The Maltese Hurricane

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.

A veritable trove of aviation history in Ta'Qali (formerly the RAF fighter base of Takali)

A veritable trove of aviation history in Ta’Qali (formerly the RAF fighter base of Takali)

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.

The museum's Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIa Z3055

The museum’s Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIa Z3055

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.

Ark Royal at rest, as she would have looked on Operation SPLICE and Operation ROCKET

Ark Royal at rest, as she would have looked on Operation SPLICE and Operation ROCKET

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.

HMS Furious was a much older vessel than the Ark

HMS Furious was a much older vessel than the Ark

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.

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

Hurricane reinforcements being ferried to Malta, 1941

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.

Z3055 wears the colours of 126 Squadron in 1941, with which she flew

Z3055 wears the colours of 126 Squadron in 1941, with which she flew in a quiet spell of the siege

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.

Raised from the seabed: Z3055 appears after 54 years

Raised from the seabed: Z3055 appears after 54 years

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.

Malta's Hurricane and Spitfire - both first class restorations

Malta’s Hurricane and Spitfire – both first class restorations

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.

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The Manston Hurricane

The charming Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial Museum at Manston, Kent, might be based on what remains of one of the most important Battle of Britain airfields but also commemorates a much less celebrated period of World War 2.

The Manston Hurricane – a remarkable machine in unique surroundings

Alongside the remaining airfield buildings, all crammed with artefacts and information, are the modern, purpose-built homes of the Museum’s Spitfire Mk.XVI and its Hurricane Mk.IIc, the latter representing the ill-fated Operation JUBILEE: the 1942 assault on Dieppe.

In fact the aircraft itself hadn’t been built when the British and Canadian forces were dashed against the defences of Dieppe. Hurricane LF751 was built at Langley in 1944 joined her first unit, No. 1681 Bomber Defence Training Flight, in April of that year. Soon she moved to No. 27 Operational Training Unit, where she would remain for the remainder of the war and some considerable years afterwards.

When the RAF laid the foundations of its Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, it turned to 27 OTU for a Hurricane and selected LF363 from the stores. Her sister aircraft, including LF751, were meanwhile picked clean for usable spares to maintain their airworthy sister until it was decided that a Hurricane was needed to stand guard over the gates of RAF Bentley Priory – the nerve centre of RAF Fighter Command and the defence of Britain in 1940.

BBMF’s LF363 was revived with parts from the Manston Hurricane

It was for this task that LF751 was refurbished – although by the time that work was completed, there were more Mk.IId parts on her than original Mk.IIc. Nevertheless she spent almost 30 years standing outside the iconic building from which Dowding and Park commanded their celebrated defence through the summer of 1940.

By the mid-1980s only two genuine Hurricanes remained as gate guardians: LF751 at Bentley Priory and LF738 at RAF Biggin Hill. Neither of them would have survived such exposure to the elements much longer, and were thus withdrawn in favour of plastic replicas. Remarkably, given their timber, canvas and lightweight metal construction, both aircraft were considered to be restorable and were thus transferred to the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society (MAPS) for their respective overhauls in mid-1985.

For almost 30 years LF751 stood guard over RAF Bentley Priory

For almost 30 years LF751 stood guard over RAF Bentley Priory

Completely stripped down, the rebuilding of LF751 was to take MAPS some 22,000 man hours and cost some £18,000. In order to complete the build, parts were sourced from across Britain as well as Canada and Germany, including a control column previously fitted to a Hurricane that had crashed at West Malling in September 1940.

While the long road to restoration was underway, the research began to give the finished product a suitable new identity – LF751 having had a relatively quiet wartime life. It was eventually decided to give her the markings of Mk.IIc BN320, which carried the code FT-A while assigned to of the famous ‘Fighting Cocks’ – No. 43 Squadron – in early 1942.

The real BN320 had been the personal mount of Squadron Leader Danny Le Roy Du Vivier, DFC and bar, Croix de Guerre (Belge), a Belgian pilot. As well as her standard camouflage, this particular aircraft had worn a colourful collection of badges beneath the cockpit – namely the RAF Ensign, the Belgian flag and the black and white chequers of 43 Squadron.

Manston's Hurricane LF751 remains a tribute to Du Vivier and BM320

Manston’s Hurricane LF751 remains a tribute to Du Vivier and BM320

Sqn Ldr Du Vivier was a noted Hurricane ‘ace’ who had joined his unit in August 1940, after escaping from occupied Belgium along with eight comrades and travelled to Britain via Gibraltar by boat. He shot down his first enemy aircraft on August 16 – a Junkers Ju87 – but was himself shot down in flames on September 2, baling out to land in the grounds of a girls’ school in Sidcup. Several girls arrived at the scene bearing shovels and pitchforks and du Vivier chose to play dead until the police arrived, lest his strong Brussels accent be mistaken for German.

After recovering from his injuries, Du Vivier rejoined 43 Squadron and would stay there for a remarkable total of 27 months, rising from Pilot Officer to Squadron Leader. In May 1942 he caught and shot down a Ju88 reconnaissance aircraft some 50 miles off the coast near Newcastle at the helm of BN320. Flying at 30,000ft to make his ‘kill’ – an almost unprecedented altitude for a Hurricane on active service – BN320 was damaged by return fire but swiftly patched up.

She flew again with du Vivier in the Dieppe raid of August 19 1942, this time at low altitude flying close air support to the landing troops. Leading by example, du Vivier flew four sorties that day and returned each time with significant damage to BN320 – ensuring that this day was to prove her last on active service. It is fair to say that in her few months of front-line service, the real BN320 gave her all for the cause, and was an aircraft well worth commemorating.

Manston's fine little museum is a fitting home for old warriors

Manston’s fine little museum is a fitting home for old warriors

So it was that with all due ceremony, LF751 in her new guise of BN320 was handed over to the RAF at an impressive ceremony at Rochester Airport on April 22 1988. A flypast by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (including LF363) and a Phantom F-4 of 43 Squadron gave a fitting salute before the completed Hurricane entered her new home in Manston’s evocative museum, where she remains to this day.

Biggin on the Bump

Here’s a lovely little video made by the team of warbirds based at that most celebrated of all Battle of Britain airfields, Biggin Hill. One thing it shows – other than the gleaming black hive which houses Bernie Ecclestone’s money factory, Formula One Management, is just how pronounced Biggin’s Hill actually is.

But rather than fuss and fiddle over such ephemera, why not just enjoy Spitfires and a single, glorious Hurricane where they ought to be…