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the island without the loss of a single ship; and during the summer and autumn of 1941, once the Luftwaffe had been withdrawn for the invasion of Russia, two large convoys – Operations ‘Substance’ and ‘Halberd’ managed to safely deliver 150,000 tons of much-needed supplies.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.

 

 

 

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