Merlins Over Malta – The Heroes Return September 2005

I was peripherally involved with the Merlins Over Malta team. Clive and Linda Denney run Vintage Fabrics in Essex, restoring vintage aircraft. A few years ago they went to Malta where a group of enthusiasts at the Malta Aviation Museum were impeccably restoring a Hawker Hurricane. It was Clive and Linda’s task to give the Hurricane it’s covering of doped Irish linen along the fuselage and to paint the aircraft to a very precise wartime colour scheme. Whilst there on Malta they began to learn about the part played by the RAF in the defence of the island during the war and with came the seed of an idea. No Hurricane had flown over the island since the war, and no Spitfire since the filming of The Malta Story in the 1950s. It occurred to them that it would amazing to bring these two legendary aircraft back to Malta, the scene of their biggest aerial battle other than the Battle of Britain.

When not restoring aircraft, Clive flies vintage aircraft for the Historic Aircraft Collection along with fellow pilots Charlie Brown and Howard Cook, and so the plan was for the three of them to fly HAC’s Spitfire Mk V and Hurricane across France, down through Italy and across the Mediterranean to Malta in time for Malta’s September 2005 Air Show.

So began a phenomenally ambitious project. The aircrafts’ owners agreed to lend the two planes, but there was still the small matter of raising the best part of £100,000; it costs around £2,000 per hour to fly these amazing machines. Clive and Linda, along with their son Glenn and Howard began furiously fund-raising . I was asked to help out as the project’s ‘historian’, although all the hard work was done by Clive, Linda, Glenn, Howard and later, Derek Rushling. Many, many other people helped as well, as one mountain after another was crossed. At numerous times, it looked as though the whole idea would have to be scrapped, but in the end the team somehow managed to pull it off. For those who were lucky enough to be there, it was a truly memorable few days – and certainly one I will never forget.

This piece is about the aircraft’s arrival over Grand Harbour:

All around Malta’s Grand Harbour, along the bastions of the capital, Valletta, and across the water around the Three Cities, people had gathered, watching, waiting – expectantly scanning the cloudless sky. There was a palpable air of anticipation and excitement amongst the crowd gathered in the Lower Barracca Gardens, where I was standing. Overlooking the harbour, it was the perfect vantage point on a warm, sun-drenched evening.
Just a minute after six o’clock I heard someone breathlessly exclaim, ‘There they are!’ Like everyone else, I craned my neck, as others began pointing, but at first could see nothing. Then I heard a faint whirr of engines and a moment later, there they were, a Spitfire and Hurricane side by side, thundering down Grand Harbour, so close I felt I could almost touch them, and wonderfully low – just a hundred feet above the deep blue water.
Spontaneously, the crowd began to cheer and clap. The two aircraft climbed and turned for another pass, the famous elliptical wings of the Spitfire and the more blunted outline of the Hurricane silhouetted against the sky.
‘My God,’ muttered Michael Montebello, standing next to me, ‘What a beautiful sight.’ These famous aircraft are familiar sights on the air show circuit back in Britain, but with the exception of when a wartime film was made here in the 1950s, neither has been seen over Malta since the Second World War, when, for three-and-a-half years this tiny Mediterranean island suffered one of the worst sieges in history. In 1942 Malta became the most bombed place in the world; between February and April that year more bombs landed on the island – which is smaller than the Isle of Wight – than had on London during the Blitz. It was the Hurricanes and later the Spitfires, working tirelessly with the island’s anti-aircraft gunners, who were left to defend this island against overwhelming German and Italian air forces. One former pilot said that flying over Malta made the Battle of Britain seem ‘like child’s play.’
Michael has come all the way from Australia for this and only landed a few hours before. He emigrated there after the war, but is Maltese and as a boy spent most of the siege years living below ground just a short distance beneath where we are standing now. Born across the other side of Grand Harbour, in Senglea – one of the so-called ‘Three Cities’ – he and his family became refugees in January 1941, when the town was almost entirely destroyed during the first German blitz over the island. His father was away with the Royal Navy, so with his mother and younger brother, they moved into new living quarters: a hundred feet below ground, a room of about eight feet by four cut into the rock off the main passage of a much larger shelter. The ‘room’ had roughly constructed bunks and even electricity, but nothing more – no doors, no toilet, no water and no natural light. In the rest of the shelter were a further 780 people. Most had lost their homes, but in any case for most it was simply not safe to live above ground, such was the intensity of the bombing.
Also beside me was Pete Watson, who spent three years on the island during the war working at the main fighter airfield of Ta’Qali some eight miles inland from Valletta. He was a member of the groundcrew – or an ‘erk’ as they were known – working as an electrician with 249 Squadron. When he first arrived on the island in September 1941, there were only Hurricanes. Despite their heroic performance in the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane was, by 1941, greatly inferior in performance to the new breed of Messerschmitts and Italian Macchis. This disparity was made rapidly worse on Malta where Pete and the other erks patched and bodged them back into airworthiness with increasingly short amounts of spare parts and supplies.
Not until March 1942 were any Spitfires sent to the island. Michael remembers their arrival well. ‘I watched them come in,’ he told me. ‘They came down Grand Harbour just like they are doing now. We were all so excited we began cheering. I remember seeing one of the pilots wave to us.’ But however welcome these first arrivals may have been, it was not until May that year that there were enough of these iconic aircraft to make an appreciable difference in the air battle for Malta.
At the airfields, it was tough work for the groundcrew. Pete remembers feeling constantly exhausted, working non-stop during daylight hours and often beyond. Work was constantly disrupted by enemy raids, when he would dive into the nearest slit trench and hope for the best, the ground shuddering beneath him, his tin hat tinkling with the sound of falling debris. Before the dust and smoke had settled, he would be back at work desperately trying to repair damaged aircraft.
The worst raids he ever witnessed were in March 1942. On the evening of the 20th, the tiny airfield was attacked by over a hundred aircraft. ‘I thought my end had surely come,’ he told me and admitted that he had never been so terrified in his entire life. ‘There were four of us in the slit trench, and all of us were shaking.’ When the raiders had gone, he was amazed to discover he was still in one piece. ‘My ears were ringing so badly I was almost totally deaf,’ he added. The following morning, the raiders were back, and this time there were over two hundred of them. In that twelve hour period, 300 tons of bombs had fallen on Ta’Qali – more than had been dropped on Coventry in November 1940.
Once more the two planes thundered past us, the deep, guttural roar of the Rolls Royce Merlin engines reverberating around the harbour. This time their fly-by was even lower, their paintwork – specially done in authentic Malta-siege colours – vivid in the crystal clear evening light. Beneath them, the water twinkled deep and blue, while the limestone of Valletta and the Three Cities was bathed in a golden glow.
Both Michael and Pete are here for the Battle of Malta Veteran’s Reunion to celebrate and commemorate sixty years since the end of the war. Over six hundred veterans of the siege have been brought over, the largest reunion in many years. Pete and Michael have returned regularly but there is a clear sense of finality this time. It’s an especially emotional time for Michael who knows this is the last time he will see the island – his homeland. He’s been ill, and although he is one of the youngest at the reunion, he is still in his mid seventies.
But he was smiling as the two aircraft returned for a third pass. The crowds gathered along the Barraccas, he said, reminded him of the arrival of the Pedestal convoy of August 1942. By that time, the skies over Malta had been reclaimed by the Spitfires but the threat to the island remained. Nearly a thousand miles from the nearest friendly port, Malta was entirely dependent on supplies of fuel, ammunition and food coming from outside, for the most part brought in by merchant ships. Many never made it; more than once, an entire convoy failed to get through. By the summer of 1942, those left on the island were starving. Pete Watson was living off a bowl of watery soup, half a sardine and a couple of boiled sweets a day. ‘We thought about food constantly,’ says Pete, who found himself craving rice pudding. ‘I’ve never felt so hungry in my life. I weighed just eight stone.’ The Maltese civilians got even less, and Michael had to scavenge for much of his food. He was covered in scabies and suffering from the lack of basic nutrients. The Pedestal convoy was the largest ever mounted – fourteen ships in all. Only five reached Grand Harbour, and Michael, like many thousands of islanders, was there to cheer each ship in. On August 15, the Maltese feast day of Santa Maria, the last one inched its way into harbour. This was the Ohio, the one tanker in the convoy, carrying the fuel that would enable Malta’s fight to continue.
That day, George ‘Screwball’ Beurling, one of the most successful Allied fighter pilots of the war, flew his Spitfire upside down the length of Grand Harbour in celebration. Beurling, a Canadian, was killed shortly after the war in a flying accident, but during his brief stint on Malta he shot down twenty-six confirmed enemy aircraft, including four in one day. No Allied pilot shot down as many enemy aircraft as Beurling in such a short space of time. Pete Watson often looked after ‘Screwball’ Beurling’s Spitfire. ‘I got on very well with him,’ says Pete, who still has a signed photograph given to him by the legendary air ace.
Above us, the two planes are roaring over us for the last time. They will be flying again before the weekend is over – including at an open-air memorial service on Sunday afternoon, when poppies will be dropped from the Spitfire. That they are here at all is something of a miracle, and it is unlikely such aircraft will ever be seen flying over the island again: the logistics and costs involved are simply too great. As it is, the Merlins Over Malta team have had to raise over £100,000 to make it possible.
The idea was first conceived two years ago. With the blessing of the aircrafts’ owners, they began vigorously fund-raising. ‘It’s been a much harder undertaking than we’d ever imagined,’ admitted Clive Denney, the pilot of the Historic Aircraft Company’s Hurricane. When I spoke to him earlier in the day, he and his fellow pilot were still in the toe of Italy. ‘Major sponsors came on board,’ he explained, ‘then inexplicably dropped out again. Then a cheque would arrive from one of the veterans, money that was clearly a lot for them to give, and that meant a great deal. It spurred us on.’ Now they’ve almost raised enough – enough to get them to the island at any rate, although when a leading Maltese motor dealership dropped out as late as last Monday, the team were at their wits’ end. Nonetheless, he was looking forward to finally reaching the island. ‘It’s amazing to think we’ve made it this far. We’ve flown all the way from Duxford with just a map and a stopwatch – no modern navigational aids at all.’ Clive was quick to praise Charlie Brown, who was flying the Spitfire. ‘Without his skill and knowledge, this would not have happened,’ he admitted.
The Spitfire climbed, dark against the pale sky, and performed a victory roll. Both planes then flew on, soon disappearing from sight. It was profoundly moving, and for a moment, no-one said much. I couldn’t help thinking of all the men who flew these aircraft over Malta during the war; all those who never made it through. Peter and Michael were both gazing into the water below them, clearly struggling with their emotions. At last Pete said, ‘I never thought I’d live to see that again.’ There was a catch in his throat and I have to admit I felt a lump there too. Michael sighed and lifted a finger to his eye. ‘I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.’

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