In 2012 Malta is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the award of the George Cross on April 15, 1942, and the arrival of the convoy codenamed Operation Pedestal, commonly known as the Santa Marija Convoy, on August 15 of that year. These are probably the two most important dates highlighting Malta’s role during World War II, which determined the outcome of the North African campaign and the war in the Mediterranean, and the surrender of Italy nearly a year later, on September 8, 1943.
As Malta edged inevitably towards starvation and surrender in the summer of 1942, a major naval undertaking was being put in train to enable Malta to survive. The suspension of Arctic convoys until the shortening days of autumn released a number of warships from the British Home Fleet for service in support of Operation Pedestal.
On June 18, 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was in Washington, where the chiefs-of-staff cabled him, urging him to request the loan of the tanker SS Ohio, on the same basis as SS Kentucky. Also requested from the American administration were two other merchant ships, Santa Elisa and Almeria Lykes. The remaining merchant ships were British and all of them were armed with anti-aircraft guns. A large escorting force was assembled to protect the convoy, comprising two main groups of ships, Forces Z and X.
The overall operational commander was Vice-Admiral E.N. Syfret. The convoy was codenamed WS.5.21.S. Just prior to sailing, Rear-Admiral Burrough met with the Convoy Commodore A.G. Venables, and the masters of the individual merchant ships on board his flagship.
The convoy entered the Mediterranean on the night of August 10, 1942. Its codename became Operation Pedestal. Protecting the vessels, the Royal Navy had the three aircraft carriers HMS Eagle, HMS Victorious and HMS Indomitable, the battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney, besides seven cruisers, 32 destroyers, eight submarines and other units.
The following is a chronology of events following the departure of the convoy from Gibraltar:
Wednesday, August 11
1.15 p.m.: The German submarine U-73 fires four torpedoes into HMS Eagle, sinking it in eight minutes. Some 927 survivors out of 1,160 officers and men were picked up from the sea by the tug HMS Jaunty and two destroyers, HMS Lookout and HMS Laforey.
2.50 p.m.: HMS Furious successfully flies off 38 much-needed Spitfires to Malta (Operation Bellows).
Thursday, August 12
4.16 p.m.: The Italian submarine Axum fires four torpedoes and hits three ships, two of which are HMS Nigeria and the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Cairo, severely damaging the latter. Cairo had to be sunk by gunfire from HMS Derwent north of Bizerte.
8.50 p.m.: MV Empire Hope suffers 18 near misses before a bomb bursts a stove in its side, stopping the engines. In seconds, ammunition fuel and aviation spirit explode, setting the stern of the vessel ablaze. The crew abandon ship and are picked up by HMS Penn, the latter firing a torpedo into the doomed merchant ship to sink.
9.20 p.m.: Two Junkers Ju88s attack Deucalion. One bomb strikes the ship, a tremendous fire breaks out and the aviation spirit and kerosene explode. Captain Brown orders abandon ship and HMS Bramham approaches the merchantman to pick up survivors.
Friday, August 13
12.40 a.m.: The first torpedo attack by Italian MAS-boats and German Schnellboote in the narrows between Pantelleria and the Tunisian coast. MS 22 and MS 16 speed towards the passing cruiser HMS Manchester, loose their torpedoes and withdraw into the darkness. Seconds later Manchester is hit in the starboard side.
Later, many of the survivors reach Tunisia and are taken prisoner by the Vichy French, who intern them in Bon Fichu, with the survivors from MV Glenorchy and MV Clan Ferguson.
2 a.m.: MV Glenorchy is hit by torpedoes from the Italian torpedo boat MS 31. Captain Leslie, mindful of the aviation spirit stowed all over the deck, orders his men to abandon ship. Some 124 souls, including the 25 passengers, survive the attack and are ordered to take the boats. MS 31 approaches the sinking ship and picks Chief Officer Hanney and eight men as prisoners.
3 a.m.: A second wave of Italian MAS-boats and German Schnellboote attack the convoy. MAS 552 and MAS 554 torpedo the Wairangi in its port side. Captain Gordon decides to scuttle the ship. The boats are lowered and later the ship is sunk.
3.30 a.m.: Schnellboote S30 and S36 torpedo the American Almeria Lykes and the ship is hit forward in No. 1 hold, where a stow of bags of flour absorbs much of the explosion. However, Captain Henderson orders the crew to abandon ship and 105 men board three boats.
4.15 a.m.: An Italian torpedo boat, MAS 564, closes in from the starboard side of the American ship Santa Elisa and fires a torpedo at point-blank range. The detonation takes place amid aviation spirit. The master orders the crew to abandon ship and the survivors are picked up by HMS Penn.
8 a.m.: Two Junkers Ju88s make a concentrated attack against Waimarama. Four bombs explode amid spirit and ammunition. A vast sheet of flame roars high up into the sky. The survivors are picked up by HMS Ledbury.
6.30 p.m.: Rochester Castle, Port Chalmers and Melbourne Star enter Grand Harbour. As the battle-scarred vessels slide between the arms of the breakwater, the Royal Malta Artillery band plays from the ramparts of Fort St Elmo to welcome the surviving ships.
Saturday, August 14
6 a.m.: Brisbane Star, which was hit by a torpedo two days before, has been sailing independently, heading round Cape Bon and keeping inshore. Spitfires fly over the ship and remain flying over until it enters the harbour early in the afternoon.
9.55 a.m.: HMS Tartar sinks HMS Foresight with a torpedo and heads at high speed to Gibraltar.
11 a.m.: Captain Tucket of Dorset orders the crew to abandon ship and they board the boats. During the evening the ship is hit by bombs and sinks.
11.30 a.m.: A tremendous effort is made to tow the crippled tanker Ohio into harbour. Speed is worked up to a gratifying six knots, with a steady enough course. Morale rises accordingly and to cheer everyone up, Chattanooga Choo-Choo, is played loudly from HMS Penn’s PA system.
Sunday, August 15
2 a.m.: With HMS Penn and HMS Bramham edging Ohio along the shore, HMS Ledbury lends its power to shove the tanker’s bow to make the turns off Delimara and Żonqor Points.
8 a.m.: On the feast of Santa Marija (the Assumption of Our Lady), the broken-backed and almost derelict hull of Ohio makes the tight turn inside the mole, rounds Ricasoli Point and heads up Grand Harbour. The crews on the ships are greeted by crowds, cheering deliriously, lining the ramparts and bastions while bands play God Save the King, The Star-Spangled Banner and Rule Britannia. However, at the same time Maltese children start shouting “We want food, not oil!”
Tears sting red-rimmed eyes as the Ohio proceeds towards Parlatorio Wharf in French Creek.
Churchill recognised the sacrifices made to resupply Malta at all costs: “In the end five gallant merchant ships out of 14 got through with their precious cargoes. The loss of 350 officers and men and of so many of the finest ships in the merchant navy and in the fleet of the Royal Navy was grievous.
“The reward justified the price exacted. Revictualled and replenished with ammunition and vital stores, the strength of Malta revived. British submarines returned to the island, and, with the striking forces of the Royal Air Force, regained their dominating position in the Central Mediterranean.”
As Operation Pedestal drew to a close, the unloading of the merchant ships, code-named Operation Ceres, also reached its final phase. The cargoes of Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle and Melbourne Star had been unloaded, and the discharge of Ohio and Brisbane Star was rapidly completed. For the authorities, the 568 Pedestal survivors remained a liability, and they were moved out of Malta as quickly as possible.
Although 53,000 of the 85,000 tons of supplies loaded on the merchant ship finished on the bottom of the Mediterranean, the remaining 32,000 tons enabled Malta to stave off the target date for the island’s surrender, which was the first week of September 1942.
Mr Debono is the curator of the National War Museum in Valletta, where relevant artefacts and information can be seen.
This article first appeared on the Sunday Times of Malta on Sunday, August 26, 2012