15th August 2002 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the arrival in Malta of the Pedestal convoy, delivering at heavy cost the critical supplies that saved the island from having to surrender and allowed it to continue to disrupt the Axis war art in the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Months of bombing by German and Italian aircraft and the interdiction of supply ships to the island had reduced the defenders to starvation rations by August 1942, and the island was equally short of fuel for the RAF aircraft which both provided air defence of the island and attacked in turn the Axis convoys supplying Rommel’s German and Italian troops in North Africa. On 10 August, the Royal Navy mounted Operation Pedestal, to try to get supplies through at any cost. Fourteen merchantmen left Gibraltar, escorted by four aircraft carriers, the Royal Navy’s two most powerful battle ships – Nelson and Rodney – four cruisers and a destroyer force.
Enemy submarines and aircraft attacked the force from the start. The aircraft carrier HMS Eagle was torpedoed and sunk on 11 August. Eighty enemy aircraft attacked on 12 August but the carrier Victorious escaped when a bomb failed to explode. A merchant ship was sunk. One of the escorts succeeded in ramming an Italian submarine, but the carrier Indomitable came under further heavy air attack and was put out of action by four hits. Another Italian submarine did further damage, torpedoing three ships, including the tanker Ohio. During the night 12/13 August, enemy torpedo boats joined the attack. Five more merchant ships were lost. HMS Manchester was badly damaged and subsequently scuttled. Daylight brought fresh attacks, claiming another pair of merchantmen.
However, three merchant ships did make it into Valletta’s Grand Harbour that day and a fourth arrived on 14 August. Spitfires were flown off from the aircraft carriers to reinforce the Malta squadrons. The focus now became the tanker Ohio, by now hit five times, under tow and almost sinking.
Helped stay afloat by the destroyer HMS Ledbury alongside, Ohio finally arrived in Malta under tow but with her vital cargo intact on 15 August. Ohio’s Master, Captain Dudley MN was awarded the George Cross for his heroism.
(Published by Ministry of Defence (UK)).
[Ed: Pedestal had cost the Royal Navy an aircraft carrier, with a second badly damaged, two cruisers and a destroyer. Nine of the 14 merchants hips had been lost, but the five that got through saved the island from having to surrender in early September.]