As Malta marks the 77th anniversary of the Santa Marija convoy, which saved the island from capitulation in the second world war, it is interesting to look back at associated aspects.
Fourteen merchant ships had set off from Gibraltar for Malta, escorted by a huge fleet of warships including four aircraft carriers. They were subjected to constant aerial bombing and attacks by u-boats and torpedo boats. Just five of the 14 ships managed to make it to Grand Harbour, including the tanker Ohio, on August 15, 1942, but they were enough for Malta to survive the stranglehold of the German and Italian forces.
The Italian fascists regarded the outcome of the Battaglia di mezzo agosto or Battaglia del Canale di Sicilia, as they called ‘Operation Pedestal’, to have been a resounding, massive victory for the Axis forces. More recent commentators in Italy also hold that view.
One commentator said: “Si tratta senza dubbio di una grandissima vittoria italiana, forse la più grande e di certo la più clamorosa di tutta la Guerra del Mediterraneo… una completa vittoria… per gli Inglesi è una disfatta.”
In August 1942, after the battaglia, Italian newsreels and newspapers proclaimed ‘Il giorno bilancio’, referring to the massive losses of the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy. Each sunken vessel was named and trumpeted, and a list was published.
It was a one-sided situation, with the ships bringing relief to Malta passing through a gauntlet of massive risk through narrow waters dominated on each side by a marauding, heavily armed opponent.
“Dal Mediterraneo non si passa” was reiterated loudly to satisfy a long-held yearning and imperialist emotions.
After the battle, Mussolini issued a special ‘proclama’ to ‘ufficiali, marinai, avieri’ and went personally to award decorations.
General Augusto Palmieri, a pilot himself, described the Duce going to Elmas in Sardinia, from where many of the attacks on the convoywere made. The Duce had a ‘valigetta di medaglie’ and gave a speech telling his men that “il leone inglese ha subito (preso) nel fianco il morso della lupa di Roma”.
Many lost their life to relieve Malta. We remain forever grateful and reverent
There are myriad stories and opinions on both sides of the conflict.
To us Maltese, the crucial point was that despite the boast “nel Mediterraneo non si passa”, five ships laden with essential provisions got through.
The convoy had to sail through a narrow channel while being attacked incessantly by plane, motor torpedo boats and submarines, of which Italy had a big fleet.
To the Maltese, it will be always Il-Konvoj ta’ Santa Marija, ‘Operation Pedestal’, a strong column of support, which it proved to be from several crucial aspects.
August 15, Santa Marija of 1942, was the first of four joyous days of relief, all four days dedicated to Our Lady. It was followed by September 8, 1943, the Nativity of Our Lady (Il-Vitorja), with peace with Italy and the arrival of its modern fleet to lie “at anchor under the guns of the fortress of Malta”.
Then, on May 8, 1945, the surrender of Nazi Germany, and on August 15, 1945, the surrender of Japan.
The merits or justifications of claiming a great victory on a fleet which was not challenged by another fleet at sea is debatable. The only aim of the convoy was to get supplies through, which was done.
Many lost their life to relieve Malta. We remain forever grateful and reverent. We, Maltese, were the immediate beneficiaries because we were not occupied.
Eighty years before, in 1858, Withworth Porter, an English general stationed in Malta, wrote with acute, prophetic foresight: “English hearts and English swords now protect these ramparts which previously glistened with the ensigns of the Order of St John… should occasion ever demand the sacrifice, the world will find that British blood will be poured like water in defence of that rock…. So it came to pass: Operation Pedestal!”
When Porter wrote, Europe was echoing with the thunder and tragedy of the Crimean War. The Charge of the Light Brigade, a unique story immortalised by Lord Alfred Tennyson, still reverberated. The Light Brigade had been ordered to charge through a valley, the ‘valley of death’, to capture guns from the Russians.
They faced “cannon in front of them, cannon to the left, cannon to the right”.
“Someone hath blundered and they suffered fifty per cent casualties, gaining naught but honour and fame.”
Similarly, the Santa Marija Convoy faced cannon from the front, cannon from the right, cannon from the left, bombs from the sky and missiles from the deep.
As they sailed east towards the Canale di Sicilia, il Canale della Morte, to save Malta; “there was not to reason why, there was but to do and die!”.
Two-thirds of the ships of the convoy were lost. But the survivors saved Malta. What was done by the five ships that relieved Malta “maintained the highest traditions of men who have lived and died to preserve civilisation for all mankind”.
They did not boast, they did not fuss, they served.
Two months after the convoy, with Malta still standing and defiant, came the desert battle of El Alamein where the Allies launched the offensive which was to knock the Germans and the Italians off North Africa.
And, later, the launching of Operation Husky, the invasion of Italy and the fall of Fascism, the death of Mussolini and Ciano and the two horrible years of brutal war in Italy.
In the recent commemoration of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, noted that D-Day was the start of the liberation of German people from national socialism, from Nazism.
Similarly, the saving of Malta by the Konvoj ta’ Santa Marija was a key episode in the eventual defeat of Fascism to the advantage and benefit of our good neighbours, the Italian people, who were freed from the yoke of Fascist dictatorship.
Maybe, after the passage of 77 years, even the ranks of Tuscany can pause to stare, admire, praise and cheer!
George M. Boffa is a medical doctor with a particular interest in history who resides in Australia.