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My Memories of "Operation Pedestal"

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Map of Mediterranean

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
Canadian fighter pilot Buzz Beurling

Canadian fighter pilot George "Buzz" Beurling was one of the remarkable RAF airmen who helped defend Malta. Between June and October 1942 he destroyed 28 enemy planes. Beurling survived the war but was killed in a flying accident in May 1948.

Photo Source: Maclean's Canada at War, 2000.

aware that control of Malta was their key to winning in North Africa, and consequently in 1941 they set out to bomb Malta and her courageous citizens into submission. For months, the small number of Royal Air Force (RAF) planes on Malta fought off the much larger numbers of Italian and German aircraft. The RAF also helped the Malta-based submarines to attack the Italian supply ships on their way to North Africa. But despite the magnificent efforts of both her civilian and military defenders, by mid-1942 Malta was being pulverized by bombing attacks and facing a crisis of supply. Throughout 1941 and the first half of 1942 the Royal and Merchant Navies set off time after time with supplies for Malta, only to face such overwhelming attacks from enemy planes, submarines and motor torpedo boats, that the convoys were decimated. Only a small amount of supplies which were brought by transport planes, extremely fast Royal Navy vessels such as the minelayers HMS Welshman, HMS Abdiel, HMS Manxman, and by special cargo submarines which were dubbed the "magic-carpet service", got through to Malta undetected. By time "Operation Pedestal" left Britain on August 2nd, 1941, Malta was desperate for supplies of aviation and other fuels, food, medical supplies and ammunition. Ray Morton was one of the intrepid Merchant Seamen who took part in this historic convoy which against great odds would finally break the Seige of Malta and make the Allied victory in North Africa possible.


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 Burpengary, Queensland) -- we were watching the aircraft carrier Eagle 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! Phew!!

Left to Right: Aircraft Carriers HMS Victorious, Indomitable & Eagle

Aircraft Carriers
HMS Victorious, HMS Indomitable and HMS Eagle

Although Operation Pedestal's escort included these 3 aircraft carriers along with a very impressive array of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, the enemy forces were equally formidable. Axis planes had the advantage of flying from land bases in Sardinia and Sicily but, with its air bases in Cyrenaica in Axis hands, the Allies had to rely mostly on their carrier-based planes for air cover.

The shocking loss of HMS Eagle on August 11th, 1942, only one day out of Gibraltar, was a terrible blow. Despite the vigilance of Eagle's escorts, U-73 got through the screen and hit her with 4 torpedoes. At least 160 lives (accounts vary) were lost in the sinking as well as all the carrier's precious aircraft.

Photo Source: The Imperial War Museum Book of The War at Sea: The Royal Navy in the Second World War, by Julian Thompson. London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1996.

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 Nelson and Rodney were 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!


British battleship HMS Rodney
The sister battleships HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson were completed in 1927. Unfortunately, in "Operation Pedestal" the battleships and aircraft carriers were ordered to turn back to Gibraltar before the convoy reached Cape Bon, depriving the convoy of their cover at a crucial time.
This photo showing HMS Rodney's guns in action during the Normandy Invasion of June 1944, is also from Thompson's The Imperial War Museum Book of The War at Sea.

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.

The Tanker Ohio Arriving at Grand Harbour, Valletta, Malta on August 15th, 1942

SS Ohio arrives at Grand Harbour, Valletta

While Ray, Mario and their two mates struggled to survive in the sea, the other Ohio crew members managed to bring the tanker's blazing fires under control. The relentless enemy attacks continued -- a torpedo hit, a plane crashing on her deck, and many near misses caused her to be abandoned and reboarded twice. Seventy miles from Malta, her engines were finally stilled, but, Ohio doggedly remained afloat. Despite continuing attacks, the Royal Navy destroyers HMS Ledbury and HMS Penn managed to lash the disabled tanker between them. Then with the help of the destroyer HMS Bramham and the minesweeper HMS Rye the crippled tanker was taken in tow for Malta. Ohio, her precious cargo and her Royal Navy rescuers arrived triumphantly at Valletta on the afternoon of August 15th.

An original Edwin Galea painting of Ohio's arrival at Valletta was especially commissioned for the 60th Anniversary Reunion of the "Operation Pedestal/Santa Marija Convoy" in September 2002. For the description of the painting Please Click Here . To view the painting Please Click Here.

The cost of "Operation Pedestal" was horrendous: 9 merchantmen and 4 Naval ships were sunk; 3 other Naval ships were severely damaged; and at least 350 sailors -- 2 of whom were from Ohio -- lost their lives, but, the Seige of Malta was broken.

Photo Source: The Imperial War Museum Book of The War at Sea: The Royal Navy in the Second World War, by Julian Thompson. London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1996.

MV Melbourne Star Arriving at Malta on August 13th, 1942

Melbourne Star at Grand Harbour, Valletta

Only 5 of the original 14 merchant ships which took part in "Operation Pedestal" made it to Malta. Their brave naval escorts also suffered heavy losses. The nine merchantmen were: MV Deucalion, Empire Hope, SS Clan Ferguson, MV Dorset, MV Wairangi, MV Glenorchy, SS Santa Elisa, SS Almeria Lykes and MV Waimarama. This photo shows Blue Star Line's Melbourne Star, the first to arrive, being warmly welcomed on August 13th, 1942. She was followed later that day by the Port Chalmers and Rochester Castle. Melbourne Star's sister ship Brisbane Star "limped in" on the 14th.

Tragically, less than a year after her "Operation Pedestal" triumph, Melbourne Star would be sunk of Bermuda by U-129. Out of the 117 aboard her, there were only 4 suvivors.

Photo Source: The World at Arms: The Reader's Digest Illustrated History of World War Two. (London, Reader's Digest Association Ltd., c1989).

Ray Morton's Homepage is continued in Part Two: Believe It, or Not