Malta – The Modern Crusaders I

Blenheim Mk.IV Unit: ex 431 Sqn, RAF Serial: N3688
This aircraft from OADU (Overseas Aircraft Delivery Unit) was located in Malta – on September 1940 due to navigator’s mistake has landed on Italian island Pantelleria where was captured.

AAR from the demo for Battle for Malta.

Flight Lieutenant James W. Moore DFC

I had no peace of mind when they were out. I could not stay in my office and when they returned I was afraid to ask ‘How did it go’. Those aircrew were the flower of our race; all of them had been given a good education in their youth and they were far above average in intelligence, men who knew what they were doing and why it had to be done and men who volunteered to be aircrew in preference to many other less hazardous tasks. Theirs was a calm and conscious courage. To every one of these volunteers the sinking of ships was their crusade and without doubt they were Knights of St. John – the modern Crusaders’.

Air Commodore Hugh Pughe-Lloyd

In April 1941, despite the enormous demands being made of the Blenheims and their crews in the United Kingdom, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, decided that the feasibility of crews, drawn from 2 Group, operating from the island of Malta against enemy shipping in the Mediterranean should be explored. Should the scheme prove to be feasible, squadrons should be detached from the UK on a rota basis, to operate from the island for five or six weeks before returning to England. Malta is 17 miles long and five miles wide, located only sixty miles from Sicily and 180 miles from the North African Coast. By contrast to its size, it is of immense strategic importance, having a large natural harbour at Valletta, on the route from Gibraltar (1,100 miles to the west) to Alexandria (1,000 miles to the east).The island had been subjected to eight raids by bombers of the Italian Air Force on 10 June 1940, when Mussolini declared war on the allies, raids which became part of a way of life to civilians and servicemen alike. At first there was no fighter cover at all, then four crated Sea Gladiator biplane fighters, awaiting shipment to Alexandria, were found at the docks. These were quickly assembled and brought into service to give combat, one soon being lost. The three remaining Gladiators, who for propaganda reasons became known as Faith, Hope and Charity, [pilots who flew the Gladiators, however, preferred to call them ‘Freeman, Hardy and Willis’] flew in defence of the island for three months until only Faith remained. She carried on alone until joined by Hurricanes from Egypt.

‘The flight from Britain was, in itself, difficult for the crews, many of whom were inexperienced. It was a route followed by many crews, posted with their aircraft, for service in the Middle East. The crews would take-off from RAF Portreath near Redruth in Cornwall, in tropicalised long-range Blenheim Mk IVs with long-range petrol tanks fitted in the bomb-bay. en-route, as the main tanks were being emptied, the overload fuel would be pumped by hand into the main tanks, care having to be taken not to pump air into the main tanks system, which would of course have disastrous results. Their route took them over the Scilly isles before turning south across the Bay of Biscay, where they were liable to meet enemy aircraft, to Cap Finisterre off the north-west coast of Spain. They then flew south, parallel to the coast of Portugal, to Cape Vincent where they turned east for the difficult approach to Gibraltar. overall, a flight of 1,500 miles which, without the aid of an automatic pilot, or other ‘mod cons’ took 8½ hours. Their troubles were not yet over for the runway at Gibraltar – formerly the racecourse – was short and because of the turbulence from the rock, was dangerous. There were a number of wrecked aircraft to testify to the problems encountered by other pilots.

They stayed in Gibraltar, where refuelling was done from four-gallon petrol cans, for suitable weather for the next leg of their flight to Malta. the first leg of their flight, the 1,100 miles to the island, was generally flown at heights of 10,000 feet or more, before returning to sea-level as they approached the Sicilian channel, the stretch of sea between Sicily and Tunisia. At the centre of the channel was the Italian island of Pantellaria, enemy fighters and radar being based both there and in Sicily, as many crews found to their cost. Having survived all these hazards the crews landed their Blenheims at Luqa airfield where they would be based.

On arrival they found themselves subjected to regular bombing raids, food in short supply, poor living conditions and as time went by, the prospect of a very short life. In the case of crews on their way to the Middle East, whose journey was not interrupted, they still had a further 1,000 miles to fly before they reached their destination in Egypt. I hardly need to add that many crews were lost due to enemy action, lack of fuel, mechanical failure or human error on this long and perilous journey.

The officer selected to explore the possibility of Blenheims operating from Malta against Axis shipping was Squadron Leader ‘Attie’ Atkinson DSO DFC of 2 Group, a highly regarded leader who became a legend to those who flew in these medium bombers. On 31 March 1941 Squadron Leader ‘Atty’ Atkinson led eight of his crews on 21 Squadron, having been briefed to attack ships off the Dutch Frisian Islands and to open the campaign against ‘fringe targets’. ‘Attie’ found two destroyers. One was bombed from fifty feet, with hits scored on the ship’s stern. She slewed round, listing heavily to port as a column of black smoke belched into the sky. Not content with this success, he then led the formation across the islands of the north Dutch coast, saw a German parade, dropped his bombs plumb between the ranks and then chased the regimental cook up a lane. Asked by the Intelligence Officer how he could tell it was a cook, ‘Attie’ replied soberly that it might have been disguise, but he was wearing a chef’s cap and apron. And then his observer commented, ‘Dammit, at the height we were flying we could not only tell that it was a cook, we could even tell what the cook was thinking.’

‘Attie’s report to Intelligence afterwards was typical. ‘At Ameland, at about 1400 hours,’ he said, ‘we sighted what I suppose must have been an after-lunch parade. I alerted my gunner and we sprayed the lot of them. After this, we found a fellow on a gun emplacement, said ‘good afternoon’ and went on our way.’ Their visit had not gone unnoticed, for their presence had attracted a great deal of flak, which, not too surprisingly, accounted for two of the Blenheims. Another successful attack saw ‘Attie’ being awarded a Bar to the DFC. But he missed the party to celebrate it. On 26 April ‘Attie’ took-off leading six crews of 21 Squadron on their flight out to Malta, which all of them completed successfully. On their arrival they flew a number of shipping sorties, having their aircraft serviced by naval personnel, losing one aircraft in an air-raid. ‘Attie’ led the first attack on a convoy to Tripoli and personally sank a 4,000-tonner, while others in the flight sank a destroyer. There were four more attacks on convoys and then the Blenheims came home, flying all the way from the Bay of Biscay to England on one engine. Sea spray had got in the other. Atkinson ran out of fuel and had to make an undignified, but safe, belly landing in a friendly Cornish field. ‘Attie’ was then posted back to his own original 82 Squadron. The man from Church House who had joined them as Acting Pilot Officer was, at twenty-six, in command of the Squadron. Some of the men who were now with him had escaped from Gembloux, but most of the faces were new. Wing Commander Atkinson flew again to his familiar base at Luqa, taking his Squadron with him.

As Squadron Commander ‘Attie’ often went out himself after the ships. Ship-sinking was a matter of gambits. Most frequently the big cargo-boats and even the smaller fry for Rommel would be accompanied by a single Italian destroyer. The Blenheims would fly around, looking for an opening, while the destroyer would frantically circle her charge, sending up showers of spray in an effort to get between the attacking Blenheims and the cargo-boat. The game was hard on both sides, ending sometimes in the loss of both Italian ships, guardian and ward and sometimes with the loss of the Blenheims.

On his return, Atkinson reported that the situation in Malta was far from satisfactory, things having been neglected for years. However, he considered the plan feasible to operate there on a squadron, or ‘squadron plus’ basis. On receipt of Atkinson’s report Sir Charles Portal sent for the Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) of 2 Group, Group Captain Hugh Pughe-Lloyd, to tell him he had been selected to command the detachments of 2 Group in Malta. His brief was ‘to sink Axis shipping between Europe and Africa’. It was, in effect, the same task in which the aircrew of 2 Group in the UK were already involved in over the seas off occupied Western Europe.

On his arrival in Malta, Pughe-Lloyd [who enlisted as a private in World War One and stayed on with the British Army to receive a knighthood for his defence of Malta] was horrified to find defences and facilities in a deplorable state, airfields ill-prepared as operational bases. Little thought had obviously been given to the use of the island as a base from which fighter or bomber aircraft could operate. It is to his considerable credit that the aerodrome at Luqa was soon made ready for the arrival of the first detachment of Blenheims.

The first squadron to be detached to the island was 82, commanded by Atkinson, now a Wing Commander, whose presence had been specifically requested by Pughe-Lloyd, now an Air Commodore. The first aircraft to leave England, led by Atkinson, took-off on 4 June, followed a week later by a further nine Blenheims. All of the aircraft carried in addition to their aircrew, two unfortunate ground-crew sitting as comfortable as possible in the well of the aircraft. They all arrived safely, although the last of the crews had to land after dark, using a flarepath which some character, fearful of enemy bombing raids, did his best to extinguish.

Apart from the Hurricanes on Malta there were seven twin-engined Martin Maryland reconnaissance aircraft, a squadron of Wellingtons and a number of Swordfish biplanes of the Fleet Air Arm. The role of the Marylands was to reconnoitre for enemy shipping, keeping a special eye on Naples for signs of sailings or the assembling of convoys for the journey to Africa. On receipt of reports of the movement of enemy shipping, attacks would be launched during the day by Blenheims and Swordfish, with the Wellingtons operating at night.

The enemy convoys from Naples carrying supplies to the Axis Armies in North Africa followed routes which brought them no closer than 140 miles from Malta. Either sailing to the west of Sicily, then directly across to Africa, staying close to the shore until they reached Tripoli, or through the Straits of Messina, then east to Greece before turning south to Benghazi.

South of Pantelleria on 22 June, a biggish convoy escorted by destroyers and enemy fighters was found by six crews of 82 Squadron. The aircrews went into the attack in the manner they had perfected over the North Sea, despite intense anti-aircraft fire and the presence of the fighters. The crew of one Blenheim, Flight Lieutenant T. J. Watkins pilot, Sergeant observer J. S. Sargent and Sergeant WOp/air gunner Eric F. Chandler, dropped their bombs gaining hits on a merchantman. Their aircraft was badly damaged by flak, the explosion of one almost severing Watkins leg. Despite severe pain and shock he managed to right the aircraft, giving Sargent time to come to his aid. Meanwhile Chandler was doing battle with an Italian Fiat CR42 Falco biplane fighter, which he succeeded in shooting down, which earned him a DFM. Showing immense courage Watkins managed to stay conscious during the long flight back to Luqa to give Sargent flying instructions, where miraculously Watkins brought the aircraft safely into land at Luqa and then collapsed. Watkins was awarded an immediate DSO, Sargent and Chandler, who was credited with having shot down an enemy fighter, each received the DFM. The damage to their aircraft was so severe it had to be written off. By a strange twist of fate, three months later, on their return to England, Sargent and Chandler were flying a shipping sweep off the Frisian Islands when their pilot, Flight Lieutenant Bartlett was injured. Sargent flew their aircraft back to base, landing it successfully despite a live bomb on board. As soon as their aircraft came to a stop, Sargent and Chandler leapt out dragging their wounded pilot between them before the bomb exploded.

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