The Malta Independent 26 March 2023, Sunday
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Operation Pedestal: The heroes who helped save Malta from starvation

Albert Galea Monday, 15 August 2022, 08:33 Last update: about 8 months ago

Monday commemorates the 80th year since the final part of the famous Operation Pedestal convoy arrived in Malta. 

The battered and bruised merchant carrier SS Ohio laboured its way into Valletta on 15 August 1942, as Malta felt the worst of the Second World War, having suffered from thousands of bombing raids and being on the verge of absolute starvation.

The Ohio was the fifth and final merchant vessel to make it into Valletta - nine others were at the bottom of the ocean in various parts of the Mediterranean, having been sunk by relentless Axis bombing runs.


Pedestal's story has been well told countless times: the tale of the defiant Ohio, which simply refused to sink, and of other ships which defied all odds has been, rightly, repeated time and time again.

Less attention, however, is given to the individuals involved in the convoy: the heroes who helped bring it home to Malta.

From the captain of the Ohio, to a 17-year-old on his first voyage, to a Maltese tug boat captain who felt he had nothing to lose: these are some of the stories of the individuals who played a part - however big or small - in the convoy.

Captain Dudley Mason GC

At the centre of the story of the Ohio is its captain: Dudley Mason.

Given control of the merchant vessel, which had been loaned to the British Merchant Navy, Mason probably knew that he was heading the most prized target in the convoy - the Ohio was the largest merchant ship out of the 14 which made up Operation Pedestal.

Indeed, she took her first torpedo on 12 August, two days past the Straits of Gibraltar, and the day after the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle was dramatically sunk in full view of the rest of the convoy.

The Ohio caught fire and lost steering. "Whilst we were fighting the fires, enemy planes commenced attack at masthead height," Mason later recalled. "Near-misses were many and frequent, throwing deluges of water over the vessel."

By the end of the convoy, the Ohio had been subjected to an incredible number of attacks, had been evacuated twice, sported a gaping 35 square metre hole in it, had a crashed German aircraft on deck, had a destroyed rudder, and was only still afloat with the help of four other ships; HMS Rye towing it, HMS Ledbury securing its aft and coaxing it in the right direction, and HMS Penn and HMS Bramham practically lashed to either side of the tanker, acting like two absurdly large surgical splints.

And yet, Mason would not give up.

"The violence of the enemy could not deter the Master from his purpose. Throughout he showed skill and courage of the highest order and it was due to his determination that, in spite of the most persistent enemy opposition, the vessel, with her valuable cargo, eventually reached Malta and was safely berthed," King George V said of Mason in September that year.

The Ohio would make it into harbour, and Mason became the first member of the Merchant Navy to be awarded the George Cross. Only he and two others were bestowed with that honour during the war.

Mason passed away on 26 April 1987, at the age of 85, and his family maintained ties with Malta, as they themselves attested to in a letter to the Times of Malta in 2013.

Wenzu Attard

Early on in the morning of 15 August 1942, it was known to many that the convoy which had begun to trickle into Malta the previous day had not all arrived.  It was at around 6am that news spread that what was left - the SS Ohio - had arrived at Grand Harbour's proverbial gates.

Because of the nature of the Grand Harbour, it was customary for Maltese pilots to be the ones to steer ships into the harbour.  There was a set roster for this, but in the days of constant air attacks it wasn't always followed, with the Admiralty asking the captain of the ship to steer it into harbour himself.

However, on this occasion, the Admiralty decided that a Maltese pilot should assume the responsibility of piloting the Ohio into harbour.

None of the pilots, it appears, were particularly eager to take on the task: the Ohio was sinking, still full of fuel, and could easily have exploded with devastating consequences if the Luftwaffe chose to attack that morning.

Amidst the risks though, one man - Wenzu Attard - volunteered for the job.

As he left his home in Vittoriosa, attempts were made by his wife Antonia, his mother, and his brothers to dissuade him from the risky venture: but Wenzu was adamant.

His reply to those attempts was: "We are all dying of hunger anyway... if anything happened it would only mean that I died a few days before my time, but I simply have to try and save Malta."

And so, he was taken out to the Ohio where he had to scramble up onto the ship via a scramble-net - though he likely didn't have too far to clamber up: the tanker by then was just 15 centimetres above the water line.

He subsequently piloted the stricken tanker into harbour, where its precious cargo was discharged before it eventually sank into the shallow waters near Fort Ricasoli.

Attard passed away in 1964.

He, for many years, remained something of an unsung hero for his part in the convoy, but since his story first came to light a decade or so ago, a street has been renamed in his honour in his native Vittoriosa.

Frederick Treves

One of the merchant vessels of the 14 which made up was the cargo liner Waimarama.  A refrigerated cargo liner, the ship had largely been used to transport perishable foods between New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

However, part of its cargo on Operation Pedestal was aviation fuel - which it stored above deck - and ammunition which it stored below deck.

With hindsight, one could see that this was a recipe for disaster - and indeed in the early hours of the morning of 13 August 1942, it suffered a direct hit from three bombs dropped from a Junkers Ju88.

The ship blew up almost instantly in a sheet of flame and a cloud of smoke.  Its 107 crew members had no time to launch lifeboats and evacuate the ship, but some were blown off the ship and into the water - water which had been covered in part by burning fuel as a result of the blast.

Amongst those blown into the water was 17-year-old Cadet Frederick Treves.

Having attended the Nautical College in Pangbourne, this was Treves' first voyage since he started serving in the Merchant Navy. 

Acting quickly, Treves got his bearings and realised that he had landed next to an officer - the ship's only surviving officer in fact - who could not swim.  Treves successfully kept the officer's head above water and then used a piece of wooden debris from the ship as a makeshift floatation device for the officer, thereby saving his life.

Rescue came soon after from the Melbourne Star which was immediately following the ship in the convoy.

"Frederick William Treves, Cadet. The ship was hit by bombs while in a convoy and burst into flames fore and aft. The fierceness of the fire forced an Officer who could not swim to jump overboard. Cadet Treves, who was on his first voyage, swam to where the Officer was struggling in the oily water, ordered him to keep still, and, taking him by the head, got him away from the ship. Treves then found a piece of wood, to which the man was able to cling for support until rescued. But for the coolness and skill of the Cadet the Officer would have drowned," the London Gazette wrote in February 1943, of Treves' actions.

Treves was one of only 24 of the Waimarama's crew to survive, and he was awarded with the British Empire Medal for his actions.

He survived the war, and went on to become a character actor.  He has over 100 television credits to his name, and guest starred in a number of dramas - including prominent ones such as Agatha Christie's Poirot and Doctor Who and - films, besides also having a wide stage and radio career.

Treves died on 30 January 2012, aged 86.

The convoy: a last ditch bid to save Malta

Operation Pedestal was unprecedented in its size: four aircraft carriers, two battleships, seven light cruisers and 32 destroyers - along with a cohort of corvettes and fuelling ships - were tasked with making sure that 14 merchant ships filled to the brim with a variety of supplies made it into Grand Harbour.

Its size was borne out of circumstance: Malta was starving and two previous convoys - Operation Harpoon and Operation Vigorous - had seen just two merchant ships out of 17 arrive on the besieged island.

The Axis side also knew full well of the importance of the convoy, and were bent on having it stopped as Malta had been a thorn in their supply lines between mainland Europe and North Africa.

To this end, hundreds of aircraft were siphoned off to Sicily and Sardinia - all with the sole aim of destroying the convoy. A message from Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering - the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe - was in fact intercepted by code breakers at Bletchley Park, wherein Goering ordered that the Luftwaffe "will operate with no other thought in mind than the destruction of the British convoy", before also noting that "the destruction of this convoy is of decisive importance."

MV Waimarama explodes 

The Axis in fact inflicted great losses on the convoy: the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle was the first to be sunk, while the merchant ships Deucalion, Empire Hope, Clan Ferguson - a veteran of 11 Malta convoys, Wairangi, Almeria Lykes, Glenorchy and Santa Elisa were all sunk.  The merchant ship Dorset also had to be abandoned, while the merchant ship Waimarama - which was carrying aviation fuel on deck - also sustained a direct hit, resulting in an explosion that was so fierce that it sank the ship and took a German bomber out of the air with it.

The merchant ships Rochester Castle, Brisbane Star, Melbourne Star, and Port Chalmers all sustained varying degrees of damage as well.

These four remaining merchant ships and the Ohio made it into Grand Harbour, with the Port Chalmers arriving first on August 13, soon followed by the Rochester Castle and the Melbourne Star. The Brisbane Star arrived the day after, while the Ohio - by that time not much more than a sagging wreck - arrived in port on August 15, the day of the feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, still carrying over 9,000 tonnes of oil and petroleum. The tanker's arrival was regarded as a miracle, and the convoy soon came to be known as the Santa Marija convoy, reflected the day of the tanker's arrival.

Strategic victory and salvation from starvation

In any other situation, the number of losses that the convoy sustained would have been enough for it to be considered a failure - but in the grand scheme of things, it was considered to be anything but.

The sentiments on the Axis side were similar; the arrival of the four merchant ships and the tanker was deemed "unsatisfactory" and a Kriegsmarine report saw the convoy as something which may be the "decisive phase of the struggle for North Africa".

The Supermarina reached the same conclusion, while General Giuseppe Santoro, the deputy chief of staff of the Regia Aeronautica, wrote that the British had achieved a strategic success by bringing Malta back into action "in the final phase of the struggle in Egypt".

Eberhard Weichold - the liaison officer of the Kriegsmarine at the Regia Marina in Rome - provided an apt summary of how the Axis viewed the outcome of the convoy.

"To the continental observer, the British losses seemed to represent a big victory for the Axis, but in reality, the facts were quite different, since it had not been possible to prevent a British force, among which were five merchant vessels, from reaching Valetta", he wrote.

The significance of the convoy was however not just strategic. Tens of thousands of Maltese had suffered through months of hardship and near-starvation as a result of the Axis resolution to bomb the island into submission.

"You could see emaciated people wherever you looked, with bones showing through their skins; men tightening belts and women did the same to dresses. I recollect hearing people say that goats were being slaughtered for consumption and there were even rumours going about that cats and dogs were likewise being killed for the same purpose," Laurence Mizzi recalled in his book Wartime Diary of a Maltese Boy.

The arrival of the convoy proved to be the watershed moment for Malta's fortunes. The supplies meant that Malta could hold out for longer, and that the people could be brought back from the brink of starvation.

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