Finding the Malta Spitfire.

By: Kevin  Patience

 

One of the major historic exhibits on display in the Malta War Museum in Valletta is the forward  fuselage and engine of a Supermarine Spitfire shot down during the height of the Malta siege in 1942. The story behind this relic of the Second World War makes an interesting read.

 

It was the summer of ’66 and I had just arrived in Malta with a Varsity aircraft of the Royal Air Force from our base in England. That afternoon a group of us made our way into Valletta to the Palace Armoury to look at the fuselage of the Gloster Gladiator biplane on display there. I had read of the exploits of these aircraft in the defence of Malta as a boy, and the opportunity to visit the island was not to be missed. Little did I realise fate would decree a year later that I would be stationed at R.A.F. Luqa for nearly three years. It was a wonderful posting with the numerous recreational activities including diving and water skiing. But it was the diving that occupied my spare time. I had learnt to dive in the UK with the R.A.F. Sub Aqua Club and soon became a member of the Luqa branch.

 

Not long afterwards I dived my first aircraft wreck in Marsalforn Bay, a twin engined Martin Maryland reconnaissance aircraft lying in 80 feet. There was an engine and part of a wing and numerous small items lying around. A few weeks of research led to its identification and sometime later a meeting with one of the crew. During the next year further wrecks were dived on until one day I heard a story of a Spitfire in Marsalforn Bay, Gozo. This sounded too good to be true and that week end three of us loaded my old Rolls Royce limousine with cylinders and equipment and drove to Marfa to catch the Gozo ferry. We arrived at Marsalforn and spent the day combing the seabed in thirty feet. By late afternoon we had covered a large area and seen only sand and weed. Not to be outdone we returned the following weekend but once again, nothing. A month passed before the next trip and this time we brought a tent and small compressor and stayed the night making two full days of searching. Once again we drew a blank. I was beginning to wonder if this was a wild goose chase, but that afternoon before departing for the ferry, we sat in the seafront café and were surprised when the owner came across and asked if we were looking for the Spitfire. He remembered as a boy seeing it come down in the bay in the early morning and the pilot being brought ashore to the café for a welcome drink before returning to Malta. So it wasn’t a figment of imagination after all.

 

We returned to Gozo in mid 1968, when once again the Rolls was loaded with all the equipment, and this time courtesy of a Maltese friend serving in the R.A.F. we rented a flat overlooking the bay. A systematic pattern of markers was laid out using small floats with lead weights and each diver searched his square. It proved fruitless and after three days diving we were still in the dark. I began to wonder if it had broken up and buried itself.  In the late afternoon of the fourth day we had been in the water for at least five hours and being almost out of air I was swimming slowly on the surface with a snorkel idly looking at the seabed. An odd shadow on the seabed caught my attention and diving down I swam straight past a propeller blade sticking out of the sand, stared briefly and surfaced shouting to the others. They swam across and with what little air I had left made a cursory inspection. There was the broken remains of a Spitfire completely covered in weed and half buried in the sandy bottom. That evening we celebrated in the café with a bottle or two of the local wine.

 

The next morning we couldn’t get in the water fast enough. Armed with two saucepans we set about excavating the sand out of the cockpit and clearing the weed. By late afternoon we had established the aircraft was broken in two with the tail section from behind the cockpit armour plate missing. The windscreen had long since gone and the cockpit was almost empty. The instrument panel had corroded away and there was only the stub of the control column and rudder pedals and seat with the remains of the harness. The under carriage selector and emergency air bottle were still in place and when the lever was moved the air burst out in a large mushroom cloud from a broken pipe on the engine compressor. But lying buried under the sand was the brass case of the P8 compass still in working condition with its circular bakelite top marked in degrees. The aircraft was tilted to starboard with that wing completely buried. The port wing was also covered with part of the tip visible in a huge clump of weed. That brought and end to the search and our brief spell in Marsalforn. The news spread quickly but we had no idea of its identity. From my own knowledge of the air war over the Maltese Islands this was obviously a Mark V Spitfire fitted with a Vokes tropical filter under the nose and probably based either at Luqa or Taqali and may have been one of those ferried to Malta from a carrier. I contacted my brother Colin in London and he spent some time researching the records in the Ministry of Defence Air Historical Branch. To look at each Spitfire identity card and the squadron records for Malta would take weeks. What he needed was a serial number or a date that would narrow the search field dramatically. Buried in the sand next to the Merlin engine was the Rolls Royce makers plate which unfortunately had no serial number on it. It proved of little use in identifying the aircraft and I kept it as a souvenir. One thing that did come to light early on was a bullet hole in the glycol cooling header tank in front of the engine. Was this the cause of the aircraft crash?

 

 Back we went some weeks later and began a second excavation of the wing. The first panel to be opened was that above the undercarriage main wheel, for a few moments we stared down at the tyre and magnesium wheel hub and suddenly we were looking into a white fog as the hub disintegrated into millions of tiny particles. The hub had lain in the wheel well for twenty six years gently corroding away but still retaining its shape until the small current due to opening the panel caused it to disintegrate. The tyre however was in excellent condition. The next panel held down by quarter turn Dzus fasteners was the large 20mm cannon blister panel. I unscrewed and turned it over, on the inside was painted the figure 108. Was this the clue I had been searching for. The cannon and ammo feed drum were still in perfect condition as were the two Browning guns in the outer wing. One of the team, an armourer, removed the remaining ammunition and disposed of it at sea. I gave my brother the number off the panel and he checked the serial numbers of Mk V Spitfires ending in 108. Two weeks later his search paid off and an amazing story came to light.

 

The aircraft was a Spitfire Mk Vc, BR108, built at Castle Bromwich and powered by a Rolls Royce Merlin 46 engine. First flown on 3 March 1942, it was delivered to the R.A.F. at 8 M.U. five days later and transferred to 47 M.U. on 23 March. Here it was dismantled and crated together with others and loaded aboard the cargo ship Empire Heath destined for Gibraltar. BR108 was reassembled and test flown with the code C-20 and loaded aboard the carrier U.S.S. Wasp on 7 May, from where it was flown to Malta two days later. On arrival in Malta it was issued to 249 Squadron at Taqali and on that day in the hands of Pilot Officer Nash destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. Nash flew it again and shot down two Junkers Ju87 Stuka bombers the next day, before damaging the aircraft on 12 May when he taxied into a steam roller. It took some days to repair before it was scrambled twice on 6 June flown by two well known aces Laddie Lucas and Buck McNair. On the 19th it was re-coded T-W (T being 249 Squadron’s identification letter), and on 29th flew its last sortie before being transferred to 603 Squadron and presumably re-coded as X-W (X being 603 Squadron’s identification letter).

 

On the morning of the 8th July, 108 scrambled from Taqali flown by Flt. Lt. Lester Sanders accompanied by seven others to intercept a raid approaching Gozo from Sicily. Sanders came from Westcliff on Sea and had been awarded a D.F.C. with effect from 5 April. He had previously been with 222 Sqdn, Coltishall and had damaged a Mk IIb Spitfire P8645 when he landed down wind at Southend and run on to rough ground causing Category C damage. The aircraft was subsequently repaired. He arrived in Malta on 20 April with a number of Spitfires from the carrier U.S.S. Wasp. With his wingman, Plt. Off. King they attacked a Junkers Ju88 and a Messerschmitt Bf109 damaging both. Then, as the bombers sped northwards over Gozo, a lone Ju88 was seen and attacked by Sanders who observed strikes on its fuselage, however, as he closed in, the German rear gunner achieved a direct hit on the Spitfire's armoured windscreen, forcing him to break away.

 

Sanders was then in turn attacked by two Bf109s. One flown by Lt. Heinz-Berres of I/JG 77 scored a number of hits. Holes appeared in the wings and engine cowling and a few seconds later white smoke poured from the engine. The engine glycol cooling tank had been holed and the liquid turned into steam as it sprayed on to the hot exhaust. Sanders was now looking desperately for some where to land as he was too low to bale out. Rather than try and land among the maze of small fields with stone walls he decided to ditch the plane in the sea and headed down the valley from Victoria to Marsalforn. He just managed to miss the buildings and landed in the bay. On the initial impact with the sea he hit his face on the gun sight but managed to struggle out of the cockpit and stand on the aircraft as it slowly sank. The victorious Messerschmitt circled overhead before flying off. Fortunately two fishermen, Frank and Anton Debono saw the crash and ferried Sanders ashore to a heroes welcome. He was given a large brandy and surrounded by villagers all offering more drinks. As he came to leave he tripped over his parachute which burst open resulting in a billowing silk canopy filling the café. Women rushed forward and quickly cut up the silk and within minutes it had all disappeared. Sanders returned to Taqali and was later posted to the Spitfire assembly plant at Castle Bromwich in England as a test pilot under the Chief Test Pilot Alex Henshaw. Henshaw had been a well known figure in aviation circles having broken the England - South Africa air record in a Mew Gull in 1939, a record that still stands today. He was equally famous for barrel rolling an Avro Lancaster bomber, not to mention low flying an inverted Spitfire down the high street in Birmingham to aid the Lord Mayor’s Spitfire Fund.

 

On 23 October 1942 Sanders took off on a routine test flight in a Spitfire Vb, ER713. Less than half an hour later the aircraft had broken up in the air over Cannock Chase near Birmingham and Henshaw was summoned to the crash site to identify the remains. Sanders was cremated at Golders Green, London, where he is commemorated on the Second World War memorial. He was 23 years old. The Spitfire lay on the bottom of the bay forgotten until the 1960s when it became the subject of  conversation and a search resulting in its discovery. In 1973 the remains were recovered by a British joint services diving team with a salvage vessel and later presented to the War Museum in Fort St Elmo, Valletta where it remains to this day. In 1986 I wrote to Alex Henshaw, following the publication of his book Sigh for a Merlin, in which Sanders is mentioned and he provided me with a picture of him taken shortly before the crash and wrote a tribute to the young pilot addressed to the Malta War Museum.

 

The aircraft factory at Castle Bromwich was planned and designed specifically for the anticipated requirements of war.  For this purpose it was situated within the midst of a huge industrial complex. During the period 1940-1945 it manufactured over half the total of all types of Spitfires ever produced and with the Lancaster also made a substantial contribution to the Allied Bomber Command. Over 37,000 test sorties were flow from Castle Bromwich involving 127 accidents of one sort or another

 

 It was the practice during those war years for selected RAF Officers to be posted from active service to test these aircraft. Fl. Lt. Sanders was one of those Officers so selected. His duty after training and instruction was to test production Spitfires in all conditions of weather and without radio aids of any sort. The flight trials were most rigorous having been prepared by the design department of Supermarine.  All machines were flown to above rated altitude – often in dense cloud and ground fog.  Each aircraft was then subjected to numerous tests at maximum power, boost and revs. Finally it would be dived to near terminal velocity speed at 470 ias. It was on such a flight during the afternoon of October 1942 that Fl. Lt. Sanders became overdue from his base at Castle Bromwich. The weather was overcast and dull but considered good for that time of year and in that locality.

 

An overdue signal was sent out to all RAF stations as it was expected the pilot may have force-landed and was unable to communicate with his chief test-pilot. Sadly, shortly afterwards the Police telephoned with the information that a Spitfire had broken up in the air and that amidst the scattered debris was the almost unrecognisable remains of Ft. Lt. Sanders with his parachute and harness intact and unused.

 

His loss to fellow pilots and ground-staff at Castle Bromwich was a traumatic shock as he was immensely popular with all who came to know him. Fl. Lt. Sanders had all the attributes and qualifications that quickly elevated him from a skilful pilot to a knowledgeable and analytical test-pilot. He was rated highly at his job and worked alongside Wing Commander Lowdell who was assistant to the chief pilot on fighters.

 

As an RAF Officer his general conduct and demeanour was exemplary.  His youthful enthusiastic zest for life a tonic to all in those dark days of war, and his meticulous attention to detail in his work an example which did much to set the standard for others subordinate to him. Although he was stationed at Castle Bromwich but a short while, his demise left a void not easily filled and to me as chief test-pilot I lost not only a conscientious assistant but a loyal and gallant friend, the memory of whom will remain with me always.

 

Alex. Henshaw

Chief Test Pilot

Vickers-Armstrong Ltd

Castle Bromwich

 

In 2007 I returned to Malta for the first time since 1970 and handed over the Rolls Royce Merlin engine plate to the Malta War Museum curator Charles de Bono to be displayed with the aircraft. After so many years it was interesting to see the remains of 108 once more, this time on dry land. Heinz Berres had also visited Malta in the 1980s and had told the curator of the day when he had shot down BR108. Taking the ferry to Gozo, I stood on the seafront at Marsalforn overlooking the Spitfire site. Much had changed in the intervening years but the memories of those months searching and discovering the Spitfire were still very real. Alex Henshaw the man associated with flying more Spitfires than any other and who may well have test flown 108 died on 24 February 2007 aged 94.

 

Pat Patience presenting the Merlin's Engine Plate to Charles de Bono.

 

 

Fellow Divers

Ian Blair, Sgt Jones and Pat Patience Standing: Cpl Dawe., kneeling: Sgt Jones, Ch Tech Tony Speight, and Ian Blair. At the back: Pat Patience and Ian Skinner. Front: Pat Patience, Ian Skinner and Cpl Dawe, Back row: Ian Blair, Sgt Jones, Mrs Sharp, SAC Bunting and Tony Speight.

 

The Rolls Royce belonging to Pat Patience which was used as the Diving Team's Gharry.

 

Pat Patience holding the cylinders and Keith Lee.

 

There is an interesting connection between another ex Boy Entrant and the same Spitfire. An article in the November issue of the RAFBEA Newsletter described a visit paid to RAF Marham by Sqn Ldr Ian Blair, DFM in celebration of Battle of Britain Day. The event was filmed by the BBC and broadcast on the Look East program on September 14th 2007. Pat read the article and  recognised Ian's face from Malta days, and was surprised to learn that not only was he a Boy Entrant but had joined with the very first Entry in 1934 with the 6th B/E Service Number. He had been a Spitfire pilot and awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal. Ian had also been a member of the R.A.F. Luqa diving club and O i/c of an archaeological diving expedition to Gozo in 1970 which Pat was on, and dived the Spitfire a number of times before he left Malta in 1973. In 2007 in a conversation with Pat he immediately recalled the Roller and the expedition.

 

(c) Kevin Patience - 2007.

 

 

© Tom Brown - 2007 (all rights reserved.)