MV Melbourne Star

Blue Star Line

The Malta Convoys

Home Page
Launch Day
Operation Pedestal
Picture Gallery
Passenger Lists
Dunedin Star

'Operation  Substance'
13th July - 24th July 1941

Vice Admiral  JF Somerville
Flag Officer Commanding
'Operation Substance'

The operation was successfully carried out is due in no small measure to the behaviour of the merchant ships in the convoy. I had complete confidence that orders given to them by me would be understood and promptly carried out. Their steadfast and resolute behaviour during air and E-Boat attacks was most impressive and encouraging to us all. Particular credit is due to S.S. MELBOURNE STAR'S Master Capt. D.R MacFarlane, Commodore of the convoy, who set a high standard and never failed to appreciate directly what he should do.

The Malta Convoy 'Operation Substance' of July 1941 consisted of six fast merchant ships City of Pretoria, Deucalion, Durham, Port Chalmers, Melbourne Star (Captain D R MacFarlane) and Sydney Star (Captain T S Horn). Captain MacFarlane had been appointed Commodore of the Convoy. The escort for the journey consisted of the battle-cruiser HMS Renown, the battleship HMS Nelson, the aircraft-carrier HMS Ark Royal, cruisers HMS Edinburgh, Manchester, Arethusa and Hermione, the cruiser minelayer HMS Manxman and 17 destroyers with Vice Admiral Sir James Somerville in command.

At 10.55am on July 23rd during an air attack, the destroyer HMS Fearless was hit by torpedo and was severely damaged, unable to continue, she was sunk by destroyer HMS Forester. 1 offficer and 24 ratings were killed.

At 2.50am on July 24th there was a sudden attack by an ‘E’ Boat. The Sydney Star was hit by a torpedo on the port side and began to list. It was decided to transfer the 460 troops she was carrying to the destroyer HMS Nester for safety. Despite having a hole 40 by 16 feet caused by the torpedo the Sydney Star managed to limp to her destination, with her cargo intact.

All the merchant ships of ‘Operation Substance’, including the Melbourne Star, arrived at Malta with their valuable cargoes.

'Operation Substance'
The Official Report submitted to the Admiralty by Vice Admiral JF Somerville
Published in The London Gazette 1948
(go to the 'Links Page' for details)

'Operation Pedestal'
2nd August - 14th August 1942

At worst some of the ships of Operation Pedestal must get through or Malta would fall. Winston Churchill instructed that he be kept informed as to the progress of this convoy at every stage. If only one of the 14 Merchant Ship reached Malta the convoy would be considered a success.

Vice-Admiral E. N. Syfret, C.B.,
Flag Officer Commanding 'Operation Pedestal'

Tribute has been paid to the personnel of H.M. Ships but both officers and men will desire to give first place to the conduct, courage and determination of the Masters, officers and men of the merchant ships. The steadfast manner in which these ships pressed on their way to Malta through all attacks, answering every manoeuvring order like a well trained fleet unit, was a most inspiring sight. Many of these fine men and their ships were lost but the memory of their conduct will remain an inspiration to all who were privileged to sail with them.

By August 1942, Rommel’s Army in North Africa was already in difficulties. All the same, supplies to Malta were still of prime importance. Spitfires flown into the island had wrought havoc with the enemy bombers, with the result that the continued bombing had ceased. But the Spitfires still required fuel, the guns ammunition, materials for ship repairs and food for the inhabitants.

The Luftwaffe, greatly reinforced, had lost none of its potency and convoys still had to be fought through. The convoy of 14 merchant ships which left Scotland on 2nd August for Malta under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Neville Syfret had an unusually powerful escort. It consisted of 2 Battle Ships, 4 Aircraft Carriers, 7 Cruisers and 25 Destroyers. Among the merchant ships in the convoy was the Melbourne Star and her master Captain DF MacFarlane OBE, also her sister ship the Brisbane Star Captain FN Riley. The Melbourne Star carried all the ingredients for creating a minor earthquake. Her cargo included 1350 tons of High Octane Spirit, 700 tons of Kerosene, 1450 tons of High Explosive Shells and Cartridges and several thousand tons of Heavy Oil.

This convoy of August 1942 was the hardest fought of the many convoys through to Malta. Despite the heavy protection provided by their formidable escort and the fact that the merchant ships in the convoy were themselves the largest, fastest and the most modern British and American cargo liners and tankers, the loss of ships was enormous.

Nine of the fourteen merchant ships were lost. Among those was the Waimarama, carrying a cargo of Ammunition and Octane Spirit in cans, the ship was an inferno within seconds of a direct hit from enemy aircraft. Immediately astern was the Melbourne Star.

Captain D F MacFarlane
MV Melbourne Star

'Pedestal' by P C Smith
On page 158 the author states that Capt. MacFarlane perished when the Melbourne Star was sunk in the Atlantic 2 April 1943.
This is incorrect!
Capt. MacFarlane died of natural causes in 1984 aged 89

Melbourne Star's Captain DF MacFarlane already a veteran of  Malta Convoy 'Operation Substance' recalls:-

“At 8.10am 13th August 1942 a covey of dive-bombers suddenly came screaming out of the sun and a stick of bombs fell on and around the Waimarama which blew up with a roar and a sheet of flames with clouds of billowing smoke, to disappear in a few seconds.”

“We were showered with debris from this ship,” Captain MacFarlane wrote. “a piece of plating five feet long fell on board. The base of a steel ventilator half an inch thick and 2½ feet high which partly demolished one of our machine gun posts, a piece of angle iron, at the same time, narrowly missing a cadet. The sea was one sheet of fire, and as we were so close we had to steam though it. I put the helm hard to port and had to come down from where I was on the monkey island to the bridge to save myself from being burnt. It seemed as though we had been enveloped in smoke and flames for hours, although it was only minutes, otherwise the ship could not have survived. The flames were leaping mast high, indeed, air pilots reported that at times they reached 2000 feet.”

“The heat was terrific. The air was becoming drier every minute, as though the oxygen was being sucked out of it, as, in fact it was. When we inspected the damage afterwards we found that nearly all the paint on the ship’s side had been burnt away and the bottoms of the life boats reduced to charcoal.”

A few survivors from the Waimarama were rescued among them a 17 year old cadet on his first voyage.

During this incident, thinking that the Melbourne Star had been struck and thinking that if they stayed on board they would be
blown up, 36 of her crew jumped over the side. In the circumstances this was not an unnatural thing to have done.

It has to be regretted that 14 lost their lives ~ 9 Melbourne Star Crew and 5 Naval Army Gunners the other 22 being rescued by the Destroyer HMS Leadbury.

Destroyer HMS Ledbury
Captain Roger Hill

The Royal Navy Destroyer HMS Ledbury went to the scene, but it was originally thought impossible that anyone could survive such a terrific explosion and mass of flames, but on approaching, men were seen in the water. The destroyer entered the inferno, after manoeuvring around the debris field, the destroyer picked up forty-four survivors, one body was buried that evening with military honours. Some time later it was discovered that Ledbury had onboard survivors from both the Waimarama and the Melbourne Star. This happened because when the Waimarama blew up it happened so suddenly that the Melbourne Star steamed right through the flames. Those aft onboard the Melbourne Star thought that their own ship had gone up and had jumped over the side. By half past-nine the Ledbury had completed the recovery of survivors.

HMS Ledbury arrives at Malta with the rescued survivors from the
 Waimarama and Melbourne Star

The Melbourne Star arrives at Veletta Harbour

The 5 surviving Merchant Ships arrived at Malta’s Grand Harbour, Rochester Castle, Melbourne Star and Port Chalmers on 13th August 1942, to be received by cheering crowds of people clustered on the battlements and bands playing their loudest. The Brisbane Star arrived on the 14th August and finally the Ohio on the 15th August 1942. All with their valuable cargo intact.

The Melbourne Star, second to arrive, berthed with her valuable cargo intact. Twelve hours later it was discovered that a 6 inch shell blown skywards from the Waimarama had landed on the roof of Captain MacFarlane’s day cabin, smashing the planking and embedding itself in the steel deck below; but luckily not exploding. The cargo, safely delivered, brought relief to the island at a very critical moment.

Captain F N Riley
MV Brisbane Star

The Brisbane Star, although badly damaged by enemy torpedo, her bows practically removed by the explosion, struggled into Valetta Harbour on the 14th August 1942, the day after the Melbourne Star had arrived, with her cargo intact.

Main Greaser  Edward Corfield  aged 60

Commemorated at ENFIDAVILLE WAR CEMETERY - Tunis

Badly injured during one of the many hostile enemy attacks on the Brisbane Star. On the 13th August 1942, Capt. Riley requested the French Harbour Master of Sousse Tunisia that he take Main Greaser Corfield to hospital for treatment, this he agreed to do. Sadly, it is believed that, he died of his injuries before arriving at hospital.

Captains D R MacFarlane and F N Riley of the Brisbane Star, were both awarded the Distinguished Service Order. They were among the first officers of the Merchant Navy to receive this honour, in the words of the Official London Gazette:-

"Fortitude, seamanship and endurance in taking Merchantmen through to Malta in the face of relentless attacks by day and night from enemy submarines, aircraft and surface forces".

18th December 1942, after several months undergoing extensive repairs in Malta the Melbourne Star commenced her journey home through the Suez Canal stopping at Aden, Capetown, Buenos Aires, Montevideo and finally arriving at Liverpool on the 22 February 1943. The next voyage for the Melbourne Star was to be her last.

'Operation Pedestal'
The Official Report submitted to the Admiralty by Vice Admiral EN Syfret
Published in The London Gazette 1948
(go to the 'Links Page' for details)

Malta awarded the George Cross

By August 1942 the situation in Malta was desperate. The arrival of the battered remains of the convoy Operation Pedestal on the 13th August was ascribed by the inhabitants to a miracle, interceded by the Virgin, on whose Feast of the Assumption it occurred.

All over the world people had followed the resistance of the islanders and those trying to bring aid by sea and air. In April 1942 King George VI, in a dramatic and unprecedented gesture, conferred the George Cross on the tiny Mediterranean island. The award was made in a letter dated 15th April 1942 from His Majesty to the Governor of Malta, Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie GCMG KCB DSO, which read as follows:

"To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history."

The population received the honour to recognise their courage under sustained enemy attacks during World War II. Malta - Britain's "unsinkable aircraft carrier" - was of vital importance to the Allied war effort. Its people endured air raids and a naval blockade which almost saw them starved into submission.

Operation Pedestal 
August 9th 1942
Ted Logan

Dark red smoke stack with a bright white strip
Emblazoned blue star powering through ‘The Rip.’
The ‘Melbourne Star’ with its cargo of meat –
The pride of the ‘Blue Star’ merchant fleet;
Housing passengers in style, a versatile freighter
With comfortable cabins – and refrigerator!
All of this of course, was just before
The world descended into war.
The Hitler holocaust, and his macabre dance
In jackboots through Austria and France.
Thus the Merchant Navy had a greater role,
With winning the war its crucial goal.
Malta is just south of Sicily
A fortress set in a silvery sea,
Guarding the sea-lanes to the East
As threats to the Suez Canal increased.
Keeping Malta supplied was the mission
With food and fuel and ammunition.
Malta was under siege so hardship was rife
With aerial bombardment and uncertain life.
There were two Malta convoys, and nothing loathe
The ‘Melbourne Star’ was important to both,
Loaded to the ‘gunnels’ with foodstuffs and fuel,
Ammunition for guns and spare parts renewal.
Code-name Pedestal – the second convoy,
Sailed into a fire fight – search and destroy;
Fourteen freighters with naval escort
Proceeded through this fiery onslaught;
The ‘Melbourne Star’ without any hassle,
The ‘Brisbane Star’, the ‘Rochester Castle.’

This was Captain MacFarlane’s claim:-
“The sea was one searing sheet of flame!”
He had to steer the ‘Melbourne Star’ through,
As the blaze swept over his entire crew.
The wooden lifeboats were scorched and charred,
The ship’s paintwork blistered and scarred.
Churchill decreed, “Though ships might be lost,
Malta be saved, no matter the cost.”
The ‘Eagle’ was sunk, half-wrecked the ‘Victorious.’
But thirty-five Spitfires were flown off the ‘Furious’
To augment the Island’s aircraft defence,
War being won, situation still tense.
E boats and U boats and aerial assault
Had nearly brought ‘Pedestal’ to a halt.
Of the merchant ships only five survived
And into the Malta safe haven arrived.
The vital oil tanker, the ‘Ohio,’
Was one of these brought in under tow.
The ships were unloaded and cargoes were stored
In underground catacombs – a precious hoard.
Away from possible air strikes or strafe
Accessible as needed, as listed and safe.
‘Ohio’s’ aircraft fuel safely now found
Was syphoned off into tanks underground.
So Malta survived its ordeal by fire
With courage and fortitude much to admire;
Honoured by the King with a rare citation –
A George Cross Award for the entire nation,
Continuing to fill its role and resources
As a half-way home base for the Allied Forces.

The reproduction of the above Poem is Subject to 'Copyright' Laws

'Merchant Ships of Operation Pedestal'

Home Page