Just when you thought that nothing more could ever be said of a subject, especially the supposedly over-written Second World War, along comes Max Hastings to put you right. Whatever else one might say about this veritable writing machine, one cannot fault his ability to pick a new angle to tell an old story well. A glance at the shelves of my library shows at least 12 books on the fleet operations to relieve the besieged island of Malta in August 1942. Do we need another? With this latest Hastings’ tome (at 336 pages it’s actually half the size of his normal fare) my answer is ‘yes’. This is a superb retelling of the remarkable story of a desperate effort to prevent the island of Malta falling into Axis hands, and thus becoming another Singapore at a time (this was months before either El Alamien or Operation Torch) when the fate of North Africa remained in the balance and British morale was at an all-time low. It is his first self-confessed foray into naval history, and is a triumph. Hastings acknowledges that he owes much to his historic precursors, and pays them tribute for giving him the nuts and bolts of his story. But it remains nevertheless a classic Hastings story: a discursive account of the ships, the men, the changing nature of maritime warfare (especially the vulnerability of big ships to submarine, torpedo-bomber and Stuka: he quotes Paul Kennedy’s observation that ‘Air power had chased the battlefleet from the ocean, and now posed a threat to every surface ship’) and the action that had me hooked from the beginning.
The struggle for Malta in 1941 and 1942 was one of epic and strategic proportions. A short flying time from Italy, the island sustained far more attacks than the London blitz. The combined Governor/ C-in-C, Lord Gort, warned London in early summer spring that the starvation rations just about keeping the island’s population of 300,000 alive would be exhausted by September, his unwritten warning being that without relief the keys to the island would then have to be handed over to the triumphant Axis. Hastings’ captures the terrible drama of this predicament, stepping through the strategic logic to demonstrate the imperative for London of keeping Malta out of Axis hands, almost at any cost. The pulling together of this mighty maritime armada – which made early Axis observers think that it was the invasion of North Africa – is deftly described, as too are the measures taken by the Italians and Germans to send it to the bottom of the Mediterranean. They very nearly succeeded, the vast aircraft carrier HMS Eagle going down in only 8-minutes following multiple strikes from Italian torpedoes. Hastings has the knack of presenting complexity with ease. We are blessed with a surfeit of modern historians who can do this but, if I can use a painting analogy, Hastings remains one of the Old Masters. He is, perhaps, the Titian of military history. When you buy one of his books you know exactly what you are getting. Clear writing. Detailed investigation of published sources. Helpful vignettes about individuals and the roles they played in the drama. The exposure of confusion, idiocy, jealousy, infighting and bumbling. The excoriation of ineptitude. But more than anything else the remarkable sacrifice, bravery and courage of ordinary people is emphasised. In other words, he presents the entire drama – political, military and human – with a flair that few others can match. The great sadness of history is the voices that remain known only to God’, the people who died in battle, on land, in the air or at sea, whose voices we have lost. Hastings brings them to life again.
That is what we are treated to in his latest offering, Operation Pedestal: The Fleet That Battled to Malta, 1942. It’s not just the story of a maritime or naval operation, of course, but one that ranges from decision-making in London, Washington and Cairo to the humbling sacrifice of civilians on a battered Malta, to the labour of merchant seamen battling U-boat and Stuka and bringing their half-sunk vessels into Valetta Harbour, to pilots fighting lack of a fuel, ammunition and sleep in their efforts to fight-off the swarms of enemy aircraft flying from bases a short hop away in Italy. He doesn’t disappoint. I always enjoy the numerical summaries he inserts along the way. He tells us, incidentally, that in the course of the war Italy produced a mere 13,252 aircraft against Germany’s 72,030, Britain’s 92,034 and America’s 163,049. Or that seventeen out of twenty British wartime convoys never encountered air or submarine attack. Or that of the 42,000 German submariners in the Second World War 33,000 became casualties. Or that more than 80% of Italian aircrew who went to war in 1940 were dead by the end. This is another Christmas cake of a book from Hastings, full or every kind of juicy richness, and we are all the better for it.
Robert Lyman is a historian and author of books such as The Jail Busters: The Secret Story of MI6, the French Resistance and Operation Jericho and Operation Suicide: The Remarkable Story of the Cockleshell Raid. Robert’s A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma and Britain 1941-45 is being published by Osprey in November 2021.