Operation Perpetual

Malta was the key to the Central Mediterranean. As long as it was in British hands, Rommel’s supply lines from Sicily and Italy were under threat. But Malta was only 60 miles south of Sicily, well within Italian and Luftwaffe bomber ranges and 100 miles from the main Italian naval base at Taranto. The island was surrounded by Italian minefields and small surface raiders, and prowled by German E-boats and U-boats. The island was under siege since the day Mussolini declared war on the British.

Keeping the island supplied under such a threat required massive operations for the simplest of items. Critical parts, code books ext were run in on fast minelayer or submarines, but everything required for the 35,000 man garrison to attack the Axis and for daily life for the 200,000 Maltese had to be convoyed in with large numbers of escorts, demonstrations and feints by fleet units, and intricate deception operations. Until Sicily was invaded in 1943, the Royal Navy (and eventually the US Navy) conducted 35 named operations involving Force H from the Atlantic Fleet at Gibraltar, Force K, the raiders in Malta, and the RAF and Mediterranean Fleet in Egypt, to keep Malta in the fight and from starving into surrender.

On 13 November 1941, the British launched Operation Perpetual, and it involved every Royal Navy sailor and RAF airman in the Mediterranean basin, and even included raids by the Long Range Desert Group on Rommel’s airfields in Libya lest they be used to attack the convoy. The operation went off perfectly despite the heavy German and Italian response. A month of painstaking planning and preparation between commands separated by thousands of miles (in the era before telecommunications) and a dogged enemy between them paid off. The only hiccup was the loss of the carrier Ark Royal (whose aircraft were instrumental in the sinking of the Bismarck) on the return trip when she was torpedoed by U-81 just outside the harbor at Gibraltar. But the cargo was delivered:

Just 35 Hawker Hurricane fighters.

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