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In Passage Perilous

Malta and the Convoy Battles of June 1942

Vincent P. O'Hara

Publication Year: 2012

By mid-1942 the Allies were losing the Mediterranean war: Malta was isolated and its civilian population faced starvation. In June 1942 the British Royal Navy made a stupendous effort to break the Axis stranglehold. The British dispatched armed convoys from Gibraltar and Egypt toward Malta. In a complex battle lasting more than a week, Italian and German forces defeated Operation Vigorous, the larger eastern effort, and ravaged the western convoy, Operation Harpoon, in a series of air, submarine, and surface attacks culminating in the Battle of Pantelleria. Just two of seventeen merchant ships that set out for Malta reached their destination. In Passage Perilous presents a detailed description of the operations and assesses the actual impact Malta had on the fight to deny supplies to Rommel's army in North Africa. The book's discussion of the battle's operational aspects highlights the complex relationships between air and naval power and the influence of geography on littoral operations.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Twentieth-Century Battles

Title Page, Copyright

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List of Tables / Maps

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xiii

On 26 June 1942, against a backdrop of warships with elevated guns, two columns of sailors massed on a quay on the Neapolitan waterfront and witnessed Benito Mussolini, Italy’s premier and supreme military leader, and Admiral Arturo Riccardi, the Regia Marina’s chief of staff, present medals...

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pp. xv

I would like to thank my friend Enrico Cernuschi, who provided crucial material from the Italian archives and, as always, helped in many other ways. Vincent O’Hara Sr., Karl Zingheim, and Dennis Dove read portions of the manuscript. Michael Yaklich carefully tackled the whole thing and...

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1. The Vital Sea

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pp. 1-10

On 29 June 1940, as German armies gathered along the English Channel, the giant liners Aquitania, Mauretania, and Queen Mary departed the Clyde and Liverpool. These fast and valuable vessels carried eleven thousand troops bound for Egypt to bring British formations stationed there up...

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2. Malta and the Mediterranean War to 1942

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pp. 11-38

When the Mediterranean conflict began on 10 June 1940, the Royal Navy and French Marine Nationale confronted the Regia Marina with twelve battleships and carriers against Italy’s two battleships. They had twenty-seven cruisers compared to Italy’s twenty-one and a destroyer advantage of...

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3. The Mediterranean War January to May 1942

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pp. 39-61

Despite America’s entry into the conflict, Great Britain remained the true foe in the mind of most Italians. On 27 December Mussolini spoke to his Council of Ministers and admitted that the war would continue three or four more years. “Russia will be liquidated as an opponent. To win the war...

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4. Global Snapshot—June 1942

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pp. 62-86

On 10 March 1942 Supermarina issued a strategic assessment. It correctly noted that “above all other considerations the enemy coalition has enormous economic opportunities for sustaining a war of long duration. . . . Their vulnerability lies in the length and complexity of the maritime communications...

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5. Operation Vigorous

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pp. 87-122

On 18 April the Chiefs of Staff Committee concluded that it would be impossible to send a convoy to Malta in May. Instead they decided to mount a massive operation during the June dark period—a simultaneous double convoy from Alexandria and Gibraltar. The western operation, dubbed...

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6. Operation Harpoon

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pp. 123-142

The western convoy operation, Harpoon, followed the template established by operations Substance and Halberd. Aircraft carriers would provide fighter cover over the transports during the passage from Gibraltar past the Axis air bases on Sardinia and Sicily. The convoy would reach the entrance...

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7. The Battle of Pantelleria

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pp. 143-174

At 0620 the eastern sky was beginning to brighten. A light northwest breeze rippled the surface of the sea. Force X bore twenty-five miles southwest of Pantelleria, steaming toward Malta at a steady twelve knots. The merchant ships sailed in two columns with Cairo leading. The destroyers screened...

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8. The August Convoy

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pp. 175-199

London appreciated the need for another Malta convoy even before Admiral Curteis sighted Gibraltar’s rock. On 17 June, Churchill, on his way to Washington to meet with Roosevelt, wrote to the deputy prime minister, “I am relying upon you to treat the whole question of the relief of Malta as...

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9. Torch to the End of the War

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pp. 200-209

Even after Operation Pedestal there was still insufficient food to adequately feed Malta’s population, but there was enough, supplemented by the harvest, to defer starvation. Shortages of fuel, ammunition, and torpedoes still limited the island’s usefulness as a base against Axis traffic. A contemporary...

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pp. 210-217

Why did the British Empire fight in the Mediterranean? The usual answer is that it fought to protect its vital interests: Malta and the Middle East. In fact, in August 1940 these interests faced a negligible threat; the fact was that the British Empire had nowhere else to fight. Given the demonstrated power...


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pp. 219-223


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pp. 225-240


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pp. 241-251


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pp. 253-265

E-ISBN-13: 9780253006059
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253006035

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Twentieth-Century Battles

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Malta -- History -- Siege, 1940-1943.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Campaigns -- Malta.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Campaigns -- Mediterranean Sea.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Naval operations, British.
  • Naval convoys -- Mediterranean Sea -- History -- 20th century.
  • Great Britain. Royal Navy -- History -- World War, 1939-1945.
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