Every year, the Melbourne Maltese Association puts great effort into commemorating both the awarding of the George Cross to Malta during WW2 and also, every August, Operation Pedestal, the convoy which undoubtedly saved her and possibly the Allies overall.The second event is held in honour of us, the Merchant Navy, for our bravery, sacrifice and ultimate success in that critical operation.  

So many years later, the arrival of the ships of Operation Pedestal is still acknowledged in Valetta each August.  Because the last and most vital ship, the tanker Ohio, arrived on the day of the Feast of the Assumption, it will always be known locally  as the Convoy of Santa Marija, and therefore will always have something of a religious, as well as strategic, place in the island nation’s history.  It is a history shared with many Australasians – both ships and men.

The situation of the strategically placed island group became tenuous, and was exacerbated with Italy joining the war on the axis side in June 1940, resulting in the dislocation of normal shipping traffic through the Mediterranean Sea.  With the loss of the battle for the island of Crete, in what was described as the ‘second Anzac’ operation, the loss of the Mediterranean Sea area to the axis forces and specifically Malta appeared to be just a matter of time.This would have resulted in the ability of the German air force to give unfettered support to the Rommel-led forces in the Battle for North Africa.  

An interesting and important factor in the eventual victory in the North African campaign was that aircraft for the support of that Allied campaign were ferried through the West African port of Takoradi, Gold Coast (now Ghana).  This was followed by a six-day, 3,697-mile flight via numerous airfields to Egypt.  By the end of 1943 over 5,000 aircraft had been ferried using this route, with a large proportion of these aircraft being delivered by ships of the extensive Elder Dempster fleet. Without these aircraft victory in North Africa would not have been possible

Only a few merchant ships had attempted to sail independently prior to 1941 in an effort to resupply Malta, but this system was abandoned due to continuous losses.  In order to ensure success it was decided to form convoys with heavy Royal Naval support to ensure the resupply of Malta.  British shipping companies which supplied the ships in the main had a close association with Australia and New Zealand trades.  The ships involved were fast modern refrigerated cargo ships seconded from well-remembered companies; Shaw Savill and Albion, Federal Steam Navigation/New Zealand Shipping Company, Port Line, Clan Line, Blue Funnel, Ellermans and Blue Star Line.  As a consequence, a number of personnel crewing the ships were Antipodeans and many of these ships also included DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) gunners who were members of the Royal Australian Navy DEMS Service. However the main contributors of the 99 ships involved up until Operation Pedestal was Clan Line, which provided one quarter of the number.

An example of an early casualty was Federal Steam Navigation ’s Essex (11,063/1936) which together with Clan Lines’ Clan Cumming, Clan MacDonald and Empire Song (the last three operated by Clan Line) arrived in Malta as ‘Operation Excess’ in January 1941, supported by the entire Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet.  Essex was struck by a bomb in the engine room on 16th January whilst alongside in Malta and spent the next two-and-a-half years disabled in the various creeks of the main island.  She had on board a cargo of 4,000 tons of ammunition, 3,000 tons of seed potatoes and 12 Hurricane fighter planes.  She survived the war and was familiar in Australasian ports post-war as P&O’s Paringa and as Norfolk, and finally going to Japanese breakers in 1962.

Half a dozen convoys were attempted prior to 1942, featuring ships with Australasian links. They had a small amount of success and significant losses.  In February 1941 General Rommel warned the German High Command ‘without Malta, the Axis will end up losing control in North Africa‘, a fact that came to pass.  The Axis forces of Germany and Italy were relentless in keeping up and intensifying their attacks upon the island and the convoys supplying it, in order to try and starve the island into submission.

A large convoy called ‘Operation Tiger’ was dispatched by Churchill via Capetown in May 1941, with five fast 15 knot ships ordered to divert to Malta, then Alexandria via Gilbraltar.  The five-ship convoy comprised four Clans, Clan Campbell, Clan Chattan, Clan Lamont, Empire Song and Blue Star’s New Zealand Star.  The latter ship was mined but survived, however the Empire Song was mined and sank.

‘Operation Substance’, in July 1941, comprised six fast ships, Ellermans City of Pretoria, Blue Funnel’s Deucalion, Blue Star Line’s Melbourne Star and Sydney Star, Port Line’s Port Chalmers and Federal’s Durham.  Sydney Star was torpedoed by Italian motor torpedo boats (MTB) and arrived in Valetta twelve feet by the head, resulting in a four-month repair job on the 40 x 16 foot hole before she could be dispatched west bound to Gibraltar.  West bound following discharge, Durham hit a mine off Cape Bon, making it to Gibraltar where she was attacked by human torpedoes from the Italian submarine Scire.  She was subsequently beached, finally being returned to full service in late 1943.  Durham was well known in Australasia as the New Zealand Shipping Company’s cadet training ship, whose name is acknowledged by the Company’s former employees, the Durham Association.

‘Operation Halbard’ in late September 1941 comprised Clan line’s Clan Ferguson, Clan MacDonald, Blue Star’s Dunedin Star and Imperial Star, Ellermans City of Lincoln, Blue Funnel/Glen Line’s Ajax and Breconshire and Union Castle’s Rowallan Castle, as well as the Norwegian Thermopylae.  All made port into Malta’s Grand Harbour to the cheers of the whole populace.  An exception was Imperial Star which was torpedoed, blowing off its rudder and twin propellers.  Taken in tow she proved unmanageable and was scuttled by gun fire and depth charges. Finally her cargo of 1,000 tons of high explosives detonated spectacularly, finishing her off.

A further three attempts took place in January 1942, designed to reinforce Malta and to return empty vessels.  The majority of Operation Halbard’s group sailed from Alexandria and arrived safely with the exception of the Norwegian Thermopylae, which was bombed and sunk.

Later, in February, a three-vessel convoy from Alexandria, consisting of Clan Chattan, Clan Campbell and Rowallan Castle were in each case heavily bombed, resulting in the RN having to sink each badly damaged ship.  Another similar attempt was made in March 1942, with four vessels led by Breconshire and including Clan Campbell, Royal Mail’s Pampas and the Norwegian Talabot.  The convoy endured vicious attacks, resulting in Clan Campbell being sunk, while Breconshire was sunk eight miles from the harbour entrance and the other two ships in the harbour.

The situation on Malta had now become extremely critical, therefore two massive convoys were organised for June 1942. These comprised an east-bound convoy from Gibraltar, ‘Operation Harpoon’ and a west-bound ‘Operation Vigorous’ from Port Said and Haifa, The east-bound convoy comprised NZS’s Orari, Blue Funnel’s Troilus, Tanimbar (Dutch), Burdwan, Chant and fast tanker Kentucky (American).  West bound were Ellerman’s City of Calcutta, City of Edinburgh, City of Pretoria, City of Lincoln, Ajax, Royal Mail’s Potaro and Rembrandt and Aagtkirk (Dutch), Elizabeth Bakke (Norwegian) and Hain Line’s Bhutan and tanker Bulkoil.  This convoy was relentlessly attacked by aircraft, submarines, and Italian MTBs and suffered accordingly.  Bhutan was bombed and sunk, Aagtkirk put into Tobruk and was bombed and sunk at her moorings.  Elizabeth Bakke, Potaro and City of Calcutta made it into Alexandria Harbour having suffered bomb damage.  ’Operation Harpoon’ suffered even worse with only Orari damaged by a mine and Troilus reaching Malta.  This allowed the discharge of 20,000 tons of much-needed cargo.  During the fifty four days Orari was under repair, she was subjected to 289 air raids, meanwhile repairs continued day and night.  The Minister of War Transport sent a message to the two masters: ‘I congratulate you on your gallant conduct in delivering vital goods to Malta.  Please convey congratulations and best wishes to all on board”. As for those who sunk, in the spirit of the time they would have most likely gone off pay (assuming they had survived), immediately on sinking!

During the northern summer of 1942, the plight of the people of Malta, both civilian and military, had become desperate.  The two June convoys had been failures.  The Afrika Corps was only forty five miles from Alexandria and with the loss of valuable airfields in North Africa, the occupation of Malta was imminent.  Thus the convoy known as ‘Operation Pedestal’ was assembled, consisting of thirteen very fast cargo ships, which sailed from the Clyde on 2nd August 1942. Winston Churchill personally took a hand in its formation, later writing that ‘the fate of Malta is at stake and we are determined that it shall not fall’.  As a consequence of the convoy’s importance, the heaviest and most powerful naval escort that was provided for any merchant navy convoy joined off Gibraltar on 10th August.  It comprised two battleships, four aircraft carriers, seven cruisers, twenty five destroyers and sundry auxiliaries.

The merchant ships assembled were Port Line’s Port Chalmers, acting as the Commodore ship, Blue Star’s Brisbane Star and Melbourne Star, Shaw Savill’s Waimarama, Wairangi and the new Empire Hope, Clan Ferguson, Blue Funnel/Glen Line’s Deucalion and Glenorchy, Federal’s Dorset and Union Castle’s Rochester Castle.  Additionally three American ships completed the convoy, the modern Texaco tanker Ohio, manned by a British Eagle Oil crew, the new C2 type general cargo Santa Elisa and a C3, Almeria Lykes.  


Waimarama after being hit by four bombs dropped from a Ju88. Photo courtesy Brian Crabb


Port Chalmers arrives in Malta, cheered by servicemen and civilians         Photo (C) IWM


Brisbane Star in Grand Harbour, Valetta                                Photo (C) IWM


Ohio arriving Grand Harbour, Valetta                                  Photo (C)  IWM

Rochester_Castle.jpg      Rochester Castle.        Photo courtesy Matthew Lamb                                                                

What followed was the result of a concentrated Axis force consisting of a naval force of German and Italian U-boats, Italian cruisers, Destroyers and 32 knot MTBs.  Additionally, 540 German and Italian serviceable aircraft were within range of the convoy. The approach areas were also heavily mined.

The loss of both Naval and Merchant ships was dramatic. The result was one elderly aircraft carrier torpedoed and two others severely damaged, which effectively robbed the convoy of essential air cover.  Two cruisers were lost with two others severely damaged.  Nine Merchant ships were lost, of which five were sunk by aircraft and four by MTBs on the12th and 13th August. The resultant loss was of 100,000 tons of supplies and 350 Merchant Navy officers and men.  The ships which survived were the Commodore ship Port Chalmers, Rochester Castle, Melbourne Star, which entered the Grand Harbour in the afternoon of the 13th, whilst a badly battered Brisbane Star, with her bow blown off, arrived with Ohio on the 14th.  The story of how the severely damaged tanker Ohio and her precious cargo of aviation spirit limped into port, with the assistance of two destroyers lashed up alongside, is legendary.  Her arrival on the Feast of Assumption was greeted with the fervour of a returning hero.

Shaw Savill lost their three ships.  Empire Hope was struck by aerial torpedoes and subsequently scuttled.  Wairangi was torpedoed by a motor torpedo boat, whilst Waimarama was hit by a number of aerial bombs in quick succession and blew up in a sheet of flame, having set off her cargo of aviation spirit and ammunition, sinking in a sea of flames in minutes.  Of her complement of 107, only 20 survived.  Deucalion suffered the same fate as Waimarama, while similarly Clan Ferguson caught fire and exploded with a terrifying blaze, having been torpedoed by the Italian submarine Alagi - though in her case many of the crew managed to escape.

The success, albeit at enormous cost of men and materials, certainly helped to turn the tide of the war in the North African campaign, and paved the way for the eventual Allied landings in Algeria, Morocco and then eventually in Sicily and southern Italy.

The determination and courage of the merchant mariners in this wartime effort is worth recounting still, and despite the passage of time should not be easily forgotten.  Therefore it is pleasing to note the Melbourne Branch’s involvement at the Operation Pedestal ceremony in Melbourne each year.  Many Maltese emigrated to Australia post war and I have enjoyed the company of many, both at sea and on the waterfront.

As to where all those legendary British Companies have vanished to, Shaw Savill and Albion and Royal Mail Line of the Furness Group devolved into the German Company, Hamburg–Sud.  Port Line, Blue Star Line and NZS/Fed devolved into Danish Company Maersk.  Clan and Union Castle were sold off to an investment company that collapsed three years after its sale in 1987.  Ellermans, a family company, was sold to Barclay Brothers in 1983.  Blue Funnel and Glen Line became Ocean Transport and Trading.  Interestingly, NZ Entrepreneur Ron Brierley sold a 27 percent share in the Company in 1989.  Elder Dempster part of Ocean was sold to French owners Delmas–Vieljeux in 1989.

This is an unabridged version of article published in The Master Mariner, August 2014.

Author:  Captain Iain Steverson, Branch Master, Newcastle

•    The Fourth Service. Merchantmen at War 1939-45. By John Slader.
•    Company Wartime Histories. Various