Operation Pedestal

June 1942 Operation Harpoon
A convoy of 6 ships including an oiler SS Kentucky, escorted part way by a battleship, 2 aircraft carriers and 4 cruisers sent east from Gibraltar, Simultaneously, 11 merchant ships escorted by 8 cruisers and 40 others headed west from Alexandria. The capital ships withdrew before the narrow channel between Sicily and Africa, leaving the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Cairo and 13 escorts. The results: 6 merchant ships sunk, 3 damaged, 7 turned back to Alexandria, 2 supply ships arrived in Malta; British Navy - 5 cruisers damaged, 4 destroyers sunk and 1 damaged. No fuel oil got through.

August 9th, 1942
The situation on Malta is now desperate, as official calculations show that food and fuel will be completely exhausted in four weeks. Movie theaters save electricity by staying pitch- dark. Soap is rationed to half a pound per person per fortnight. A family gets a gallon of kerosene a week. There are no replacement shoes or clothing, and no beer. The island has been hammered by 154 days of continual day and night bombing, 10,000 houses lie in ruins, nearly 100 churches gutted.

 

           

People queuing for bread in Valletta

A search in among the ruins of
a bombed building  

The governor, Lord Gort, who led the Dunkirk evacuation and earned a Victoria Cross in World War I, is now faced with surrender. Gort has even written the document. However, plans are in hand to relieve the crisis. Massing at Gibraltar is a convoy codenamed "Pedestal," consisting of 59 warships and 14 merchant ships. South Africa's Vice Adm. Neville Syfret will lead this force from the battleship HMS Nelson. Joining her are her sister HMS Rodney, and three large carriers, HMS Victorious, HMS Eagle, and HMS Indomitable, Britain's first multi-carrier task force. A fourth carrier, HMS Furious, will separately deliver 38 Spitfires to Malta. This mass of guns and armor is the muscle to protect 14 merchant ships, the fastest that can be found, loaded with 85,000 tons of cargo, mostly flour. 11 are British, two American (Santa Elisa and Almeria Lykes), and the last an American ship with a British crew, Texaco's largest tanker in the world at that time, which was rated at 16 knots but in sea trials Ohio made 19 knots. She has been handed over to Britain's Eagle Oil Shipping Co. and their Capt. Dudley Mason. Ohio has been specially prepared for this mission, her engines placed on rubber housings, the ship given extra 3-inch and 5-inch AA guns. She was loaded with 11,500 tons of kerosene and diesel fuels, enough to keep Malta's stoves and Spitfires working until December. If Ohio does not reach Malta, the island will have to surrender. Ohio may carry the balance of the war in her holds.

 

        

SS Ohio in peacetime colours 

August 10th, 1942
Convoy "Pedestal" puts to sea, entering the Mediterranean in heavy fog. 18 Italian and three German submarines await them. Behind that are 784 Axis aircraft, 23 motor torpedo boats, and the heavy ships of the Italian fleet. The Axis knows the British are coming, because of their agents in Spain, who have full view of Gibraltar harbor. In addition, the convoy's destination, despite the secrecy, is well-known to Gibraltar stevedores.

August 11th, 1942
At high noon in the Mediterranean, the German U-73, under Kapitanleutenant Helmut Rosenbaum, spots HMS Eagle approaching. The massive carrier looks to Rosenbaum like a "giant matchbox floating on a pond."

 
                                                                                          

      HMS Indominatable and HMS Eagle in a photo taken from
HMS Victorious during Operation Pedestal 10-15 Augaust 1942. 

Rosenbaum takes his sub to 100 feet, cracks on full ahead, closing on the carrier on a parallel coruse and returns to periscope depth. U-73 evades detection in the Mediterranean's density layers of cold water. He holds fire until 500 yards off, then launches four torpedoes. All four explode on Eagle's portside, and the carrier, her bulkheads cracking open, slowly rolls over to her portside. Lt. Hugh Popham, sitting in a Hurricane on Indomitable's flight deck, turns to see "smoke and steam suddenly pour from (Eagle), she took on a very heavy list to port, and the air shook with a series of muffled explosions. "Over the sound of the engine, I yelled 'Eagle's been hit!' "Listing to port, she swung outwards in a slow, agonized circle, and in seven minutes turned sharply over. For a few seconds more her bottom remained visible; and then the trapped air in her hull escaped, and with a last gust of steam and bubbles she vanished. All that remained of her was the troubled water, a spreading stain of oil, and the clustered black dots of her ship's company." Eagle sinks in less than eight minutes. Out of the ship's company of 1,160, 900 are saved, including her skipper, Capt. L.D. Mackintosh. All the planes are lost except four which land on the other carriers. Shortly after, the destroyer HMS Wolverine rams and sinks the Italian submarine Dagabur. At sunset the first air attack comes in, 36 German planes, doing no damage. HMS Furious launches her Spitfires, which reach Malta, then returns to Gibraltar, mission accomplished.

August 12th, 1942
Convoy "Pedestal" plods on through the Mediterranean. The Luftwaffe attacks at dawn, but British Sea-Hurricanes chase them off. At noon, 100 Axis bombers come back, and come into a terrific barrage that includes Rodney's 16-inch guns. Bombs damage the merchant ship Deucalion, which later sinks. Later that afternoon, British radar picks off the Italian submarine Cobalto. The British pepper it with depth charges, and the sub surfaces near the destroyer Ithuriel, which crunches into Cobalto's conning tower. British tars leap aboard the battered sub to seize her crew and papers, but it starts to sink under their feet. The British hustle 41 Italians onto Ithuriel, which must limp back, with crushed bows, to Gibraltar.

At nightfall, the convoy steers for Skerki Channel, known as "Bomb Alley," and the Luftwaffe returns with 80 bombers, joined by 20 Italian machines. The German planes swoop down amid some of the fiercest AA shot of the war. Gunflashes and sunset create an eerie atmosphere amid exploding ships. The Germans torpedo the destroyer HMS Foresight, blasting off her rudder and screws. She has to be sunk be her own forces. More bombs hit carrier Indomitable, starting fuel fires. The Luftwaffe loses seven aircraft. The only operational carrier left is Victorious. As night falls, Syftret, according to plan, withdraws the battleships and carriers, which cannot operate in "Bomb Alley." Rear Adm. H.M. Burrough in HMS Nigeria is in charge. The big ships leave at 7 p.m., and the Luftwaffe attacks minutes later. German Ju 88s torpedo Nigeria, the cruiser HMS Cairo...and Ohio, sending a pillar of flame into the air above mast height. The British Sailors charge into the fire with extinguishers while bombs continue to fall, quelling the blazes. Burrough transfers his flag to the destroyer Ashanti, while sending his flagship home with three destroyers. On Almeria Lykes, an unexploded torpedo mine is caught on the bridge. A Sailor calmly saws away the silk strands, and the mine tumbles peacefully into the water. As soon as order is restored, the Luftwaffe returns for another shot at the convoy. Ohio's fires are out, but engine power will take another half hour to restore. Her main steering position is also knocked out, and Mason must conn his ship from after steering, without gyro or magnetic compass. Ohio has a 24- foot hole in her pumproom, with massive tears.

       

A torpedo hits the Ohio

Yet her welded hull remains intact. Had she been built with rivets, she would be sunk. Mason learns his ship's steering gear is not working, but the rudder can be moved by operating the valve on the steering engine at the after end of the poop. Movement orders to this station must be given by phone from the bridge. The tanker staggers on. Meanwhile 100 Ju 88s and He 111s pound the convoy. AA gunners blaze away. On Almeria Lykes, a gunner says, "Get a bucket of water, bud, this barrel's melting and there are more planes coming." The Germans put a torpedo through Brisbane Star, and the merchantman staggers out of the convoy. More bombs hit freighter Empire Hope, igniting her aviation petrol. The crew has to abandon ship. Next to get hit is Clan Ferguson, by bombs. An organe mushroom of flame, black smoke and flying debris gushes from her. The Italian submarine Alagi (after torpedoing and damaging the cruiser Kenya) picks up 53 surviving members of her crew. Clocks on all ships turn over to midnight.

Augaust 13th, 1942
Convoy "Pedestal" rounds Cape Bon and meets a new enemy, eight Italian and two German MTBs, which knife out of the dark in two waves just after midnight. Two Italian boats press to within 50 yards of HMS Manchester, then smack the ship with torpedoes. The cruiser's steering locks her into a circle, her engine rooms flood, and all lights and power go out. The cruiser staggers to a halt, and the crew abandons ship. The ship is scuttled, which leads to court martials, as the decision turns out to have been premature. Another MTB jumps the American Santa Elisa, spraying it with bullets, killing gunners at their post. Another E-boat swoops in during the fight and torpedoes Santa Elisa on the starboard side, exploding the ship's fuel with a roar. Fire engulfs the freighter. 

 

            

SS Santa Elisa

The other American ship, Almeria Lykes is hit by a torpedo on the portside of her No. 1 hold, that splits the ship in two. She is abandoned. A little later, German E-boats pounce on the British freighters Wairangi and Glenorchy, and sink both of them. The British are down to two cruisers (one damaged) and seven destroyers to escort six merchant ships. Brisbane Star has straggled from the convoy. The all-important Ohio is "sailing like a yacht" despite a massive hole in her port side. All crews are exhausted from heat and strain as dawn breaks 170 miles from Malta, bringing with it scores of Luftwaffe dive bombers.

 The Luftwaffe attacks at 8 a.m., hurling 12 Ju 88s on the freighter Waimarama. bombs hit direct aft and forward, igniting 100 octane aviation fuel stowed on the bridge deck. Waimarama explodes with a roar, disappearing in a sheet of flame and clouds of billowing smoke, as her cargo of shells and other combustibles take off. Debris showers nearby ships and the sea is a mess of fire. 80 of the ship's crew of 107 die. The Luftwaffe returns at 9:25 a.m., with 60 Ju 87s.


German Stuka Bombers

The Stukas peel off and attack Ohio at mast height, but only score a near-miss. One Ju 87 crashes into Ohio's starboard bridge and explodes. Her bomb does not explode. 20 Ju 88s return later that morning, and score a hit on Ohio's starboard side, knocking out the power and boiler fires. Hard-working engineers use fuel starter torches to re-light the boilers, and Ohio is doing 16 knots within 20 minutes...only to get hammered by more bombs that also damage the electric fuel pumps. These hits finally stop the engines. Meanwhile, the rest of the convoy struggles on. Bombs sink SS Dorset. Italian torpedo bombers damage Kenya. As the convoy comes close to Malta, RAF Spitfires swoop in to break up enemy air attacks. Ohio is joined by destroyers Penn and Ledbury, which start towing the battered tanker with 10-inch manila rope. Not only is Ohio immobile, but unable to defend herself as her 20mm Oerlikons are all damaged from heavy use. The Luftwaffe tries again at 1:30, and a Ju 88 drops its bomb just before flak destroys the plane. The bomb rips open Ohio. Capt. Mason orders his exhausted crew to abandon ship. Destroyer and tanker crews, having gone without sleep for three days, are near the limits of their endurance. Ledbury's captain boosts morale by ordering a rum issue. By 4 p.m., the lead ships of "Pedestal" are under Malta's fighter cover. Burrough turns his warships west to tend Ohio, while Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle and Melbourne Star enter Malta's Grand Harbour at 6:18 p.m. to the cheers of inhabitants lining the ramparts. Malta now has food to sustain the siege, but the critical oil is still 70 miles away, on a sinking ship. On Penn, Capt. Mason sees Burrough's ships coming, and knows he has more resources to bring his ship to Malta.


Captain Dudley Mason recovering in hospital. He was awarded the George Cross for his courage shown leading SS Ohio to Malta's harbour in Operation Pedestal

He asks for volunteers from his crew to go back aboard Ohio, and the weary merchant Sailors do so, checking valves and steering gear, stopping leaks. Mason removes his ship's rudder and auxiliary steering gear. The ship will be hand-steered to Malta. But at 6:30 the Luftwaffe comes back for one more try, and score a bomb hit that explodes on the boiler tops, blowing most of the engine room to pieces. Ohio has broken her back. Mason again orders abandon ship. That evening, Mason and Lt. Cdr. Swain, Penn's skipper, discuss the situation. Ohio is flooding, but Mason is determined to get her oil to Malta. "We'll do everything we can," Swain says. They come up with a new plan to save the tanker

Augaust 14, 1942
Shortly after midnight, 60 miles from Malta, Penn and the minesweeper Rye try to tow Ohio to Malta, doing 4.5 knots. But at 1 a.m., the tow is broken, and the British have to try again. HMS Branham suggests the tanker be moved by towing alongside. Mason and some of his crew finally get some sleep. At dawn, they bury at sea the body of a Royal Navy gunner killed in action. HMS Ledbury turns up to assist with the tow, and sends Sailors aboard to hook in cables.

 
     

Two destroyers "sandwich" Ohio as she
is towed in the Grand Harbour

Ohio towed in the Grand Harbour. The precious cargo at last reaches its destination.

They return to the destroyer with one large typewriter, two 20mm Oerlikon guns, 12 magazines, a number of field telephones, and a large megaphone with SS Ohio stamped on it.  also goes aboard and inspects the tanks. His ship is holding better than he expected. Joined by three more minesweepers, Ohio struggles on. But at 10:45, six Ju 88s swing in. Massed British guns fell one bomber, and the rest release too early. Three more echelons of Germans come in, but 16 Spitfires from Malta sight the enemy, and shake up the German formation. The Germans toss a 1,000-kg. bomb at Ohio, which misses. Ohio has 45 miles to go. That afternoon, the air is full of Spitfires, which screen off German aircraft, but the U-boat menace remains. The tanker's life at sea may be measurable in hours or even minutes, as she struggles along at a steady five knots. Crewmen stagger about like sleepwalkers, nodding off at their stations. At dusk, lookouts spot Malta's cliffs, and the force squeezes into the mineswept channel off Delimara Point. The King's Harbor Master arrives in the tug Robert to take charge of the final part of the tow. As the ship staggers in, Maltese coast defenses spot an enemy U-boat, and scare it off with 9.2-inch shells. The battle isn't over yet...shortly after that, enemy MTBs sweep in from the northeast. British coast defenses light up searchlights. At the last moment, the Axis E-boat commander decides the certainty of destruction by 9.2-inch guns is not worth the risk, and the E-boats withdraw.

August 15th, 1942
Dawn breaks over SS Ohio with her still plodding towards the Grand Harbour entrance. All her escorts are jammed with wounded Sailors from various sunken ships. At 6 a.m., Malta tugs arrive to handle the final tow into Grand Harbour entrance. There the exhausted Ohio crew is stunned to see the harbor's ramparts jammed with Maltese people, a brass band playing Rule Britannia. Mason takes the salute on his ship's bridge.

  

               

A hole done by bomb damage in the Ohio
revealed during the unloading of it's fuels.

The tug drags the derelict to the quays. Stevedores hook up pipes, and Ohio starts to discharge her 10,000 tons of fuel oil, enough to keep Malta supplied through December. As the oil flows out, Mason gets a message from Burrough, the convoy commander: "To Ohio stop I'm proud to have met you message ends." Mason (who will receive a George Cross for this mission) reads the message and walks to the other side of the bridge. Just then the last of the oil flows out.

14 merchant ships: Almeria Lykes (C3, US), Brisbane Star, Clan Ferguson, Decaulion, Empire Hope, Dorset, Glenorchy, Melbourne Star, Ohio, Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle, Santa Elisa (C2, US), Waimarama, Wairangi

9 merchant ships sunk, 3 damaged
5 arrive in Malta

2 battleships: Nelson, Rodney

Turned back as planned

3 aircraft carriers: Victorious, Indomitable, Eagle, Furious (on separate mission)

1 aircraft carrier sunk, 1 damaged, 2 turn back as planned

7 cruisers: Phoebe, Sirius, Charybdis, Nigeria, Kenya, Manchester, Cairo

2 cruisers sunk, 2 turned back as planned

33 destroyers

1 destroyer sunk, 4 damaged

2 tugs, 4 corvettes, 4 minesweepers and 7 motor launches from Malta

 

The Ohio, the crippled survivor of 'Operation Pedestal' not long after her precious cargo had been removed was towed to another part of the harbour (Rinella Bay) and later had broken in half at her mooring. Attempts were made to join the halves but local facilities proved unable to do the job satisfactorily and the expense of towing the halves miles away to Gibraltar or Alexandra where too great to justify. She was used as a makeshift store and later fitted out to house Yugoslav troops.

Then on September 19th 1946 her future was decided, the two rusted streaked halves were towed to deep water ten miles from Malta to where the executioner, a destroyer was waiting , After the first shots the rear portion weakened by the Germans bombs soon disappeared from sight, the buoyant forepart refused to sink armour piercing shells blasted the bridgework and the shored up amid ship section where she had been struck by a German torpedo slowly she sank beneath the waves, the bows pointing skyward in a final farewell. Then she was gone.

 

SS Ohio during the scuttling


 

 

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