Operation "Pedestal" (August 1942)
Malta is situated in a strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea, being midway between Gibraltar (860 miles) and Alexandria (715 miles), and 60 miles from Sicily on a direct route to the North African coast and its ports. With its large natural harbour, Malta had been the strategic centre of British Mediterranean naval operations for 150 years. But in WW2 it was also in a very vulnerable position being so close to the Axis forces in Sicily. Realising that, in the event of war, this main naval base could not be defended, it was transferred in the 1930s from Malta to Alexandria in Egypt, thus controlling the only two blue water entrances to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar being the other.
After trying to deny Malta to the British by siege and bombing for two years, the Axis had inflicted great privations upon the Maltese people who had withstood stoically everything thrown at them, and in recognition of this were collectively awarded the highest British civilian award, the George Cross in April 1942.
By this time Malta had become the most bombed place on earth, and the situation was fast becoming serious with almost constant attacks by Axis aircraft based in Sicily and North Africa, and Malta’s chances of survival were low. Not only were the military needs in a critical state but also those of the entire civilian population who faced starvation. Reserves of food, fuel, ammunition etc. were sufficient for only a couple of months more, and for aviation fuel only a couple of weeks. If Malta could not be resupplied it would have to surrender.
In an attempt to relieve the situation, the Allies ran two simultaneous convoy operations in mid-June 1942: operation "Harpoon" from Gibraltar, and operation "Vigorous" from Alexandria. In Operation HARPOON, four merchant ships out of six were sunk; two ships reached Malta. In Operation VIGOROUS, two out of eleven merchant ships were sunk and none reached Malta; the remainder returned to Alexandria and Tobruk.
In North Africa, the desert war had been going badly for the British army since the arrival, in March 1941, of the German Afrika Korps under General (later Field Marshal) Irwin Rommel. By August 1942, after losing the major port of Tobruk in June, the British had been driven back to within 60 miles of Alexandria to a place called El Alamein, where both armies halted to draw breath.
The Afrika Korps could not be permitted to advance east of El Alemein, otherwise the main naval port of Alexandria, the Suez Canal, and thus access to the Far East and control of the eastern and central Mediterranean would be lost. In preparation for a worst case scenario, the naval headquarters was moved to Haifa, and the fleet dispersed to Haifa, Suez and Beirut.
Because Malta based aircraft and submarines were already sinking a large percentage of Axis supply vessels, the Afrika Korps was forced, in July 1942, to halt its offensive in the inconclusive first battle of El Alamein, but intended to renew the offensive later that year, after mounting a large effort to send additional supplies by sea to North Africa. All the supplies for the Afrika Korps had to come by sea from Italy.
The British were also preparing to go on the offensive late in 1942. Thus, this was a critical time for both belligerents; for the Axis to supply the Afrika Korps, and for the Allies to supply Malta to interdict the Axis supplies.
El Alemein was a battle that simply had to be won at all costs and by any means, and the most effective way the British had of weakening the Afrika Korps was to starve them of essential supplies, especially fuel, while building up their own reserves.
Malta was ideally placed as a base to interdict the Axis supply routes. In a nutshell, Malta was the key to success in North Africa, and both sides were only too aware of it.
Out of this situation "Operation Pedestal" was born.
The Pedestal Plan
The Admiralty started to plan Operation Pedestal in the early weeks of July 1942, and was to be the main effort to resupply Malta. In the aftermath of the failed dual convoy operation in June 1942, it was decided that "Pedestal" would be mounted from the west only, and would employ the largest escort force yet deployed for a single convoy.
It was an operation that simply had to succeed whatever the cost. It was therefore decided that only fast (15 knots) merchant ships were to be included to reduce the time exposed to enemy attacks thus improving their chances of survival. Three of the ships were American owned and one of them, the SS Ohio, was leased from Texaco and thus had a British crew.
Because the Ohio was the only fast tanker available, all other ships carried oil fuels and aviation fuel as deck cargo. In fact all types of cargo were distributed between ships to ensure that no single load was entirely lost if the ship was sunk. The total weight of cargo was 85,000 tons.
The convoy, consisting of 14 merchant ships, was to sail from the Clyde under an escort of destroyers and rendezvous with the main escort Force X (the close escort), and Force Z (the distant escort) west of Gibraltar. HMS Furious, with a consignment of Spitfires to reinforce Malta’s defences, was to join them as a separate operation. They would then sail together though the Straits under cover of darkness into the Mediterranean, refueling the next day.
When within range of Malta the Spitfires would be flown off HMS Furious, which would then return under escort to Gibraltar. Force Z, with its three aircraft carriers and two battleships, would provide the main defences until the convoy was past Sardinia, whereupon it would return to Gibraltar. (The reason for this was that they would be approaching the Skerki Channel which, as darkness descended, was too narrow to allow such heavy units, especially aircraft carriers, to manoeuvre thus increasing their vulnerability and merely providing the Axis with more juicy targets.) The convoy and Force X would continue to Malta, whose aircraft, minesweepers and submarines were to provide additional air and sea protection for the final part of the operation.
There were to be several other smaller operations involving separate forces enacted simultaneously with "Pedestal".
Allied Plans and Preparations
Thanks to Bletchley Park reading the Axis Enigma coded messages, the British knew pretty well what Axis forces (both naval and air) were ranged against them, where they were deployed, and made plans accordingly. They also learned that the Axis had deduced that a large scale operation to relieve Malta was to be expected shortly. So the Allies knew that the Axis knew.
Among many complex preparations, the main ones were:-
* The Malta defences were to be reinforced by Spitfires from HMS Furious. (operation Bellows)
* Submarines were to be positioned to intercept any excursion by the Italian fleet.
* Malta and Middle East based long range bombers were to attack airfields on Sicily, Sardinia and Pantelleria.
* Air forces from the western desert were to track and attack Axis surface forces.
* A diversionary convoy was to be run from Port Said (operation M.G.3) to divide Italian surface forces and German air forces.
* Sunderland flying boats were to patrol ahead of the convoy and attack Axis submarines found waiting there.
Axis Plans and Preparations
The Axis plans to destroy the convoy envisaged that successive attacks by submarine, aircraft, torpedo boats and minefields would weaken and disperse the escorts and convoy. A strong Italian cruiser and destroyer force (the 3rd and 7th cruiser divisions) with German air cover, would rendezvous then sail to a point south of Pantelleria to intercept the convoy and finish it off.
To achieve this they:-
* Laid a temporary mine field off Cap Bon.
* Positioned torpedo boats at Pantelleria and Cap Bon.
* Increased high altitude patrol aircraft to report convoy position and movement continuously.
* Transferred bomber squadrons from Italy and Crete to Sicily.
(cargo, where known)
(The merchant ships and escort)
: SS Almeria Lykes (ammunition, bombs, general cargo), MV Brisbane Star (refrigerated cargo), MV Clan Ferguson (ammunition, explosives, fuel), MV Deucalion (aviation fuel), MV Dorset, MV Empire Hope (ammunition, aviation fuel, MV Glenorchy (aviation fuel), MV Melbourne Star (ammunition, oil, kerosene, aviation fuel), SS Ohio (petroleum products), MV Port Chalmers, MV Rochester Castle, SS Santa Elisa (aviation fuel), SS Waimarama, MV Wairangi (ammunition, fuel).
: Amazon, Keppel, Malcolm, Venomous, Wolverine.
(close escort under Rear Admiral Burrough)
: Cairo, Kenya, Manchester, Nigeria (flagship).
: Ashanti, Bicester, Bramham, Derwent, Foresight, Fury, Icarus, Intrepid, Ledbury, Pathfinder, Penn.
(distant escort under Vice Admiral Syfret)
: Eagle, Indomitable, Victorious.
: Nelson (flagship), Rodney.
: Charybdis, Phoebe, Sirius.
: Antelope, Eskimo, Ithuriel, Laforey, Lightning, Lookout, Quentin, Somali, Tartar, Vansittart, Westcott, Wilton, Wishart, Wrestler, Zetland.
The Pedestal Operation
Sunday August 2
The Pedestal convoy WS21S of 14 merchantmen left the Clyde with its destroyer escort. The "WS" designation was used to disguise the convoy’s true destination. Normally it was assigned to troop convoys to the Far East.
Monday August 3 to Sunday August 9
En route to Gibraltar.
Monday August 10
After an uneventful passage, the convoy rendezvoused with the main escort and HMS Furious west of Gibraltar, passing through the Straits during nighttime.
The presence of such a large force was observed by Axis agents. Axis commanders sent 10 submarines to the Sicilian Channel. Italy, being short of fuel, fueled its cruiser divisions from the tanks of its idle battleships.
Tuesday August 11
The convoy refueled south of Majorca from the tankers Dingledale and Brown Ranger of force R, which then returned to Gibralter with corvette escort (Coltsfoot, Geranium, Jonquil, Salvonia and Spirea).
When about 570 miles from Malta, HMS Furious few off its 37 Spitfires and turned back to Gibraltar with escorts Keppel, Malcolm, Venomous, Wolverine and Wrestler as planned. On the way back, HMS Wolverine rammed and sank the Italian submarine Dagabur (Lieutenant Pecori), severely damaging its bows and returned to Gibraltar screened by HMS Malcolm.
13.15 HMS Eagle was attacked and sunk by four torpedoes from U-73 (Lieutenant Rosenbaum) with the loss of 160 men and all, except four, of its aircraft. The survivors were picked up by HMS Laforey and HMS Lookout.
Up until 19.00 there were four heavy air attacks on the convoy with no casualties.
Wednesday August 12
09.30 The Italian cruiser divisions, consisting of three heavy cruisers (Gorizia, Bolzano, and Trieste), three light cruisers (Eugenio di Savoia, Raimondo Montecuccoli, and Muzio Attendolo) and 17 destroyers sailed from Cagliari, Naples and Messina to intercept the convoy in the Sicilian narrows.
Throughout the day there were numerous aerial attacks on the convoy, from Sardinia in the morning and from Sicily in the afternoon and evening. The Italians attacked with torpedo bombers, the Germans with both high level (Ju-88s) and dive bombers (Ju-87s – Stukas). The Axis used every form of attack including dropping mines ahead of the convoy, circling torpedoes and experimental radio guided bombs.
18.30 HMS Indomitable was struck on the flight deck by three bombs putting it out of action, but could still make 28 knots. Indomitable's airborne aircraft had to be landed on Victorious and several aircraft had to be ditched overboard to make space for further landings. This left HMS Victorious as the only fully operational aircraft carrier.
18.30 HMS Foresight was hit by an aerial torpedo and finished off by HMS Tartar with another torpedo.
18.55 Vice Admiral Syfet, considering that the worse of the air attacks was over for the day, ordered Force Z to return to Gibraltar as planned, leaving Force X to continue with the convoy to Malta.
At this time Force X was approaching the Skerki Channel, a narrow channel between the Skerki Bank and the Cap Bon Peninsular, which necessitated the convoy changing from its four columns to two columns formation. During this manoeuver the convoy was heavily attacked by German dive bombers, Italian torpedo bombers and submarines.
Attacks by Italian submarines
20.00 HMS Nigeria was torpedoed by the Axum (Lieutenant Ferrini), and returned to Gibraltar with escorts HMS Bicester and HMS Wilton.
20.00 HMS Cairo was torpedoed by the Axum, abandoned and sunk.
20.00 SS Ohio was torpedoed by the Axum, blowing a hole, 24ft feet by 27ft in the port side, but managed to continue after repairs.
(Lieutenant Ferrini in the Axum had scored 3 hits from 4 torpedoes
HMS Kenya was torpedoed by the Alagi (Lieutenant Puccini), but continued to Malta.
On hearing that HMS Nigeria and HMS Cairo had been lost, Vice Admiral Syfret in the retreating Force Z, ordered HMS Charybdis, HMS Eskimo and HMS Somali to reinforce Force X.
HMS Ithuriel attacked the Italian submarine Cobalto (Lieutenant Amicarelli) with depth charges, forcing it to surface where it was rammed and sunk by the Ithurial.
Attacks by aircraft:-
20.15 MV Clan Ferguson was hit by bombs, then torpedoed by the Bronzo (Lieutenant Buldrini) and sank.
20.15 MV Empire Hope was hit by bombs and sank.
22.00 MV Deucalion was hit by an aerial torpedo and sank.
MV Brisbane Star was damaged by a torpedo but managed to limp to Malta.
The German Air Command in Sicily withdrew air coverage for the Italian cruiser divisions already at sea, preferring to use the aircraft for direct attacks on the convoy. Consequently at 23.45, the Supermarina ordered the cruisers to return to Messina and Naples. They passed through the area (north west of Messina) patrolled by the British submarines HMS Safari and HMS Unbroken and were attacked. HMS Unbroken (Lieutenant Mars) torpedoed the Bolzano and the Attendolo damaging both, putting them out of action for the rest of the war.
HmsIthurialRammingCobalto.jpg OhioHit ByTorpedo.jpg MVPortChalmersParavane.jpg
Thurday August 13
Passing through minefields off the Cap Bon peninsular of nominally neutral Tunisia at around midnight, the convoy was attacked off Kelibia by mainly Italian and a few German torpedo-boats. The extended lines of ships and the reduced number of escorts provided many opportunities for them. They were aided by the Kelibia lighthouse, by whose light the convoy’s ships were either illuminated or silhouetted.
Hit by torpedo boats during the night
01.05 HMS Manchester, abandoned and scuttled. (Survivors rescued by HMS Pathfinder, HMS Somali and HMS Eskimo, others by Vichy French boats and were interned.)
02.15 SS Wairangi, damaged and scuttled.
04.30 MV Glenorchy, caught fire and sank.
05.10 SS Almeria Lykes, sunk immediately.
07.15 SS Santa Elisa, caught fire and abandoned. (Survivors rescued by HMS Penn.)
MV Rochester Castle was damaged but kept going after repairs.
After the torpedo boats had retreated in the darkness, it was the turn of the torpedo and dive bombers, who continued their attacks throughout the day.
Fighters from Malta provided some air cover to the beleaguered convoy but were fired upon by the convoy in the confusion because communications between them were not working.
Successful attacks by aircraft:-
HMS Kenya suffered a fire in the forward engine room caused by a near miss from a bomb, but the fire was quickly put out.
08.16 SS Waimarama. Hit by bombs from Ju-88s. The aviation fuel on deck ignited and the ship exploded and sank, killing 80 of the 107 crew. Blazing debris landed on MV Melbourne Star, 36 of whose crew, thinking the ship was on fire and about to explode, jumped overboard. Survivors from both ships were rescued by HMS Ledbury.
09.38 MV Dorset was disabled by three near-miss bombs. The aviation fuel caught fire and the ship abandoned.
10.50 SS Ohio was straddled by two bombs from a Ju-88, lifting her out of the water. One Ju-88 was shot down and crashed onto the deck by the bridge. Another bomb hit the starboard side, blowing out the boilers which were restarted and she got under way.
13.30 A further bomb hit on the Ohio stopped the engines permanently. The crew abandoned ship and were picked up by HMS Penn who attempted to tow the Ohio but they were blown back westwards by the easterly wind and the tow rope breaks.
18.30 Another bomb hit the Ohio where the previous torpedo hit, effectively breaking her back, and the ship is abandoned for the night.
17.30 MV Rochester Castle arrives at Grand Habour, Malta.
18.00 MV Melbourne Star arrives.
18.30 MV Port Chalmers arrives.
Friday August 14
00.30 SS Ohio was taken in tow by the minesweeper HMS Rye (from Malta) assisted by HMS Penn, they made slow progress until the tow rope broke.
By this time the SS Ohio had become the focus of Axis attention. In another attack, a bomb hit on the foredeck and a near miss by the stern damaged the rudder and the tow rope broke again. A Ju-87 was shot down, bounced off the water, and crashed into her side. The ship is abandoned once more with her back broken and is now sinking slowly.
They were then joined by HMS Bramham and HMS Ledbury. HMS Penn attached itself to the starboard side to support the tanker, with HMS Rye towing and HMS Ledbury acting as the stern tug. They tried towing again with HMS Bramham assisting HMS Rye, but with the damaged rudder jammed the Ohio is impossible to steer.
After trying various towing combinations, finally, with HMS Penn lashed to starboard, HMS Bramham secured to port, HMS Rye towing and HMS Ledbury steering behind, acting as the rudder, they start to make a steady 5 knots.
Further aerial attacks are broken up by the Spitfires from Malta and she suffers no further damage. But, some 45 miles from Malta, the Ohio is sinking relentlessly at the steady rate of about 6 inches an hour.
16.15 Brisbane Star arrives in Malta.
Saturday August 15
06.00 Tugs arrived from Malta to assist with towing the Ohio.
09.30 SS Ohio finally arrived in Malta, with its decks awash, to cheering crowds. The Ohio discharged its cargo into two other tankers and settled on the bottom, in two halves, just as the last of the fuel was pumped from her holds.
SSOhio.jpg Ohio+Destroyers.jpg OhioGrandHarbour.jpg HMSLedburySurvivorsMalta.jpg
A revived Malta changed the balance of fortunes in North Africa preceding the Second Battle of El Alamein. Malta based aircraft regularly attacked Axis supply convoys known through Ultra intercepts. In August 1942, with Malta still besieged, 35% of Axis convoys to North Africa did not get through. In September, with Malta resupplied, Allied forces sank 100,000 tons of Axis shipping, including 24,000 tons of fuel destined for the Afrika Korps.
With the fuel transported by road from the North African ports to the front line, it was again targeted by the Desert Air Force by day and the S.A.S. by night, reducing the amount arriving at the front to a trickle. The effect of this was that the Afrika Korps at El Alamein was changed from being an attacking force into a defending force. Rommel did not have enough to attack and hoped he had enough to defend for long enough when the inevitable British assault came.
The assault (called the second battle of El Elamein) came on October 23 1942, and resulted in the Afrika Korps being pushed back, and finally retreating, ultimately to Tunisia where, in May 1943, they surrendered in the Cap Bon peninsular area, where operation Pedestal had suffered its greatest losses nine months earlier. Irony or poetic justice? The seeds sown by the Pedestal operation had given birth to victory in the desert.
North Africa was thus cleared of Axis forces which in turn cleared the way for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 which was launched from North Africa and Malta by the Allies.
Although it was a tactical defeat, Operation Pedestal has gone down in military history as one of the most important British strategic victories of the Second World War.
The arrival of the four merchant ships, and the survival of the tanker Ohio with their cargoes of roughly 32,000 tons of general cargo and oil products, supplemented by additional supplies being delivered by fast minelayers and mine-laying submarines, was enough to give the island about ten weeks more life beyond the existing stocks of only a few weeks.
This did not mean its siege was at an end, but it did ensure that Malta stayed in the war.
Naval Casualties and losses
The cost of operation Pedestal was high, both in men and material. Some 400 naval and merchant seamen were killed.
Aircraft carriers: HMS Eagle
Cruisers: HMS Manchester, HMS Cairo
Destroyers: HMS Foresight
Merchantmen: SS Almeria Lykes, MV Clan Ferguson, MV Deucalion, MV Dorset, MV Empire Hope, MV Glenorchy, SS Santa Elisa, SS Waimarama, MV Wairangi
Aircraft carriers: HMS Indomitable
Cruisers: HMS Nigeria, HMS Kenya
Destroyers: HMS Wolverine, HMS Ithuriel
Merchantmen: SS Ohio (beyond repair), MV Brisbane Star, MV Rochester Castle
Awards and recognition
Vice-Admiral Syfret was knighted (KCB) for his "bravery and dauntless resolution in fighting an important Convoy through to Malta in the face of relentless attacks by day and night from enemy submarines, aircraft, and surface forces
The Master of the tanker Ohio, Dudley William Mason was awarded the George Cross for showing "skill and courage of the highest order and it was due to his determination that, in spite of the most persistent enemy opposition, the vessel, with her valuable cargo, eventually reached Malta and was safely berthed
". Fifteen other crew members of the Ohio also received awards, ranging from D.S.O.(1), D.S.C.(6) and D.S.M.(8).
The captains of each of the other four ships to arrive in Malta received the D.S.O. Many other officers, crew members and commanders of both the Royal and Merchant Navies, received military awards ranging from the Distinguished Service Order and Conspicuous Gallantry Medal down to Mentions in Despatches for "the bravery and intrepidity shown in ferrying the merchantmen to Malta
The American Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal was awarded to Frederick Larsen Jr. and to Francis Dales for "Heroism beyond the call of duty
." They were American survivors from the merchantman SS Santa Elisa who volunteered to re-board the abandoned Ohio to repair and man one of the anti-aircraft guns.
There were insufficient shipyard facilities to repair the Ohio, so the two halves were used for storage. On 19 September 1946, the fore part was towed ten miles off the coast, and sunk with gunfire from HMS Virago. Two weeks later the aft section was towed out and sunk with explosive charges.
The arrival of SS Ohio on August 15th coincided with the Maltese Feast of the Assumption and the name "Santa Maria Convoy" is still used to this day, which is now a bank holiday. Each August 15th all the ships in Grand Harbour sound their horns for a full minute to commemorate the safe arrival of the 5 merchant ships that saved the island.