Malta was a strategic linchpin and, therefore, a prime target of the enemy. For the bitter years of 1940-1942, German and Italian bombers bludgeoned the island in a vain effort to pound it into submission, but the defenders—British troops and the staunch Maltese islanders— fought the longest epic defense action of the war.
Almost daily, the enemy bombers and fighters bombed and strafed Malta and its installations, while anti-aircraft batteries fired back and the islanders took shelter in limestone tunnels and caves. It was a desperate time. Almost every building on the island was destroyed or damaged, and the soldiers and airmen rarely left their trenches and air raid shelters, ready at any hour for the dreaded arrival of enemy parachute and glider-borne invaders.
Hardship and shortages beset Malta’s defenders. The civilian population was subjected to tight rationing, subsisting on only 16 ounces of food a day. Fighter planes were forbidden to taxi to and from runways in order to conserve fuel. They were towed by trucks. Antiaircraft batteries were limited to 20 shells or four ammunition belts a day, according to caliber.
Malta had to be kept in the war somehow. The Germans and Italians were determined to knock it out. Between March and June 1942, no Allied ships reached the island. Each convoy making a relief effort was massacred by enemy planes and submarines. That July, with the outlook grimmer than ever, General John V. Gort, the governor of Malta, sent a signal to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill:
“Estimate food and petrol stocks will be exhausted by August 21 in spite of severe rationing. Hesitate to request further naval sacrifices, but cannot guarantee Malta’s safety after this date without further supplies.
Hastily, the British Admiralty planned a desperate attempt to beat Lord Gort’s deadline and save Malta—a large relief convoy code-named Operation Pedestal. It would be the most powerful convoy yet attempted, with a heavy fleet escort of battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers shepherding 13 merchant ships and a tanker.
On this complex operation—the most dangerous Allied convoy yet undertaken —depended the survival of Malta and, indirectly, the fate of millions.
Even as the Pedestal ships were loaded and crews mustered in Scotland’s River Clyde, the enemy waited in the Mediterranean. German and Italian bombers, dive-bombers, and torpedo planes were lined up on the airfields of Sicily and Sardinia along with fighters and reconnaissance aircraft. About 70 planes were on alert as a reception committee for the British convoy. Eighteen Italian submarines and three German U-boats were on patrol off Malta and between Algiers and the Balearic Islands; German E-boats and Italian motor torpedo boats lay in wait off Cape Bon, Tunisia, where a new minefield had been sown, and three heavy and three light cruisers along with 10 destroyers were ready to intercept the Pedestal convoy south of Sicily.
The journey was full of attacks and somehow it survived the bombardments and attacks which lasted days.
When dawn broke on August 15, the Ohio was only a mile outside Valletta harbor. It was the Maltese national holiday, the Feast of Santa Marija. On the island, thousands of civilians mingled with British soldiers, sailors, and airmen on the quaysides. On rooftops and both sides of the craggy harbor entrance, they silently watched the miracle of deliverance—the Ohio’s survival and their own. Fussed over by the tugs and accompanied by the destroyers Penn, Ledbury, and Bramham, the smoking, wallowing tanker took an hour to cover the last mile.
As her battered bows passed between the outer moles of the harbor, the silence ashore was broken by a faint cheer. Then the applause swelled, drowning the thunder of guns fired in salute. Union Jacks and handkerchiefs were waved, turning the quayside crowds into a mass of heaving color. A military band played “Tipperary,” the “Beer Barrel Polka,” and other wartime hymns of hope. Aboard the Ohio, Captain Mason paused from helping to keep the fires under control, gave a faint smile, and wept unashamedly. His grim prediction about the convoy’s fate had proved accurate.
While the stricken tanker was being nudged alongside the harbor’s oil wharves, signals to Mason poured in. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “Splendid work; well done,” and a message from the Admiralty in London read simply, “Well done, Ohio.”
Lord Gort spoke for the islanders themselves: “We are all so happy to see you and your fine ship safely in harbor after such an anxious and hazardous passage. You have saved Malta.”
HistorydotNet, Warfare History