The closer the convoy got to Siciliy the greater the opportunity for enemy attack – the larger covering force of aircraft carriers and battleships withdrew late on the 12th August and returned to Gibraltar.
In the early hours of the 13th the Pedestal convoy was attacked by a group of fifteen German and Italian motor torpedo boats. Later in the day over 60 Stukas attacked – one of which was shot down and crashed onto the tanker Ohio. Losses amongst the merchantmen now began to mount. Miraculously the oil tanker Ohio stayed afloat – just.
William Cheetham was on the destroyer HMS Penn:
So started the mad dash through the Straits of Pantaleria to Malta.
When we joined up with the convoy we were ordered to take the place of a cruiser, (quite a compliment to our gunnery), and we steamed up to the head of the screen on the left flank. As we steamed into position, we counted thirteen merchant ships, not bad going so far. We had not been in position two minutes when a terrific explosion shook us from stem to stern, and its echoes had hardly died away, when another, just as loud as the first, followed and then two more. Looking to starboard, we saw a nerve wracking sight.
Two cruisers, the Nigeria and Cairo, an oil tanker and another cargo ship were all hit. The Nigeria was listing heavily and we feared she was going to turn turtle. The Cairo was rapidly sinking by the stern. The oil tanker, well she had been blown clean to hell, and all that remained of her was a large patch of blazing oil and some wreckage. We could hear her crew screaming in agony as they vainly tried to swim through the blazing hell, but we could not help them. Poor devils, we had to just leave them to their fate.
The other merchant man kept afloat, and later was able to get under way again.
We thought we had run into a minefield, but we soon changed our minds when one of the other destroyers suddenly dropped some charges. Two more destroyers followed and then a periscope was sighted. All guns loaded S.A.P. and fired at it, then we turned to port and dropped a pattern of charges. We got him alright, for a large patch of oil came to the surface.
We returned to the Nigeria and Cairo. A destroyer went alongside the Cairo and took off the crew as she had to be abandoned. A skeleton crew was left on the other ship and she got under way and returned to Gib.
We picked up several survivors and returned at full speed to join the convoy, of which eleven ships remained.
It was dusk as we reached the convoy and than came the worst attack of the lot. The torpedo and dive bombers were determined to sink the lot of us.
Tracer and explosive shells were all over the sky. Our own 4″ were firing like the devil. Three more ships went up leaving us silhouetted in the fires they caused, and the attack was being pressed home all the time.
We were just off Sardinia and everything the enemy had was sent out to try and get us. We were in a very precarious position because the fires from the other ships lit up the place like daylight.
We steamed towards one of the crippled ships, the SS Empire Hope and we saw some of her crew struggling in the water and others were in the boats. Lifeless and mutilated objects that had once been men floated past on both sides and our bows struck two corpses as we steamed forward to assist the remaining survivors. Some of our crew shouted to them to hurry up as we all had the jitters by now and we wanted to feel some speed under us.
These survivors all being aboard safely, we turned towards another ship and picked up more survivors. In the distance a tanker was blazing furiously, but as a destroyer was already standing by her, we turned once more to the Empire Hope.
Then came the order ‘All guns with SAP load’ and we fired in all about 16 rounds of semi armour piercing shells into her. This was not enough, so we manoeuvred into position and fired two tin fish into her to sink her so that she would not be a menace to navigation. We then swung round and made a detour round the tanker and then went after the convoy. We could see the tracers going up and guessed that the convoy was being attacked again.
We steamed into battle and opened up on the enemy planes. After this action we contacted one of the ships which appeared to have left the convoy.
We ordered her to follow us. All night through we escorted her until we at last caught up with the convoy again.
Read more of William Cheetham’s story on BBC People’s War.
For a full account by Roland Hindmarsh of the action on HMS Manchester, see the Wartime Memories project.