The battle to save the Ohio

The damaged tanker OHIO, supported by Royal Navy destroyers HMS PENN (left) and HMS LEDBURY (right), approaches Malta after an epic voyage across the Mediterranean as part of convoy WS21S (Operation Pedestal) to deliver fuel and other vital supplies to the besieged island. OHIO’s back was broken and her engines failed during earlier German and Italian attacks. Because of the vital importance of her cargo (10,000 tons of fuel which would enable the aircraft and submarines based at Malta to return to the offensive), she could not be abandoned. In a highly unusual manoeuvre, the two destroyers supported her to provide buoyancy and power for the remainder of the voyage.

Probably the most important ship in the Pedestal convoy was the oil tanker Ohio, an American ship with a British crew. Its cargo was essential for the continuation of the fight from Malta, every effort had to be made to get her into port. She was twice abandoned during the course of the convoy – but then re-boarded. Finally still some 40 miles from Malta, with her engine room destroyed, she had to be lashed between two destroyers and supported for the last part of the journey. Fortunately fighter cover from Malta itself meant that the air attacks were much diminished on the final day of her journey.

The damaged tanker OHIO finally enters Valletta on the morning of the 15th supported by Royal Navy destroyers, after an epic voyage across the Mediterranean as part of convoy WS21S.

Captain of the Ohio, Dudley Mason, awarded the George Cross for bringing the tanker into Malta.

Her captain, Dudley Mason was awarded the George Cross for his efforts in saving the ship:

The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to Captain Dudley William Mason, Master, SS Ohio. During the passage to Malta of an important convoy Captain Mason’s ship suffered most violent onslaught. She was a focus of attack throughout and was torpedoed early one night. Although gravely damaged, her engines were kept going and the Master made a magnificent passage by hand-steering and without a compass.

The ship’s gunners helped to bring down one of the attacking aircraft. The vessel was hit again before morning, but though she did not sink, her engine room was wrecked. She was then towed. The unwieldy condition of the vessel and persistent enemy attacks made progress slow, and it was uncertain whether she would remain afloat.

All next day progress somehow continued and the ship reached Malta after a further night at sea. The violence of the enemy could not deter the Master from his purpose. Throughout he showed skill and courage of the highest order and it was due to his determination that, in spite of the most persistent enemy opposition, the vessel, with her valuable cargo, eventually reached Malta and was safely berthed.

Also recognised were two American sailors who were awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal – Frederick August Larsen, Jr., Junior Third Officer and Francis A. Dales, Deck Cadet-Midshipman on SS Santa Elisa/SS Ohio. They had been rescued from the SS Santa Elisa when it was sunk but volunteered to man the guns on the Ohio:

SS Santa Elisa/SS Ohio
08/11 to 08/15/42

For heroism above and beyond the call of duty.

His ship was a freighter carrying drums of high-octane gasoline, one of two American ships, in a small British convoy to Malta. Orders were to “get through at all costs.” Heavily escorted, the convoy moved into the Mediterranean, and before noon of that day the enemy’s attack began. From then on the entire convoy was under constant attack from Axis planes and submarines. Assigned the command of an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the bridge, Dales contributed to the successful defense of his ship for three days.

At 4:00 A.M. on the morning of the fourth day, torpedo boats succeeded in breaking through and two attacked from opposite sides. Sneaking in close under cover of the darkness one opened point-blank fire on Dales’s position with four .50 caliber machine guns, sweeping the bridge and killing three of his gun crew in the first bursts. The other sent its deadly torpedo into the opposite side of the freighter. Neither the heavy fire from the first torpedo boat nor the torpedo from the second drove Dales and his crew from their gun. With only flashes to fire at in the darkness, he found the target and the first boat burst into flames and sank. But the torpedo launched by the other had done its deadly work. The high-test gasoline cargo ignited and the American ship was engulfed in flames. Reluctantly, orders were given to abandon her.

Two hours later, the survivors were picked up by a British destroyer, which then proceeded to take in tow a tanker [SS Ohio] that had been bombed and could not maneuver. After five hours constant dive-bombing, the tanker was hit again–her crew abandoned her–and the destroyer was forced to cut her loose. But the cargo she carried was most important to the defense of Malta, and it had to get through. The rescue destroyer and another destroyer steamed in– lashed themselves on either side of the stricken tanker–and dragged her along in a determined attempt to get her to port.

Dales and four others volunteered to go aboard the tanker and man her guns in order to bring more fire power to their defense. The shackled ships, inching along and making a perfect target, were assailed by concentrated enemy airpower. All that day wave after wave of German and Italian bombers dived at them and were beaten off by a heavy barrage. Bombs straddled them, scoring near misses, but no direct hits were made until noon the next day, when the tanker finally received a bomb down her stack which blew out the bottom of her engine room. Though she continued to settle until her decks were awash, they fought her through until dusk that day brought them under the protection of the hard fighting air force out of Malta.

The magnificent courage of this young cadet constitutes a degree of heroism which will be an enduring inspiration to seamen of the United States Merchant Marine everywhere.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

judith oakman January 6, 2014 at 8:16 pm

My father Charles Dundas was an engineer on the Ohio and had to abandon ship twice. He was given a fantastic welcome into Malta and spent some time in the hospital there. He is still alive at the age of 92 and rarely talks about his WW2 experiences of which there were many.

Carol Linton November 14, 2013 at 3:00 pm

My father was on the Dorset that was sunk, and volunteered to go onto the Ohio as a rear gunner.

Marilyn & Colin Watkins August 11, 2013 at 7:05 pm

The most moving of war stories. Bravery unimaginable by the crew and people of Malta. We cannot imagine being that courageous. God Bless them all.

Dave Murphy February 5, 2013 at 10:51 am

My father served in the Royal Navy during WW11 and was there when the Ohio limped into Grand Harbour, Valletta. He described the scene to me when I was a young boy, he witnessed the heart thumping spectacle of seasoned, older seadogs with tears streaming down their faces as they witnessed the courage and tenacity of this fine ship and her magnificent crew.
The Ohio finaly settled on the bottom but only after having given up her precious cargo and later became a barracks.
My Dad also kept my brothers and I spellbound with stories about Faith, Hope and Charity and the story of the bomb which came crashing through the dome of a packed church, skidded up the isle and lodged in the church doors without exploding and throughout all of this not a soul in the entire congregation came to any harm.
Many years later I found this church and read the account just as my Dad had related it to me, is it any wonder this valliant little island was awarded The George Cross.

tony Sanders November 19, 2012 at 9:09 pm

MY father Joe Sanders served on the Penn, known as Sandy.
I have anumber of photos of crew mates and of battle scenes if anyone is interested. It would be good to hear of any living crew mates or family.

Nan Moore November 17, 2012 at 2:46 pm

I have a 42-43 Malta Convoy Cross that looks to be hand-made that my grandfather received when he was in the Merchant Marine during WWII. I would like to learn more about it and have a photo of it if anyone can be of assistance.

Thank you.

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