Alex Hall on the Seige of Malta

Once again using his indepth knowledge, Alex Hall delivered an excellent presentation on the Seige of Malta during during 1942. SS Ohio was an oil tanker built for the Texas Oil Company (now Texaco). The United Kingdom requisitioned her to re-supply the island fortress of Malta during the second world war. The tanker played a key role in Operation Pedestal, which was one of the fiercest and most heavily contested of the Malta convoys, in August 1942. Although Ohio reached Malta successfully, she was so badly damaged that she had to be effectively scuttled in order to offload her cargo, and never sailed again. The tanker is fondly remembered in Malta, where to this day she is considered the saviour of the beleaguered island

The Ohio steamed down to Dunglass on the Clyde and loaded 11,500 tons of kerosene and diesel fuel oils. She was the only ship carrying these supplies which were so vital to Malta’s survival. Before she sailed she was given special strengthening to protect her against the shock of bombs exploding near her. Ohio‘s engines were mounted on rubber bearings, to reduce shock, and all steam pipes were supported with steel springs and baulks of timber.

The convoy left Gibraltar in thick fog on 9 August under the commmand of Capt Dudley Mason. A day later, four torpedoes from the a German submarine sank the aircraft-carrier HMS Eagle, killing 260 men, and losing all but four planes. On the same day, German bombers attacked the convoy. On 12 August 20 Junkers attacked the convoy, while a further combined strike by 100 German and Italian planes attacked the merchantmen.

In the ensuing mayhem the Italian submarine Axum torpedoed Ohio amidships. A huge pillar of flame leapt high into the air. Ohio was on fire and seemed to be out of control. Captain Mason ordered the engines to be shut down, with all deckhands available fighting the fire with the deck waterlines. Burning kerosene bubbled up from the fractured tanks, while small gouts of flame spattered the deck up to 30 yards from the blaze. The flames were put out and the tanker managed 13 knots (24 km/h) after being repaired. The blast destroyed the ship’s gyrocompass and knocked the magnetic compass off its bearings, while the steering gear was put out of action, forcing the crew to steer with the emergency gear aft.

The torpedo had blown a huge hole in the port side of the midships pump-room. It had also blown a hole in the starboard side, flooding the compartment. There were jagged tears in the bulkheads and kerosene was spurting up from adjoining tanks, seeping in a film up through the holes in the hull. The deck had been broken open, so that one could look down into the ship. From beam to beam the deck was buckled, but the ship held together.

Another 60 Junkers Stuka dive bombers attacked the convoy, focusing on Ohio. A series of near misses ensued as the tanker approached the island of Pantelleria. Bombs threw spray over the decks of the tanker, while aircraft used their machine guns. One near-miss buckled the ship’s plates and the forward tank filled with water. The 3-inch gun at the bows was twisted in its mountings and put out of action. A formation of five Ju 88s was broken up by the tanker’s anti aircraft guns, with the bombs falling harmlessly in the sea.

One of Ohio‘s gunners shot down a Ju 87, but the aircraft crashed into the ship’s starboard side, forward of the upper bridge, and exploded. Half a wing hit the upper work of the bridge and a rain of debris showered the tanker from stem to stern. The plane’s bomb failed to detonate. Captain Mason was telephoned from aft by the chief officer, who told Mason that the Ju 87 had crashed into the sea and then bounced onto the ship. Mason ‘rather curtly’ replied: “Oh that’s nothing. We’ve had a Junkers 88 on the foredeck for nearly half an hour.”

Ohio, was escorted by a flotilla of destroyers and minesweepers. Continuously bombed, the tanker kept on steaming until another explosion to starboard sent her reeling to port. The engine-room lights went out because the master switches had been thrown off by the force of the explosion. An electrician quickly switched them on again. The boiler fires had been blown out, and it was a race against time to restore them before the steam pressure dropped too low to work the fuel pumps. The engineers lit the fire starter torches to restart the furnaces.

The complicated routine of restarting went forward smoothly and within 20 minutes Ohio was steaming at 16 knots again. Then another salvo of bombs hit the ship, shaking every plate, and once more the engines slowed and stopped. The concussion had broken her electric fuel pumps. While the crew tried to reconnect the electrical wires and restart the engines via the auxiliary steam system, the engine room was filled with black smoke until the engines were properly re-lit. The ship was making alternate black and white smoke and, with oil in the water pipes and a loss of vacuum in the condenser.

The Ohio in the Grand Harbour, Malta

A German bomber dived at the tanker and released its bomb just before it was shot down by Ohio‘s gunners.The bomb hit the tanker just where the initial torpedo had hit her, effectively breaking her back, just as night was setting in. Ohio was abandoned for the night. The day after, Penn was joined by the minesweeper HMS Rye. The two ships towed the tanker and succeeded in making up to 5 knots, overcoming the tendency to swing to port. Another attack blasted the group of ships, breaking the tow lines and immobilising Ohio‘s rudder. Another bomb hit the fore end of her foredeck, forcing the engineers out of the engine room. Once more, Mason gave the order to abandon ship, as two more air attacks narrowly missed the tanker. A superficial examination showed that the tear that had developed in the amidships section had widened and that the ship had indeed almost certainly broken her back.

The damaged tanker, supported by Royal Navy destroyers HMS Penn and Ledbury sustained another enemy air attack began just as the group of ships was moving at 11km/h. At 1045 hrs the first wave of dive-bombers came low over the water. Only one oil bomb landed close to Ohio’s bow, showering her with burning liquid. Then came three more echelons of German planes. This time, close air support from Malta was available. 16 Spitfires, from Malta, had sighted the enemy. The first enemy formation wavered and broke. The second formation also broke, but one section of Ju 88s succeeded in breaking free, making for the tanker. These were swiftly followed by Spitfires. Three of the German planes were shot down or manoeuvred to evade the Spitfires, but one bomber held its course and a 1,000-pound bomb landed in the tanker’s wake. Ohio was flung forward, parting Rye’s tow, buckling the stern plates of the tanker and forming a great hole.

Ohio was sinking little more than 45 miles west of Malta. Under the protection of the Spitfires, the danger of enemy attacks receded. Grand Harbour. The coastal batteries in the Grand Harbour fired on a creeping U-boat’s conning tower, and drove off a group of E-boats. Slowly the group approached the tricky harbour entrance,

After Ohio reached Malta, the ship broke in two from the damage she had sustained. There were insufficient shipyard facilities to repair the tanker, so the two-halves were used for storage, and later barracks facilities for Yugoslavian troops.

Captain Dudley Mason was awarded the George Cross

Kenneth Dickie gave a worthy vote of thanks.