In August 1942 British Merchant Navy veteran Ray Morton was an eyewitness to one of the most celebrated Allied achievements of World War II – Operation Pedestal, or the Convoy of Santa Maria.
THE BRITISH POSSESSION of Malta, with its three airfields and a great naval dockyard, was strategic to both the Axis and Allied sides in the war because of its location between Sicily and the North African countries of Tunisia and Libya. The Allies needed to keep control of Malta so that their own ships in the central Mediterranean area could be provided with land-based air cover instead of having to rely entirely on aircraft carrier-based planes. It was also essential that Allied aircraft be able to use the Maltese airfields as bases from which to strike at the Axis supply convoys from Italy and prevent them from reaching Rommel’s Afrika Korps forces fighting against the British Eighth Army in North Africa.
The Axis powers were equally aware that control of Malta was their key to winning in North Africa, and consequently in 1941 they set out to bomb Malta and her courageous citizens into submission. For months, the small number of Royal Air Force (RAF) planes on Malta fought off much larger numbers of Italian and German aircraft. The RAF also helped the Malta-based submarines to attack the Italian supply ships on their way to North Africa. But despite the magnificent efforts of both her civilian and military defenders, by mid-1942 Malta was being pulverized by bombing attacks and facing a crisis of supply.
Throughout 1941 and the first half of 1942, the Royal and Merchant Navies set off time after time with supplies for Malta, only to face such overwhelming attacks from enemy planes, submarines and motor torpedo boats that the convoys were decimated. Only a small amount of supplies, which were brought by transport planes, extremely fast Royal Navy vessels, such as the minelayers HM Ships Welshman, Abdiel and Manxman, and by special cargo submarines which were dubbed the ‘magic carpet service’, got through to Malta undetected.
By the time Operation Pedestal left Britain on August 2nd 1941, Malta was desperate for supplies of aviation and other fuels, food, medical supplies and ammunition. Ray Morton was one of the intrepid Merchant Seamen who took part in this historic convoy which against great odds would finally break the Siege of Malta and make the Allied victory in North Africa possible.
Ray Morton continues:
I had turned 18 in June 1942 while on a trip home from Mellila (a Spanish territory on the Moroccan mainland) via Gibraltar after discharging a cargo of coke (not the drink) and bringing home iron ore in a battered old rust bucket called Camerata. Shipping was quiet on Tyneside and the Merchant Navy Pool in Newcastle sent me to Glasgow to join an oil tanker called Ohio, or as the crew said, the ‘Oh Aitch 10.’ Nobody seemed to know anything about her but I soon found out. Ohio had arrived in the Clyde in June 1942 and was immediately ‘requisitioned’ by the British Ministry of War Transport.
She was luxury compared with the ships I had sailed in. Two berth cabins and food we had only dreamed about. She had been provisioned in the USA and had grapefruit in the cool rooms and a dozen varieties of cereal for breakfast followed by bacon and eggs! A whole variety of meat and fish and ice cream! Once in the warmer weather iced coffee was the order of the day. So much for the creature comforts. I was making my first trip as an Assistant Steward after six months as a deck boy then twelve months as a cabin boy. Rumours were rife as to where we were going but we all knew such comforts would carry a price tag.
Shortly before sailing Captain Mason gave us all the ‘good news’ and said anyone who wished to leave could go ashore but, full credit to the boys, no one did. Then it was off to sea. Being a ‘gung ho’ 18 year old I wasn’t going to miss the biggest game of Cowboys and Indians ever played and with the biggest and strongest escort ever waiting for us offshore what was there to be scared of? Britannia Rules the Waves!
A few things stick in my mind to this day and always will. Like the escorts. Seeing those bloody great 16 inch gun battleships and the aircraft carriers, to say nothing of the cruisers and all those destroyers, made me feel ten feet tall. But on August 11th constipation was cured. Sitting on a bollard on the after deck, having a smoke and an iced coffee after lunch and talking to the galley boy (Mario Guidotti, a 15 year old from Glasgow on his first trip, who now lives in Burpengary, Queensland), we were watching the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle on the starboard quarter of the convoy. She had planes up on patrol when we saw four huge spouts of water along her port side. It was exactly 1.15 pm. She started listing to port and for the next seven minutes we watched men and aircraft slide off her flight deck as the list got worse, and by 1.22 pm she had disappeared.