World War II: Malta--Operation Pedestal (August 1942)

Malta World War II Operation Pedestal
Figure 1.--These Malta boys cheer the arrival of the 'SS Ohio', desks aswah, carrying vital fuel to the beligered island. This was the main objective of Operation Peestal, the last-ditch effort to save Malta which was at the point of surrendering. Inaffition to the hand-made American flag, the boys are also waving the Union Jack and the Maltese flags.

Operation Pedestal was the last-ditch Allied effort to save Malta wehich was close to surrendering to the beseiging Axis forces (August 1942). The plan was to run some 80 ships past Axis bombers, minefields and u-boats. They faced dauting odds. The Axis forced had destroyed large numbers of war ships and cargo vessels trying to relieve Malta. As a result of the Axis seige, Malta was down to its final supplies of fuel, grain and ammunition. Without supplies the Malta garrison was preparing to surrender at the end of August. Only 14 merchant vessels were involved, escorted by 64 warships. It was the most heavily guarded convoy during the entire War. Britain had managed to get some aircraft to Malta by running aircaft carriers into the Mediterraneam. Supplies had to be delivered in quantity and this mean getting relatively slow merchant vessels through. The Axis had airbases, both in Sardinia and Sicily, which could attack relief convoys in force. German u-boats had also been deployed in the Meditwrranean. Pededtal included convoys entering the Mediterranean through Gibraltar headed east and another force grom Alexandria headed west. Particularly important was fuel. The British had no fast tankers. President Poosevelt thus supplied the SS Ohio. Unless Pedestal got some of the merchant ships through, esspecially Ohio, Malta would fall.

War Situation

The war situation was looking fire for the Allies during the summer of 1942. The Wehrmacht had smashed Societ armies in the Ukraine and was moving toward Stalingrad and had entered the oil-rich Caucauses. Rommel's Afrika Korps was only a few miles from Alexandria and the Suez Canal. A growing U-boat force was sinking increasing numbers of Allied ships in the North Atlantic. Peal Harbor had brought America into the War, but its capabilities were still limited and the Japanese offensice in the Pacific limitec the naval forces which could be deployed in the Atlantic.

Situation on Malta

Operation Pedestal was the last-ditch Allied effort to save Malta wehich was close to surrendering to the beseiging Axis forces (August 1942). As a result of the Axis seige, Malta was down to its final supplies of fuel, grain and ammunition. Without supplies the Malta garrison was preparing to surrender at the end of August. Britain and America had managed to get some aircraft to Malta by running aircaft carriers into the Mediterraneam. Supplies had to be delivered in quantity and this mean getting relatively slow merchant vessels through.

Axis Forces

They Pedestal convoys faced dauting odds. The Axis forced had destroyed large numbers of war ships and cargo vessels trying to relieve Malta. The Axis had airbases, both in Sardinia and Sicily, which could attack relief convoys in force. German U-boats had also been deployed in the Meditrrranean.

Relief Convoy (March 1942)

The Royal Navy attempted to relieve Malta with a convoy of three 3 merchant ships plus a slow Royal Navy oiler (March 1942). The convoy was escorted by 4 cruisers and 16 destroyers. Another force of a cruiser and its covering force sailed from Malta to meet them. An Italian naval force attempted to intercept the convoy. The Italian force consisted of a battleship armed with nine 15-inch guns, 3 cruisers, and 10 destroyers. The Royl Navy mamaged to keep the Italian force away from the convoy. Luftwaffe bombers hit the convoy near Malta. One of the merchant ships were sunk just 20 miles from Malta. The oiler was sunk 8 miles off Malta. The remaining two ships reached Malta, but was sunk in the harbor with much of the cargo dedstroyed.

SS Ohio and SS Kentucky

Great Britain had no fast tankers capable of 16 knots. Speed was essential in getting convoys through to Malta. The United States attempted to assist the British in getting convoys through. American ships at the time were delivering large quantities of supplies to the British 8th Army in Egypt with ships rounding the Vape of Good Hope. President Roosevelt authorized an American carrier badly needed in the Pacific to deliver aircraft to Malta. The President also turned over two new fast tankers (SS Kentucky and SS Ohio to Britain to get fuel through to Malta. The SS Ohio was launched on April 20, 1940 at Sun Shipbuilding Yard in Chester, Pennsylvania for the Texas Oil Company (now Texaco). Many saw the War comong and there were consultations between the military and the Texas Oil Compsany. The Ohio was desifned to be both large and fast. It was the largest tanker built at the time (9,263 tons and 485 feet long) and carried 170,000 barrels of oil. Sister ships included Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Montana, Georgia, Delaware, and Indiana. And the ships were what wwre needed in war time. They were fast. The tankers had 9,000 shaft horsepower Westinghouse turbine engines. They were planned to reach 16 knots, but in sea trials Ohio achieved an impressive 19 knots.

Relief Convoy (June 1942)

The Royal Navy monted the next relief convoy 3 moths later (June 1942). It was a comined East-West convoy effort. The Western Convoy consisted of six merchant ships including SS Kentucky. They were escorted part of the way by a battleship, 2 aircraft carriers and 4 cruisers. It was an Atlantic convoy that tried to reach Malta through Gibraltar. The Eastern Convoy sailed from Alexandria. It consisted of 11 merchant ships escorted by 8 cruisers and 40 other warships. The capital ships fearing air attack withdrew before entering the narrow channel between Sicily and Africa. The anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Cairo and 13 escorts continued with the convoy. The losses were heavy. The Axis forces sank 6 merchant ships, and damaged 3. Seven ships turned back to Alexandria. Two nerchant ships managed to reach Malta. The Royal Navy suffered 5 cruisers damaged, 4 destroyers sunk and 1 damaged. The Kentucky turned bacl. None of the precious fuel got through.

Pedestal Plan

The plan was to run some 80 ships past Axis bombers, minefields and u-boats. Only 14 merchant vessels were involved, escorted by 64 warships. It was the most heavily guarded convoy during the entire War. Particularly important was fuel. The British had no fast tankers. President Poosevelt thus supplied the SS Ohio. The stakes were high. Unless Pedestal got some of the merchant ships through, esspecially Ohio, Malta would fall.

The Battle

The Convoy passed through the Straits of Gibraltar in three groups (August 10). The convoy was protected by two large forces of warships. Force Z was a distant cover force. Force X was a close support dirce thsat would atay with the convoy all the way to Malta. The battle was on within hours of passing throuh the Straits. A U-boat slipped through four estorting destroyers and torpedoed HMS Eagle one of the three precious Royal Navy aircraft carriers among the Pedestal escorts. Eagle sank within 6 minutes. There were 160 men lost and an important part of the Western Convoy's air defences. Many of the ensuing Axis attacks focused on the SS Ohio, the American oil tanker carrying vital fuel to Malta. Without this fuel, Malta's small protective air defenses would be grounded. As the Western Convoy moved east, waves of Axis bombers pounded the Pedestal ships. A U-boat torpedoed Ohio (August 12). Then Axis bommers scored two hits (August 13). Ohio was crippled, but did not sink. The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Ledbury came alongside to help keep Ohio afloat. Towing Ohio proved difficult because the ship's weight kept breaking tow lines. Constant Axis air attacks targeted the sinking Ohio. The attackers destroyed the rudder and opened a hole in the stern making it difficult to steer the ship. The Royal Navy destroyers gave up on towing. Finally two destroyers sandwich" Ohio to both keep her afloat and get underway. The escorts managed through sheer determinstion to bring Ohio decks awash into the Grand Port of Valetta before the Axis bombers could score another hit. The sailors were greeted by scenes of jubilation from the people of Malta.

Axis Reaction








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Created: 9:53 PM 4/26/2010
Last updated: 5:10 PM 4/11/2013