Soon after dawn on 11 June 1940, a force of Savoia-Marchetti S79 bombers escorted by Macchi C200 fighters arrived over Malta. It was the first of thousands of air attacks carried out during the next two and a half years by the Italian Regia Aeronautica and, later, units of the German Luftwaffe.
Immediately after the end of the Second World War, Malta was littered with aeroplane wreckage – Italian, German, and British. In time, much was gathered as scrap. Resident British forces assisted in the clean-up, removing from airfields unserviceable aircraft.
Whatever was surplus to requirements was dispatched over a steep cliff at H−al Far and into the sea. Much is still there, together with unexploded bombs that had been hurriedly disposed of during the war.
As a youngster living on Malta in the 1960s and 1970s, it was impossible to ignore what had taken place there two or three decades earlier.
My mother came from Z˙urrieq, a village in south Malta. At the height of the island battle, in mid-1942, she was nine years old. Sometimes she would relate to me her experiences during that time. I found it all fascinating.
My playgrounds were bombed buildings and air-raid shelters, bunkers, and other abandoned military installations. Unsurprisingly, I developed a keen interest in the history of Malta, the war years in particular.
One day in 1989, I was exploring the disused airfield at Ta’ Qali when I came across a pair of undercarriage doors from a Supermarine Spitfire. They had been exposed to the elements for a long time and were badly corroded. Even so, I informed a local aviation enthusiast about my find.
I thought no more about it until I revisited Malta years later. What would evolve into the present-day Aviation Museum at Ta’ Qali was then in its infancy. Pride of place was a rebuilt Spitfire Mark IX serial EN199. My 1989 discovery, I was informed, had been instrumental in initiating its restoration.
I have maintained my links with Malta. This year, I donated a collection of aviation artefacts for display at the island’s War Museum. They had been collected from aeroplane crash-sites during the 1990s as part of a project that would ultimately lead to the publication of my book Air Battle of Malta.
Of more than a thousand aircraft destroyed during the battle, many disappeared into the Mediterranean or were written off in landing; others crashed among the Maltese Islands. My book focuses on the latter – some 200 machines – and recounts the fate of their pilots or crews. It also identifies where those aeroplanes fell, which, I hope, is something future generations of historians and archaeologists will appreciate.
Researching such a specialised subject has not been easy. With the exception of approximate locations culled from Malta Police reports, I was unaware of any other material that could help in determining the whereabouts of aircraft crash-sites.
A search of Royal Air Force documents at the Public Record Office (now the National Archives) in Kew was fruitless. Deciding on another approach, I turned to the war diaries of Malta-based army units, also stored at Kew.
It was three days before I came across what I was looking for: a six-figure map reference of an aircraft crash-site. I had no idea then that I would spend more than 700 hours at Kew, and in that time examine at least 300 documents.
Finding crash-sites: written sources
Identifying individual aircraft presented one challenge. RAF aircraft serials were recorded in aircrew loss returns and casualty lists and, sometimes, pilots’ log books, but there were discrepancies. I attempted to rectify this by comparing gathered data with aircraft movement cards and, where relevant, accident record cards. If there was still any doubt, the serial was omitted.
It appeared there was little available that would allow the identification of Italian aircraft. At the Imperial War Museum, however, a copy of Luftwaffe loss returns provided a wealth of detail about German casualties. Information was later cross-checked with Namentliche Verlustmeldungen (personnel loss reports) at Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt) in Berlin.
Names of RAF aircrew were readily available, recorded in squadron and station Operation Record Books and Malta’s RAF Daily Intelligence Summary. Italian and German aircrew were identified from various sources, including prisoner-of-war interrogation reports.
Only rarely was I unable to confirm what seemed to be a certain loss. Such was the case with the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, stated by an eye-witness to have come down in Bull Street, Cospicua, together with pilot and wireless operator.
Among the items salvaged from the wreckage was a bomb carrier with what appeared to be a Werknummer (factory number): 2189R (R presumably indicating rechts, ‘right’). But 2189 does not seem to correlate with any Stuka loss. No official record had been found that mentions an aircraft having crashed in Bull Street, and so far there are no clues as to the identity of the crew.
Finding crash-sites: on the ground
Pinpointing and identifying crash-sites was accomplished after examining all available evidence and then conducting an area search. It could be a slow and difficult process.
Consider an entry dated 14 April 1942 in the War Diary of 2nd Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment. This states that a Messerschmitt Bf 109 crashed 800 yards from defence post HF5. The pilot, Hauptmann Karl-Heinz Krahl, officer commanding II/Jagdgeschwader 3 was killed. In the event, it would take three years to relocate the spot.
This turned out to be half the stated distance from the defence post (then in use as a farm building). Initially, it was uncertain whether this was where Hauptmann Krahl had met his end, or whether it was where another Bf 109 pilot, Oberfeldwebel Otto Göthe (6/Jagdgeschwader 53), had been shot down and killed a few weeks before.
An alloy fragment provided the answer. Stamped in the metal was a barely noticeable 8784, the Werknummer of Hauptmann Krahl’s machine.
Oberfeldwebel Göthe’s crash-site was nearby. Amid a surprising amount of scattered debris was a wristwatch forever stopped at 11.22 – the exact time of the fatal event that occurred on 7 February 1942.
Fragmented remains of the unfortunate pilot were also in evidence. The relevant German authorities were informed, but Oberfeldwebel Otto Göthe is still officially listed as missing.
The unforgiving nature of Malta’s predominantly rocky terrain ensured that when an aircraft crashed on land, it often broke up on the surface or was only partially buried beneath shallow soil. No doubt this made the job of salvage crews considerably easier than in other parts of Europe, where a crashing aeroplane might deeply penetrate the soft earth.
Whatever still exists is likely to be found in plain sight in agricultural or undeveloped locations, where a trained eye can easily detect a scrap of twisted aluminium, shattered Perspex, or other telltale signs. In farming areas, larger and heavier items unearthed during ploughing are usually cast aside, or placed on top of or incorporated into the rubble-stone field walls that are characteristic of Malta’s countryside.
Sometimes, a farmer will have made practical use of something he has found. At Mg˙arr, for example, an aileron from a Junkers Ju 88 was given a new life as part of the roof on a farm outbuilding.
Because of the paucity of material, for the most part terrestrial crash-sites are of minor interest for Malta’s museum authorities, which tend instead to concentrate on locating and, occasionally, recovering wreckage from the sea. There are a good number of aeroplane wrecks in depths accessible by scuba divers.
Tenente Mario Nasoni (79 Squadriglia, 6 Gruppo Autonomo Caccia Terrestre) was shot down and killed on 4 October 1940. What appears to be his Macchi C200 lies just off Fomm ir-Rihˉ.
Among items recovered from a Ju 87 off Z˙onqor Point is the tail unit. Inspection covers from the horizontal stabilisers were each painted with Werknummer 5297, thereby identifying the Stuka as a 7/Sturzkampfgeschwader 1 machine shot down on 5 March 1941. Neither of the crew survived. German records, incidentally, record the aircraft Werknummer as 5279.
Sergeant Thomas Hackston (126 Squadron) was reported missing in Hawker Hurricane Z3055 on 4 July 1941. In the early 1990s, a scuba diver discovered the wrecked fighter off the south coast of Malta. There was no sign of the unfortunate pilot. The wreck was recovered, reconstructed, and is now displayed together with Spitfire EN199 at the Aviation Museum.
There is a well-preserved wreck of a Bristol Blenheim south-east of Xrobb il-Ghˉag˙in. Together with fellow sport diver, Sean Morrison, I was able to identify the Blenheim as Z7858 (18 Squadron). The aircraft had ditched following enemy attack on 13 December 1941. All the crew survived.
A broken-up Messerschmitt Bf 109 may be seen north of Ras l-Irqieqa. This is almost certainly Werknummer 7609, from which Unteroffizier Walter Schmidt (6/Jagdgeschwader 53) bailed out and was taken prisoner on 10 August 1942. Parts, including the engine, have been recovered.
No doubt there will continue to be additional finds, some perhaps resulting in aeroplane restorations, thus preserving the memory of a monumental period in Malta’s long and colourful history. •
Anthony Rogers is especially interested in events that occurred in and around the Mediterranean during the Second World War. He is the author of several books.
His new book, Air Battle of Malta, has just been published by Greenhill Books. Telephone 01226 734222 or go to www.greenhillbooks.com to purchase the book, which currently retails at £25.
Conflict archaeology is a growing subdiscipline that is increasing knowledge of military history and also providing opportunities for exciting hands-on experience for willing volunteers. We plan to run an occasional series of short features looking at this growing form of research. Our thanks to Anthony Rogers for launching the series by sharing news of his work on Malta.
In the future, we hope to include some projects that are actively seeking volunteers. If you are interested in taking up conflict archaeology as a hobby and are not sure how to get involved, watch this space.
All images: Anthony Rogers.