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The Santa Marija Convoy

Despite the relenting bombing campaign against Malta following the Spring Blitz of 1942, the situation was still extremely serious, as the island was fast running out of all essential supplies, especially food, and the threat of starvation was very real.


Malta's survival during World War Two depended on crucial supplies being delivered to the island by sea

As a result, in June 1942 it was decided to send two simultaneous convoys to Malta, from both sides of the Mediterranean, in a move designed to split Axis forces attempting to intercept. It was hoped that if one was sunk, the other would get through. Convoy Operation ‘Vigorous’, consisting of eleven merchantmen, left from Alexandria, while Convoy Operation ‘Harpoon’, with six merchantmen, departed from Gibraltar. Both had strong naval escorts.


‘Vigorous’ was heavily attacked by aircraft, torpedo boats, and submarines, and threatened by a strong Italian battle fleet. The convoy was eventually forced to turn back to Alexandria, and none of the ships made it to Malta. ‘Harpoon’ also came under attack and suffered heavy losses, and only two of the freighters made it to Malta, delivering a mere 25,000 tons of supplies.


This was nowhere near enough, and military planners knew Malta would be forced to surrender if fuel, food, and ammunition did not get through before the end of August. The build-up of German and Italian aircraft in Sardinia and Sicily, added to the hazards from surface craft and submarines, rendered the passage of another convoy a very risky undertaking, but it was a risk that had to be taken.


Despite the huge risks involved in sending convoys to Malta, repeated attempts were made to keep the island supplied

Convoy Operation ‘Pedestal’, the largest convoy to date, was assembled. It consisted of fourteen merchant ships, the most important being Ohio, a large and fast American tanker manned by a British crew. They were to be protected by a powerful escort of three aircraft carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers, 32 destroyers, and eight submarines.


The convoy slipped through the Straits of Gibraltar on 10th August and suffered the first blow on the following day, when the carrier HMS Eagle was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. From then on, the convoy was to come under near-constant attack from the sea and air.


HMS Eagle was part of the escort for Operation Pedestal when she was torpedoed and sunk on 10th August 1942

On the evening of the 12th, the convoy was subjected to a severe air attack, and Clan Ferguson, Empire Hope, and Deucalion were all sunk. Brisbane Star was severely damaged by a torpedo but somehow managed to keep going. Ohio, too, was hit by a torpedo, which blew a hole in her side, but she too managed to keep going.


Around midnight, while passing through minefields off the coast of Tunisia, the convoy came under attack from Italian and German E-boats, which torpedoed and sank Wairangi, Glenorchy, Almeria Lykes, and Santa Elisa. They also damaged Rochester Castle but she was able to continue with her journey.


As dawn came, air attacks resumed, and two more ships, Waimarama and Dorset, were sunk after being hit by bombs. The bombers now turned their attention towards the damaged Ohio. There were a number of near misses, an enemy plane was shot down and crashed onto the ship’s deck, and at one point Ohio was straddled by two bombs, lifting her clean out of the water. After yet more hits, the engines eventually stopped, so a British destroyer attempted to tow the tanker, but the tow rope broke. Yet another bomb landed on the same area where Ohio had been torpedoed, breaking the tanker’s back, and forcing the crew to abandon ship.


The merchant ship Waimarama goes up in smoke after having been bombed

There was good news, however, as while all this was happening on the evening of 13th August, Rochester Castle, Melbourne Star, and Port Chalmers had managed to enter the Grand Harbour, to the jubilation of the Maltese cheering them on from the bastions.


The following morning, Ohio was reboarded and taken in tow. It was hit again, suffering more damage, including to her rudder, and the tow rope broke again. A German dive bomber was shot down, bounced off the water, and crashed into her side. Yet another attempt to tow the ship was made by three destroyers and a minesweeper, and eventually, they started slowly inching their way forward. Further aerial attacks were broken up by Spitfires from Malta, but nonetheless, Ohio was settling lower and lower into the water.


On the same day, Brisbane Star, which had proceeded on her own along the Tunisian coast after having been torpedoed, arrived and successfully unloaded her supplies. Then, on the morning of the 15th, Ohio was finally towed into Grand Harbour, with her decks awash, to cheering crowds and a band playing Rule Britannia. Her precious cargo was immediately discharged, and she settled on the bottom, in two halves, just as the last of the fuel was pumped from her holds.


The SS Ohio miraculously limps into Grand Harbour on 15th August 1942

Many Maltese attributed the arrival of Ohio on the feast day of the Assumption as an answer to their prayers, and, ever since, Operation ‘Pedestal’ has been known in Malta as ‘il-Konvoj ta’ Santa Marija’. The operation had come at a heavy cost. Out of fourteen merchant ships, nine had been sunk, along with an aircraft carrier, two cruisers, and a destroyer. But, although 53,000 of the original 85,000 tons of supplies sent to Malta ended on the seabed, the remaining 32,000 tons were crucial for the island to survive, and to continue the fight for a while longer. The siege was not over in August 1942, but the end was in sight.


In November, Convoy Operation ‘Stoneage’ delivered another 35,000 tons of supplies from Alexandria, and this convoy effectively lifted the Siege of Malta. Convoy Operation ‘Portcullis’ in early December was the first convoy to arrive without loss since 1941 and can be considered as the last of the Malta convoys that set out specifically with Malta as their only destination.

 

This blog was first featured on Combat Archives.

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