Eyewitnesses in Malta World War II 1939 - 1945
These eyewitness accounts cover stories that do not appear in books about the Second World War in Malta, but are a record of the true personal experiences of men who served on the island.
I will always remember that mad, exciting morning of the 11th June 1940 in Malta. I was then a Corporal, a pre-war regular, in the Motor Transport Section of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and on that day as the Siege of Malta began I was living and working in our M.T. garage, in St. Andrews Barracks. My regiment, like the other troops in Malta, had moved out to their defence positions a month before when it was realized Italy was coming in to the war. Which she did the night before - 10th June 1940. We had 'Stand To' at dawn, and after 'Stand Down' had returned to our garage. We were still in battle order, when at 7 a.m. the sirens started howling 'Air Raid Warning', as the Italian Air Force flew in to attack Malta. In our first ever air raid we heard the roar of A.A. guns and the crash of bombs, in a rolling thunder, sounding closer and closer to us.
Our Sergeant, Billy STRAWBRIDGE, roared out over the terrible din, "Double over to the slit trenches and stand by". As one man, we raced across to the slit trenches 200 yards away, led by Fusilier 'Popeye' BYRNE, a small man. As he ran he approached a piece of masonry - five feet high. Popeye paused for a second, then an A.A. Battery 400 yards away opened up with a shattering crash. Popeye with a startled shout bounded over this high obstacle, as though it was nothing and continued his run. An amazing jump for a small man. When we reached the slit trenches and stood by, ready to dive if the bombs came any closer, I stared at Popeye with admiration and prayed that he would be picked to represent Ireland in the post war Olympics, in the high jump.
As we stood there, gazing up at the Italian bombers in the distance, silver specks in the blue skies, we suddenly heard the thunder of planes behind us. Turning around, to our utter amazement, we saw three old biplanes Gloster Gladiators racing towards us. There was a shattering roar as they dived over St. Andrews, a flash of silvery wings in the golden sunlight and they were gone. Three gallant pilots in their ancient machines, flying across Malta to challenge the Italian Air Force. We gazed after them, in wonder, as they dwindled into the distance. 'Faith', 'Hope' and 'Charity' as they flew away into history. Their fame still lives on and I remember them, on that sun-drenched morning in Malta, so many, many long years ago.
In February 1941, I was still in the M.T. Section, Royal Irish Fusiliers, driving my truck around Malta, on various duties and on this day had called into our garage in St. Andrews Barracks for spares. During this Spring the Germans had now joined the Italians, in a terrible Blitz against Malta. The whole island rocked and shuddered under this terrible dive-bombing and low level attacks from the air. I was standing in an open space outside our garage with the M.T. Officer, Captain McCOMAS, and we were gazing skywards at a dog-fight between a R.A.F. Hurricane and a CR.42 Italian fighter.
The Hurricane cut above the Italian and poured a hail of machine gun fire into him. The CR.42 burst into flames and with smoke pouring from it, it spun down on one wing tip, in a great circle over St. Andrews Barracks. As it spun on its last circle, the M.T. Officer and I realised it was heading direct for us with its engine roaring at full blast. We flung ourselves flat and the blazing plane was about to crash on us, when, as if by a miracle, it lifted about 8 feet or so and screamed over us to crash 100 yards away, in a mass of black smoke and fire. Debris rained around us, but did not hit us. Captain McCOMAS and I picked ourselves up, stunned by our amazing escape. I still shudder when I remember it.
In April 1942 Malta was again suffering terribly in the great Blitz as hundreds of German and Italian bombers plastered the island, day after day, to knock it out of action and enable Rommel to continue his drive into Egypt. In this terrible time, I was now a Sergeant in the M.T. Section.
Petrol was now strictly rationed, but this day I had to drive my Company Commander, Major EGERTON from our H.Q. at Naxxar to Ta Kali airfield, where our regiment was working filling in bomb craters, building pens, etc. At the edge of the airfield he went off, ordering me to wait for him. I suddenly realised with horror that I was out of petrol. So, picking up a petrol tin I walked over to the R.A.F. Stores where they kindly gave me a gallon of petrol and I started back to my car an Austin 6.
Suddenly I saw everyone dropping their tools and running for cover as a wave of fighters attacked the airfield, once again. I flung myself flat, close to a bombed out hut as bombs crashed around me. I pressed myself closer to the ground, as a bomb screamed down and exploded close to me. By some strange freak the blast from it came at me in an angle from the wall of the bombed hut and it felt like a wet cloth smashed against my face. I was completely knocked out for ten minutes. When I recovered, the air attack was over and I felt fine.
I walked over to my car, which was surrounded by bomb craters. I put the petrol in and drove rather shaken to our First Aid Post. On the airfield I was given a cup of hot sweet tea. Major EGERTON found me here an hour later. As I drove him back to Naxxar we were both discussing the queer behaviour of blast. Instead of killing me it had only knocked me out. I was bombed many times during the Siege, but this had been the closest I had come to death.
It was in May 1942 the Spitfires had arrived and were shooting down German and Italian bombers all over the island. On this day, I was driving my truck along the coast road, when l stopped and watched a Spitfire shoot down a Messerschmitt in flames. The pilot baled out and his parachute landed in a field close by. I grabbed my rifle from the truck and ran across the field to capture him. He landed and undid his parachute whilst I covered him with my rifle. He smiled, bowed and handed over his Luger. I marched him up to my truck. As he spoke good English we talked about life in general. He said, "The only way to take Malta is to sink it". Just then, two Military Police came along and I handed him over to them. We parted in friendship. As he left, I opened my rifle and to my horror it was not loaded. I had captured a German airman with an empty rifle. What would he have done had he known? We will never know.
(The Eyewitness was R.S.M. John Kelly, M.B.E., D.C.M., B.A., Royal Irish Fusiliers)
At Chatham Barracks, otherwise known as HMS Pembroke, I was in residence awaiting the call from the Drafting Office to inform me about my next ship, year 1938. I had come from a 'stone' frigate, HMS Vernon where I had qualified as Seaman Torpedo-man. It wasn't long before the call came from the Drafting Office - I, with quite a few others, was going to HMS Woolwich. She was in Malta and to get there we also had a job of work to do. The 'work' was lying at anchor at Sheerness, three North Sea fishing vessels adapted for mine sweeping and we had to get them to Malta.
Newspapers at that time were headlining about the clouds of war gathering over Europe and these three little ships were part of the build-up. They were coal burning and we had our first taste of coaling a ship out of barges brought alongside. Everyone was involved, each had a basket which was filled, then up one little gangplank, tip the coal down a hole, then down the other little gangplank to refill until the bunker was full. My only previous experience of coal was on HMS Torrid at Portland, a survivor from the First World War; she was 800 tons, had three funnels and our mess deck was heated by a round coal burning stove, but as we always tied up alongside the coaling jetty it was not a big problem.
Our sailing date was delayed by a most unusual event, a suicide. Then on sailing we picked up some really vile weather in the Channel, which slowed us down so we were another 24 hours late. We coaled the ship and had a run ashore at Plymouth, the next leg was to Gibraltar where we followed the same routine and then the final leg to Malta. There was a little reception party on our arrival in Dockyard Creek, Malta.
The usual dockyard workers to tie us up, a few civilians and a few Naval men. A voice called to me "Frank, someone to see you", out on the deck was 'Shortie' - he was an Able Seaman in his 30's going through the slow process of regaining the Good Conduct badges which had been taken from him. I had been a shipmate of his on HMS Torrid at Portland. He had been involved in the Mutiny of Invergordon in 1930, and had his Good Conduct badges taken from him, which did not worry him at all, but he was upset at having his World War I medals taken as well. He was an excellent seaman but pretty hopeless at coming back on board on time and here he was, to be my shipmate and pal once again. A couple of years later he and many of his ship went down in the Med.
To me the HMS Woolwich was a big ship, what was known as a Mother Ship, carrying practically all that the destroyers could ever need. We did the Med. Cruises, took part in War Exercises and in the Annual Regattas. My promotion to Leading Seaman came through, then later I sat the exam and passed for Petty Officer; I had to mend my own ways a bit then !
Life was pretty straightforward apart from an incident in Northern Italy involving an Italian flag; I just happened to be the senior rating around and took the can. I wondered later if this was the reason why, when they needed someone for H.M.B.D.V., I was sent for and told to be ready the following morning to join her.
A motor cutter took me from Sliema Creek round to Grand Harbour and alongside the little vessel at permanent anchor inside the breakwaters. At that time her complement was the Boatswain (the C.O.), one Seaman P.O. and myself, one Chief Engineer, one Artificer, two Stoker POs, one Stoker and two Signalmen. Our job was to operate the boom defence if and when war came.
The defence consisted of two gates, the A.B. (anti boat) and the A.T. (anti torpedo). At this period all was very easy going so the C.O. arranged on a few occasions for me to go to the Dockyard, borrow the Picket Boat and take a bathing party to Gozo; this made a change for us. Sometimes on a Saturday afternoon I would take our little skiff out to the breakwater, put my little squares of cork with catgut attached over the side and let the breeze drift them in, when one started bobbing up and down I had caught a fish. Later on I was to change my mind about eating fish out of Grand Harbour !
Attached to the ship we had a Maltese boatman, 'Chico' was his name and when he first saw me there he said "I know you, HMS Dauntless 1934-1935". He was a great little man and we were very good friends.
Then in September it all happened and everything changed. A quote from Times of Malta, Monday 4th September 1939 "At War with Germany".
Our complement now increased with Maltese Seamen and Stokers; we all went into two watches, 24 hours on, then 24 hours off. Our little Bridge House contained three phones, one to the underground Operations Room, one to HMS St. Angelo the fort where the Admiral and his staff and the barracks for the Maltese section of the Navy were, the third to the Harbour Police.
The Boom Defence now played its full role, only opened up when something was coming in or going out. Those three small fishing vessels we had brought were now playing the daily role of being let out to sweep the known channel.
The convoy system was now in full swing, we got to know the voices on the phone from the Operations Room and the men operating the winches in the breakwater at Ricasoli and the rock face at St. Elmo steps where we had to land to go ashore. I had been made up to Petty Officer which came much quicker than it would have done in peacetime.
June 11th 1940. Commenced hostilities with Italy. We had raids every day, the bombers were so high in the sky it was a job to spot them, on doing so you could see what looked like tiny glistening balls fall out just for a second, then lose sight and pick up sound which grew louder, then the landing and explosion. Raids carried on daily, then on the 20th June we had our first nighttime raids, four in number.
We had found there was a bonus attached to air raids; those bombs which fell in the sea stunned fish, the size of which I had never thought existed. It gave us fish meals, also allowed the Maltese to take fish home to their families. Later, when times became far more hectic, we suffered breakages on the ship, a couple of times an empty gallon rum jar was conveniently cracked, covered with a couple of tots to give the appropriate smell, and a full one was ours to have an extra tot at times !
One Sunday morning in the early weeks I was on watch and had to open the boom to let in a small convoy. On closing it appeared to be caught, the winch houses were ringing up to say they had troubles. I told them to ease off gradually and we would see what happened. Now the boom was trying to make it's way up harbour then back to the breakwaters and carried on like that. I rang all the authorities and said I thought we had a submarine in the nets. The results were not very good; they just could not believe that a sub could get through our minefields outside the harbour without being detected. "Give me the picket boat with some small charges", I said, but she did not have steam raised. We were told the minesweepers (those same three little vessels) would be sent out as soon as they had raised steam. We had the excitement but seemed to be getting nowhere. At last the order was given, 'Open the boom, let the sweepers out'. I did, and at the same time let the sub out. Her Commander must have been a brave man but also a lucky one. The sweepers found nothing and that was the end of that.
The raids continued night and day, affecting our Maltese shipmates as they never knew what they would find at their homes after their 24 hours on duty. On our wireless we could tune in to listen to RAF Headquarters talking to the pilots of Faith, Hope and Charity fame, our Gladiator defenders. I will never forget a pilot shouting at an Italian, "Bale out you silly bastard, bale out" - he had just shot him down.
Things ashore were beginning to show a few shortages, nothing much at this stage. My opposite number in my watch and myself had taken a flat ashore for our off duty 24 hours, and so had the other pair. We could still get beer and the obliging young woman.
The New Year 1941 brought an increase in the number of raids and the numbers taking part in them. The dive bombers were enthralling to watch, they came in formation, peeled off like a lot of falling leaves, screamed down horizontally then had to come out low our way, our guns then came into operation. Several finished up in the sea outside the breakwater. Whether they had been wounded before they got to us or whether we had made the kill I don't know, but we liked to think the latter. We had quiet periods, sometimes for a week or so, welcomed by all, especially the population on shore; although they could dig into the sandstone rock to make safe shelters life became extremely tough. There was a shelter which came out into a hole in the rocks opposite us. Quite often the women who sheltered there and could see us told us when we went ashore "We pray for you each night".
1st May 1941 : Three years ago today I left England.
The dropping of the mines had intensified, we had been fitted with bearing plates which enabled us to take their bearing and judge the distance where they would drop in the harbour. It had now been recognised these were magnetic mines, so those little wooden sweepers were fixed to tow a large wooden barge with a big magnetic coil on it, that gave better results. But they went over two or three times when we said one had dropped and thought we had got it wrong. The first to prove us right was the sinking of HMS Jersey just inside the breakwater. It was amazing the boats and small craft which came to help in no time. Some of the crew climbed down ropes from the fo'c'sle and never even got their feet wet, for many others it was very different.
Then the mooring vessel came out to do a job of work on the boom and she blew up. It was then realised that these mines were set to a number, so many could pass over safely but the next was doomed. Also, those that dropped on land and didn't explode had their booby traps. One which landed on the rocks where we had to land to go ashore was an invitation to a couple of children to have the parachute as a souvenir, the explosion was terrific.
We had the problem of bodies coming up from the sunken ships; at first we would go out in our skiff and tow these bloated bodies back to the ship, then ring the Harbour Police. But it became too big a job for us so we turned it over entirely to the Harbour Police. I realised during this period that fish had been attacking the bodies; I never again appreciated that which could be picked up for nothing after a raid.
26th May 1941. After having messed around the elements seem to have worsened again. The day we were ready for leaving up blows a wonderful 'Gregale' and we had the lovely experience of a mine drifting straight for us and no boat to abandon ship with as our own skiff had sunk during the night. But by God's good grace it drifted calmly by a few yards ahead of us. It was sunk by our rifle fire.
We now carried on our job from the shore, phones were fitted up in the winch-house. During the night our four hours off were spent in the open on a camp bed on the little jetty. Several months later I finished up in Imtarfa Hospital with pleural effusion. The hospital was staffed by Naval doctors, Naval sisters (whom we called the petticoat government) and two very pretty Maltese V.A.Ds. I joined HMS Euryalus and left the Island within a couple of days, and we finished up on the Clyde.
(The Eyewitness was Able Seaman Francis Hounsome, C/JX135323, Royal Navy)
At the outbreak of the 1939 to 1945 War I was serving as a Sapper with the 24th Fortress Company, Royal Engineers, stationed in Lintorn Barracks, Floriana, Malta. It was not until June, 1940, that we in Malta were really aware that we were at War, as life on the Island went on as normal, except that we were engaged on strengthening the Island's defences for possible invasion.
It was at this time that Italy decided to enter the war by joining forces with the Germans and Sicily being only 60 miles from Malta it was inevitable that Malta would in some manner come under attack especially as the German supply convoys to North Africa were suffering heavy losses by bombers based in Malta. This proved only too true and on the morning of the 11th June 1940, we had our first air raid.
On the 12th June 1940, our Company paraded at 8.30 a.m. and the men had been detailed for various working parties and I had been instructed to work with a Sapper SCOTT and a Sapper McDONALD erecting gas curtains to all the doors and windows of the Quarter Masters Stores. It was a dirty and most boring job, working with rolls of heavy black cloth the dye of which came off and made our overalls, faces and hands filthy. However it was a job that was most necessary and had to be done.
However just after 9 a.m. Sergeant Major ROBINSON came to the Quarter Master's Stores and after a brief chat with the Quarter Master came over to us and said. "I am looking for three volunteers for a dangerous job. What about it you three ?" We looked at one another, none of us eager to reply without knowing the nature of this dangerous job. After a noticeable silence Sapper SCOTT said "What is this dangerous job Sir ?" The Sergeant Major said " Digging out an unexploded bomb over at Sliema, it was dropped during that first air raid". After giving the matter some thought Sapper SCOTT said "I'll go" Sapper McDONALD looked at me, hesitated and then said "All right, I'll go" To be honest I wasn't at all keen to volunteer but couldn't bear the thought of being branded a coward so I replied "I'll go"
The Sergeant Major then went on to point out to us that all the Bomb Disposal Units were made up of volunteers, and that was because of the danger attached to the work and we would be the first of a larger Bomb Disposal Section which would be formed at a later date. Having all volunteered we were taken to The Company Office where we were introduced to Sergeant KING who was to be in charge of us during this operation. I already knew Sergeant KING having first met him at Brompton Barracks, Chatham, when I was a recruit and he was the Provost Sergeant at the Barracks during my initial training. He was a tall upright man with a pleasant and jovial disposition. He was well liked but a very strict disciplinarian.
As for the rest of the Section, Sapper SCOTT was a tall thin lad of about 22 years of age. He sported a very large handlebar moustache. He was an ex-boy cadet from Chepstow, and he had adopted the old school tie accent. He had little time for Military discipline but under the circumstances was prepared to accept it. He was a joker, prankster and a drinker, but for all that he was a jolly good chap.
Sapper McDONALD was in some ways entirely different to Sapper SCOTT, he was short and stocky with broad shoulders. As his name indicates he was a Scotsman and as such he was a whisky drinker. He had a good sense of humour and was a good worker, and when given a job to do would do it well. He was well liked in the Company.
Then there was myself. I had just celebrated my 20th birthday on the 11th April 1940, and weighing a healthy 12 stone 4 lbs. I was a keen amateur boxer, played rugby for the Company team and was a reasonably good athlete, mainly in field events and like the others I liked a drink which was not unusual as the climate was hot, reaching 95 degrees in June, July and August. We were all single and in our early twenties with me being the youngest.
Whilst in the Company Office we had a visit by Major JACOBS, the Officer Commanding the 24th Fortress Company, known to us as 'Leggy JACOBS' when he wasn't around because of a noticeable limp in his left leg. He briefed us on the operation by telling us that the unexploded bomb was located in Rudolph Street, Sliema. It did not appear to be a large bomb by the size of the hole in the roadway, and the civilian Police had already evacuated the area.
After we had collected the necessary tools and equipment and a 30 cwt lorry we were to report to Sliema Police Station where we would be met by a Captain Jephson JONES, and Lieutenant William EASTMAN, both of the Royal Army Ordinance Corps, who would be the Officers in Charge of the whole operation. This was because at that time we had no Royal Engineer Officers qualified in Bomb Disposal work. After our briefing Major JACOBS thanked us for undertaking the job and wished us luck.
Outside, Sergeant KING instructed me to go to the cookhouse and collect our rations which had already been prepared and meet him at the Guardroom at 9.45 a.m. In the meantime he would take the other two Sappers and get the lorry and tools from the Quarter Masters Stores. Tools included pickaxes, shovels, crowbars, sandbags, planks, shoring posts, motorised water-pumps, ropes, lashings; Toolbox containing a varied selection of spanners, screwdrivers, pliers, hammers, 71b and 141b sledgehammers, field telephones and reels of cable, rubber gloves and rubber boots.
The tools and equipment checked, I was picked up outside the Guardroom at 10 a.m. and we moved off to Sliema, arriving at Sliema Police Station at 10.30 a.m. We were eagerly awaited and met by Police Sergeant ORR who told us that Captain JONES and Lieutenant EASTMAN had not yet arrived but he had in fact supervised the evacuation of all the residents within a 400 yard area around the bomb and the area had been cordoned off and officers posted at various points. In fact everything had been done in order that we could start work as soon as possible.
At 10.45 a.m. Lieutenant EASTMAN arrived and introduced himself to us. I was surprised that he was such a young man but found that he was a pleasant and jovial person to work with. After introductions he said, "We will drive round to Rudolph Street, and leave the lorry 100 yards from where the bomb is and walk to the location and have a look at the job".
We all walked down Rudolph Street which was about 300 yards long, to where the bomb was located and found a hole in the road, 3 feet out from the South side pavement, about one foot in diameter quite neat around the edges. You could see down the hole for a distance of about 18 inches and then it was broken sandstone. We all felt there was a smell of explosive but none of us was sure about this.
Lieutenant EASTMAN suggested that we first marked the centre of the hole with a marker post. He felt that this was a 250 lb or 500 lb bomb. He then instructed us exactly how we were to excavate. Open up a hole 5 feet square, digging with sandbag covered spades, removing as much of the rubble as possible with gloved hands. Only two men would work in the hole until we got down to a depth of 3 feet. On reaching a depth of 3 feet, only one man would work in the hole but he would keep in touch with the rest of the team by field telephone; on finding any trace of the bomb Lieutenant EASTMAN was to be informed and we were to await further instructions from him.
Police Sergeant ORR informed us that a local barkeeper had left a case of 24 bottles of beer for us which was promptly brought down to where we were working. It was a very hot June day and the beer was most appreciated and almost consumed by lunchtime, however we had a second case of beer brought to us during the afternoon.
It was 11.30 a.m. when we started digging. We stripped off to the waist and were wearing khaki shorts, stockings and boots - our normal summer dress. After breaking the surface of the road with pickaxes and getting through the first six inches of hard-core we found the ground below was easier to get out. The hessian sandbags we were using on the shovels were in fact a waste of time and in consequence of this they were soon removed. We were able to remove the compacted sandstone with crowbars and shovels working all the time with care and caution removing a lot of the rubble with our gloved hands.
During the first hour of digging Sergeant KING was replaced by our own Corporal BREWER, a burly, likeable man whom we all knew very well.
Lieutenant EASTMAN left the site at 12.30 p.m. with strict instructions that should we find any trace of the bomb we were to stop working and await his return. He also told us not to go deeper than 3 feet and we were to break for lunch at 1 p.m. and named a cafe some distance away which had offered to supply us with a hot meal and beer refreshment.
By 1 p.m. we had reached a depth of about 18 inches and called a halt for lunch. Corporal BREWER called in the stand-by Police Constable to keep guard over the hole until we returned. We found the cafe some 400 yards from where we were working and sat down to a hot meal of sausages and chips with peas followed by apple pie and custard with as much beer as we wanted all provided free. It appears that several of the local inhabitants had been round and made a collection of money to provide us with the meal and the beer.
I did notice that during the meal and for that matter for the whole time that we had been digging we had all been very quiet, none of the constant chatter normally noticeable when Sappers are at work. I was tensed up to the point of being frightened and I did not relish the job at all. I suspected that the rest of the lads felt the same, but something none of us would admit. At 2 p.m. we all returned to the excavation after giving thanks to the proprietor of the cafe and to the local inhabitants for their generosity in providing our meal.
Off came our khaki shirts and stripped to the waist we continued our digging. By this time the sun was at its highest and it was extremely hot and we were perspiring freely, probably also because of the beer we had consumed.
By 3 p.m. we had got down to a depth of 3 feet and had found nothing, so we stopped work as we had been instructed. We sat on the pavement consumed a bottle of beer and a cigarette and during this welcome break Lieutenant EASTMAN returned. Under his guidance we pressed on with the digging except from now on only one man worked down the hole in spells of just 15 minutes each man, the remainder some 50 yards away. Lieutenant EASTMAN stayed at the hole and kept in touch with Corporal BREWER by field telephone reporting to him exactly what we were doing and our progress.
During my spell in the hole I found that the bomb had severed a sewer pipe and raw sewage was seeping into the hole. It didn't smell very nice and the earth was wet. However on exposing the sewer pipe we plugged it with sandbags which stopped the flow of sewage into the hole.
By 4 p.m. we had reached a depth of 4 feet 6 inches and exposed the fins of the bomb. Work stopped and Lieutenant EASTMAN went into the hole by himself and completely uncovered the fins of the bomb and lifted them out of the hole. He called all the Squad to see the fins and explained to us that it was in fact a 250 lb bomb. The fins had been damaged somewhat on entry into the ground but none the less they were all in one piece. From here on we carried on digging with much more care.
At a depth of 5 feet it was found that the bomb had altered its course slightly but not so much as to cause us much concern. We carried on digging until the light began to fade and Lieutenant EASTMAN decided that we should finish for the day. The time was then 9 p.m. Whilst we were getting cleaned up and collecting our tools and consuming the remainder of the beer Lieutenant EASTMAN told us that we should locate the bomb the next day and it should be a straight forward job to defuse it and make it safe.
We loaded up the tools and covered the hole with a tarpaulin sheet, anchored it down and placed red hurricane lamps around the hole. Whilst we were doing this Lieutenant EASTMAN informed Police Sergeant ORR that the area was to remain out of bounds to all the local inhabitants overnight and we would return the next day and start work at 9 a.m.
We returned to Floriana Barracks, had a bath and changed into clean clothes before going over to the cookhouse for a meal and afterwards we were just in time to go to the canteen for a glass of beer. I might add that the lads were not so quiet as they had been whilst digging for that bomb. However I was very tired and left them in the canteen drinking whilst I went to bed. I had a good nights sleep and woke up in the morning full of apprehension and nervousness and not looking forward to the day ahead.
We set off for Sliema at 8.30 a.m. without the usual routine of parading and met Lieutenant EASTMAN at 9 a.m. as previously arranged and we lost no time in making a start. We removed the red hurricane lamps and tarpaulin. It was a beautiful sunny day and the sun was bearing down on us from over the rooftops. The routine was the same as the previous day. Lieutenant EASTMAN at the top of the hole with the field telephone reporting our every movement and progress to Corporal BREWER and the rest of the Squad whilst one man worked in the hole for 15 minutes and was then relieved by another man. By lunchtime we had reached a depth of 6 feet and were able to see the base end of the bomb and from which protruded the blades of a brass propeller about 5 inches across.
Lieutenant EASTMAN called all the Squad to the hole and pointed out to us the base of the bomb and the propeller protruding from the base. He explained that the propeller we could see should have been extracted from the bomb as it came down from the aircraft since this would release the firing pin to strike the detonator on impact with the ground. This was fortunate for it indicated that with the propeller in place it could not fire the detonator and we could assume that the bomb was in fact safe but we should take no chances.
Somewhat relieved we continued in fact we soon found that the actual bomb had split open and was in five separate pieces. At this point we stopped for lunch placing a policeman on guard. We all went to the cafe we had visited the day before and again had a hot meal of bacon eggs and chips followed by tinned fruit and ice cream with a couple of bottles of beer. Again the meal was free and greatly appreciated.
After lunch I was to spend the first 15 minutes in the hole and with Lieutenant EASTMAN and we managed to remove the five pieces of the bomb and the explosive content which we placed at the top of the hole and re-constructed it to make sure we had the whole bomb. He was quite satisfied and called the rest of the Squad to examine it for future reference. The explosive found in the bomb was T.N.T. which had obviously been poured into the bomb in liquid form and had set into a solid mass. It was in fact an Italian 250 lb bomb. The first unexploded bomb to land on Malta which we dug out successfully.
For the remainder of the afternoon we cleared up the site, left the hole open in order that repairs could be carried out on the damaged sewer pipe and loaded our tools and equipment together with the pieces of the bomb and the explosive. We had been invited down to Tony's Bar on the seafront for a few drinks which the local inhabitants had treated us to in appreciation of our work.
We all enjoyed the drinks in Tony's Bar and we were surprised by the attention the local people in Sliema showed us. They clapped and shouted their thanks and they were so joyful that the bomb had been removed with no mishaps. They had gathered outside of Tony's Bar just to see and thank the Sappers for their work. We for our part were very pleased and relieved and at 7 p.m. we said goodbye to Lieutenant EASTMAN and thanked him for his guidance over the past two days.
On our arrival at Floriana Barracks, we parked the lorry in the Motor Transport Yard, went for a bath and a clean change of clothing and then a hot meal at the cookhouse. I was feeling very tired and had an early night in bed.
The following morning Corporal BREWER contacted us and told us to be at the Motor Transport Yard at 10 a.m. On our arrival we were met by Major JACOBS, our Commanding Officer, and our Sergeant Major, who were there to see the bomb. This was shown to them but we told them that the tail end of the bomb still contained the detonator and fusing device which was to be removed by Lieutenant EASTMAN later in the day. Major JACOBS thanked us for our work on the project and told us that our Bomb Disposal Squad was to be enlarged to 12 men and was to become No. 25 Bomb Disposal Section. Later that day Lieutenant EASTMAN instructed us how to destroy the detonator of the bomb with a small explosive charge.
A letter to the 'Times of Malta' newspaper:
16th June 1940
To the Editor
I, on behalf of the People living in the area of St. Charles Street, and Rudolph Street, should like to thank through the medium of your paper, the Officers and men, also Police Sergeant Orr, for the excellent work carried out without thought for their own safety in not only removing the unexploded bomb from the said area, but also for the excellent morale instilled into the inhabitants under such trying conditions.
I should like to thank the Officers and men of the Royal Engineers concerned, for the work done under trying circumstances.
I cannot express myself in words, but I on behalf of the inhabitants of this area, once again thank them from the bottom of my heart.
The Chief Engineer wishes to add his congratulations to the above report.
As an established member of No. 25 Bomb Disposal Section I was to work with this Section for a further 18 months in which time I was involved in the digging and defusing and rendering safe over 50 enemy bombs ranging from enemy anti-personnel mines, Thermos types and Butterfly types, to 250 pounders, 500 pounders, 1000 pounders and two 2000 pounders, and strange as it may seem I did not ever get involved with another Italian bomb.
In all the German bombs the fuse numbers were a significant indication of our ability to determine our prospects of survival. Generally speaking the fuses numbered 15, 25, 35, and 55 were considered reasonably safe to defuse as they were impact fuses and it was an indication that the bomb aimers in the enemy aircraft had failed to switch through the electric current to the bomb fuses before leaving the aircraft, which rendered it a waste of time dropping them as they couldn't explode.
A 17 fuse indicated that it was a delayed action fuse which was a dicey one to deal with, and a 27 fuse meant there was an anti- withdrawal device attached, which meant that by removing the fuse from the bomb it would automatically set off a further fuse underneath it. These bombs, we used to blow up on site or if in a built up area, take them away and explode them on open land.
During my time on Bomb Disposal we lost five men, one Officer, and four Sappers. The Officer and two Sappers were killed when they tried to recover an Italian conical shaped sea mine, and the other two Sappers in dealing with anti-personnel mines. I have since considered myself very lucky as a Bomb Disposal man's life expectancy was three to six months.
(The Eyewitness was R.H. Walter MM, 24th Fortress Company, Royal Engineers)
s.s. EMPIRE SONG
Whilst reading the War Diaries of 190 Battery Royal Artillery the name of s.s. Empire Song stared me in the face, for it was the same ship which almost took myself and others to a watery grave in May 1941.
We were in convoy outward bound to Alexandria, part of the convoy was for Malta but not the s.s. Empire Song. I was a Lance Corporal in the 8th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment and it was on the s.s. Empire Song that the entire battle equipment of the 8th Royal Tank Regiment had been loaded at Glasgow, bound for North Africa. There were seven Royal Tank Regiment N.C.O.'s and one Officer aboard as escort duties.
The Empire Song was armed on this convoy with a 4" Gun mounted at the stern, and on the Port and Starboard Bridge wings were mounted two 'Harvey Rocket Projectiles', the likes of which I had never seen before or since and would never ever like to fire one again. Not knowing what destruction it caused to any enemy aircraft but I do know what damage it caused where it was sited. On the one and only time I fired one of these it badly injured one Merchant Navy Officer, it bent the bridge wing guard rails to seaward and melted the pitch in the bridge decking.
We also had four tanks lashed on deck, these were armed and were to be used against submarine and low flying aircraft, so the Empire Song was not defenceless. She also had paravanes mounted and strung out for mine cutting.
And so it happened, one hell of an explosion on the port side just off the bow. The seven of us R.T.R. personnel were asleep in the paint store in the bow at deck level.
I was blown out through the open door and sent headlong on my stomach to finish up at the bottom of the steps leading to the bridge, here I received a head wound of which I was unaware of at the time. Then the second explosion came, this also on the port side. By now the ship had taken on a slight list to port, the first officer came from the bridge and partly removed one of the forward covers to discover the hold was on fire. As stated we were loaded with Tanks, Lorries and Ammunition, so we had a problem. The ship slowed down and was still making headway but the list was increasing.
The two starboard lifeboats could not be launched because these were swinging inboard due to the port list, it had been attempted to launch one port side boat and it was hanging stern first in the water. This left one boat which was duly launched and quickly filled. The Captain had given orders to 'abandon ship' but called for volunteers to stay aboard to keep the ship afloat and make for Malta. This action by the way was taking place off Pantellaria and the seven of us stayed aboard and took up fire drill duties.
Two hours after the second explosion conditions on board were getting worse, smoke was pouring out from the hold ventilators and the pitch in the decking planks were starting to melt. The list had increased and the order 'Abandon Ship' was given. The list was so great that we didn't have to jump but we just slipped into the sea with our Life Jackets on of course and we switched on our little red lights so that we could be located for pick up. Our main objective was to swim as far away from the ship as possible, this we did and luckily for us we had done so for in a huge explosion the s.s. Empire Song blew apart and went down in flame and steam.
Then we saw them, two grey shadowy hulks slowly circling where the ship had gone down and it wasn't long before they saw us and closed in. They were drifting in towards us and we could now see the scramble nets being lowered over the side and shortly afterwards we were scrambling up to be grabbed by two matelots and flung onto the deck of HMS Foresight and the other ship HMS Fortune.
We headed full steam for Malta followed by part of the Italian Air Force who were strafing and bombing two 'F' Class ships. We made it to Valletta but not without casualties to some of the naval crew members. And that is how I came to be stationed on the island of Malta for a while.
(The Eyewitness was Lance Corporal G.R. Myers, 8th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment)
At the commencement of the War HMS Foresight was attached to the Home Fleet where we continued operations until February 1941 when we joined Force H. at Gibraltar under the command of Admiral Somerville.
Our operations in the Mediterranean commenced and were to feature Malta on many of our trips until we were eventually sunk on the Pedestal (Santa Maria) Convoy in August 1942.
We carried out most of the escort trips when the Aircraft Carriers were flying off Hurricanes and Spitfires to Malta and also supply convoys. Operation Tiger stands out in my memory was the one when we were ordered to go to the assistance of the Merchant Ship 'Empire Song'.
The incident occurred during daylight hours when she had struck a mine and as we arrived we could hear ammunition or something exploding inside her. Officers and Crew were immediately taken off her and HMS Foresight then withdrew to a safe distance and waited. One must remember the Empire Song was a large Merchant Ship loaded with ammunition and war material for Malta and to lose her would be quite a loss.
HMS Foresight waited for a period of time until the noise of exploding ammunition etc., had subsided and until all seemed quiet. The Empire Song Officers decided to re-board their vessel and try to sail her into Malta. HMS Foresight approached the stricken vessel and lowered her sea-boat to take the Empire Song Officers back to their ship.
The sea was reasonably calm as the sea-boat approached the jumping ladder previously lowered over the 'Empire Song's' side and just as the first Officer was about to step on the ladder, the ship gave one almighty roar and blew up, taking all her cargo to the bottom of the Mediterranean.
The fortunate part of this episode was that HMS Foresight being close to the Empire Song, most of the heavy deck cargo was blown right over us, but we did sustain some damage. I believe a Bren Gun Carrier bounced on top of our torpedo tubes and then into the sea. At a later inspection we found that one of our torpedoes was stuck in the tube due to a dent made by the Bren Gun Carrier.
Miraculously, as far as I can remember no lives were lost as even the sea-boat passengers who were thrown into the water with the blast, none were lost. The only casualty as I know was one of the sea-boat's crew, an Able Seaman, who was supporting a Stoker in the water after the explosion. It was not until we had picked him up about half an hour later that we discovered our A.B. had lost his leg in the explosion. The sailor in question was Albert HOWARTH and he was awarded the Albert Medal.
HMS Foresight rejoined the convoy and instead of returning as usual with Force H. We were ordered to proceed with the convoy to Malta and have our damage sustained during the Empire Song episode repaired. During the passage through the Straits on the last night before our arrival in Malta we were attacked practically all night by E-Boats and aircraft, but arrived safely in Malta for repairs. With Dockyard help and our own staff we made good our damage. One thing I can remember was all the Ships Company, Duty Watch excepted, had to go ashore at sunset and sleep in Corradino Tunnel. I can remember slinging my hammock in the tunnel and sleeping well all night.
On the completion of repairs HMS Foresight was to run the gauntlet through the Straits, on her own, with everyone on Action Stations all night. The luck was with us, being on our own and able to proceed at full speed we did not hear or see anything during the passage, at daylight we were through and soon to join H Force again.
HMS Foresight was then ordered back to the U. K. and with her sister ship HMS Forrester carried out a convoy escort with HMS Edinburgh to Murmansk in Russia.
During the convoy HMS Foresight was damaged and returned to the Humber for repairs. On completion of repairs we proceeded to sea and eventually joined a Gibraltar Convoy en route to Malta. This was the famous 'Santa Maria/Pedestal' Convoy. Lady Luck did not stay with us this time for at approximately 1 p.m. I stood on our quarterdeck watching HMS Eagle operating her aircraft. The sight I then witnessed I shall never forget, a huge spout of water rose on her Port Side, high above her flight deck, realizing she had been hit by a torpedo or torpedoes I then saw her alter course to Starboard and as she did so she just seemed to roll over and sink.
Little did we know we would be the next to be sunk. We were at Action Stations and as the sun was setting we received an Air Raid alert. A Squadron of Torpedo Bombers approached us from ahead dropping their torpedoes when they were within range. As the torpedoes came towards us HMS Foresight took avoiding action, but unfortunately one torpedo hit our stern causing damage to our stern and propeller shaft, we tried to get underway again but it was impossible.
HMS Tartar came to our assistance and after having taken off our wounded then proceeded ahead of us and passed a towline. HMS Tartar towed us all that night during which we ditched all heavy equipment etc; overboard to lighten the weight on HMS Foresight's stern but it seemed we were losing the battle as her stern was gradually going down very slowly.
As dawn broke HMS Tartar made a submarine contact, naturally she leapt ahead breaking her towline and then made her depth charge attack. The final blow came when we were ordered to 'abandon ship' with HMS Tartar picking us up. We knew what would come next as we had been ordered to do the same action on a previous convoy.
HMS Tartar laid off at a safe distance and fired one torpedo hitting HMS Foresight amidships. I had served aboard her for nearly four years and it brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye to see the old girl go under.
HMS Tartar returned to Gibraltar and we were transferred to HMS Victorious with other survivors of HMS Eagle and other ships for our final journey home to Devonport and after survivors leave we were all sent to other ships.
(The Eyewitness was Chief Electrician Thomas A.W. MacPherson D.S.M., B.E.M. Royal Navy)
MAY I HAVE THIS DANCE ?
Christmas 1942 found me as 2.i/c of a Searchlight Detachment on the hill overlooking Sliema and Manoel Island. In some strange fashion it emerged that out of eleven men in the detachment there were seven who did not know how to dance in a 'proper' manner. It also emerged that one of our number knew a 'female impersonator' who lived in Floriana, in fact before the War there were some very well known persons of this calling.
Such names come to mind as 'Sugar', 'Chris', 'Vicky' and 'Bobby'. Well, our chap knew 'Chris', and it was agreed that he would come to our detachment once a week, where for the sum of two shillings each he would give dancing lessons to the seven.
This was all taken very seriously but there were a few snags.
One, our mess room was in fact an old barn.
Two, it was a dirt floor.
Three, December and January were wet months and the barn floor tended to get muddy during the two hours or so of dancing. On one occasion at least, we had to wear 'wellies'.
Four, the music was provided by an old 'wind up' gramophone on which the spring was weak and it tended to run down during a lesson.
Fifth and last, we only had one record and that was a slow foxtrot entitled 'My Heart Belongs To Daddy'.
Hence, at the end of the War and afterwards, when married, there were seven husbands who could only dance if the band was persuaded to play the slow foxtrot 'My Heart Belongs To Daddy'.
(The Eyewitness was Joseph C. Bushell, 16 Company. Royal Engineers (Searchlights)
It was early September 1941 when I, along with many other airmen left the Mersey bound for Malta. The ship we boarded was a 12,000 ton merchant ship named Imperial Star of the Blue Star Line. I was a Corporal Armourer and had charge of an after deck Port Side gun.
One morning one of the seaman told us we had passed Gibraltar during the night so we were now in the Med which was pleasant and uneventful until we were into the narrowing waters between Sicily and Algeria, then, all hell broke loose after mid-day. We were attacked by a large number of aircraft, several of them were shot down to the rousing cheers of the watchers on the ships. After the attack the convoy sailed on with no severe damage done, but one seaman who had seen it all before said to us "They'll be back" and sure enough they came back in the evening and things got a bit hotter.
Out of nowhere an Italian bomber screamed over my gun position and seconds later the torpedo struck just below us. The explosion lifted me off the gun and threw me over the hatch cover. The signal summoned us to our emergency posts from which we expected to abandon ship and from where we were standing the sea looked a long way down. We didn't have to jump in however as they must have decided to take us off and a destroyer came alongside and commenced to do this when an announcement was made for all gun crews to return to the guns and this I did, but when we sorted ourselves out we found that only half of the gunners had returned. The others must have been smarter than us and they were off.
The powers that be must have decided to tow the ship and we were the defence if the enemy came back to finish us off. One cheerful sailor told us the water was getting higher and higher and there would be a big bang if it reached the batteries so we cheered ourselves up by trying to drink the abandoned canteen dry. The tow continued for several hours until it was decided to discontinue the tow as we were drifting towards Tunis which was Vichy French and it would have meant internment if we landed there.
Another destroyer HMS Oribi came to take us off but we had to remove our guns for transfer to the destroyer, also we had to transfer the deck cargo of sacks of potatoes, then they took us off where we were confined to a lower deck and saw nothing of the sinking of the Imperial Star, although we heard all the gunfire and were left in darkness every time they fired.
When Imperial Star was finally destroyed the Oribi raced all the way to Malta, she was the only ship in the convoy to be sunk. We were lucky because having more time than the others we managed to come off with our small kit where as the earlier ones to be taken off had nothing.
I found Malta in September a very pleasant place to be, we could buy things at the NAAFI that had ceased to be available in Britain, but this situation changed when the Germans left their Russian Front to set about their efforts to annihilate this little island and they nearly did it too.
I was stationed at R.A.F. Luqa and for the next eighteen months I was up to my eyes in bombs of all sizes and types, both ours and theirs. At that time there were Blenheims and Wellingtons operating from Luqa and we fed them with bombs from our bomb dump at the end of Safi strip. The Wellingtons were dispersed at the Siggiewi end of the airfield. Our bomb dump at Luqa was an open area about 300 yards from Kirkop Village which was handy for the dump workers at break time because of big, fat egg sandwiches which could be had from Mary's Bar in the village and before food shortages hit the local people.
Corporal 'Jock' PRYDE was the bomb dump tractor driver who used to pull about five loaded trailers with a delivery staff sitting on the bombs. One day he was given a tractor which was under powered because it would not pull the load up the incline to the airfield beyond the dispersal strip so we unhitched the last trailer and myself with three others stayed to push it to the side of the strip for safety as there was one of 69 Squadron Marylands taxiing up the strip to get to the runway. As it was drawing close to us I could see Jock had unhitched another trailer further up the hill with nobody in attendance and it was in the direct path of the approaching Maryland.
I made signals for the pilot to stop but he carried on and seconds later he ran into the trailer which was about thirty yards from us and loaded with four 500 pound bombs. The ensuing explosion threw us down and one of the Maryland's undercarriage legs flew over us and landed close to our trailer. Apart from shock I received no injuries but my companions were slightly hurt, if I'd been a bigger chap I might not have been so lucky. At the ensuing enquiry the inquiring officer, Wing Commander POWELL-SHEDDON told us "Our bombs are no good Hill, you should be dead"
Considering that four 500 pounders had exploded so close to us I think he must have been right. The bomb dump at Luqa was not a healthy place when the Jerries were about but they always adopted the same approach to make their bombing run up Safi Strip where most of our aircraft were dispersed, they usually went way out to the East before turning in to make their run. We usually stayed at the dump till we saw them turn towards us then we made a quick sprint to the village for shelter. On the day of December the 29th 1941 they surprised us by turning in considerably earlier and we had to vacate the dump in great haste and the bombs were falling long before we made it to the village and it became obvious that our dump was today's target.
That day we had loaded all the Wellingtons on Safi Strip with bombs for that night's target and the destruction of our dump caused the nearest dispersed aircraft to explode which started a chain of burning aircraft. Only one Wellington survived the destruction and the survivor was shifted onto the airfield to wait for take-off time. Unfortunately this aircraft was parked close to where, unknown to anyone, the Germans had dropped a delayed action bomb which had burrowed into the ground. The bomb exploded an hour before take-off time and so there were no ops that night.
The next morning the Station Armament Officer told me there were two bombs still amongst the wreckage and asked me to make them safe. I approached the still hot wreck and set about the doubtful task of removing the detonators. There were several 'Top Brass' surveying the wreckage but they made a hasty departure when they spotted me playing with fire.
On another occasion when my 'friendly' S.A.O. sent me on the same kind of errand was when one of the Wimpies crashed after take-off on the hillside to the West of Luqa. This aircraft was fully loaded with small bomb containers i.e„ lots of 20 pound and 40 pound fragmentation bombs and 4 pound incendiaries. When I got to the crash site there were a number of soldiers combing the wreckage, carrying bags in which they put what was left of the crew. Into the middle of this I had to extract and make safe the few bombs which had not exploded.
In 1942 the Germans dropped vast quantities of Butterfly Bombs. Often these deadly weapons did not explode on impact with the ground and lurked everywhere, often in the grass waiting for someone to kick them. We had several safe ways of dealing with these little terrors but one Armourer named Corporal JONES had a special way. JONES treated these bombs with contempt, he often said "These bloody things wouldn't blow your hat off" and he picked them up gently with both hands and dropped them down the nearest quarry of which there were plenty. The result was that he did it once too often and it blew more than his hat off, we could only recognise his body by a large birthmark on his leg.
In December 1942 I was promoted Sergeant and after a few more months and many more incidents with my pet hate, 'Bombs' I became surplus to requirements and was posted to Ta Kali and 272 Squadron (Beaufighters).
No more bombs, only Hispanos, Brownings and cameras. But I hadn't been there long before they fitted bomb carriers under each wing to carry 250 pounders.
Anybody that served at Luqa will remember the quarry at the East end of the main runway where so many aircraft perished if they overshot the runway on landing or take-off. A group of us were being flown to Trapani in Sicily in an old Wimpy that had seen better days and you cannot see out of the body of a Wimpy, but as we trundled along the runway I could see in my mind's eye this quarry getting nearer and nearer. The plane seemed to give a little leap and we were airborne. An Airman who had been able to see from the astrodome turned round and said "We only just made it"'
(The Eyewitness was Corporal 'Titch' Hill, 272 Squadron, Royal Air Force, Luqa)
At the beginning of the War in Malta, June 1940, the original Ops. Room was situated in the massive bastion at St. John's Cavalier, near Hastings Gardens in Valletta. The same building housed the Met. Office, Code and Cyphers, W/T Cabin, Office of the A.O.C. Intelligence Section and representatives of the Royal Artillery Guns, the Royal Engineers Searchlights and the Royal Navy Liaison Officer.
Landlines connected the aerodromes to this Ops. Room to enable the Duty Controller to order our fighters to be scrambled in the event of an incoming hostile raid approaching the island. Guns and Searchlight Officers had their own telephone links to their respective defence units throughout the island.
The small plotting table in St. John's Cavalier was very much a 'make shift' affair, compared with the Fighter Ops. tables in the U.K. who in 1938 were using the grid reference system for plotting tracks.
When enemy bombers made deliberate attacks on the Dockyard or shipping in the Grand Harbour or the houses in Valletta, the Bandira Hamra (Red Flag) was hoisted on the flag mast on the roof of the Auberge de Castille, Valletta, being a visual last minute reminder to take cover, usually with heavy ack-ack guns of the Grand Harbour box barrage thundering away.
With the introduction of further radar coverage, the setting up of a second station at Dingli and others at Tas Silq at Delimara Point and Madliena northeast of Naxxar, a new Filter Room was necessary to cope with the extra traffic and this was opened early in March 1941, in a small cellar underneath a house at 3 Scots Street, Valletta.
It was a corner property and also overlooked South Street. Further R.A.F. personnel had arrived to staff the Filter Room with extra telephone lines to be manned. The new room here contained a new plotting table with the up-to-date U.K. type grid reference system adopted and painted overall on the map.
The Filter Room at 3 Scots Street was manned entirely by R.A.F. personnel. The work was top secret and a R.A.F. Service Policeman was stationed at the outside entrance door at all times to inspect and check passes issued to staff, who worked a 24 hour shift system. Eventually the tunnels in Lascaris were further excavated, finalised and equipped. These were situated in the rock bastions below Upper Barracca Gardens, Valletta and opened as the new War Rooms in mid 1941. The Filter Room at 3 Scots Street, and St. John's Cavalier Ops. were closed down and the Scot Street Staff were transferred to the new Filter Room in Lascaris.
At the same time a new R.A.F. Fighter Control (No.8 Sector Operations Room) was opened at Lascaris. This was all a considerable improvement to the outmoded systems we had worked with beforehand. To man the telephone lines in this new room the R.A.F. were required to enlist the help of civilian ladies, resident in the island. These ladies were mostly wives or daughters of service personnel stationed in Malta. In the U.K. the Sector Ops. Room were generally manned with W.A.A.F's, but it was not possible at the time to draft W.A.A.F's to Malta.
Eventually, over the months when husbands and fathers became time expired (usually very much overdue) some plotters were posted back to U.K. with their families, when limited places became available on outbound ships and aircraft. As a result vacancies occurred for replacement plotters and local Maltese ladies and girls were enlisted as civilian employees. Often, these young ladies had parents or family connected with the services. All civilian employees were sworn to secrecy and as the Fighter Ops. Room was open 24 hours, the girls were required to work round the clock, divided into a four watch system. Thanks to the co-operation and the loyalty of these ladies, the R.A.F. were able to staff and run the Fighter Ops. Room.
I became involved with the Lascaris Fighter Ops. Room, as I was trained in the original Sector Ops. Room at 11 Group, Biggin Hill, Kent, from the end of 1938. The trade group was 'Clerk S.D.' (Clerk Special Duties). In December 1939 I was transferred to the R.D.F. and became a Radar Operator. In November 1940 after I had returned to the mainland U.K. I was posted to Malta.
When I arrived in Malta there were no vacancies for a Radar Operator, so I was at first working in St. John's Cavalier and the Filter Room in 3 Scots Street. On transfer to Lascaris I was on duty in the new Filter Room there for a short while and then seconded to Lascaris Fighter Ops. as a Floor Supervisor, due to my original training and experience at Biggin Hill Fighter Ops. When the lady civilian employees first arrived at Lascaris, I helped to train some of them in their duties of plotting in the New Ops. Room. I think that there were up to 60 ladies taken on by the R.A.F. as civilian employees at Lascaris They were divided into four crews or watches, to man the Ops. Room telephone lines around the clock.
The plots originated from information picked up by Radar Stations at Dingli, Tas Silq and Madliena. These were passed through to the R.A.F. Filter Room at Lascaris. Here the tracks were analysed instantly and given appropriate labels 'H' for Hostile, 'X' for Unidentified and 'F' for Friendly, and plotted on the grid reference on the Filter Room plotting table.
As soon as the tracks were labelled by the Filter Room they were read off their plotting table and passed by phone to the girl plotter in Fighter Ops. (wearing a telephone headset) by quoting the grid reference on the map. Here a message would be passed, for example: 'hostile Raid No.15 in M for Mike, Four, Six, Two, Eight, 25 plus aircraft at 15,OOOft. South West'. The girl plotter would then place a coloured pointed counter on the Ops. Room table map on the appropriate grid reference.
The plotters pushed the plots out to the centre of the table when necessary by using long wooden rods to enable them to reach the required grid reference. A small wooden block was always moved along with the latest plot at the head of each track, giving details: Raid Number, Number of Aircraft, and height if known. Any up-to-date changes to these details were altered on the blocks as the tracks moved along.
The plotting table was situated in the well of the Ops. Room and covered an area approximately 12 ft. by 12 ft. The map painted on the surface included most of Sicily to the north, showing enemy airfields as far as Gerbini, and to the east the islands of Linosa and Pantelleria. Our Radar Stations were often able to detect enemy aircraft when they were airborne from the Sicilian aerodromes.
The Duty Controller sat in the centre of the dais, situated above the plotting table, this gave him a clear view of all tracks being plotted. On the same dais, were seated at telephone sets, the Deputy Controller, and the Guns and Searchlight Liaison Officers. Up to fourteen girls were designated to each crew, A, B, C, D, Watches. At times three girls would be plotting at the table at the same time.
The Ops. Room also contained a D.F. Room, situated under the dais. The Direction Finder Room was linked by phones to three spaced out Direction Finder Stations situated on the island. These listening stations picked up bearings from transmissions when our airborne pilots spoke on their radios and these bearings were passed by phone to three girls in the D.F. Room. The bearings would be read off the table by a teller to a plotter who would mark the plots by chalk on the large blackboard situated on the right hand side of the main table. All these D.F. bearings were recorded in a log book also giving the exact time.
If a fighter pilot was shot up and in difficulty and about to bale out, and he was able to do so, at the last seconds, he would switch to a special R/T frequency and call out 'MAYDAY... MAYDAY... MAYDAY' Each Direction Finder Station would then get a bearing on his voice and these would be passed through to the D.F. Room at Lascaris. The separate girl plotters would place the bearings on the table and a grid reference would then be worked out of his last known position. An Air/Sea rescue search would then be calculated by the Duty Controller and a high speed launch would then be despatched from Kalafrana to hopefully pick up the pilot from the sea.
The purpose of my job as Floor Supervisor was to ensure the smooth running of the watch and system at all times and that all information received was dealt with as speedily and accurately as possible and that it was plotted in the correct square. Had for instance a track had been incorrectly plotted in the grid square the track would have been 60 miles out and this would have endangered intercepting pilots in the air.
Apart from the shortage of food and other siege conditions the lady plotters were experiencing a very tough existence and in the early stages some had to walk miles, often through air raids, day or night, to arrive at Lascaris for Duty Watch. It was only their individual loyalty, allegiance and resolute staying power that enabled Lascaris Fighter Control to operate throughout those dark and dangerous days.
On the 4th June 1943 six civilian girls who helped hold the front line in Malta during the Siege were each awarded the B.E.M. These included three of our own plotting girls from Lascaris Fighter Ops.: Irene Cameron, Mrs M. Fletcher and Christina Ratcliffe. I regret to say that one of our 18 year old girl plotters, Patricia Cameron, was killed in an air raid on the 1st March 1942.
When going on duty to Lascaris we crossed over Castille Square, Valletta, towards the entrance to Upper Barracca Gardens, but just before this we turned left down St. Ursula Street and after fifty paces we turned right and entered the complex through a very tall doorway. We then proceeded downwards on many steps through a tunnel, which eventually led to the R.A.F. Filter Room and Fighter Ops. and Naval Command Room. Eventually I think this led out into the Ditch part of Valletta's early defences, but we always used the top entrance which was sand bagged up to a height of eight feet and always guarded by Maltese Soldiers who inspected our passes prior to entry.
(The Eyewitness was Douglas Geer R. A. F.)
I was a Signalman R.N. drafted to HMS Queen Elizabeth after 2 years in a destroyer, so you can guess my mixed feelings, a C-in-C draft, instead of another boat, however being Royal Navy I knew my chances of promotion would be easier, a consolation. I was just 20.
I joined the Destroyer HMS Forrester in May 1941, as a passenger to Malta and was employed on the flag deck throughout the whole voyage and the convoy suffered the usual bombings and sinkings etc., en route. On arrival in the Grand Harbour I was drafted to HMS St. Angelo for transfer to Alexandria to join the Queen Elizabeth. Unfortunately she had been severely damaged by Italian Torpedo Boats and my draft was cancelled.
Now what a home draft ? No, Malta was short of signalmen so I was shanghaied at St. Angelo where I remained for two months. I volunteered for sea hoping for a fleet draft, instead I was drafted to the Auxiliary minesweeper (Tug) Andromeda as there was a flotilla of these vessels and except for key ratings, the Stokers and Seamen were Maltese and a very brave bunch of lads they were. They never had a mention in any of the war books and as a matter of fact, I don't think we existed although the submarines at Manoel Island surely remember the 'Smokey Joes' for we tried to sweep the channel clear under appalling conditions, bombed continually in harbour and attacked at sea.
Another convoy arrived including HMS Penelope, in a very serious condition, having been attacked several times, the Merchant Ships Pampas and Talabot, were grounded in Grand Harbour and for days tug duties were ordered and towed ammunition lighters, etc., from the two Merchant Ships whilst all hell was going on in the Grand Harbour, by the Germans trying to sink the 'Pepperpot' as she was affectionately called.
With our two Lewis guns and one heavy automatic we blazed away helplessly at the hordes of Stukas, whilst we towed the lighters to the dockside: the crew stood wonderfully firm under the strain and the Maltese crew were a credit to their country. One Merchantman was still smouldering after being on fire and these brave Maltese lads carried on regardless.
Eventually our luck ran out, a near miss near the 'Pepperpot' nearly hit us and the Andromeda broke her back, no casualties, thank the Lord, so back to St. Angelo. Duty detailed watch keeping on the top of St. Angelo, in contact by semaphore and light with Castille Signal Station, as many phones were wrecked by continual bombing.
We were close to a Bofors gun manned by the Army which at that time was rationed to 20 rounds per day, so bad was our plight. Our average attacks were by at least 30 Stukas and numerous JU.88's which seemed never ending. It may be news to note that Maltese Boy Scouts were now being used as messengers ashore as most telephones were out of action and a brave lot of lads they were. I think the youngest was only twelve years old.
Food was very poor, salad and corned beef, some cheese and three slices of bread per day, civilians very short of cooking oil and mother's milk drying up owing to poor diet. HMS Manxman and HMS Welshman ran the gauntlet to bring in emergency supplies, including powdered milk for the mothers. 'Victory Kitchens' were opened by the Governor to try and supply a cheap meal to the hungry Maltese. Torpedoes and ammunitions brought in by the two fast minelayers gave us a few more weeks to hit back at the enemy.
A funny episode happened one afternoon off watch. We were in the Cavaliers, our sleeping quarters and mess deck, which was well protected under 20 feet of sandstone, when a raid started again on the Grand Harbour so we trooped out to watch and see how our ammunition supply would surprise Jerry. Well, one of our shipmates had 'Malta Gut' and dashed to the 'Heads' which were situated just outside. He could only have just sat down when 3 Stukas broke off and came straight at us obviously going for our Bofors above, you can imagine us all diving into the shelter of the Cavalier which we knew was safe. There were tremendous explosions which blew us into the Cavalier. I myself felt the breath dragged out of my lungs and was covered in dust and smoke.
After a while I got to my feet O.K. and someone said "Where is matey !" so we ran outside to find a near miss had destroyed the toilets, but the rest had missed so our Bofors and Signal Staff on watch were O.K. However we searched for our mate and eventually found him alive; upside down in a Gorse bush with the lavatory seat clamped onto his posterior. He was moaning but unhurt, but try as we could we could not remove the seat. An Ambulance was called and I couldn't help wondering what the Doctors and Nurses thought of this casualty.
However to Tea, a slice of bread and jam with a cup of tea, then back to duty, one more raid before sunset, our Bofors has now 40 rounds per day. I still wanted to join the fleet, especially a destroyer or cruiser, so volunteered again for sea. Guess what? Permission granted. A small ex-fishing drifter converted to Auxiliary minesweeper HMS Trusty Star, Skipper Clarkson R.N.R. in command and a Maltese crew, so I was back again to sweeping. Same routine and night, sweeping at sea and in the harbour.
Conditions as to rationing ashore were desperate and if a convoy didn't arrive shortly things would be unbearable for the brave Maltese, whose condition of food rationing and continual bombing was the worst of war torn Europe.
On May 10th on Night Sweep we were attacked by 3 E-Boats, too much for our small armament so made 'F' Signal message. (Read but do not answer) to I think the trawler Swona. However although using a dimmed blue light all guns seemed to be trained my way and tracers lit up the dark night all around me. I was hit in the leg and blown to the deck below where I remained until after the action. A Maltese risked his life to bring me a tourniquet which I secured as I was bleeding badly. After the action our Skipper Clarkson said by my action I had probably saved us serious damage as the E- Boats retired knowing reinforcements were near. Being the only signalman on board, still on the deck and unable to get to the bridge, I made signals to the Castille from the deck by Aldis and told coxswain what flags etc. to fly on entering harbour. Castille sent an ambulance for me from which I was transferred to hospital having lost a lot of blood.
Conditions in hospital were terrible, windows damaged and how doctors and nurses carried on under such primitive conditions I shall never know. Wounded were lying on stretchers awaiting their turn for surgery from various bombing raids that night.
The hospital canteen, I was told, as I was a bed patient was all but empty but sold a few razor blades, tea with lemon, no sugar or milk, occasional packet of cigarette papers, otherwise we used any paper. The bombing was still bad and except for patients in bed it was to the shelter again. The orderlies, Royal Army Medical Corps and they were great, covered us with a mattress whilst the raid was on and stayed with us during the raids. We were always hungry. It was salad day in and day out with a little meat and potatoes once a week with bread and jam. Sometimes a sweet of some kind.
The ward was overflowing with badly wounded and burned casualties and loss of weight was normal. I weighed 11 stone 2 lbs. when I arrived in Malta and was now about 9 stone.
I was very lucky as the Trusty Star blew up on a mine 3 days after my entry into hospital and I never knew for certain how many casualties. I was very upset.
August 1942. Heard heavy gunfire from our hospital beds and it turned out to be Operation Pedestal (Santa Maria Convoy) fighting their way to relieve Malta. As is well known the convoy got through with the gallant tanker Ohio which has been written about in many books. This was the turning point of the 'Great Siege'. Rationing decreased and saved the island. Germany was beaten. Malta really turned to the offensive with submarines and bombers. For the first time in 18 months a weight was lifted from the brave Maltese.
In October I was flown to Gibraltar by a Lockheed Hudson which even then was the only way out for wounded etc, from Malta. We took off from Luqa Airport at 02.00 hours in the middle of a night raid and my last look was of searchlights and Malta hitting back with everything.
Still in plaster on my left leg, weight just over 8 stone, I was unable to leave Gibraltar until I had gained a stone in weight. I arrived in the UK in December 1942 and left hospital May 1943 after a year in 'dock'. I was medically discharged from the Royal Navy in 1946 due to the leg wound that never really healed.
(The Eyewitness was Leading Signalman E. N. Butcher, Royal Navy)
On 4th December 1941 Field Marshal Albert Kesselring of the German Luftwaffe resumed his onslaught on Malta. Kesselring had an initial force of over 200 bombers complemented by or alternating with a similar number of Italian aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica. Dealing with this armada were three squadrons of Hurricanes - numbers 46 (later to be 126), 185 and 249. Numbers 242 and 605 arrived later. There were to be many times when the number of serviceable aircraft available to each squadron did not exceed single figures.
Keeping this remote outpost supplied with food, fuel, ammunition, lubricants, coolants and the day-to-day needs of the population of about 300,000 and the garrison of about 30,000 was a considerable logistical problem. One vital requirement was that of breathing oxygen. With altitudes of up to and over 40,000 feet to be patrolled and defended adequate supplies of oxygen of the quality necessary were absolutely essential to the defence of the island. Furthermore, the severity and frequency of the attacks were increasing daily. The number of raids had risen sharply from 31 in September 1941 to 169 in December and this was to increase as much again in the early months of 1942. The number of enemy aircraft on each raid would also increase to over 200. The bombing business was indeed booming !
The task of providing the necessary oxygen devolved on a single trailer which the Royal Air Force had been moving from place to place around the south eastern half of the island in an effort to avoid detection and subsequent destruction by the enemy. As the entire island was only about 17 miles by 9 and for the most part treeless, it was no easy job to find suitable, safe and inconspicuous locations.
In due course it had been deemed appropriate to site the oxygen plant in one of a group of disused stone quarries, not far from the residence of Group Captain CAHILL, the Commanding Officer of RAF Station, Kalafrana. In retrospect it might be considered that a better choice could have been made.
The quarry selected now contained three quite significant military targets; (1) the main entrance to the underground Inter-Command W/T Station, an essential link in the trans-global RAF communications system that maintained contact between the United Kingdom and the British Empire and also the base for four Fighter Control VHF transmitters on which the island's air defence depended, (2) a wooden Army hut occupied by successive detachments of British and Maltese troops who guarded the ICWT Station and (3) the vital mobile oxygen supply plant. Other good targets nearby were the ICWT Station's generator house and the extensive aerial site with its veritable forest of steel and timber masts and elaborate web of aerials, matching units and feeder lines supplied from the transmitters in the underground caverns whose presence was evident from the ventilator shafts on the surface.
On the afternoon of Tuesday 30th December 1941 the RAF technicians who constituted 'A' Watch at the ICWT Station, came on duty at 16.30 hours and had completed their first task of re-tuning the various transmitters from day to night frequencies. Not long after 17.00 there was a massive explosion, then another and another, which to the men in the transmitter hall seemed to be right above their heads. All the lights went out, the air was saturated with choking dust and in the total darkness that followed the watch were convinced that the roof had caved in and that they were trapped under the tons of loose rock which had been excavated from the caverns and distributed loosely over the surface of the site above.
Screams and shouts could be heard in the distance but in the hall everything had gone quiet. 'A' Watch started to call to each other and were surprised to find that they had survived seemingly unscathed by the initial impact and blast of whatever it was that had come crashing down on their hitherto impregnable shelter. The duty mechanic crawled across the concrete floor feeling his way cautiously through the darkness to the control table in the middle of the hall under which lay a 12 volt battery put there for just such an emergency. The lamp overhead was clipped to the battery, the light came on and to their enormous relief, the men could see that the internal shell of stone blocks was still intact. No one had relished the prospect of being trapped underground even for a short time in company with the colonies of rats which inhabited the cable ducts and passageways and had even occasionally entered the transmitters with most unpleasant results.
The immediate task confronting 'A' Watch was to get the power supply working and the transmitters back in action as soon as possible. The technicians had no way of knowing what flying operations might be in progress and in jeopardy due to the lack of communication links, nor did they know whether any friendly aircraft travelling the Mediterranean around Malta could be in desperate need of the directional guidance provided by the transmitters. One thing was certain and that was that the direct links from UK to the East had been severed - an extremely serious and potentially disastrous state of affairs.
Seeking out the cause of the power failure, the duty mechanic made his way out of the hall through another cavern, regularly used as a safe dormitory by Kalafrana personnel, to the main entrance from the quarry. A scene of devastation confronted him. One of the bombs had evidently landed right on the wooden Army hut which had disintegrated completely. Dead, wounded and shattered bodies lay all around and survivors were trying to help where they could. The oxygen plant was ablaze.
Directly above the tunnel entrance the main electricity supply cable from the surface generating plant to the underground distribution switchboard, in the transmitter hall gallery, had been severed along with an adjoining water supply pipe. The water flowing from the cut pipe on to the broken cable was producing sparkling pyrotechnics and this was the cause of the power failure. Two of the casualties in the quarry were Royal Air Force ICWT personnel. Donald GILLESPIE and William McNICOL had been told that they were on the list of the next boat for repatriation to UK so were naturally exercising greater care than usual to ensure that they would not miss out for any reason. Consequently when the attack warning was given they were making their way underground via the quarry when it was hit. Both men were seriously wounded. McNICOL died the next day but fortunately GILLESPIE recovered.
Meanwhile, having traced the power fault Bob WALKER prevailed on the Maltese engineer, who had a cut hand, to shut down the surface generator and attempt to start up a new machine which had just been installed but not fully tested in one of the underground caverns. In passing he suggested to Fred EDMONDSON, another mechanic, that he would be well advised to come down off the adjoining boundary wall before the oxygen cylinders in the blazing trailer began to explode. He did so, not in his own interest but simply because the little extinguisher he was tackling the inferno with had emptied. Moments later the precious oxygen plant exploded in a fireball and was totally destroyed. EDMONDSON was lucky not to be killed or injured.
The underground plant after one or two hiccups was quickly put into service and power was restored. Shock-damaged transmitter valves were replaced, the sets re-tuned and connected to serviceable aerials. Much damage had been caused to the surface aerial system by bomb blast but the extent of this could only be ascertained and repairs carried out in the light of day. During the night several transmitters were fed into aerials not designed for the frequencies in use simply because the correct aerials were hanging in shreds. The wireless operators at HQ Mediterranean, Valletta had their work cut out to make and maintain contacts due to the reduced power and range available. As so often was the case in Malta it was make do and mend and everyone had to do the best they could in the circumstances.
The biggest problem of all however was the loss of the oxygen supply capability. There was no way that aircrews could operate efficiently or even at all at high altitude in the absence of suitable oxygen supplies. Until this could be provided all air operations both offensive and defensive from Malta would be severely restricted. The Axis would have the freedom of the skies and in due course the freedom of the sea to go with it. There was no way that the Royal Navy was going to stand for that. As they had so often done in the past and would do again in the future they came to the rescue.
There were two other oxygen plants in use in Malta at the time, both under Admiralty control. One was located at the Dockyard in Grand Harbour, the other at the Torpedo Depot in Kalafrana. The former was in full use and had no spare capacity. The latter after some modification was able to produce enough oxygen to meet the requirements of the Royal Air Force both in quality and quantity and enable their operations to go on as before.
There is little doubt that failure to solve the oxygen crisis would have had a devastating effect on the capacity of the island to defend itself particularly at a time when the Luftwaffe were building up the momentum of their aerial offensive which was planned to culminate in the invasion of Malta on 15th August 1942 if not before.
At the rate ships to Malta were being sunk there was every possibility that a replacement oxygen plant would be long enough in arriving - if it ever did.
(The Eyewitness was Bob Walker, 'A' Watch, Royal Air Force)
HERMAN ZEPP R.I.P.
This is the story of a German airman, his name was Herman ZEPP. This unfortunate man who was shot down was one of the crew of a JU.88 that ventured over Malta on a sunny Friday morning in April 1942. It was a big raid and I happened to be in charge of the Guard that morning. I was a Lance Bombardier.
There were so many planes flying around. They came in from the north and started to dive from the edge of the island towards Luqa, which meant they came in over our heads at Tal Handak, that's where we were.
I didn't see this man come down but apparently what had happened was, one of the JU.88s had been hit and of course the crew or what was left of them started to bale out. Unfortunately Herman ZEPP didn't get a chance to pull his ripcord and a splinter from one of the shells must have hit him in the back of the neck, completely decapitating his head as he dropped in the field next to Tal Handak.
When the word got to me at Guard Room about a quarter of a hour afterwards, someone said a German had dropped. "Like to go and have a look at him ? " and I said "Yes". I put someone in charge of the Guard and went over to the field to have a look.
Teddy ROSE was there and had brought a blanket and put it over the German. He then uncovered him when I arrived and said "A ghastly sight, McDonald, isn't it?" I didn't know he hadn't got a head and I was looking at this bloke and walking around. I said to Teddy Rose " Where is his head?" and he said " We don't know, apparently its knocking about somewhere" So, anyway I had a good look at him.
There he was, a horrible sight. I should say he had been about 20-24 quite a sturdy built chap, he had brown socks on, K. D. trousers and K. D. shirt with the Eagle with a Swastika in the middle. I always remember it was Friday morning and I went back to the Guard Room and related what I had seen. Eventually they took the body away down to HQ, just down the road.
At this time we were on a starvation diet in Malta. Our rations were severely cut. When I said we were hungry in Malta, we really were. The rations were pretty meagre. We were allowed 3ozs of flour a week, 9ozs of bread a day, the civilians got 9ozs it is not much for breakfast, dinner, tea and supper, Bacon came in tins rolled in cellophane paper, there were 12 men to a tin of bacon for breakfast, a tin the size of an evaporated milk tin. I remember there were four cauliflowers for 100 men, so you didn't get much cauli. There were plenty of artichokes, lentils, when I say plenty, a spoonful. Dried potatoes, they came out grey and tea of course was innocent water scalded to death. These were but a few of the rations we had.
Anyway, we were hungry and there was a track to fields of tomatoes, potatoes, grapes, and peaches. Of course we did a bit of pinching of grapes and all the rest of it but the farmers took umbrage and put little tents in their fields and they lay there at nights with their shotguns to keep us away of course they never got any of us.
Incidentally they weighed us every two weeks. Now I was healthy, we were all healthy, me 12 stone 7 lbs, no fat whatsoever, fit as a fiddle, playing football, boxing, running, jumping, everything and I went down to 10 stone 3 lbs.
We used to get paid on Fridays and of course there was nothing to spend your money on, so what we did on a Friday evening when we were off duty was to have a game of Pontoon in the Command Post concrete dugout. We had to be very careful in case the BSM or one of the Sergeants came and caught us because we could be put on a 252 (Charge Sheet). While we were playing cards that night, we normally played until the early hours of the morning, 1 or 2 o'clock, we looked around to see who was coming in. It was an Irish chap nicknamed 'Haystack'. He walked in and normally he was one of the regular players but he turned up at 12 o'clock and we said "Are you going to have a game of cards?" "No" he said, I shan't play tonight"
He had his hands behind his back and he walked up to the table and he put the German's head right in the middle of it. Well of course we were all taken aback. The eyes were closed and it looked like he had a broken nose. The bottom jaw was completely gone and all his teeth from the top of his head were gone as well. We said "Where the hell did you get that" He said "I was out in the tomato field pinching some tomatoes and there he was singing 'I ain't got nobody'.
That story I can vouch for it being absolutely true. That is exactly what happened that day.
About two months later a Bombardier took me to his bunk and said, "Have a look at this" He opened a box and there inside he had an Iron Cross, inscribed on it was the name of Herman ZEPP, his rank and Poland 1939.
(The Eyewitness was Richard McDonald. 7 HAA Regiment, Royal Artillery)
The wartime Spitfires, the majority of which were built at Castle Bromwich by the skill and graft of the people of Birmingham were fitted with engines made at Rolls Royce, Derby. I understand Southampton had this Spitfire building reputation too. Justifiably, they should feel proud of their contribution to the war effort, because these fighter aircraft were a match for any opposition wherever they were used, even in spite of often being out numbered.
The Spitfire makers pride would have risen to even greater heights had they seen the end result of their efforts in the battle for supremacy over the skies of Malta during 1942 onwards. Imagine being surrounded on all sides by the might of the German and Italian Forces. The nearest British bases from Malta being about 1000 miles to the East – Egypt, and about the same distance to the West, - Gibraltar.
For a period the enemy domineered the sky and sea to such an extent that the food larder was fast becoming empty and fuel and ammunition supplies diminishing rapidly. The main Malta airfields of Luqa, Safi, Ta'Qali, Hal Far, Kalafrana and the Grand Harbour were heavily bombed in turn with never-ending regularity, with occasional alerts lasting all day.
Not surprisingly some of the bombs spilled over to nearby villages and towns causing further damage and sorrow. Add to this the problem of our Hurricane fighters and their courageous pilots being outnumbered and progressively becoming out matched, meant a 'backs to the wall' existence for quite a period.
From 1941 onwards ordinary convoys were finding it almost impossible to reach Malta intact. The brave Merchantmen and escorts often suffering heavily on each trip. Even in the event of reaching the Grand Harbour safely, the danger of attack was always there. The courageous battle of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and other ships was proof of this, thus the fast naval light cruisers, HMS Welshman and HMS Manxman and a few submarines were eventually the only means of delivery seaways of urgent supplies. Such bravery - they all deserved high rewards, because they too were so greatly outnumbered.
It was not surprising then that food rationing was introduced. We, at our base, had meal cards which were punched like a rail ticket on receiving each meal, to eliminate fiddling a second helping, a lost card incurred a high replacement charge.
For a spell our diet was enhanced at meal times with a help-yourself vitamin or whatever supplement in tablet form. I would think it helped to boost our staff of life (bread) allowance which was but a few ounces daily.
In an under the counter sale - if you were lucky - in the villages one slice would cost anything up to one shilling, a lot of money when one considers the price of a large loaf was only about 4d. How we used to picture with mouth-watering imagination eating lots of un-rationed bread portions complete with lashings of lovely English butter, but alas this was just a dream in our world of fantasy.
I remember Sam, a colleague, exchanging a large carton of cigarettes from home for a loaf with the Baker's roundsman over the airfield fence. Both thought they had a bargain. I also recall for just a brief period the only drink we could get in the camp canteen was free. "Help yourself", says Joe, the Maltese assistant, pointing to a vessel on the counter containing water !
Then we had Sergeant HEATON who was determined to marry his Maltese lady at any price. With the wedding service underway they were rudely interrupted by uninvited guests from above. A squadron of Stuka dive bombers decided to bomb the Floriana church area. However, they eventually managed to leave unscathed as man and wife. What an 'explosive' never to be forgotten wedding day that was.
Architecture, unique, was perhaps one way of describing our RAF Station, in as much as so many buildings displayed such similarity. The cookhouse, canteen, Sergeants Mess and other buildings, including some of our sleeping quarters all matched with German and Italian design - just a heap of rubble !
One particularly dangerous occasion was the night the bomb store compound at Luqa was bombed, along with other targets. It was only when dawn broke that the extent of the damage, which included many aircraft, was realised. Filling in bomb craters, especially on the runway, was at times an occupation accomplished by many voluntary hands if the occasion demanded it. Yes we had our excitement by day, and on quite a reduced scale, excitement by night. The latter was just occasionally accompanied by slowly descending flares, circling an area like a dartboard, with Luqa Airfield the 'bulls eye' for yet another imminent assault.
Such occasions as these produced some inventive, and in retrospect, amusing precautionary ideas. Just drop into bed with not a cloak shed, was an idea that made sense, and what about a bed space mutually transformed into a sort of 'crude rock igloo' in order to acquire a sleep with an 'under the bed' feeling of safety. For brief spells in such instances during darkness it was a play it by ear regime. To cope with all this hullabaloo then we had some wonderfully cool and unruffled characters who had a steadying influence on all those around them.
Here is just a few of these with brief excerpts of incidents, together with other members of our gallant team.
I can visualise a Flight Sergeant CAGBY (awarded the BEM) from Rugby, Warwickshire, during an alert he could often be seen walking around with his rifle - what an inspiration - ever ready to face the might of the enemy air forces, as were the army 'AA' Gunners who did a fine job wherever they were. The islands 'AA' Defensive System was reckoned to be the most efficient and concentrated in the world.
Then there was Frank BARLOW from Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire, who went about his business with complete calm and efficiency. Corporal MacQUADE from Manchester who was seen straddling an unexploded bomb outside our Signals Section, trying to dismantle a part of it for a souvenir - what nerve.
Ginger CLARKE also from Manchester, a fearless work colleague. One day during the course of our duties we had occasion to call at another Department. After a short distance we decided it didn't need two of us, so I went back and waited for his return, but he didn't come back, very sadly one of many who lost everything.
Griff GRIFFITHS yet another from Manchester, a colleague at Luqa also at St. Athan, Wales. Sam HALSTEAD from Todmorden, Yorkshire - always a power of strength and inspiration. He was awarded the BEM for his courage. Joe COOK from Warwick, for whom we used to provide balance in our spare time with his Spitfire daily inspections and nearly got blown away in the slip stream into the bargain.
Brummie TATUM with his homely dialect, from you know where. Jock MOLLISON, our Sergeant Chief in 126 Spitfire Squadron, from Scotland. Arnold LISTER, a native of Bradford, Yorkshire. George COATES, of Peterborough, and his two mates Ted ELTHAM and George CROZIER from London.
Roy TAYLOR, of Castleton, Yorkshire. Wal MASON from Sheffield. Sergeant SLATER, Fitter Chief, in 126 Spitfire Squadron, from Oldham, Lancashire. Bernard SHERVINGTON from Wootton Wawen in Warwickshire, a bit late arriving due to other Middle East commitments.
Fred GREEN and Frank CLARKE from Leicester, and Paddy PATTERSON from Ireland. Harry RACE, from Blackburn, who had all his hair shaved off 'to strengthen it'. He came back from the barbers looking like an egg, and won some bets on this.
Johnny SMART, of Cambridge, Glyn CHURCH of Cardiff, Johnny HEARDER from Newton Abbot. Bob "Geordie" WILLS from Durham. Tom PAWSON, of Leeds, a very good artist.
The actual airfield during a 'raid imminent' camp alert was an extremely dangerous area to be in, so it was a right hair raising experience when crossing the airfield with some distance away from the perimeter, the camp alert sounded. In these circumstances one usually had just enough time to get clear, however, this day was an exception.
I looked skywards and there they were, a squadron of Stuka dive-bombers heading in my direction. I appeared to be the only soul around in this area - not even F/Sgt. CAGBY was visible - just me and them, I ran as fast as a greyhound and jumped into a ditch on the perimeter. They seemed to come in a never-ending stream. I watched them dive and the bombs in flight appeared to be heading straight for me. The screaming aircraft, the explosions and hissing - it was like hell let loose and I really thought momentarily 'so this is the end'.
I said a prayer audibly for help from the one above, and then suddenly after what seemed an age, although it was only a few minutes, there was unbelievable quiet. Peace after the storm and dust everywhere. I then extricated myself from the ditch and wandered back to our department covered in Malta dust from head to foot.
What a miracle to be alive, I thought. The ditch ran alongside a concrete covered reservoir and this day their target was obviously our water supplies and other near targets. Such precision bombing. Believe me how glad I was of that precision.
Life was not without its humour though. I never did find out how a snail in its shell found its way onto my dinner plate, hiding under a cabbage leaf, planted by one of my practical joker colleagues I presume. However it got there, I was full of awareness of snails in shells under cabbage leaves for a long time after that.
Another laugh was a new idea to issue 'Jock' a wireless mechanic with a horse and cart to carry his test apparatus - mainly I suppose for time and petrol economy. This method being to complete his daily inspections on the airfield without removing the equipment from the aircraft. One day with everything carefully set up for testing, with the wires meticulously connected the horse decided to move on. "Wo, you b------- Wo, you b------- shouted Jock impatiently in Scottish English, but the horse took no notice and carried on, with the pulled out wires trailing behind. The poor animal learned new words that day, quite unprintable ! One excuse for the horse though, he couldn't understand Scottish English, only Maltese !
The Malta made wine pronounced "Ambeet" was later christened 'Stuka Juice'. After a glass or two one could say to hell with the Stukas, let them all come, who cares. Mention of this reminds me of the famous Strait Street in Valletta better known as 'The Gut' - with its little shops and bars. The 'Egyptian Queen' and the 'Hotel Splendid' are just two names that spring to mind.
I remember too our free issue of Indian made Victory V cigarettes. For the want of a better description, they smelled and tasted a bit like dock leaves and old rope, in comparison to the better known brands. However, one did eventually get used to them and were accordingly thankfully received.
Then we had Maltese children, bless 'em, doing their rounds on the airfield with bags of nuts, which they used to sell ten a penny. Being fond of nuts I think I was one of their best customers.
During this uncertain and fairly desperate period our reconnaissance and bomber squadrons and navy maintained their harassment of enemy shipping and installations with some success, anywhere within striking distance of base. Supplies to Rommel's forces in North Africa receiving special attention. Many squadrons shared Luqa airfield, which involved a large variety of aircraft. We had among others, Blenheims, Whitleys, Wellingtons, Beauforts, Beaufighters, Mosquitos, Hurricanes and 69 Squadron with their Baltimores and Marylands.
However as time passed it was natural to ponder about our immediate future. If supplies couldn't reach us soon we would be in even more trouble. Food stocks were diminishing all too quickly. There was a hint of serious ammunition and petrol rationing, and a whisper of invasion. I believe that was why we were all issued with rifles. It was with this awareness then that we learned about something which was to help change the course of our destiny, there was a whisper that the Spitfires were coming to join in this almost one sided battle.
The initial consignments eventually arrived in the Spring and Summer of 1942, but sadly, in a terrific raid on Ta Qali airfield one evening, which we witnessed from our Luqa base, many were destroyed or damaged on the ground before becoming Battle Ready.
However, the powers that be usually get it right in the end. It was realised the importance of any future deliveries being ready for action immediately on arriving. So again each Spitfire was fitted with a long-range fuel tank and despatched via Gibraltar and the aircraft carriers Wasp, Eagle and Furious being much involved in this operation in the Mediterranean. The Aircraft dispersal blast pens were already prepared around the airfield perimeter with one of each tradesmen allocated to each pen where possible, waiting to receive these aircraft. Our hours of duty were changed to suit this emergency - which lasted for quite a period - dawn till dusk for 4 days with a few days off after each working period. Meals were brought to us on the airfield by Charlie WHITING from London and other fellas in a specially adapted food bus.
It was into this well organised system then that other batches arrived. Brand new Spitfires, all ready to do battle, apart from refuelling and a quick check over. This was accomplished quickly as speed was so essential. The transit pilots were replaced with a new group of battle ready pilots. I believe a similar procedure was adopted at other bases too. So at last it's 'Hooray' and watch out you Germans and Italians because 126 Spitfire Squadron, Luqa is born, along with other squadrons at other airfields.
As expected there was not long to wait, only a matter of minutes, before the imminent scramble, and amid subdued excitement they took off for their first encounter with the opposition, which would include any of the following aircraft, German JU.88s, JU.87s (Stukas), ME.109s, the Italian SM.79s and Macchis or whatever, subsequently they all came in turn anyway.
Being in the appropriate department we were often aware of their conversation. Their line of chatter of Bandits (enemy), Angels (height), at X o'clock (position) and their Tally Ho's was an inspiration plus, after such a previously unbalanced affair. Quite understandably this chatter was flavoured with other words not found in the dictionary.
There was no doubt the element of surprise, together with this wonderful Pilot/Spitfire combination did much to shatter the usual confident enemy. It was not surprising then that on this and the many subsequent scrambles that followed, they were badly mauled and suffered heavy losses. On landing the Spitfires were quickly prepared for the next encounter by the tradesmen waiting in each pen. The army also helped here, with refuelling etc. During this extreme emergency period the pilots sometimes waited with us, in readiness for the next scramble. Rank distinction was almost non-existent. One day one could have the company of and maybe lunch in the pen with a Squadron Leader, another day a Flight Lieutenant, another a Sergeant, and so on.
Things appeared to be going our way at last, and how we welcomed this change of fortune. This success pattern continued for quite a period, coinciding with progressively diminishing enemy raids. Yes, life was becoming decidedly more peaceful now, thanks in no small measure to the Spitfire. This situation was also enhanced and consolidated by Monty's great 8th Army success in Egypt etc., and later by the 1st Army in North Africa. These events had such an influence on the Malta environment, as did the heroic Pedestal Convoy which battled its way through the Mediterranean in August 1942. This was a do or die effort as far as Malta was concerned. In spite of heavy losses i.e. two cruisers, one destroyer, nine merchant ships, the aircraft carrier Eagle, plus the battering of the brave tanker Ohio, the few that did get through safeguarded our existence and continuance of life on Malta.
1943 came, and its gradual passing coincided with a likewise environmental improvement for everyone. How I remember that wonderful Christmas dinner of 1943, it was the most luxurious meal we had eaten for many a long day.
So with the Battle of Malta over, many of us were shipped home in 1944 at the ripe old average age of 23, along with many memories. This story would be incomplete without mentioning the first class 'Esprit de Corps' and courage between the army, navy (including the merchantmen) and the RAF, the superb and friendly Maltese and Gozo people who weathered the storm so patiently and gallantly, together with their own servicemen and police etc.
(The Eyewitness was Leading Aircraftsman Alf. H. Barnett, Royal Air Force, Luqa and Safi)
After encountering the enemy all the way through the Med we landed in Malta to the cheers of the people and marched to St. Elmo at the tip of the harbour. Here we were to stay for a few months. The air raids were few and far between by the Italian Air Force. We had a few out of date Hurricanes which made themselves felt. Most of our time was spent at drill and stocking up ammunition on our gun-site at Zabbar which was not yet ready for occupation.
The powers that be were trying to build the defences up. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force were making their presence felt. Life was almost like peacetime. The buses would leave Valletta full to the brim inside and with people sitting on the wings. Drivers never wore shoes. The milkman would bring his herd of goats around to the door and milk them there. So you had fresh milk. You would find out that in the country people slept in stables, but everything was very clean.
After a few months a friend and I thought we would take a walk whilst on a day's leave. I stopped to take a photograph of him. The next we knew was we found ourselves in trouble with the Maltese Police. We were unknowingly in a forbidden zone, so we had to spend the whole day at the Police Station, only to be released when an Officer from our unit came and got us out.
While at St. Elmo we heard of a convoy being attacked and that HMS Illustrious had been hit. Having no duty to do that day we stood on the top of St. Elmo and saw the Illustrious limp in. They took her alongside the dockyard and started straight away to try and make her fit for sea again. Then the Air Raid alert sounded and one JU.88 passed over. They now had a picture of where she was berthed. It was not long before a 60 plus air attack was picked up coming in for the kill. They were now the German Luftwaffe. The Maltese Gunners put up a huge barrage over the harbour but they came right through it, followed by our Hurricanes who tried to put them off their target.
The JU.87's came out of their dives at almost sea level. This was my turn to have a shot at them but I was not trained enough to do any damage. After this encounter we moved to Zabbar where our guns were ready.
The Germans continued their attacks for ten days and nights, dropping mines by night. On one raid a JU.88 came out of a dive and was just below the safety margin for aiming so the guns could not fire. One Sergeant could not resist the chance of a certain hit and let one go. He missed the plane but the shell exploded under the tail, so I should think it never returned to Sicily.
The Siege of Malta had started, they were flying over the island by night and day, ready for the kill. The German Paratroops were waiting in Sicily. The guns had only allowed 10 rounds per gun so if we were to be saved then a convoy was needed.
After ten days they put a smokescreen at night over the harbour and HMS Illustrious slipped away. Times were now getting hard, everything was in very short supply. The Germans were coming over attacking everything that was of Military importance, the out of date Hurricanes were no match for the modern ME.109's but were useful to shoot down the slow-moving bombers if they could get them. We lost a lot of brave lads.
I left my gun-site at Zabbar and was put on driving heavy lorries (Matadors). This duty consisted of carrying stores. We were based on the edge of Luqa airfield, at Battery H.Q. Everytime they bombed the airfield we also got caught up in it. Here we lost one Officer so they decided to move us to Gzira, by the motor-torpedo boats and submarines. Then they changed us around again, this time on to a gun-site on top of the submarine base on Manoel Island in Sliema Creek. As soon as the air raids started they would leave a skeleton crew on the subs and sink them by the Jetty until the raids were over then they came up again. They were cutting pens for them out of the rock but the War ended before they were finished. The raids got so bad, and with so many of the gun crew's members getting killed and our sleeping quarters bombed out, once again we had to move.
This time we went to Mosta, on the edge of Ta Kali air-strip which was for fighters. Again when the air raids started we had no protection but had to lay under our lorries. Then it was decided to send us to Marsa. They wanted to call all the heavy transport in and form it into a Diesel Pool under one Officer. We had to build our own sleeping quarters out of empty petrol tins filled with earth.
We were in a corner of a Maltese gun-site. Night or day if there was a raid started and there were lorries left on the site we had to move them quickly to safety. The Maltese drivers were allowed to go home and sleep at night so we would do any night call outs.
I had one such call out while a raid was on. The other drivers had dispersed from the danger zone so I was called out to a gun-site. When I got there I was detailed to tow a G.L. Set out from where it was. No one came with us. When we got it into the road it was then that they told us there was a delayed action bomb in the field by the G.L. Set. Being a transport driver one was always caught in the danger zone.
On one such trip we were travelling along Luqa strip where they parked up all the damaged planes. We always had a trailer on the back carrying ammunition and here we were, the air raid warning had gone. You never stopped going until you saw what the enemy planes were diving for. We drove on in between the wrecked planes and then jumped out to run like hell. Another day we had luck with us.
Our worse job was being loaned to the Army working on the airfields. We were used to carry rubble to fill the bomb holes in after a raid. While you were doing this work another raid started and no one was allowed to take cover until the planes were overhead. Then the Sergeant would blow his whistle and it was one mad dash to get under the lorry and pray they missed you. You had a better chance if you were working with a crew building Blast Pens to put the fighters in, then when the JU.87 made its dive you could see bombs leave the plane and you would know which side of the wall to dive for protection.
We were being fed on hard biscuits and bully beef. Our cigarettes were the famous 'Victory V'. If you did not starve to death the 'Victory V' would help you along.
No girl in Malta was allowed out with an English lad on her own. They always took Mama or a sister with them when courting. All army lorries were told to give lifts to any Maltese walking since no buses were running. The Karrozins, a type of horse bus were still running. We had the gruesome job of collecting the dead from gun-sites and taking them to the mortuary as well as the bodies of enemy airmen.
During the final stages of the Siege the Germans took the threat of invasion away. All the paratroops were called back for Crete. Another mistake by Hitler.
I was working on Ta Kali when the first lot of Spitfires were flown in from the carrier, USS Wasp. The ME.109s shot up the Spits while they were landing. We were firing from our slit trenches with rifles but never saw any ME.109s crash. Only Spitfires. The second lot from USS Wasp came in and were refuelled and were straight back in action. In the meantime the RAF had repaired some of the first lot and they were in the air waiting. The enemy came in and it was a grand sight to see the enemy being shot down.
Eventually only three ships of the Pedestal Convoy got through and nine other ships were sunk. The oil tanker Ohio though badly damaged and supported by a destroyer on either side made it to Malta to the cheers of the crowds watching. The fuel was badly needed as the RAF had only three weeks supply left. This was the turning point for Malta.
(The Eyewitness was Gunner G. Warner, 191 Battery, 10th HAA Regiment, Royal Artillery)
The bombing raids were easing off when I was in Valletta on a twenty-four hour pass. While in a bar in 'The Gut' (Strait Street) a Hampshire Private named William DUDMAN came into the bar and in the course of conversation he told me and my mate who, like me was a Corporal at the time, that he had broken camp because he had drawn extra pay and wanted to spend it. Hearing this I told him to get back to camp and I would not report him at which he left.
About half an hour or so a lone ME.109 flew over very low machine-gunning. It was a very murky afternoon, 15th February 1942, and there had been no Air Raid warning. Next we heard a crash of a bomb going off pretty close. We rushed from the bar and ran up the street to where the bomb had exploded.
We bumped into a young lad of about twelve who was bleeding from a nasty head wound. Turning to my mate I said "Get him to the First Aid Post" the young lad said "No, I'll find my own way there as there are a lot of people who need help. The Cinema has had a direct hit".
We left the lad and ran to the Square, it was a terrible sight as the Regent Cinema was just a pile of rubble with bodies all over the place. We started to help. There were about four young Priests swinging incense burners going around and blessing the dead.
On the road itself was a Horse Cab with the driver, two passengers and the horse all dead, killed by the blast and the carriage was upright with the passengers still in their seats.
Next day I read the Casualty List (I was a Signals Corporal) and the Private who I had seen the previous day had left the bar and gone to the Cinema. He was killed. If he had not drawn pay and broke camp he might still have been alive.
(The Eyewitness was Corporal Jim Bellows, Royal Hampshire Regiment)
Landing from the Cruiser HMS Liverpool in the early hours of October 1st 1940 I was on a draft to supplement the strength of the 8th Battalion The Manchester Regiment already there from May 20th shipped out from France.
I was first assigned to Beach Post J2 at Gnejna Bay then to Post FR1 at Fomm-ir-Rih. It wasn't long before they became only memories. On learning that I had been a part-time professional entertainer in Civvy Street my C.O. asked me to appear on a company concert, after which he explained that due to expected isolation and the difficulty in transporting entertainers, Headquarters were seeking artistes from all services to form a Command Concert Party of their own, and that I would be of more service there than on a Beach Post.
Auditioning and interviews soon saw me transferred to War HQ and in late December I was billeted at the Auberge de Castille in a staff job with the grand sounding name 'The Command Librarian'. This was of course a 'Comforts For The Troops' effort receiving and distributing thousand of books, magazines, Penguin novels, etc., to all units on the island.
Colonel D.B.L. FOSTER Assistant Chaplain General to The Middle East Forces was organizing this and soon had me installed in The Vernon Club. He arranged for volunteers to help sort the many hundreds of books, and many of the helpers were officer's wives, even Miss Sybil Dobbie the Governor's daughter came to help.
They seem to take a back seat when accolades an praise are awarded, they did a great job giving up many hours of time and contributing in true British style even during air raids, two in particular, retired Colonel and Mrs TAYLOR showed extreme courage an determination till the job was completed.
I was billeted with the Garrison Military Police, whose force was made up of N.C.O.s and soldiers from practically every unit on the island. Numerous and often dangerous were their duties; besides acting as Castille and Lascaris War Room Sentries they also did Mine Spotting, pinpointing with adjustable gauges from the bastions mines dropped during air raids into the Grand Harbour. Readings from these were later taken for the Mine-sweepers to take over.
They also went out on rescue work in the streets of Valletta, and the most unpleasant job of Mortuary Duty. This entailed receiving and preparing for burial those comrades who had paid the supreme sacrifice, and often those recovered from the sea. The Castille also later housed The Defence Security Office, Postal Services, Stationary Office Staff, Army Film Unit Staff, some Signal Units, and the upper floor of the left side overlooking the Grand Harbour was occupied by the Naval Signal Station.
The Command Concert Party made up of entertainers from all three services were billeted in and around Valletta, visited Aerodromes, out of the way and often desolate Depots, Hospitals, Gun Positions, the Submarine Base at Manoel Island, and even visiting warships that stayed in port long enough.
Under the direction and organisation of Captain Ken CROSSLEY we helped to organise and establish 'The Command Fair' a refuge of recreation for Service Personnel on leave. Attending to our own jobs through the day and entertaining or helping out in the evenings. The Fair was situated at the bottom of Merchants Street in the old Police Depot. Various games of skill were available, as was at first refreshments, also entertainments and boxing tournaments were arranged.
We rehearsed avidly to present in time 'COMMAND PARADE' a combined services and civilian show given twice daily for a week at the Manoel Theatre, Valletta, with all profits going to Malta Hospitals. A cast of over 60 people took part including many Maltese professional artistes. We had the C-in-C's Orchestra under the Leadership of Maestro BELLIZZI and the distinguished patronage of Viscount Lord Gort.
I made many friends as well as good comrades, and as the Vernon Club gradually became too small I had to say farewell to Mr and Mrs EVANS who ran the club most efficiently always with a friendly and helpful attitude. I moved to the back of The Opera House into a balcony section of St. James Cavalier between HM Stationary Office and a very quiet Naval Depot which I never really found out much about.
As the blitzes increased supplies for the services were understandably altered to essential items for survival only, such as ammunition, fuel, and food. Our daily duties had to take a back seat and we all had to muck in and help out on more essential tasks as requested to supplement the work load of the Garrison Military Police.
In particular one such event has stayed with me for all this time helping out on Mortuary Duties. One night we received a call to admit three soldiers killed during a raid on Msida. On reception I saw immediately by their shoulder flashes that they were lads from my own regiment, and as we cleaned them up and prepared them for burial emptying their pockets of all personal belongings a slip of paper and a letter from the breast pocket of one young lad aged about 21 or 22 revealed that his wife or sweetheart had written especially for him what I thought was a very lovely poem.
With everything attended to we returned to the Castille, handing in duly labelled from each one their identification disc and all their recovered belongings. Next day a telephone message from a close pal in my regiment informed me that two of his comrades had perished, I had to tell him that there were three. A few nights later in our billet one of the lads had the radio on and I listened, for the first time since reading in the mortuary what I thought was a very lovely poem, I heard Vera Lynn singing the words that he had received in her letter, the song was 'YOURS'. It was events like these that, although emotional and saddening gave us the determination and encouragement to endure and end in victory.
Later, due to our upstairs billet being blitzed we were moved to the ground floor and once again during the heavy blitzes we had to move our beds and gear down to the cellars where we returned each night to try and get some sleep. After many months below ground we were again moved into a civilian house in St Ursula Street but due to a direct hit on an adjoining house we had to flit again. This time it was somewhere off Old Mint Street, and fortunately that's where we stayed.
The last time that I saw the Castille it was covered in dust and debris, the great winding twin staircase inaccessible a mass of crumpled masonry with two bodies buried beneath, the great Opera House lay in ruins as did many shops and homes in shattered Valletta, as sudden instructions came to 'Be at Luqa airport by 9 a.m. tomorrow'. I didn't even have time to say Goodbye to all my old comrades and friends.
As I looked down from the Dakota carrying me away I said a silent prayer that soon Malta would rise again like 'A Phoenix from the flames' and long remember the bravery and sacrifices of those who gave so much to ensure our survival.
(The Eyewitness was Reg Bleasdale, 8th Battalion, The Manchester Regiment)
The Germans are well known to be a methodical race, and the Air Raid Schedule is no exception to the general rule. Like unwelcome acquaintances they always seem to visit at meal times, which is a source of considerable annoyance. It is commonly supposed that this is a new branch of the Hun war of nerves, aimed at destroying our digestion.
We work in four parties of 25 men under a Sergeant, and Johnny and myself supervise two parties apiece. Each morning at 8.30 trucks are loaded, guns, ammunition and first aid checked and we start off in time for the 9 o'clock 'Breakfast Blitz'. On arrival at the scene of operations, the first job is to get the Machine guns mounted. We use bomb craters as gun pits, working on the old fallacy that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. Before we have a chance to start work the siren goes, closely followed by a Verey light, which is the take-cover signal. The men disperse to shelters and slit trenches, the crews load and stand-by. Two guns are mounted in one crater-caused by a 2000 lb bomb and I take over one of them. My loader is CAREY, a Cockney and two Scotsmen, McDOUGAL and STEWART are on the other gun.
The Spitfires take off to engage the enemy well out to sea, and our first warning of the direction of the attack is given by shell bursts. A cluster of white puffs very high, and we swing the guns around. In a few seconds planes are visible and as they get nearer we can see that they are Junkers 88's. They seem to come straight at us then suddenly wheel away to the right and go into a dive. This time someone else is unlucky. The ack-ack is bursting all around them and one goes down out of control with the tail blown off, but still they come on.
Through glasses you can count the bombs as they fall and follow them through the air until mushrooms of smoke and dust spring merging into a pall and blotting out the whole area. The gun crews are so busy watching the planes speeding out to sea (one is on fire) that they do not notice a barrage going up behind them until the planes are almost overhead, twenty more JU 88's and it is going to be our turn. Way beyond the bombers there is a first rate dogfight going on between Spitfires and Messerschmitts.
The Junkers go into their dives three abreast. They take no notice of the barrage. Their bravery is suicidal, but they flatten out earlier than usual, still out of range of us. The bombs begin to fall in quick succession; we get our heads down; the air is black with dust and smoke, visibility is nil; the last one drops, the barrage fades away; the dust clears, a Verey light tells us to come out of our holes.
The roll call is made hurriedly - three men are missing. Someone saw them in a slit trench. Quick inspection shows that a bomb landed next to it and the trench collapsed. Willing hands seize a dozen shovels and dig feverishly. Within five minutes all three are out and the most serious casualty is a broken leg. All three are suffering from shock and superficial injuries, so they are packed off to the Advanced Dressing Station after first aid. Then work begins.
Two parties are constructing roads and blast walls, and the remainder are supplying them with materials. Johnny takes the construction party and we get down to it. Sergeant CLARKE splits his party in half and they separate one to load earth from bomb craters and the other rubble from demolished buildings.
I stay with Sergeant ALFORD who is pulling down a block of derelict buildings so that the stone may be put to a more useful purpose. The average Maltese house is built of locally quarried stone blocks, weighing anything over two hundredweight, so that the shifting of them is no light work. However, the men very soon got into the knack of handling them and now throw them around like bricks. Two men start to loosen the corner of the wall with a crowbar and pick and soon the demolition is going with a swing. A length of iron piping is used as a battering ram and everyone groups round it to knock the keystone out of the arch. The moment the roof caves in provides great satisfaction.
There are few of us who can find no pleasure in large scale destruction. The loading parties keep a score of the number of loads the get off in the morning and there is now competition to beat the record of twenty. At about half-past ten the warning goes but it is only for a reconnaissance plane heavily escorted by fighters which is discouraged by the ack-ack and sheers off. The men who were badly shaken up in the last raid take cover but the remainder work on. The morning passes quickly.
At lunchtime there is the usual reconnaissance for the 'Lunch time Blitz' and at half past twelve the warning goes. We work on until the Verey light gives the signal to go to ground. Once again the men scatter and await events. A few Messerschmitts come over high to clear the skies, then the puffs of bursting shells appear in the sky. It looks as if it will be our turn this time.
Up at about 10,000 feet little specks can be seen glinting in the sun. They begin to dive. Standing by the gun I can see them coming at terrific speed. It seems that there is not one square inch of sky uncovered by shell bursts. All around the guns flash scarlet and little clouds of smoke drift away from the Batteries. They provide a steady bass to the treble whine of the revving aero-engines. We can now recognise them as Stukas, the easiest target of all for machine gun fire.
The gunner's finger is itching. It is a tremendous strain waiting for them to come into range. As they dive singly I can see one plane release its bombs, then the whine becomes audible. At last the planes are coming into range, I count 16 of them. The machine guns open up, terriers yapping to the baying of wolfhounds. I make an effort to keep calm and to aim well ahead of the target. I can see several bursts go home in the engine of one plane and another is smoking hard. I change the magazine furiously. Bombs seem to be bursting all around - probably there are none within 300 yards. STEWART on the next gun yells a warning. We drop flat, a bomb whines overhead and looking up I can see the yellow shape passing close above us. Our ears sing with the noise of the explosion and lumps of earth and small stones rain down on us. The second wave turns into dive - ten this time, but we cannot see through the dust to fire at them. For what seems an age hell is let loose and then quite suddenly there is silence. We climb out to have a look round and light up a cigarette with shaking hands. Slowly the smoke clears and in a couple of minutes the Verey light gives us the local all clear. No casualties.
We load up two trucks, take a rest, swop 'near miss' stories. One gun pit was straddled by 250 lb. bombs, each 25 yards away. The nearest to us was just 30 yards. Just as the all clear goes the food arrives, tea and bully sandwiches, and we take half an hour off for a smoke.
When we get back to work I wander over to see Johnny. His road has grown by a considerable distance and there is only one more row of stones needed to complete the blast wall. We stand talking for a minute but move ourselves very quickly when two Messerschmitts dive out of the clouds and unload half a dozen hand grenades apiece. Rather shattering when there is no warning but there are a couple of Spitfires waiting for them and they probably wont get home to tell the tale. Otherwise it is a quiet afternoon. At four-thirty we pack up, and barely get off the aerodrome before the warning goes again.
It was at Wilmslow where I first came across three airmen who became life long friends, Joe FORTH, Fred FOSTER and Frank MORAN. We were all Wireless Operators who, at Luqa carried out duties as Wireless Mechanics. In those days Joe FORTH would be remembered as a strong and fearless airman who carried out his duties in complete disregard for enemy action.
Fred FOSTER, a brilliant pianist, entertained everybody in the old wooden NAAFI building. Later he played classical music in the British Institute and at times was heard on the Maltese Rediffusion Service. Some may remember that he played the piano at the Bulls Head at Handforth, near Wilmslow.
Frank MORAN was another conscientious airman and a devout Roman Catholic. He rarely missed going to Mass on Sunday, mainly in Qormi, whatever the state of play.
We departed Gibraltar on board the m.v. Leinster in darkness under a cover of dense mist coming down off the Rock. I had been nominated duty signaller and armed with an Aldis Lamp, which was totally ineffective due to the thick fog, remained on deck with a Navy companion. We chugged along slowly for sometime before we heard an almighty crash. The matelot shouted " We've run aground" and dashed off. Having been on deck throughout I found myself on the first boat to be launched.
Daylight was breaking when a powerful British Navy motorboat came to our rescue. The Captain invited 20 of us to climb aboard, climbing a rope ladder dangling in space is no mean feat, and we sampled a steaming mug of beautifully sweetened R.N. tea.
We settled down to move slowly back to Gib where we subsequently boarded the French liner Pasteur. During the ensuing 10 days spent in Gib we enjoyed excellent French food and good Scottish beer. Later one night we were paraded on the Pasteur's deck and then divided into three parties. We marched with our kit, which had been rescued from the Leinster down to the Mole and went aboard the two Cruisers HMS Arethusa, HMS Hermione, and the fast Minelayer, HMS Manxman and set sail with an escort of destroyers across the Med. We were informed that the HMS Ark Royal, with Force H, had preceded us to create a diversion by setting fire to cork forests in Sardinia.
I was on HMS Hermione where I was delighted to find one of its crew, Stoker Frank CHARNOCK came from my home district and had worked in the same factory as myself. Frank was kind enough to share his rum ration with me, and told me that HMS Hermione was on her last trip prior to returning to Blighty for a refit. Alas it didn't turn out like that. He agreed to take home with him a letter to my fiancée and some small gifts that I'd bought for her from shops on the Rock, but they ended up at the bottom of the Med when the ship was torpedoed near midnight on 16th June 1942.
The day we sailed into the Grand Harbour the Barracca walls were lined with cheering spectators. Our first night was spent sleeping on the floor of an office building containing filing cabinets and metal cupboards riddled with bullet holes. After a long cold shower we made our way to the wooden NAAFI hut where we were delighted to find beer and 'Heiggs n'cheeps' and better still a piano. Luqa hadn't had a good pianist for sometime and when Fred FOSTER laid his magic fingers on the keys the whole place was soon singing its head off, Fred was in constant demand until an ill directed bomb pranged both the NAAFI and the piano.
Now I come to the vignettes of life on Luqa. The larger than life Nick NICHOLSON who used to regale us with tales of his life working in the kitchens of Wormwood Scrubs. Nick was not unfamiliar with the Black Market and when ribbed about his nefarious activities would comment "Well, you've got to earn a crust". Paddy PATTERSON and Frank GREEN I remember well, bathing on the rocks at Sliema together with Phil SCHOLFIELD, Frank MORAN, and Freddy PITTS. Phil SCHOLFIELD had a lovely bass singing voice and was a member with myself and others in the Padre's hymn singing group. We had declined to form a service and sermons congregation but agreed to meet once a week to sing hymns.
During one spell transit aircrew who had had their kites commandeered or pranged shared a billet with us airmen. One crew consisted of Jimmy JORDAN, a Navigator I think, who when flying wore at his mother's insistence red flannel long combinations. He was a fanatical player at craps and loved to drag non-gamblers like myself into the game. The pilot was a tubby Englishman who was ragged unmercifully by his fellow aircrew which also included a Tasmanian who spent all his spare time in front of a mirror saying "Gees, I'm a handsome bastard".
As a result of enemy-action we were forced to bed down wherever we could and as a result we were constantly changing billets and companions. One billet contained such pleasant inmates as Corporal PAPWORTH, a memorable character who, among other things, taught me how to play Bridge. Ginger JOHNSON from Preston, Jock GORDON, Ted KITCHEN, Andy LINTON and Monty GREENBERG.
In another billet two of my companions were Stew HARRIS and Milt HURD, both of whom were surviving victims of the Polio outbreak. Milt was a Canadian by birth. Yet another billet, the 'Song and Dance' hut was blessed with a piano and a number of airmen who played or attempted to play guitars and mandolines.
Another contained two Yorkshiremen, Steve BALL and Wally MILES. Steve had been a butcher in Civvy Street and, while our thoughts were always centred on food, he claimed he could have one of the numerous goats ready for the oven in ten minutes.
An incident which will be remembered by many on Luqa concerned a shot-up Maryland trying to land on the main runway without brakes. To overshoot would mean crashing into the quarry. It was a boiling hot day and the heated air rising from the runway was frustrating every attempt by the pilot to get her down as near as possible to the start of the runway. Eventually, after many unsuccessful attempts, he managed to touch down and came hurtling down the runway at the bottom of which he revved his engines and slewed around without capsizing the plane. By this time a sizable crowd had assembled and the gallant pilot was greeted with a roar of cheers as he climbed out with his airmen whose shirts, I remember were black with sweat.
A memorable character was the RAF officer, Wing Commander POWELL-SHEDDON. For a time he was Controller at Luqa and threatened with a gun anyone who failed to take proper cover during an air raid.
Eventually we ran out of billets and were transferred to Ta Xbiex to a lovely Villa. I remember Sandy SANDBACH, and 'Jessie' JAMES whose claim to fame relied on his sister being a member of the then famous Dagenham Girl Pipers.
Finally, my list of names mostly from the Orderly Room List. Orderly Room stalwarts Reg FROST and Bill VERNON, Warrant Officer STONE, Flight Sergeant Jock FOREST, Corporal McQUADE, 'Lucy' ATWELL, 'Slim' AYRES from Ely in Cambridgeshire, Alf BARNETT, Bill BURROWS from a pub in Hounslow, Frank CLARKE, from Middlesex, Joe COOK, Wally COOK from Wimbledon, Jock CRAWFORD from Norwich, Jack GOLDING from Lincoln, Fred GREEN, Sam HALSTEAD, 'Len' HARVEY from Leeds, Frank KAYE from Barnsley, 'Pete' KNIGHT from Surrey, 'Knocker' KNOX, Arnold LISTER, 'Mac' McCORMACK, a guitarist from Huyton, Liverpool, George 'Carter Patterson' MEADOWS, 'Dusty' MILLER, Bill MILLS, 'Dai' MORGAN from Cardiff, Reg NOAKES from Nottingham, 'Pem' PEMBERTON from Lytham, Freddy PITTS, Bert PRIOR from Dagenham, 'Paddy' ROY from County Cork, Bernie SMITH from Leeds, 'Mick' SULLIVAN from Holborn, 'Vergie' VIRGO from Trowbridge, Sid WATERS our 'intelligence' man from Salisbury, 'Bill' WHITTLE from Cardiff, Eric WITHNELL from Blackpool and Ernie YALLOP from Cambridge.
(The Eyewitness was 979373 Leading Aircraftsman Richard FRANCE RAF)
The Infantry Battalions on Malta during the Siege years were kept very busy on a variety of tasks and projects, such as aerodrome runaway building and maintenance, standing in for the shortage of RAF ground crew, besides our other role, the defence of the Island. When in 1942 some ships were getting through, we became stevedores, winchmen, and dockside labourers, to get the valuable cargo off as quickly as possible.
Everything was organised to get the cargo ashore and out to the dumps in the countryside. Work would go on non-stop, and in the event of enemy aircraft approaching, the whole of the docks and Valletta area would be covered by a smoke screen. This did happen a few times, but work continued in spite of the coughing and watery eyes. Despite the fact that we were very hungry all of the time, the way we tackled the job was a revelation. Most days we ate the day's ration in one meal, and had to wait 24 hours till the next one.
When the Merchant Ships, Orari and Troilus berthed at Valletta in June 1942, 3,200 tons of were discharged in the first 24 hours, 4,800 in the second 24 hours, and the whole 15,000 tons were moved from the ships holds to the dumps in 108 hours.
When the Melbourne Star arrived with the remnants of the Pedestal Convoy, she was unloaded by 231 Brigade, Hampshires, Devons, and Dorsets, in a record time. There was a friendly rivalry between units, to see who could shift the most cargo, Signs such as – 'A TON A MINUTE – NOTHING IN IT' would be chalked up on the quayside.
My Battalion, the Hampshires, later had the Robin Locksley to unload, and we shifted 7,785 tons of cargo between dawn on the 20th of November and the evening of the 25th November.
The one episode that really sticks in my mind is not in the history books, and I cannot even remember which ship it was. Owing to tankers being the prime target of enemy planes and submarines it was decided to transport some high-octane petrol in the holds of ordinary merchantmen. This fuel, in 4 gallon containers of very thin metal, were packed two to a cardboard carton, and then stacked into the bottom deck of one of the holds.
We were standing by ready to unload as soon as the ship was ready, dressed in PT kit, we had been warned that one spark could send us all to oblivion. This was an understatement, because when the hatches were removed we could see the air disturbance caused by the fumes, and smell them.
The first group, consisting of one Officer and about 12 men, went down the ladder into the hold, and down came the loading platform from the hoist. We all started off alright, I can remember putting some boxes on to the platform, but feeling very queer, as though I had drunk too much booze. I then remember seeing the Officer and some of the men lying or sitting on the deck, and then nothing more until coming out on the top deck, and being violently sick.
People were fussing around us, and told us that the fumes had got the better of us, and that another group of men had to go down to put us on the platform, and hoist us up on the derrick. Sitting up on the deck recovering we could watch the next attempt to get the petrol unloaded. The Navy was called in to rig up air chutes, from which came long flexible tubes ending in face masks. The next group of men went down, donned the masks, and proceeded to unload. All went well until men turned from the platform to get another container and the tubes crossed, resulting in the whole lot becoming hopelessly tangled„ and the idea was abandoned.
It was then decided that the only solution was for one group to go down the ladder, work like mad until a whistle was blown, then whilst that group came up the port ladder, a fresh group would go the starboard ladder, and so on. The system worked, and we were able to get thousands of gallons of high octane out to the aerodromes, were they were sorely needed. Whether this idea was repeated on other ships I have no idea.
(The Eyewitness was S.J. Chalk, Royal Hampshire Regiment)
I dropped in, in a Beaufort Aircraft in August 1942 for 2 days. With a crew of 4 we flew over the Pedestal debris to be welcomed and greeted by the command "What's your name and next of kin ? " quite a shock after 7 hours flight from Gibraltar. They told me they were commandeering my aircraft and I could hitchhike to Cairo. We got room on a DC3 taking the Governor Lord Gort.
Back to Luqa in March 1943, where Squadron Leader Robbie McKAY was still O. i/c of 69 Squadron with Squadron Leader 'Warbie' WARBURTON O. i/c 683 Squadron. Warbie introduced us to the DILLEY family in Windsor Terrace round the corner from the Meadowbank Hotel, the Officer's Quarters in Sliema. Ma Dilley and her daughters Doreen, Mary and Beattie, their sister was Matron up at Rabat. There was always a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit as Ma spent the morning scrounging for our benefit, our normal diet included 1 teaspoon of sugar a day, 1 slice of bread each day, and a choice gin or gin or gin in the bar except for 1 beer at 7p.m. Liar Dice was our favourite 'sport' 3 lives lost and we bought a gin all round.
We had regular searches to carry out each day, up the coast to Taranto, or across Italy near the big toe at dawn searching for shipping off Rome or Naples and as we couldn't get back through the Messina Straits in daylight we had to go west and find a friend to refuel. I found one at Tingley (Bone) with Smithy (Commander Millard F. SMITH of US Air Force) who was very helpful. I came into Tingley in a heavy storm over a pranged Marauder (14 Squadron), from which Flight Lieutenant Bruce SLADE R.A.A.F. and Gil LINDSCHAU were pulled out injured, what a small world it was. Bruce and I joined up together in December 1940.
We then took off from Tingley and went south of Sousse and Sfax to get back to Malta. Other sorties were out in the Mediterranean square searching for shipping or dinghies, all eyes alert at 50 or 100ft. Wally DAFT in the nose Navigator - Bill MILLWARD on Guns - Don MARSDEN (and after he was killed) Gordon LOVELOCK on wireless.
'Seagull' SCHULMAN, South African Air Force, Winters COMPTON, Denis FORMAN, John TALBOT, Paddy PARSONS, Sam HALL, Ernie BOYCE, Al LACKIE, J. WINDEBANK, Johnny BLACKER, Ted CROMPTON, Peter MclNTYRE, Frank CULLEN (Canadian), Nor CROMPTON, Letch LONGHURST, and Ginger CRABBE of Morden, London, are names that come back.
We used to sit on the rail outside the Meadowbank in Sliema awaiting our bus ride to Luqa each morning. After tea we played Liar Dice till after 9 then wander down to the Strand for a final zibib and a dance if we felt like it about 10 p.m.
In 9 months my crew and I did 67 trips and 371 hours operational flying and when I finished my first tour of 350 hours or75 operational trips in November 1943 I was shot into hospital with lord knows what was wrong with me probably TE - Time expired. Imagine the luxury we had chicken for lunch on Sunday.
It was in April 1943 that Captain NICHOLAS South African Air Force pranged his damaged Baltimore into a Hudson on the strip at Luqa. It took 1.1/2 hours to extricate his navigator, with petrol everywhere.
One day I was called to help calibrate gun-sights on the Navy ships in the harbour, HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson. What fun diving on Valletta harbour (all Ack-Ack turned off for me) and I confused them by making a final mock attack from the north-east and tricked them all. My reward was to go to sea in the carrier HMS Indomitable for a test run after receiving 'Compliments' from the 'Ditch'.
(The Eyewitness was Squadron Leader M. Lyne Skinner, Royal Air Force)
Our aircraft 'L' for Leather equipped with an overload petrol tank in the bomb bay was loaded with our kit, tools, spares and we were despatched to Malta with 10 other aircraft. The flight started at 00.55 hours on Thursday 26th November 1942 and we landed at Luqa, just as dawn was breaking, 6.1/2 hrs later.
So we come to the story of my 57 days on Malta from 07.20 hours on the runway at Luqa on the morning of Thursday 26th November 1942 to take off from that same runway at 03.30 hrs on Friday 22 January 1943, returning to Cairo for leave and new aircraft.
We reported to flying control and intelligence before being sent off to the Transit Aircrew N.C.O.'s Mess at the 'Poor House'. Here we had breakfast and were issued with the usual blankets and were sent to find a piece of floor to claim as our own. We soon found some of our friends who had been on the island since the beginning of the month sleeping after the previous nights operation and were able to get some of the 'gen'. They looked dreadful after only 3 weeks on the starvation diet and operating 2 and sometimes 3 times every other night, there were 2 crews for each aircraft so there were operations every night as long as the machines would fly to targets in Sicily, Tunisia, and Tripoli.
Having got the 'gen' and had a brief rest we N.C.O's managed to get transport to Valletta in the afternoon and had a quick look round the ruined city. Despite the damage we found a cinema showing 'Hotel Imperial', later we learned that our officers were staying in the Imperial Hotel in Sliema.
Next morning we were on detail for a double sortie to attack the docks at Bizerta in Tunisia in our regular aircraft 'L' the bomb load was 4000 lbs, almost the maximum, but we couldn't start the engines at the start-up time, the starter battery was flat, so we were 90 minutes late off the ground. With a full load we climbed slowly to 800 feet and set course over Filfla Island for the Tunisian coast. We were still climbing to operational height when we crossed the coast and turned north towards Tunisia.
We passed over Tunis at 10,000 feet and soon identified Bizerta Harbour through the breaks in the thick cloud. There was some heavy ack-ack and a few searchlights but they did not disturb us and our bomb aimer got a good sight on the docks as I flew straight and level. He put down one short stick of bombs, the time interval between the release of individual bombs could be varied by a clockwork mechanism in the bomb selection panel, this gadget was usually referred to as the 'Mickey Mouse'.
As we turned away a large fire was seen to start followed by a heavy explosion, the rear gunner reported the fire visible 15 minutes after leaving the target area, i.e. from about 40 nautical miles. It was extremely cold over the target so I came down quickly in an effort to release the constant speed units in the propeller hubs the hydraulic fluid had frozen.
The effort was successful and we cruised back at 5,OOO feet, avoiding Lampedusa and Pantelleria Islands which were in enemy hands and homing-in on the radio beacon on Gozo. We knew we had gone overhead the beacon in Gozo but Malta was obscured by cloud and some time was spent locating the runway at Luqa. We landed at 01.50 hours too late to re-fuel, re-arm and do the second sortie and return before dawn. So we passed through interrogation, had a good breakfast and went to bed, but didn't get to sleep for I knew I had to be up at 06.00 hrs to taxi our aircraft off the airfield and down the Safi Strip.
Next day I went down to Valletta with John DOVEY, a Navigator, but not in my crew he knew some people in my home town in Yorkshire although his parents were in Shanghai. We went to an afternoon dance at the Vernon Club found an establishment in Strait Street which could provide a corned beef meal. There we heard about another dance in Floriana at the ERA' s Club, we'd no idea what the letters stood for but some sailors there soon told us. We were quite welcome as N.C.O. Aircrew.
Next day the crew was on battle order again, my N.Z. Navigator had flu as a result of change in temperature; a week ago we were in K.D. shorts in the desert now we were so cold we needed full blue battle dress even during the day. We were given P.O. Eric LAITHWAITE from St. Helens. His skipper had flown his aircraft into the ground in the Western Desert in the summer of 1942 and after his hospitalisation Eric was getting odd trips with crews short of a Navigator. In fact this trip turned out to be the first of 19 consecutive operations that he and I carried out together, all from Luqa, for my N.Z Navigator, Jeff REDDELL went back to Egypt after a spell in hospital and then went on to the 48 Air School in South Africa as an instructor
We were briefed for a double sortie to Bizerta but half an hour before take off time there was a change to Trapani aerodrome in North West Sicily. We were airborne at 19.15 hours and flew round the west of Sicily and the moon had not yet risen so we had trouble locating the target. There was considerable flak, Eric let the 3750 lb. bombs go over the fire. Leaving the target we were caught in heavy, accurate gunfire from a coastal battery but were not hit. The landfall on Malta was good and we were down at 23.05 hours, only 65 minutes after leaving the target area.
When I got down the ladder and was just about to shout for a sandwich I found a despatch rider waiting to rush me to the Control Room deep in the rock to give Sir Keith Park, the AOC and his Staff the latest 'gen' on the weather and target. An instant decision to attack the same target again was made and I was rushed back to the runway for delayed refreshments and an extra chocolate ration.
The aircraft was ready to go except for the wireless which was giving our N.Z. operator some trouble, in the end we were last off again. Eric asked Bert HORTON our radio operator to drop a stick of parachute flares when he thought we were on target, and we were; so it was 'straight and level' 'bomb doors open, steady, steady' 'bombs gone' 'close bomb doors', 'everybody watch for bomb bursts and they were right on the dispersal areas of the airfield and there was opposition too. Heavy flak bursts heard, seen and smelled. My evasive action was very violent, we lost 5,OOO feet in steep diving turns and I saw some very high speeds on the instrument panel. Taffy BALL our new front gunner was somewhat shaken. All went well though and we avoided the coastal battery on our return journey and landed at Luqa at 04.45 hours. A total of 7.1/2 hours flying for the night and twice on the receiving end of heavy flak.
On 11th December we attacked the docks at Palermo in 'P' this aircraft had no front turret so we had no front gunner and we had a new wireless operator, a new rear gunner and a different second pilot, in other words Eric LAITHWAITE and I were the nucleus only of the old crew. The new wireless operator, Bert WARD from Northallerton, Yorkshire, flew a further 19 trips with me and returned to the U.K. with me in the 'Mauretania' from Freetown in April 1943.
'P' for Peter turned out to be a poor machine, first there was no heat in the cockpit, second the gyroscopic direction indicator failed after an hours flying and progress had to be made using the magnetic compass only, third we didn't find out about the I.F.F. until we got back at Luqa. However, we eventually came out of the cloud as headed up the east coast of Sicily and passed close to the crater of Mount Etna (10,739ft high) on our port before turning west along the Northern coast towards Palermo which we reached at 02.40 hours, and the clouds cleared.
Searchlights and Flak Batteries were active but inaccurate and Eric put one good stick of bombs across the end of one of the jetties on a southerly course so that I was able to fly straight across the island on the route back to the Gozo radio beam but we found Luqa in complete darkness.
Assuming an Air Raid I circled overhead, keeping a good watch at all windows and turrets for enemy aircraft, but we were soon challenged in morse code by an 'Aldis' lamp from the airfield control caravan, giving the right response on our own signal light we were soon able to join the circuit and land on the flare path.
I was told in the Flight Office that our I.F.F. set was unserviceable, or we had forgotten to switch it on and therefore we had been treated as hostile. There had been an Air Raid alert all over the island because we had been plotted on radar approaching Luqa over Gozo from the centre of Sicily. The I.F.F. (Identification Friend or Foe) set not to be confused with the medical term FFI, was the original 'Black Box' it received a radar signal from the ground and re-transmitted it back to ground in one of two forms, a simple switch enabled the aircraft to signal 'friend' or a distress call.
The system is still in use today and I was told recently still available, but it is also the basis of equipment in today's airliners which marks the Air Traffic Controllers TV screen with flight number, height etc., and enables the pilot to signal 'highjack'.
We were again on the battle order on Sunday 13th December, we had aircraft 'P' again with its three faults duly repaired. Ken ANNABLE as second pilot, Eric as navigator/bomb aimer, Bert WARD as wireless operator, no front turret, no gunner and Jerry GURES of the Royal Canadian Air Force in the rear turret. He had been the sole survivor of a prang on the runway a week ago and this was to be his first trip after a complete days sick leave.
We were airborne at 18.20 hours and there was only light cloud as we set course for Tunis over Filfla Island as usual. We pinpointed easily on the coast south of Cape Bon and could see flak bursts in the sky over Tunis town. We reached the target area at 20.20 hours and found there was cloud over the docks area at La Goulette obscuring a good oil fire, there was little accurate flak and the moon's first quarter illuminated the target well. We could circle the target at 9,OOO feet without 'worry' and after 30 minutes the cloud cleared and Eric decided to drop our bomb load in three sticks, the first stick fell alongside the electricity generating station causing a blue flash, the second fell across the oil refinery and the third started a large fire on an 8000 ton ship moored off the oil jetty. The fire punctuated by explosions could be seen from 40 miles away. We were back on the ground by 22.55 hours and had a lot to tell the Intelligence Officer at de-briefing. Then we had sandwiches, chocolate and coffee and switched our kit to 'N' for nuts, 'P' had developed an engine oil leak which could not be fixed in time for the second sortie.
This 'N' was destined to give Jerry GURES and the rest of us a fright before we had finished with her. The control for the air cooling vents on the starboard engine was very stiff and I was not sure whether the vents were closed when I took off. I soon knew they were open by the vibration as soon as we were airborne, then the instrument panel lighting failed as I struggled with the control column and tried to gain height. Eventually I reached 500 feet over the sea to the west of the island and decided to abandon the trip. An emergency call to Luqa gave us an immediate clear runway and I did a gentle circuit and run in to the airfield over Valletta, and down on to the concrete as gently as possible, we all knew that we had a full bomb load and full fuel tanks. I had never landed an aircraft at this maximum weight before but we got down safely and taxied to a blast pen before anyone on the ground would come near. We'd been in the air only 25 minutes. The jammed vent control and lighting fault were quickly fixed but too late for us to go back to La Goulette.
This was my 24th operation and brief details form the central feature of the official citation for my Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) awarded after the completion of my complete tour of 40 operations in 206 hours. On our next operation in 'C' for Charlie two nights later we had another second pilot, Ken having left us, P.O. KITCHEN. We were over Tunis town by 20.45 hours and decided to attack straight away, flak was heavy and accurate but we made two bombing runs and saw bursts on the warehouses and the head of the rail yards.
On our return to Luqa we had to circle whilst a bomb crater in the runway was filled. After sandwiches we again took off in 'C' to attack La Goulette, on arrival we found the docks in darkness, the moon having set but a blazing ship was a good aiming point for our first stick and our second stick straddled the generating station. We saw no flak but on landing back at Luqa at 05.00 hours found a large hole in the starboard wing causing damage to the flap which meant our next trip would be in yet another aircraft.
On Friday 18th December we were briefed for a double sortie to Tunis again. We had yet another second Pilot, Pilot Officer MOIR all gaining operational experience prior to getting their Captaincy. I had in fact eight different second pilots in my 28 trips as Captain.
Half way to Tunis, just south of the island of Linosa our engine driven generator failed so I decided to turn back, but the aircraft batteries appeared to be maintaining voltage so I asked Eric, our navigator for a course to Comiso airfield on the south east corner of Sicily. We attacked with one stick of bombs and landed back at Luqa at 21.00 hours.
We moved our kit to 'J' the reserve aircraft and prepared to take off for the second sortie at 23.30 hours. At 23.10 hours, just as all the refuelling and re-arming of the aircraft was completed the sirens sounded and a heavy raid on Luqa started almost immediately. We departed the aircraft rapidly and found shelter as best we could. Seven of our aircraft were destroyed and three damaged. 'J' was a write off. The folly of lining up aircraft ready for take off was now obvious and it was realised that the Luftwaffe was not yet finished. No more double sorties were planned after that.
On Wednesday 22nd December we N.C.O.s all moved from the 'Poor House' at Luqa to a large apartment block called Balluta Buildings overlooking Balluta Bay, Sliema. Here we had rooms and beds and good food, such as it was. There was even a promenade to walk along, very civilised. The following day we had rain and more bad weather the next day enabled us to pay a visit to Valletta.
On Christmas Day the Battle Order was there on the board and we were down for a trip to Tunis in 'N' for nuts. Our new billet was close to where the Officers were staying at the lmperial Hotel and I was to pay Eric LAITHWAITE our navigator a visit to see how the other half lived. Christmas Lunch in the Mess, half tin of American stewed steak with a promise that we could have the other half on New Years Day. We had an extra bottle of beer from the Brewery on the hill overlooking Sliema, rumoured to belong to a German Company, it was never damaged and kept on producing enough weak stuff to give us two half bottles a week.
The Met forecast was dreadful and we all thought we were being sent out for propaganda purposes only, certainly I had no fervent desire to bomb Tunis on Christmas night. Having had our Christmas meal we were sent off without further food at 18.10 hours and climbed straight up into the cloud which went up to 12,OOO feet, we didn't see anything after leaving Malta, either at Tunis or the alternate target Souse, so we thankfully brought our bombs back to base.
As a treat we were given a first class breakfast in the Officers Mess at 01.30 hours on Boxing Day morning. One crew was missing, including our unlucky gunner Jerry GURES but they were found in their rubber dinghy at dawn and brought back to Kalafrana Bay by the Air-Sea Rescue Launch.
So we seemed to be settling back to the routine and we were briefed for Tunis two nights later with Flight Sergeant GARLAND, 2nd tour man and ex-Flying Boat pilot as second pilot. The weather again was bad with temperatures down to 10-12 °C at 10,OOO feet, in cloud giving problems with icing. Flak over Tunis was heavy and very accurate. I made three attempts to run in over the docks but had to dive out to avoid the flak. So we turned our attention to La Goulette at the other end, the seawards end of the canal and put our bombs down through a lucky break in the cloud. Not a very satisfactory trip but at least we survived to bomb another target. Cloud on the return journey was heavier still but we were on the ground at 23.00 hours and happy indeed to find ourselves in the Officers Mess again for a wizard breakfast, before turning in at Balluta at 02.00 hours.
Next day we had mail from home to read, 6 week old copies of the local paper: Halifax Courier & Guardian, but in the Sergeants Mess were copies of yesterday's Sunday papers brought in by Mosquito crews. They had flown direct from the UK over occupied France to carry out long range intruder attacks on Italy. This was 23 Squadron Commanded by Wing Commander Peter WYKEHAM-BAINES.
The N.C.O.s were wearing a new type of black suede topped flying boots with ordinary shoes at the bottom which could be cut off with a tiny penknife in an internal pocket. After discarding the high tops you could then 'escape' in nice black shoes. The usual boots we had in zipped up brown suede were nice and warm for flying but absolutely hopeless for walking back to base across the desert or escaping across occupied territory.
On 30th December 1942 we again had Flight Sergeant GARLAND in the right hand seat and were briefed to take 'N' for Nuts to Sfax, a new target well down the coast south of Tunis. En route we were above broken cloud and our navigator decided to press on. Fortunately the forecast wind was good and we made landfall on the Isles of Kerkenna some ten miles due east of our target in good time for the Blitz period. Flight Lieutenant MclNNES was carrying a load of parachute flares and these started to appear right over the target, dead on time at 19.30 hours.
I was able to go straight in and Eric LAITHWAITE our Navigator/Bomb aimer got a perfect sight and let go a short stick of four 500lb. bombs. In a steep turn to the left after the bomb doors closed I clearly saw the first three bombs burst in the harbour and the fourth hit the dock side railway track about 75 yards from the power station.
Coming in for a second attack, heading out to sea over the town so that we could be on our way back to Malta. Eric LAITHWAITE selected our remaining smaller bombs and incendiaries and ordered 'Bomb Doors Open' the bombs all fell out through the bomb bay doors before they had time to open completely and were seen to land and burst across the native village and into the French Quarter. Our return journey was quite uneventful but we had to circle around Malta for a hour before going in to land owing to an air raid on Valletta and got back to Balluta Bay about midnight.
After a visit to Sliema I turned in early on New Years Eve, but the Luftwaffe 'celebrated' the end of 1942 by visiting Valletta Harbour at irregular intervals and thoroughly disturbed everybody, including me.
We were on battle order again and were briefed for a 17.30 hour take off for a long trip to Palermo but we were advised at Noon of a 4 hour delay so I caught a bus down to the cinema in Kingsway, Valletta, and saw 'The Thief of Baghdad'.
Back at Luqa we were airborne at 21.55 hours and decided to take the route round the west end of the island. There was much cloud on our route and the controls suffered the effects of icing temperatures below zero Fahrenheit were quite common at operational height which was as high as we could reach for the major targets like Palermo. In fact we were at 12,OOO feet when we made our single bombing run at 00.40 hours on 2nd January 1943, on our southerly heading. We had seven 500 lb. bombs and only one 250 lb. bomb and I was not seriously bothered by the heavy flak and searchlights so the bomb aimer had a smooth, steady run up to the aiming point.
We must have been the first aircraft in to attack for the appearance of our short stick bursting across the north mole of the harbour was the signal for many other bomb bursts. I put the nose down, built up speed and took a direct course back to Malta arriving and landing first at 02.10 hours, for a total flight time of 4 hours and 15 minutes. During interrogation we learned that a distress call had been received from Sergeant RICHARDSON's aircraft 'Bailing out west of Tunis'.
With his aircraft damaged by flak over Palermo John DOVEY the navigator had continued his calculations and had taken the aircraft across to Cape Bon, over Tunis towards the 1st Army in Algeria, the whole crew had to bale out then but, did so successfully without injury. John received an award of the Distinguished Flying Medal on 7th January and the whole crew were back on the Squadron, via Gibraltar on 11th January.
For our next trip we were allotted 'P' for Peter, the target for 4th January was to be Sousse, a port midway between Tunis and Sfax and another new target for us. We had 25 flares on board and a reduced load of 1500 lbs. We had a new second pilot, Eric KERBEY from Ilford and he was destined to stay with us for the next half dozen trips including our flight back to Cairo before getting his Captaincy
This being a new target for us we deliberately pinpointed on the coast south of Sousse and headed north for the target. At 19.47 hours we dropped a first stick of six flares up wind of Sousse Docks but there was considerable cloud and no one was seen to attack. A second Blitz time had been arranged to coincide with the arrival of Wellington aircraft from 104 Squadron and we put 14 flares down at 20.10hrs 104 Squadron dropped theirs on time and I counted a maximum of 25 flares which illuminated the target area beautifully. We dropped our small number of bombs at 20.15 hours through moderate but intense flak. There was a tail wind for our return route.
One day I went to the Flight Commander about a Commission, he said he would recommend me for a Field Commission on active service but it would be necessary to visit Group H.Q. for an interview. Group is somewhere in the desert west of Benghazi so there will be some delay. All eight cinemas on the island have been put 'out of bounds' to British Troops on account of Infantile Paralysis. There was Meningitis in the 'Poor House' before the aircrew moved in, something to do with the starvation diet.
After our short break we were back on the Battle Order with 'N' for Nuts with our regular navigator, Eric LAITHWAITE, now promoted to Flying Officer. Briefing was rather more detailed than usual for we were to attack a road junction south of Castel Benito, the main aerodrome near Tripoli, reported to be choked with Rommel's Afrika Corps Transport retreating towards the Tunisian Ports for a last stand before withdrawal to Sicily and then Italy. We had a load of eight 500 lb. semi-armour piercing bombs to break up the foundations of the metalled road which relied heavily on the bomb aimers 'perfect' accuracy and the pilot's 'perfect' flying.
We had a good pinpoint at 19.10 hours and circled, watching flares go down as other crews searched for a target opportunity through the cloud, but Eric LAITHWAITE knew exactly where we were and had a 'good' wind calculation from our outward journey and we commenced a timed turn for Castel Benito on a route to avoid the heavily defended docks and harbour area and at 20.25 hours, Eric called for Bert, our wireless operator to pop out a flare. When it burst I could see the aerodrome below and turned on a southerly heading immediately, Eric started to give me corrections for the turn on to the road junction before the flare fizzled out. The first stick of bombs straddled the road with one bomb catching a vehicle, presumably since we saw a column of smoke, the second stick fell short but the last bomb fell in the centre of the junction. A very good effort indeed, later we discovered at interrogation that the majority of crews had brought their bombs back or bombed alternative targets.
I got the aircraft back on the ground at 22.35 hours, we were first back. Eric put our aircraft away in its blast pen whilst we went into intelligence for the interrogation. Next morning we learned that 'Q' with Flying Officer EARL and his crew had ditched, they spent 7 hours in the dinghy before the Air Sea Rescue launch fished them out and returned them to Kalafrana.
Tuesday 12th January saw us back on the detail to fly 'N' again. Taffy BALL was down in the sick bay with a rash. So I decided to put Arthur HARVEY, our R.C.A.F. man in the rear and leave the front turret empty. We hadn't seen any night fighters and the Gunnery Leader confirmed the action, agreeing that our wireless operator could man the turret in an emergency since he also wore an air gunner's Brevet.
We were briefed for Sousse and this is where we set course for off Filfla island at 17.45 hours. We pinpointed the coast at Monastir at 19.25 hours and stooged off the coastal Sousse until the flares were dropped on Blitz time at 19.40 hours. We had a wizard view of the harbour with several ships moored along the wharves and I decided to run the land on course for 'home'.
Going inland to the north of the harbour we were repeatedly fired at by one 88 mm heavy flak battery but suitable evasive action being taken I commenced a straight and level turn across the town calling for a single stick of bombs. Eric made the necessary selection and the eight 500 lb. general purpose bombs were released. In a steep diving turn I saw the first five bombs burst on the warehouses on the north side of the harbour and the remaining three fell in the water, hopefully shaking a few rivets loose in the moored transports. We were on course for Luqa at 19.55 hours, passed over Linosa Island without being fired on and saw the flarepath landing lights come on at Luqa as we approached. We landed at 20.55 hours, a good fast flight from Sousse and returning to Balluta we were in bed by 23.30 hours.
Three days later after quite regular heavy rain we were due for another trip. Eric LAITHWAITE who had done 19 trips as a Navigator was due for return to the U.K. as tour expired so we were allocated a new man, Sergeant Bob WILLIAMS of the Royal Australian Air Force, a big fellow with a large family, from South Australia.
Our target for the night was to be the main Army Barracks in the southern suburbs of Tripoli, the first time we had a target of this nature but once again the attack was at the special request of and in support of the 8th Army, poised, just to the west, ready to force the Afrika Korps out. The harbour had been denied shipping trying to evacuate troops from the 2nd of January and it was some time after the attack of the 15th January that we learned that Monty had planned his final push to take Tripoli for the morning of the 16th January. In fact the city fell exactly one week later and half the Squadron, by then, had flown back to Egypt.
It was exactly 3 months since I had made my first trip to Tobruk now some 800 miles behind our lines. We had to take 'O' because an exhaust gasket had blown on 'N' take off was 18.25 hours. Taffy BALL was fit again and so Arthur HARVEY was in the front turret. We crossed the coast to the East of Tripoli on time. There was heavy flak and 17 searchlights in the harbour area and we wondered which Squadrons were active there. Some of the replacement aircrews who had participated in the 1000 bomber raid on Cologne on 30th May said that the opposition over Tripoli compared well with that over the Ruhr considering the difference in target area and the smaller number of attacking aircraft.
We identified the target area from maps and photographs and stooged around at 12,OOOft waiting for the Blitz time at 20.55 hours. On time we made our run and put our mixed load of 5 x 500 lb, 1 x 250 lb and 3 containers of incendiaries down in one short stick. Bob WILLIAMS had a good sight and a large fire started in the Barrack Compound, I was well pleased with his navigation and bombing capabilities.
We set course for home at 21.04 hours and were first back at 22.45 hours. The A.O.C., Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park sent a special message of congratulations to all air and ground crews.
During the afternoon we were briefed to attack roads to the west of Tripoli to hinder the German rout. Rommel is pulling back to prepared defences at Mareth but knows he has the 1st Army and the U.S. Troops behind him. Then the target was changed to the harbour but back to the roads just before take off at 18.15 hours. By 18.45 hrs we were at 7,OOOft and I knew we should have no trouble finding Tripoli but at 19.18 hours precisely, the starboard engine started to cough and splutter so I asked Bob to calculate a course to get us back to Malta whilst I juggled with throttle, carburettor mixture and propeller speed controls and got Bert, our wireless operator to stand by to send an emergency signal.
Eric KERBEY went down the centre of the aircraft to check the wing petrol tank change-over cocks and the gunners checked their parachutes. However, the engine picked up so we decided to press-on, we were all young and keen in 1943. We reached the coast, had a distant look at the harbour where one large fire could be seen, stores being burned by Axis rearguards, and then found the target area without any difficulty. We had a simple load of 13 X 250 lb. bombs and made 3 separate attacks on the roads and dispersal M.T. near buildings, bursts only were seen and in view of our engine trouble we did not hang around.
Course for Luqa was set at 5000 ft with the starboard engine well throttled back since a considerable oil leak from the top of the engine cowling had been spotted. There was considerable vibration and a general feeling of 'worry' in the aircraft but we reached Malta without further worse problems. Next morning we learned that one cylinder out of nine had lifted from the crankcase so a fresh engine was fitted on the starboard side.
Then we unpacked our kit, had a pay parade and went down into Valletta to buy some locally made souvenirs, Squadron Badges, Maltese Crosses and Filigree work, all in silver after which we were all ready to leave. We were detailed and briefed to take our faithful 'N' for Nuts after its starboard engine change with our usual full crew, plus 4 passengers and their kit and tools. There were two fitters and Engineer Pilot Officer MAUNDE and Armourer Warrant Officer CARRUTHERS.
We were at the aircraft just before midnight on Thursday 21st January, but the batteries were flat and it was 03.30 hours on Friday morning before we were away. Eric LAITHWAITE saw us off and MacLACHLAN and the A.O.C. paid us a visit. We were the only crew to leave that night.
The Orderly Room advised me of promotion to Flight Sergeant, backdated to 1st August 1942. I became the only RAF Flight Sergeant aircrew on the Squadron and managed to borrow the necessary brass crown from the Flight Sergeant Fitter on board the aircraft.
We climbed on track through cloud with moderate icing to 9000 feet and there was much spluttering of a seemingly minor nature from the port engine, nothing like so serious as the trouble we had experienced with the starboard engine, no evidence of oil leak so I assumed there was possibly some ice in the carburettor air intake. We made an accurate landfall north of Benghazi and altered course to take us to our next easy pinpoint on the coast at Sollum and reduced height to about 1,OOO feet, so that we could map read along the coast road and get a look at the famous places we expected to overfly.
About 50 miles west of Tobruk the port engine cut out and then re-started giving some intermittent power. I hastily climbed to 7,OOO feet and asked Bert WARD, our Yorkshire wireless operator to send a 'forced landing' signal to El Adem, the aerodrome south of Tobruk where at 07.30 hours I did a successful single engined landing.
Our fitters soon had the cowlings off the engine. They found water in the fuel filters. On draining the port wing tanks they collected 40 gallons of water. We had no means of knowing whether we had been filled up in Malta with accidentally contaminated fuel or whether it was sabotage. It took all morning to clear the fuel lines etc., and re-fuel.
After a snack lunch I did a brief air test, all seemed well so we loaded up and departed at 13.00 hours. Both engines functioned perfectly for the next 3 hours and we reached ALG 237 on the Cairo - Alexandria road without further incident. We did not see Malta again.
(The Eyewitness was Sergeant, later Flight Lieutenant R.G. Thackeray DFM, Royal Air Force)
This operation took place whilst we were based at Malta early in 1943. Four M.T.B's. 264 (Lieutenant A. SHELDRICK R.N.V.R.); 260 (Lieutenant A.F. WADDS R.A.N.V.R.); 313 (Lieutenant A.D. FOSTER R.N.V.R.) and 267 (Lieutenant A.P.G. JOY R.N.V.R.) with the Senior Officer of the 20th M.T.B. Division, Lieutenant Peter EVENSEN R.N.V.R. on board MTB 264, left Malta at midday on January 19th on patrol towards Tripoli. After eight hours one of 267's engines broke down and Lieutenant JOY had to turn round and return to Malta on two engines.
The remaining three boats carried on at 28 knots and half an hour later made landfall twenty-five miles east of Tripoli, running parallel to the coast. Approaching the harbour at ten knots on silent engines they came across a hospital ship just leaving, ablaze with lights and with the Red Cross signs lit up. The movement of this ship prevented the M.T.B's slipping into the harbour which was their intention. They cruised around for another hour, then while making another attempt to close inshore they sighted three tugs towing a submarine.
Lieutenant EVENSEN immediately ordered MTB 264 to attack with torpedoes (we carried only two). These missed and blew up on shore, so the boats closed to engage with guns. One of the tugs was hit and set on fire. Both this tug and the others promptly abandoned the submarine and headed for the safety of the harbour. MTB's 260 and 313 chased them in then had to withdraw when the shore batteries opened up. But the tug which was on fire was further hit and ran aground south of the harbour entrance. Meanwhile the submarine kept up accurate cannon fire, and scored a number of hits on MTB 264. Lieutenant EVENSON on board 264 came in for another attack intending to drop depth charges, but found that the submarine was grounded on a sand bank. The tugs had been trying to pull her off. There was not enough water to drop depth charges so Lieutenant EVENSEN decided in favour of a torpedo attack by the other two boats.
At this point a destroyer was seen emerging from the harbour at top speed, and at the same time the shore batteries were firing uncomfortably close. The MTB's hastily withdrew about ten miles, waited a while until the firing had subsided then crept in at slow speed for another attack. The submarine was sighted at 02.20 and MTB 260 fired her starboard torpedo at 400 yards, there was an explosion as it hit squarely aft of the conning tower and the submarine completely disappeared. As the shore batteries were opening up again the MTB's retired under the cover of smoke screens. They arrived back at Malta shortly before midday on 20th January.
When Tripoli was captured three days later, the Italian submarine 'Santorre Santorosa' was found abandoned on shoals a mile outside the harbour with severe torpedo damage. To carry out this operation we had to carry extra petrol in tins on our upper decks, this was a very hazardous thing to do, as the Germans had control of the air at that time, we were very lucky that we were not seen and attacked during our long journeys in daylight.
The following awards for this action appeared in the London Gazette : For bravery in a daring attack on Tripoli Harbour while serving in Light Coastal Craft :
The Distinguished Service Cross
Temporary Lieutenant Christian Peter EVENSEN R.N.V.R.
Temporary Lieutenant Harry Frederick WADDS R.A.N.V.R.
The Distinguished Service Medal
Petty Officer Motor Mechanic James Cyril JONES, D/MX.74660
Petty Officer Motor Mechanic John Nivison LAWRENCE B.E.M. P/MX.79487
Able Seaman Bernard COLGAN P/ESDX.1189
Mention in Despatches
Temporary Lieutenant Alexander Dunlop FOSTER R.N.V.R.
Temporary Lieutenant Harwin Woodthorpe SHELDRICK R.N.V.R.
Temporary Sub-Lieutenant Douglas James Roper AUSTIN R.N.V.R.
Able Seaman Robert CAIN C/JX.279892
Able Seaman Herbert Arthur GOLDSPINK C/JX.166690
Able Seaman Stanley HARLEY P/JX.273136
Able Seaman Roy Charles TOMKINS P/JX.296533
Ordinary Telegraphist Frank PULLEN D/JX.236959
(The Eyewitness was Able Seaman Herbert A. Goldspink, Royal Navy)
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