In Review

Operation Pedestal by Max Hastings

A ‘heart-stopping’ account of one of the Royal Navy’s most audacious missions, by Max Hastings

In August 1942, the Royal Navy launched one of the most audacious missions in its history, said Saul David in The Sunday Telegraph. For the previous two years, the Mediterranean island of Malta – then a British colony – had been bombed and blockaded by the Axis powers. Its 300,000 inhabitants were close to starvation – some had resorted to eating rats – and Winston Churchill feared that Britain might lose its “island fortress”.

So he ordered “Operation Pedestal”: 14 supply ships were dispatched to the island, escorted by a fleet of battleships, aircraft carriers and submarines. Max Hastings’s new book, his “first stab at maritime history”, is an often “heart-stopping” account of the mission that demonstrates his “unique gifts as a historian”.

The fleet set out from Gibraltar on 11 August, and soon ran into trouble, said Giles Milton in The Sunday Times. On the first day, the “giant British aircraft carrier Eagle” was struck by four German torpedoes; it sank, killing 131 men. Over the next three days, many more losses were sustained: only five of the merchant ships made it to Malta, and some 500 British lives were lost.

Was it worth it? Although many historians have claimed it wasn’t, Hastings argues that the mission was an “operational success, tipping the balance in the central Mediterranean in favour of the British”. Moreover, he says, the fact that some of the ships reached their destination enabled Churchill to present it as a victory, raising the spirits of a nation “sorely in need of good news”.

Hastings’s narration has a remarkable immediacy, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. “We feel in our bones torpedoes hitting home.” Much about our world has changed over the past year, but one thing remains reassuringly constant: “Max Hastings still churns out military histories, and they continue to be outstanding.”

William Collins 464pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

Max Hastings book
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To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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