Welcome to the homepage of British Merchant Navy Veteran Ray Morton (1924-2014). In August 1942 Ray was an eye-witness to one of the most celebrated Allied achievements of World War Two -- "Operation Pedestal" or "The Convoy of Santa Maria". The British possession of Malta, with its three airfields and a great naval dockyard, was strategic to both the Axis and Allied sides in the war because of its location between Sicily and the North African countries of Tunisia and Libya. The Allies needed to keep control of Malta so that their own ships in the central Mediterranean area could be provided with land-based air cover instead of having to rely entirely on aircraft carrier-based planes. It was also essential that Allied aircraft be able to use the Maltese air fields as bases from which to strike at the Axis supply convoys from Italy and prevent them from reaching Rommel's Afrika Corps forces fighting against the British Eighth Army in North Africa. The Axis powers were equally
by Ray Morton
I had turned 18 in June 1942 while on a trip home from Mellila (a Spanish territory on the Moroccan mainland) via Gibraltar after discharging a cargo of coke (not the drink) and bringing home iron ore in a battered old rust bucket called Camerata. Shipping was quite quiet on Tyneside and the Merchant Navy Pool in Newcastle sent me to Glasgow to join an oil tanker called Ohio or as the crew said it, the "Oh Aitch 10". Nobody seemed to know anything about her but I soon found out. Ohio had arrived in the Clyde in June 1942 and was immediately "requisitioned" by the British Ministry of War Transport.
She was luxury compared with the ships I had sailed in. Two berth cabins and food we had only dreamed about. She had been provisioned in the U.S.A. and had grapefruit in the cool rooms and a dozen varieties of cereal for breakfast followed by bacon and eggs! A whole variety of meat and fish and ice cream! Once in the warmer weather iced coffee was the order of the day. So much for creature comforts. I was making my first trip as an Assistant Steward after six months as a deck boy then twelve months as a cabin boy. Rumours were rife as to where we were going but we all knew such comforts would carry a price tag.
Shortly before sailing Captain Mason gave us all the "good news" and said anyone who wished to leave could go ashore but, full credit to the boys, no one did. Then it was off to sea. Being a "gung ho" 18 year old I wasn't going to miss the biggest game of cowboys and Indians ever played and with the biggest and strongest escort ever waiting for us offshore what was there to be scared of? Britannia Rules The Waves!
A few thing stick in my mind to this day and always will.
Like the escorts. Seeing those bloody great 16 inch gun
battleships and the aircraft carriers, to say nothing of
the cruisers and all those destroyers made me feel ten
feet tall! But on
August 11th constipation was cured.
Sitting on a Bollard on the after deck, having a smoke
and an iced coffee after lunch and talking to the galley
boy (Mario Guidotti,
a 15 year old from Glasgow on his first trip who
now lives in
we were watching the aircraft
on the starboard quarter of the convoy.
She had planes up on patrol when we saw four huge spouts
of water along her port side. It was exactly 1.15 p.m.
She started listing to port and for the next seven minutes
we watched men and aircraft slide off her flight deck
as the list got worse and by 1.22 p.m. she had disappeared!
As the holder of the AA gunners ticket my action station was on a machine gun on the boat deck. The severity and continuity of the air attacks that followed was ferocious with a capital F. You just stayed at action stations you didn't have time for anything and you didn't sleep. Wherever you pointed the gun there was an enemy plane and you just kept pulling the trigger except when you were re-loading. The sky was like a huge lace curtain with the shell bursts from close to a hundred ships and it just stayed that way. Bombs were raining down and planes were falling out of the sky and ships disappearing in a flash of blue light. Many of the ships were carrying aviation fuel in drums in the 'tween decks and how that reacted to a torpedo or a bomb I will leave to the reader's imagination. And near misses were two a penny.
At one stage both
being attacked by torpedo bombers flying in
low quarters. Each battleship turned to steam
right at the planes, each elevated A turret of
three 16" guns and let loose a salvo. When the
smoke cleared not one torpedo bomber was left.
Some time later R.N. Gunnery Officer told me "that
with a time fuse the blast from each shell would
clear a square mile of sky". The pilots would never
know what hit them!
On 12th August we copped it. Around 6.00 p.m. while I was trying to shoot down aircraft a torpedo struck Ohio in the summer tanks, loaded with kerosene. With a 24 foot by 27 foot gash in her side, tank lids flying off, flames shooting mast high, a fountain of kerosene soaked me at my gun on the boat deck.
What happened next I don't know but when reality hit I was in the oggin, bobbing up and down in my life jacket complete with red light and whistle. I can't swim and watching ships steam past without even a wave didn't do anything for my morale. I soon felt a bit better - but not much! - when I realised there were three others in the water in close proximity, one of them Mario, the galley boy. By this time the convoy was disappearing in the distance. But we weren't alone for long enemy planes flew over and used us for target practice. Fortunately their bullets missed.
After about three hours of bobbing aimlessly about in the drink a destroyer came in sight and headed for us. After picking up my three comrades in distress she headed for me. It was L34, H.M.S. Bicester, one of His Majesty's Hunt Class destroyers. Heaving lines were hurled at me, all dropping short, and finally my dull brain registered the fact I was supposed to strike out and grab one. I yelled "It's no good dropping the bloody things there -- I can't swim!" A three badge good conduct AB standing on deck pushed back his cap to the back of his head and in a West Country accent "Well I'll be f....., I've 'eard everything now!" The destroyer was swinging her stern closer to me and a Petty Officer on the quarter deck ripped off his uniform and dived in after me just as the screws were beginning to pull me under. He dragged me to the side of the ship and up a scramble net and on reaching the deck a big burley AB got on each side of me, arms round my shoulders saying "Come on son, you're OK now." I pushed them aside saying "I know I'm OK" and hit the deck like a sack of spuds. Somebody carried me below deck and put me in a hammock. The ship's doctor came round, checked me to make sure I was all in one piece and gave me a mug full of Pusser's Rum to drink. I slept like a log and when the doc came round the next morning to see how I was, I brashly demanded to know why I had been "knocked out."
While we were being picked up Bicester had had to fight off some enemy planes. Some pom-pom shells had deflected downwards into X and Y turrets and put their own gun crews out of action. I remembered hearing calls for stretcher parties as I was taken aboard and the doc said "You were in no condition to know what went on around here last night, lad."
A couple of days later we landed back at Gibraltar (but that is another story). After a month we sailed back to U.K. as Distressed British Seamen on a Union Castle boat, the Llanstephan Castle. On arrival back in U.K. I learned two facts of life. One your pay stopped the day you hit the drink, and two, if you spent four weeks getting home or in a life raft or in a lifeboat that was your month's survivor's leave.
Operation Pedestal and Ohio -- I will never forget them.
Ray Morton's Homepage is continued in Part Two: Believe It, or Not