Tuesday 7 August 2012

An Island under Siege: Malta, Pedestal and the 'Ohio'

The George Cross
Whilst we are currently basking in the success of Team GB in what is turning into a superbly organised Olympic Games, the name of the game for the Allied powers in August 1942 was survival. Nowhere was this more vital than on the beseiged island of Malta.

The island was not an easy place to defend. In fact, prior to the outbreak of war, the RAF had taken the view that the island was indefensible due to it's proximity to the Italian airfields in Sicily. This view was opposed by the Royal Navy, who felt that as Malta sat astride the supply route of a potentially hostile Italy to North Africa, it should be defended and reinforced as a naval base in order to project British sea power and to disrupt any potential enemy's supply lines. The RAF's view had prevailed in peacetime, probably due to the expedience that this view also saved money from the defence budget. Fortunately, when Winston Churchill came into office in May 1940, he took the opposite view and the defences were hastily reinforced with whatever resources could be spared.

In these early days, the fighter defence consisted of a flight of ancient Gloster Gladiator biplanes based at RAF Hal Far. Something of a myth has built up over the years that there were only three of these aircraft operational, which were named Faith, Hope and Charity. In fact, there were usually more than three aircraft operational at any one time time and these names were not applied until after the battle was safely won and were the names given to the three surviving aircraft. Despite their obsolete appearance, the Gladiators were able to match the Italian aircraft initially deployed but the weight of numbers would soon tell and the biplane fighters began to suffer in the war of attrition. Later in the battle, more modern Hurricane fighters were deployed to the island and by the time of the Pedestal convoy in August 1942, the fighter defences had been further reinforced by the arrival of modern Spitfire Mk Vc fighters under the overall command of Sir Keith Park, one of the victors of the Battle of Britain, during which he had been christened by the Germans "Defender of London".

However, we are going ahead too far and should explain the background further. Malta had been identified by the Italians as a potential invasion target in 1938 but their high command had decided that the losses would be too great. Once war commenced, Mussolini revived his hopes of invading the island; he also hope that Spain would enter the war, occupy Gibraltar and having sealed off the Mediterranean, could occupy Malta after it had 'withered on the vine.' 

Fortunately, this was not to be and by June 1940, Mussolini knew that he would face a fight to occupy the island. Aerial bombardment was his chosen method to soften up the defences and the civilian population. At first the air defences consisted of the ancient Gladiator biplanes mentioned earlier, quickly reinforced by the Hurricanes flown in from the aircraft carrier HMS Argus. Despite the terrible damage caused to Valletta, the RAF were able to tackle the attacking Italian aircraft with relative ease and soon submarines based on the naval base were beginning to become a thorn in the side of the convoys supplying the Axis forces in North Africa. This was compounded by the destruction of the Italian fleet at Taranto by carrier based aircraft from HMS Illustrious on 11th/12th November 1940. It was obvious that the Italians couldn't take Malta unassisted - enter the Luftwaffe.

The Afrika Korps had arrived in North Africa in February 1941 with the ultimate aim of expelling the British from North Africa, taking the Suez Canal and thus going on to capturing the Arabian oil fields. The Luftwaffe, charged with supporting the Afrika Korps and also destroying the British base on Malta, moved into the same Sicilian airfields vacated by the Regia Aeronautica. Once again, Malta was under siege and this time it looked as if the Germans might succeed where their Italian allies had failed. The war of attrition took a heavy toll; although the island began the siege with a healthy supply of food and essential materials, the supplies began to whittle away and with their more modern aircraft, the Luftwaffe began to achieve air superiority. The Hurricane fighters were no match on their own against the attacking German aircraft and outclassed by the latest Bf109F fighters especially. Conversely, the Royal Navy were using Malta as a base to launch submarine attacks on Axis supply convoys and wreaked a heavy toll of their prey. Malta was still a thorn in the side of the Axis but the civilian population especially were suffering from the incessant air raids and the vital supplies of food and fuel were beginning to run low.

By March 1942, the Luftwaffe's air superiority was beginning to be challenged; Spitfire fighters at last began to arrive on the island, ferried in by HMS Eagle and USS Wasp in repeated runs from March to May 1942. The arrival of the Spitfires coincided with the arrival of Keith Park and pitched against his old adversary from the Battle of Britain, Albert Kesselring, he once again gave him a beating by using the same tactics that he served so well in the dark days of 1940; meeting the attackers as far forward as possible and breaking up the attacks early.

HMS Eagle sinking after being torpedoed by U-73 (IWM)
Despite this turning of the tide, the supply situation on Malta was becoming desperate; the Axis were successfully targetting convoys and out of range of the defending Spitfires, the exacted a heavy toll of both the merchant ships carrying the supplies and the Royal Navy escorts. By the summer of 1942, it was decided to send a 'make or break' convoy to lift the siege. Codenamed 'Pedestal', the convoy consisted of fourteen merchant ships, heavily escorted by two battleships, three aircraft carriers, seven cruisers plus some twenty destroyers, many of which were diverted from the all important Western Approaches convoys. Amongst the vessels in the convoy was the tanker Ohio, American built but British managed and crewed under the command of Captain Dudley Mason, who at the age of 39, was the youngest Master in the Eagle Oil Company's fleet. Loaded with kerosine and fuel oil, she was the most important vessel in the convoy, containing the very life blood for the defending fighters and defending warships.

S.S. Ohio limps into Grand Harbour, Valletta (IWM)
The convoy sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar on 9th August and entered Gibraltar the next day under cover of thick fog. Sailing later on the 10th August, any hopes that the convoy may have been undetected were dashed when one of the escorting carriers, HMS Eagle, was torpedoed and sunk by U-73 with heavy loss of life. Whilst Eagle was being attacked, another carrier, HMS Furious successfully flew off another thirty seven Spitfires for Malta and her mission completed, returned safely to Gibraltar. On the way back, one of her escorting destroyers rammed and sank an Italian submarine, so at this early stage the honours were even. Later on 11th August, there were four heavy air attacks on the convoy and another of the escorting carriers, HMS Indomitable was temporarily put out of action. As the days wore on, so did the losses amongst the merchant ships and the escorts. The Ohio was a special target, for the Germans knew the importance of her cargo. Somehow, she managed to survive the attacks despite being torpedoed and bombed multiple times. Ship after ship of the convoy was sunk however and by the time the battered remnants of the convoy reached Grand Harbour on 15th August, just five of the original fourteen merchant ships were still afloat; amongst them and against all the odds was the Ohio, which limped into harbour lashed between two destroyers, her back broken but with her vital cargo still intact. As she discharged her cargo into two waiting empty tankers, she finally sank in two halves just as the last drops of fuel were discharged. The Ohio and the cargoes carried on the other four vessels gave Malta another ten week's worth of supplies and ensured that she could stay in the war. 

The shield of protecting Spitfires was able to keep the attacking Luftwaffe at bay and perhaps more importantly, from the naval base, the Royal Navy was able to wreak havoc amongst the Afrika Korps supply convoys and by September, entire Axis convoys were being destroyed, leaving Rommel desperately short of supplies with which to withstand the expected attack from the newly arrived British Eighth Army commander, one Lieutenant General Montgomery.

Operation Pedestal was a strategic victory for the Allies, although one achieved at an extremely heavy cost; it kept Malta in the war and provided a springboard for the British victory at El Alamein in November 1942 and ultimate Allied victory in North Africa. The people of Malta earned their George Cross, awarded for the highest acts of civilian bravery.

Published Sources:

A Sailor's Odyssey - Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, Hutchinson 1951
Engage the Enemy More Closely - Correlli Barnett - Hodder & Staughton 1991
Park - Vincent Orange - Grub Street 2001
Pedestal: The Malta Convoy of August 1942 - Peter C Smith, William Kimber 1987

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