Operation Pedestal - August 1942

History: Key Aspects
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Alan Smith aged 18, taken in April 1942.
Alan Smith aged 18, taken in April 1942.

On board HMS Manchester, as she was hit by two torpedoes, was Alan Smith, who described his experiences in an interview with the Director of the Centre Dr Peter Liddle:

I saw the flash actually. I must have been turning in that direction and I saw this column of flame. The ship then obviously leaned over to the starboard side. It was hit on the starboard. It had missed the armour belt unfortunately which was about 6 inches, but it was a protection. It had missed that entirely . . .it had shattered three propeller shafts out of four, which meant that the ship was slowly turning in a circle.... The ship wasn't in danger of sinking and I remember that one time there was an announcement. They said "Oh, can anybody go down and assist below" where the damage was done and I went down towards the officers' quarters. . . They were sort of shattered and I saw an officer sort of staggering, you know he had been bruised or whatever.... The Captain made the announcement. He said "Well, we have considered everything", and he said that "if you see that light over there, about 12 miles away", he said, "that is Cape Bon, that is the tip of Tunisia". "Now", he said, "that is where you aim for". He said, "we are going to abandon the ship and you will hopefully steer towards that light"....
We jumped into these floats and we paddled with bits of driftwood or whatever we could get hold of. There were six or seven of us, I can't remember, and we paddled away from the ship and I thought "Well, if this goes down I don't want to be sucked under in the turbulence"... The ship was scuttled. This is a very important point to make because you didn't scuttle ships in the war.... It had been your home. All your personal belongings were there but apart from that you thought it's very sad to see a ship that size suddenly sink beneath the waves. Yes, it is an emotional feeling.

Working party in camp at Laghouat, Algeria. Alan Smith 3rd from right, interned after loss of HMS Manchester.
Working party in camp at Laghouat, Algeria. Alan Smith 3rd from right, interned after loss of HMS Manchester.

Alan was taken by Vichy French forces to a fort, La Guat:

There were about a thousand men there when we had arrived. The conditions were primitive to say the least. Twelve holes in the ground were what was used as latrines.... Water was very scarce. It was in short supply because of the climate. It was on a couple of times a day. You could wash in the morning. It was like a horse trough that you washed in, with a tap. I mean you didn't have a basin or anything and that is about all you could do. I mean you were lucky if you brushed your teeth....

Released shortly after the Torch landings, Alan returned home for an extended leave, before joining HMS Queen Elizabeth and serving in the Far East.

One ship which remained in close escort of the convoy was HMS Ledbury, commanded by Roger Hill DSO, DSC, RN, who was interviewed by Richard Campbell-Begg in 1996:

Well at last we had some lovely shooting because we had those high level Italian bombers coming over on an absolutely steady course and we were plonking away at them and my station with the convoy was alongside the starboard hand column and I was quite close to the third merchant ship in that column. He made me a signal "If my owners could see me now they would all have kittens!" And actually he had all his aerials shot away, I know, but the fire going up from the convoy was terrific and, of course, the fighters were up there and one of the interesting things was that I saw the bombs going by. I saw a cluster of bombs going past the bridge and when you see the planes up there you think the bombs are coming straight down, but they are not, they are coming at a very sharp angle coming at about 40 degrees and the bombs went past the bridge, they were landing in the sea alongside our stern and going off, which is very interesting.

Having assisted the damaged oil tanker Ohio, Ledbury headed in the direction of the Manchester to look for survivors:

So we went off to look for the Manchester and we steamed down the Gulf of Hammamet, lovely flat calm, blue sky, no wind, beautiful and looking on shore and looking at the sea, seeing if we could find her, there was no sign of her anywhere so I said I must really have a few minutes sleep I haven't slept for goodness knows how long. So I went down to my sea cabin and had hardly got there when I got called "Captain Sir, Captain Sir, two aircraft coming", so I rushed up on the bridge and there were two Italian torpedo bombers coming straight at us, so I told the big guns, the four inch guns to stay fore and aft and the guns' crews to stay in the shields and I got the pom pom and the oerlikon to stand by. The pom pom crew were a marvellous lot of villains, they always used to wear pyjamas, I don't know why, and caps, very large caps and I had the loudspeaker in my hand and I said "Wait, we will take the right hand one first, stand-by, stand-by", then when I thought it near enough I said "Fire" and off the pom pom went and the oerlikon and you could see the little shells hitting the front of the plane and all the way along and then plonk, the plane just went straight down into the sea, on fire and very light brown smoke went up. Then I had them shift target to take the left-hand one and we shot her down too. Everybody was cheering and shouting and laughing and I forgot that she had had time to drop a torpedo and suddenly everyone shouted "There's a torpedo" and there was a torpedo coming straight for us. So I went hard a-port and the torpedo missed our stern by, well it looked about six inches but it could have been a foot, and I thought I would like to pick these people up because they will be picked up by an Italian submarine and taken back to Italy, but I thought the submarine risk was so strong I had better leave them. There was no sign of life in the first one. In the second one you could see them climbing over the side and getting into a dinghy. The pom pom's crew were very bloodthirsty and as they had been up in the Arctic "Come on Sir, just one short burst" I said "No, you can't kill a beaten enemy, we would be up for war crimes if we did".

Letter to Alan Smith from his mother 10 Sept 1942. He had written to his mother that fruit was plentiful and he was enjoying life at the camp. In reality fruit consisted of a few dates and the primitive conditions resulted in an outbreak of beri-beri.
Letter to Alan Smith from his mother 10 Sept 1942. He had written to his mother that fruit was plentiful and he was enjoying life at the camp. In reality fruit consisted of a few dates and the primitive conditions resulted in an outbreak of beri-beri.

Returning to the convoy, Hill witnessed the bombing of the Waimarama:

You never saw anything like it. The flames were hundreds of feet in the air, black smoke, it was a terrible sight and she went down in about five minutes and, see all its petrol was in five gallon drums on the upper deck and of course they all went off and then the heat exploded all the rest of it and the whole sea was covered in flames, as far as you could see. It really was an inferno and I had said to the lads that as long as there was a merchant ship afloat, we were going to stay with it, we weren't going to have any PQ17 stuff on this convoy, and I reckoned, that by going into the flames, I was sort of redeeming myself for the terrible leaving of the merchant ships in PQ17. So we dived into the flames. It was an extraordinary experience for the whole sea was on fire. What struck me so much was the heat, it was terrific. I was leaning over the side looking for survivors and I was holding on to my beard because I was frightened it would catch on fire. So we went in and started picking up survivors and the boys were absolutely marvellous. They put a rope around themselves and over the side they went.. . .we finally joined up with the convoy and the coxswain, who was steering the ship was one deck below me, he had a porthole in front and he said "There's a man over there in the flames Sir". I said "Coxswain, all I can see are flames and smoke", I didn't want to go back again. He said "No I saw him move his arm Sir". "Alright we will go and get him", and this was John Jackson who was the Wireless Officer of the Waimarama, who was the only officer survivor of that ship. He couldn't swim and he was on a sort of large bit of wood, so I put the ship right alongside him and he came up the netting.

Having assisted the Ohio, by now very badly damaged, on its tortuous journey, HMS Ledbury finally approached Malta:

The entry into Malta was really amazing. We stopped just outside the entrance to the main harbour and went and pushed the Ohio's bows, I pushed her right round 140 degrees and had her pointed for going into harbour. A tug came out from Malta and she went in and the whole of the battlements were black with people. There were bands playing everywhere, people cheering, children shouting "We want food, not oil" and I think it was the most wonderful moment of my life was when we went into Malta and everybody cheering.