Operation Pedestal teaches us that we can’t take freedom for granted | Simon Cusens

For historian and WWII researcher SIMON CUSENS, commemorating the ‘Santa Marija Convoy’ is about more than just preserving the memories of a past that in danger of being forgotten

Simon Cusens
Simon Cusens

Last Monday marked the 80th anniversary of Operation Pedestal: the convoy that is credited with sparing the island certain defeat in WWII. But 80 years also marks the span of a single human life: which means that none of the protagonists is still alive to tell the tale. Meanwhile, a younger generation is rising, that has no reason to feel any connection with such distant historical events at all. Are you concerned, then, that the significance of Operation Pedestal may be increasingly undervalued, as time goes on?

I’m very worried about it. In fact, a lot of the work I am involved with, is precisely to leave more wartime anecdotes – either in cyberspace, or in the printed media – so that hopefully, Operation Pedestal does not get ‘lost in translation’; and forgotten, over time.

Because as you can imagine: when the primary sources die out, that is very likely to happen. For instance: how many people, alive today, can tell you about Malta in World War I? Very, very few.  Malta in World War II, on the other hand? There are a lot. Why? Because even though the protagonists are no longer with us; some of their children, and grandchildren, are still alive; and they would have been brought up on anecdotes from that period.

Sadly, however, time has a very effective way of destroying memories. Because apart from the fact that the passage of time ravages those memories… you also get ‘distortions’…

Does that include our own perceptions of Operation Pedestal? Do you think that our inherited memories of that event, may also have been ‘distorted’ in the re-telling?

Let me put this way. Here in Malta, we tend to talk about Operation Pedestal as the mission that ‘saved Malta from surrender’. But was it really just that? What if I told you that there are two other major reasons – one of which was only born this year – why we should commemorate Operation Pedestal: apart from the fact that it saved Malta during the war?

One of them is its impact on the outcome of World War II itself. How many people know, for instance, that the convoy indirectly shortened the war by as much as 18 months?  Just imagine, then, how many tens of thousands of lives were [pre-emptively] ‘saved’, because Rommel was stopped at Al Alamein… and could not venture into the Middle East, to complete Hitler’s Final Solution on the Jewish people’s own home soil.  (Not the State of Israel – because that was not established until 1948 – but the traditional homeland of the Jews.)

It’s a rhetorical question, naturally. God alone knows what would have happened, had Rommel succeeded… and Hitler managed to get his hands on the oil fields of the Middle East. We could discuss an entire alternative history, on that basis… and never finish.

But we do know why Rommel was, in fact, stopped at El Alamein. It was partly because – within three weeks from Operation Pedestal – the Malta-based submarines, and the Malta RAF, and the Royal Navy, sunk 100,000 tonnes of convoys, destined for North Africa, that had sailed from Italy. So Rommel’s advance was stalled, because he ran out of resources: fuel, ammunition, spare parts, and so on.

In a nutshell, Operation Pedestal turned Malta from the ‘defensive’, to the ‘offensive’. Within a few months – by May 1943 – all the Italian and German forces in North Africa had surrendered. And what happened after that? Almost instantly, Sicily was invaded. Or at least, that’s what people say. But was it really just Sicily that was invaded? I’ll tell you that it was the whole of ‘Nazi-occupied Europe’, that was invaded… through Sicily; and from Malta.

And that accelerated the battle for Berlin. Within a year and a half, it became a three-pronged pincer movement: with the Allies advancing from Normandy in the West; the Russians, from the East; and the Allies also advancing from the South, beyond Cassino.

So ultimately, you can understand that Pedestal wasn’t just about ‘saving Malta’. It was a complex military operation, designed for multiple purposes: to defend the ‘fortress’ that was Malta; to defeat the Axis in North Africa, and eastwards; and to capitalise on Europe’s weakest penetration-point, at the time… which was Sicily. 

Earlier you mentioned another reason to commemorate Operation Pedestal: one which was ‘born earlier this year’. Can you elaborate?

If there’s one thing the events of the past year has taught us, it is that we can never take our freedom for granted. Because now, we know that ‘Fascism’ is not something that belongs only to history books, or in our archives. We had a good run of 80 years, without it; but now it’s back, on our continent.

It’s not ‘Black Fascism’. It’s ‘Red Fascism’. But it’s Fascism, nonetheless. It’s still a case of: ‘somebody invades you, because things aren’t the way he wants them to be.’ So that person invades a sovereign territory – a free people – because he wants to impose his own political views on others…

And I think the younger generation needs to know, that there was a time when their own country was… raped, essentially: as Ukraine is being raped today. We were blitzed; bombarded, relentlessly; and our own version of Mariupol, lasted three whole years…. not three months.

No electricity. People living in holes, like rats. People going hungry, and unable to go to hospital to get proper treatment… just look at how the world reacted, when we saw 90 days of this [in Mariupol]. Well, our grandparents’ generation put up with three years of it, 80 years ago.

So what I would really like younger people to understand, is that what we’re actually celebrating - when we commemorate Operation Pedestal each year - is not just a distant historic event.  It’s also a warning, that we should not be ‘putting our guard down’. Just look northwards, towards central Europe, and you’ll see… it’s happening again.

One aspect that is often highlighted about Operation Pedestal (and wartime Malta, in general) is, in fact, the resilience of the Maltese people. It’s what we were ultimately awarded the George Cross for: ‘Gallantry’… which implies not just ‘bravery’, but also stoical forbearance: the sort of quality that the British, at the time, used to call ‘pluck’. Do you feel that part of that wartime ‘spirit’, so the speak, has been lost?

If you ask me what was the biggest element that helped keep the people united… and that has been lost, today… I would say it was their faith in God, and religion in general.

The role of the Catholic Church, in World War II – and also the religious fervour of the people of Malta: their fear of God; and their respect for the fundamentals of Catholicism – was, to my mind, the most singular factor that rationalised their situation; and helped them ‘plod on’, in the face of emptiness and despair.

Because the situation really was desperate. There was, quite frankly, nothing left… not even food. By August 1942, the Council of Government was debating the mass-slaughter of poultry, and farmyard animals - including horses and cows – to provide sustenance to an island that was already living beyond its means: because it needed to import so much more, than it could grow organically here.

It was the people’s religious sentiment, at the time, that helped them endure all that hardship. And I would say that sentiment has been lost, today. Most Maltese people are now a-religious. Shortly, we can expect our Parliament to begin to debate removing Catholicism, as our national religion. And I think that – whether one agrees, or not – it is a fact that there is no single religion that represents more than 50% of the population…

I wasn’t expecting to go in this direction: but that only raises the question of whether Nation States should even have such things as ‘an official State religion’ to begin with…

Should they? I would say, definitely not. Because what is a State? It’s the representative of its elements; its people. And if you have people who are a-religious… the State represents them, too. So you can’t impose religion, on people who are not religious.

However, you did ask me if I felt that ‘something was lost’.  And yes, I think that something has been lost. Today, there is no sense of communal ‘brotherhood’; of people coming together, or rallying around a central cause. It doesn’t really happen, anymore. People have become very self-centred.

Even in governance: we hear many stories, of people in authority who are basically looking out for themselves, and for their pockets. It’s all over the country: in every aspect of our daily lives…

I see your point, but isn’t there also the danger that we may be over-romanticising the past? You recently published details of ‘looting’ that had taken place during the war, for instance… including pilferage of some of the supplies delivered by Operation Pedestal itself. Doesn’t this undermine the argument that ‘things were different, back then’?

Good observation. But when we speak about the looting that took place at that time… we are also talking about people who were literally ‘at their wits’ end’. And what was this ‘mass-criminality’ in pursuit of, anyway? Did those people loot ‘gold’? Or ‘silver’? No. We didn’t have people breaking into banks, or jewellery shops, to steal valuables for themselves. What those people stole was…

.. food, mostly. Or anything that could help them acquire food: through barter, or by any other means. But people didn’t buy ‘diamonds’. They might have paid the same price, for a ‘carton of eggs’ - which was worth its weight in gold, during the war – but whatever they bought, or stole: it was out of necessity.

And even today, we still hear of occasional cases, where people end up stealing because they can’t afford to buy food. The law-courts adopt a policy of leniency, in all such cases… because they recognise that it’s not the same thing, as ‘stealing out of greed’…

No doubt; but it also casts a different light on Anglo-Maltese relations during the war. Some people argue – even in comments – that part of the reason for the looting was that the Colonial Government used to reserve most of the imported food for high-ranking officers (and other VIPs). How much truth is there to such claims? Were relations between the British and Maltese less ‘rosy’, than history books make them appear?

I have biased views, because I am lucky enough to have talked with many of the protagonists who sailed on Operation Pedestal. But what I can say is that, in 166 years of British rule in Malta – and I should really say ‘occupation’; because the British were never invited here to take possession of the islands. They were only asked to provide military protection to its inhabitants, as Malta governed its own affairs…

… but of all those 166 years of British presence here, those three of World War II turned out to be the ‘Golden Years’ of British-Maltese relations. Throughout the rest of the period, however, there were consistent tensions… which broke out into open violence both before WWII – in June 1919 – and also soon afterwards: in 1956-58.

Even during those ‘Golden Years’, however, those tensions had never really faded away entirely. Today, for instance, you can easily spin Operation Pedestal as ‘that mission where the British saved the besieged islanders of Malta’.

But I know – because I spoke to the protagonists – that Britain already had a plan to abandon Malta, in the event that Operation Pedestal failed. It involved keeping a submarine, in the south of Malta, at the ready to take on board a token number of VIPs:  in the process, abandoning not just Malta… but also thousands of members of the Malta garrison, including mostly English soldiers…

So if the British were ready to abandon 30,000 of their own soldiers; my guess is that it wouldn’t have been such a big deal, for them to also abandon 160,000 Maltese…

Lastly, there is a local level at which Operation Pedestal may also have been distorted. It is only here in Malta, for instance, that we refer to it the ‘Santa Marija Convoy’ – sometimes going a step further, and attributing the success of the operation to Our Lady herself. As a historian, how do you feel about these embellishments?

Ultimately, what people ‘think Operation Pedestal was’, or ‘what it is today’, all depends on how superficial their knowledge of the subject is.

I’ve gone very deeply into the subject, myself. So I can understand the goose-flesh, and the tears, of the older generation of Maltese people who still remembered the convoy coming into harbour, on August 15 1942: and spoke, in the first person, about what it meant to them.

And they were right: it really was the ‘salvation’ they thought it was, for Malta. So I understand how they also sometimes speak about it in terms of a ‘miracle’… the intervention of the ‘Madonna’, and all that…

But it wasn’t a ‘miracle’, exactly. It was a highly complex, meticulously-planned military operation: which was intended not just to ‘save Malta’… but also to turn the tide of the entire war.

And if there’s any reason to continue commemorating its success, 80 years later: it is also because it reminds us that the ‘War against Fascism’ did not really end, with the Allied victory in 1945.

It’s happening again, today: and Operation Pedestal reminds us of the need to be vigilant.