On October 30, 1940, 12 Vickers Wellington Mk.Ic bombers from squadrons nos 38, 75, 115 and 149 were sent to Malta from Britain, flying over occupied France, to operate from Luqa airfield and to raid oil tanks in Naples.

The crews were told they would be flying back 10 days later but were, in fact, kept in Malta. Two of the aircraft were lost en route and a Sunderland from Malta searching for them was shot down over the sea the following day.

PC 347 Carmel Camilleri was awarded the George Cross Medal for his bravery on February 28, 1941.PC 347 Carmel Camilleri was awarded the George Cross Medal for his bravery on February 28, 1941.

During the night of October 31, the Wellingtons set off on their first bombing raid, bound for Naples. However, during the ensuing days, it became evident that Luqa aerodrome was not long enough for the operation of heavy-laden bombers.

November 3 was largely uneventful until shortly before midnight, when the second operational flight from Luqa airfield started with a disaster.

Weather conditions were similar to those of the first raid and the first bomber took off during an ideal night. And then bomber number two roared down the runway. The aircraft was Wellington T2743 and the crew consisted of Sergeant Pilot R.M. Lewin, Pilot Officer David R. Allen, Sergeant Air Gunner T. Reay, Sergeant Air Observer D.W. Hunter and Air Gunner J.A. Bollingworth.

A Vickers Wellington Mk.Ic en route to its target.A Vickers Wellington Mk.Ic en route to its target.

Half blinded by the dust and grit from the slipstream, people on the ground observed the plane’s little red tail light climbing up among the stars and heard the strange echo from the engines as the aircraft swept over the steep valley beyond the aerodrome. But then, at 11.30pm, it terrifyingly crashed and burst into flames in the area of Tal-Ħandaq.

On impact, the crew of the crashed aircraft were thrown from their positions and, seeing flames, scrambled to safety, fighting their way through a tangle of steel and canvas out into the night air. Sergeant Pilot Lewin came out of the flames, his face bloody from cuts, limping with a smashed kneecap.

As the crew ran to safety, they looked back and in the firelight they saw their captain going back into the flaming cockpit and drag out the unconscious second pilot, Officer Allen. Lewin dropped his burden 25 metres away and sank down beside it, covering his friend’s body with his own. Just then, the aircraft’s bombs exploded with a blinding, shattering roar. When Lewin lifted his own injured body away, he saw that Allen was dead.

Part of the burnt-out skeleton of the Wellington Mk.Ic that crashed on the residence of the Agius family in Dun Marin Street, Qormi, on the night of November 3-4, 1940. An aero-engine rests on the steel beams at right.Part of the burnt-out skeleton of the Wellington Mk.Ic that crashed on the residence of the Agius family in Dun Marin Street, Qormi, on the night of November 3-4, 1940. An aero-engine rests on the steel beams at right.

A second similar accident occurred on November 4, when at about five minutes past midnight, a second Wellington Mk.Ic, R1094, crashed in Dun Marin Street, Qormi. The crew were Sergeant Pilot Forrester, Sergeant Pilot D.P. Rawlings, Sergeant Air Observer T.R. Wood, Sergeant Wireless Operator Air Gunner D. Palmer and Sergeant Wireless Operator Air Gunner A.T. Smith. Those arriving first at the scene found the rear part of the wreckage ablaze on top of two houses; the front of the aircraft, together with most of the crew, lay in an adjacent quarry.

All but one member of the crew died in this second Wellington crash. The pilot did not have Lewin’s good fortune and, instead, had come down on houses at the end of Dun Marin Street. Helplessly, the bomber had ploughed through house walls and burst into flames and finally broke its back and hurled itself into the stone quarry.

One of the first rescuers at the scene was Police Constable No. 347, Carmel Camilleri. Peering down from the edge of a shaft, by the light of the flames, he saw A.T. Smith laying at the bottom, injured and motionless. He threw a rope down to him but Smith did not have the strength to hold on to it, so Camilleri tied the rope round himself  and other rescuers lowered him into the bomb-filled inferno to lift the sole survivor out. Sadly, Smith later died of his injuries.

The aircraft had fallen on the roof of the house at No. 64, Dun Marin Street

The aircraft had fallen on the roof of the house at No. 64, Dun Marin Street. Alfred Agius and his wife Dolores, both aged 40, were asleep together with their five children – Josephine, aged 12; Gaetano, nine; Lucy, eight; John, three; and George, two. The house caught fire and while the parents were trapped beneath the fallen masonry and debris and were killed, all five children were rescued unhurt except for Josephine, who was slightly injured on the head. The children were taken to hospital in shock.

[slideimage id=943489]P.E. Forrester was buried at Kalkara Cappucini Cemetery. Scroll right to see more photos. [/slideimage]
Wireless Operator/Air Gunner A.T Smith's tombstone at Kalkara cemetery.

Wireless Operator/Air Gunner A.T Smith's tombstone at Kalkara cemetery.

Sergeant D.P. Rawlings' tombstone at Kalkara cemetery.

Sergeant D.P. Rawlings' tombstone at Kalkara cemetery.

Pilot officer D.R. Allen's tombstone at Kalkara cemetery.

Pilot officer D.R. Allen's tombstone at Kalkara cemetery.

Sergeant P.E. Forrester's tombstone at Kalkara cemetery.

Sergeant P.E. Forrester's tombstone at Kalkara cemetery.

Sergeant T.R. Woor's tombstone at Kalkara cemetery.

Sergeant T.R. Woor's tombstone at Kalkara cemetery.

As a result of the crash, the houses at nos. 64 and 65 in Dun Marin Street, both ground-floor tenements, were destroyed. A two-storey house at no. 66 that belonged to Joseph Abela had been severely shaken. The rear of no. 67 was also badly damaged and woodwork in both houses was partly or wholly burnt.

Both Camilleri and Lewin were subsequently awarded George Cross medals. Apart from members of the Public Works Demolition Squad, the rescuers also included Second Lieutenant Richard Lavington, Lieutenant Anthony Flint and Lieutenant P. Buckle, all from the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, and Sapper Joseph Sammut of the Royal Engineers.

In his book Maltin fil-Gwerra: Ġrajjet il-Poplu, Laurence Mizzi had interviewed Mgr Gerald Frendo, who had mentioned this incident.

The following is a translation of his account: “A flying British bomber, loaded with bombs, crashed. Providentially, the aircraft fell in a small quarry but it destroyed the house of a family; the father and mother died but the children survived. One of them was fostered by Mgr Azzopardi and another one by Dr Condachi. One of the aircraft’s bombs fell in a school but, fortunately, no one was hurt or died.”

On the day of the crash, Malta’s Air Officer Commanding, Air Commodore Foster Maynard, sent a message to Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Dobbie to express his gratitude, admiration and congratulations to the members of the police and the Air Raid Precautions, who had fought the flames. He added that loss of life could have been greater had it not been for them and extended his sympathy to the relatives and friends of the unfortunate civilians who had lost their lives.

Vickers Wellington Mk.Ics of No. 75 flying in loose formation over Britain in November 1940.Vickers Wellington Mk.Ics of No. 75 flying in loose formation over Britain in November 1940.

The incident did not end there. On December 12, 1940, Joseph Abela, who lived at no. 107, Victory Street and had lost a house in the crash, through his notary, Frendo Randon, demanded some form of compensation from the Secretary to the Government, R. Castillo. However, the government’s reply was that it cannot pay compensation for injury to private property as a result of enemy action.

Although this was not a case of enemy action (by Italians) but a crash of British aircraft, on February 9, 1941, the British government clarified that it did not accept or admit or would be responsible for the damage, even if there was proof of negligence.

On March 18, 1941, the Secretary to the Government sent a letter to Abela’s notary informing him that,  according “to the provisions of the regulations published by Government Notice No. 72 of February 28, 1941 and press notice no. 33 of February 24, 1941, all buildings demolished or damaged will be rebuilt at public expense at the conclusion of hostilities”.

More letters were later exchanged in which the notary and Abela stood firm in their arguments and the Secretary to the Government reiterating the same above-mentioned decision, as confirmed in a letter dated April 22, 1941.

A Vickers Wellington Mk.Ic of No.38 Squadron.A Vickers Wellington Mk.Ic of No.38 Squadron.

Interestingly, we do not know how this issue ended as there are some missing letters and papers in the documentation on this case. In the minutes of a meeting, there is reference to a letter or paper dated October 9, 1941. But it is missing. Who knows why?

Acknowledgements

The author acknowledges the help of Anthony Rogers, who provided detailed information about these two crashes in his recent book Air Battle of Malta: Aircraft losses and crash sites 1940-42.

Other sources were the National War Museum Archives, the National Archives, Rabat, the National Library, Valletta, Malta at War, Vol. 1, edited by the late John A. Mizzi and Mark Anthony Vella, and Laurence Mizzi’s book Maltin fil-Gwerra: Ġrajjet il-Poplu.

Charles Debono, curator, National War Museum

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