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.