September 24, 2016
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Book in progress (November 2013-present)
Status (March 2017): All major research completed. In the process of concluding this non-fiction project | Above mast painting by Rowland Hilder, 1942
A British Imperial island during the Second World War, Malta occupied a strategic place in the narrows of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a rocky aircraft carrier from where the British could launch attacks on Sicily, and its natural harbor gave the Royal Navy an excellent base. In short, Malta was a thorn in the enemy’s side.
The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, was determined to take it for his own, and in June 1940, he had the men and the machines to do it. But although Mussolini and the Germans tried their best to blast Malta off the map and starve it into submission, they had badly underestimated the fighting spirit of islanders and the British. Although outmanned and outgunned, Royal Air Force planes flown by Commonwealth pilots and American volunteers harried enemy attackers and Allied warships based there wreaked havoc on German and Italian shipping.
Kept alive through a tenuous and erratic supply line — vulnerable convoys sailing from Gibraltar and Alexandria, Malta hung on, defying the odds, wielding massive influence on the battles raging in North Africa and sparking fierce naval clashes which gutted the Axis merchant fleets and scarred the Italian Regia Marina, that other Royal Navy. The phrase “naval battles of World War II” may conjure imagery of the Pacific, but more surface engagements were fought in the Mediterranean than in any other place during the war — 50, compared to 36 in the Pacific and 49 in the Atlantic.
The siege of the island lasted for nearly two-and-a-half years, eclipsing all the great sieges of modern history (barring Leningrad) as the defenders fought a lonely, heroic campaign, a private little war against the might of two Axis militaries, paving the way for the Allied liberation of the Mediterranean.
Below follows some of the assorted art and graphics connected with this work. They’ll probably never be published in the way I intend anyway.
A budding artist of growing reputation (his work was exhibited in the National Gallery when he was only 17) Denis Alfred Barnham’s (1920-1981) artistic ambitions were overshadowed only by his interest in flying. When he was 16, he had convinced his mother to let him take flying lessons in an old Cierva C30 autogiro. As the only son in a family which ran a market gardening business, he was expected to take over the company, but would have none of it, and at the outbreak of war, volunteered for the Royal Air Force. By 1941, following training in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he became a trained fighter pilot, but for all his passions against the enemy, he displayed little desire to get into battle, and certainly he was distracted. He had met Diana Frith, an attractive blonde in the Army Auxiliary, at a dance that June. Firth’s father was the tough, imposing commander of the 39th Anti-Aircraft Brigade in the area, but undeterred, Denis and Firth began a whirlwind romance. Barnham proposed to her the day after they had met. Firth told him to be sensible, but he persisted and they eventually married in January 1942. It didn’t hurt that Barnham was gifted, good-looking and utterly charming. But in March, he was posted to 601 Squadron at the request of the unit CO, John Bisdee, who needed an experienced flight leader for the Malta-bound squadron. He died in 1981 of a brain tumor.
A great “cheerful blonde mountain of confidence,” John Bisdee (20 November 1915-30 October 2000), popularly known as “The Bish” for his large physique and booming, episcopal manner of speech, held a commanding influence over nearly everyone who served under him during the war. Originally, however, he evinced only an interest in languages. Determined to become fluent in Spanish, he went to Spain where his studies were studied cut short by the outbreak of the Civil War. Enlisting in the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) a year later, Bisdee found himself called up for active duty at the outbreak of World War II. He trained as a fighter pilot and joined the flamboyant 609 Squadron as 1939 reached its twilight. He was still with the squadron when the Battle of Britain began in mid-1940. Between July 18 and October 7, 1940, Bisdee shot down three planes for certain, damaged three and probably destroyed a fourth. In sweeps over France afterwards, he shot down three more German planes, and for his troubles was given a DFC and made a training instructor. Eager to get back into action, Bisdee wrangled command of 601 Squadron, a unit destined for Malta. In his very first combat mission over Malta, Bisdee shot down a Ju88 but was shot down himself and posted as dead. In fact, he was very much alive, having ditched in the sea, and although injured he rowed his dinghy six miles back to shore. Bisdee and No. 601 left Malta in June 1942.
Originally enlisting in the RAF Voluntary reserve as a common airman in January 1939, Ronald Ivor Chaffe (1915-Feb 1942) rose through the ranks after the start of the war. Called up for active duty from the reserves in September 1939, Chaffe was a fully trained pilot by May 1940. Records would later show him as being in 1435 Flight on Malta by late-1941, although Chaffe would be given command of 185 Squadron on 17 February 1942. Less than a week later, however, he would be dead. Scrambled to tackle an incoming raid of Ju88s and Me109Fs on the 22nd, Chaffe and 185 Squadron took to the skies a little after 1 pm. He was shot down by a German Me109. Chaffe is thought to have bailed out and ditched in the sea. His dinghy was spotted some four to five miles off Point Delimara, and although rescue boats were sent out to bring him in, the search was limited because of the threat of loitering Me109s. The next morning, the 23rd, another air and sea rescue sweep was mounted, only to meet more raiders. As the rescue operation turned into a full-blown battle, the search was called off. Chaffe was never seen again. He was 27-years old and left behind his wife, Betty.
One of three brothers who served in the RAF during the war, Arthur Hay Donaldson (Jan 1915-Oct 1980), was commissioned in March 1934 as a Pilot Officer and spent the pre-war years in relative idyllic circumstances, flying biplane fighters. By when war broke out, he was a Flying instructor, and largely missed the Battle of Britain. In January 1941, however, he joined 242 Squadron, under the famed legless ace, Douglas Bader and obtained some valuable combat experience. But the lessons came at no mean cost. On June 14, by now commanding his own squadron (No. 263), he and other pilots raided Querqueville airfield in Nazi-occupied France. Donaldson’s fighter was hit by flak and he was nearly killed, but he returned to England and despite the gravity of his wounds, made a swift recovery. On 13 October 1942, he was wounded again, this time over Sicily. His cockpit splotched with blood, he just managed to return to Malta and crash-landed. The severity of injuries to his hands earmarked him for evacuation — his command of the Takali Wing on Malta concluded; his total tally standing at five victories. He later commanded a fighter station in England and trained Spitfire pilots to attack V-2 launch sites in Europe. Later commands included a stint in the Far East in 1945 — an episode cut short after he contracted Malaria and had to be repatriated to England. He retired from the RAF in 1959 and in his later years, managed a village shop and a sub-post office in Melbury Osmond near Dorchester.
Born in the free city of Danzig, in what was then East Prussia, Siegfried Freytag (Nov 1919-June 2003), served in Jagdgeschwader 77 for much of the war. He saw combat over Great Britain in 1940 and then over Crete that following year. By June 1942, was the commander of the wing’s 1st Squadron — his aerial tally at 57 confirmed victories. He scored briskly over Malta but was bested on July 27 (an important day), when he was shot down into the sea off Valletta. Rescued by a Dornier Do24 flying boat, he was soon back in action. On the morning of October 11, he claimed the destruction of a single Spitfire to raise his total score to 69. By late 1944, Freytag was back in Germany, for home defense. Remarkably, he may have been responsible for shooting down and killing famous the “Malta “ace, Flight Lieutenant Henry ‘Wally’ McLeod during combat over the French-German border on 27 September 1944 — for his 101st victory of the war. Captured by US Army troops near Regensburg in 1945, he initially worked as an interpreter but then became near destitute upon learning that his entire family had been wiped out following the Soviet conquest of East Prussia. He found work as a taxi driver before joining the French Foreign Legion in 1952. As an ordinary foot soldier, he saw combat in Indochina and Algeria before retiring in 1970. He lived in the Legion’s retirement commune for the rest of his life.
Victory in previous battles is no proof of survivability in warfare, as Edward John “Jumbo” Gracie (1911-Feb 1944) eventually discovered. A popular if gruff pilot, Gracie has been described by his contemporaries as a man who joined the Royal Air Force as a pilot, simply so that he could fight the war sitting down. As a Flight Lieutenant, he flew throughout the Battle of Britain with 56 Squadron, shooting down four German aircraft before 1 August 1940 and a further three by August 30th, when he himself was shot down and spent the next few weeks in the hospital recovering from a near broken neck. On 21 March 1942, he flew into Malta at the vanguard of a nine-strong force of Spitfire replacements and took command of 126 Squadron, but was later promoted and commanded the Takali wing. According to sources, his command of the wing ended in a political fiasco after he erected a signpost threatening to public hang Maltese found guilty of thieving supplies and food from his airfield. He remained as a senior combat officer on Malta several months, shooting down an additional six enemy aircraft. Later assigned to fly long-range Mosquito nightfighters of 169 Squadron, he was killed on 15 February 1944 while escorting RAF heavy bombers during a nocturnal raid over Germany. He was 32 years old.
Although a veteran fighter pilot and a respected leader of men, Stanley Bernard Grant (31 May 1919-6 July 1987) has died that great death befallen to those who live through battle — the eventual death of being forgotten. An early volunteer, Grant had earned his commission as Pilot Officer in December 1938. At the outbreak of the Battle of Britain three years later, he was a Flying Officer in the unremarkable 65 Squadron, and shot down a single Me110 for certain. He remained in England until March 1942, when he led a force of Spitfire fighters into Malta and took command of 249 Squadron. More combat followed and there was much shooting from Grant, who claimed several planes destroyed, until scoring his first conclusive kills on March 25, downing a Stuka and an Me109. Throughout that summer, Grant led 249 Squadron with some flair, ensuring that the squadron scored heavily, even if he did not. Yet, there is no doubt that he suffered from a slight streak of pride. Denis Barnham who had known Grant in England, saw him at a dinner at the Xara Palace that April. “Standing in front of me in his immaculate uniform, yet leaning back from me with his arms folded [is Stan Grant},” Barnham wrote. “He was a flight commander in the old days and now he’s a squadron leader…He seems vaguely amused that I’ve become a flight commander myself.” On the flip side, there is no doubt that Grant was also a hard worker. Photos exist of him doing manual labor at Takali airfield.
Popular and well-liked, Norman MacQueen (17 April 1920-4 May 1942), joined the RAF seven days after the start of the war, as an Aircraftsman (the lowest rank in the service). But promotion came swift for the young pilot from North Wales. By October 1940, he was a sergeant and a month later he was commissioned as an officer. A year later, he was Flight Lieutenant and was posted to Malta in March 1942, first arriving on the island during Operation “Spotter” — the first so-called “Club Run” mission which gave Malta her first 15 Spitfires. By May 1, his tally stood seven enemy planes destroyed in air combat, two shared destroyed and two damaged. Throughout these encounters, not once had he or his aircraft been hit, while he in turn had seen many others die. He met his own end on May 4, during a sprawling melee over the Grand Harbor area. Among the most respected of the Second World War histories are those written by the participants themselves. The literary contributions of Virgil Paul Brennan (6 March 1920-13 June 1943), a pilot who destroyed 10 enemy aircraft in his career (all over Malta), amounted to his writing Spitfires over Malta, a 1943 book penned in collaboration with fellow Malta ace and friend, Sgt. Raymond Hesselyn. Sent to Malta during “Spotter,” Brennan joined 249 Squadron where he quickly made friends. Many later remembered that while there was aggression in Brennan’s manner, “he had an easy-going nature, an engaging sense of humour [sic] and was loyal to his friends; his flair for oratory made him a forceful debater.” He was also soon an ace. He was killed in New Guinea during a landing which saw him accidentally wander into the right lane of the runway, and struck by the Spitfire following behind.
Immensely confident and outspoken, Robert McNair of Springfield, Nova Scotia (15 May 1919-Jan 1971), was cowed by few. Once in a line of men being presented with decorations by the King George VI, he was cursorily asked how he was feeling. “Just fine, Sir,” McNair had replied. “How’s the Queen?” A high school graduate with good grades, he initially worked for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Natural Resources as a radio operator, but when war broke out, he decided to enroll in the RCAF. He joined the air force in June 1940, graduating as a fighter pilot in March 1941. Soon, he was on his way to England to join a neophytic, unruly and ill-trained Canadian squadron (No. 411). The squadron soon suffered massive casualties, many through accidents. The squadron diarist would later say of his unit: “Our motto Inimicus Inimico (Hostile to an enemy) — should have been more aptly read as ‘Hostile to Ourselves’.” Predictably, when volunteers were needed for overseas duties, McNair did not hesitate. He arrived on Malta in March 1942, just as the situation was becoming bleak. As a Flying Officer, he was posted to 249 Squadron, where he soon distinguished himself in battle and became the commander of ‘B’ Flight. By May, he had shot down five planes and probably destroyed or damaged another eight. He left the island in mid-June, with three more “kills” to his credit, but was a changed man, having witnessed the deaths of many friends.
One of the most gifted flyers on Malta was Tom Neil of Bootle, Lancashire (14 July 1920), who joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve (VR) in October 1938, at the age of 18. His interests in aviation went early, and as a child, he was frequently found drawing aircraft of all sorts. His skill in freehand sketching even netted for him a prize while he was at Eccles Secondary (grammar) School. And the subject of the drawing? An aircraft. Heavily engaged during the Battle of Britain, he shot down 11 planes and shared in the destruction of four others — all without being shot down himself. With a DFC and promoted to flight leader, he was sent to Malta, where the found the conditions appalling and the attitude of the RAF chief on the island, the bulldog-faced Air Vice-Marshal Hugh Pughe Lloyd, indifferent. Infuriated at the heavy combat casualties experienced by 249 Squadron on the island, Neil placed the blame squarely on Lloyd. “So many people were lost unnecessarily,” he said. “So many golden people shot down because the people leading us didn’t really know what was happening. We were flying stuff we should’ve never have flown…because Lloyd was concentrating on other things.” Transferred back to England soon after, Neil spent the rest of the war holding a series of successful commands, although he never scored another aerial victory again. He is still alive as of today.
There is little doubt that without George Walter Simpson (b. 6 Jun 1901-2 Mar 1972), the gifted commander of the British 10th Submarine Flotilla at Malta, Allied victory in the Mediterranean would have taken longer to achieve. His submarines at Malta’s Lazaretto (a handsome, 17th-century honey-colored limestone building on the waterfront, once a leprosarium and a quarantine center for diseased sailors), wreaked havoc on Axis shipping, chronically depriving the Italian Army and the German Afrika Korps in North Africa of supplies. They also helped to keep Malta supplied with small loads of food and munitions during the darkest days of the Axis blockade. Joining the Royal Navy at the tail end of World War I, Simpson transferred to submarines in 1921 and from there entered the realm of destiny. Outspoken with superiors, adept in command, resourceful with supplies and beloved by his subordinates, “Shrimp” Simpson — so nicknamed because of his tough, small stature — took command of the “The Fighting Tenth” at Lazaretto on 1 October 1941 and held it for the remainder of the siege. His submarines, mostly U-Class training vessels, amassed an outstanding combat record. Between January 1941 and December 1942, they sank 68 enemy ships. In January 1943, however, after the death of his favorite sub commander, Richard Cayley, Simpson resigned his command. “In retrospect it is obvious that I was getting tired,” he wrote in his 1972 memoir. He left the Royal Navy in 1954 and took up farming in Whangaruru, New Zealand — a profession he stayed with until his death.
Nicknamed “Banana” because he was once a young fruit seller, hawking his wares on a street cart at the Piazza Cavour in downtown Rome, Ennio Tarantola (19 January 1915-30 July 2001), joined the Regia Aeronautica as a Sergeant Pilot in September 1936. He saw action as a fighter pilot in Spain against the Republican forces and stayed on in the air force afterwards. By when Italy declared war against Britain, however, he was a pilot in Stukas. Shot down on 30 June 1941, he spent the next 18 hours in a dinghy in the sea. It was a sobering experience. He wisely returned to a fighter unit soon after. In early-1942, his unit deployed to Sicily to operate against Malta. Flying as a wingman to his squadron commander, Capitan Furio Niclot Doglio, the Doglio-Tarantola team became responsible for the destruction of several RAF Spitfires over Malta. Doglio got five, Tarantola three, with another two shared destroyed between the pair. It was a remarkable feat, but then Doglio was shot down and killed on 27 July 1942, by the Canadian ace George Beurling. Tarantola survived Malta and after being withdrawn to the Italian mainland in 1943, shot down three American P-38 Lightnings. When Italy surrendered in September, instead of joining the Allies, Tarantola chose the pro-German, Italian National Republican Air Force (ANR). He eventually met his match in combat against American P-47 Thunderbolts in 1944 and bailed out, badly burned in the legs. He never flew in combat again.
One of the last Hawker Hurricane aces to die on Malta was Gordon Russell Tweedale (18 April 1918-May 1942) who was lost while flying an unfamiliar new Spitfire on 9 May 1942. Born in Brisbane, Tweedale had joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1940. He was posted to Malta on 22 February 1942. His arrival on the island was telling. The Sunderland flying-boat which had flown him in was strafed by German fighters soon after Tweedale had exited and it sank that evening. Far from discouraged, Tweedale, eager to get into the mix of things, was assigned to 185 Squadron. In the air, combat had a steep learning curve and Tweedale had several narrow escapes. His fighter was badly shot up on March 9. Wounded in the heel, Tweedale managed to crash-land and spent three weeks in a hospital, fortuitously missing much of the carnage which decimated his squadron. He returned to operations afterwards and by May 8, his tally stood at seven confirmed kills. On the following day, when the squadron took on a consignment of Spitfires, Tweedale was one of those granted permission to take one up. He had never flown a Spitfire before, and was shot down. His aircraft came down on Lija, falling on an ack-ack battery, and killing a Maltese gunner, the 29-year old Seraphim Cauchi. Tweedale was awarded a posthumous DFM for his cumulative feats, but for Cauchi who was just as dead, there was no medal.
Hailing from German aristocracy, Erbo Graf von Kageneck (b. 2 April 1918-12 January 1942) earned a reputation as an “ace hunter,” for shooting down several seasoned Allied veterans. Born into a family heavily committed in the war (another brother was a celebrated tank commander), von Kageneck, like so many Luftwaffe experten started the war seeing action over Poland and France. From July 1940, he joined in operations against Britain, shooting down seven RAF fighters before the daylight battles ended in October. Posted to III/JG27 “Afrika,” a crack fighter unit destined for North Africa, von Kageneck operated for a time against Malta in May 1941. His time over the island may have been brief — just two weeks — but he shot down four British Hurricane fighters, two of them piloted by rising RAF stars, Flight Lieutenant Innes Westmacott, who bailed out on May 13, and the impeccably dressed and handsome Pilot Officer Claud “Hamish” Hamilton of 185 Squadron who was so badly wounded on May 14, that he crash-landed at the Marsa Sports Club racetrack, stepped out of his intact Hurricane and died on the racetrack. Von Kageneck met his own match on 24 December 1941, when he was shot down and badly wounded, possibly by the great Australian ace, Clive Caldwell, over the Western Desert. Evacuated to Italy, he died later in a Naples hospital.
Popular and full of youthful exuberance, Franz Schiess was another casualty of a war which was largely unforgiving of mistakes and indifferent to ability. Born in Austria (21 February 1921-Sept 1943), Schiess was in action from the first day of the war, in Poland, while serving in the army. Later transferred to the Luftwaffe, he spent nearly a year along the Channel Front, seeing little combat until his unit was transferred wholesale to the east to participate in the invasions of Russia. Here, victories came fast and without respite. Between 22 June and August 1941, he shot down 14 Soviet aircraft, but then moved to Sicily with his unit, JG53, to operate against Malta. He shot down 11 British planes over the island before the campaign petered out, but spent the next year in the Mediterranean, operating with his unit under increasingly heavy odds. He forged a reputation as a fearless, aggressive pilot, but was killed when his Messerschmitt Me109G-6 fighter was shot down by American P-38 Lightnings over Ischia in the Tyrrhenian Sea on 2 September 1943. His death had a profound effect on his unit. In a letter to Schiess’ parents, his commander, Oberst Günther von Maltzahn, wrote: “One could not have wished for a better officer. Not only did there exist a comradeship and a mutual trust between [us] that was tested in far more than 100 air battles, but in him I lost my best friend, on whom I could depend no matter what the situation.”
A third-generation Oklahoman, Claude Ivan Weaver III ( 18 Aug 1923-28 Jan 1944) had distinguished roots. His grandfather (also named Claude), was a judge and a US Representative from Oklahoma, his great grandfather, WTG Weaver, a renowned lawyer, had been responsible for authoring the judiciary code of the Texas constitution and his father was the Assistant Attorney General of Oklahoma. But young Weaver eschewed a formal education (he dropped out of Classen High School in downtown Oklahoma City) in favor of adventure. In February 1941, a full 10-months before Pearl Harbor drew the United States into World War II, he volunteered for pilot training in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and although he employed subterfuge — claiming to be 18 and a high school graduate — white lies enabled by glowing letters of recommendation from esteemed family friends and associates, Weaver’s stellar health, his keen mind, sharp eyes and easy-going nature, guaranteed his acceptance and following training, he was assigned to a fighter squadron (No. 412) in England in October. The onset of 1942, however, would set him on a course with destiny. Given transfer orders for Malta, he arrived on the island on 15 July 1942. Within ten days, he had become an ace — the youngest Allied ace of the war (he was just 18 years old) — after shooting down five German Me109s. But on 31 July 1942, he was himself shot down by the German ace, Gerhard Michalski, and crash-landed on Malta. By the start of September his tally stood at 10 victories. He shot downed his 11th victim on the 9th, but was shot down himself over a beach in Axis-held Sicily. As his Spitfire floundered by the water’s edge, Weaver attempted escape when an Italian intelligence officer and troops arrived. “Why hello, Claude,” the Italian officer said. “How are you?” The officer later told Weaver that they had been listening in on his radio broadcasts. His award of the DFM was announced in absentia.
Destined to live a life tragically cut short, Walter Zellot’s (6 October 1920-Sept 1943) misfortune was that he was born on the wrong side of history. Austrian by birth, Zellot graduated from Luftwaffe fighter training in November 1940, and thus missed the Battle of Britain by a sliver. But a bigger battle was unfolding for Germany in 1941. As part of 1./Jagdgeschwader 53, Zellot found himself flying into action against the Russians on the first day of Operation “Barbarossa,” the colossal German invasion of the Soviet Union. Zellot ended the day having shot down his first kill of the war, a Russian I-16 fighter. By July 31, he had shot down a total of 10 planes. That November, I/JG53 was relocated to Sicily, where it began operations against Malta. Zellot shot down a single Hurricane on December 12, but his greatest success over the island was in April 1942, when he shot down two Spitfires, the second flown by Squadron Leader John Bisdee of 601 Squadron. In May, I/JG53 returned to the Eastern Front to the support the German summer offensive. In what would prove to be a prolific period, Zellot scored heavily. There seemed no end to his meteoric rise. By September 10, his tally was at 86 confirmed kills. That same day, however, his limitless talent met its end. While on a low-level sweep against Soviet troops northwest of Stalingrad, ack-ack tore the tail from Zellot’s Me109G and the fighter careened towards the ground. Zellot bailed out but hit the earth before his parachute could open.
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