Il-Konvoj ta' Santa Marija: The Story Behind Operation Pedestal
by Chiara Micallef
Santa Marija is one of Malta's most venerated feasts in Malta, celebrated with much splendour and zeal in Gudja, Victoria, Ghaxaq, Mosta, Attard, Mqabba, Birkirkara and Qrendi.
This day also commemorates the arrival of SS Ohio at the Grand Harbour on the 15th of August 1942 — also known as Il-Konvoj ta' Santa Marija.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the SS Ohio's arrival, a day on which Malta was spared from starvation during the Second World War.
The Siege Of Malta
During the war, the British Government set up Victory Kitchens around Malta — with a total of 42 spots being established in numerous towns and villages. By July of 1942, rations decreased and quality diminished due to the war and its effects on our land and agricultural produce.
By early August, people were forced to scour for food — with potatoes and carrots being bartered for gold or silver in some cases. The situation was grim, to say the least, and Malta was scheduled to capitulate on the 7th of September 1942.
Malta was heavily blitzed throughout the war — with April of 1942 being the vilest month of all. The Axis — mainly Germany and Italy — dropped 7,000 tonnes of bombs on the island during that month, resulting in over 40,000 buildings, including churches, hospitals, homes and historical sites being destroyed. Moreover, more than 200 servicemen and 300 civilians lost their lives in April of 1942.
While multiple shots were taken to send provisions over to the Maltese Islands, most of these failed, making the situation even more threatening for the population. Some of these attempts included Operation MG1 in March, where two merchant ships managed to reach Malta from Egypt.
Operation Julius, Operation Vigorous and Operation Harpoon (Battle of Pantelleria) took place that same year, resulting in only two merchant ships reaching Malta.
Introducing Operation Pedestal — a British-organised operation unparalleled in size, comprised of the biggest flotilla of naval and merchant units sent to reinforce the Maltese islands. This cavalcade was made up of four aircraft carriers, two battleships, seven cruisers, thirty-two destroyers, four warships, four minesweepers, eleven submarines, seven motor launches, two fleet oilers, twenty-eight torpedoes and seventy-four fighters, tasked with ensuring that the fourteen merchant ships filled to the brim with vital supplies made it to the island. This fleet made its way from Britain to Malta through the Strait of Gibraltar in August 1942.
The convoy journeyed under constant onslaught from air and sea by Italian and German torpedo boats, aircrafts and submarines. Only five out of the 14 merchant ships managed to make it to the Grand Harbour.
When the first three merchant ships, Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle and Melbourne Star arrived on the 13th of August, the islanders welcomed the survivors as heroes. The fourth ship, the Brisbane Star, made it to the island on the 14th of August, however, the most longed-for SS Ohio – a ship loaded with 13,000 tons of petroleum products, along with fuel, kerosene and oil — was still yet to materialise.
SS Ohio was singled out from the start of the operation. It was skewered, torpedoed and incessantly attacked by the Axis powers. A boiler fire was ignited and steam pressure issues were rampant, furnaces went out repeatedly and a slew of bombs hit the ship. A fire broke out in the engine room and the crew had to abandon the ship twice throughout the voyage — The ship was not functioning anymore by the time it was close to Maltese territory.
The tanker was eventually towed and dragged to the Grand Harbour by a P-Class escort destroyer, however, the two ships made no progress as they were still being besieged by enemy vessels. Bombs and torpedoes hit SS Ohio, causing further damage to its stern. Eventually, the two ships were joined by a minesweeper and the SS Ohio was towed successfully.
Enemy aircrafts blasted the three ships, this time snapping the towline and further damaging the tanker. SS Ohio was abandoned once more until two additional ships — HMS Bramham and Ledbury, joined in to help tow the tanker mid-attack.
Help finally came in the form of sixteen spitfires from Malta's 249 and 229 Squadrons. While the battle ensued between the British spitfires and the German junkers, another bomb was dropped on the tanker.
A Much-Awaited Welcome
SS Ohio was sinking just 45 miles away from Malta's shores, still secured to HMS Ledbury by a heavy wire. As the air battle transpired, it was settled that HMS Ohio was to be towed by two destroyers, which were used to drag the boat towards the Grand Harbour under additional protection of Malta's coastal batteries and tugboats. A hero that truly stands out in this epic, is Wenzu Attard, a pilot from Birgu who volunteered to carry out this herculean feat.
Fires were shot from the air at the Axis U-boats and E-boats — all of which dispersed when Zonqor's dangerous harbour minefield was looming close by — safety for the SS Ohio, was on the horizon at last as the badly pummelled boat was ushered into the Grand Harbour.
The spectacle awaiting the ships after the gruelling scrabble was a show to behold — the wrecked harbour, the Barrakka, Fort St Angelo and the three cities were brimming with crowds of people cheering, waving and dancing around as the Royal brass band was performing at the Barrakka.
The danger of losing SS Ohio was still imminent, however, and as soon as the tanker discharged its cargo — 10,000 tonnes of fuel oil and kerosene — the ship sank and broke in two.
The arrival of these ships will invariably be known as Il-Konvoj ta' Santa Marija. A voyage that brought with it vital provisions needed for the survival of the Maltese, Operation Pedestal brought with it the strength and ammunition needed by the Maltese Islands to regain their role in the war against the Axis convoys shuttling between Libya and Italy.