The forgotten convoys that kept Malta alive.

The forgotten convoys that kept Malta alive.

In the annals of World War II, the Santa Marija Convoy – or Operation Pedestal for the enthusiasts – shines as a beacon of Malta’s resilience. Yet, before this famed mission, several other convoys wrote their own tales of courage in the Mediterranean waters.

The Mediterranean became a hotbed of conflict during WWII, with Malta, Britain, and the US (alongside their allies) pitted against the Axis powers of Italy and Germany. By 1942, it appeared the Axis might reign supreme. But Malta, a tiny island with a strategic location, resisted surrender. However, cut off from Europe and Africa, its lifeline was the sea.

Several early Allied convoys sailed to Malta’s rescue:

  • January 1941 – Operation Excess: This mission saw all supply ships reach Valletta. In retaliation, Axis forces targeted the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious in Grand Harbour.
  • July 1941 – Operation Substance: Misjudged by the Italians as a mere delivery of Spitfire planes, this convoy achieved its objective without a hitch.
  • September 1941 – Operation Halberd: The sheer might of the Allied fleet discouraged the Italian naval forces, although some Italian aircraft did manage to inflict minor damages.

Yet, the Axis continued their advances. With General Rommel’s leadership, they dominated Northern Africa. Malta, increasingly isolated, felt the pressure as supplies dwindled. A bold British convoy from Alexandria faced fierce Axis resistance, resulting in the loss of over 80% of supplies bound for Malta in the ensuing Second Battle of Sirte.

1942’s summer was brutal for Malta. Persistent air raids crippled its infrastructure. Against a barrage of nearly 9,500 Axis aircraft, Malta had a paltry 388 for defense. The dwindling food stockpile threatened starvation by July. The island, though still in Allied hands, was incapacitated from striking offensively.

Buoyed by their success, the Axis planned Operation Hercules – an invasion of Malta by September 1942.

In response, the Allies launched dual convoy missions. While Operation Harpoon left Gibraltar, Operation Vigorous set sail from Alexandria. The latter faced setbacks and retreated, while the former managed to bring in scant supplies, albeit with significant losses.

By August 1942, Malta’s situation was dire. A surrender seemed imminent by September. Yet, the Allies, undeterred, orchestrated their most ambitious sea mission: Operation Pedestal. This convoy, comprising 50 ships, set sail from Britain on August 3, 1942. Only a third of the merchant ships reached Malta. Yet, the arrival of the ship Ohio, laden with aviation fuel, reignited Malta’s aerial offense against the Axis supply lines to North Africa.

In the face of adversity, Malta’s spirit never wavered, and these unsung convoys bear testament to the island’s indomitable spirit and the sacrifices made to keep it free and ready for the later success of Operation Husky

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