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Operation Pedestal

by L-myers

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HMS Rodney
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Royal Navy
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18 December 2005

HMS Rodney — Operation Pedestal

A study of the map of the Mediterranean will show that the island of Malta, roughly the size of Greater London, is strategically positioned on the supply route from Italy to their then colony of Libya. Since 1940 a small force of Naval aircraft and submarines had played havoc with the Axis attempts to re supply their forces in the colony. By 1941 the losses were so great that convoys were temporarily suspended. A situation that could not be tolerated if Axis plans to advance through Egypt to the Suez Canal were to proceed.
The Germans moved some 2000 aircraft from the Russian front to southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia with the brief that the offensive and defensive capability of Malta must be eliminated. The island was then subjected to round the clock bombardment, as a measure of the scale of this bombardment in March/April 1942 the Germans dropped twice the tonnage of bombs on Malta as landed on London in the worst year of the Blitz. During the period February/May 1942 RAF squadrons based on the island countered more than 17000 enemy sorties being outnumbered ten to one.
This onslaught was bravely resisted but heroism itself is not enough if supplies of food, ammunition, fuel oil and aviation gasoline are in desperately short supply. Various attempts to relieve the situation by convoys from both east and west had been made with very little success and at great cost.
In mid 1942 the Governor of Malta, Lord Gort, sent a message to London stating that unless urgently needed supplies could be delivered by the end of August then Malta would have no alternative but to surrender.
In August 1942 operation 'Pedestal' was launched in a desperate last attempt to relieve the island. The largest, the most expensive and, possibly, the most important of all the Malta convoys. The consequences of failure can only be a matter of conjecture but there can be no doubt that General Montgomery and the 8th Army would have had a much tougher time at El Alamein later that year had Rommel been in possession of the many thousands of tons of supplies that were destroyed by Malta based aircraft and submarines in the September - October following 'Pedestal'.
A high-ranking Italian official is reputed to have said 'Malta is the rock on which all our hopes in the Mediterranean foundered'.

The convoy
Battleships -2
Aircraft Carriers - 3 (with 72 fighter aircraft - opposition estimated at 500+)
Cruisers - 7
Destroyers - 29
Merchant ships - 14
The cost
1 Aircraft Carrier sunk
1 Aircraft Carrier badly damaged
2 Cruisers sunk, several damaged
1 Destroyer sunk, several damaged
Of the 14 merchant ships that set out only 5 reached Malta
Plus some 350 members of the Royal and Merchant Navies, including an unknown number of Naval Airmen who defended the convoy so valiantly against the combined might of the land based Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica.
This was all in the space of 5 days continuous action.

We head south again
As I recall we left Scapa in early August ’42, once again in company with our sister ship ‘Nelson’, and headed south being joined by other ships both naval and merchant as we proceeded. As was common practise in those days we had no idea of our destination
And as always in the absence of positive information rumour ran riot. The Far East seemed to be the popular lower deck choice until we reached the 36th parallel when it was left hand down and hey ho for the Straits of Gibraltar. There was much excitement at the thought of a run ashore in Gib. But it was not to be — in the middle of the night of 10th August we belted through the Straits in the forlorn hope of not being spotted by the enemy watchers on either side.

Mare Nostrum
There can be no disputing the fact that if you have to go to war at sea then the Mediterranean is the ideal place. The water is almost invariably calm and of civilised temperature and the sky, when not obscured by shell bursts and enemy aircraft, is invariably clear and blue.
With Gibraltar well behind us the Skipper (Captain J W Rivett-Carnac DSC RN) addressed the ship’s company. He confirmed that the destination of the convoy was Malta, told us that if the convoy did not get through then Malta would undoubtedly have to surrender. Explained that the importance of the convoy would be well noted by the enemy, spelt out the potential opposition and advised that the next few days would be very interesting. It was a most inspirational speech delivered by a very popular and much respected Captain.
We did not have long to wait for the ‘interest’ to develop. About an hour later he was on the ‘blower’ again with the comment ‘looks as if the ‘Eagle’ has been torpedoed off our port quarter’. We all dashed to the upper deck and there was ‘Eagle’, flight deck already touching the water and a few minutes later she vanished from view. Apart from the sorrow at losing a great ship we had also lost a third of our air cover. Fortunately, most of the crew had been rescued by the escorting destroyers but the submarine (U73, Lt. Rosenbaum) had escaped.

Action stations
Shortly after that we went to action stations where, apart from a few brief lulls, we remained for the next 3 days. What of the 'Flight' you may ask - I wish you wouldn't. Our first action was to defuel the Walrus much to the relief of the Royal Marines manning X turret who did not relish the thought of gallons of high octane aviation spirit pouring through their air vents. To keep us occupied we became part of the 4.75 ammunition supply, not for us the modern fully automated push button supply, load and fire facility, every shell had to be manhandled from the magazine to the gun deck. Almost the same as in Nelson's day except that now the powder and the cannon ball were in the same container. Each shell weighed 75lbs but after a few hours it felt more like 75cwt.
The action, when it started, was a fairly gentlemanly affair with a few high level bombing and submarine attacks. But on the second day things got really hectic with combined high level bombing, torpedo bombing, dive bombing and submarine attacks. The action diary for this day as recorded by Kenneth Thompson, the ship's Chaplain in his book 'HMS Rodney at war' lists some 80 plus entries between 0745 and 2015. A short extract
1236 Mine, bomb or torpedo explodes astern
1239 Manchester opens fire
1241 Destroyers open fire port side
1242 Nine torpedo bombers coming in outside screen
1243 16" open fire to port
1245 Torpedoes dropped port bow
1248 Six torpedo bombers on port beam
1248 Torpedo bomber shot down by fighter red 10
(Note use of 16" in ack ack role)

The carriers
Whenever possible I made my way to the upper deck to observe the operation of our two remaining carriers, 'Indomitable' and 'Victorious'. With the convoy under constant air attack from dawn to dusk there was continual flight deck activity. It must be remembered that fresh aircrew manned each succeeding wave of enemy aircraft whereas our small band of pilots were continuously in action. I watched the aircraft land on and taxi to the forward lift where it was lowered into the hangar, I could imagine the action as it was moved back through the hangar being refuelled, rearmed and repaired while the pilot was debriefed, having a cup of coffee and a pee (not necessarily in that order) and by the time the aircraft reached the after lift he was ready to go again. It was possibly the most concentrated period of action in the annals of the Fleet Air Arm. Very comparable to the Battle of Britain but with the added hazards of a moving airfield, having to fly through 'friendly' flak to reach it and flying aircraft inferior in performance to those of the enemy. Regretfully I have no statistics to cover this period but the performance of those young Naval aviators is deserving of the highest praise.
I had many friends in both ships and was well aware of the intense activity that was taking place both on the deck and in the crowded hangar below. Must admit to some embarrassment at the comparatively easy passage I was having but at the same time must admit to being very grateful for the security provided by the Rodney's 14" of armour plating.
It was during one such bout of reverie that disaster struck the Indomitable. Two large bombs through the flight deck, within seconds the ship was engulfed in flame and smoke but through it all the ack ack barrage was maintained - a remarkable and courageous performance but the ship was now out of action as an aircraft carrier.
With many of Indomitable's aircraft airborne and now only one deck available (Victorious) there was a landing problem. 'Vic' already had a full complement of aircraft plus some from Eagle so space was at a premium and we were forced to witness the very sad sight of aircraft landing, crew evacuating and then the deck party manhandling the aircraft back over the rounddown into the sea in order to make room for the next to land.

Paying part of the 'Butchers Bill'
As we approached the area known as the Skerki Narrows (Bomb Alley to the sailors), between Sicily and Cape Bon, the heavy units had to withdraw leaving the convoy in the care of the escorting cruisers and destroyers with air cover from Malta. This was the most hazardous part of the journey with E boats added to the enemy forces in opposition.
We were escorting the damaged Indomitable back to Gibraltar. A typical Mediterranean evening, the sea flat calm, the sun still high in a clear blue sky and the silence was sheer bliss after the deafening clangour of the previous few days. Suddenly we could feel the ship losing speed, the flag was lowered to half-mast and our attention drawn to Indomitable. From the stern of the ship we could see bundles toppling into the sea as 'Indom' buried her dead. There were some 50 of them - a sight that remains vivid in my memory to this day.
Run ashore
At last into Gibraltar. We knew that we were going to be there for two nights in order that both watches could have a run ashore. First, a walk to the dry dock to see 'Indomitable', a hole in her side big enough to accommodate two double decker buses. Then it was back to Rosyth to have our own damage repaired and a spot of leave

The miracle of 'Pedestal'
On the 15th August 1942 the tanker 'Ohio' was literally carried into Grand Harbour, Malta. This gallant ship, the only tanker in the convoy, had been a prime target from the word go. She had been bombed and torpedoed, set on fire, crew abandoned ship and the convoy sailed on. The crew re-boarded, put out the fire and I can still hear the cheers that ran through the fleet when it was announced that she had rejoined the convoy. However, when she got into the Skerki Narrows she was almost finished, no power and rudder jammed to one side making a straight tow impossible so two destroyers, one each side, carried the ship to Malta. Approaching Grand Harbour two local tugs took over and carried the ship into harbour where it was found that despite all the damage that the gallant ship had endured the valuable cargo of fuel oil and aviation gasoline was intact. This precious cargo was swiftly unloaded and when empty the ship broke her back and sank to the bottom of the harbour where she rested until after the war when she was raised, taken out into the Mediterranean and allowed to sink gracefully. This then was the miracle of Pedestal

I seem to have gone on a bit about Pedestal but this is my small tribute to those hundreds of seamen of the Royal and Merchant navies and the airmen of the Fleet Air Arm who did not return from Pedestal.
(An excellent account of the whole operation can be read in 'Pedestal - The Malta convoy of August 1942' by Peter C Smith, 1994 edition).

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