An attack which took place on 28 July 1942 resulted in one of the most
extraordinary events of the Second World War. Nine Beauforts were racked up
with torpedoes and took off under the leadership of Gibbs to attack a merchant
ship escorted by two destroyers south-west of Greece. Two Beauforts of 217
Squadron were shot down. Three crew members of the aircraft flown by Pilot
Officer R.I.C. Head were picked up by one of the destroyers. The four men in
the other Beaufort, flown by Lieutenant Ted Strever of the SAAF were picked up
by an Italian Cant floatplane and taken north to the Greek port of Prevesa. On
the following day, they were taken in another Cant towards Taranto in Italy,
but managed to overpower the armed guard and the Italian crew. They flew the
Cant to Malta and landed in a bay, despite being attacked by Spitfires.
Ted Strever was a Royal Air force pilot and was based in
Malta with No. 217 Squadron during the spring of 1942. Ted took off in his
Bristol Beaufort bomber on one particular mission in late July to intercept an
Italian supply ship. He was shot down at sea after scoring a direct hit on the
supply ship, which managed to do enough damage to Ted’s plane before sinking.
Not long after scrambling into their dingy after the crash Ted and his crew
where picked up by an Italian sea plane and made prisoners of war.
It did not take them long to learn that they would be taken
to Taranto in Italy where they would spend the rest of the war as prisoners.
The thought of their approaching doom spurred them into
taking action against their captors. With the watchful eyes of the guard on
them and limited communication the world’s first skyjack swung into action.
They started straight for the radio operator, clearly to
make sure no contact was made to the base and successfully took him out. They
then overpowered an unexpected guard and managed to get his weapon off him. The
first part of their attack was successful, but the turning point came when the
co-pilot pulled a pistol on them. Luck was on their side however as it was one
the Italian’s own comrades that knocked the weapon from his hands in the
frantic struggle to regain control. It was after that bit of fortune in the
frenzied chaos that they knew the plane was theirs, and Ted wasted no time in taking
over the controls.
New problems now became apparent. The first and more
immediate issue was that they were fast running low on fuel. After asking the
Italian Engineer kindly (at gunpoint) to switch to reserves and by changing
their route, flying rather to their base at Malta instead of the African coast,
this first problem was quickly taken care of. Next was the problem of flying an
Italian plane. Ted’s experience was sufficient to fly an Italian plane but to
the allies this was an enemy aircraft fast approaching the Malta coast. Soon
there were spitfires gunning them down. Normally the sight of Spitfires off the
wing of his torpedo bomber would have been comforting, however this was clearly
not a Bristol Beaufort bomber and with holes being shot in his tail this was
definitely not comforting.
Ted hurled the first pilot back into his seat and ordered
him in hurried sign-language to land in the sea.
One of the men then whipped off his shirt and took his vest
– the only white article he had – and waved it out of the window making it
clear that they had come to surrender – albeit to their own side!
The first wave of Spitires managed to do fair damage to the
plane but they landed safely and the world’s first skyjack was over.
Astonished to see four RAF’s in the Italian plane a member
of the launch team towing them back to St Paul’s Bay said “We thought it
was old Mussolini coming to give himself up!”
Ted Strever received a DFC for his achievement in the war.
He died in Haenertsburg, South Africa in 1997 at the age of 77.