In mid-1942 the war in the Mediterranean was going badly for the British, with their only secure base, the tiny island fortress of Malta, was running out of fuel, food, ammunition and spare parts for the Spitfires and Hurricanes which were their only defence against daily attacks by swarms of Axis bombers. There had been two attempts to relieve the island with one convoy from Gibraltar and one from Alexandria, but both had been badly mauled, with most of the merchantmen sunk and their warship escorts badly damaged. Without a re-supply for Malta, the island fortress would be compelled to surrender.
Winston Churchill insisted that Malta was too important to lose and in July, set about organising a re-supply convoy from Britain. Just at that time, a huge almost new American fuel tanker called the SS Ohio arrived in the Clyde to offload petroleum and the British Government commandeered it. Without ceremony, and much to the annoyance of the Americans, who at that stage had not entered the war and wanted nothing to do with a European war, were ordered off the ship and replaced with British merchant seamen augmented by some Royal Navy gunners and some soldiers to man and supply the ‘about to be installed’ antiaircraft guns
By early August the large convoy of 14 merchant ships had assembled, protected by a mighty force of 64 RN warships, comprising aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers and assorted other vessels. Designated Operation Pedestal, they set off south, first stop Gibraltar, which they reached without incident on the 10th of August under the protection of thick fog. They then turned east into the Mediterranean, on the most dangerous leg of their mission, well in-range of German and Italian aircraft from Sardinia and Sicily and submarines lurking beneath the waves. As if to emphasise this, the very next day the German U-boat, U-73, fired four torpedoes at HMS Eagle which sank her in only eight minutes with the loss of 260 men and all but four of her valuable, Malta bound, aircraft.
On the 12th of August, the convoy was attacked by 20 Junkers 88s and 100 other German and Italian planes, with devastating effect. The SS Ohio was the main target, but her gunners fought back valiantly, preventing the bombers getting close enough to drop their bombs accurately, however in the confusion of battle an Italian submarine, the Axum, got inside the convoy’s destroyer screen and fired a number of torpedoes, one of which struck the Ohio on the port side causing a great explosion, starting a fire and buckling the deck which put the three-inch gun out of action, it also destroyed the gyro compass and wrecked the steering gear. The Master, Captain Mason, stopped engines and ordered all available hands to fight the fire. Once the flames had been quenched they discovered a huge hole 24 feet (8M) by 27 feet (9M) on the port side and a corresponding but slightly smaller hole on the starboard side, both open to the sea. However after some repair work, the engines were restarted and the ship was able to re-join the convoy and maintain a speed of thirteen knots, steering from the emergency position.
Shortly after this another wave of bombers came over and dropped several sticks of bombs and the ship was straddled by explosions. During the melee, the ship’s gunners shot down a German Junkers 88 which crashed onto the ships starboard bow and exploded, sending half a wing up onto the upper bridge and showering the deck with debris but fortunately, the aircraft’s bombs did not explode. A little later another German aircraft was shot down which crashed into the sea and then bounced up and landed on the stern, but the SS Ohio steamed on with two smouldering enemy planes and their dead crew on its decks.
Shortly after this, a most determined group of enemy planes came in from astern and dropped two sticks of bombs close alongside the ship, one to port and one to starboard and the resulting explosion lifted the giant tanker up, up and right out of the water. She rose up and then fell back down with a mighty splash that completely engulfed the ship in cascades of water and bomb fragments and it was probably at that moment she broke her back, although at that time the crew were too shocked and stunned to notice it. The ship was still afloat and still underway and fully intended to complete the voyage to Malta until another bomb explosion to starboard, sent the ship reeling to port, blowing the main electric line, plunging the engine-room into darkness and putting out the boiler fires.
While the ship lay immobile and under heavy air attack, it took 20 minutes of frantic work by Electricians and Engineers to get the lights back on and the boilers relit, once again, in what must have been a superhuman effort, they overcame the odds and got the ship restarted and doing 16 knots, but then another salvo of bombs hit the ship doing damage that they knew they could never repair. At just before 11 AM in the morning the ship came to a stop in the water, her engines and systems so badly damaged by the bombing that they would never go again. Captain Mason reluctantly gave the order to abandon ship and evacuated his crew to the comparative safety of the destroyer HMS Penn which was able, in the flat calm sea, to come right alongside.
Commander Swain of HMS Penn suggested that he would attempt to tow the 10,000 gross ton tanker and passed a ten inch hawser to the SS Ohio’s bow, and began a determined effort to move the ship eastward but the effort required was more than the Penn could manage and as another air raid had begun she was obliged to slip the tow in order to defend herself and the tanker. During that raid, a 1,000-pound bomb fell just astern of the Ohio pushing in her stern plates and opening up a hole in her stern. The ship was now sinking and only 45 nautical miles from Malta. The Navy ships tried again to tow their charge but were frustrated by repeated air attacks and the fact that the tanker could not steer while she was under tow, preferring to move off to one side or another.
By this time, the SS Ohio and her escorts were close enough to Malta to come under the protection of RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes who could keep the Axis planes away, ably assisted by the SS Ohio’s gunners who had, with the rest of the crew, bravely returned aboard their sinking vessel. Eventually with increased air cover from Malta, the Penn secured alongside the SS Ohio’s starboard side while HMS Bramham secured on the port side, the Rye commenced towing, while the Ledbury hooked on at the stern to assist with steering they started making a torturous last run at about five knots towards Grand Harbour Valletta, hoping against hope to get there before she foundered. They were obliged to traverse around the southern tip of Malta and halfway up the east coast in order to attempt the entrance to Grand Harbour which quite naturally was protected by a number of minefields. At the last moment as they slowed down to wait for Tugs from Malta the SS Ohio cantankerously turned sideways, dragging her escorts into the minefield.
Good seamanship and good luck saved the day and with two dockyard tugs assisting, the stricken tanker was shepherded past the minefield and into the safety of Grand Harbour and in double quick time her cargo was pumped out and sent around the Island to where it was needed, Kerosene, for the Islanders cooking stoves, aviation fuel for the hard-pressed RAF, and diesel for British submarines. The other few vessels to get through were carrying food medical supplies and a hundred and one items that everyday life requires.
The people of Malta turned out in their thousands to cheer the ship’s arrival, realising it was their salvation. Of the old Ohio, once the fuel was pumped out of her she had so many holes that she sank, right there alongside the wharf and the serious extent of her broken back became obvious when the bow sank independently of the stern, but both pieces remained there, with their upper works above water for the rest of the war being utilized first as storage and later as accommodation for soldiers. In 1946 both pieces were re-floated and towed out to sea and sunk in a secret location. So secret, that eleven years later when as a young naval rating who had just qualified as a naval diver, I tried to find the location of the wreck, although everyone knew the name Ohio, no one, not even local divers knew were the SS Ohio’s last resting place was, while numerous other wartime wrecks were well known. Later, I realised that the reason no one knows where she was is not that it’s secret but because she was sunk in very deep waters, well beyond the reach of divers and trophy hunters. Which I think is the right place for her.
FOOTNOTE. Although Operation Pedestal was a tactical success, they did lose 13 vessels, including HMS Eagle but excluding the SS Ohio, and 400 British servicemen and Merchant Seamen lost their lives. A number of awards were presented, including to Captain Mason who received the George Cross for the bravery he and his crew showed in returning to their sinking wreck of a ship and fighting it through to the end. For those who are interested, the ship’s nameplate, ensign, wheel and other objects are now on display in the Malta National War Museum Valetta.