Commemorating Operation Pedestal
By Darrin Zammit Lupi
In ever dwindling numbers, elderly war veterans keep their annual mid-August appointment in Valletta’s Grand Harbour to take part in a commemorative service marking the anniversary of Operation Pedestal. Known to the Maltese as the Santa Marija convoy (as it had reached the island on the feast day of Our Lady of the Assumption, an important day in Malta’s religious calendar), Pedestal was a desperate attempt by the Allied forces to get much-needed supplies of food, fuel and ammunition to the bomb-battered island of Malta in August 1942, at the height of the war in the Mediterranean.
Malta, a British air and naval base at the time, was on the brink of starvation and close to surrendering to the Axis powers that surrounded it on all sides. The operation’s success, albeit with heavy losses, has gone down in military history as one of the most important British strategic victories of World War Two, even though it was in many ways a tactical disaster.
To commemorate the 60th anniversary 11 years ago an old school friend of mine, Simon Cusens, took it upon himself to make contact with survivors of the convoy and arrange to bring them to Malta to mark the anniversary. 105 convoy veterans attended that year, including three former enemies, watching a highly emotional re-enactment of the August 15, 1942, arrival to the beleaguered island of the tanker SS Ohio, the ship that carried the most crucial supply of fuel and is, to this day, considered to be the island’s savior.
Every year since that day they have returned, but their numbers grow fewer. Many have passed away, reuniting in the great beyond with their colleagues among the 400 plus allied servicemen who perished during the operation. Others are too old and frail to travel.
Only three made it this year. A poignant moment is always when they are asked to raise their hands so that other attendees can spot them. Soon there will be no one left to come. Though there’s no doubt in my mind that the commemorations will continue, it won’t be the same without the veterans, the men who sailed through the fires of hell to save the island.
I’ve been fortunate to have sat down with a couple of these national heroes during media interviews during which they related their still-crystal clear memories of those days, and I’ve never fail to be moved by their words. At the same time, I recall the stories told to me by my grandparents, and how shortly after the convoy arrived, a bomb had demolished their house, burying my grandmother and my mother -a newborn infant at the time – under tonnes of rubble. My uncle, the eldest child in the family, in order to get out, had to crawl over the bloody corpse of the woman who ran a small grocery store next door to the house. Eight people died at that instant in the street. By some miracle, my grandmother and mother, and all her siblings, survived.
I’m going to make it a point to take my young daughter with me to next year’s service. I believe it’s essential for today’s children to understand what their forefathers went through, to keep the collective memory alive, and appreciate how much we all owe to so few, and I suppose, just how fortunate we are in this part of the world.
Covering it every year means more than just doing another assignment. I’d like to think that, if I weren’t a news photographer, I’d still be keeping that annual appointment myself.