- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Henry (Harry) Dickens
- Location of story:
- Gunner Henry (Harry) Dickens 7th HAA Regiment 10th Battery 1939 – 1944
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 July 2005
The Early Years
Henry Thomas Dickens (Harry) was one of eleven children born in Hackney in London in March of 1918. He grew up in the environs of a diverse East End community and during the early thirties would regularly go with friends to protest against the Edward Mosley (Blackshirts in the UK) rallies in the East End.
He joined the local Territorial Army unit in 1935 and decided to join the Regular British Army in 1937, opting to join the Royal Artillery. His basic training was carried out at Woolwich garrison (home of the Royal Artillery) and joined what was then the Riding Troop, later to be renamed The Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery.
Early in 1939 he was posted to 7th HAA Regiment and sailed for the sunny shores of Malta, not knowing what was in store for him during his long stay there. Life in Malta had during the pre-war years been an idyllic posting, the Regiment being based in Tigne Barracks in Sliema. Harry was soon fully involved in all sports and was part of the Artillery Rowing team and Hockey team.
On the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939 the Regiment's first task on deployment was to defend the Harbour areas from positions in Fort Manoel, Marsa (the only good sports area in the island, San Giacomo, a viewpoint just clear of the harbour and San Pietru a pivotal position on the coast covering the eastern approach to the harbour.
The Regiment was helped in its task by Maltese batteries deployed at Tal Krok and Linthorn Barracks, both in the harbour area, and another at Delimara to cover the air approaches to Marsascala, Sirrocco and Halfar.
The remainder of 1939 was quiet as this was what has now been termed as ‘The Phoney War’, however this all changed in May 1940 and the first nine months of the war came to an end on 11th June 1940 exactly five hours after Italy’s entry into the war with all of the Regiment's guns having been in action and the first bombs had fallen on British territory overseas.
By this time Harry was based at Regimental Headquarters in Fort Manoel manning the radios with four 3.7s, two bofors guns and naval pom-pom guns and an old 4-inch naval coast defence gun – Fort Manoel was becoming a small arsenal and was proving to be a thorn in the side of the Regia Aeronautica, and Harry and his mates were amused when the Italian radio threatened to flush out “that hornets nest.”
With the arrival of 1941 the raids increased and the appearance of fighters overhead, on the evening of 10th January 1941 gave a warning that the Fleet was in the neighbourhood and that it was receiving a fair amount of unwelcome attention and on the 11th H.M.S Illustrious limped into Grand Harbour with gaping holes in her side and her stern and flight deck nearly awash. It was obvious that the enemy having badly wounded its quarry would make an all out bid for the kill – Harry and his fellow gunners did not have to wait long for the effort to be made.
Fifty Ju.88s and a score of Ju.87s made the first attack and were taken completely by surprise by the barrage from Fort Manoel, along with the barrage from numerous guns and ships in the harbour area, ten enemy planes were destroyed and four others damaged, the enemy returned on the 17th but again the inferno of fire was too much during this attack Harry was on one of the gun positions when there was a premature burst of a shell and the gunner next to him was killed by the shell splinters. More casualties were sustained by the battery on the 19th where again when another premature burst occurred and a resulting splinter struck a round on the primer and the whole stack of ammunition blew up, this brought the number so far killed to four and five injured, further attacks continued during the January and at the end of February during an unpleasant minelaying session when the enemy tried to mine Marsamuscetto Creek they succeeded in only destroying one of Fort Manoel’s football pitches.
March was a month of incessant air attacks increasing from dive bombing on all the aerodromes on the island to an all-out bid against a convoy which arrived on the 23rd; but the Regiment was right on its toes by this time, and the enemy was beginning to realise the A.A. defence of Malta was not to be taken lightly. Nine planes destroyed and four damaged in one day’s raiding – and this by guns of the 10th Battery alone, however this was not without loss with one killed and one wounded.
Over the next few months the air raids continued on a regular basis with two more gunners being killed, again one when a round exploded whilst being rammed into the gun, July was memorable for a completely abortive attack when seventeen Italian midget submarine or human torpedo type tried to force an entry into the Grand Harbour, but all but one were destroyed by the Maltese coast gunners, the only damage was to the viaduct bridge on the St Elmo Mole at the entrance to the Grand Harbour where one of the midgets managed to blow it up, and it fell straight back into the water and successfully blocked the gap in the mole, there was no interference at all with the main Harbour entrance or the ships in the Harbour. It was not a good day for the enemy.
The aerial inactivity continued throughout the following three months and it was not until November 1941 that the enemy showed signs of returning. When they did return it was with German planes, the first to be over the Island since June.
The first raid of the month, at three o’clock on the morning of the 1st was a disastrous one for Harry and 10th Battery. A high-flying plane scared by flashes from the guns, jettisoned its bombs, two of which fell on Manoel. One fell on a barrack room in which non-manning personnel were sleeping; it exploded and killed all five in the room. The second bomb fell on the room where Harry and four others were also sleeping it failed to explode when it came through the roof but crushed and killed one gunner asleep on his bed, all of the dead were buried in St Andrew’s cemetery.
The remainder of the month was free from incident and as November merged into December Harry and his mates did not realise that the pax in bellum state had ended and that the real war was about to begin, however the Battery managed to celebrate St Barbara’s day – the patron Saint of Gunners – by a parade at Tigne and a church service (the church was later destroyed).
December was a month of incessant raids the sirens fitful wailing being heard every day and every night, with yet another gunner being killed by the premature explosion of a shell.
Looking back on 1941 it was possible to divide the year into well defined phases, H.M.S Illustrious; the minelaying session; the fall of Crete; an untroubled summer of almost peace-time spaciousness; and a gradual stepping-up of the war in the air towards the end of the year.
November and December of 1941 saw the real start of the siege, everything was getting short, rations were being cut. One result of this latter inconvenience was that P.T. parades were cancelled as it was said they made the troops too hungry!
Early in 1942 Harry along with the regiment moved to new quarters at Tal Handak and soon began to settle down to its country existence, the main highlight being raiding the local farms for food to supplement the reduced rations, however Harry and his mates gave away their powdered milk rations to the local families with small children as there is nothing worse whatever the situation then seeing young children starving, as the civilian food levels had been drastically reduced to feed the troops defending the Island.
So far targets had been the Harbours and the airfields; as there had been no intentional attacks on gun sites, but as the R.A.F came less and less operative it would not be long before the sites would be singled out for attack. For the First three weeks of March the enemy used the same tactics of about fifteen bombers escorted by up to fifty fighters attacking the aerodromes and the dockyard this steadily increased with the number and the ferocity of the attacks, the real “blitz” was on.
Ta Kali was the aerodrome chosen for the first really big raid and on the evening of the 20th March between eighty and a hundred bombers attacked the planes on the ground with Harry and 10th Battery putting up a spirited defence to the best of their capability the remainder of the month was marred by the death of five men and two being injured. And so into April – Malta’s black month, due to increased attacks the regiment moved back to its first home - Fort Manoel for which was to be a testing time.
I asked my father what it was like to be bombed and I now use his words. “One of the blokes on the gun site spotted a group of Ju.87 (Stuka dive-bomber) coming in onto our position about a hundred yards away and I could only watch spellbound as we watched them dive vertically one after another at terrific speed towards our position and for all the world they looked like a swarm of ugly bats, suddenly after a few sharp words from our battery sergeant we snapped into action and carried out the drills we had practiced for so long that we now carried out without any second thought and thankfully we survived the attack”. It was at this time that my father along with his mates started to drink the local Ambeet wine and would have bottles of it on the gun site as his words not mine “the only way we could stay at our guns during the bombing was if we were drunk as being bombed day in day out is no fun especially when you feel that every bomb is aimed at you personally”. During the first four months of 1942 the Regiment fired 37,7190 rounds of ammunition – more than three times the amount it fired for the whole of 1941. Eight men had been killed and 62 wounded, while two guns had been totally destroyed.
On April 15th 1942, the Island of Malta was awarded, the George Cross by H.M. King George VI for its continued defence and the unfailing morale of the population and its defiance during overwhelming odds, as Malta an Island of only 117 square miles had been more heavily bombed then London had been during their blitz.
During this time my father met a local girl who come from Sliema, her name was Jessie and her father was the manager of the local Blue Label beer factory – was it the chance of free beer or her beauty that attracted him to her – I will never know as my father refuses to tell me but he still has a glint in his eye and a smile on his face when he talks of her now even though he is now aged 87(more later). As the year move into August so the blockade of the Island increased with the view that enemy would starve Malta into submission. How near it cam to achieving this is known now by only a few, but all who were there will never forget the grimness of the lean months, which followed the blitz. The loss of the convoys up to August were a bitter blow, fourteen ships had sailed from Gibraltar and fourteen had sailed from Alexandria, only two ships made it to the Island, with all the while the amount of air attacks and their frequency steadily increasing, the knock on effect was that men were suffering as well as the population who had their ration levels reduced again to quite severe levels.
The Battery along with my father were relieved again for some much needed rest, only to be sent back 48 hours later as the battery that had replaced them had been attacked and had suffered forty men killed and over a hundred severely wounded, once again the Gods had smiled on my father. The long - hoped for convoy at last appeared on the 15th August 1942 with the tanker Ohio being towed into Grand Harbour carrying urgently need fuel for the fighters on the Island, along with four other merchantmen, this helped to lift the main siege and has always been known as the Santa Maria convoy, which saved the Island. This convoy helped the Island to survive and with the arrival of another convoy on the 20th November 1942 effectively lifted the siege, so that when Christmas 1942 came my dad said he was very thankful to have tinned steak and kidney pudding on the 25th December as he had just gone through forty-three consecutive issues of bully –beef (corned beef).
However the one real highlight of the year for Harry was that in July of 1942 he married Jessie in a full Catholic ceremony, and in those days you had to convert to the Catholic faith as mixed marriages were not allowed, this I only found out a couple of years ago when I found his old army paybook.
By 1943 the air attacks had begun to diminish and Malta was starting to be used as a staging post for the invasion of Sicily and the Island was visited by the King and for the first time in many years Harry had to polish is buckles and press his uniform – he was not impressed. With the capitulation of Italy on 8th September 1943 it seemed that Harry’s job was over, as Italy had always been regarded as the Regiment’s own private enemy, no other British unit had been in such constant contact, right from the very first day the Italians entered the war, through the early unsettling raids, when Rome was hurling threats against Fort Manoel, there seemed something personal in the fight. There were no air alarms during October – the first raid free month since May 1940, and on the 16th came news that the Regiment was to be withdrawn and to set sail for home, however no sooner had the order to move been given than it was cancelled and a full state of readiness was re-enforced for a visit from Winston Churchill the Prime Minister – Harry was not amused. Three more months were to pass before embarkation day arrived, but in the mean-time Jessi and my father had become proud parents of a baby boy born on the 3rd March 1944 and he was named James after my father’s older brother who had died in Singapore.
The long awaited day arrived and the 7th HAA Regiment sailed for England on the 5th March 1944, as my father watched the Island disappear he was one of many who could not confess to having very mixed feelings. With all the separation, with all the bombing and the shortage, Malta had somehow become very clear, it had become part of the Regiment’s tradition and although is was on its way home a part of the Regiment was still in Malta, the price had been heavy twenty-eight men had been killed, the Regiment could ill afford so many of its sons, but if the sacrifice they made helped in any way towards the eventual defeat of the enemy and the triumph of decency and right over the powers of evil, that sacrifice was surely not made in vain.
After my father and Jessie along with James returned home they stayed in his parents house in North London, however on the 16th June 1944 Jessie along with James, also Harry’s Mother and younger sister were all killed by one of the first V1 flying bombs to fall on London and they are all buried in the central East London Cemetery in Plaistow, also a few years ago on taking my father to the Imperial War Museum on London we found that there is now a permanent exhibition to all those killed during the bombing of London and all of the 60,000 plus names are inscribed onto marble tablets forever a fitting tribute to the civilian sacrifice that is often overlooked.
It was not until the early 70’s that Harry plucked up courage to return to the Island with his now second wife and myself, a lot of tears were shed and memories evoked, his old bar he used to frequent is still there on Sliema seafront (Tony’ bar) and when he went back the owner recognised him and immediately made him his favourite drink a Singapore Sling. In 1992 Harry returned with many comrades to celebrate 50 years of the lifting of the siege and to attend the commemoration of the Siege Bell by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and to finally receive recognition for the defence of the Island with the presentation of the Malta defence medal.
He will be returning on 22nd September 2005 as part of the Heroes Return along with over 600 other Veterans, and cannot wait to as they used to say in the old days
“Get his knees brown” and sample the Blue Label beer.
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