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
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
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.
Chief Test Pilot
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
Patience presenting the Merlin's Engine Plate to Charles de Bono.
|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.
Kevin Patience - 2007.
© Tom Brown - 2007 (all rights reserved.)