The Origins of Operation Pedestal
Operation Pedestal was an operation by the British to provide supplies to Malta in 1942 during World War II in order to attack Axis forces in North Africa
During the summer of 1942 the British Fleet Air Arm (FAA) was increasingly concerned with fighter direction in multi-carrier operations. Early in August its ships Eagle, Victorious, Indomitable, Furious, and Argus trained together, anticipating further operations in support of Malta. That month Eagle, Furious, and Indomitable joined Convoy WS 21S for Operation Pedestal, sending fourteen freighters and tankers to Malta.
Supported by battleship Nelson and battle cruiser Renown, it was one of the most powerful units yet deployed to “the Med.” Furious embarked Spitfires for Malta, but the other two carriers had protective Sea Hurricanes and Fulmars.
On August 10 the convoy was spotted by Axis aircraft that alerted U-boat Command. Eagle had escaped an Italian submarine in July, but on August 11, south of Majorca, U-73 slipped past the destroyer screen and fired a devastating spread of torpedoes. All four slammed into Eagle’s twenty-four-year-old hull, sending her down in less than eight minutes. Destroyers rescued 1,160 men of 1,291 aboard.
Furious launched her fighters for Malta, then reversed helm, mission accomplished. But Pedestal turned into a slugfest. Throughout August 12 the Luftwaffe and Italian Regia hammered at the convoy, pressing repeated bombing and torpedo attacks.
In a daylong attack against the convoy, Axis aircraft were relentless in their effort to sink the merchant ships bearing essential supplies. The FAA fighter pilots met each threat with skill and determination, claiming thirty enemies against thirteen losses while ships’ gunners accounted for a dozen more. The stellar performance was posted by Indomitable’s Lieutenant Richard Cork, a Sea Hurricane pilot who had flown with the RAF in the Battle of Britain. He wrote:
The sky at first sight seemed filled with aircraft. The enemy kept in tight formation and our fighters snapped at their heels, forcing them to break in all directions. One Junkers turned away from the main group and I led my section down towards it. I was well ahead and fired when it filled my sight. Smoke poured from its wings and it disappeared below me into the sea. A few minutes later I saw another Ju 88 out of the corner of my eye, heading along the coast of North Africa, so I set off in pursuit by myself. At 1,000 feet I came within range and fired. It seemed to stagger in the air, then dropped into the sea with a big splash.
Cork flew three more sorties that day, claiming three more victims. He became the FAA’s top fighter ace with thirteen victories, but died flying a Corsair at Ceylon in 1944.
That afternoon a Staffel of Stukas got past the depleted combat air patrol and dived on Indomitable. They hit her twice and scored three damaging near misses. One of her Sea Hurricane pilots, SubLieutenant Blyth Ritchie, launched at the last moment. Latching onto the retiring Stukas, he splashed two. “Indomit” shaped course for the East Coast of the United States for full repairs.
Without effective air cover, WS 21S was battered that night and the next day. Axis bombers and torpedo boats sank eight ships, leaving five to reach Malta, two barely afloat. Two light cruisers and a destroyer also were lost, but the twenty-nine thousand tons of supplies offloaded meant that Malta would survive.
The Luftwaffe and Regia had launched some 330 sorties against Pedestal, sustaining about 12 percent losses, demonstrating the efficacy of a combined fighter and AA defense.
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