An unsung Maltese hero as Ohio brings salvation to besieged Malta
Several books have been written about Operation Pedestal of August 1942, dealing with the British convoy which, despite crippling losses, finally made it to Malta on August 14-15, 1942, saving the island from surrender.
Unless readers are given the detailed background to this story they simply cannot appreciate what this convoy, known as the Santa Marija Convoy (because it coincided with the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, or Santa Marija), meant to Malta.
Operation Pedestal was intended to get desperately needed supplies to Malta at a time when the island was effectively under siege, blockaded by Axis air and naval forces. To sustain the island, Britain had to get convoys through at all costs. The most crucial supply was fuel, delivered by the Ohio, an American-built tanker with a British crew.
At that point Malta was at a complete standstill, both because food supplies were scarce and because it lacked fuel and ammunition to defend itself. Malta was on the brink of surrender.
Before Operation Pedestal there were two other attempts to send supplies of food and ammunition to Malta. These were Operation Vigorous from the east and Operation Harpoon from the west, which unluckily both ended in disaster.
After this failure everyone was questioning how long Malta could hold out on its steadily diminishing supplies.
Yet the British did not give up. Operation Pedestal was an attempt to run more than 50 ships through the Mediterranean, which was well guarded by German U-boats, Italian E-boats as well as by the Luftwaffe, the German air force, and the Italian Regia Aeronautica.
This operation has gone down in history as an important British strategic victory of World War ll. But it was achieved at the cost of more than 400 lives, with only five of the original 14 merchant ships finally reaching Grand Harbour.
Of these five ships, Ohio steals the limelight as it had both the most fundamental role and the most dramatic survival of the whole convoy.
The following is an account of Ohio’s last three days before the tanker defied all odds and managed to limp into Grand Harbour with its precious cargo of fuel.
August 12: The Operation Pedestal convoy entered Gibraltar in heavy fog two days earlier. The Germans suspected that the fleet could only mean an imminent invasion of Sicily. They mounted continuous air attacks resulting in heavy Allied losses.
Twenty Junkers 88 attacked the convoy, together with another 100 German and Italian planes which attacked the merchantmen. Ohio was hit amid ships, and a huge pillar of fire leapt high in the air. The tanker seemed to be out of control.
Captain Dudley William Mason ordered the engines to be shut down, while all deckhands were ordered to fight the fire with the deck water-lines. The blast destroyed the ship’s gyro and knocked the magnetic compass off its bearings, forcing the crew to steer with the emergency gear from aft.
Meanwhile there were huge holes in the starboard side, flooding the compartment. There were also jagged tears on the bulkheads while kerosene was spurting up from the adjoining tanks.
August 13: Attacks continued on the already damaged Ohio as it approached the Italian island of Pantelleria, with near misses buckling the tanker’s hull plates and the forward tank filling with water. A downed Junker 88 crashed onto the deck, while another Italian dive bomber crashed onto it.
More attacks followed, her bailers were ruptured and so Ohio was left dead in the water at 10.50 a.m. The crew abandoned ship, boarding HMS Penn, which had come to Ohio’s aid together with HMS Ledbury. Different types of tows were attempted which gave no results because of heavy attacks from German dive bombers. The ship was abandoned for the night.
August 14: HMS Penn and HMS Rye towed the tanker and succeeded in making up to five knots. However there were more attacks and finally the tow lines snapped and Ohio’s rudder was immobilised.
More attacks followed and Mason once again gave orders to abandon the tanker, whose back was broken.
Now they were close to Malta and 16 Spitfires set out for the German Junkers. A 1,000-pound bomb landed on the tanker’s wake. It was clear that Ohio was sinking about 45 miles west from Malta.
Slowly, the group approached the tricky harbour entrance, having passed Żonqor Point, close to Marsascala. The whole area was a minefield laid by the British.
August 15: Although details of this hazardous voyage were not available locally, still every Maltese knew that something ominous was happening just on their doorstep. All the Maltese knew it involved the remains of what was once a convoy. All over the island prayers were offered for the safety of the sailors and that Malta might finally obtain some food and fuel. At 6 a.m. news spread that whatever was near our shores was trying to enter harbour.
The battered shores and bastions of the Barrakka, St Angelo and Senglea were soon covered with people anxious for news. Maltese tugs were ready to help and soon the stricken but brave tanker was seen limping into harbour while men and women waved and cheered and a brass band played Rule Britannia.
It was customary for Maltese pilots to steer ships into harbour; there was, in fact, a schedule which was duly observed. Yet, in those turbulent days of constant attacks such a detail was usually disregarded and the Admiralty normally asked the captain himself to steer the ship into harbour.
However it seems that on this particular occasion the Admiral decided that a Maltese pilot should be asked to assume such a responsibility; and because of the interrupted schedule it was not quite clear who should have been on duty. It was up to the chief pilot, Joseph Zahra, to decide who should steer Ohio into Grand Harbour.
It seems none of the pilots was eager to call for duty. Lorenzo (Wenzu) Attard, whose three brothers Domenico, Frans and Wiġi were also pilots, as were his cousin and uncle, decided to do the job. His son George relates how his father loved to narrate this event.
As soon as he decided to leave his home in Vittoriosa, Wenzu’s wife Antonia (née Persico), mother and brothers tried to dissuade him, telling him he was mad to try such a risky venture.
The tanker was sinking, and was still full of fuel. If there was another attack it could explode, causing a disaster in the Three Cities and for all involved.
But Wenzu was adamant. His answer 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 with those words he rushed out towards the harbour where, without loss of time he had to manoeuvre his way up a scramble-net to the Ohio.
As soon as the tanker came in, besides all the cheering and band-playing there was also an incessant beehive of activity on the wharves. The 10,000 tons of fuel oil started to be pumped by HMS Boxall while pipes were hauled aboard and emergency salvage pumps began to discharge the kerosene. The Ohio, which made port just six inches (15 centimetres) above the water, could be seen sinking lower and lower.
Ohio also carried a substantial amount of wheat and other much needed food supplies, which was saved and stored within a few hours. It is generally recognised that Ohio was the saviour of the beleaguered island. Its captain was later awarded the George Cross. Although such a triumph was of utmost importance for the Maltese, it had a more significant effect on the battle for North Africa.
Many historians trace the turn of the tide and the Allied victory to this single event – which boosted the hope and morale of the Maltese with renewed prospects of survival.
It is sad to note that 70 years after such an important historical event, the heroic act of Wenzu, the Maltese pilot, has not been given its due. There is not a single marble slab to honour him. Yet Malta’s public gardens and squares are adorned with statues and monuments of various statesmen, poets and lesser known citizens.
The national poet, Dun Karm, had chided the Maltese for their ingratitude of not acknowledging their brave forefathers. No poet has ever spoken or written words of praise for Wenzu.
I wonder, will he ever find a champion to speak up for him?