This is the story of a few Gloster Sea Gladiators that were on Malta before the Italians declared war upon us and our Empire. There are umpteen versions of this story, this one is taken from “The Air Battle for Malta; The Diaries of a Spitfire Pilot”. The author did not arrive on Malta until later in the war but there is little in the way of documentation and those involved were still on the island.
A little in the way of history. We had Malta as a colony precisely because her people had chosen us over Napoleon to be the rulers. As part of the Treaty of Paris in 1814 there is this inscription over the Guard Room opposite the Palace in Valletta.
‘To Great Britain, still unsubdued, these Islands are entrusted by the Powers of Europe at the wish of the Maltese themselves’ – of course it is in Latin. It was there in 1940, whether it still exists is another question.
As was often the case, the colony of Malta had been somewhat neglected especially in defence. The British Cabinet imagined the French Fleet would help to safeguard the sea routes to Malta, an island that produced less than half the food it consumed. There was some Royal Navy presence but absolutely no air defence other than anti-aircraft guns. On June 10th all fighters in Britain were being held ready for the expected Battle of Britain, there were no fighters on Malta.
In March 1940 some packing cases were discovered at Kalafrana flying boat base. The aircraft carrier HMS Glorious had been urgently ordered from Malta to help with the Norwegian campaign and had left these packing cases behind. Once opened they contained the parts for 8 Sea Gladiators. Air Commodore Sammy Maynard, yet another kiwi, had hoped to get four squadrons of Spitfires or Hurricanes but the RAF decided it had none to spare for Malta so he set about assembling the Sea Gladiators. After two days the fitters had assembled the 8 planes which were then towed a mile uphill to Hal Far aerodrome.
There were seven volunteer RAF pilots, none of whom had Sea Gladiator experience, who would be flying these biplanes. Towards the end of April the Royal Navy demanded the return of the Sea Gladiators to be used in Alexandria. The aircraft were towed back to Kalanfrana and put back into crates. After much arm twisting the Navy only took four of the planes and the remaining four were re-assembled and towed back to Hal Far. There they continued practising for the expected Italian raids.
At 6:49am on 11th June ten Italian bombers appeared and the Gladiators scrambled to meet them. By the time they reached the required altitude the bombers had dropped their loads and were on the way back. There was only time for one attack, the Gladiators were too slow.
As a result the pilots had to sit in their sweltering cockpits waiting for the Italians. The minute they saved by doing this gave them an extra thousand feet in height and a better chance of intercepting the bombers the seven pilots doing 4 hours on and 4 off. It was not comfortable in the heat but it was the only chance they had. Of the four planes available, one was held in reserve.
The second raid by the Italians was accompanied by fighters, 30 fighters to 10 bombers yet the British biplanes more than held their own and although suffering some damage, were not shot down.
Later on Flying Officer John Waters nicknamed the remaining three aircraft Faith, Hope and Charity. This was an inspired choice. The Maltese were intensely devout and these were the words of St Paul who had been shipwrecked in the bay named after him when he brought Christianity to Malta.
Ground crews worked day and night to keep the planes in the air. Some parts of a Swordfish were grafted onto a Gladiator, it was then known as a Gladfish. Some 3 bladed propellors were found in the stores and fitted resulting in a faster rate of climb. The superchargers were for emergency use only but the pilots used them all the time. Two of the engines blew their pistons under the strain so Blenheim bomber engines were converted to fit the Gladiators.
On the 22nd June Berlin Radio claimed the Italians had destroyed the Royal Navy facilities in Malta. An Italian bomber was sent to obtain photographic proof. Two of the biplanes shot it down and two of the crew parachuted out becoming the first PoWs on Malta.
So it continued until the 28th June when four Hurricanes arrived en route for the Middle East. Sammy Maynard persuaded the Air Ministry to let them stay and join the island’s defence. Because every Italian attack was met by fighters the Italian High Command, briefed by Italian Intelligence, assumed there was a substantial fighter force on Malta and they did not bring forward their invasion plans when there was almost no defence.
In July more Hurricanes arrived via the carrier HMS Argus and this formed the basis of Malta’s air defence.
On 3rd September 1943 Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park arranged for the wreckage of the one Gladiator that had not been totally destroyed to be recovered from a disused quarry and it be presented to Malta in Palace Square, Valletta. On the 8th September what remained of the Italian fleet, 28 ships, sailed into Malta’s harbour to capitulate.
One of the reasons for the relatively poor showing of the Italian Air Force during this period was their obsession with flying in formation. The pilots spent most of their time keeping their exact location in the formation rather than attacking their enemy.
© well_chuffed 2022