- Contributed by
- People in story:
- AB William Yamond Cheetham JX 315434
- Location of story:
- Malta Convoy
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 May 2005
The Malta Convoy of August 1942 — HMS Penn
We left Scapa Flow at 0430 on Monday 4 August 1942 and proceeded to Londonderry to join convoy at full speed and on our own - time of arrival being 1630. We oiled and proceeded at 20 knots to rendezvous with Rodney and Nelson and 14 destroyers in company with the convoy of 14 ships. All were merchant ships very low in the water, thus denoting that they were heavily laden.
The convoy and escorts then proceeded at 10 knots to Gibraltar. This stage of the voyage was uneventful.
On approaching Gib, Penn, Pathfinder and Quentin left the convoy and proceeded to Gib at 23 knots arriving at 0600.
On 10 August 1942, the convoy passed through the Straits during the night and it was arranged for us to rendezvous with them that night. Whilst in the pens at Gib, Pathfinder came alongside at 2330 and carried away our second whaler, and for the next couple of hours we were engaged in clearing away the wreckage. We finally slipped at 0500 Monday.
We rendezvoused with the aircraft carrier Eagle very early and became the rearguard of the convoy nearly 40 miles astern of same. Closed up at action stations during Monday forenoon, but saw no action.
Morale was very good and all hands had smiling faces.
All day Monday passed with no action.
All Monday night we remained as escort to Eagle and we caught up with the convoy early on Tuesday forenoon. We then parted company from the convoy leaving the Eagle with same and proceeded at 25 knots in company with 2 other destroyers to rendezvous with an oiler some two miles ahead. We refuelled and at midday Tuesday 13 August 1942 all ships closed up to first degree of readiness.
Reports came through that the convoy was being bombed but we saw nothing. As we approached we saw that things were not quite right.
A large pall of smoke hung over the rear of the convoy. As we drew closer we saw that Eagle had been hit and she was listing heavily.
Cruisers and destroyers stayed with her till she finally sank dropping charges all the time. The sub was probably sunk and the Eagle sank in 15-20 minutes. Everybody's spirits were damped by this tragedy and this left us with two carriers.
Tuesday evening quite a few bombs were dropped but no other ships were hit. At sunset the real fun started. A large force of JU 88's and 87's attacked us and the fleet sent up a hell of a barrage at them. They had plenty of nerve for they dived clean through the barrage, and dropping their eggs narrowly missing the ships which they picked as targets.
Our barrage drove them off and our own fighters from the carriers went after them, and managed to down a number of them. Bombs dropped on both sides of us, but our luck held and we incurred no damage.
The attack ended at 2230.
The morale of our own crew was high, and we were very confident that we would see the convoy through.
But what we had just experienced, was only a mere drop in the ocean.
Tuesday night passed without any trouble, but just the same, a good lookout was maintained.
Reports of aircraft (enemy) were constantly received during the forenoon, but our fighters were 'up and doing' early in the day, making protective sweeps, and reports came through of the numbers shot down. Fortunately our losses compared with those of the enemy were few.
Convoy again attacked during the forenoon, but our ships brought down three planes and damaged two more. It was believed that our planes finally got these two. Towards late afternoon we realised that Jerry had been waiting for us. Torpedo and dive bombers came at us from every possible angle and made a combined attack on us. Our guns began to talk and we set up a terrific barrage to try and split up the formation of planes. Wave after wave came over, bombs dropped close on either side of us and it was only by a miracle that we got through without damage or casualties.
They gave us a rest for about 45 minutes. Our fighters kept taking off to keep us clear from other attacks. At 1645 they came at us again, and sparks began to fly. All hell had been let loose above and all around us. The same combined attacks by torpedoes and dive bombers followed.
They attacked the left flank of the convoy and we could not fire (except at some lone wolf who singled us out to attack), because we were on the right flank. Our guns were trained to port, but most of us kept looking to starboard, expecting a surprise attack from that side. Sure enough it came and we shouted to the bridge, who were quite unaware of the fact that 30-40 torpedo bombers were heading for us and above them were dive bombers.
The horizon was dotted with the torpedo bombers as they flew low over the water, and our forward guns went into action at once. Funnily enough we were the only ship on the flank who had opened fire at them. Our four 4" guns split up the attack, but they tried to retaliate by letting their 'tin fish' go at us.
Many of these deadly missiles streaked past us, as we twisted and turned to dodge tem. They tried their best to get us that time. Then one formation turned to attack the Rodney and Nelson. We all thought that they were doomed, but no, they came steaming through, with fountains of water caused by exploding bombs on both sides of them.
Suddenly we realised that one merchant ship was missing and decided that it must have been hit in the last attack without us noticing. Believe me, we had no time to be glancing round, we were too busy defending ourselves.
We got another shock, as we saw that the aircraft carrier, Indomitable, was being used as a target. Suddenly she was hit, and smoke and flames burst from her, both aft and forrard. She turned away from the wind and at the same moment also, the main fleet, namely the aircraft carriers and the Rodney and Nelson turned around, for we had reached the Straits of Pantaleria, and from here the convoy carried on to Malta with just the cruisers and destroyers as escort.
We turned back to go to the assistance of HMS Foresight. After we had exchanged signals, we prepared to tow her, for she had no way on and seemed to be settling on the starboard quarter.
As we approached, the Ashanti (Capt D) steamed up and told us to accompany the convoy as arranged.
So started the mad dash through the Straits of Pantaleria to Malta.
When we joined up with the convoy we were ordered to take the place of a cruiser, (quite a compliment to our gunnery), and we steamed up to the head of the screen on the left flank. As we steamed into position, we counted thirteen merchant ships, not bad going so far. We had not been in position two minutes when a terrific explosion shook us from stem to stern, and its echoes had hardly died away, when another, just as loud as the first, followed and then two more. Looking to starboard, we saw a nerve wracking sight.
Two cruisers, the Nigeria and Cairo, an oil tanker and another cargo ship were all hit. The Nigeria was listing heavily and we feared she was going to turn turtle. The Cairo was rapidly sinking by the stern. The oil tanker, well she had been blown clean to hell, and all that remained of her was a large patch of blazing oil and some wreckage. We could hear her crew screaming in agony as they vainly tried to swim through the blazing hell, but we could not help them. Poor devils, we had to just leave them to their fate.
The other merchant man kept afloat, and later was able to get under way again.
We thought we had run into a minefield, but we soon changed our minds when one of the other destroyers suddenly dropped some charges. Two more destroyers followed and then a periscope was sighted. All guns loaded S.A.P. and fired at it, then we turned to port and dropped a pattern of charges. We got him alright, for a large patch of oil came to the surface.
We returned to the Nigeria and Cairo. A destroyer went alongside the Cairo and took off the crew as she had to be abandoned. A skeleton crew was left on the other ship and she got under way and returned to Gib.
We picked up several survivors and returned at full speed to join the convoy, of which eleven ships remained.
It was dusk as we reached the convoy and than came the worst attack of the lot. The torpedo and dive bombers were determined to sink the lot of us.
Tracer and explosive shells were all over the sky. Our own 4" were firing like the devil. Three more ships went up leaving us silhouetted in the fires they caused, and the attack was being pressed home all the time.
We were just off Sardinia and everything the enemy had was sent out to try and get us. We were in a very precarious position because the fires from the other ships lit up the place like daylight.
We steamed towards one of the crippled ships, the SS Empire Hope and we saw some of her crew struggling in the water and others were in the boats.
Lifeless and mutilated objects that had once been men floated past on both sides and our bows struck two corpses as we steamed forward to assist the remaining survivors.
Some of our crew shouted to them to hurry up as we all had the jitters by now and we wanted to feel some speed under us.
These survivors all being aboard safely, we turned towards another ship and picked up more survivors. In the distance a tanker was blazing furiously, but as a destroyer was already standing by her, we turned once more to the Empire Hope.
Then came the order 'All guns with SAP load' and we fired in all about 16 rounds of semi armour piercing shells into her. This was not enough, so we manoeuvred into position and fired two tin fish into her to sink her so that she would not be a menace to navigation. We then swung round and made a detour round the tanker and then went after the convoy. We could see the tracers going up and guessed that the convoy was being attacked again.
We steamed into battle and opened up on the enemy planes. After this action we contacted one of the ships which appeared to have left the convoy.
We ordered her to follow us. All night through we escorted her until we at last caught up with the convoy again.
The next morning we picked up more survivors and to our dismay we saw that only four ships remained. The previous night U boats had made an attack and played merry hell with the convoy. Three ships had been sunk, plus two warships, HMS Ithurial and HMS Manchester. The convoy was costing us very dear indeed.
During the forenoon we received another attack. Torpedo and dive bombers screamed down in their usual manner and our ammunition was getting low so we had to be careful how we used it. Fighters from Malta came out to protect us and there is no doubt that they made a good job of it, but at times, no matter how hard they tried they just could not prevent enemy planes from getting through.
In the first round of this fight no ships were hit, but at the second attach the US tanker Ohio was holed forrard by a near miss. She reduced speed and we stood by her. In the third attack she suffered a near miss and lost all weigh. The convoy, or what was left of it steamed on towards Malta while we stayed put by the Ohio. Her crew made every effort to restart the engines but with no success. We went alongside several times to see how she was getting along, but as she would never use her engines again that trip, our captain decided to tow her.
When all was ready, we went alongside and received her manilla hawser, secured her aft and began to tow her. But her helm was jammed hard to port, causing her to swing from side to side. This was no good as we were only doing roughly two hundred yards an hour. During this time we were bombed several times and we had to slip the tow. The task seemed hopeless, and if we remained as we were, we would certainly have been eliminated during one of the bombing raids. Finally it was decided to abandon the Ohio and this was speedily done, and for the rest of the day we circled around her, keeping away the enemy planes who did their utmost to prevent the tanker from reaching Malta.
We did this successfully until night fell when we once again went alongside the stricken vessel. Her crew went aboard again. The tow was passed and secured. We had just started to move when the boys spotted more dive bombers coming straight for us. They dropped their bombs on our port quarter, over our starboard bow and between us and the Ohio. We slipped the tow again because we were then free to open fire on the enemy without any bother. When things quietened down again we again took the tow and proceeded.
Down came Jerry again, but this time we did not slip the tow, but fired back just as we were even though we were a sitting target.
A minesweeper and two MJB's, which were sent from Malta arrived, and the minesweeper took a wire from over our foc'sle, but the tanker still swung from side to side making towing impossible.
Seven planes appeared above and we shouted to the bridge who thought they were Spitfires and told us so. The 'Spitfires' banked and screamed down narrowly missing us with bombs but one hit the Ohio square on the stern. We really thought the whole damn lot of us were going to blow up, but our luck held. Thank God! The attack was so sudden that B gun only fired eight rounds. It was getting dusk and the planes were able to get gloriously close to us without being seen. We saw one going away which appeared to be badly damaged.
The morale of the Ohio's crew cracked at the last attack and they abandoned her with more speed than I have ever seen before, and they were picked up by ourselves and the MJB's.
We circled the tanker again until it became quite dark. During this time another destroyer HMS Bramham had been standing by another hulk about seven miles away. She had been hit and was sinking. Her crew had left her and had been picked up by the Bramham. She came over and joined us and remained with us right to the end. Darkness came as a godsend and then we really got to work.
An MJB came alongside and took A guns crew over to the Ohio to prepare for towing by a different method.
The minesweeper towed ahead, while we tried to keep the stern from swinging. This also proved to be a failure, so that idea went west.
A Guns crew came back after an hour (not a very pleasant one) on the tanker.
Later we decided that the Bramham should go alongside the tanker on her starboard side and that we should tow her between us. The MJB took B guns crew to the Ohio to receive the wires, but before this could be done a lot of debris had to be cleared including a damaged whaler.
However, at last we were secured to the skipper's satisfaction and although we were a lovely target for any lurking submarine we remained still until the following morning. Then we started the last stage of the hellish trip to Malta at seven knots!
All that day we were left alone, this being due to the fighter escort from Malta.
We sighted the Island at 1930 and hoped we would make it that night.
But we were informed that we would not arrive till next morning. So it was at 0800 the next day we steamed through the breakwater into the Grand Harbour at Malta.
Two ships, small destroyers, of only 1600 tons, with an oil tanker between them had safely brought the last ship of the convoy safely to its destination.
The people of Valetta lined the harbour to cheer us, and the military band played 'Hearts of Oak' as we entered, making us feel very fed up because we did not ask for praise. We had only done what we set out to do.
That night we went ashore and down the 'Gut', getting gloriously drunk on Ambete, the local wine, but commonly called Stuka juice. Can you blame us? I think we deserved it.
We remained at Malta for about a week to square the ship up a bit. Then we sailed again for Gibraltar and later England. Thus ended the Malta convoy of August 1942.
This is an eye witness account by a member of the guns crew of HMS Penn.
W R Cheetham AB in conjunction with D Burke AB QR2 (Captain of B Gun)
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