Gladiator Survivors #3: What Hope for Faith?

The story of ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’, the defenders of Malta, is probably the most enduring legend of World War 2 in the Mediterranean. It began in March 1940 when 18 Gloster Sea Gladiators (believed to have consecutive serial numbers N5518 – N5535), were unloaded on the Island in packing cases, bound for the carrier HMS Glorious.

Three of these cases were shipped back to England and the aircraft took part in the failed defence of Norway. Three more went to Egypt. Four of them were sent on to the carrier HMS Eagle to give her some defensive cover in anticipation of Italy joining the war.

Gloster Gladiators on Malta which staved off the Regia Aeronautica

Gloster Gladiators on Malta which staved off the Regia Aeronautica

After a bit of dithering which resulted in the aircraft being assembled, taken apart ready for onward shipping and then finally reassembled once again, the remaining aircraft formed the Malta Fighter Flight.

When Mussolini finally committed Italy to war against Britain it was these fighters which stood alone against a vast armada of Italian fighters and bombers based 60 miles away in Sicily.

For just under two weeks they flew in flights of two or three at a time and became known as ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’. Whether they were so christened by the deeply religious Maltese, by members of the RAF or by some bright spark in the propaganda unit has never been satisfactorily answered.

N5520 Faith seen with Blenheim engine and propeller fitted

N5520 Faith seen with Blenheim engine and propeller fitted

These outdated and outnumbered little aircraft and the valiant defence that they mounted truly has the stuff of legend about it, but the name stuck in the popular imagination. To this day the three longest-serving of the aircraft – N5520, N5519 and N5531 – have become known respectively as Faith, Hope and Charity.

Charity was shot down on 29 July 1940 and its pilot, Flying Officer Peter Hartley, was badly burned. Hope was destroyed in an air raid on 4 February 1941. By this time the surviving Faith had been joined by survivors from HMS Illustrious after she had limped, blazing, into port for emergency repairs in January 1941.

None of the aircraft remained completely intact, with much ‘bodging together’ of spare parts taken from damaged machines in order to keep the fittest survivors airworthy. Engines were sourced from Blenheim bombers, suitably modified, and fitted with three-blade propellers to try and boost their performance to get on terms with the Italian Fiat and Macchi fighters – and even keep up with the bombers.

Perhaps the most spectacular of all these aircraft was the fabled ‘Bloodiator’: a hybrid beast to which an additional pair of machine guns was fitted on top of the upper wing in the hope of being able to hit Stuka dive bombers as they pulled out of their bombing runs. This aircraft was destroyed by bombs on the ground before anyone had the chance to try it in anger – but when the experiment was replicated back in Britain it proved more hazardous to the Gladiator than to enemy targets.

Faith_09_43

By the summer of 1943 the siege had been broken and Malta had acted as the bridgehead to invading Sicily, but from the old airframe dump in the quarry near Luqa airfield the skeletal remains of N5520 Faith were retrieved and presented to the people of Malta by Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park on behalf of the British governor Lord Gort in recognition of their shared sacrifices and gallantry through the years of siege and hardship.

Faith has been kept on display in the depths of the ancient Fort St. Elmo for most of the intervening 70 years. In 1974 she was partially restored by a detachment of RAF volunteers, in which state she remains to this day, on view in the Malta War Museum.

Faith as she is seen today in the Fort St. Elmo war mueum

Faith as she is seen today in the Fort St. Elmo war mueum

In 1996, Malta’s then Minister of Justice and the Arts suggested that the specialists of the Malta Aviation Museum might be able to build some wings and restore Faith to her former glory. After trawling the air museums of Britain, Sweden, Finland and Norway the Aviation Museum team had assembled almost all the parts needed for the job – but then all hell appeared to be let loose.

There has been an impasse between the Malta Heritage-run War Museum and the volunteers of the Malta Air Museum over what work should be carried out, what is deemed necessary for the preservation of Faith, who should do the work and where she should ultimately be kept.

70 years after her presentation to the Maltese, Faith is still making headlines

70 years after her presentation to Malta, Faith is still making headlines

The Malta Aviation Museum states that what is left of Faith is deteriorating in the cellars of the old fortress, getting ravaged by damp and not being given the care that she deserves. The opposition states that it was entrusted with Faith and that the attentions of the volunteers are unwarranted and unwelcome.

While the war of words rages on between the museums, Faith remains wingless with a curious little propeller and a crude tail unit cut out of wood – but still drawing thousands of tourists every summer. Rightly so, too, as both the War Museum and Aviation Museum offer a wealth of exhibits and expertise and should be on anyone’s bucket list of places to visit – along with the rest of Malta and Gozo.

Here at the Scarf and Goggles we hope that there will be plenty of Faith in the future

Here at the S&G we hope that there will be plenty of Faith in the future

It would be wonderful to see this old girl back in one piece, representing a truly heroic chapter of Malta’s history to best effect. Although the signs are not encouraging at this moment in time, hopefully both sides can find the way to accommodate each other’s expertise to ensure that the story of Maltese endurance and resistance through the siege of 1940-42 continues to enthrall generations to come.

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Gladiator Survivors #2 – The Shuttleworth Collection

It’s rather a startling thought that one particular aircraft has been entertaining the nation for more than half a century as a relic of the last peacetime days of the 1930s. And yet there she is, the Shuttleworth Collection’s celebrated Gloster Gladiator, L8032, describing graceful arcs and sweeping climbs above Old Warden just as she has since 1960…

L8032 on a trip to Duxford's Flying Legends air display

L8032 basks in the sun on a trip to Duxford’s Flying Legends air display

L8032 was the last Gladiator I airframe built from the initial order made in 1935. All the components were built in 1937 but not actually assembled until 1938. Like her sister aircraft from this final batch, now on display at the RAF Museum, the completed L8032 immediately went into storage as the more modern Hawker Hurricane monoplane and soon-to-arrive Supermarine Spitfire took precedence in Fighter Command’s attention.

In the autumn of 1943 L8032 was brought out of storage and sent to 61 Operational Training Unit in readiness for a new job with a film unit called Independent Producers, which was to use the aircraft to shoot scenes for a film of the book Signed With Their Honour. This was to be a ‘factional’ retelling of the story of 80 Squadron and its Gladiators which fought to the last man and the last aircraft in the retreat from Greece and Crete in 1941.

At home at the Shuttleworth Collection’s airfield, Old Warden

Remarkably, all three complete surviving Gladiators – including The Fighter Collection’s N5903 – had an active role to play in the movie and were assigned to 61 OTU while the film was made. Two Gladiators were lost in a mid-air collision during filming but the survivors completed their tour of duty as stars of the silver screen before being mothballed once again.

L8032 would emerge once more in 1946 when she was put on display in Hyde Park. On 16 March 1948, L8032 was struck off the RAF’s charge list and bought back by the Gloster aircraft company along with N5903. Clearly the ailing Gloster company had no real idea what to do with these old machines and in 1950 both the Gladiators were delivered to Air Service Training for use as instructional airframes at Hamble and Ansty.

You can get up close at any time when the Shuttleworth Collection opens to the public

When RAF Ansty closed the two old aircraft were bought by Viv Bellamy for a nominal sum and L8032 was restored to flying condition using the engine from N5903 and the civilian registration G-AMRK. In 1956, Gloster decided that it wanted its aircraft back again and bought them from Bellamy, refitting L8032 was in full military specification and painting her in 72 Squadron markings, albeit with the fictitious serial K8032.

When Gloster Aircraft finally closed for business at the end of 1960,  L8032 was presented to the Shuttleworth Collection for safe keeping – and has remained there ever since. After many years of service she was completely overhauled in 1990 and repainted in a camouflage scheme of 247 Squadron, the only Gladiator unit to take part in the Battle of Britain. She wore these colours until 1996, when another new skin saw her returned to pre-war silver in hue – albeit in Norwegian markings for another film appearance.

Ready for another season in 2013: one of the longest-serving display aircraft in the UK

Finally in 2007 L8032 re-appeared in the colourful blue and yellow flashes of K7985, a 73 Squadron Gladiator that was flown with memorable vigour by the future WW2 ace ‘Cobber’ Kain at the 1937 Hendon Air Pageant. It is these colours which she carries to this day, and which are about to be replicated by a new model kit by Airfix.

The Scarf & Goggles proudly salutes this fine old girl and all who care for her. Here’s to another 50 years in the air over Bedfordshire…

 

Gladiator Survivors #1 – RAF Museum, Hendon

The Gloster Gladiator was the first aeroplane to really get my attention. I don’t actually remember the occasion, being rather young, but my parents took me to The Shuttleworth Collection where my particular excitement about the ‘Gladys’ – Gladiator being a bit of a mouthful – entered family folklore. I’ve also sought out as many as possible of the survivors…

This old stager has sat in a corner of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Hall since the day it was built. Two squadrons of Gladiators were sent to France in 1939 and not one aircraft survived the Luftwaffe’s assault when Hitler finally pushed west in May 1940. A further two squadrons were on the strength of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, hence the longtime presence of K8042 in the Hendon display.

The RAF Museum's Gladiator, K8042

The RAF Museum’s Gladiator, K8042

Delivered to the RAF in 1937, K8042 immediately went into storage, where she stayed until 1941. Gladiator aircraft were meanwhile making a name for themselves elsewhere in the world – most famously in the defence of Malta but also in Greece, North Africa and the bizarre but vicious little battle for control of Iraq’s oil fields where British and Iraqi forces both flew Gladiators against one another.

It was at this time that K8042 emerged from storage to try out some of the improvised ‘enhancements’ being made in the field, such as recreating the six-gun ‘Bloodiator’ that was hastily thrown together in a desperate bid for more firepower on Malta. This was not a success – in fact spent bullet casings from the extra guns caused considerable damage!

Thereafter the Gladiators were mothballed once again, although K8042 was used briefly for a propaganda film about British heroism in the defence of Greece. In this fictitious scheme she was stored for most of the next 25 years, save the occasional appearance for ceremonial duties, before being restored to pre-war colours in 1968 and then put on display in the new Battle of Britain Hall at Hendon in 1978.

The RAF's first enclosed cockpit fighter and its last biplane

The RAF’s first enclosed cockpit fighter and its last biplane

For more information on the Battle of Britain Hall at RAF Hendon, go to the website.