MERCHANT NAVY AND MALTA
The greatest damage to
Malta’s chances of survival throughout the siege came not from direct
bombardment of the island, but attacks on the merchant shipping, whether
at sea or once arrived in harbour. While it was up to the combined
services to ensure their protection, there are few who would dispute the
enormous burden of responsibility carried by the Merchant Navy and their
crews – they were Malta’s life-blood and without their enormous
contribution, Malta simply could not have survived.
Every bullet, gallon of fuel, drop of oil and
nearly all the island’s food had to be delivered to Malta from across the
Mediterranean Sea. While her proximity to Italy and North Africa was an
advantage when it came to taking the attack to the enemy, it was
disastrous for those desperately trying to relieve the island. Supplies
reached the island by aircraft and also with the direct help of the Royal
Navy: large, comparatively fast, mine-laying submarines were used
clandestinely in what became known as the ‘Magic-Carpet Service’ and navy
supply boats such as HMS Breconshire and the minelayer HMS
Manxman were also used for one-ship deliveries; however, it was only
quantities of goods supplied in bulk by substantial convoys that could
save Malta and this could only be provided by the Merchant Navy.
The success of the Malta Convoys tended to
correspond directly to the presence of the Luftwaffe in the
Mediterranean. For example, the two convoys of late summer and autumn of
1940, before the German air force arrived in Sicily, reached the island
without the loss of a single ship; and during the summer and autumn of
1941, once the Luftwaffe had been withdrawn for the invasion of Russia,
two large convoys – Operations ‘Substance’ and ‘Halberd’ managed to safely
deliver 150,000 tons of much-needed supplies.
Once the Luftwaffe returned in force in
December 1941, however, the passage of convoys became almost impossible.
The coastline to the north and south and was far west as Gibraltar and
almost as far east as Alexandria was almost entirely in Axis hands or
neutral, as in the case of Spain, but with Axis sympathy. Convoys could
expect to come under attack from aircraft, U-boats, E-boats (fast torpedo
gun boats), and the Italian Navy.
By March 1942, Malta had not received a
substantial convoy since the previous September and the situation was
beginning to look desperate. Tragically, although three of the four
merchant vessels made it to Malta, they were then sunk in harbour; only
5,000 tons was salvaged. In June, a double convoy was launched, one –
‘Harpoon’ – from Gibraltar, the other – ‘Vigorous’ – from Alexandria.
Tragically, the latter was forced to return, but ‘Harpoon’ did manage to
deliver 25,000 tons. It was nowhere near enough, however, and so another
convoy was planned for August.
Operation Pedestal was the largest convoy ever
planned for Malta – fourteen ships in all, including one tanker, the
Ohio. On the night of August 9/10, 1942, the convoy slipped through
the Straits of Gibraltar. The following day, the attacks began with the
loss of the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, just after 1pm. From then
on, the convoy came under near-constant attack from the sea and air.
That any ships made it to Malta at all is something of a miracle, yet,
three days later, the first three ships reached Malta, followed by one
more on the 14th, and finally, on 15 August – the Maltese Feast
Day of Santa Maria – the Ohio limped into Grand Harbour, strapped
to two Royal Navy destroyers. She had a huge hole in her hull, her rudder
was jammed, her engines stopped, and she had survived a Stuka crashing on
her decks and countless attacks, but the island was now effectively
saved. Nine vessels of the convoy were not so lucky, and only one, the
Port Chalmers reached Malta largely unscathed. The sacrifice in lives
and the Herculean effort made to see this convoy home was an extraordinary
achievement, but because around 55,000 tons were supplied, Malta was able
to continue the fight. The siege was not over in August 1942, but the end
was in sight.