Convoys for Malta

 

In mid-1942, the situation on Malta was alarming in the extreme. Supplies of food, water, medicine, and practically all the necessities for life were about exhausted. Aircraft, fuel, ammunition, and military supplies necessary for the island’s defense had also become either scarce or completely unavailable.

Operations Harpoon and Vigorous

In June two urgent convoys were simultaneously organized for Malta’s relief. One, named Operation Vigorous, originated from Alexandria in the east. Departing on the 11th the convoy was persistently and heavily attacked from the air. After several days of constant fighting the escort, for all its maneuvering and anti-aircraft gunfire, ran so low on fuel and ammunition that the convoy was ordered to turn back.

The other convoy, named Operation Harpoon, sailed from Gibraltar in the west. Harpoon was composed of 11 merchant vessels and their naval escorts. One of the most vital cargos belonged to the tanker SS Kentucky that was on loan to Britain from the Texaco, The Texas Oil Company. The convoy’s escort included two aircraft carriers, a battleship, four cruisers, 16 destroyers, and some smaller warships.

Like Vigorous, Harpoon faced immediate and determined attacks. Italy’s air force and surface navy exacted heavy losses. Kentucky and all of her precious fuel oil, three freighters, a Polish destroyer, and the Tribal class destroyer, HMS Bedouin were all sunk. Of all the relief ships originally collected for Harpoon and Vigorous only two of Harpoon’s freighters ever reached Malta. Of those two surviving vessels one was holed so badly that a part of her cargo was lost due to water damage.

“Engage the Leading Destroyer” HMS Bedouin and Operation Harpoon

Bedouin’s last battle began on the morning of 15 June 1942. The destroyer and several other escorts were stationed several miles ahead of the convoy to keep a watch for enemy ships. Bedouin’s crew, alert and on edge, spotted what was assumed to be a hostile ship. Bedouin quickly opened fire. As Bedouin was shooting, some doubt arose about the target. Some on board thought it was nothing more than a rock. Firing continued until the carefully watched target was identified as friendly. Cease fire was immediately ordered. The story was related by Bedouin’s gunnery officer, Sherard Manners.

At about 0130 someone on the bridge shouted, ‘Alarm dead ahead’ … (and) … sure enough there was a dark ship-size shadow. Guns were loaded and we were all ready. Then it struck me that the shape wasn’t moving. I shouted to the bridge, “I think it’s a rock.” No sooner said than Partridge next astern put her searchlight on – and there was a destroyer. A short, very sharp gun battle followed. I had been so busy trying to identify the target that my first salvo of four shells went whistling off into Tunisia. For what seemed like a couple of minutes the target was covered in flames and sparks – then suddenly came a cry, “Christ. It’s one of ours” and sure enough there was the silhouette of a British destroyer. It was all too true. We ceased fire and generally calmed down. It was in fact the hulk of the Havoc, which had run aground at high speed on 06 April, 1942 … we knew nothing about this and no-one had warned us about her. I don’t suppose it did much harm except possibly giving up our position. 1.

Shortly afterwards Bedouin sighted a strong force of Italian cruisers and destroyers. As she turned to rush the enemy, the other British destroyers of the convoy escort followed. An abrupt and intense gun battle ensued in which Bedouin was hit several times by enemy shells. When her propulsive machinery was damaged, the ship stopped dead in the water. The crew was preparing to fire torpedoes when the Italians turned away. The destroyer Partridge was tasked to tow Bedouin back to port. Italian aircraft soon appeared and Partridge cast the lines off in order to defend herself. Still without power, Bedouin could not fire her guns or maneuver. She took an air dropped torpedo hit, flooded, and sank. Most of the crew managed to get off, and practically all who went into the water were soon picked up by an Italian hospital ship. The British were well treated and transferred to a prison camp where they remained until after the Italian surrender. They then fell under control of the Germans. Most were transferred to POW camps in Germany for the duration of the war.

Although grateful to the Italians for picking him up and treating him well, Manners maintained a poor opinion of their military prowess in his postwar comments.

It was a poor effort by the Italian Admiral. He had considerable superiority, but as usual the Italians had no stomach for a fight and the (Italian) squadron turned away to the northeast. It is difficult to imagine a British Admiral acting similarly – the convoy should have been annihilated and the destroyers, too. 2.

 Bedouin’s captain, Cmdr. B.G. Scurfield, survived the sinking. He wrote a letter home to his wife from an Italian POW camp about his ship’s final action. The letter mentioned many of the ship’s crew by name.

 I knew what we had to do and the cost was not to be counted – the Italians must be driven off. It was no time for fancy maneuvers – it was to my mind merely a question of going bald-headed for the enemy and trying to do him as much harm as possible by gun and torpedo. Otherwise it was within his power to destroy us and then the convoy at his pleasure.

 I knew too that the other destroyers would follow me and know what I was about, whether they had signals from me or no … I could do no more about it, except give (Gunnery Officer) Manners a target and do my best to avoid punishment for as long as possible.

 The (Italian) cruisers opened fire almost at once and the first salvoes fell astern of Bedouin. Their spread was good – too good perhaps – at that range – and the shooting seemed to be unpleasantly accurate. Perhaps this is always the impression when one is the target!

 My time was taken up by the time honored dodge of steering for the last splash. I had often heard of it being done and found it exhilarating.3. It worked, too, for some time. A little before 0630 Manners reckoned that we were within range, so I told him to engage the leading destroyer, and we opened fire at 17,400 yards. Ten minutes later the enemy altered another twenty degrees away and we shifted our fire to the leading cruiser at 12,400 yards. By this time we were starting to get hit. Tinny crashes succeeded one another to such a tune that I began to wonder how much the ship could stand. Though I did not realize it at the time, one of the first things to go was the mast, and with it the wireless (radio).

 I knew the bridge had been hit; the compass repeater was shaken out of its gimbals and I had had water and paint flakes dashed at me, but the splendid Bedouin was forging ahead and closing the gap minute by minute. Montgomery was passing news to the plot and Moller was standing by to fire torpedoes – wounded himself and with his assistant lying dead beside him. Skinner, though I didn’t know it, was lying at the back of the bridge mortally wounded in the throat; Yeoman Archer and most of the signalmen and ‘rudolf’ men on the flag deck were either dead or wounded.4.

 All I knew was that the coxswain was calmly doing his job at the wheel and that the ship was responding splendidly. We appeared to be straddling (shells were observed to be landing close aboard and on either side of the target) the enemy and must have been hitting, but observation of fall of shot was difficult and it was not possible to allocate targets.

 At about 0650 the director (structure above the bridge in which personnel sighted and calculated gunfire solutions) was hit. The layer was killed outright and Parker, who was keeping the rate, mortally wounded; Manners and the sight setter escaped unscathed and so did the cross-leveler, though he was blown clear out of the tower.

 The ship had received more punishment than I knew and I felt in my bones that she would not be able to go much further. So I told Moller to go down and fire the torpedoes and when the  range had come down to 5,000 yards – tracer was being fired at us by the enemy’s close range weapons – turned the ship to starboard. During the turn we were hit several times, but the torpedoes were fired when the sights came on. After swinging past the firing course the ship came to a standstill. 5.

 The captain was killed late in the war in what appears to have been a friendly fire incident. He was in a group of prisoners being marched along a road by its German guards when they were strafed by Allied planes.

“The War Seemed Very Remote” Prisoners of War

Gunnery Officer Manners recalled watching Bedouin sink by the stern as he and some 230 other crewmen floated in the sea. They had not been in the water long when an Italian floatplane painted white and marked with red crosses landed near a small group of survivors. The plane took the men aboard and flew off. The pilot may have signaled the position of Bedouin’s crew for, just as it began to get dark and cold, a fully lighted Italian hospital ship came along to take everyone on board. As the men were being loaded onto the ship they were suddenly attacked by Italian dive bombers who, fortunately, missed the target. Long after the war Manners had an opportunity to speak with one of the bomber pilots who told him that his orders were to proceed to the position where Italian reconnaissance had determined Bedouin to be and bomb her. The pilot radioed that there was no enemy destroyer and he could only see the hospital ship. Surprisingly, he was ordered to attack anyhow. It is possible that the attackers missed on purpose. As the ship approached the Italian island of Pantelleria not far from Sicily, it was fired on by shore batteries but, again, escaped damage.

The British sailors were fed and cared for as needed aboard the hospital ship. They landed at Pantelleria for later transport to the Italian mainland where the officers were separated from the enlisted men. The POW camp for officers to which Manners was sent had been set up in an old monastery. It housed approximately 300 men most of whom were army officers taken prisoner in the North African deserts. Manners described life as a prisoner of the Italians.

Accomodation was quite adequate, washing facilities and food also. Red Cross parcels came with fair regularity. The earlier prisoners had worked up a good black-market, using cigarettes from the Red Cross parcels as currency … Accomodation was in the old monks’ cells – each of these had a couple of rooms and a small garden about 12 X 5 yards at the back. Some ten officers would occupy each cell … The weather was pleasantly warm in the spring and summer but jolly cool in the winter. However, the old beams in the roof made excellent, if unofficial, burning … There was plenty to do to occupy one’s mind. There was a small library furnished by the Red Cross; one could take part in plays, musical concerts; learn almost any subject under the sun. We also had a soccer pitch and exercise yard next to the monastery. We were joined regularly by newer prisoners but never overcrowded. The war seemed very remote. Each time a new lot of POWs arrived, they would give lectures to bring us up to date with war news. 6.    

 The prisoners were allowed to send letters about once every two weeks. After six weeks Manners began to receive mail and regular packages from home. It was comforting to him, as it was for all the others, to know that his family knew that he was alive and reasonably well. At the time of his capture, England’s fortunes were uncertain, but as time passed and newly arriving prisoners brought news, Manners was able to surmise that the war would end favorably.

According to one of his surviving grandchildren, Terrence Doyle had attained the minimum enlistment age of 15 years and 3 months when he joined the Navy in 1939. He arrived aboard Bedouin in September 1941. His early experiences with the ship were relatively routine ones as the destroyer and her crew trained primarily in anti-submarine exercises. As a 17 year old from a close-knit family and away from home for the first time, Doyle recalled often feeling lonely. He spent a gloomy Christmas 1941 for which there was no shipboard celebration. Doyle turned 18 just a week before the action in which Bedouin was sunk.

Doyle recalled that time slowed as he watched the Italian torpedo plane that ultimately sank Bedouin approach. He saw the plane get hit and come crashing down towards the ship. Still living in slow motion, his next sensations were of falling to the deck and then slowly rolling over with the ship. He could not regain his footing as he and the ship kept rolling until he was in the water. Earlier from aboard Bedouin the water had looked calm, warm, and even inviting. Now that he was actually in it the cold made Doyle feel as if he were being cut all over his body by sharp knives. Near dusk, as weariness set in and his mind became less clear, he worried that if he were not picked up soon he would surely die. He saw a ship coming towards him, but all he could think of was how cold the water felt. He was not aware that rescuers had gotten hold of him until he suddenly felt warm air hit him as he was pulled from the water. His next thought was that there could be nothing that would ever be able to hurt him again.

Doyle and the other enlisted men were split off from Bedouin’s officers and transported by rail to a prison camp at Castelvetrano, Sicily. There he was asked to fill out a card to be mailed to his family. The contents simply stated that he was “being treated well.” Although he would have begged to differ, he was at least satisfied that his family would know that he was alive. Later, he was always deliberate to write only positive letters home as he did not want anyone to worry. Letters that he received usually had large sections blacked out by British censors. This caused Doyle to think that his family might have been writing disparaging things about his captors that were removed in efforts to protect him from possible retaliatory mistreatment. His worst time as a captive may have occurred on a day when the prisoners were allowed to play soccer. When the ball was inadvertently kicked beyond the confines of the camp, one of Doyle’s friends asked and received permission to retrieve it. A guard who may not have gotten the word shot and killed him. Doyle, angered and frustrated, began to throw rocks at the guards who, fortunately, remained restrained. Once subdued, Doyle was given two weeks solitary confinement as punishment.

 When the Allies landed in Sicily in July 1943, the prisoners were moved to a camp on the Italian mainland where Doyle gradually learned to speak Italian. His primary recollections, however, were of the many days of feeling hungry. The typical daily prison camp rations included six ounces of bread along with a carefully measured half pint of macaroni soup. The prisoners were given a small ration of meat on rare occasions. The only vegetables they got were whatever happened to be mixed into the daily soup. Unfortunately, things were to get worse after the Italian capitulation in September when the prisoners were taken in hand by the Germans. They were moved to an auxiliary camp of Auschwitz called Blechammer. There, along with the others from Bedouin, Doyle was given a medical exam to determine what type of work would suit him. He was assigned fairly menial work that was a daily three mile walk from the camp. His assigned jobs included painting, bunker repair, and grave digging. He was able to see through a fence to observe Jewish prisoners receiving treatment that was far more harsh than his own. While he had been issued boots, he saw that Jewish prisoners marched and worked barefoot whatever the weather or climate. As the war began to go badly for Germany, the Bedouin prisoners were moved again by forced foot march to a very overcrowded camp. It had been built for 10,000 but housed 80,000. The camp was called Moosburg where Doyle’s weight dropped by “eight stone” or 112 pounds. He recalled that one day, as he trudged to work under guard an old woman clandestinely slipped him a caraway seed cake. He was very careful to conceal it until he could later eat it without being noticed. When American troops arrived to liberate the camps, Doyle had been a captive for three years. He was examined, cared for, and sent home. In June 1945, while in his family’s living room in West Bromwich, the mail delivered the card he had sent from the liberated Moosburg camp the month before. It simply stated, “Terence Doyle. Number TX 177385: I am safe and well.” 7.

“Malta looks to us for help. We shall not fail them”- Operation Pedestal

At the beginning of August 1942 Messages from Malta were dire. Incidences of disease that included polio and dysentery were on the rise. There were no medicines with which to relieve the sick. The entire population had been reduced to starvation rations. It was estimated that food supplies would be gone by mid-month. Beyond that time, it was thought that sustenance would have to come through the slaughter of the island’s remaining goats and horses. Such a measure was expected to be capable of extending Malta’s food supplies for no more than an additional five to ten days. A last-ditch convoy called Operation Pedestal was assembled at Gibraltar with hopes of staving off the looming abandonment or surrender of the island.

A total of 14 merchant vessels, among them another large American tanker on loan from Texaco, SS Ohio, set out on 09 August, 1942. It was escorted by four aircraft carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers, and 32 destroyers. The convoy had barely entered its second day at sea when the German submarine U-73, based at La Spezia, Italy spotted one of the carriers, HMS Eagle, near Mallorca. The submarine scored with four torpedoes that very quickly caused Eagle to develop a sharp list to port. Slightly down by the head, the edge of the carrier’s flight deck touched the water. Several convoy escorts rushed over to conduct rescue operations, but 160 men out of a crew of 927 were lost. All of the carrier’s aircraft went down with the ship. George Amyes, a survivor of the sinking, remembered,

… The Eagle shuddered with four distinct lurches. For some reason I thought that we had hit a school of whales! The deck tilted under my feet … and as the ship began to list I realized we were in serious trouble. … Frightened voices shouted and men began to stream up from the lower decks … bodies were already floundering in the water below. And the wake of the Eagle had developed a distinct curve as the vessel pulled out of line. The rhythmic throb of the main engines died away and the ship slewed further around rapidly keeling over. … I never did hear the order to abandon ship but when I saw marines jumping from the flight deck, hurtling past the gundeck, and hitting the rising torpedo blister as the ship keeled over I really did begin to get worried. Less than two minutes had passed, and the marines who had smashed themselves to jelly when they jumped had already slithered away leaving behind a blood soaked trail of slime. … I clambered between the rails, and suddenly I was sitting on the torpedo blister. Two ratings were already there, terrified, they could not swim. An officer slid between the two ratings and shouted, ‘now is your time to learn,’ and with a rating beneath each arm he dived into the sea. I never saw them again.   … (after entering the water) … I saw other frightened faces and suddenly I did not feel quite so lonely. … The sea suddenly boiled; an unbelievable crushing pressure stunned my senses, and I spun around the water like a toy … Something bumped into me from behind, it was ‘Stripey,’ … but something was wrong. His face was discolored, his eyes staring, and he was flopping uncontrollably in the water. I grabbed for him and my hand slid down his torso and suddenly there was nothing but mush. … Panic stricken I pushed him away and felt my stomach heaving uncontrollably. We drifted apart. 8.

 Amyes had inflated his rubber life belt but, weighted down with oil soaked clothing, struggled considerably. He could not remove his clothing because he would have had to remove his lifebelt first. He was also fearful of being stung by jellyfish that he believed were abundant in that part of the Mediterranean. He managed to secure a second life belt from a dead sailor. He was eventually hauled aboard a tugboat with much difficulty by rope. Although sickened by oily seawater that he had swallowed, and nearly exhausted by his ordeal, Amyes and the other survivors aboard the tug were ordered to transfer to a destroyer that had come alongside. He had to swing himself off the deck of the tug, grab at the scrambling net hanging from the destroyer’s rails, and climb up to her deck. He saw numerous others fall between the two vessels. He recalled,

… I was given 24 hours to clean the clothing I was wearing – clean myself of oil, slime, blood and filth; and draw (from available naval supplies) a minimum of essential clothing; in my case one pair of deck shoes – pass the medical officer – and if we could breathe we were declared fitfor duty – report to administration, and be assigned to our new station. 72 hours after being (sunk) … I was hard a t work on the old but faithful aircraft carrier, Argus.9.

 “Mine, Bomb, or Torpedo …” HMS Rodney and Operation Pedestal

 Battleship Rodney was teamed up with her sister ship, Nelson, four aircraft carriers (one of which was the ill-fated HMS Eagle), and three cruisers to form Force Z, the distant escort for the Pedestal convoy. Force Z was assigned to stay with the merchant ships and the near escort until they all arrived at the Strait of Sicily between Tunisia and Sicily. From that point, the task of protecting the convoy from surface attack by the Italian Navy would be completed, and Force Z would turn back to Gibraltar. The convoy would proceed to Malta under the eyes and guns of the near escort and Malta-based air cover.

William L. Meyers was a member of the Fleet Air Arm and a petty officer trained in the maintenance and operations of shipboard Walrus scout aircraft. Meyers recalled the days about a year prior to Operation Pedestal when he had first reported for duty aboard Rodney.

My first days on board were spent trying to find my way around and marveling at the massive size of everything. The aircraft was mounted on the top of a turret manned, as tradition demanded, by the Royal Marines. They invited me into the turret and what an experience that was. Three massive guns and three sets of operating mechanisms, no automation, everything controlled by hand. Breech open, up from below would come the massive shell weighing one ton, into the breech followed by the cordite, breech closed, gun ready. Each gun weighed 100 tons … For me those early days were a series of firsts. The first time aboard a seagoing ship and getting acquainted with the stomach churning motions. My first time in a hammock. I have never claimed to be a gymnast and my clumsy efforts to swing myself up into that canvas bag suspended from the deck head were a source of much amusement to my messmates. 10.

Fearful that it could become a fire hazard during combat, Rodney’s captain ordered the Walrus to be deactivated for Operation Pedestal. Without an airplane to care for, Petty Officer Myers was temporarily left with no duties. He was assigned to a gun crew but, being unoccupied on deck during much of the time, he had a good view of the action that began soon after the convoy raised anchor.

 As I recall we left Scapa in early August 1942, once again in company with our sister ship Nelson and headed south being joined by other ships both merchant and naval as we proceeded. As was common practice in those days we had no idea of our destination … and, as always, in the absence of positive information rumor ran riot. The Far East seemed to be a popular choice until we reached the 36th parallel when it was left hand down and hey ho for the Straits of Gibraltar. There was much excitement at the thought of a run ashore at Gib. But it was not to be – in the middle of the night of 10th August we belted through the Straits in the forlorn hope of not being spotted by enemy watchers on either side … There can be no disputing the fact that if you have to go to war at sea then the Mediterranean is the ideal place. The water is almost invariably calm and of civilized temperature and the sky, when not obscured by shell bursts and enemy aircraft, is invariably clear and blue.

 With Gibraltar well behind us the Skipper addressed the ship’s company. He confirmed that the destination of the convoy was Malta, told us that if the convoy did not get through then Malta would undoubtedly have to surrender … spelt out the potential danger and advised that the next few days would be very interesting … We did not have to wait long for the ‘interest’ to develop. About an hour later (the captain) was on the ‘blower’ again with the comment, ‘looks as if the (aircraft carrier) Eagle has been torpedoed off our port quarter.’ We all rushed to the upper deck and there was Eagle, flight deck already touching the water, and a few minutes later she vanished from view. Apart from the sorrow of losing a great ship we had also lost a third of our air cover. Fortunately, most of the crew had been rescued by the escorting destroyers but the enemy submarine had escaped. Shortly after that we went to action stations where, apart from a few brief lulls, we remained for the next three days. Our first action was to defuel the Walrus much to the relief of the Royal Marines manning X Turret who did not relish the thought of gallons of high octane aviation spirits pouring through their air vents. To keep us (Fleet Air Arm personnel) busy we became part of the 4.7-inch (anti-aircraft) ammunition supply … every shell had to be manhandled from the magazine to the gun deck. Almost the same as in Nelson’s day except that now the cannonball and the powder were all in the same container. Each shell weighed 75 pounds but after a few hours it felt like 75 hundred weight.11.

 Myers reproduced information from a book written by his ship’s chaplain. It described a series of frantic events that took place in a span of just 12 minutes during one of the air attacks on the convoy.

Mine, bomb, or torpedo explodes astern … (cruiser) Manchester opens fire (Manchester would be hit by a torpedo launched from an Italian patrol boat and sink as a result on 13 August) … destroyers open fire port side … nine torpedo bombers coming in outside screen … 16-inch guns open fire to port … torpedoes dropped port bow … six torpedo bombers of port beam … torpedo bomber shot down by fighter … 12.

 The use of Rodney’s 16-inch guns against incoming aircraft attests to the ferocity of the attack and the desperation of the defenders. The basic idea for employing large caliber guns against aerial attack was to either have their shells burst in the air to release clouds of heavy shrapnel or to fire into the sea. A heavy shell striking the ocean would throw up a heavy curtain of water that might force the attacking planes off course or even to cause them to crash against it.

As the convoy struggled to get through to Malta, Meyers recalled,

Whenever possible I made my way to the upper deck to observe the operations of our two remaining carriers, Indomitable and Victorious. With the convoy under constant air attack from dawn to dusk there was continual flight deck activity. It must be remembered that fresh aircrew manned each succeeding wave of enemy aircraft, whereas our small band of pilots was continuously in action. I watched the aircraft land … and taxi to the forward lift where (they would be) lowered into the hangar. I could imagine the action as it moved back through the hangar being refueled, rearmed, and repaired while the pilot was debriefed, having a cup of coffee, and a pee … and by the time the aircraft reached the after lift he was ready to go again. It was possibly the most concentrated period of action for the Fleet Air Arm. Very comparable to the Battle of Britain but with the added hazards of a moving airfield, having to fly through friendly flak to reach it, and flying aircraft inferior in performance to those of the enemy … the performance of those young naval aviators is deserving of the highest praise. I had many friends on both (carriers) … (I) must admit to some embarrassment at the comparatively easy passage I was having but at the same time must admit to being very grateful for the security provided by Rodney’s 14-inches of armor plating.

 It was during one such bout of reverie that disaster struck the Indomitable. Two large bombs (got) through the flight deck (and) within seconds the ship was engulfed in flame and smoke. Through it all the ack-ack (anti-aircraft) barrage was maintained – a remarkable and courageous performance, but the ship was now out of action as an aircraft carrier. With many of Indomitable’s aircraft airborne and only one deck available (Victorious) there was a landing problem. ‘Vic’ already had a full complement of aircraft plus some from Eagle so space was at a premium and we were forced to witness the very sad sight of aircraft landing, crew evacuating, and then the deck party manhandling the aircraft … into the sea in order to make room for the next to land.

 As we approached the area known as the Skerki Narrows (Bomb Alley to the sailors), between Sicily and Cape Bon (North Africa) the heavy units had to withdraw leaving the convoy in the care of the escorting cruisers and destroyers with air cover from Malta … We were escorting the damaged Indomitable back to Gibraltar … (it was) a typical Mediterranean evening, the sea flat calm, the sun still high in a clear blue sky, and the silence was bliss after the deafening clamor of the previous few days. Suddenly we could feel the ship losing speed, the flag was lowered to half-mast, and our attention was drawn to Indomitable. From the stern of the ship we could see bundles toppling into the sea as ‘Indom’ buried her dead.13.

 “There Was Absolute Mayhem” HMS Eskimo and the Relief of Malta

HMS Eskimo was a Tribal class destroyer and a sister ship of HMS Bedouin that had been lost during Operation Harpoon. Eskimo’s actions during Operation Pedestal were described by John Manners, first lieutenant (executive officer or second in command) aboard the destroyer from 1942 to 1945.

By the middle of July things were stirring and the next operation turned out to be a large and heavily escorted convoy to Malta … it was the biggest and most important of the war called Pedestal. It consisted of 14 merchant ships (and) (T)hey all had a mixed cargo with the exception of the SS Ohio 14. which was most important of all with its cargo of fuel … there was a good deal of excitement and we knew that something big was in the offing. As always we were topped up with fuel and food, and we were ready for action … It was thought that Malta could (only) hold out until September so the next Russian convoy was postponed much to Stalin’s displeasure as there were hardly any escorts left at Scapa Flow.

 On the night of 10 August the convoy passed through the Straits of Gibraltar in a light fog and the destroyers put into Gibraltar … to fuel … With Algéciras only five miles across the bay … it was almost certain that the Germans knew about the convoy, indeed it had been thought that there were security leaks already.

 Bearing in mind that we had been at cruising stations for a week which meant continuously being on watches (every day) with four hours on and eight hours off, personnel were somewhat weary even before there was any action. In addition to being on watch, there were the normal household duties to keep the ship decently habitable as well as catching up on sleep, and feeding. Nobody took their clothes off apart from boots whilst sleeping. Around ones chest was tied the inflatable life belt which was kept partially inflated, or not, according to taste.

 … Six hundred miles from Malta … we were at defense stations, which meant that half of the ship’s company was at action stations all the time working four hours buttoned up, and four hours off duty. However, when the frequent air attacks came, we went to action stations with every single man allocated a particular duty. I was first lieutenant and therefore second in command and it was the practice to be away from the bridge in case it was hit and all key personnel were put out of action. My station was on the four barreled pom-pom (anti-aircraft gun mount). Being away from the bridge meant that I was not completely aware of what was going on, though a running commentary was passed by telephone. At action stations everyone donned their tin hats and anti-flash gear consisting of a balaclava head covering and anti-flash gloves.

 On 11 August tension was building up. There were various alarms of the presence of enemy aircraft but they were only shadowers (that) served to keep our fingers on the triggers. Coupled to this there were frequent alarms from submarines on the Asdic sets and the occasional sighting of torpedoes, none of which scored any hits. The whole convoy did numerous emergency turns, normally of 45 degrees to avoid these submarines, and, as the destroyer screen was zig-zagging all the time, maneuvering was not easy.

 At last, in the evening, our radar detected a large enemy attack impending. Our aircraft (from the screening aircraft carriers) were flown off and no doubt unsettled the attacking force which consisted of 36 planes: a mix of JU88 high level bombers and Henkel 111 torpedo bombers with the latter flying in low and releasing their torpedoes rather far away. All ships opened fire with every gun and the sky was filled with short bursts and a number of the enemy were shot down, but more importantly, the convoy suffered no damage.

 … By now (12 August), we were getting close to the enemy airfields, and around midday all hell broke loose. Firstly some black canisters were dropped by parachute ahead of the convoy by ten Italian aircraft. These were ‘motobombs’ a newly developed but untried weapon that was in effect a circling torpedo. Yet another emergency turn was made, this time of 90 degrees, and there were no casualties. The whole day was spent at action stations with everybody getting increasingly weary. Coupled to the fact that the galley fires were drawn, feeding arrangements were either chaotic or non-existent.

 Eskimo was always on the starboard … of the screen, on the French North African side, whereas most of the attacks came from the port side which was nearest the enemy airfields. During the morning, a large number of Italian torpedo bombers said to be 42 (in number) … kept circling the convoy at low altitude not daring to risk flying through the outer destroyer screen. They could easily have swamped our defenses, but declined to do so. After seemingly hours of trying, they dropped their torpedoes out of range and departed for home.

 At the same time, there were various submarine contacts on the Asdic followed by the dropping of depth charges. With torpedo planes circling, high level bombers, dive bombers, parachute bombs, emergency turns, two aircraft carriers careering about either flying off (or) landing aircraft the scene was of organized confusion …

 Then around midday 20 Junkers and 87 dive bombers made their attacks. The sky seemed filled with planes as we were now within range of the long-range enemy fighters. (One merchant ship had her) speed reduced (by hits) and she dropped behind the convoy where she was repeatedly attacked and eventually sunk by torpedoes from (Italian planes). By this time we were within 300 miles of Malta.

 In the evening 13 (Italian) torpedo bombers attacked in a half-hearted way and were deterred by a fierce barrage of fire, but one torpedo hit the stern of the destroyer Foresight rendering her immobile, and, she had to be sunk. By about six o’clock in the evening the sky became thick with aircraft obviously waiting for a coordinated attack. There were 42 (that were mostly German Stuka dive bombers), 40 Italian torpedo bombers, and 38 fighters … the enemy attacked, and there were planes everywhere, and all the ships were firing every gun, and in the middle of it all, it was evident that the aircraft carriers were the main target. Suddenly huge plumes of smoke appeared in the bows and stern of the (aircraft carrier) Indomitable as the Stukas dived down on her and hit her with two or three bombs. She turned towards us escorted by (a cruiser) and as she got close we could see a huge piece of her side plating hanging loose and a plume of black smoke rising from her stern, but she was not put out of action completely.

 The time was seven o’clock in the evening … we were 250 miles from Malta which should have been 16 hours of steaming with a time of arrival on the next (13 August) afternoon … Dusk was just beginning when, suddenly, the (cruiser) Nigeria was torpedoed followed almost immediately by the (cruiser) Cairo, and, a few minutes later, another torpedo struck the (oil tanker) Ohio. This was the work of one Italian submarine and her salvo of six torpedoes must have been either the most skillful or luckiest of the whole war. The Cairo sunk but Nigeria remained afloat and was able to limp back to Gibraltar … Ohio was stopped but stayed afloat and was later able to proceed at slow speed … With the advent of dusk, enemy torpedo bombers arrived and, with the merchant ships silhouetted against the evening sky, hits were registered on the Empire Hope which sank. The next was Clan Ferguson which blew up with no survivors and hits were registered on the Brisbane Star and Santa Eliza but both were able to carry on at reduced speed.

 The convoy in the space of about half an hour, had suffered crippling losses. There was absolute mayhem. With enemy submarines in the vicinity, torpedo bombers attacking, ships blowing up, and everybody firing their guns for all they were worth, the situation was completely out of control … the depressing news came through that the Italian fleet was at sea … (S)ome ships fired star shells which illuminated some attacking E-boats (torpedo craft somewhat like the well-known American PT boat) and ships opened fire whenever they could.

 With all the escorts twisting and turning causing the destroyers to heel over, no hits were scored on them. Soon afterwards (cruiser) Kenya was hit in the bow by a torpedo from an Italian submarine, but fortunately, she was able to continue at reduced speed back to Gibraltar … Early on the morning of 13 August, the convoy ran into a number of Italian and German E-boats … and the (cruiser) Manchester was hit and brought to a standstill with both boiler rooms flooded. We passed her in the Eskimo and, soon afterwards, passed the Ohio as well. The tanker continued steam very slowly forward.

Further attacks on the merchant ships were carried out by E-boats who damaged the Rochester Castle, and sank the Glenorchy and Wairangi. The Almeira Lykes was abandoned. So by dawn the convoy was in a very sorry state with … only five merchant ships (left), but a sigh of relief went up when a fighter (plane) from Malta hoved into view … (W)e were ordered back (with another destroyer) to pick up survivors. To pick (them) up we let down our scrambling nets, which had a mesh rather like a rope ladder We had two of these on each side. They were about fifteen feet long and reached down into the water. We picked up all we could find from the Wairangi, Almeira Lykes and Manchester, which had been abandoned and sunk. It was a lovely calm sunny day and we were able to pick up about 200 survivors. 15.

 Eskimo and the other destroyer that accompanied her in the rescue work were detached from the convoy so that they could return to the safety of Gibraltar with their deckloads of survivors.

In addition to the loss of HMS Eagle, the Pedestal convoy suffered the sinkings of, two cruisers, one destroyer, and nine out of its original 15 merchant ships. Extreme fuel shortages that kept most of the Italian Navy’s large ships in port and the earlier diversion of a great portion of German air power to the Russian front prevented even greater losses to the convoy. The tanker Ohio, one of the convoy’s most crucial ships, had been hit repeatedly and barely made it into the Grand Harbour at Valletta before settling to the bottom. She had been towed in and was kept upright by a destroyer pushing against each of her two sides. Her cargo of oil arrived intact and unspoiled as did the supplies aboard the five other surviving convoy ships.

As the convoy’s remnants straggled into Grand Harbour, they were greeted by cheering people, blaring ship’s sirens, and band music. Because it arrived on 15 August, the feast day St. Mary, Our Lady of the Assumption, the convoy was gratefully named the Santa Maria Convoy or, in Maltese, Il-Knovoj ta Santa Marija. The supplies delivered allowed Malta to survive and to continue serving as a viable base for military operations against the Axis in the central Mediterranean and in North Africa. Although still proficient and determined, the weakened Axis forces in the region could not prevent follow-up convoys from reaching Malta. The battle of attrition over Malta had turned in favor of Britain.

The arrival of Pedestal has been commemorated and celebrated throughout the years on Malta. Veterans of the convoy as well as Italian and German veterans have always been invited to participate. As time passes, the number of veterans who return to visit Malta steadily dwindles. In 2014, there were 14 veterans or widows of veterans who attended the Santa Maria Convoy’s anniversary celebration. 16.

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