Thursday, June 11, 2015

Operation PEDESTAL, (3–15 August 1942)

Operation Pedestal, SS Ohio entering Grand Harbour, Malta.

The last contested Royal Navy operation to resupply Malta. Maintaining the effectiveness of the island’s aircraft and warship strike forces against the very long and vulnerable Axis supply routes to North Africa was crucial, especially as the Allies prepared for a new offensive in the Western Desert and the invasion of Vichy French North Africa. Three of five freighters and the tanker Kentucky all had been lost from the Harpoon convoy in June, and Malta faced a growing shortage of supplies, particularly of fuel. Therefore, despite the very real risks of heavy losses among the merchant vessels and their escorting warships, the Allies decided to mount another convoy operation.

Axis control of the North African coast ruled out a westbound convoy. An eastbound convoy would be vulnerable to attack from Sardinian and Sicilian bases for some 400 miles, requiring moonless nights, fast merchantmen, and a heavy escort for passage. The convoy itself numbered 14 ships, including the tanker Ohio, carrying 85,000 tons of supplies and 12,000 tons of fuel. Close escort to Malta was provided by the British navy in the form of Force X of 4 cruisers and 11 destroyers. Additional cover as far as the Skerki Channel would come from Force Z of 2 battleships, 3 carriers with 100 aircraft, 3 cruisers, and 13 destroyers. Two oilers and a tug, escorted by 4 corvettes, accompanied the armada. The carrier Furious, escorted by 8 destroyers, used this opportunity to fly off 40 Spitfires to reinforce Malta before returning to Gibraltar. Nine submarines were deployed to counter possible movements by Italian surface forces.

On 10 August 1942, Axis forces received immediate confirmation that the convoy had passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. Twenty submarines (18 Italian and 2 German) were deployed to intercept, and the convoy was shadowed from the air. At 1:15 P.M. on 11 August, German submarine U-73 torpedoed and sank the carrier Eagle and escaped. Two hours later, the first Axis air attack in the form of 30 aircraft from Sardinia arrived. It caused no damage to the convoy at the cost of 2 aircraft shot down.

Major air attacks from Sardinia commenced the next morning. Between 9:00 A.M. and 4:30 P.M., 134 Italian and 77 German aircraft made 3 attacks in 5 waves, slightly damaging the carrier Victorious and slowing the merchantman Decaulion, forcing it to proceed independently. The Axis forces lost 12 aircraft. Aircraft flying from Sicily entered the fray at 6:35 P.M., when 95 aircraft attacked in 6 waves. They made a glancing hit on the battleship Nelson, torpedoed the destroyer Foresight, and bombed the carrier Indomitable, putting the last 2 out of action.

Force Z turned back to Gibraltar at 6:55 P.M., 20 minutes earlier than planned, but its carrier losses reduced the convoy’s air cover to 6 Beaufighters from Malta. At nightfall, as the convoy entered the Skerki Channel, Italian submarines struck, torpedoing the cruisers Cairo and Nigeria and the tanker Ohio. The Ohio continued, but the Cairo was scuttled and the Nigeria turned back to Gibraltar. A cruiser and 2 destroyers were detached from Force Z as reinforcements, but before they arrived a German night air attack by 37 aircraft caused the loss of 3 freighters (including the Decaulion) and seriously damaged a fourth.

Axis motor torpedo boats attacked in the early hours of 13 August, devastating the convoy. By dawn it was scattered and reduced to seven merchantmen (three damaged) escorted by two cruisers and 16 destroyers. An attempted interception by Italian surface ships was foiled when the submarine Unbroken torpedoed 2 of 4 cruisers off Cape Milazzo. Air attacks from Sicily recommenced at 9:15 A.M., sinking 2 merchantmen and further damaging the Ohio. By 11:00, however, Spitfire fighter cover from Malta effectively prevented further successful attacks. Four merchantmen (1 damaged) and the Ohio, barely afloat, entered Valetta’s Grand Harbor, bringing 32,000 tons of supplies and 11,500 tons of fuel to the garrison, sufficient for 2 months of operations. Force X successfully returned to Gibraltar through the gauntlet of Axis air, submarine, and motor torpedo boat attacks, losing only the damaged Foresight.

Operation PEDESTAL was at best an Axis tactical victory. The British lost 8 freighters, a carrier, 2 cruisers, and a destroyer. A carrier, a cruiser, and a destroyer also suffered heavy damage. The Italians lost 2 submarines and several light craft, and 2 cruisers, 2 submarines, and other light craft were heavily damaged. Aircraft losses on all sides were modest, considering the numbers engaged. Most significantly, however, the British, despite heavy merchant ship losses, had succeeded in resupplying Malta, which had an immediate serious impact on the Axis supply lines to North Africa at a critical moment.

References Greene, Jack, and Alessandro Massignani. The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1943. London: Chatham Publishing, 1998. Roskill, S. W. The War at Sea. Vol. 2, The Period of Balance. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1956–1961. Sadkovich, James J. The Italian Navy in World War II. Westport, CT: Westview Press, 1994. Shores, Christopher, Brian Cull, and Nicola Malizia. Malta: The Spitfire Year. London: Grub Street, 1988.

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