The Malta Aviation Museum is home to a trove of remarkable artefacts and aircraft. There is everything from the flying boot that Adrian ‘Warby’ Warburton was wearing on his final flight – recovered, along with his remains, in 2002 – to restored post-war jets.
One can wander freely around, getting a close-up look at the restorations underway and the seemingly endless supply of parts. One source of parts is the sea around the island – into which so many aircraft dropped during the siege of 1940-42. One of the treasures offered up by the Mediterranean was the Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIa now so beautifully restored by the museum volunteers.
Hurricane Z3055 was built in early 1941, one of the fifth production batch of 1,000 aircraft built at Kingston. It was delivered from the factory to No. 48 Maintenance Unit at Hewarden on 27 February 1941 and prepared for squadron service. Over the next few months the Hurricane was shuttled between It was transferred to Abbotsinch and No. 5 Maintenance Unit at Kemble. It was delivered back to Abbotsinch on 18 May, for shipment to Malta as part of the convoy known as Operation ROCKET.
To start this, the seventh ‘Club Run’ (as the Royal Navy christened the Malta convoys), the converted Edwardian cruise ship HMS Argus was loaded with 29 cased Hurricanes on the Clyde, and sailed with the cruiser HMS Exeter to join convoy WS 8B to Gibraltar, arriving on May 31st. A day later the carrier HMS Furious, a converted WW1 battle cruiser, also arrived in Gibraltar, upon which were 48 pre-assembled Hurricane Mk.II aircraft including Z3055, which were transferred to HMS Ark Royal as she lay at anchor in Gibraltar.
This was a repeat of the previous Club Run, Operation SPLICE, which had taken the elite 249 Squadron to Malta a fortnight earlier. Among the pilots who made that journey was 249 Squadron’s top-scoring ace Tom Neil, who memorably described the voyage in his memoir Onward to Malta:
“In the warm and sultry blackness of the Mediterranean night, Gibraltar was a blaze of light, a stirring and nostalgic sight for those of us who had lived in conditions of blackout for almost two years. Gathering our meagre belongings we bade farewell to the Furious and stumbled along the debris-strewn dockside towards the Ark. Above us, planks had already gone down and the first of our aircraft were being trundled across.”
The Argus then made a stern-to-stern transfer of her completed aircraft to Furious, while the remaining cased airframes were landed on Gibraltar for assembly. Although the scene was one of furious activity for many engineers, stevedores and sailors, the same could not be said for the pilots. Their job was still to come, and Gibraltar provided an ideal interlude:
“From our hosts we learned that we would be sailing as soon as the transfer of aircraft had been completed,” Tom Neil wrote.
“Later, much later, with pink gins fairly slopping around inside I returned to my cabin, my morale restored absolutely by the sophistication of my surroundings and the courtesy of my new-found friends. Then, in the wee small hours, tremors and subdued grumblings started up somewhere underfoot and, in a cosy, gin-induced stupor, I concluded that we were once more heading seawards… Good ol’ Navy, I thought; Cap’n Bligh, or whoever, would probably know the way. Two points to starboard, if you please, Mister Christian! Dear God! If only the sides of this cabin would keep still.”
On Operation ROCKET, Ark Royal and Furious set off eastwards late on June 4th, escorted by Force H of the Mediterranean fleet: the battlecruiser HMS Renown, the cruiser HMS Sheffield and the destroyers HMS Faulknor, Fearless, Foresight, Forester, Foxhound and Fury.
Early in the morning of June 6th the carriers launched a total of 44 Hurricanes from their regular point close to the Balearic Islands. The Hurricanes would rendezvous with eight Blenheim bombers that had taken off from Gibraltar and fly the regular supply route towards Cap Bon on the northeast tip of Tunisia then skip round the hostile islands of Pantelleria, Lampedusa and Linosa before arriving over Malta.
The route was difficult and potentially dangerous – Italian, German and Vichy French aircraft were all in range of the Hurricanes, which were unarmed and over-laden with fuel for the flight and supplies for the island such as cigarettes and toothpaste, stowed where the ammunition should be. There was also, for the pilots, the new and daunting prospect of taking off from a ship.
The experience was recorded by Tom Neil, who was not in the best of spirits when he had to make his great leap into the unknown.
“Silent and yawning, we went in single file to one of the deserted dining rooms and were each handed a fried breakfast by one of the kitchen staff whose bare and bulging arms were liberally garnished with red-and-blue pictures referring to Love, Mother and a lady called Doris…”
Although there was considerable trepidation among the young men who would fly off, catastrophes were thankfully rare on these convoys. The mighty Ark Royal in particular could summon up 30 knots into wind, giving the over-burdened Hurricanes all possible help to take off despite the short runway of her deck.
All 44 of the Hurricanes got away safely on Operation ROCKET but one was forced to return to the Ark Royal due to engine problems and made an unheard-of deck landing – all the more remarkable when laden with long-range fuel tanks and stowed equipment. The remaining 43 Hurricanes and the eight Blenheims from Gibraltar arrived safely in Malta.
At this time the war in Malta had quietened down significantly. The Luftwaffe had only days before withdrawn from Sicily in order to make its way to the Russian border, where soon Operation BARBAROSSA would launch Hitler’s offensive to the east.
Tom Neil would recall it as: “a delightful period of my life. Here I was on a nice warm Mediterranean island, surrounded by friends and decent aeroplanes to fly… what we had was a private war between three squadrons of Hurricanes and the Italian air force in Sicily, which was very much a comic opera affair… The Italians were not really interested in this war. They did not bother us much.”
As a result Z3055 was held in reserve until July 1st when she was taken on charge by 126 Squadron. On July 4th she took off before daybreak from the reserve airstrip at Safi before dawn with Sergeant Tom Hackston at the controls. For some reason Hackston got into difficulties and crashed into the sea and was killed, with Z3055 ending her marathon journey to Malta in ignominious fashion.
In 1993 a local Maltese diver called David Schembri discovered Z3055 lying at a depth of 40 metres only a short distance from the coast off Wied Iz-Zurrieq, a tiny harbour set in a narrow inlet in the cliffs and guarded by a watchtower from which tourist boats take tours to the Blue Grotto.
The Hurricane was remarkably well-preserved – despite the ravages of her crash, more than half a century of passing tides and regularly snagging fishing nets on her exposed structure. After a thorough exploration, she was salvaged two years later, on Thursday, 19 September 1995.
The restoration of Z3055 is undoubtedly the high point of the Malta Aviation Museum’s work to date and she sits proudly alongside the restored Spitfire Mk.IX. Many of the replacement parts used in the restoration were sourced from other Hurricane crash sites on Malta – such as the engine cowling taken from the Mk.IIc night fighter of Alex Mackie, whose death in January 1942 is described so memorably in the prologue to James Holland’s history, Fortress Malta.
One day the Museum hopes to perform a full restoration of the celebrated Gloster Gladiator, Faith – although controversy still dogs that issue. It also has sufficient parts to rebuild a Fairey Swordfish, which is rather more likely, while this brilliant and friendly museum – located on the former fighter airfield of Takali – continues to act as a beacon for all who are interested in the remarkable role that Malta had to play in World War 2.