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Operation Pedestal
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Hawker Sea Hurricanes and a Fairey Albacore on the deck of HMS Victorious.
HMS Indomitable and HMS Eagle are astern.

The strategic significance of the island of Malta could not be overstated: with war raging across North Africa, Malta gave the allies a vital base of operations for both air and maritime forces to strike at the supply convoys which kept axis forces in theatre alive. A series of convoys had kept a constant drip feed of personnel and supplies to the battered and besieged combatants of the valiant island as the defenders braved the might of both the Luftwaffe and the Italian Regia Aeronautica.

Maintainers re-arm the 0.303 Browning
guns of a Sea Hurricane Mk.Ib

Most convoys to date had consisted of perhaps half a dozen merchant vessels. In August 1942, Operation Pedestal saw fourteen merchant ships escorted by four aircraft carriers, two battleships and nearly 40 smaller warships. Although it was the 42 RAF Spitfires aboard HMS Victorious which were so vital to Malta’s continuing defense, it would be the aircraft of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm which would be needed to get them there in the first place. The task force’s defense fell to 43 Sea Hurricanes, 16 Fulmars, 9 Martlets (Royal Navy designation for lend-lease Wildcats) and finally 28 Fairey Albacores for anti-shipping and anti-submarine patrols.

Secrecy was compromised when the convoy’s location was broadcast to axis forces by a French airliner. The convoy met with disaster in the opening stages when, on the night of 10-11th of August, the carrier HMS Eagle was sunk by the submarine U-73 whilst passing Gibraltar. Then came the air attacks. Wave after wave of German and Italian aircraft, sometimes as many as 100 at a time, massed in the blue skies overhead the convoy. Every time they were met by the Sea Hurricanes, Fulmars and Martlets of the Fleet Air Arm and massive dogfights ensued.

A Sea Hurricane launches from the deck
of HMS Indomitable
Maintenance crews worked around the clock below the decks of the carriers, constantly battling to keep their damaged fighter aircraft serviceable and back on deck whilst exhausted pilots quickly snatched what food and rest they could before launching off the decks again. Under near constant attack from submarines, MTBs and German and Italian bombers, the convoy was battered as it slowly inched its way towards Malta. At around 7.30pm on August 12th, HMS Indomitable was severely damaged by three hits from Luftwaffe Ju87s, and the convoy had effectively lost another carrier.

However, complete decimation of the mission critical merchant ships was prevented by the aggression and determination of the fighter cover. Of note, Lt Cdr ‘Bill’ Bruen, CO of 800 Naval Air Squadron, shot down three aircraft on the 12th whilst leading his Sea Hurricanes in a constant stream of engagements. Even more remarkable was the performance of 880 Naval Air Squadron’s Senior Pilot, Battle of Britain veteran Lt ‘Dickie’ Cork. After his CO, ‘Butch’ Judd, was killed in combat, Cork took command of the squadron and shot down five German and Italian aircraft in a single day, which earned him a Distinguished Service Order.

When the convoy was finally within range of Malta aerial defense was handed over to the RAF fighters based on the island. The fighters of the Fleet Air Arm had achieved the unthinkable – not a single merchant vessel had been lost. However, without the massive aerial armada of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers and in a poor position to do anything about the threat of U-boats or MTBs, the exhausted island based fighters could only do so much: nine merchant ships were lost in the final stages of the operation. Even with these hugely significant losses, a great amount of vital manpower and equipment had punched through to Malta and Operation Pedestal was deemed a victory, albeit a hugely costly one.

About The Author - Mark Barber, War Thunder Historical Consultant

Mark Barber is a pilot in the British Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm. His first book was published by Osprey Publishing in 2008; subsequently, he has written several more titles for Osprey and has also published articles for several magazines, including the UK's top selling aviation magazine 'FlyPast'. His main areas of interest are British Naval Aviation in the First and Second World Wars and RAF Fighter Command in the Second World War. He currently works with Gaijin Entertainment as a Historical Consultant, helping to run the Historical Section of the War Thunder forums and heading up the Ace of the Month series.

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