Summer, 1942. Malta. The island is now the most bombed place on the planet. Supplies are running unbearably thin. Rations are low; the people are starving. The aircraft have only a few weeks of fuel left. The island and its people are on the brink of surrender.
This was the grim situation in Malta as the month of August dawned in 1942. The British hierarchy knew that the loss of Malta would prove disastrous in their fight against the Germans and the Italians in North Africa; a front which if lost, may well have put the British out of the war entirely. All efforts to resupply the island however had thus far ended in failure. Convoys aimed at the island were unsuccessful; Operation Harpoon saw only 2 out of 6 merchant ships reach the island from Gibraltar, whilst Operation Vigorous was forced to turn back to Alexandria entirely. The Admirality knew of the importance of Malta and hastened to put together one last ditch attempt – a huge convoy with an unprecedented number of escort ships that would carry vital supplies to the island – a convoy that would be known as Operation Pedestal.
The Situation in Malta
Malta was in dire straits. The blitz had effectively levelled parts of the island and it was at it’s highest in 1942. The German Luftwaffe along with the Italian Regia Aeronautica were stationed in Sicily, only a 30 minute flight away from the island. Over the course of two years, the Italians flew just over 35,000 sorties over the island; whilst the Luftwaffe flew over 30,000 sorties against Malta in 1942 alone. The Royal Air Force meanwhile had Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires to call upon during this time; but losses were exceptionally high. Of the 340 aircraft to come through the island by the beginning of 1942; only 28 remained. New Spitfires were flown in from on aircraft carriers, but the Germans tracked their arrival and attacked the aircraft as soon as they landed, subsequently destroying them. The situation was such that by the evening of 21st April 1942, Malta was defended by just 17 Spitfires. By this point, Adolf Hitler’s strategy of bombing the island into submission seemed to be working. German supply lines to North Africa were practically untouched by Malta-based aircraft and submarines, and Field Marshall Albert Kesserling, who co-ordinated the bombardment, reported to his Fuhrer that “there is nothing left to bomb”. By May however, the situation had begun to turn. Mass British air reinforcements meant that the island had 5 full squadrons of Spitfires to call upon, and they managed to wrest control of Malta’s airspace from the Axis forces.
Malta therefore had the tools to fend off the immediate threat of the Axis; but it didn’t have anything to fuel its tools with. The range of the Spitfire was notoriously short and, since the presence of longer range aircraft such as the Bristol Beaufighter was not yet profound on the island, there was little air-protection for supply convoys coming into the island. This made them vulnerable targets for the Italians and the Germans, and convoys normally met a grizzly end. Operations Harpoon and Vigorous are perfect examples of that.
This meant that supplies were dwindling on the island. The average Maltese worker was consuming just 1,500 calories a day – by comparison, the consumption of an average worker in Britain never went under the 2,800 calorie mark at any point during the war. One could live with such a calorie intake; but it would lead to rapid weight loss and fatigue. Food wasn’t the only thing running out however. Medicine was also in extremely low supply; to the point that when RAF pilots fell sick, they were given a choice of medicine from either a blue, green, or brown bottle – all of which were filled with water as opposed to medicine (in psychology this is called the Placebo Effect). Fuel supplies were also dwindling. The local Air Commander – Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park – warned that there was only a few weeks supply left; and whilst minesweepers such as HMS Welshman and submarines were converted to transport fuel to the island; it was not enough.
The most important part of Operation Pedestal, was its merchant ships. 14 merchant vessels were loaded to the brim with supplies. Among the most important of them was the SS Ohio – a massive tanker that was loaned to the British by the American Navy, which was stocked to the brim with 12,000 tonnes of essential fuel. The other 13 ships between them amassed just over 130,000 tonnes of cargo comprised of anything from food to ammunition.
Escorting them was the biggest convoy escort force ever amassed to date. 4 aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, 7 light cruisers and 32 destroyers – along with a cohort of corvettes and fueling ships – were tasked with making sure those 14 merchant ships make it into Grand Harbour.
The convoy joined up in Gibraltar and set off into the Mediterranean Sea on August 9th, 1942.
The convoy – divided into separate forces – passed through the Straits of Gibraltar on the night of August 9th, thinking that they were unseen by the Germans. Axis intelligence however had seen the convoy make it through the straits and the British, who had cracked the German enigma code by now, were soon alerted to this. As a result, as the convoy came into the range of aircraft stationed in Sardinia, the Italians and Germans were ready. Before this however, the convoy was hit with an incredible blow. Early on the morning of the 11th, a German U-Boat (submarine) spotted the convoy, and began to maneuver itself into range. At 1:15pm, four torpedoes struck HMS Eagle – one of the aircraft carriers. Within 8 minutes, the carrier along with 231 men and all but 4 of its Hurricane aircraft (which were in the air at the time) was lost. Another 929 men were fished out of the water alive by two of the destroyers; but the convoy had now lost approximately 20% of its air cover – before it had even gotten into Axis controlled airspace.
The raids began that very night as 30 German bombers attacked the convoy. No ships were lost however and two planes were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. The rest of the night remained peaceful – but a storm was brewing as the Luftwaffe Supreme Commander Hermann Goring put out a directive that read;
“The destruction of this convoy is of decisive importance”
The only event through that night however was the destroyer HMS Wolverine ramming and sinking an Italian submarine whilst on patrol around one of the aircraft carriers.
The 12th dawned, and with it came a day of near continuous air raids. By the time evening fell, the convoy had been hit by over 10 waves of aircraft. HMS Indomitable, another aircraft carrier, was hit and damaged – essentially grounding its 47 aircraft – leaving the convoy with only 21 aircraft to defend itself with. The night was, as the captain of the cruiser HMS Kenya said, “chaotic.” The convoy came under heavy air attack and also ran into a squadron of 5 Italian submarines. Suddenly, the convoy began to
suffer losses as a number of destroyers and cruisers took damage and were either sunk, or forced to turn back to Gibraltar. The Ohio meanwhile was hit by a torpedo, which blew a 7×7 metre hole into its hull and set it on fire. The fire was put out and the tanker plodded on however. The merchant ships Brisbane Star and Rochester Castle were also damaged; whilst the Deucalion, Empire Hope and Clan Ferguson were all sunk. In the early hours of the morning, four straggling merchant ships – the Wairangi, Almeria Lykes, Glenorchy and Santa Elisa – were hit and sunk by torpedo boats as they were trying to catch up to the main convoy.
The situation on the morning of the 13th was as follows. 7 merchant ships remained from the original 14. The Ohio – still with a 35 square metre hole in it – was still moving. It was joined by Rochester Castle – which had been torpedoed along with the 4 sunken merchant ships, the Waimarama and the Melbourne Star. Port Chalmers was further back with two destroyers providing cover, whilst the Dorset was moving alone towards Malta. Brisbane Star meanwhile was off the coast of Tunisia, waiting for the sun to set, giving it an opportunity to make a run for Grand Harbour.
Raids continued throughout the day, and a morning bombing raid nearly hit the Ohio – but registered a bullseye hit on the Waimarama, which was carrying a cargo of aviation fuel on deck. The ship instantly blew up with such ferocity that it took one of the German bombers with it. Flaming debris showered the nearby Melbourne Star, creating the risk that it too would catch fire. A Ju-87 dive bomber meanwhile was shot down and crashed onto the Ohio – damaging it further. The Dorset meanwhile was ambushed by dive bombers and in the end had to be abandoned. Port Chalmers was hit as well and was lucky to actually catch a torpedo in its paravane – a rope device used to detect and sweep away sea-mines – which then exploded harmlessly.
That afternoon, Port Chalmers and the Melbourne Star steamed into Grand Harbour and straight away begun to be unloaded. By now the remnants of the convoy was under Spitfire cover. They weren’t out of the woods yet however. The Brisbane Star managed to make its way into Grand Harbour on the afternoon of the 14th – with part of its bow missing, having been hit by a torpedo on the way.
The Ohio meanwhile however was stuck outside of Grand Harbour. The tanker was severely damaged and had to be towed into the harbour. However it weighed so much that the tow ropes being used kept snapping. With the vessel getting ever lower in the water, it was strapped to two destroyers – HMS Penn and HMS Ledbury – and a painstakingly slow operation was undertaken to tow the vessel into port. Air attacks continued overhead and the Ohio had its rudder destroyed, stern punctured by a bomb and decks now awash with sea water. It was only at 9:30am on August 15th – the feast of Santa Marija – that the Ohio was finally towed into port where it was greeted by streams of people and a brass band playing Rule Brittania from Valletta.
On the face of it, Operation Pedestal was a tactical disaster for the British. The losses sustained by the navy were huge and the Italians had successfully adopted more offensive tactics in dealing with British shipping. However, taking the situation at hand – this was a British victory. Malta got an extra 30,000 tonnes of supplies – a number which equated to an extra 10 weeks of supply (over and above what was already present on the island). This meant that Malta and its people were saved, and indeed revitalised. Malta soon went on the offensive, and became a menace for German shipping going to the North African front. It also allowed for the famous raid on Taranto to be held – a raid which effectively destroyed the mainstays of the Italian navy. The Germans would soon lose the battle for North Africa, and by mid-1943, the Allies had begun Operation Husky; the invasion of Sicily.
And the Ohio? The American tanker was so badly damaged that for its cargo to be unloaded, it had to be filled with water to retain its stability and not list over and capsize; an exercise which caused it to break in half. Indeed the Ohio never sailed again, and after being used as an onshore store – the two halves of the ship were taken out of Grand Harbour and sunk by British destroyers on September 19th, 1946. The nameplate, wheel, ensign, and an assortment of other items from the Ohio are still held and preserved at the National War Museum in Valletta today.
In pretty much all respects, Operation Pedestal is a defining moment in Malta’s wartime history. Known across the island now as The Santa Marija Convoy; the fact that the 5 merchant ships – especially the Ohio – arrived into Grand Harbour with its cargo intact is nothing short of a maritime miracle. Indeed, it was a miracle that not only saved Malta – but may have saved the course of the whole war as well.