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Friday, February 27, 2015

At All Costs: How a Crippled Ship and Two American Merchant Mariners Turned the Tide of World War II by Sam Moses | LibraryThing

Malta is an archipelago of seven small islands between Sicily, the boot of Italy, and Africa.  As such it held a strategic place during WW II, and despite heavy pressure from the Italians and Germans, withstood nearly incessant bombing.  But to do so required food and fuel necessitating many convoys which had to run the gauntlet of German bombers based in Italy.

Getting the required tankers and other freighters often involved extensive and complicated negotiations between Roosevelt and Churchill. Their efforts were often hindered by Admiral King, who insisted on certain American prerogatives regarding crewing the loaned ships, the profit-oriented motives of people like the CEO of Texaco who sold oil to anyone, including surreptitiously to the Germans, and the idiocy of the American ambassador to Egypt whose lackadaisical efforts at secrecy made his information about British operations almost immediately available to the Germans.

Conditions on Malta were frightful, often bordering on starvation.  AvGas was in terribly short supply for the fighters which were often decimated by German bombs even before they could get off the ground. Churchill, rightly, was adamant the islands be held at all costs so the convoys continued escorted by fleets of naval vessels, but at frightful cost.

A massive operation, called “Pedestal”, comprised of more than 50 ships including several aircraft carriers and battleships, was sent in an attempt to relieve the island and deliver airplanes, fuel and food. The AvGas was shipped in five gallon containers that had cork seals that leaked making the holds floating bombs. The idea was to make loading the gas into the planes much faster. Everything was a bit jury-rigged.  Spitfires on the ancient carrier “Furious” could just barely make it off the deck, so to save weight their guns were load with cigarettes, intended also as a morale booster for the islanders should the planes make it through.  Multiple security leaks meant the Germans and Italians knew all about the convoy.  

The Italians had several opportunities to finish off the convoy, an event that might have altered the course of the war.  The Germans had refused to deliver as much oil as they had promised so the Italian Navy was always trying to conserve what they had.  They were also exceedingly cautious and Mussolini overruled one of his admirals who wanted to send their cruisers after the British and American ships.  They fell for a Maltese trap, however, that broadcast, in the open, that British Liberator bombers were on the way and Mussolini ordered them back home missing an opportunity to perhaps change the course of the war.

A couple of weird Italian contraptions bear mention. They had invented a bizarre form of mine. Dubbed the “Moto-Bombay” (sp? - audiobook) it was dropped by parachute.  When it hit the water, a motor would engage sending the mine in successively large circles for a diameter of about 15 kilometers. They were easily avoided since the parachutes were quite visible from afar.  Another gizmo was to take a Flying Buffalo aircraft, load it to the wingtips with fuel and bombs and then after take-off, the pilot would jump out into the sea and the plane would be guided by remote control, hopefully into an aircraft carrier.  Didn’t work, the prototype exploding against an North African mountain.

The author has interviewed numerous survivors of the bombing raids and some of their stories are truly heart-rending. Even after sixty years, their eyes fill with tears as they recall comrades who could not be saved or the horrible trauma of watching people, badly burned, struggle in the water after being torpedoed.   Excellently read audiobook by Michael Pritchard, one of my favorites.

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