Operation Pedestal and SS Ohio save Malta

In mid-1942, the war was going badly for the Allies. During the first six months U-Boats sank 3,250,000 tons of shipping in the Atlantic (an average freighter was 7,000 tons). Rommel rolled through Northern Africa, threatening the Suez Canal, but stopped 35 miles short of Alexandria, Egypt, because of a shortage of supplies. The Nazi war machine reached Stalingrad, with plans to head through the Caucasus for the Middle East oil fields. The Allies had Gibraltar, Malta, and Egypt. The Axis controlled France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, and most of northern Africa. A few countries were neutral (Turkey), or pro-Axis (Spain).

map of Mediterranean Sea

Malta's strategic airfield was key to holding the Mediterranean, but food and oil had to get through past German and Italian bombers. The 250,000 Maltese and 20,000 British defenders were dependent on imported food and oil.

In September of 1941, 8 of 9 merchant ships arrived in Malta bringing 85,000 tons of supplies.

A February 1942 convoy of 3 ships from Alexandria was unsuccessful -- no supplies reached Malta.

A March 1942 convoy of 3 merchant ships plus a Navy oiler, was accompanied by 4 cruisers and 16 destroyers, while another cruiser and its covering force sailed from Malta to meet them. This escort succeeded in keeping an Italian battleship carrying nine 15-inch guns, 3 cruisers and 10 destroyers away from the convoy, but the freighters faced Germans bombers near Malta. One ship was sunk just 20 miles from Malta. The oiler sank within 8 miles of Malta. The remaining two ships arrived to cheers by the Maltese, but were sunk in the harbor with only a fraction of their cargo unloaded.

SS Ohio in peacetime colors
SS Ohio in peacetime colors

SS Ohio and SS Kentucky
Great Britain had no tankers capable of 16 knots, so President Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned over the SS Kentucky and SS Ohio to Britain for use in supplying Malta.

The tanker SS Ohio was launched on April 20, 1940 at Sun Shipbuilding Yard in Chester, Pennsylvania for Texas Oil Company (now Texaco). In anticipation of war and due to unofficial conversations between the American military and the oil company, the Ohio was the largest tanker built at that time. At 9,263 tons, 485 feet long, she and her sister ships, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Montana, Georgia, Delaware, Indiana held 170,000 barrels of oil. With 9,000 shaft horsepower Westinghouse turbine engines, they were rated at 16 knots, but in sea trials Ohio made 19 knots.

A June 1942 convoy sent 6 ships including SS Kentucky, escorted part way by a battleship, 2 aircraft carriers and 4 cruisers east from Gibraltar, Simultaneously, 11 merchant ships escorted by 8 cruisers and 40 others headed west from Alexandria. The capital ships withdrew before the narrow channel between Sicily and Africa, leaving the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Cairo and 13 escorts. The results: 6 merchant ships sunk, 3 damaged, 7 turned back to Alexandria, 2 supply ships arrived in Malta; British Navy - 5 cruisers damaged, 4 destroyers sunk and 1 damaged. No fuel oil got through.

Operation Pedestal in August 1942 was the final effort to supply Malta before she was forced to surrender.

14 merchant ships: Almeria Lykes (C3, US), Brisbane Star, Clan Ferguson, Decaulion, Empire Hope, Dorset, Glenorchy, Melbourne Star, Ohio, Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle, Santa Elisa (C2, US), Waimarama, Wairangi

9 Merchant ships sunk
3 damaged
5 arrive in Malta

2 battleships: Nelson, Rodney Turned back as planned
4 aircraft carriers: Victorious, Indomitable, Eagle, Furious 1 aircraft carrier sunk, 1 damaged, 1 turns back as planned
7 cruisers: Phoebe, Sirius, Charybdis, Nigeria, Kenya, Manchester, Cairo 2 cruisers sunk, 2 turned back as planned
33 destroyers 1 destroyer sunk, 4 damaged
2 tugs, 4 corvettes, 4 minesweepers and 7 motor launches from Malta  

The timeline of their passage through the Mediterranean:

August 10-11 night

  • Entered Gibraltar in heavy fog

August 11

  • 4 torpedoes from German U-73 sink carrier Eagle, 260 men lost, all but 4 planes lost
  • Carrier Furious flies off 36 planes for Malta, turns back as planned.
  • Destroyer rams and sinks Italian submarine.
  • 40 German bombers attack convoy

Stuka bombers
Stuka bombers

August 12

  • 20 Junker 88s attack convoy
  • Submarine attacks
  • 100 German & Italian planes attack.
    • Deucalion sunk by aerial torpedo
    • Carrier Victorious hit by dud torpedo
  • Italian submarine forced to surface by depth charges
  • 30 Junker 87s attack.
    • Carrier Indomitable hit three times; destroyer
    • Foresight damaged by aerial torpedo and had to be sunk
  • Cruisers Cairo and Nigeria torpedoed by Italian submarines.
    • Cairo abandoned.
    • Nigeria returns to Gibraltar
  • Ohio torpedoed by Italian submarine and on fire. Manages 13 knots after repair.
  • 20 Junkers 88s attack.
    • Gunners on Almeria Lykes shoot down 2 planes.
    • Empire Hope bombed, high octane gas on fire, abandoned and sunk by escort.
    • Clan Ferguson hit and explodes.
      • Italian sub rescues 53 survivors.
    • Brisbane Star crippled by aerial torpedo.
  • Cruiser Kenya damaged by torpedo from Italian submarine.
Torpedo hit on SS Ohio
Torpedo hit on SS Ohio
SS Santa Elisa in peacetime

August 13

  • Passed through minefields between Africa and Sicily around midnight.
  • 8 Italian torpedo boats make 15 attacks
    • Cruiser Manchester hit, sinks by evening
    • Santa Elisa (US) hit by torpedo, entire ship on fire and abandoned
    • Almeria Lykes (US) torpedoed, sinks immediately
    • British Wairangi and Glenorchy torpedoed, on fire. No survivors from Glenorchy
    • Rochester Castle torpedoed but keeps going. It is now 4 AM.
  • Fighters from Malta fired on by convoy because communications out.
  • 12 Junkers 88s attack.
    • Waimarana hit, aviation gas on deck bursts into fire, ship explodes and sinks, 80 of 107 crew killed.
    • Wreckage starts fires on Melbourne Star.
  • 60 Stuka dive bombers attack, focus on Ohio. Near-miss buckles plates and forward tank fills with water.
  • Junkers 88 crashes onto Ohio.
  • Junkers 87 bounces off the water, crashes onto Ohio.
  • Ohio avoids mines, torpedoes and circling torpedoes.
  • 2 bombs straddle her, lift her out of the water. Boilers blown, she is dead in the water at 10:50 AM.
  • Dorset disabled by 3 near misses, engine room flooded, high octane gas on fire, abandoned.
  • 12 Italian torpedo bombers attack.
    • Port Chalmers catches torpedo in paravane (submerged floats meant to catch mines).
    • Bomb nearby sets Kenya's forward engine room on fire; fire put out.
  • Fighters from Malta provide some air cover.
  • Rochester Castle, Port Castle, Melbourne Star steam on to meet escort from Malta, reach Grand Harbour in Valetta at 6 PM.
  • Junkers 88 attacks on Ohio. Ohio nearly split in two as bomb hits in same area as torpedo.
  • Destroyer tries to tow Ohio, but Ohio wants to go sideways.
  • Crew abandons ship.
  • Italian torpedo bombers attack.

August 14

  • Brisbane Star arrives Malta
  • Frederick Larsen, Jr., third mate and Francis Dales, Cadet-Midshipman from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, crew members on the Santa Elisa volunteer to man guns on Ohio during tow. [Text of Distinguished Service Medal Citation below]
  • Weight of Ohio keeps breaking tow lines.
  • Constant air attacks by 20 bombers.
    • Bomb destroys rudder and makes hole in stern of Ohio. Decks awash.
  • Finally, successfully towed while "sandwiched" by two destroyers.
    • Two destroyers "sandwich" Ohio
      Two destroyers
      "sandwich" Ohio as she is towed

August 15

  • Ohio arrives Grand Harbour 9:30 AM to cheering crowds.
  • On Malta the convoy is known as "Il-Konvoj ta Santa Marija" because it arrived on St. Mary's feast day, according to our correspondent in Malta.


SS Ohio enters Malta
SS Ohio enters Malta

August 17.

  • Germany reports that all the tankers in a recent Mediterranean convoy were sunk and not one of the transports reached their destination in Egypt.

In August 1942, 35% of Axis convoys to North Africa did not get through.

In September 1942, Allied forces sank 100,000 tons of Axis shipping, including 24,000 tons of fuel destined for Rommel, leaving him desperately short of supplies during his assault at El Alamein on October 26, 1942.

[Combination of two nearly identical Citations]

Distinguished Service Medal

The President of the United States takes great pleasure in presenting the

Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal


Frederick August Larsen, Jr., Junior Third Officer
Francis A. Dales, Cadet-Midshipman,
U.S. Merchant Marine Academy

For Heroism Beyond the Call of duty

[Their] ship was a freighter [SS Santa Elisa] carrying drums of high-octane gasoline, one of two American ships in a small British convoy to Malta. Orders were to "get through at all costs." Heavily escorted, the convoy moved into the Mediterranean, and before noon of that day the enemy's attack began.

From then on the entire convoy was under constant attack from Axis planes and submarines. Assigned the command of an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the bridge, Larsen contributed to the successful defense of his ship for three days. At 4:00 AM on the morning of the fourth day, torpedo boats succeeded in breaking through and two attacked from opposite sides.

Sneaking in close under the cover of darkness, one opened point blank fire with four .50 caliber machine guns, sweeping the bridge. The other fired a torpedo into the opposite side of the freighter.

The explosion of the torpedo ignited the gasoline cargo and the American ship was in flames. Reluctantly orders were given to abandon her. Two hours later, the survivors were picked up by a British destroyer, which then proceeded to take in tow a tanker that had been bombed and could not maneuver [SS Ohio].

After five hours of constant dive-bombing, the tanker was hit again -- her crew abandoned her -- and the destroyer was forced to cut her loose.

But the cargo she carried was most important to the defense of Malta, and it had to get through. The rescue destroyer and another destroyer steamed in -- lashed themselves on either side of the stricken tanker -- and dragged her along in a determined attempt to get her to port. The tanker's decks and superstructure had been almost completely wrecked by the incessant bombardment.

But Larsen's anxiety to get into the fight caused him to take inventory of her armament. He found an anti-aircraft gun mounted abaft the stack which needed only minor repairs to put it into action. The young cadet of his own ship, Francis A. Dales, a British Gunner's mate, and three of his men volunteered to help him. Though the ships were then constantly under attack; they boarded her, repaired the gun and manned it, with Larsen taking the trainer's position, and the gunner's mate and the cadet alternating as pointers. The shackled ships, inching along and making perfect targets, were assailed by concentrated enemy air power.

All that day wave after wave of German and Italian bombers dived at them and were beaten off by a heavy barrage. Bombs straddled them, scoring near misses, but no direct hits were made until noon the next day, when the tanker finally received a bomb down her stack which blew out the bottom of her engine room. Though she continued to settle until her decks were awash, they fought her through until dusk that day brought them under the protection of the hard fighting air force of Malta.

The magnificent courage of this young third officer and cadet-midshipman constitutes a degree of heroism which will be an enduring inspiration to seamen of the United States Merchant Marine everywhere.

Malta Convoy
, Peter Shankland and Anthony Hunter, New York: Ive Washburn, Inc., 1961
Our Tanker Fleet, Irving Crump, New York: Dodd, Mead & Compant, 1952
Pedestal - The Malta Convoy of August 1942, Peter C. Smith, London: William Kimber, 1970
Red Duster, White Ensign - The Story of Malta and the Malta Convoys, Ian Cameron, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1960

Map of Mediterranean based on Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia
Malta Convoy, Peter Shankland and Anthony Hunter, New York: Ive Washburn, Inc., 1961
Red Duster, White Ensign - The Story of Malta and the Malta Convoys, Ian Cameron, Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1960
Pedestal - The Malta Convoy of August 1942, Peter C. Smith, London: William Kimber, 1970
He's In the Merchant Marine Now, John Scott Douglas and Albert Salz, New York: Robert M. McBride and Co.,1943

Great book about Operation Pedestal, Larsen and Dales:

At All Costs: How a Crippled Ship and Two American Merchant Marines Turned the Tide of World War II, by Sam Moses. New York: Random House, 2006 Book Review

Video: The Malta Story (1953 British, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst) starring Alec Guiness and Jack Hawkins has footage of of attacks on the convoy to Malta "Operation Pedestal." The focus of the movie is on the British Air Force -- Guiness is an aerial reconnaissance photographer.

Polaris Magazine, July 1943, article about Dales
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