Operation Pedestal: the personal account of

P/JX 141451 Leading Signalman James Gregory Fern, D.S.M.
 

This short piece was originally written for his family after the war; the document has been rediscovered

and made available for publication by his Great Nephew, Adrian Fern. 

 


"Pedestal" was the codename given to the allied operation to attempt to resupply the Island of Malta, it would employ the largest escort force yet deployed for a single convoy. It was an operation that simply had to succeed whatever the cost. It was therefore decided that only fast (15 knots) merchant ships were to be included to reduce the time exposed to enemy attacks thus improving their chances of survival.


 

 

On 2nd August 1942, I was in Portsmouth Barracks when I was told to report to the R.P.O. at Portsmouth Station and received a ticket to Liverpool. On arrival at Liverpool I was met by an Officer who took me to the Docks, then found myself on-board Merchant Vessel "DORSET".

My job was to be advisor to the Captain for the purpose of manoeuvring a group of Merchant Ships into various formations, course and speed alterations, to avoid torpedo and air attack in the same precision as a flotilla of destroyers would do, this being an extremely difficult task with Merchant ships of varying speed and manoeuvrability capabilities in addition to which Merchant Captains had no experience.

We sailed from Liverpool about 2 hours after I arrived on-board and anchored off the Tail of The Bank in the Clyde and on 5th August we put to sea and joined up with another 13 Merchant Ships and a large escort of warships which included NELSON, RODNEY, EAGLE, INDOMITABLE, 4 Cruisers and a flotilla of Destroyers. We immediately commenced exercises in the manoeuvring mentioned above and the secret orders were opened when we discovered our destination was Malta, which at that time was dreaded more than the Russian run.

Malta at that time was on the point of surrender with only a few days' food left, no ammunition and no fuel for their Fighter Planes.

On the night of August 9th at about midnight we successfully formed into single line and passed through the Straits of Gibraltar in pitch dark without being detected by the Nazi spies on the coast of Spain and Morocco, and at about ten o'clock the next morning we were spotted by an enemy reconnaissance plane and at ten past one that afternoon I saw torpedoes hit the Carrier EAGLE and 8 minutes later she had disappeared completely, and for the rest of the day and evening we came under a series of air and U Boat attacks.

On the 12th and 13th we were repeatedly attacked by Italian High Level and German Dive Bombing and Merchant ships were being hit one by one. Two disappeared in massive explosions (all Merchant Ships were carrying Shells for Malta's AA Guns, Aviation Fuel and Food).

On the night of the 12th two Cruisers were sunk and two damaged, by mines which had been dropped by aircraft ahead of the convoy, and at dusk wave after wave of torpedo bombers came in and Nelson even used her large sixteen Inch against them. Then, after dark, throughout the night we were attacked by E Boats from Pantelleria.

At about 9.30 next morning DORSET was hit in an attack which consisted of a hundred bombers and I saw about five explode on the carrier INDOMITABLE. DORSET was hit again and the Captain ordered abandon ship at which time I was engaged in sending a long signal to one of the Destroyers giving details of cargo and damage. Afterwards I went down below decks to get hold of confidential documents, codes etc. to make sure they were destroyed then returned to the upper deck and Jumped for it.

I was picked up by the destroyer BRAMHAM whose decks were Jam packed with survivors. I then went up to the bridge and volunteered to relieve the Yeoman of Signals who was exhausted.

 

The M.V. DORSET under air attack, she was eventually sunk on the evening of 13 August. Image IWM (A 11173) The damaged tanker OHIO, supported by RN destroyers PENN (left) and LEDBURY (right), approaches Malta. Image IWM (GM 1480)

 

We then went to the assistance of the Tanker OHIO, fully laden with 100 octane aviation fuel and lying helpless with engines out of action and steering damaged.

We took the OHIO in tow and the Germans concentrated their efforts on the OHIO as being the most important target left and our tow was parted twice by near misses. Eventually the destroyer Penn came to assist and with PENN tied up alongside Port and BRAMHAM alongside Starboard we continued at about 2 knots towards Malta which was then about 25 miles away, but due to the strong tides and weight of the OHIO we drifted into our own minefield laid off the approaches to Malta. A Minesweeper and tug came out and we eventually arrived at the entrance to Grand Harbour at about ten on 15th August to a tremendous welcome from the Maltese who had lined up on the bastions at Valetta and Cospicua and a Military Band playing us in.

In November 1942 an Admiralty Fleet Order was received giving details of Decorations in which my name appeared as having been awarded a D.S.M.

Sometime in 1943, I can't remember the exact date; I was decorated with the ribbon by Field Marshall Lord Gort, who was Governor of Malta, at a public ceremony on the Square outside the Governor's Palace in Valetta.

I remained on the Island for two and a half years in charge of a watch at the Communications H.Q. and we had a very rough time indeed with hardly any food or anything else, but that is another story to be told.

As a matter of interest the Actress Dulcie Gray was one of the typists I used to hand out signals to, also while having a walk round one day in '43, when preparations were being made to invade Sicily, I bumped into Ernie Haslam.

As you know I came home in November 1944 and went to Buckingham Palace in March 1945 and I can't even remember the exact date.

Incidentally, this has been recorded as the most heavily attacked Convoy of the War.

 

 The cost:

Merchant Vessels Disposition
ALMERIA LYKES sunk
DEUCALION sunk
DORSET sunk
CLAN FERGUSON  sunk
EMPIRE HOPE sunk
GLENORCHY sunk
SANTA ELISA sunk
WAIRANGI sunk
WAIMARAMA sunk
BRISBANE STAR damaged reached Malta
MELBOURNE STAR damaged reached Malta
PORT CHALMERS damaged reached Malta
ROCHESTER CASTLE damaged reached Malta
OHIO damaged reached Malta
   
Warships Disposition
EAGLE sunk
MANCHESTER sunk
CAIRO sunk
FORESIGHT sunk
INDOMITABLE damaged
KENYA damaged
NIGERIA damaged
ITHURIEL damaged

 

Award of Distinguished Service Medal promulgated in Admiralty Fleet Order 5618./42—Honours and Awards—

 “ London Gazette ” Supplement of
10th November, 1942


 

The Imperial War Museum has a Video MALTA CONVOY that can be viewed on-line. Click here to visit the page.

 

 For more information about Operation Pedestal there is an excellent article on the World Naval Ships Forums

 

 Go to the top

 

Copyright  2016 James Fern & www.royalnavyresearcharchive.org.uk

Images reproduced under  IWM Non Commercial Licence


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