Malta saved 70 years ago

Cayman veterans attended service

On this day, 15th August, Operation Pedestal, the Convoy to save Malta is celebrated – Convoy ta Santa Marika. 

 

Prelude 

Although the Second World War started in Europe in 1939 it was fairly quiet, a phoney war, until May 1940 when Nazi Germany launched its Blitzkreig campaign. German invasion forces swiftly overcame any opposition and in short order France, Belgium, Holland and Denmark were compelled to surrender. Off the shores of mainland Europe, only Britain was prepared to continue in a deathlike struggle. Prepared is deliberately used here. The country was prepared in willingness but equipment-wise it was surely not. Most thinking people living outside Britain, including leading politicians and diplomats in the United States, thought that Britain stood no chance and a successful German invasion of Britain was inevitable.  

For this reason, the Italian dictator, Mussolini decided to avail his country of easy pickings and collect some of the spoils of war. Knowing that there were few British forces in the Mediterranean, he declared war on Britain and its Empire. His air force started bombing Malta that was defended from the air by a few obsolete aircraft. The most famous of these incidentally were three early 1930s Gloster Gladiator bi-planes, soon after to be named, Faith, Hope and Charity. Later, a few hurricanes boosted the islands defences. But these were older marks of aircraft, too old in fact to be utilized in Britain.  

Supplies for Malta had to be transported from Britain through the eastern Atlantic and past the Straits of Gibraltar and then on a perilous voyage to the island itself. The trouble for Britain was that the Italians had a significant fleet of submarines and large numbers of cargo ships were inevitably sunk. 

By this time, the German Army was having a successful campaign in North Africa but to ensure its supplies could be safely brought across to North African ports the British domination of the Mediterranean had to be overcome. The key was Malta. Eliminate Malta and the Med would be safe for German shipping. Germany therefore started to support the bombing campaign but used up-to-date modern aircraft. 

Malta is not a large island, not even twice the size of Cayman but had a population of 400,000. Most people are aware of the bombing of London in 1941 and 1942 but the bombing in Malta far exceeded the punishment inflicted on Britain’s capital in this period. Food rationing provided only a very limited amount – nowhere near enough to properly sustain an active person. Fuel and ammunition were also desperately short. 

The Royal Navy sent several small convoys to Malta but the interception rate was high and many ships were sunk. Fortunately for Britain and the Maltese, the German leader Hitler made a foolish mistake in June 1941 by invading Russia. The target was the oil fields and other materials that could be obtained. It was foolish in the timing in that it gave his armies only a few months before the terrible Russian winters would block all campaign movement. Also, to support his forces in the new invasion, German military might was transferred from North-West Europe and the Mediterranean to the countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea where the invasion was launched.  

This gave some temporary respite to Malta as it was now principally just Italian aircraft bombing the island. But the situation was getting worse than desperate.  

Momentarily, let us look at the Maltese people. For at least 7,000 years the people from the countries bordering the Mediterranean had passed through the island, some stayed a while, so the population developed its own physical characteristics and incidentally its own language. In 1810, Malta was occupied by the French but the British rudely suggested, with muskets, swords and bayonets that they should leave. In the following period of over 100 years, it was natural that British attitudes and thinking would hold sway. By the time we are talking about, 1942, most Maltese thought themselves as being British but living overseas from their mother country. What did the British military personnel who came to the island find? They found their preconception that the population was half priests and half goats was not true. They soon came to admire them for their tenacity and that they were stoical to the core of their being.  

The British monarch, King George VI, awarded the island a medal only ever previously given to a civilian individual. The George Cross is the highest level of recognition for supreme acts of sustained bravery. He gave it to the island on 15th April, 1942. The citation read, ‘To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history’. 

It was clear that the Royal Navy remained vulnerable in the Med until the British Army could gain control of the North African coastline, and provide the Royal Air Force with secure bases. By 1942, the dangers to allied shipping were increased by the German deployment of their large fleet of submarines known as U-boats. But Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, decided that Britain must challenge the enemy at every opportunity. Malta, had suffered three years of bombardment from the Axis (Germany and Italy). In just two months, March and April 1942, Malta received twice the bomb tonnage dropped on London during the entire blitz. 

In order to sustain Malta every supply ship had to be fought through in the face of air, U-boat and surface attack. By July 1942 Malta’s shortages of oil, aircraft and food attained unbelievably chronic proportions. Operation Pedestal was assembled to bring life giving help. 

 

The convoy 

A significant group of cargo ships was assembled on the Clyde in Scotland and a strong naval force positioned to act as escort. Some of the cargo ships were chartered American vessels but with British crews. The most important cargo ship was the tanker Ohio. 

The ships that sailed on 10th August formed a mighty array: the battleships Rodney and Nelson, fleet carriers Victorious, Indomitable and Eagle with the old carrier Furious ferrying land based Spitfire fighters to fly off as soon as these were in range of Malta. There was also six cruisers and twenty-four destroyers.  

On 11th August, Furious flew off the 40 Spitfires it carried. As the numbers were thought enough to make any Axis aircraft keep well clear, it was bizarre that the ammunition had been removed from the Spitfire’s machine guns and cannons. Why? So that the space could be used to transport morale boosting cigarettes for the Maltese islanders and the military personnel stationed there. The pilots quipped that if they came across an axis plane they would shoot it down with Woodbine cigarettes. 

As the Spitfires were taking off from Furious, four torpedoes from U-73, a German submarine, struck the carrier Eagle, which sank in eight minutes. 

During the day and early evening the convoy suffered perilous air attacks by German twin engined Ju88s and U-boats, and lost ships either sunk or severely damaged. 

The next day, there were even heavier attacks. A hundred bombers and torpedo carriers launched attacks from every quarter. Italian submarines and a joint force of German and Italian motor torpedo boats launched attacks that lasted for hours. An Italian submarine, Axum, managed to hit the convoy’s flagship, then a cruiser and damaged the tanker Ohio. 

At dawn the following day German air attacks sank another cargo ship and further damaged the Ohio. It limped on towards its haven, Malta, but another attack stopped her engines. Now towed by a destroyer and strapped to two other ships to help prevent her from sinking it continued at three knots onwards with its incredibly valuable cargo.  

In all, only five of the cargo ships survived, the other nine were sunk. The Navy lost one aircraft carrier, two cruisers, two submarines and a destroyer. 

On 15th August, the Catholic Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, Ohio reached the safety of Grand Harbour and the cheering crowds of Maltese. Within moments crews were aboard unloading its cargo and fuel. When this was complete, Ohio seemed to wheeze and gracefully sink into the harbour depths it had so valiantly strove to reach. Her master, Captain Dudley Mason, was awarded the George Cross. 

With the arrival of three-months worth of essential supplies and the Spitfires the pendulum swung in favour of the defenders. In a few months Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa was beaten at El Alamein by the British Eighth Army and the allied forces from Tunis moving from the opposite direction. The end was in sight but there was a lot of campaigning yet to do. First things first. Sicily had to be invaded and then Italy itself. 

The Med was now in allied hands and Malta settled to being a central and huge naval fortress. 

 

Postscript 

In 1964 Malta was granted independence and became a republic within the British Commonwealth. In 1979 it joined and gained support from the European Union. It is a thriving nation with its population all enjoying a good standard of living. 

But the links with Britain are seen everywhere. Vehicles are right-hand drive and drive on the left-hand side of the road. The traffic signs are all British, even the post boxes on street corners have EIIR stamped on the front. Although family names are generally in the Maltese language, Christian names are principally English.  

And the Maltese have good memories. They are proud to have the image of the George Cross, awarded to the island in April 1942 a month before Operation Pedestal, on the national flag. The country is known correctly as Malta GC. The anniversary of Ohio arriving in Grand Harbour on 15th August, 1942, 70 years ago today, is still celebrated as a public holiday, named Feast of the Convoy ta Santa Marika. All ships in the harbours bordering the island are required to sound their sirens at a given time.  

 

Cayman Islands Veterans Association President Dale Banks, USAF retired, and Secretary Graham Walker, RAF and Army Air Corps retired, both attended a conference in May. This was organised by the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League and attracted delegates from veterans associations from over 50 countries. It may be no surprise that the Conference was held in Malta. 

CIVA logo

CIVA

Ohio 001

The Ohio during war. Photos: Submitted

HMS Eagle

HMS Eagle

Gloster Gladiator

Gloster Gladiator

Hurricane aircraft

Hurricane aircraft

Comments are closed.