Operation Pedestal: Max Hastings interview with Saul David

The two acclaimed historians discuss the operation to relieve the key strategic island of Malta in 1942.
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In the late summer of 1942, the Royal Navy embarked on an operation to relieve the island of Malta in the Mediterranean. With Axis forces surrounding Malta, the islanders were close to starvation until relief came in the form of Operation Pedestal. But it was an operation that had a huge cost, and has been regarded as a defeat by some historians. Max Hastings has written a new book on the Pedestal operation, and it is an almost unbelievable tale. He met with Saul David, and the two historians chatted about this overlooked episode from World War Two. Max Hastings interview.

Max, given that this is your first naval history, why this story and why now? And why do you think you haven’t done a naval history before this point?

I’m a huge fan of the Navy, and always read a lot about it. For instance, I have always been a huge admirer of N.A.M. Rodger’s A Naval History of Britain. Rodger said there’s a myth that the execution of Admiral Byng in 1757 over Minorca was an act of stupidity, but he instead argues that actually it was a success story for the Navy because it absolutely galvanized them and changed their culture. After Byng was shot for failure to relieve Minorca, every naval captain for the next 200 years knew that he would be forgiven for losing a battle, but he wouldn’t be forgiven for failing to fight one. I’m sure that this is a very important and true statement.

Navy culture is something very different. I was a correspondent in the Falklands and seeing ships sink and seeing aircrafts being shot down, you can see what a different atmosphere it is to be there. Let’s say you’re a sailor on a cruiser with a crew of 800 men – you’ve got to be as brave as your Captain decides to be that day. Whatever the sailor may feel down there in the engine room, if the Captain decides that he is going to charge at the enemy, you are going to go with him. It is the Captains who set the tone for this.

In the Mediterranean in 1942, those in the engine rooms knew there was a very good chance that you could hit a mine, be torpedoed, or bombed. The statistics show this. If you were down in the engine room, your chances of getting out were pretty slight. How those guys kept going, one can only admire those sailors for the fact they never received their fair share of decorations which did tend to go overwhelmingly to the men on the upper deck: Captain and officers on the bridge, the sailors firing the guns and so on.

There was one story about the culture of the Royal Navy that made a great impression for me. That was when the cruiser Edinburgh was hit. The Senior Engineer Officer was on the upper deck by chance, and he was last seen saying “I can’t leave my boys” and he went back down below to drown. The courage of some of those guys—how can you not be deeply moved?

Completely agree. Now, take us to Operation Pedestal, and August 1942. What position were the Allies in prior to the operation?

I always try to remember whenever I’m writing anything, the saying which all historians have with them: ‘there was a time when events which are now in the past, were still in the future.’

Firstly, in August 1942, it was absolutely not certain that our side was going to win the war. Stalingrad had not yet happened. A lot of people, some of them in Downing Street, thought the Germans were going to win on the Eastern Front. With the Americans joining in, it was more likely by the end that Britain was going to be on the winning side, but it was absolutely not ordained.

The second thing that is vital to remember is that everybody identifies Winston Churchill with 1940. In 1942 he was in a far worse shape politically because the British people were two years more exhausted than they had been in 1940. They were weary to death. The Prime Minister kept making his great stirring speeches about the looming victory with our young allies in Russia and across the Atlantic, but all Churchill seemed able to deliver were defeats. Tobruk and Singapore had been lost to smaller German and Japanese armies. The British have been evicted from Burma and Malaya. They had just taken the most horrible pounding in the desert so that Rommel was at the gates of Egypt.

Churchill was very unpopular and he might have been removed from his job as Minister of Defence, which he also held alongside Prime Minister. So, one has to remember what a hole Churchill was in – he felt utterly depressed in the summer of 1942.

Moving onto the specific operation, Pedestal, 1942. The island of Malta – it has a justification in its strategic role, but you don’t think that is really the key to understanding why Pedestal was carried out. Can you talk more about the moral issues, rather than territorial or strategic ones?

We can say objectively that Malta didn’t matter that much. Malta was described as a fortress by Churchill, although it’s hard to see why, any more than when he called Singapore a fortress. He repeatedly hailed the gallant defence of Malta which was under incessant bombardment by German and Italian aircraft and the people were almost starving. There were 300,000 people in Malta and its Governor, Lord Gort, reported to Churchill that “we will hold out for as long as we can”, but the food was due to run out in September of that year.

Nobody knew then that the Russians were going to win at Stalingrad, or that Montgomery was going to win at El-Alamein. Many historians have said that it did not matter that Malta had to be surrendered, as after the American victory at Midway in the Pacific, after Stalingrad and after El-Alamein, Malta just didn’t matter – it wasn’t important.

We can say that now, but all Churchill could see is that after all the defeats over which he had presided, if he now had to stand by and say that we can now no longer feed Malta, the blow to the British people would have been appalling, and so Churchill took the decision, and it was very much his personal decision, that Malta must be relieved at any cost.

What was the operational strength for Pedestal?

It is amazing that this story isn’t better known. This was the largest fleet that the Royal Navy deployed in the West, throughout the whole of World War Two except for the Pacific fleet at the end of the war.

Britain deployed four aircraft carriers out of the seven they still possessed, two battleships, seven cruisers and countless destroyers, smaller ships and submarines—it was an extraordinary commitment to make.

There is not much doubt that senior sailors thought Pedestal was not worth it and they thought Churchill was completely wrong, and this was because of what had been seen some months earlier when the Prince of Wales battleship sank in the Pacific as a result of Japanese aircraft. The Axis had 600 aircraft deployed around the Mediterranean!

The senior sailors knew that all these cruisers and carriers were going to be hideously vulnerable. What’s more, the Royal Navy were never very good at picking aircraft for their carriers, and they were pretty second-rate planes which were going to have to go up against first-rate, German planes.

Pedestal got off to a bad start with the sinking of the carrier Eagle on day one, by a lucky German U-boat. Yet later another carrier, the Indomitable, was hit by multiple bombs and survived. How come?

The story of this four day battle in the Mediterranean: Day one, 11th August, was a lovely, sunny day. Some of the young midshipmen were all sitting on the upper deck sunbathing like they were on holiday, when suddenly everybody starts pointing and looking over to the great carrier, Eagle, and they see it listing dramatically. Eight minutes after four torpedoes from a German U-boat whack the Eagle all that is left is a lot of heads bobbing in the water. This was the beginning. From the diaries that I quoted, many sailors wrote “From that moment we realised this was serious”.

HMS Eagle sinking

However, although a rain of bombs descended and they faced terrific battles all day, by early evening of the 12th of August, when they are more than half way to Malta, all that had happened thus far was that they lost the carrier Eagle, but they had expected to lose something pretty serious, and they have one merchantman damaged. People started to think that perhaps they would come through and this wasn’t looking too bad.

But then suddenly, in the ensuing 12 hours, the Royal Navy suffered some of the most devastating shocks of the war. At about 18:00 on the 12th of August, as the convoy watched, they remembered Eagle going down as they saw Indomitable, one of Britain’s newest carriers, as stream upon stream of Stuka dive bombers descending, “Wham, wham, wham”— three bombs explode on Indomitable’s flight deck. They saw this huge ship shrouded in flame and smoke.

The convoy of 50 ships were convinced it was going to go the same way as Eagle. Miraculously, through brilliant damage control work, although they lost a lot of people killed, and the carrier was unfit for take-off, after ten minutes, they suddenly get the flash signal, ‘situation under control’ and Indomitable survived.

The Admiral in charge of all this, Neville Syfret, decided in the end they had to turn around the big ships as they couldn’t take the risk. Remember, these were four out of Britain’s seven carriers and he had already lost one, so the battleships and carriers turn round and return to Gibraltar. The convoy goes on with seven cruisers and 13 of the 14 merchantmen, as well as all the destroyers and smaller ships.

I have to say, I felt most sorry for the merchant seaman who were sent on this virtual suicide mission, particularly the Americans. Did they mostly perform well?

For the Merchant Navy, how they got civilians to sail 14 ships when they were paid peanuts and threatened with six weeks confinement for disembarking, and all previous merchant shipping had been blown out of the water I don’t know! Some of the civilians were so young: the youngest I found was a ships boy aged 14, and the oldest was a helmsman at 62-years-old!

One merchantman, Brisbane Star, which had been hit by a torpedo on the 13th August, had been creeping along the coast of North Africa and it was a miracle that they were still afloat, frankly half of their crew lost their nerve, and a delegation went up to the bridge and said to the captain, a guy called Fred Riley, that they wanted to take the ship into port here in Tunisia because if you try and dash for Malta 150 miles across the open sea we’ll all be gone—we’ve got a ship with a sodding great hole made by a torpedo. Fred Riley and some of his men had the guts to tell them all to ‘sod off’, and said ‘we are going on to Malta’. I mean Fred Riley’s crew, what a crew! Even the naval liaison officer had told Riley that he thought that they were probably doomed but they made this terrific last dash for Malta and a few hours after the first three ships appeared, suddenly this ship also sailed into Grand Harbour, Malta. The fact is that Fred Riley got the same DSO as the other captains got. Frankly he should’ve received the Victoria Cross for what he did. So that’s another story.

The Ohio limps into the Grand Harbour

After daylight on the 14th August, the Axis air forces came through again and they hit the biggest merchant ship, Waimarama, carrying mostly ammunition. There was this colossal explosion with a sudden wash of flaming fuel. There were men screaming in the midst of it all. The courage some of these people displayed. The admiral sent a signal to one of the destroyers saying ‘don’t go into the flames.’ Well, the captain took no notice and rowed his ships straight into the flaming sea with his men running hoses on the deck, and he pulled out 40 odd survivors out of the water. The ship’s cook, who was also the ship’s water polo captain, came up on the deck and took a look at what was going on. He then took his apron off and dived straight into the water to pull men out. What these people did is amazing.

The tanker Ohio was hit repeatedly by streams of German bombs landed on and around it. By the 14th August, Ohio was around 150 miles short of Malta. It was being escorted by three destroyers as its engine had stopped. It had one German and one Italian aircraft, crashed on its deck and it was slowly sinking as it had been hit in so many places. All that day aircraft kept appearing, and it was pretty scary for not only the men on the ship, but also for the men on the destroyers around it. They knew that if this ship exploded, which could have happened at any moment, then they were going to go up with it. But yet again, they all kept going.

One of the destroyer’s captains had this brilliant idea—they lashed a destroyer on each side of Ohio, and started dragging it for the last hundred miles. The men were so exhausted that most of them were sleep walking. Both of the destroyers were crammed with survivors from other ships and every time they saw a German or Italian aircraft, they were terrified—they didn’t know what to do. The captain of one of the destroyers brought his grand piano up on the bridge and started playing Glenn Miller over the ship’s broadcast system. Some of the men on board Ohio, manning the guns, got to the rum, and were plastered out of their minds. One of them found a container of party hats and they put them on!

So there was a madness about all of this, but it was a sort of inspired madness. By a miracle they managed to drag this ship to Malta. The defences of Malta open fire on them in the last few hours of darkness, causing a certain loss of temper on the bridges of some of the ships.

On the morning of 15th August, which is one of the most important festivals in Malta’s history, the festival of Santa Maria, the patron saint of the island, there were thousands of Maltese and bands playing. This is when Ohio, the tanker, with 85% of its fuel remaining intact is dragged into the Grand Harbour. Everybody was in tears—it was amazing. There are a hundred separate epics in this story.

Tell me about the personalities involved, in particular Admiral Burrough.

Burrough was a typical, no nonsense Christian. He never read a book in his life; read the Times sport pages; liked his gin and tonic before lunch. He was obviously a lovely man, one of a vast number of children from a Herefordshire parson. He was the absolute muscular Christian personified.

On the morning of 14th August, you’ve got this drastically depleted fleet. They were 102 miles from Malta. Admiral Burrough was up on the bridge of his temporary flagship, a destroyer, and was talking to the captain about rugby because this is what you do. If you’re being watched by the crew and you know that every man on that ship is watching you, you’ve got to put on a show and they were brilliant at putting up a show.

A rating then comes up from the radio and reads off a signal of all of the ships which have been sunk during the night. Burrough just nodded and said ‘very good’ and then went back and carried on talking about rugby. This is what you have to do if you’re an Admiral in the Royal Navy in the midst of a disaster. But their troubles were not by any means over.

Was Churchill receiving updates on the situation in the Mediterranean?

Churchill was in Moscow at this time, talking to Stalin who was mocking him relentlessly for the pathetic British performance in the war. Stalin said, “Your navy runs away!” because of what had happened to an arctic convoy a few weeks earlier. So, Churchill was feeling pretty raw and sore, getting a pounding from Stalin when he got a signal, reporting what was going on in the Mediterranean. One carrier sunk, one badly damaged; two cruisers apparently gone. A terrible signal for Churchill to receive. But he had to go back in there and talk to Stalin.

Finally, Max, the outcome was that only five of the original 14 merchant ships – carrying 32,000 of the original 84,000 tons of supplies – reached their destination (including Ohio), allowing the island to fight on. Yet was the heavy price – four warships (one carrier), nine merchant vessels and 457 men – worth paying?

Some naval historians have written, saying brutally, that you have to regard this as an Axis victory because the Germans and Italians inflicted so much damage on the Royal Navy—nine merchant ships out of 14 sunk, not to mention all the war ships that were destroyed. But I have argued very strongly that war is, above all, a contest of will and I do believe that, at that moment, it was enormously important that the British showed the world they could still fight.

Churchill also made a point of writing himself to Stalin, listing all the ships that were sunk, because the great cry from Stalin and the Russians was that the British were frightened of dying, they were frightened of losing people when the Russians were losing in the millions. Churchill made a point by saying that we’ve lost some of the best ships in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy to do this.

Also, never forget that opinion polls were showing that Americans in 1942 had a very low opinion of the British because of all these defeats. There was an opinion poll in the summer of 1942, asking Americans who they thought was trying hardest to win the war, and the figures were amazing. They most certainly chose the America first, but after the Americans, they chose the Chinese and then the Russians and the British were somewhere down, hardly on the Richter scale!

So, I think that it was enormously important to show the world and to show the United States, and the Russians that the British still have the guts to bear the sacrifices and to do this stuff. I find it one of the most moving stories that I have ever written.

But the story was not over by a long shot. You could write a separate book about every single ship in this fleet as they all have quite extraordinary stories.

Sir Max Hastings is an author, journalist and broadcaster who has published many acclaimed history books, among which is Bomber Command, All Hell Let Loose: The World At War 1939–1945 and Vietnam: An Epic History of a Tragic War. His most recent is Operation Pedestal: The Fleet that Battled to Malta, 1942.

Saul David is an award-winning historian and the author of Crucible of Hell: Okinawa – The Last Great Battle of the Second World War, which is now out in paperback. Saul was interviewed as part of the Aspects of History Summer Festival, available on YouTube.

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