- Contributed by
- Colchester Library
- People in story:
- Richardson, Hugh J
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 July 2004
Vice Admiral Malta reported to Admiral Cunningham that the destroyer Foltille, stationed in the island, could not sail to escort in the convoy because it could not get out of harbour and that the channel normally used could not be swept because all the mine sweepers capable of dealing with magnetic mines had been lost or put out of action. By the grace of god and the cloud cover provided by the Sirocco wind the convoy had survived the perilous journey from Alexandria without being attacked. It now appeared however that the most dangerous part of the voyage was yet to come; we had to pass through the minefield to enter Grand Harbour. I had not forgotten the Royal Navy minesweeper being blown up by a mine in the Suez Canal and the memory of this did not help my nerves. Admiral Cunningham had among the escorts of the convoy one Corvette which was equipped for magnetic minesweeping, but one ship alone would clearly not be capable of dealing with the situation round Malta.
A method was quickly devised by the fleet torpedo officer and a signal was sent to Malta instructing the authorities to blast a channel out through the approaches to the island with depth charges. Fortunately there were plenty of depth charges available and to the thunder of underwater explosions a channel was gradually cleared outwards from Grand Harbour. The pattern of exploding charges having the effect of countermining or otherwise disturbing the mechanism of the magnetic mines which had closed the approach channel. Even so, when HMS Gloxinia Cunningham's lone Corvette equipped for magnetic sweeping preceded the convoy into the harbour at least a dozen mines, which had survived the previous rough treatment, went up in thunderous spray.
It is truly said that when a ship sails into Grand Harbour between the medieval fort guarding the entrance Fort Riccosoli, on the port side and Fort St. Elmo on the starboard side, the ship is sailing into history. I fervently hoped that the Settler was not sailing into Eternity.
The entire crew of the Settler, with the exception of a skeleton crew in the engine room to run the engines at the slowest possible speed to minimise the vibration, were ordered to stand on deck wearing life jackets to give us a slim chance of survival if a rogue mine was waiting to explode. The tension was extreme on the Settler and as I stood on deck I was extremely conscious of the fact that I was standing above five hatches of high explosives. I was remembering an incident which happened in the port of Piraeous, an ammunition ship was unloading when it received a direct hit in an air raid. The ship was blown to pieces and most of the buildings around the harbour were shattered. When we arrived the next day I saw the bar which I had been drinking in the night before was now a heap of rubble another lucky escape for me, such is fate!
The Settler moved ever so slowly along the Channel and eventually entered Grand Harbour we were greeted by an amazing sight. The islanders men, women and children had come out of their caves and air raid shelters and were lining the sides of Grand Harbour cheering, waving and clapping as the Settler moved up to the far end of the harbour. It was a heart-warming, never to be forgotten welcome to the island. As soon as the Settler was berthed an army of islanders came aboard to make sure that our dangerous cargo was unloaded before the next air raid. While the unloading was proceeding I went ashore and walked round the side of Grand Harbour. It was a great relief to walk on dry land again and to be off our floating bomb.
I have always been fascinated by stretches of deep still water, the magical lochs of my native Scotland, the superb Norwegian Fjords and the beautiful Italian lakes. Grand Harbour, Malta was something else. To say it is steeped in history is an understatement. So many men had fought and died down the centuries in the actions defending this stretch of water and I felt that I was walking with their ghosts. Little did I know that for the next 12 weeks the Settler was going to be trapped in the island and I was going to share the fantastic life of the islanders. Living like troglodytes in their caves and air raid shelters.
In the evening of our arrival the officers of the convoy ships were invited to a civic reception in Fort St. Elmo. During the reception I was privileged to meet and shake hands with General William Dobbie, the Governor of Malta and Commander in Chief of the Garrison, truly a man of destiny who became a legend in his own lifetime. Winston Churchill in one of his wartime speeches called him "this remarkable man, the saviour of Malta". General Dobbie was a Scot and, rare among Scots, a member of the Plymouth brethren. Nothing could have been further from the somewhat baroque Catholicism of the Maltese than this austere form of the protestant faith, or more remote from the almost medieval power of the priesthood in the island. General Dobbie became a man whom the Maltese took to their hearts.
After we had the wonderful experience of being welcomed into Grand Harbour by large crowds of islanders clapping and cheering and after the civic reception we were advised that it was much too dangerous to sleep on the ship and we would be spending our first night in a cave. We took the mattresses from our bunks and joined the islanders in a large cavern on the side of Grand harbour where I met some of the islanders for the first time.
I found that staying in the cavern overnight was very uncomfortable. It was cold and damp and I simply could not imagine how the islanders had endured these conditions for the last 12 months. Sleep was virtually impossible with the noise of the anti-aircraft guns and the bombs. But we were safe with 50 feet of rock over our heads. One night we survived a direct hit, the biggest danger being damage to our eardrums from concussion.
To illustrate the extreme friendliness of the islanders I would refer to the Book of Acts, chapter 28 in the New Testament, where apostle Paul describes how he and his companions were shipwrecked on the rocky shore of Malta and how the islanders showed us "unusual kindness" they built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. They honoured us in many ways and when we were ready to sail they furnished us with the supplies we needed. I found that the islanders who greeted me in 1941 acted in just the same way as their ancestors who greeted Apostle Paul all those centuries ago. They treated me with the same unusual kindness, they were warm-hearted and extremely friendly and in the weeks ahead I made many good friends. I do feel that there is a bond created among people who are facing and sharing constant danger. There were no language difficulties as English was their second language after Maltese and I spent many hours with the islanders in their caves and air raid shelters. Just as Winston Churchill sustained the moral of the British people during the war with his marvellous speeches, General Dobbie used the local radio to encourage the islanders to believe that God was on their side against the evil forces of the enemy. He also issued regular orders of the day. On the day that Mussolini declared war, General Dobbie issued his first order of the day which was in the same vain as Churchill's famous blood, sweat and tears speech. I quote,
"The decision of his majesty's government to fight until our enemies are defeated will be heard with the greatest satisfaction by all ranks of the garrison of Malta. It may be that hard times lie ahead, but I know that however hard they may be, their courage and determination will not falter and that with God's help we will maintain the security of this Fortress. I call on all officers and other ranks humbly to seek God's help and then in reliance on him to do their duty unflinchingly."
These words have stood the test of time.
There was a strong body of opinion in Britain, including the Royal Airforce, that maintained that Malta was indefensible. Owing to the close proximity of the enemy airfields Winston Churchill refused to tolerate this view and he maintained that the defence of Malta was absolutely essential and that the island must be held at all costs. He described Malta as "an unsinkable aircraft carrier" which would soon be able to strike back at the supply lines to the enemy forces in the North African desert. It is not a widely known fact that even when the Battle of Britain being fought in the skies and every fighter aircraft was vital to our survival Churchill personally ordered the aircraft carrier Argos to be sent to the Mediterranean with a very strong escort and 12 hurricane fighters to be flown off her flight deck to help in the defence of the island.
No words of mine can possibly do justice to the epic story of the siege of Malta I can only describe my personal experiences of life in the island during the 12 weeks when the Settler was trapped.
An air raid in Malta became a very personal affair because one felt that you were right in the centre of the target. When the air raid siren sounded there was no question of walking to the nearest shelter or cave, you ran. Because the enemy aircraft were overhead in minutes, it was good exercise but very wearing on the nerves! When General Dobbie arrived in the island just before the war started in the summer of 1940, he must have been dismayed to find that the island was practically defenceless. There were a few obsolete anti-aircraft guns and HMS Terror anchored in Grand Harbour had a few guns aboard. On the day that war started the Italian airforce made the first raid on the island. The first of so many to come. The bombers were escorted by fighters and from a great height they scattered their bombs like confetti but a bit more deadly. A typical Italian air raid with the minimum exposure to any guns. The islanders had their first experience of casualties and damage. General Dobbie began his immense task of putting Malta on a war footing.
The island is very small, only 18 miles long and 7 miles wide, smaller than our Isle of Wight. It is ideal to become a fortress with great rock bastions and the soft limestone rock can be dug by hand. Orders were given to the dockyard forges to turn out thousands of picks and shovels. Old underground tunnels were renovated and miners dug deep into the soft limestone until 13 miles of new tunnels were completed. An old railway tunnel became a giant dormitory. The Londoners used the underground stations for sleeping in, the difference in Malta was that the islanders and their families lived in the shelters and only came out for fresh air when the all clear sounded.
When the war started there were no fighter planes in the island to tackle the enemy bombers. In the naval dockyard there were some large crates containing Gloucester Gladiators biplanes. These were assembled and were flown by seaplane pilots who were totally inexperienced in fighter aircraft tactics. One of the aircraft was shot down on it's first flight but the other 3 did wonderful deeds and became world famous known as Faith, Hope and Charity. I used to watch them lumbering across the sky and marvel at their lack of speed. They were the only fighters available for the first 3 months of the war and they were later joined by the Spitfires and the Hurricanes. By far the worst air raids were the daytime raids by the Luftwaffe using the Stuka 87 dive-bombers and the low-level Junkers 88s. The high level raids at night by the Italian airforce caused a lot of damage but we were safe in our tavern. The Luftwaffe were a different proposition not only dropping 1000lb bombs on specific targets but machine gunning anyone in their sights and I had some narrow escapes.
One beautiful morning with the sun glinting on the water of Grand Harbour instead of walking round to Valletta I fancied a trip across the harbour in a dysagh, one of the small boats which are similar to a gondola or a punt with boatman standing up. I was enjoying the trip but it nearly ended in disaster. We were halfway across when the air raid siren sounded and it was panic stations in the boat. The boatman was galvanised into action and we only just made the shore when one of the dive bombers came down in the harbour a few feet over the water, their usual tactic for escaping the guns. We would have been a sitting target for his machine guns. This was positively my last trip in a disagh, it might well have been!
Some of the statistics of the siege of Malta are worth repeating to give my listener an appreciation of the incredible bombardment of this tiny island during the first 2 years of the siege Malta suffered 2000 bombing raids destroying 37,000 buildings. General Dobbie was convinced that God prevented the forces of evil invading Britain after Dunkirk and for the same reason Malta was not invaded when the island was at it's weakest state of defence. During the many hours I spent in the air raid shelters and caves of Malta with my friends the islanders I had many eye-witness accounts of the many air raids they had suffered but there was one air raid that transcended all the others and which was living on in the minds of the islanders. It was the story of the attack at the beginning of 1941 on the crippled aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious lying in the dockyard in Malta. It is one of the greatest stories in the history of sea warfare.
HMS Illustrious was one of Britain's finest aircraft carriers when she was sent out to join Admiral Cunningham's task force in the Mediterranean. She was a magnificent ship, very fast with a full compliment of fighters, fighter-bombers and swordfish biplanes that could carry heavy ariel torpedoes. On her armoured flight deck she had many anti-aircraft guns including the magical multiple "pom-poms" the ultimate weapon against dive-bombers; the gunner was strapped on a revolving platform holding 8 barrels firing 8" tracer shells at tremendous speed and these guns were truly awesome in action. Planes from HMS Illustrious soon became the scourge of the enemy in the Mediterranean, culminating in the attack of the Italian warships cowering in the port of Tarento. This night raid by swordfish planes form the Illustrious carrying torpedoes was so successful that 2 battleships, 3 cruisers and other ships were sunk and the Italian navy was no longer an effective fighting force in the Mediterranean The Italian Navy had been reluctant to face Admiral Cunningham's taskforce at sea although their warships were more modern and faster. The difference between the 2 fleets was in the calibre of their crews. The Italian High Command of their navy were fully aware that their crews were more suited to be opera singers or waiters and were no match for the highly trained seamen who sailed under the white ensign. It is a little known fact that a Japanese observer who witnessed the destruction which had been caused by torpedo carrying aircraft to warships lying in harbour reported back to the Japanese high command the success of this attack. The Japanese, with their infinite capacity for copying anything, planned a similar attack on Pearl Harbour which had brought America into the war.
Hitler was incensed by the attack on Taranto by the torpedo carrying planes from HMS Illustrious. In the same way that Churchill sent his famous signal to the RN "sink the Bismarck", Hitler sent a signal to his Luftwaffe "sink the Illustrious". Admiral Cunningham tells in his memoirs how Illustrious was with his taskforce escorting a convoy to Malta when the dive-bombers struck; they ignored the other ships in the convoy but were concentrating entirely on Illustrious. Admiral Cunningham was aghast at the damage that was being done to Illustrious but he could not help marvelling at the extreme flying skills being shown by the dive-bomber pilots. One had the nerve to fly the complete length of the flight deck below masthead height before being shot down. It was a flying display with a deadly purpose which only lasted 7 minutes but in that short time serious damage was done to Illustrious. Her rudder and steering equipment were badly damaged and she could only steer by her main engines, which fortunately remained undamaged. During this savage attack on their ship, apart from the serious damage to the ship, many of the crew were injured, some of them seriously and it was imperative that they should reach the hospital in Malta as soon as possible. Illustrious left the slow convoy increased her speed to about 20 knots and made the best of her way to Malta. When she arrived off Malta Illustrious was attacked by 2 enemy aircraft carrying torpedoes. Fortunately the guns on her flight deck were still operating and she managed to shoot both planes down before they could launch their torpedoes. Otherwise she would probably have been sunk. Illustrious was berthed in French Creek in the dockyard alongside a sheer rock cliff which would protect her from attack along one side of the ship and would make it very difficult for the dive bombers to reach their bombing positions. It was fortunate that just before Illustrious arrived in the Island a gunnery expert had been sent out to Malta to co-ordinate the greatly increased number of anti-aircraft guns now stationed in the islands. During the months that had elapsed since the start of the war, the convoys from Gilbratar and Alexandria, although they suffered grievous losses of ships and men, had managed to build up a formidable array of anti-aircraft guns on this tiny island until the barrage over Malta was the greatest in the world and completely mind-blowing.
The gunnery expert decided that the only way to give the crippled Illustrious maximum protection from the further attacks which were bound to come, was to create a box-barrage over the ship. A number of guns were brought from other parts of the island to form a ring round the ship and they would be firing shells to explode at different heights, thus achieving the box-barrage. The islanders were ordered to stay in their caves and air raid shelters because it would be very dangerous with the shrapnel falling like deadly rain from so many guns. The Spitfires and Hurricanes were ordered to stay above the barrage to catch the enemy bombers before they could reach their bombing positions. On the first day when daylight came a squad of Stuka 87 dive-bombers and Junker 88s launched the first attack in this incredible battle. The box-barrage worked perfectly, a number of the enemy aircraft were shot down both by the guns and our fighters. One Hurricane pilot was so intent on chasing a Stuka dive-bomber that he passed through the edge of the box-barrage and his plane was badly damaged by our own guns before he shot the Stuka down in the sea. Although it was nearly a miracle he managed to reach the airfield in the north of the island. As he climbed out he is reported to have said "I didn't think much of your bloody box-barrage but at least I shot the bastard down!” His Hurricane never flew again and he was probably court-marshalled for disobeying his orders.
The only lull in the attack came when the enemy aircraft had to return to base to refuel and load more bombs. They were so determined to sink Illustrious that they seemed to ignore their heavy losses in planes and skilled pilots. The next attack came in the afternoon and was pressed home with savage intensity. There were many near misses and those bombs exploded on the bottom of the creek causing serious damage to Illustrious below the water line. During the hours of darkness divers had to go down to keep the ship watertight by making temporary repairs. There were many casualties on the ship and in the buildings round the dockyard and during the night a fleet of ambulances ferried the dead and the injured to the hospital in the north of the island.
The captain of the llustrious had an agonising decision to make. The Royal Navy had never forgotten the sinking of the battleship HMS Hood; a shell from Bismarck "had penetrated her magazines blowing her to pieces and 1400 men died. If a bomb penetrated the magazines on board Illustrious she would be blown to pieces with most of the buildings around the dockyard. The captain had to decide whether to flood the magazines on board which would mean that his guns would be silenced or to gamble that his magazines would not be hit. The captain decided to take the gamble and the guns on Illustrious continued to play their part in the box-barrage.
In the morning of the 3rd day the Luftwaffe made one final attempt to achieve their objective of sinking Illustrious but again the dive-bombers suffered heavy losses in planes and pilots and they were forced to withdraw from the battle.
After temporary repairs had been made to her hull to make her sea worthy, Illustrious left Grand Harbour under cover of darkness and made her way to Alexandria. She took no further part in the war and after the war she was sent to America for a complete refit. The name of Illustrious will go down in the history of sea warfare as the ship which refused to be sunk under the most intensive attack ever made on a single ship.
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