TNB Night Owl – Breaking The Siege Of Malta, Part 2

The badly damaged oil tanker SS Ohio, reaches Grand Harbour, at Valletta, capitol of Malta, 15 August 1942. Public domain.

Continuation of part one.

With the loss in June 1942 of the giant oil tanker SS Kentucky and numerous other ships of two simultaneous convoys attempting to relieve Malta, the situation for the British became desperate. Malta was nearly out of fuel for its fighter aircraft, as well as to refuel ships and submarines. When the fuel was gone, so were the island’s defenses and the ability to interdict enemy shipping supplying German and Italian armies in North Africa. The Axis wanted control of the Suez Canal, both to cutoff Britain’s supply of oil from the Middle East and to have that oil for their own war machines. As long as Axis supplies kept coming across the Mediterranean, the Suez was under threat. The British had to get fuel to Malta.

In July 1942, combined German and Italian forces pushed east from their base in Tripoli, until they reached El Alamein, Egypt. Here they were fought to a standstill by the British Eighth Army, consisting of British and Commonwealth soldiers from Australia, India, New Zealand, and South Africa. The battle was a draw, with no clear winner. Ultimately, the invaders returned to Tripoli when they ran low on supplies. However, this was a close call. El Alamein was just 106 kilometers (66 miles) from Alexandria, headquarters of the Mediterranean fleet and base of the Eighth Army. If the Eighth Army had not held, there was nothing to stop the Axis from reaching the Suez, and they would certainly try again. Malta had to be returned to action to stop enemy supply shipping.

Three days after the Kentucky was destroyed, her sister ship, the SS Ohio arrived in Glasgow loaded with fuel oil from Texas. Before leaving Texas, she was fitted with a five-inch deck gun on her stern, and an anti-aircraft gun on the bow (seen in photo above). Churchill needed a large, fast, tanker for a run to Malta, and Ohio was the only ship tailor-made for the job. Under British law, she could be requisitioned and pressed into military service. However, the owner, The Texas Company (name changed to Texaco in 1959) was not at all happy with the idea, having just lost Kentucky days earlier. After several days of diplomacy, tact, negotiations, and implementation of British law, the ship was requisitioned anyway. Ohio’s crew was not happy either, as they were replaced with a British crew and military gunners. Additional anti-aircraft guns were added mid-ships, numbering one Bofors 40 mm and six Oerlikon 20 mm. Also, her hull was strengthened and additional modifications were made to reinforce parts of her sister ship that had failed when Kentucky was attacked. Ohio was loaded with fuel and departed Scotland with the Malta convoy on the evening of 2 August, headed for Gibraltar.

On 9 August, the convoy left Gibraltar and headed into the Mediterranean under the cover of a heavy fog. The next day, a German U-boat torpedoed and sank HMS Eagle with a loss of 260 hands. Eagle was one of four aircraft carriers escorting the convoy. Other naval escorts included two battleships, seven light cruisers, thirty-two destroyers, four corvettes, four minesweepers, eleven submarines, two fleet oilers, and several smaller support vessels. Assigning more than seventy ships to escort fourteen merchant ships halfway across the Mediterranean Sea aptly demonstrates how important it was to the British to break the seige of Malta.

Axis bombers numbering at least 100 found and attacked the Axis convoy on 12 August, concentrating on the merchant ships. Meanwhile, an Italian submarine found Ohio and torpedoed her, striking the pump room compartment below deck, just forward of the bridge. The explosion blew large holes in both sides of the hull with a hole and a crease in the deck above. Fuel leaked from cracks in adjacent tanks. The crew scrambled, successfully, to put out fires. Repairs were quickly made and Ohio got underway again, managing a respectable speed despite the damage.

Five dozen Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers came in the next wave, specifically targeting Ohio. (Clearly, the Axis knew the importance of her cargo). Most of the Stukas missed entirely, while a few near misses caused additional damage to the weakened hull. Anti-aircraft gunners shot down one of the Stukas: it fell, struck the starboard side and exploded, although its bomb failed to detonate. Wave after wave of bombs fell all around Ohio, the shockwaves giving ship and crew a beating. At one point, the boiler fires were blown out in the engine room and had to be relit, costing about 20 minutes, during which time Ohio was dead in the water. Temporarily underway again, it became clear that mounting damage was slowly putting the engines out of commission. Two destroyers arrived to tow Ohio, but could not make headway. Another Stuka attacked, dropping its bomb just before being shot down. The bomb landed right where the torpedo had struck. The hull had held together until now: hull buckled, the crew knew Ohio’s back was broken. The captain ordered the ship abandoned, and the crew took refuge on a destroyer for the night.

The following day, captain and crew boarded Ohio while destroyers once again tried to tow her. A fair speed was attained, given the circumstances and further air attacks. Fortunately, by mid-day, Ohio and her destroyer-tugboats were within range of Malta’s RAF Spitfires, which were able to drive off the attackers. The bad news was that Ohio was taking on water, and with Malta still 45 miles away, it didn’t look like she’d make it there before sinking. Improvisation was the order of the day – destroyers were lashed to her sides, one starboard and one port side. The warships provided additional bouyancy as well as propulsion. Together, they were able to make 5 knots. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.

Ohio continued to take on water all the way to Malta, as the waves washing across her decks attested. Tugboats met the ship outside Grand Harbour. Relieving the destroyers, the tugs guided Ohio through the maze of submerged mines. Ship and crew were met by crowds of cheering Maltese citizens, and a band playing Rule Britannia. The seige was broken, as enough fuel was salvaged from Ohio’s battered hull to sustain military operations from Malta through October. Attacks on Axis shipping to North Africa resumed, ultimately denying the Afrika Korps the supplies, especially fuel, it needed to win battles.

In November, Operation Torch commenced with the invasion of French Morocco and Algeria by green American troops. The inexperienced and poorly led US Army initially faltered against the Afrika Korps, and would have been driven back to the Atlantic except for one thing: the Axis didn’t have enough fuel for their tanks and trucks. The Germans and Italians were finished in North Africa by May 1943. But that’s another story.

Question Of The Night: Dominating white paint schemes (especially for interior spaces), sometimes with black cabinetry or accents, are wildly popular with interior designers right now… What do you think? Love it or hate it?

About the opinions in this article…

Any opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this website or of the other authors/contributors who write for it.

About Richard Doud 622 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.