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World War II: Operation Pedestal - Relief of Malta

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World War II: Operation Pedestal - Relief of Malta

SS Ohio is struck by a torpedo

Operation Pedestal - Conflict & Dates:

Operation Pedestal was conducted August 9-15, 1942, during World War II (1939-1945).

Fleets & Commanders

Allies

  • Vice Admiral Edward Syfret
  • Rear Admiral Harold Burrough
  • 4 aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, 7 light cruisers, 32 destroyers, 14 merchant vessels

    Axis

  • Field Marshal Albert Kesselring
  • Admiral Alberto Da Zara
  • 3 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers, 17 destroyers, 15 torpedo boats, 11 submarines

  • Operation Pedestal - Background:

    A key Allied possession in the Mediterranean, Malta provided a base for attacking Axis supply convoys to North Africa. Effectively under siege, the island's fuel and food reserves were badly depleted by the summer of 1942. As Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's forces had recently won the Battle of Gazala before being halted at El Alamein, the strategic situation in North Africa was extremely delicate. Following two failures to resupply the island in June, Malta's air commander, Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, a veteran of the Battle of Britain, informed London that only a few weeks of aviation fuel remained for his aircraft. In an effort to alleviate the situation, the Admiralty began planning for a new operation to transport supplies to Malta.

    Operation Pedestal - Planning:

    Named Operation Pedestal, this new effort was overseen by Vice Admiral Edward Syfret and called for a force of two battleships, three aircraft carriers, seven cruisers, and 32 destroyers to support the convoy. Comprised of 14 merchant vessels, the relief convoy was centered on the fast tanker SS Ohio. As insurance against the tanker's loss, other vessels in the convoy carried aviation fuel as part of their cargo. Syfret's plan called for the majority of the capital ships, dubbed Force Z, to provide distant cover while the bulk of the cruisers and destroyers, Force X, provided close protection for the convoy. Once the convoy reached the Strait of Sicily, Force Z would retire to Gibraltar and allow Force X to escort the ships into Malta.

    Aware that the Allies were planning to resupply Malta, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring of the Luftwaffe and Admiral Alberto Da Zara of the Regia Marina began making plans to oppose the Allied naval force. While Kesselring intended to mount an intense series of air attacks, Da Zara ordered a force of submarines to attack the convoy. These efforts would be supported by a force of cruisers and destroyers which would sortie to finish off any remaining Allied vessels. As these preparations moved forward, Royal Navy ships began rendezvousing in the Atlantic. Flying his flag from the battleship HMS Nelson, Syfret oversaw the entire Pedestal force as well as Force Z. Command of Force X was given to Rear Admiral Harold Burrough aboard the light cruiser HMS Nigeria. In conjunction with Operation Pedestal, the carrier HMS Furious was tasked with conducing Operation Bellows which called for it to ferry Supermarine Spitfires to Malta.

    Operation Pedestal - The Convoy Enters the Mediterranean:

    After conducting brief training in the Atlantic, the convoy and its escorts passed through the Strait of Gibraltar on August 10. After the convoy refueled before dawn on August 11, the carrier HMS Eagle came under attack from U-73 early that afternoon. Hit by four torpedoes, the carrier began listing and sank approximately 70 miles south of Cape Salinas. As Eagle was sinking, Furious launched 37 Spitfires which flew on to Malta. Its mission complete, Furious and its escorts retired to Gibraltar. En route, the destroyer HMS Wolverine sank the Italian submarine Dagabur. Through the course of the day, the convoy and its escorts endured five major air attacks from Axis forces. These saw a merchant ship and a destroyer hit as well as the flight deck of HMS Indomitable damaged.

    Operation Pedestal - Pushing Forward:

    Pressing on the next day, the convoy's escorts sank the Italian submarine Cobalto and chased off several more. Passing near enemy bases in Sardinia and Sicily, the convoy came under air attack throughout the day on August 12. The first raid consisted of 19 German >Junkers Ju 88 bombers. Met by carrier-based fighters, they were repelled with a loss of six aircraft. A second raid around noon saw Indomitable's flight deck rendered inoperable and fires break out around the ship. This loss left HMS Victorious as Syfret's only operational carrier. As the convoy neared the Strait of Sicily, Syfret elected to withdraw Force Z twenty minutes early due the damage sustained by Victorious. With Force Z turning for Gibraltar at 6:55 PM, Burrough and Force X pressed on with the convoy.

    While the Allied ships were coming under air attack during the day, the Italian surface force, consisting of the heavy cruisers Gorizia, Bolzano, and Trieste and light cruisers Eugenio di Savoia, Raimondo Montecuccoli, and Muzio Attendolo, put to sea with a group of 17 destroyers. Around 8:00 PM, the convoy was attacked by the Italian submarine Axum. Firing a spread of four torpedoes, it sank the light cruiser HMS Cairo and scored hits on Nigeria and Ohio. The timing proved poor for Allied forces as the convoy was in the process of changing formation. Learning of the attack, Syfret sent three Force Z destroyers to reinforce Burrough . As the convoy and its escorts attempted to regain their formation they came under attack from enemy aircraft.

    Operation Pedestal - Limping to Malta:

    In the course of the attack, the destroyer HMS Foresight was mortally wounded and the freighter Empire Hope sunk. As the attack subsided, Burrough transferred his flag to the destroyer HMS Ashanti and the damaged Nigeria departed for Gibraltar. After darkness fell, the convoy was assaulted by German and Italian torpedo boats. Making numerous attacks through the night, they sank the merchant vessels Wairangi, Almeria Lykes, and Glenorchy. A fourth, Rochester Castle, was damaged. In the course of the fighting the Italian torpedo boats MS 16 and MS 22 crippled the light cruiser HMS Manchester which led its crew scuttling the ship.

    After dawn on August 13, Axis air attacks against the convoy resumed. A bomb from a Ju 88 destroyed the freighter Waimarama when it detonated the ship's deck cargo of aviation fuel. This raid was followed by a group of 60 Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers. Focusing their efforts on Ohio they damaged its hull plates with near misses. Around 10:50 AM, the ship was rendered powerless when two bombs straddled the ship causing boiler damage. Around the stricken tanker, Axis aircraft succeeded in sinking the freighter Dorset and starting fires on HMS Kenya. Enduring the onslaught, the freighters Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle, and Melbourne Star drove forward and soon were met by an escort from Malta. Covered by the island's aircraft, they reached Valletta at 6:00 PM.

    As air attacks continued, the destroyer HMS Penn attempted to take Ohio under tow. These efforts failed due to Ohio's severe list and bomb hit which broke the tanker's keel. While the convoy struggled forward, a disagreement ensued between Kesselring and the Regia Marina. Unwilling to provide the Italian ships with air cover, the German leader threw his all of forces against the convoy. Lacking air support and fearful of British aircraft at Malta, the Italian cruiser force turned back and sailed for Messina. Passing the submarine HMS Unbroken, Bolzano was torpedoed and forced aground while Muzio Attendolo lost part of its bow.

    Early on August 14, the damaged freighter Brisbane Star limped into Valletta. To the rear, Force X struggled to save Ohio. After enduring an attack by 20 enemy aircraft which destroyed Ohio's rudder and holed the stern, Force X was able to begin moving the ship forward. This was accomplished with Penn and the destroyer HMS Ledbury supporting the tanker's sides and the minesweeper HMS Rye stabilizing the stern. Though this awkward formation was interrupted during several additional air strikes, Force Z succeeded in dragging Ohio to Valletta and entered the Grand Harbour at 9:30 AM on August 15.

    Operation Pedestal: Aftermath

    Though the convoy and Royal Navy sustained heavy losses, Operation Pedestal proved a strategic success as the supplies that arrived, most importantly Ohio's fuel cargo, allowed the island to continue resisting Axis forces. In the fighting during Operation Pedestal, the Allies lost a carrier, two light cruisers, a destroyer, as well as 9 merchantmen. Casualties numbered between 350 and 400 killed. Axis losses numbered 42 aircraft downed, two submarines sunk, and two cruisers damaged. As 1942 progressed, Allied forces operating from Malta proved highly effective at disrupting Axis convoys to North Africa and deprived Rommel of badly needed supplies and reinforcements. Weakened, he was badly defeated at the Second Battle of El Alamein in October-November. Driven back across North Africa, Rommel soon found himself trapped between the advancing British Eighth Army and American forces which landed as part of Operation Torch that November.

    Selected Sources

  • US Merchant Marine: Operation Pedestal
  • BBC: Operation Pedestal
  • US Naval War College: Major Convoy Operation to Malta

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