August 2011 marks the 69th anniversary of one of the most important British supply convoy operations of World War II. The undertaking was designed to deliver desperately needed supplies to the island of Malta, which was the island bastion in the central Mediterranean from which British warships, submarines and warplanes sortied against the Axis convoys carrying essential supplies to the Italian and German armies in North Africa. Throughout 1941 and 1942 Malta was itself under siege by the air and naval forces of the Axis powers, which were all too aware that the island’s stranglehold on their own convoys across the central Mediterranean was crippling the capability of the German and Italian armies and air forces in North Africa. To sustain Malta, the British had to get supply convoys through at all costs and, despite major losses, they were able to deliver just enough to allow Malta to survive, though the island ceased to be an effective offensive base for much of 1942.
The operation to nourish Malta, its people and the armed forces based on it was codenamed ‘Pedestal’, and this was implemented between 10 and 15 August 1942. The operation was undertaken because of the failure of the ‘Harpoon’ and ‘Vigorous’ efforts to resupply Malta during June from Gibraltar and Alexandria, the British bases at each end of the Mediterranean. The island’s fighter strength had been bolstered most usefully by aircraft ferried in from the west and flown off aircraft carriers to the island, however, and this meant that Malta was in a strong position to beat off the efforts of the Italian Regia Aeronautica and the very significant German contribution of General Hans Geisler’s X Fliegerkorps, and also to aid incoming convoys during the last and most fraught stage of their voyages. The failure of the June efforts had provided useful tactical lessons, moreover, and ‘Pedestal’ was planned with a diversionary convoy from Alexandria, and considerably greater air power for the convoy escort.
In July 1942 the operation’s designated senior officer, Vice Admiral E. N. Syfret, commander of the Gibraltar-based Force ‘H’, was at sea on his way back from the ‘Ironclad’ invasion of Madagascar, and on 13 July was ordered to come ashore at Takoradi in West Africa to be flown to the UK to start planning the operation with Rear Admiral H. M. Burroughs and Rear Admiral A. L. St G. Lyster, who were to be his deputies. In essence, ‘Pedestal’ was to be a repeat of ‘Harpoon’ without the co-operation of Admiral Sir Henry Harwood’s Mediterranean Fleet but with greater resources, Admiral Sir John Tovey’s Home Fleet being largely denuded of major assets for the operation. The plan followed what was now a familiar pattern with the Force ‘Z’ main covering force proceeding as far to the east as the Sicilian Narrows, the Force ‘X’ escort force going through to the Malta Approaches, a substantial minesweeping force to clear the convoy’s final approach to Malta, a ‘Bellows’ carrier operation to deliver Supermarine Spitfire fighters to Malta, the Force ‘R’ tanker component to provide an at-sea refuelling capability, and sufficient destroyers to cover losses and any unexpected eventuality. The operation also included provision for the recovery of the two now-unladen ships of the ‘Harpoon’ convoy, and the collaboration of the Mediterranean Fleet, which was to carry out a deception with a dummy convoy in the eastern Mediterranean to divert Axis attention and divide Axis aircraft and warship resources.
By 27 July the plan had been finalised and Syfret joined his flagship, the battleship Nelson, at Scapa Flow to hold a commanding officers’ conference two days later for final orders. On 31 July the carriers Argus and Victorious sailed from Scapa Flow, under escort of the anti-aircraft cruiser Sirius and destroyers Foresight, Fury, Icarus and Intrepid, to a rendezvous with the other ships of the escort to the west of Gibraltar, where the ‘Berserk’ carrier exercise was to be undertaken before the convoy operation was launched. The exercise was to practise the three carriers earmarked for ‘Pedestal’ in general co-operation and fighter direction as they had not recently operated with each other. Syfret sailed from Scapa Flow on 2 August in Nelson with her sister ship Rodney, screened by the destroyers Ashanti, Eskimo, Pathfinder, Penn, Quentin, Somali and Tartar to join the WS.21S convoy, which left the Clyde river on the same day. The Malta-bound convoy comprised 14 ships in the form of the 7,773-ton US Almeria Lykes, 12,791-ton British Brisbane Star, 7,347-ton British Clan Ferguson, 7,740-ton British Deucalion, 10,624-ton British Dorset, 12,688-ton British Empire Hope, 8,982-ton British Glenorchy, 12,806-ton British Melbourne Star, 9,263-ton US tanker Ohio with a British crew, 8,535-ton British Port Chalmers, 7,795-ton British Rochester Castle, 8,379-ton US Santa Elisa and 12,843-ton British Waimarama each carrying fuel in drums, and 12,436-ton British Wairangi. The convoy was escorted by the light cruisers Kenya and Nigeria and, at various times, the destroyers Amazon, Bicester, Derwent, Icarus, Intrepid, Keppel, Lamerton, Ledbury, Malcolm, Penn, Sardonyx, Venomous, Wilton, Wishart, Wolverine and Polish Błyskawica.
Burroughs, who would command as far as the approaches to Malta, met the merchant vessels’ masters and radio officers and explained his plan in some detail. During the passage of the convoy to Gibraltar many exercises were held using all forms of communication to produce a very high level of training, in manoeuvring and communication, among the merchant ships. Before ‘Berserk’ and the later passage through the Strait of Gibraltar, there were many movements to and from Gibraltar. The fleet carrier Eagle, anti-aircraft cruiser Charybdis and destroyers Vansittart, Westcott and Wrestler sailed for ‘Berserk’ on 5 August, Kenya and Nigeria arrived to fuel very early on 7 August and sailed by 04.40 in darkness, and the carrier Indomitable and cruisers Phoebe and Sirius, with a local escort of the destroyers Lightning and Lookout, fuelled after the fall of darkness on 8 August. The following two days were still busier in Gibraltar, and the convoy passed through the Strait of Gibraltar in dense fog during the early hours of 10 August. Apart from fuelling numerous ships of all classes, an oiling force comprising Brown Ranger and Dingledale escorted by the corvettes Coltsfoot, Geranium, Jonquil and Spiraea, supported by the tugs Jaunty and Salvonia, sailed on 9 August. Malta was now so low on fuel oil that none of the ships at sea could be refuelled at the island, and the oiling force had therefore to remain on station throughout the operation to ensure that the escorts were able to regain Gibraltar.
On 10 August, all the ships having sailed and passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, the British naval effort comprised Force ‘W’ (battleships Nelson and Rodney, Lyster’s fleet carriers Eagle, Indomitable and Victorious with 72 fighters, anti-aircraft cruisers Charybdis, Phoebe and Sirius, and destroyers Antelope, Eskimo, Ithuriel, Laforey, Lightning, Lookout, Quentin, Somali, Tartar, Vansittart, Wishart and Zetland); Burrough’s Force ‘X’ (light cruisers Kenya, Manchester and Nigeria, anti-aircraft cruiser Cairo, destroyers Ashanti, Bicester, Branham, Derwent, Foresight, Fury, Icarus, Intrepid, Ledbury, Pathfinder, Penn and Wilton, and tug Jaunty); Force ‘R’ (tankers Brown Ranger and Dingledale, and corvettes Coltsfoot, Geranium, Jonquil and Spiraea); ‘Bellows’ force (carrier Furious with 38 Spitfire fighters for Malta and, when separated from the main body, destroyers from the ‘additional’ force); additional destroyer force (Amazon, Keppel, Malcolm, Venomous, Vidette, Westcott, Wrestler and Wolverine); minesweeping force to meet the convoy and sweep it into Malta (Hebe, Hythe, Rye and Speedy and motor launches ML-121, ML-126, ML-134, ML-135, ML-168, ML-459 and ML-462); and Force ‘Y’ from Malta (10,350-ton British Orari and 7,422-ton British Troilus escorted by destroyers Badsworth and Matchless, all kept at Malta after ‘Harpoon’). The last component of Syfret’s major plan was a force of eight British submarines, of which some were to patrol off Italian bases and the others north of the convoy’s route in a position to intercept any Italian warships heading south to attack the convoy.
On 10 August, the diversionary convoy provided by Harwood’s Mediterranean Fleet left Port Said under escort of Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian’s 15th Cruiser Squadron. The diversionary convoy turned back on 11 August, but Vian led his warships in a gunfire attack against Axis positions on Rhodes during 13 August before returning to Egypt.
At the other end of the Mediterranean, three cruisers and 26 destroyers fuelled from the tankers throughout 11 August despite constant shadowing by Axis aircraft, and at 12.00 Furious left the main body to begin ‘Bellows’. Despite the best British efforts, the Axis powers were well aware of what was under way, because agents in Algeciras (opposite Gibraltar on the Spanish mainland) relayed news of the convoy as it passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, allowing the Germans and Italians to set in motion a considerable offensive plan despite the unavailability of Italy’s four battleships for lack of fuel.
Involved in the Axis planning were Ammiraglio di Armata Arturo Riccardi and Generale Rino Corso Fougier (heads of the Italian navy and air force respectively), Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring (the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’) and Konteradmiral Eberhard Weichold (German navy liaison officer to the Italian navy). The two Axis powers had at their disposal 16 Italian and five German submarines tasked with attacking the convoy between the Strait of Algiers and the Sicilian Narrows (including between Algeria and the Balearic islands Brin, Dagabur, Giada, Uarsciek, Volframo, U-73 and U-331, in the area north of Tunisia and off Cap Bon Granito, Emo, Otaria, Dandolo, Avorio, Cobalto, Alagi, Ascianghi, Axum, Bronzo and Dessiè, to the west of Malta Asteria), 784 aircraft (447 bombers, 90 torpedo-bombers and 247 fighters tasked with attacks on the convoy from as far west as they could operate), 18 torpedo craft (tasked with attacks on the convoy between Cape Bon and the island of Pantelleria), and a major surface force comprising the heavy cruisers Gorizia, Bolzano and Trieste, light cruisers Eugenio di Savoia, Raimondo Montecuccoli and Muzio Attendolo, and destroyers Alfredo Oriani, Ascari, Aviere, Camicia Nera, Corsaro, Fuciliere, Geniere, Grecale, Legionario, Maestrale and Vincenzo Gioberti. This last force was tasked with finishing off the convoy in conjunction with air attacks. The Axis powers had thus grouped powerful forces to prevent the arrival of a convoy on which the continued defiance of Malta depended, especially as the tanker Ohio was bringing in the fuel on which the defence effort rested.
In overall terms ‘Pedestal’ pitted a British naval strength of four aircraft carriers, two battleships, seven light cruisers and 32 destroyers in support of 14 merchant vessels against an Axis naval strength of three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, 15 destroyers and torpedo boats, and 11 submarines, supported by 784 German and Italian aircraft.
Axis aircraft started to shadow WS.21S and its escort from the morning of 11 August, and from this time it was clear that the convoy would face determined resistance. The Germans drew first blood, U-73 torpedoing and sinking the carrier Eagle at 13.15 on 11 August, about mid-way between Algiers and the southern tip of Majorca, leaving Force ‘W’ with just 34 Hawker Sea Hurricane, 10 Grumman Wildcat and 16 Fairey Fulmar fighters. Laforey, Lookout and Jaunty saved 927 of Eagle’s crew of 1,160. Shortly after this Furious completed her flying-off operation and turned back to Gibraltar, the destroyer Wolverine of her escort ramming and sinking the Italian submarine Dagabur. At 20.00 some 36 German bombers evaded the British fighter screen and attacked the convoy without success, although the anti-aircraft guns of the warships claimed several victims among the attackers. Worse was in store for 12 August, when the Sea Hurricane fighters took a heavy toll of two Axis air raids launched during the morning from the bases at Decimomannu and Elmas in Sardinia: some 100 aircraft were despatched, and the attackers lost 28 of their number for little real gain other than slight damage to the freighter Deucalion and a near miss on Victorious, on whose armoured flight deck a bomb broke up. By this time the British were maintaining a combat air patrol of 12 fighters in the air at all time, with reinforcements sent aloft as and when the situation demanded.
Deucalion was detached from the convoy and sent, with Branham as escort, toward Malta by a more southerly route close to the Tunisian coast. Both ships were bombed during the afternoon without suffering major damage, but an attack by an Italian torpedo boat shortly before dusk set Deucalion on fire and the vessel eventually blew up. The most damaging raid of the day arrived at 18.35, and these 100 aircraft launched a well co-ordinated attack that resulted in considerable damage to the carrier Indomitable, causing her airborne aircraft to be shifted to Victorious, now the only workable British carrier. The destroyer Foresight was also hit, being abandoned and sunk later by a British torpedo. Some recompense was exacted by the destroyer Ithuriel, which sank the Italian submarine Cobalto by ramming after the boat had been forced to the surface by the depth charge attacks of Pathfinder and Zetland.
Then at 19.00, just north of Bizerte, Syfret turned back with his Force ‘W’, leaving the convoy under the close escort of Burrough’s Force ‘X’. This was the turning point of ‘Pedestal’, for just one hour later the Italian submarines Axum and Dessie launched eight torpedoes at the British force: five of these struck home, badly damaging the cruisers Cairo and Burrough’s flagship Nigeria, which turned back for Gibraltar, and the tanker Ohio. Cairo had to be sunk, and the departure and loss of the two cruisers was all the more keenly felt as they were the only two ships of Force ‘X’ equipped for fighter direction. Another air attack followed, the cover of six Bristol Beaufighter heavy fighters from Malta having just turned for home in the absence of the two fighter direction ships. This attack by 20 aircraft damaged two more merchant vessels, Empire Hope and Clan Ferguson: the former was abandoned, her survivors being rescued by Penn and the hulk being picked off in the night by Italian torpedo boats, and the latter blew up, taking with her 2,000 tons of aviation fuel and 1,500 tons on explosives as well as other supplies. Some 96 survivors reached the coast of Tunisia in small boats, and were there interned by the Vichy French. The Italian submarine Alagi torpedoed Brisbane Star, which had to fall out of the convoy, and damaged the cruiser Kenya at 21.00: the cruiser evaded three torpedoes, but was hit in the forefoot by the fourth torpedo, but despite her damage was able to continue at 25 kt. Hearing of the loss of two-thirds of the cruiser force, Syfret ordered the cruiser Charybdis and destroyers Eskimo and Somali to rejoin the convoy, but these were unable to do so until 03.30 on the next day.
It was now the turn of the Italian torpedo boats, which had been waiting off Cap Bon, and now, in two attacks early on 13 August (by one boat at 01.30 and by two boats between 03.15 and 04.30) damaged the cruiser Manchester, sank the merchantmen Almeria Lykes, Glenorchy, Santa Elisa and Wairangi, and damaged the merchantman Rochester Castle as the convoy hugged Cape Bon. It was decided that Manchester, dead in the water, should be abandoned and scuttled, which had been done by 05.00 as most of her survivors headed in small boats to internment by the Vichy French in Tunisia, but Rochester Castle, hit right forward, survived and rejoined the convoy making 13 kt.
The situation at dawn on 13 August was thus that the convoy was escorted by the cruisers Charybdis and Kenya, and destroyers Ashanti, Eskimo, Fury, Icarus, Intrepid, Pathfinder and Somali, with Melbourne Star, Rochester Castle and Waimarama in company. The tanker Ohio, escorted by Ledbury, could be seen astern overtaking the convoy, Dorset was afloat but unescorted somewhere astern, Port Chalmers with Bramham and Penn was some 10 miles (16 km) distant, and Brisbane Star was hugging the Tunisian coast. The German and Italian forces were now poised to finish the WS.21S convoy, but then fell out with each other over the question of fighter support, which was sufficient to escort the bombers or the two squadrons of Italian cruisers (two ships from Cagliari and four ships from La Spezia under the command of Ammiraglio di Divisione Alberto da Zara) but not both. Kesselring and Fougier wanted bomber escort, and Weichold and Riccardi demanded cruiser escort, a dilemma arbitrated by Benito Mussolini in favour of the air commanders. It was the wrong decision, for the two attacks (the first by 12 German aircraft and the second by five Italian aircraft) launched during the morning of 13 August succeeded in sinking only one more merchantman, Waimarama, which exploded so completely and suddenly that her attacker was also destroyed in the detonation (even so 45 survivors were rescued by Ledbury), whereas the abandoned surface vessel attack (by six cruisers and 11 destroyers) would almost certainly have destroyed the remnants of the convoy, even if heavy losses to the Italians had been caused by the six British submarines covering the last leg of the route to Malta.
Then the Italian cruiser force was intercepted by the British submarine Unbroken north of Sicily as the Italians were returning to port; the submarine scored torpedo hits on the heavy cruiser Bolzano and light cruiser Muzio Attendolo, causing each of them damage that took more than a year to repair. The last Axis success was the sinking of a straggling merchantman by German aircraft at 19.00 on 13 August. This was followed at 09.30 by a determined dive-bomber attack directed principally at the tanker Ohio, which was now back with the convoy. The tanker suffered several near misses, and was struck by a Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber which she shot down. This disabled the tanker’s steering gear, and one hour later more attacks further damaged and stopped her. At the same time Dorset was hit and stopped, and Port Chalmers was set on fire, though she continued with the convoy. The final air attack was delivered at 11.30, with no further effect on the convoy.
At 12.30 the convoy came under the air protection of Malta-based short-range fighters and proceeded without further problems. Bramham and Penn remained with the two crippled ships, Ledbury was sent to search for Manchester, which was believed still to be afloat, and Force ‘X’ continued toward Malta, meeting the Malta minesweepers which had swept their way out to meet the rump of the convoy at 14.30, and these brought Melbourne Star, Port Chalmers and Rochester Castle into Grand Harbour at about 18.00 on 13 August. Meanwhile Rye and two motor launches went out to search for Ohio, while Bramham, Ledbury and Penn were ordered to join Force ‘X’ at 20.30 while the force turned westward and began its passage back to Gibraltar. One more air attack was carried out before dark, and in this Dorset was sunk and Ohio hit yet again. Ordered back to the convoy, Bramham, Penn and Rye spent the rest of the night in futile efforts to tow Ohio, and were joined by Ledbury at dawn. Efforts to tow were resumed on the hulk of the slowly sinking tanker with slightly more success, and the undertaking was joined later in the morning by Speedy and two motor launches. After another testing 24 hours, Ohio was berthed in shallow water inside the Malta breakwater, and then settled on the bottom with the majority of her fuel cargo intact and available.
Brisbane Star had meanwhile arrived at Malta: after hugging the Tunisian coast during 13 August, the merchantman’s master intended to make a night dash for Malta; during the day the ship was not attacked but the master had to cope with intervention by Vichy French shore signal stations, a boarding by Vichy French officers who tried to persuade him to go into port and surrender, and a good deal of pressure onboard from survivors and his medical officer, who also wished to enter port so that speedy treatment could be given to the wounded. The master would not be swayed, however, and brought his ship into Malta during the afternoon of 14 August.
The ships which arrived in Malta landed 32,000 tons of cargo out of the 85,000 tons which had been loaded on the Clyde, as well as 15,000 tons of fuel. This was sufficient to keep Malta in supplies of all but aviation fuel to December 1942. Meanwhile Force ‘X’ was continuing its journey back to Gibraltar, suffering submarine attack in the early morning of 14 August and two air attacks during the day. No damage was caused and Force ‘X’ rendezvoused with Force ‘Z’ and reached Gibraltar at 18.00 on 15 August. The damaged ships of Force ‘Z’, sent home earlier in the operation, also all reached Gibraltar safely except the destroyer Foresight, which had to be sunk by Tartar after an unsuccessful attempt to tow her. Force ‘R’ also returned safely to Gibraltar on 16 August, and the final arrivals were the three ‘Hunt’ class escort destroyers Bramham, Ledbury and Penn, which had stopped briefly at Malta after they had aided Ohio into port. No further operations to relieve Malta from the west were attempted in 1942, the British 8th Army’s clearance of Egypt and Cyrenaica rendering the eastern passage much the safer option after the end of October, and the siege of Malta was effectively lifted by the completion of the following ‘Stoneage’.
In ‘Pedestal’ the British claimed one Italian submarine sunk and 39 aircraft destroyed, but the real hero of the whole undertaking was the tanker Ohio under Captain Dudley Mason. Then the world’s largest oil tanker capable of exceeding 16 kt, she had suffered seven direct hits and 20 near misses, lost all power, but had been taken in tow by three destroyers and reached Grand Harbour. This delivery allowed Malta to hold out, while the 10,000 tons of fuel delivered by Ohio allowed Malta-based aircraft and submarines to return to the offensive at just the right time to cripple the Axis cross-Mediterranean supply effort designed to allow Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s forces to inflict the decisive defeat on the British forces in Egypt. ‘Pedestal’ was the last of the major supply operations to Malta, and while it was a tactical defeat for the British, it nonetheless secured longer-term strategic success in the Mediterranean and North Africa.