Operation Pedestal

New ships continue to roll out of Mongoose’s 3D Design Studio, including some civilian vessels. Watch out a little later this year for the SS Ohio.

 

The island of Malta suffered greatly during the early part of the war. Though only a small island, barely 17 miles long, its position in the centre of the Mediterranean made it strategically vital as a British base. Constant attacks from the air devastated the island, with many of the islanders forced to live in caves after thousands of houses had been shattered by bombs, and the constriction of supplies getting to Malta meant that many starved as disease swept through the population.

Backed up by the Luftwaffe, the Regia Marina made convoy runs to Malta near impossible, the wrecks of many ships lying at the bottom of the Mediterranean a testament to their efficiency. British seapower, by comparison, was thinly stretched. By May 1942, the situation became acute with the island reported as having no more than six weeks worth of food and fuel – after that, Malta would be defenceless and its people subject to famine.

In secrecy, a relief convoy was planned, Operation Pedestal. It was intended to be the biggest and most heavily armed convoy put to sea. All available resources were committed, making it a real ‘all or nothing’ operation. Central to this was the SS Ohio, an American tanker with a British merchant mariner for a master, Captain Dudley Mason. This ship was the biggest tanker of the day, displacing 9,000 tons, and yet was also the fastest; more importantly, it could carry enough fuel to keep Malta fighting for months. Refitted at Glasgow, the Ohio was armed with anti-aircraft guns and its sides fitted with armoured plates to withstand torpedoes, all designed to get the ship through the most dangerous thousand miles of sea. Joined by thirteen other merchant ships and nearly 60 warships, the Ohio started the voyage from Gibraltar to Malta on August 10th.

The first casualty was from a lone German submarine (U-73) that had stalked the convoy. The carrier, HMS Eagle, was hit by four torpedoes on August 11th and sank. Operation Pedestal had barely begun and the convoy had already lost its strongest protector.

The battle was on. The rest of the convoy forged ahead, while warships of the Royal Navy fanned out on all sides to protect the convoy from further attack. Early on August 12th, the air attacks began.

A thick barrage was put up over the fleet from the anti-aircraft guns from every ship, and the first attack was beaten off with no damage to any ship of the convoy. However, within hours, an Italian submarine penetrated the convoy’s defences and stealthy crept up to two of the cruisers among the escort. HMS Cairo and HMS Nigeria had been fitted out with long-range radar to spot incoming air attacks. One salvo of torpedoes struck both cruisers with a torpedo each, disabling both, while another sped past them to hit the Ohio, punching a ten metre hole in its side and setting light to a fire whose flames leapt higher than the ship’s mast. Resisting the temptation to abandon the ship, Captain Mason allowed the inrushing seawater to douse the flames before ordering fire fighting teams to finish off.

The attack had also wrecked the Ohio’s navigation and it veered dangerously off course and into the path of other ships. The convoy began to lose cohesion as its formation broke down. Right at this point, when the convoy was mired in confusion, German and Italian bombers swept in to attack. Two merchant ships were destroyed with ease while another, the Brisbane Star, was disabled.

On August 13th, the convoy began to pass through a narrow bottleneck called the Sicilian Straits, the most dangerous part of the route. These waters were heavily defended and the Axis powers had concentrated their submarines, E-boats and bombers, all tasked with destroying the convoy.

E-boats conducted hit and run attacks with torpedoes throughout the night. By morning, there were just four merchant ships left, escorted by a handful of destroyers, a tiny remnant of what Operation Pedestal had started. Despite all this damage, the Ohio was still afloat.

As day broke, the Luftwaffe intensified its attacks. Near misses buckled the armoured plates of the Ohio, while another filled her prow with water. An aircraft crippled by the remaining fleet’s guns skittered across the waves to slam into the side of the tanker – and then a bomber crash-landed onto the foredeck of the Ohio. The debris was cleared but then two bombs exploded very close to the Ohio, lifting it up out of the water. While the bombs had not sunk the ship, the force of their blasts had blown the fires out in the Ohio’s boilers, leaving it adrift and a sitting target. The mission to re-supply Malta was all but over.

Again with perfect timing, a new threat was then launched at the remaining ships of the convoy, as battleships, cruisers and destroyers of the Regia Marina, under the direct orders of Mussolini, moved to finish them off.

A flight of Wellington bombers was dispatched from Malta to attack the Italian warships, a last bid to avert disaster. These bombers flew over the Italian fleet and, as well as bombs, dropped illuminating flares. They then broadcast fake radio messages, ostensibly calling in another strike from American Liberators.

The ruse worked. To those intercepting these messages, it appeared as though a massive Allied air attack was being mounted to completely wreck the Regia Marina. Mussolini needed no further convincing, and ordered his fleet back to port. Without this threat, Operation Pedestal was still in with a chance.

Within hours, the Luftwaffe swept in to finish off the convoy itself. This time, a 1,000 lb. bomb exploded next to the Ohio, and the shockwave cracked the tanker’s keel. Though the Ohio did not sink, her structural integrity was shattered. It was now only a matter of time before she broke up and sank. Captain Mason gave the order to abandon ship, as he worked furiously with his officers and the rest of the fleet to find a way to get the ship to Malta before it was too late – after all, the island was by now only 90 miles away.

The destroyer, HMS Penn, tried to tow the tanker, but Ohio’s rudder had been jammed by the latest attack, making this impossible. The attempted towing made the convoy extremely vulnerable, and the Luftwaffe came back for another attack. This time, however, they were to find that the convoy had just moved into range of the Spitfires based on Malta and a vicious air battle erupted above the ships. The RAF managed to keep the attacks at bay.

With crews from other ships, the crew of the Ohio was brought back on board the tanker and they joined the air battle with the anti-aircraft artillery on the deck. However, despite all appearances of action, the Ohio was still on the verge of coming apart, regardless of enemy attack. There was every possibility she would break up in sight of Malta.

The situation desperate, an idea from the captain of HMS Bramham was gambled upon. Two destroyers, Ledbury and Penn (Bramham would later take the place of Ledbury) took position either side of the Ohio and were lashed to the tanker, forming a type of trimaran. The destroyers would thus be able to support the stricken tanker as they limped their way to Malta, in what was now a race against time before the Ohio disintegrated.

One by one, the surviving ships of the convoy reached the Grand Harbour of Malta – the Port Chalmers, Brisbane Star (which had much of its bow blown off), Melbourne Star and Rochester Castle. Finally, on the shoulders of Bramham and Penn, the Ohio finally made it into the harbour, under the eyes of the people of Malta who cheered the ships in.

Operation Pedestal was not the success that had been planned, but it brought enough supplies in to keep Malta fighting and ensure the island would not be forced to surrender due to starvation.

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