As for winners and losers, Hastings ends his highly readable book with the apposite question of whether Operation Pedestal was worth the loss of 13 ships, 34 planes and some 500 men. The Axis powers declared themselves victorious after claiming so many scalps. Yet Hastings (among others) argues that the Malta convoy was an operational success for the Allies, tipping the balance in the central Mediterranean in favour of the British.
Moreover, the battle was a morale-booster that raised the spirits of a nation sorely in need of good news. Churchill understood that this display of fortitude, although won at great cost, offered a glimpse of eventual victory.
Hastings has written many wonderful books, usually on a broader canvas than this. But few combine so well his unique gifts as a historian: an understanding of human nature, a nose for a telling quotation, and the ability to write gripping prose. If this is his first stab at maritime history, it surely won’t be his last.
All this detail renders these men appropriately human. That’s the way war should be told, but so often it isn’t. More fundamentally, Hastings’s sensitivity to the human side of war allows him to understand what Pedestal was really about. Since only five cargo ships eventually made it to the Grand Harbour, it’s easy to question the operation’s logic. Pedestal seems like two bald men fighting over a comb. But humans aren’t logical and neither is war. Moral issues, as Churchill understood, are just as important as material ones. Malta was an essential display of British fortitude at a critical moment in time. “Warships existed to fight, and if necessary to sink, in pursuit of national purpose.” Bravo.