Good evening from the Major who writes from Worcestershire where the clear evening air carries a chill, a message from the dark months to come. The Major writes early with the blueprint of the evening being to eat and drink lightly and be to bed at a reasonable hour.
I know you are wondering if you have come to the right place or whether indeed the Major has been kidnapped and some phony is ghostwriting this weeks sermon. Fear not, for I am to Birmingham tomorrow and a full day of debauchery with an old friend, an Australian, that sort of cheery soul who is good for a laugh, good with the bottle, good for some mischief, I liked him the first day I met him.
My Irish readers, who are legion, would be proud as the Major arranged to meet him some weeks ago as the All Ireland final was closing to a stalemate after an unbelievable match. You needed no expertise to feel that this was a special moment. I was plenty entertained by the endeavours, the skill in the forwards was inspirational, shots were being fired in from every angle and distance, under intense pressure, that in spite of having no prior knowledge of the game, I determined right then, that I would watch the rematch.
For those unfamiliar with the game it involves sticks, a small hard ball, nothing obvious in the way of body armour and two teams of strapping likely sorts intent on a bit of light hearted savagery. The moment that stunned me the most was when the referee blew up for an infringement. This was made shocking as to that point, I had no idea that there were specific rules in play, what is more, I could no decipher which barbaric act had fallen foul of the rules given that each action seemed as brutal as the last and as such picking which was a transgression, well, I would not like to live on the difference.
This week, saw the Major to London again. In fear of sounding vulgar I shall not dwell on those magnificent pieces that stole my heart once more. Lest to say that one wore a sensational grey one piece work outfit that shimmered each time the sharp crack of her heels rang out from the cobbles of Tower Hill. Ah, she took some of my soul.
That soul was roused again, within minutes, as at Tower Hill there is a simple monument in honour of Malta. With some time to kill, I lingered at it. It is a large square simple stone decorated on each side by a black marble plaque, quite large and inscribed with various slices of the legendary siege of Malta.
Malta was already an island with decent form when it came to sieges. In the sixteenth century, the island held out from an Ottaman invasion and as such was the first such successful European power to repel the Turks.
However, in World War Two, the resilience of Malta became a crucial act of the war. The island is strategically highly important lying just a few hundred miles from the North African theatre, a crucial campaign to defeat Italian interests and divert Nazi resources from defeating the Russians in the East.
During the early stages of the North African campaign, while the Axis powers held the upper hand in Africa, Malta was a considerable thorn in their side. British military assets could run sorties to disrupt supply lines by sea and air. Rommel knew that without Malta, North Africa would struggle to hold and thus a full frontal siege and assault on the island was embarked upon using Luftwaffe assets deployed on Sicily.
Malta had limited defences and significant Luftwaffe airfields were within 100 miles. In July 1940, the first relief convoys arrived with no intervention and a mere 80 raids were carried out on the island. By Autumn 1940, the Italians were capitulating in North Africa and the Germans were sending reinforcements. Malta became crucial. The Axis command resolved to up the pressure and throughout the year, attacks increased until by autumn they were around the clock. Axis plans to increase raids to intercept supply convoys were made. In early 1941, HMS Illustrious was damaged by Axis bombers and the entire civilian population of Malta moved into caves for cover from the ceaseless bombardment.
By late summer 1941, severe rationing was in place as the island simply could not sustain itself. In the August, Crete fell to the Axis but crucially, September saw 8 ships arrive with life saving supplies for the islanders, including more spitfires to aid defence. Throughout this time, it is easy to think of the island of a defenceless sitting duck but this was not the whole picture. Malta continued to be a magnificent asset to the North African campaign, even at this time of starvation, raiding forces from Malta were able to stop half of all Axis supplies intended for North Africa.
In October 1941, supplies were dangerously low again but once again the island was saved once again, this time by the deployment of the British submarine fleet to bring vital sustenance.
By February 1942, more than 250 air raids are run over Malta in a desperate Axis bid to put the island down. In the same month, an allied convoy from Alexandria is destroyed and the supply and stockpile situation again reaches critical. The balance of Europe hangs by the thread. The Luftwaffe with inferior technology, losing five to one planes against the Spitfires and Hurricanes, continue to throw enormous resources at Malta. Food that does arrive on the island is even tainted by the taste of high explosives and the denizens continue to burrow underground, resolute.
The allied forces also know that the island is a vital pawn. Unable to succour the inhabitants at this time, with unbelievable bravery and determination, a consignment of two spitfires arrive by aircraft carrier along with 5,000 tonnes of supplies, all delivered while under sustained and heavy fire. 16,000 buildings have been destroyed but just 1,000 islanders have died thanks to their subterranean existence. Six and a half million kilos of ordinance have been discharged on Malta to this point. With the population unwavering, standing firm and fighting as best as their condition allows, the King made an astonishing gesture. He awarded the second highest military award, the George Cross, acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger, to the entire island population of Malta.
Yet in that spring, Maltese fighter squadrons were at dangerously low levels and the outcome was very uncertain. The USS Wasp managed to break the siege with a vital supply of new spitfires all the way from Castle Bromwich in Birmingham, god bless my home town. Food stocks remained perilous.
The crunch came in the August of 42. Supplies were at a critical stage, the Axis were determined to succeed in Egypt following some successes since they had joined the Italians there and the game of Malta became a death match. The citizens would starve to death without further relief and so naval command ordered Operation Pedestal, an all out, must get through convoy. We would throw everything we had at it and so would the Axis.
21 Destroyers, 7 cruisers, 4 Carriers and 2 Battleship were deployed to protect the fastest 14 merchant ships the allies could muster, all stocked with crucial fuel and food. The Axis put to see 7 cruisers but a dozen submarines and their main assault was to be from the air. Some 600 Axis fighters and bombers engaged the convoy who were to find it warm work all the way. Five days and nights the battle raged.
On such small turns are great events won. The fury of the Axis assault scattered much of the flotilla and sunk HMS Eagle, a carrier and HMS Cairo, cruiser class. For such a high cost, supplies were landed. The prized merchant ships the Luftwaffe wanted to sink were hit hardest and nine sunk. Four landed, the island relieved, the tide to turn. The most remarkable sight was that of the brand new American tanker Ohio. Testament to the barbarous battle, she limped into the Grand Harbour, towed by destroyers, themselves badly damaged, on 15th August 1942. Her engines ruined, she had endured bombs and torpedoes and incredibly carried an Axis fighter ablaze across her deck. The crowd played Rule Britannia before dumbstruck by the scale of battle that her scars told had preceded her arrival sobered them up and a silence fell in respect of the dead at sea.
Malta, once again became the first European fortress to withstand the onslaught. They once again proved a pivotal point in a great conflict. In late 1942, allied forces routed the Axis in North Africa and all thanks to a plucky beautiful lump of rock and the hearty residents that held out alone against a diabolical rainfall for so long. In November supplies were arriving unmolested, so quickly after the moment did the advantage take hold, something we see, mimicked in sport.
That monument I lingered at, is not some fancy obelisk, no, something much more suitable. A large block of stone, hewn from those Maltese caves in which folk sought refuge, praying for salvation. As Roosevelt paid homage, in person on Malta in 1943, he said, one tiny, bright flame in the darkness. A beacon of light for the clearer days which have come.
My own siege is unbroken. I have not had a good week in recent memory. The darkness is murderously thick and salvation seems so very far away. Yet I call on us all again to don our war paint, to do so not wearily but with vigour and intent.
To the sports.
The Royal Lodge looks a race full of pace this year with Elm Park and Medrano likely to unleash some serious early speed and they are amongst others who will want to get their heads in front. Thus I am looking for the classiest closer in the line up and it looks an obviously sensible approach to consider Nafaqa who beat Toocoolforschool at Doncaster, which now looks like incredible form following the Mill Reef in which his defeated foe romped home. I am a little scpetical about the Mill Reef form, the ground was sticky and plenty of the others did not act on it but Toocoolforschool absolutely murdered them and despite the fact I cannot take it on face value, it merits respect.
The thing is Nafaqa (6/4) also beat him very well indeed at Donnie and Hanagan in the saddle is a massive boost. He has having a terrific summer and while I have always thought him a very good jockey, full of confidence as he is, he is a massive plus.
Tiggy Wiggy (11/10) wins the Cheveley Park. She is one of the most exciting horses I have seen this summer. An absolute ball of speed and so highly thought of by Hughsie. I am all in.
I know you want a Cambridgeshire bet but I am not going there.
Instead, I am heading to Chester where I normally can find a few winners. The course will ride a little slower with the going being good to soft but that should not put us off horses that… like a tight track, are drawn low and don’t mind having their toe in.
In the 2.30, I am suggesting a massive 14/1 shot (Bet365) in Bethany Bay who has won at the course. The horse spent some time at Meydan and returned with a slightly subdued run in Ireland latest. I am not put off and I think from Stall 3, we could have a really good run for our money.
In the 3.05, Potent Embrace has the draw and the credentials to do us proud at 7/1. It took some time for the penny to drop and two stiff rises have followed two wins, one here and one at Pontefract. That said, these Johnstone sorts when on a roll can be worth sticking with and we all know he trains them with some sort of magic voodoo to be hard to pass. Draw might not be as important over 1m 2f but it is still a factor and I like this one.
I like Shes a Worldie in the 4.15 at 7/1 – She started an outsider for the Flying Childers and did not trouble the principals but certainly was not embarrassed. This is evidently a hell of a lot easier than G2 standard and I like the fact that she likes to be prominent. If she can break smartly from five and get across then she stands a damn fine chance.
It is a one race raid for the 2.15 listed hurdle. At this stage of the season, it is worth following yard form for the jumps. The summer jumpers have been doing their stuff, the proper beasts are warming up in the background with seasonal targets being mooted, punters are clicking on the antepost buttons in anticipation scanning the lists… Vautour, Faugheen. I like to back yards in form as an important facet at this stage.
This can be tricky as between Henderson, Ferguson and Vaughan, three operations represented, they have only had five runners in the last two weeks. That said, three were winners and so it is foolish to entirely rule out the yards who are brushing the cobwebs from the horse transporters.
Yet, Pipe catches the eye, he has had five winners and three places in the last fortnight from 11 runners. I am backing his runner Purple and Gold who is one of those with mixed form to say the least. That form is genuinely mixed though as in there are some decent themes to it and the animal is at least consistent. That said, Mijhaar looks a damn worthy favourite on the hurdling debut he made but subsequently a fall and a misfire (although in far better company) while obviously not enough to write him off yet, caused some concern. What puts me off is that the headgear he used to sport is left off and without a recent run, even in spite of the form I advertised for the Ferguson operation, I am left unsure. Call me wrong if you like, it was a fine balance.
Belmont and Santa Anita
I won’t offer much fun on the Santa Anita card but do want to back the two good things in Beholder (Zenyatta Stakes) and Shared Belief (Awesome Again Stakes). Forget I said it.
At Belmont, in the Joe Hirsh, I am backing Imagining as I have little faith in Main Sequence.
West Ham are a big price to win at Manchester United (7/1). That defence is held together with string and West Ham have some powerful players that need marking. Peterborough have not excelled in recent weeks and have returned to better prices and so at evens I want to dive in for them at home to Fleetwood.
The Martin Hill bet is Nafaqa, Tiggy Wiggy and Bethany Bay in a powerful trixie with Bet365 while they still offer up that 14s.
May your dinner be simple. Boil some rice and dash in a little soy sauce. It is delicious. Do so in the company of a good friend and what you save on dinner, invest in the wine.
Courage, roll the dice.