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Operation Pedestal

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On August 10, a convoy of 14 ships, protected by heavy escort Force Z, which consisted of 2 Battleships (Flagship Nelson and Rodney), 3 aircraft carriers (Indomitable, Victorious and Eagle with 46 Hurricanes, 10 Martlets and 16 Fulmers), passed through the straits of Gibraltar. Their main escort was made up of 3 antiaircraft cruisers (Charybdis, Phoebe and Sirius) and 14 destroyers. A close escort named Force X was provided by the heavy cruiser Nigeria, Kenya and Manchester, antiaircraft cruiser Cairo and 11 destroyers once Force Z turned back.

Operation Pedestal was the most important convoy to set sail for Malta. At this point in time, Malta was on the verge of losing all capability of resisting Axis air attacks. It’s oil supply had run to dangerously low levels and ammunition was scarce. The 14 ship convoy consisted of the Ohio, Santa Elisa, Almeria Lykes, Wairangi, Waimarama, Empire Hope, Brisbane Star, Melbourne Star, Dorset, Rochester Castle, Deucalion, Glenorchy and Clan Ferguson. The Axis knew the importance of this convoy, and they already made plans to ensure that it never reached its intended destination. A total 700 Axis aircraft were stationed in Sardinia and Sicily specifically for this attack, including 18 Italian submarines patrolling the expected route, Italian E-Boats and MBT’s on station and 3 German U-boats.

The initial sighting occurred on August 11 by the Italian submarine Smg. Uarsciek, which attacked it without causing any damage. However, the entire Axis force was alerted to the Convoys location.

The U-73 German U-Boat was one of these vessels, which managed to get near the escorting warships and sink the aircraft carrier Eagle. Only 4 aircraft were saved and 200 men were lost with her. That evening, once the convoy came within reach of land based aircraft, German Junkers 88 and Heinkel Torpedo Planes attacked the convoy, but this time, no damage was instilled.

On the afternoon of August 12, 5 waves of Axis planes attacked the convoy, the first wave consisted of Savoia Bombers, escorted by Macchi fighters and fighter bombers. This attack utilized a new weapon known as the Motobomba, an Italian invention in which a highly explosive bomb is dropped with a parachute causing a zig zag descent. The bomb was intended to disrupt the convoy and make them break into separate directions for easier destruction.

Unfortunately, this weapon only works in close range and the Savoia bombers dropped it too early and too high. The convoy quickly regained its formation.

The second wave consisted of 40 Torpedo Bombers that were not able to strike the convoy effectively because of the fighter air cover and the immense anti aircraft fire. The third wave included German Dive Bombers which managed to sink the first convoy ship Deucalion. The Fourth wave was another Italian weapon, a remote operated Cant Seaplane loaded with explosives, this was another failure once the remote operations failed and the aircraft eventually exploded over North Africa.

Italian motobomba on decent

The final wave consisted of 2 Italian Reggiane fighters, which were not met by enemy fire (they resembled the Hurricanes). Each dropped a heavy bomb on the H.M.S. Victorious, one narrowly missing the bow and the other landing square on the flight deck. The crew was relieved and the pilot understandably angered when it failed to explode. Later that evening, the Italian submarine Emo was damaged by depth charges and the Italian submarine Ithuriel was sunk.

The last attack of the evening proved to be the most successful for the Axis. A group of Savoia Torpedo Bombers and Stuka dive-bombers were finally able to get close enough to the ships to attack. It became a chaotic scenario as the Savoia’s dropped their torpedo’s in the water and the Stukas dive bombed the Victorious. Her flight deck was so damaged that her aircraft had to be diverted to the Indomitable, which was already burdened with extra aircraft by the loss of the Eagle. By the end of this raid, the Foresight was also sunk due to heavy damage. When it was all over, Force Z broke from the convoy and returned west. Force X took over.

At 7:45 P.M. that evening, the cruiser Nigeria, under the command of Admiral Burrough, was the first to enter the Skerki Channel, followed shortly by the Cairo. There waiting for them was the Smg. Axum commanded by LT. Renato Ferrini and the Smg. Dessie. At 7:55 P.M. both Italian submarines fired their full load of torpedoes. The Nigeria was hit amidships and the Cairo was hit aft, destroying her screws and then sunk.

The tanker Ohio was also hit amidships in this attack. Lt. Puccini, commander of the Smg. Alagi joined the attack and torpedoed the Kenya.

A coordinated aerial attack then followed, possibly hitting the Brisbane Star and sinking the Clan Ferguson (it is unknown if they were hit by submarine or aerial attack). The Empire Hope was then hit by a dive bomber and had to be abandoned. The Nigeria, the flagship of the convoy, was no longer capable of escorting the convoy. Admiral Burrough ordered her back to Gibraltar and he assumed command on board the destroyer Ashanti.

Off of Cape Bon, in the middle of the night, Italian E-Boats launched their angry attack on the convoy. Their first victim was the cruiser Manchester, which was immobilized after a direct hit by 2 torpedoes. She had to be scuttled the next day. The Manchester was soon followed by the Almeria Lykes, the Glenorchy, Santa Elisa and the Wairangi. The moonless night was lit by the burning fuel and glowing metal. Italian E-Boats sank 5 ships that evening.

The next morning, some 200 miles west of Malta, a final attack by Junkers 88 claimed the Waimarama and damaged other ships, including the crippled Ohio, which was already damaged by an Italian submarine attack. The Dorset was hit a few hours later and eventually sunk.

Finally, on August 13, The Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle and the Melbourne Star, followed behind by the severely damaged and most important merchant ship Ohio, made port in Malta. The Ohio was barely kept afloat by 3 destroyers. Malta was saved once again and this was the last chance the Axis had of defeating her.

Source: Siege: Malta 1940-1943