‘Malta Spitfire’ flies again in 2016

One of the major drawbacks of doing this blog thing for fun rather than as a career is that one can only report on what is seen. Hence it is very much to your scribe’s chagrin that the reappearance of a Malta-based Spitfire in the skies has gone unreported on the S&G until now.

The celebrated Flying Legends collection of airworthy warbirds, a stalwart of the Duxford-based restoration community, quietly welcomed another Spitfire earlier this summer.

We have all become somewhat accustomed to Spitfires being returned to the sky, so unless the Daily Mail makes a song-and-dance about a particular airframe it is very hard to pick them out. This one is a humdinger, however, because it is – on paper at least – a genuine ‘Malta blue’ Spit, flown by a ranking ace of this most heroic theatre of WW2 to make an historic string of victory claims.

As a Mk.Vb that was ordered on 23 August 1941, EP122 was one of the fourth batch of Spitfires, numbering 904 aircraft, to be built at the Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory. After final assembly in Topicalized fettle, complete with the large chin-mounted  air filter, and acceptance onto the RAF strength, this aircraft was then disassembled and crated on 8 June 1942 for shipment to the North African theatre of operations.

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Spitfire Mk.Vs destined for Africa were painted in Desert scheme

Shipped to Gibraltar on board the S.S. Guido four days later, EP122 was reassembled and assigned to Malta rather than North Africa, requiring a new coat of paint. As per all Malta aircraft arriving in planned delivery, her factory finish Desert Scheme of Mid-Stone and Dark Brown camouflage over Azure Blue undersurfaces was transformed into the Temperate Sea Scheme of Extra Dark Sea Grey and Slate Grey over Sky.

Although the most desperate air fighting over Malta had reached its zenith in April-May 1942, there was still plenty of trade to be had. In June and July the Canadian ace ‘Screwball’ Buerling in particular was busy swatting down German and Italian aircraft with 249 Squadron when EP122 arrived as one of the replacement aircraft flying off HMS Eagle during Operation PINPOINT and was immediately pressed into service with 185 Squadron.

In common with other 185 Squadron aircraft, EP122 was given the unit’s distinctive identifying code letters, painted in yellow and in a smaller, squarer font than other units on the Island, which usually carried white letters. With ‘GL’ as the identifying code for 185 Squadron and ‘B’ as the individual aircraft code, EP122 was ready to go into battle.

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Newly-restored EP122 wears the ‘Temperate Sea Scheme’ that was standard in Malta

This aircraft became the regular mount of a recently-arrived American volunteer, the teenage Sgt. Claude Weaver III of Oklahoma City. Weaver had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force on 13th February 1941 and, after earning his wings and briefly flying in the UK, he joined No.185 Sqn at Malta in late June, aged 19.

Within days of his arrival, on 17 July, Weaver had shot down his first Messerschmitt 109. Flying EP122, he shot down two more 109s on 22 July, followed by another pair the next day and then claimed a half-share in a Ju.88 the day after that – becoming the youngest Allied ‘ace’ of the conflict.

He was decorated with the DFM for destroying five enemy fighters and sharing in the destruction of a bomber within a period of one week. His score was up to ten before he was shot down over Sicily in another Spitfire, BR112, and made a force-landing on a beach that was photographed in colour and subsequently fuelled much of the myth behind the ‘blue’ spitfires of Malta.

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This photo of Weaver’s BR112 is responsible for much of the ‘Malta blue’ debate among historians

Although captured and taken prisoner-of-war, Weaver later escaped and walked 300 miles before eventually returning to operations with No.403 (RCAF) Sqdn – briefly flying alongside ‘Screwball’ Buerling until the latter was posted for insubordination and conduct unbecoming.

Weaver was killed in action over France after his Spitfire Mk.IX was shot down by the Focke-Wulf FW190 of 44-victory ‘ace’ Gerhard Vogt. Baling out of the stricken aircraft, Weaver’s parachute was caught on the Spitfire’s tailwheel and he was dragged to earth, surviving for a few hours despite his terrible injuries.

Back in Malta, EP122 meanwhile became the regular mount of Wing Commander J.M. Thompson, C.O. of 185 Squadron in the autumn 1942, who had the aircraft repainted with his personal identification letters of JM-T.

At the beginning of 1943, with the defence of Malta complete and attention turning towards an Allied invasion of Sicily, EP122 was transferred to 1435 Squadron, carrying the code letter ‘L’. On 27 March 1943 it crash-landed on the edge of the cliff at Dwejra Bay, Gozo. EP122 was pushed over the cliff-edge into the bay shortly afterwards.

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As a major RAF base in the 1960s, airmen would dive on WW2 wrecks for relaxation

The wreck of EP122 was discovered by divers from the RAF Sub Aqua Club off the coast of Gozo in 1969. She lay under 10 metres of water but was cleaned up and salvaged in the mid-1970s. Eventually the wreck came under the ownership of one of the most celebrated men in the American automotive and aviation community: Tom Friedkin.

Friedkin’s father Kenny had become obsessed with flying as a child, after watching a barnstorming display in the early 1920s. He qualified as a pilot at the age of 17 and volunteered to fly with the Royal Air Force in World War 2 – much like Claude Weaver.

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Pacific Southwest Airlines became California’s main carrier – with a certain style!

Kenny Friedkin went on to found Pacific Southwest Airlines after the war only to die from a brain haemorrhage in 1962, the airline being privatised soon afterwards. Among the many knock-on effects that resulted from Kenny Friedkin’s premature demise was that  his son, Tom, became not only a serving pilot for the airline but also a member of the Board of Directors.

Tom Friedkin’s interests extended beyond aviation, and he used his wealth to race cars alongside his great friend Carroll Shelby. As well as driving, Friedkin owned his own NASCAR team in 1965-69, with cars built by Bill Thomas.

In 1969, Shelby introduced Friedkin to representatives of Toyota, which was looking to break into the American automobile market. It was through this introduction that Friedkin established Gulf States Toyota Distributors shortly afterwards.

Jim Paschal pits the Tom Friedkin Plymouth during the 1966 Daytona 500 - Paschal finished 11th___

Tom Friedkin ran a NASCAR team through 1965-69 with Bill Thomas

Today, GST regularly features in the annual Forbes list of largest private companies in the USA, with annual revenues in excess of $5bn. As his business flourished, so Friedkin has been able to further indulge his passions for powered sport on land, sea and air – nas well as appearing as a stunt pilot and cameo actor in movies such as Blue Thunder, Firefox and Jaws: The Revenge as well as in Clint Eastwood’s critically acclaimed movies The Rookie and Pale Rider.

Throughout nearly 50 years , Tom Friedkin has also played a key role in the restoration, ownership and display of historic aircraft; with Spitfires and the Duxford-based Flying Legends team featuring heavily in that interest. Now in his eighties, Friedkin remains a key player in the global warbird scene and his son, Dan, has followed closely in his father’s footsteps. The restoration of EP122 is the latest in a long line of landmark rebuilds.

The initial work was apparently undertaken by Steve Vizard’s VMI Engineering Service at Aldershot in Hampshire before transferring to Airframe Assemblies in Sandown, Surrey. Finally she made her way to the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar for completion – albeit minus the distinctive tropical air filter. Having made her maiden flight from Biggin Hill in May 2016, EP122 made her airshow debut at the Flying Legends spectacular at Duxford this July.

As a result, it will now be possible to see a genuine example of a ‘Malta blue’ Spitfire Mk.V in the air, complete in the colours with which she was flown by a remarkable young American volunteer to write his place in the history of military aviation.

Of all the Spitfires airworthy today, this makes EP122 one of the most significant of her breed. Ultimately it must be assumed that EP122 will make her way to the USA but it is to be hoped that, with the 75th anniversary of her accomplishments on the horizon, she will remain long enough to be one of the star performers of the 2017 UK airshow season.

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EP122 flies again – ready to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Malta’s finest hour next year

A great blog for a momentous anniversary

Contrails filled the sky over England - and elsewhere - 75 years ago

Contrails filled the sky over England – and elsewhere – 75 years ago

We are fast approaching the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, meaning that much will be said, written and broadcast between now and October – including here at the S&G. An abundance of Spitfires and Hurricanes, a Blenheim and some Gladiators will take to the skies and much will be said about ‘The Few’ – no matter how inaccurate some of those comments will be. Air raid sirens will wail and Churchill’s words will growl.

Before we hurl ourselves into the occasion, however, feel free to savour a truly remarkable blog about another campaign in the summer of 1940, during which the fate of an island nation was plunged into jeopardy – and with it the course of human kind: Malta GC 70.

Malta became a target for bombers in the summer of 1940

Malta became a target for bombers in the summer of 1940

In 2011 the enterprising individual behind this blog began putting up posts that told the reader exactly what had happened on the same day 70 years earlier – how many bombs fell, how many aircraft flew, how many shells were fired and how many casualties there were. This was to mark 70 years since the peak of the Battle of Malta and to build towards the commemorations of 70 years since the Maltese were recognised with the George Cross.

Now the blog is back in action, adding to the story by putting up daily details of the first weeks of the siege, to mark 75 years since the moment that Mussolini belatedly declared war on Britain and attempted to restore the Roman empire in the Mediterranean.

It is an astonishing body of work that tells far more than the legend of Faith, Hope and Charity. It brings to vivid life the daily realities for the Maltese, British and Empire nationals who were caught up in the maelstrom – and, thanks to the option to receive posts by email, provides a thought-provoking and entirely welcome window on the past almost every day of the week. Enjoy – and do come back to the S&G when you have a moment!

VE Day

It is the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe day. In Britain things are a little less frenetic than they have been for other recent anniversaries such as the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the 100th anniversary of the declaration of World War 1 – in part because of the General Election.

It is a time to reflect.

Sadly for many, the participation of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Avro Lancaster in any commemorations has been stymied by a fire in Number 4 engine. Fortunately, although airborne, it was able to get home to Coningsby where the flames were put out and the long, arduous task of assessing and repairing the damage can begin.

BBMF Lancaster will be forced to miss some key events - but thankfully survived this scare

BBMF Lancaster will be forced to miss some key events – but thankfully survived this scare

Here at the S&G, these major anniversaries are often a reminder of the men who flew out in bombers. In the early part of the war, losses were borderline outrageous as crews flew in outdated or outclassed machinery such as the Fairey Battle, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley and Handley Page Hampden.

Even by January 1943, when the mighty Lancaster and Mosquito handed huge advances to their crews, tour lengths were in the main set still at 200 hours and the chance of completing one tour was 16% in the heavy bomber Squadrons, 18% for medium bomber Squadrons, and 13% for twin-engine intruder and bomber reconnaissance Squadrons.

Those sort of odds hardly bear thinking about – and in many cases they were significantly worse. Flying a Bristol Blenheim in 1940-41 was undoubtedly the job with the worst prospects of all. Often being deployed on anti-shipping duties over the Atlantic and Mediterranean, they would fly at mast height over the open sea, leap-frog the target through a blizzard of anti-aircraft fire and simply hope for the best.

With no margin for error, battle damage inevitably meant crashing. If in rare cases the crash itself was survivable, the odds of rescue were slender to say the least.

Low flying Blenheims break away from the target (courtesy IWM)

Low flying Bristol Blenheims break away from the target (courtesy IWM)

The war diary of 107 Squadron based in Malta recalls that in the course of 18 days during October 1941 a total of 21 missions was flown. Total sorties numbered 88 with the loss of five aircraft, all on anti-shipping strikes (two lost by collision and the other three to enemy action),making the loss rate on these sorties one in seven.

One pilot of that time, Ron Gillman, wrote a very moving account of his Mediterranean tour in the book The Ship Hunters, in which he describes two months with 107 Squadron in Malta after which his battle-scarred aircraft was the last remaining of the entire squadron by the time he left the island.

With that in mind, therefore, here is a little film of the Blenheim with which to mark today’s anniversary.

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.

Setting sail with Errol Flynn

Errol Flynn making the most of his pride and joy

Errol Flynn making the most of his pride and joy

While internal combustion may be the main motive power here at the Scarf & Goggles it is worthwhile looking in other directions on occasion. Steam, yes, but also an even more traditional power – sail.

It was with the news that Kevin Kline is starring in an Errol Flynn biopic that I recalled visiting the Black Pearl in Malta. This Swedish-built schooner is reputed to have belonged to the swashbuckling Hollywood swordsman – although that assertion is somewhat harder to confirm than one might think.

Undoubtedly the Black Pearl had a colourful life – sinking twice and appearing in the ‘ahem’ critically-challenged movie Popeye, starring the young Robin Williams. Today she rests in Sliema Creek between Msida and Ta’Xbiex, serving as a fashionable bar and restaurant. Despite her colourful past, a workhorse like the Black Pearl is somewhat lacking in the stuff of the Scarf & Goggles. But there is another Errol Flynn vessel which more than lives up to its billing…

The Black Pearl is a must-see for Malta's tourists

The Black Pearl is a must-see for Malta’s tourists

So, then, welcome aboard Flynn’s greatest passion, the Zaca – laid down in 1929 by the Nunes Brothers of Sausalito, California for the San Francisco socialite and railroad heir Templeton Crocker.

At 118 feet she was in fact too large for the small but expert yard and so began life out on the street – an incongruous birth for what was intended to be the fastest and most opulent ocean yacht in the world.

In fact she was a scaled-down replica of a more famous vessel – the Nova Scotian racing ship Bluenose, which won the International Fisherman’s Trophy at every time of asking from 1921 until 1938. Designed for speed and endurance against the Atlantic, the template for Zaca was one of the fastest and most handsome vessels ever seen.

Bluenose had such speed and beauty that they stuck her on a banknote

Bluenose had such speed and beauty that they stuck her on a banknote

Fortunately for the boatyard, Templeton Crocker’s fortune survived the onset of the Great Depression and the Zaca was completed in 1930 at an eye-watering cost of $350,000 (around $14 million today). Her maiden voyage was to Polynesia, carrying the magnate and his associates in search of a ‘prehistoric’ tribe who had never yet encountered the white man or the benefits of the free market economy.

Zaca’s adventures in the Pacific were many and she circumnavigated the globe twice over, being credited with the discovery of 2,000 species. Then her varied, philanthropic existence came to an abrupt end with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The US Government requisitioned all seaworthy vessels, and this princess of the sea was given a coat of grey paint and set to work as a reconnaissance and supply vessel throughout the years of conflict.

Zaca at war - a US Navy supply craft in 1943

Zaca at war – a US Navy supply craft in 1943

When the war ended, the US Navy vessel IX-73 was sold off by her government – with speculator and dealer, Joe Rosenberg, taking the somewhat dilapidated Zaca onto his books. Rosenberg found an eager buyer in the form of Errol Flynn, who had sufficient funds to restore and refit her to something like her former glory and intended to enjoy her to the fullest.

Flynn’s star was already on the wane, however, and the Zaca endured some torrid days under his alcohol-soaked stewardship – not least when her entire company abandoned ship in Acapulco and Flynn was forced to rent her out as a prop in the Orson Welles movie, The Lady from Shanghai.

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth take a break from filming aboard the Zaca

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth (right) take a break from filming aboard the Zaca

Hollywood finally severed ties with Flynn in 1950. He lost his celebrated home Mulholland House soon afterwards and set sail for a new life in Jamaica. Among the many guests he entertained on board Zaca were Noel Coward, Ian Fleming and Truman Capote.

In 1954, Flynn sailed Zaca to the Mediterranean, taking a shine to Mallorca as he continued to imbibe the vast majority of his fortune. Eventually he had no option but to sell his beloved yacht, but it was while in Vancouver to finalise the deal that the 50-year-old’s beleaguered body gave up its unequal struggle, and Errol Flynn died

For Zaca this was the beginning of a long and sorry tale. She remained in Mallorca until British entrepreneur Freddie Tinsley promised the Flynn estate that he would sell her for a good price, took her to France – and proceeded to strip anything of value from her before leaving the remains in situ.

Zaca languished in the Med long after Flynn's demise

Zaca languished in the Med long after Flynn’s demise

Zaca lay remained at Bernard Voisin’s boatyard in Villefranche for 20 years in lieu of mooring fees. In 1979 she made headlines when the by-now derelict hulk was given an exorcism by both catholic and Anglican ministers after repeated claims that music, women’s laughter, lights and even Flynn himself had been clearly seen and heard aboard.

Although now free of spectral shenanigans, Zaca remained a forlorn sight until the late 1980s. It was then that, in his eagerness to get his hands on such a storied vessel, a British electronics magnate bought the Voisin boatyard lock, stock – but not, according to Voisin’s lawyers, the Zaca.

Zaca makes the headlines for her exorcism

Zaca makes the headlines for her exorcism

A lengthy legal dispute rolled on during which Zaca managed to sink in her berth. Then in 1990 the by-now forlorn hulk was purchased by Italian entrepreneur and renowned furniture restorer Roberto Memmo. In his care the Zaca was at long last restored to the sot of specification that Flynn would have been happy with, and made her return to public life at Monaco’s classic Regatta in 1993.

Since then the Zaca has become one of the best-loved vintage ships in the Mediterranean, scything through the playground of southern Europe with all the speed and style that she was intended. I think we can rest assured that both Errol Flynn and Templeton Crocker would approve.

Queen of the Mediterranean once again: Zaca today

Queen of the Mediterranean once again: Zaca today

Malta’s Spitfires – revealed at last?

One could be forgiven for thinking that the model making community was a tranquil oasis amid our turbulent world: a place for calm, reflective pursuit. Yet this is not so – indeed, the pursuit of accuracy can create more online mayhem, hair-pulling and name-calling than a busload of boozed-up celebrities accessing their Twitter accounts at the same time.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest causes of model making fracas is the question of what colours the Spitfires which valiantly defended Malta against unspeakable odds during World War 2 were painted. These aircraft hold a semi-mythical status not only for the deeds done 70 years ago but also for their allegedly unique paintwork – and now one brave soul, Brian Cauchi, has revealed the results of his 14-year research into the matter.

A great Spitfire riddle resolved? This new book offers an exhaustive trawl through the possible permutations.

Mr. Cauchi’s new book labours under the title Malta Spitfire Vs – 1942: Their Colours and Markings, which makes up for its lack of blockbuster appeal by delivering an accurate summary of the contents. Within we find forensic analysis of the many and various colour schemes captured in often poor quality photographs during the dark days of 1942, backed up with fragments of original paint from recovered wrecks and an array of accounts both firsthand and by respected historians on the subject.

The mystique of the Malta Spitfires stems from the fact that they have often been described as being blue – and a blue-painted Spitfire is far more exotic than the muddy tones of camouflage that typify its wartime history. The prospect of R.J. Mitchell’s timelessly beautiful fighter with its lines drenched in blue paint is one that has beguiled model makers for many years – and their interpretations have varied from mild to wild, thus sparking many a heated debate.

Why should we care about such minutiae? After all, the world has moved on and now we are preoccupied by reality TV shows and the Eurozone crisis and… oh, hold on. Let’s have another look at these Spitfires, shall we?

S&G didn’t make a bad stab at deciphering this one, according to Mr. Cauchi

Malta was beseiged from June 1940 until November 1942, standing alone in the centre of the Mediterranean with 1000 miles of open sea between it and friendly soil – while the massed ranks of Italy and Germany sat just 60 miles to the north in Sicily. Despite being only the size of the Isle of Wight, the strategic importance of Malta was absolute as it was from here that submarines, aircraft and ships were able to all-but sever the supply routes to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and in so doing safeguard North Africa, the Suez Canal and the invaluable oil fields beyond.

As Sir Winston Churchill put it; Malta was the master key to the entire British Empire.

The Luftwaffe devastated the Island in January-May 1941 but when these forces were redirected to the invasion of Russia, Malta was soon back in action. As a result the Luftwaffe returned to the Mediterranean in the winter of 1941-42 with even greater strength and made the Island the most bombed place on Earth. At its peak, during March-April 1942, the tonnage of bombs dropped on Malta was greater than that dropped on London during all 12 months of the Blitz.

It was in March 1942 that the Spitfires finally arrived; replacing the few outdated Hawker Hurricanes that hadn’t been shot out of the sky or blown up on the ground. They came in small numbers and were quickly bombed out of existence but in the weeks ahead more deliveries followed and, despite continued losses on the ground, the Spitfires began to hold the Luftwaffe to account and blunt its furious assault – while the hope which these aircraft brought to the beleaguered Maltese was more valuable still.

Were they painted blue? Yes – more or less. The reason was that they were ordered with desert camouflage of sandy yellow tones which stood out like a sore thumb over the Mediterranean, while flying against enemy forces which outnumbered them by a ratio of more than ten to one. As a result the Island’s defenders took it upon themselves to paint the Spitfires in a more suitable scheme for the unique conditions in which they fought.

About as blue as it gets: a reasonable representation of a Malta Spitfire

Despite the unprepossessing title given to his work, Brain Cauchi’s book is beautifully laid out and his long years of painstaking research are brought to vivid life in the text, photos and colour profiles within. Ultimately there were almost as many different paint schemes worn by these celebrated Spitfires as there were aircraft themselves, because they were usually painted on an ad hoc basis under severe bombardment with whatever materials were to hand.

Even after all his hard work, Mr. Cauchi is at pains to point out that his hypotheses are still only the best guesses he can give in each case. It won’t end the grouchiness among modellers seeking to create an accurate Malta Spitfire but his book does bring some order to the chaos and gives non-modellers a much-needed insight into a story that is too often overlooked by the major historians of World War 2.

In 2005 a Hurricane and a Spitfire returned to Malta to commemorate 60 years since the end of the war in Europe – and both were painted to represent aircraft which flew from the Island. The Hurricane was spot-on but while the Spitfire was perhaps a touch too ‘Hollywood’ in recreating the mythical blue defenders it made for a stirring spectacle…

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.