horizon, beyond range of the ships’ guns, obviously reporting the new British position.

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Then out of the sky a dozen German bombers came diving in, three of them targeting the liner Waimarama. The largest vessel in the convoy, she was also the most vulnerable: a crew member later observed that with her cargo of cased high-octane aviation spirit, alongside vast quantities of ammunition, ‘the whole ship smelt like a refinery’. The cost of bearing such a burden now became explicit. She was in effect a floating bomb.

A stupendous explosion followed as Waimarama’s 11,000 tons of munitions and fuel blew up with a force that killed 83 men on the ship instantly and sent debris hundreds of feet into the air and across the sea, causing casualties on another freighter half a mile away.

Max Hastings recounts what happened after the British mission to save Malta in 1942, which seemed doomed  (pictured: The tanker Ohio is hit by yet another bomb)

Max Hastings recounts what happened after the British mission to save Malta in 1942, which seemed doomed  (pictured: The tanker Ohio is hit by yet another bomb)

Within seconds, much of the vessel vanished towards the bottom of the sea, leaving a pall of smoke over the debris and flaming oil. Metal drifted down very slowly through the air like paper.

Even in that week of slaughter, the violence of Waimarama’s end stunned all who witnessed it. It was ‘one of the grimmest things I have ever seen’, said Lt Denys Barton as he watched from the bridge of the merchantman Ohio.

Onlookers were astounded that any of the ship’s crew lived through the explosion. Among those who did was 17-year-old cadet Freddie Treves, who was blown through the door of his quarters beneath the fo’c’sle. Stunned, he ‘thought I was going to die. There was black smoke everywhere, flames were burning aft of the bridge’.

Waimarama’s captain had entrusted Treves to the care of a veteran, steward Bob Bowdrey, and as the listing wreck began to sink, both men jumped 60ft into the sea. A mass of fragments were rattling down on them from the sky and on all sides hysterical voices were shouting and screaming as flames crept towards them.

Treves heard repeated cries of ‘I can’t swim! I’m drowning!’ Himself a good swimmer, the 17-year-old took hold of wireless operator John Jackson, a non-swimmer, and towed him for five minutes to the relative safety of a drifting timber, clear of the flames.

Then Treves spotted his mentor Bowdrey. He was appalled to see him standing screaming on a raft drifting into a flaming stretch of sea. ‘It was a picture I’ll never be able to forget’. Knowing he could never tow the heavy raft, ‘I turned over and swam away. This has haunted me all my life. I was a coward.’

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The world thought differently, however, accepting Treves could have done nothing to save Bowdrey, while he had already saved Jackson and other struggling swimmers: the cadet was later awarded the British Empire Medal.

The destroyer Ledbury spent two hours picking up survivors, her captain Roger Hill flouting the admiral’s injunction against risking his own ship’s safety: ratings played a hose from her foredeck over the sea to force flaming oil away from swimmers. A whaler was lowered to search for survivors and a grim race began to reach men in the water before burning oil did. Some won, others lost. Most of those they picked up were suffering from burns.

By the time the destroyer had collected 42 survivors, the rest of the convoy was 30 miles ahead. In the course of catching up, Ledbury suffered another attack by seven German dive-bombers, which resulted only in ‘the usual near-misses’. The terrifying had become the commonplace.

But despite all the losses, a handful of ships were now reaching Malta. At 1630 on Thursday, August 13, under fighter plane cover, the island’s minesweeper flotilla led the survivors through the defensive minefields, and two hours later, Melbourne Star, Rochester Castle and Port Chalmers, carrying between them 23,000 tons of general cargo — mostly food — and 5,500 tons of military stores, steamed into Malta’s Grand Harbour.

After the months of bombardment the island had received from German and Italian planes, this once magnificent anchorage of the Mediterranean Fleet, beneath the battlements of the old castle of the Knights of Malta, was now, in the words of one captain, ‘a heartbreaking scrapyard of bomb and mine-shattered hulks’.

While Malta was on the brink of surrender, its starving population enduring round-the-clock bombing by the Germans and Italians (pictured: enemy plane, the Italian SM79)

While Malta was on the brink of surrender, its starving population enduring round-the-clock bombing by the Germans and Italians (pictured: enemy plane, the Italian SM79)

But to the crews of the three ships on that momentous evening, it appeared an almost mystical haven.

The ships were greeted by bands and ecstatic crowds. A local woman wrote: ‘What a glorious sight that was! The bastions around the harbour were lined with people. We waved and cheered until we could cheer no more.’

An RAF pilot also watching recalled the cheering slowly subsiding until there was absolute silence. ‘Elderly men take off their hats and the womenfolk in their black hoods and cloaks cross themselves.’

After disastrous earlier experiences, when newly arrived merchant vessels succumbed to air attack inside Grand Harbour, an immediate operation began to unload the ships and transfer their cargoes into bomb-proof caves.

‘Merchant Navy defies Axis blockade,’ declared the headline in the Times of Malta. ‘Ships that came through living hell.’ The accompanying editorial declared in ringing tones: ‘Through the mercy of Providence and the courage of our seafarers, Malta has been given succour in an hour of need borne by people and garrison alike with fortitude and an abiding faith in the justice of our cause.’

The next afternoon, Malta celebrated a new miracle when a fourth ship, the freighter Brisbane Star, steamed into Grand Harbour. She had sailed a lone course for the last 200 miles, remarkable even by the standards of Pedestal.

She had left the convoy after being hit by a torpedo, her speed reduced to ten knots. ‘We would only be a lame duck,’ Lt George Symes, her naval liaison officer, explained. The plan was to make their way down the Tunisian coast, then strike across to Malta during the night. ‘We hoped the enemy would be too busy to notice us.’

As the ship crept along the shore-line, both captain and crew were on tenterhooks about the prospect of meeting Axis aircraft, submarines or E-boats. There were repeated sightings of periscopes, real or imagined.

Suddenly, off the Tunisian port of Sousse, a Vichy French gunboat ordered them to halt. When the ship maintained her way, the gunboat fired a shot across her bows, then sent over an armed boarding party.

Captain Fred Riley was ordered to turn the ship around and enter

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