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15 October 2014
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Contributed by 
Brighton CSV Media Clubhouse
People in story: 
Charles Kirby
Location of story: 
The Mediterranean in Malta
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 June 2004

The Forgotten Charioteers in Malta, 1943.

This is Charles Kirby story; it has been added by Eleanor Fell, with permission from the author, who understands the terms and conditions of adding his story to the website.

It was 1943 and I was stationed in Malta. I was a charioteer based in HMS Phoenix, which was a ‘stone-walled frigate’ dug out of the sandstone cliff face in Lazaretto, one of Malta’s natural ports. I had flown by plane into Malta from Scotland, because the previous party had been sunk in their submarine on the way to Malta.

The charioteers were divers who rode out on the sea on small chariots or ‘human torpedoes’ which were made of steel and had two seats. The chariots were 22 feet long and carried a 200 lbs warhead on the front, and two charioteers could sit astride them. Number 1 charioteer was in control, and Number 2’s job was to attach the warhead to the bottom of the enemy ship.

Before each mission we would get dressed into our diving outfits, which included a waterproof canvas suit, lead soled boots, a lead weight belt and a breathing apparatus, which completely covered your head. It needed two people to put on the suit — they were quite unwieldy.

Although I never had to attach a warhead and sink an enemy ship, I did carry out several reconnaissance runs on the beaches of Sicily. The aim of the runs was to check the suitability of the beach for landing craft. If a tank was to leave the landing craft and there was a dip in the seabed, then the vehicle would be lost, along with the crew. It was my job to check the depth of water near the shore and record the details onto a chart.

While we charioteers were doing our mission or reconnaissance work the submarine, which in this case was HMS/M Unrivalled, would sink down to periscope depth and wait until we returned. We would flash them with a torch to signal our return, the submarine would not flash back, as it would be pointing inland.

There were about 30 charioteers on that operation in Malta, and although we paired up for the missions, we were a close-knit team that worked effectively during our 1 year in Malta.

In 2002 I met up with Bill Smith who was a Petty Officer when we were together in Malta. He had risen to Lt Commander by that time, and was decorated for sinking Japanese ships in Siam (now Thailand).

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