Here's What You Need to Know: Located 58 miles south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, the rocky, 122-square-mile island of Malta was the hinge upon which all Allied operations in the Middle East turned during the first half of World War II.
Torpedo bombers and submarines operating from the British crown colony and naval base maintained the only effective striking force against Axis convoys to North Africa. In the summer of 1942, only 40 percent of German supply ships were reaching Tunisia to nourish Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps and his Italian allies.
Malta: Linchpin of the Mediterranean
Malta was a strategic linchpin and, therefore, a prime target of the enemy. For the bitter years of 1940-1942, German and Italian bombers bludgeoned the island in a vain effort to pound it into submission, but the defenders—British troops and the staunch Maltese islanders— fought the longest epic defense action of the war. The tiny garrison never exceeded 25,000 fighting men, a few squadrons of Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane fighters, and two flotillas of Royal Navy submarines.
Almost daily, the enemy bombers and fighters bombed and strafed Malta and its installations, while antiaircraft batteries fired back and the islanders took shelter in limestone tunnels and caves. It was a desperate time. Almost every building on the island was destroyed or damaged, and the soldiers and airmen rarely left their trenches and air raid shelters, ready at any hour for the dreaded arrival of enemy parachute and glider-borne invaders.
An Island Pushed to its Limits
Malta held on defiantly as the free world watched, but the situation became increasingly critical. Failing to overwhelm its defenders, the enemy clamped a tight blockade around Malta. As the island’s resources ran low, the question of relief challenged Allied planners. In the first half of 1942, only one merchant ship in seven was able to breach the blockade. There was a slender lifeline. British minelaying submarines based in Alexandria, Egypt—HMS Cachalot, HMS Porpoise, HMS Rorqual, HMS Osiris, HMS Urge, and others—were able to steal through with modest cargoes of medical stores, kerosene, armor-piercing shells, powdered milk, gasoline, and mailbags. But it was not enough.
Hardship and shortages beset Malta’s defenders. The civilian population was subjected to tight rationing, subsisting on only 16 ounces of food a day. Fighter planes were forbidden to taxi to and from runways in order to conserve fuel. They were towed by trucks. Antiaircraft batteries were limited to 20 shells or four ammunition belts a day, according to caliber.
Malta had to be kept in the war somehow. The Germans and Italians were determined to knock it out. Between March and June 1942, no Allied ships reached the island. Each convoy making a relief effort was massacred by enemy planes and submarines. That July, with the outlook grimmer than ever, General John V. Gort, the governor of Malta, sent a signal to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “Estimate food and petrol stocks will be exhausted by August 21 in spite of severe rationing. Hesitate to request further naval sacrifices, but cannot guarantee Malta’s safety after this date without further supplies.” The message from Gort, a much-decorated hero of World War I and the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, was an understatement of the island’s plight.
Forming the Pedestal Convoy
Hastily, the British Admiralty planned a desperate attempt to beat Lord Gort’s deadline and save Malta—a large relief convoy code-named Operation Pedestal. It would be the most powerful convoy yet attempted, with a heavy fleet escort of battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers shepherding 13 merchant ships and a tanker. On this complex operation—the most dangerous Allied convoy yet undertaken —depended the survival of Malta and, indirectly, the fate of millions.
The heavy escort was to be provided by two venerable sister battleships, HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney, each displacing 34,000 tons and armed with nine 16-inch guns and a dozen six-inchers. Vice Admiral Sir Neville Syfret flew his flag in Nelson, as flag officer commanding what was called Force Z. With him would go a squadron of three aircraft carriers—the new HMS Indomitable, the 1939-built HMS Victorious, and the aging HMS Eagle. Commanded by Rear Admiral A.L. St. George Lyster, carrying his flag in Indomitable, the three flattops mounted 46 Hurricanes, 10 Grumman Martlets (Wildcats), and 16 Fairey Fulmars of the Fleet Air Arm to provide fighter cover.
With this main escort would be three fast antiaircraft cruisers—HMS Charybdis, HMS Phoebe, and HMS Sirius—and 14 destroyers. Providing close escort to the merchantmen were the heavy cruisers HMS Nigeria, HMS Kenya, and HMS Manchester, and the antiaircraft cruiser HMS Cairo, comprising Force X and led by Rear Admiral Sir Harold Burrough. The mission of this force, supported by 11 destroyers, was to cover the convoy through to Malta after Force Z had turned back to the Skerki Narrows, between Tunisia and southwestern Sicily.
In a separate operation from Pedestal, the carrier HMS Furious, with a destroyer escort, was to fly off 38 Spitfire fighters as reinforcements for Malta. Backing up the fleet were two oilers with a corvette escort, a deep-sea rescue tug, and a salvage vessel. All in all, it was the largest naval operation to be set in motion in the Mediterranean.
The fast merchant ships carrying 42,000 tons of food, flour, ammunition, and other supplies to beleaguered Malta were the Port Chalmers, in which the convoy commodore Royal Navy Commander A.G. Venables flew his pennant; Santa Elisa and Almeria Lykes, American-owned and -manned general cargo ships; Wairangi, Waimarama, and Empire Hope of the Shaw Savill Line; Brisbane Star and Melbourne Star of the Blue Star Line; Dorset of Federal Steam Navigation Co.; Rochester Castle of the Union Castle Line; Deucalion of the Blue Funnel Line; Glenorchy of the Glen Line; and Clan Ferguson of the Clan Line. The 14th cargo vessel, and arguably the most important because she was carrying desperately needed aviation fuel, was the new, 14,000-ton tanker Ohio. Owned by Texaco Oil Co., she had been loaned to the British for a special convoy. Ohio was manned by volunteer British seamen and commanded by Captain Dudley W. Mason of Eagle Oil & Shipping Co. of London. The tanker’s ordeal in the Mediterranean would be hailed as one of the maritime epics of World War II.
Although no attempt was to be made to pass a second convoy through from the eastern end of the Mediterranean as had been done before, a cover plan was devised whereby Admiral Sir Henry Harwood would mount a dummy operation from Alexandria in company with Admiral Sir Philip Vian from Haifa, Palestine. The idea was to confuse waiting German and Italian naval and air units, whose commanders knew that the British would make another attempt to relieve besieged Malta. A total of five cruisers, 15 destroyers, and five merchantmen would sail as if bound for Malta, and then, on the second night out, disperse and turn back. It was hoped that this would tie down some of the enemy forces.
Meanwhile, Air Vice Marshal Keith Park on Malta was to hold in readiness a torpedo bomber strike force in case the Italian Fleet might be tempted to leave its major base at Taranto. Park, a distinguished fighter group leader in the 1940 Battle of Britain, would keep the rest of his air strength, 130 fighters, for support of the Pedestal convoy. Six Royal Navy submarines from Malta were to patrol west of the island in case Italian warships tried to interfere in the area of Pantelleria, while two would prowl to the north of Sicily.
Even as the Pedestal ships were loaded and crews mustered in Scotland’s River Clyde, the enemy waited in the Mediterranean. German and Italian bombers, dive-bombers, and torpedo planes were lined up on the airfields of Sicily and Sardinia along with fighters and reconnaissance aircraft. About 70 planes were on alert as a reception committee for the British convoy. Eighteen Italian submarines and three German U-boats were on patrol off Malta and between Algiers and the Balearic Islands; German E-boats and Italian motor torpedo boats lay in wait off Cape Bon, Tunisia, where a new minefield had been sown, and three heavy and three light cruisers along with 10 destroyers were ready to intercept the Pedestal convoy south of Sicily.
“Secrecy is Essential”
As the convoy ships assembled in the Clyde, Captain Mason, the lithe, 40-year-old skipper of the tanker Ohio, briefed his crew in the petty officers’ mess. “We sail this afternoon,” he said quietly. “Our destination is Malta; you all know what that means…. Ohio is the only tanker. We shall have to fight with 13,000 tons of high-octane fuel aboard. Now is the time for anyone who wants to back out to say so. I must warn you that if you choose to go ashore, you will be kept in custody of the naval provost marshal until the operation is over. Secrecy is essential.”