Like all schoolchildren in Malta, 10-year-old Charlie Seychell was enjoying his Christmas and New Year holidays at home on the morning of Tuesday, December 30, 1952.
Maria Zarb had just finished hanging up the washing when she was hit by this ball of fire. She suffered burns all over her body and succumbed to her injuries on January 1, 1953- Richard Caruana
His father had promised to take him to Valletta but he had to stay at home, having woken up unwell. His mother Stella left him to take care of his younger brother Ivo, still a toddler, while she went shopping at Felicia’s grocery store nearby. The only other person in the house was the family help, Rita, a young girl still in her teens.
Suddenly, just before 11am, there was a tremendous explosion followed by widespread fires and smoke. Shocked by what had happened, all that Charlie could understand was that their house had been practically demolished and that by some miracle both he and his little brother were safe.
People living close by, especially those in New Street and St George Street, ran outdoors terrified, some screaming and shouting; little did they imagine that an aeroplane had crashed right into the heart of the village.
What had been planned as a routine training flight by Avro Lancaster B.Mk.III GR (SW344) ended in tragedy for its crew and residents of Luqa.
Built during World War II, this four-engined bomber had survived the war and was later modified for maritime search and rescue. It had been delivered in April 1951 to No. 37 Long-Range Maritime Reconnaissance Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF).
The squadron had been flying Lancasters since 1946 at Fayid, in Egypt, and in May 1948, with the withdrawal of the British from Palestine, moved to RAF Luqa. By 1952, the Lancaster was showing its age. In fact, at that time No. 37 Squadron was already planning its crew’s conversion onto the Shackleton with which the unit was to be equipped in the summer of the following year.
The crew of SW344 consisted of four flight sergeants: John C.E. Smith (pilot), Geoffrey Charles Glanville (co-pilot), John Crawford Logan (radio operator) and Wilfred Morris (flight engineer). Glanville was performing his first flight as captain. After engine start-up and routine checks, the Lancaster taxied down to line up on Runway 06, on the Siġġiewi (Ta’ Kandja) end of the airfield, and started rolling down the runway for take-off at 10.40am. Military personnel on site noticed that the inboard port Merlin engine was cutting out intermittently and eventually went dead just after the aircraft took to the air.
Sgt Smith took over command of the stricken Lancaster with the intention of going round on three engines to attempt an emergency landing. But by then the aircraft was flying below its minimum safety speed and very low while turning to starboard.
Very soon it was over Luqa and hit a house on the outskirts of the village which suffered extensive damage. It then cartwheeled down St George Street, hit three more houses until it burst into a ball of flames and flying debris into houses and gardens in New Street. All that happened in less than three minutes after the aircraft had started its take-off run.
The wing’s main spar ended on top of a low roof, three of the four engines were scattered over a wide area: one in the street, another fell into a house, while the third was later found in a garden some 200 metres away.
Stone masons rebuilding a war-damaged house ran for their lives as they saw a big chunk coming their way; it was the complete tail unit that ended on the ground floor roof.
The heat from the first flash of burning high-octane fuel melted the solder in several water pipes while trees and their fruit in the surrounding gardens were scorched black. Poultry wandered around dazedly in some back yards, spattered with hydraulic oil.
Rescue workers were on the spot within minutes, with firefighters from RAF Luqa soon joined by those of the Malta Police. Shortly afterwards other teams from the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) at Ħal Far and Ta’ Qali (HMS Falcon and Goldfinch respectively), together with rescue men from the Admiralty Dockyard, arrived to provide assistance. They fought as best they could to control the flames while paramedics and specialists from the British services assisted by United States Navy (USN) colleagues from FASRON 201 (based at Ħal Far) began to offer first aid to the victims.
A trail of destruction some 275 metres long could be easily traced from the path of the wreckage. Worst hit was the Seychells’ home, at 61, New Street, where the Lancaster ended its run. The façade fell off completely into the street, the hall’s roof caved in, and the aircraft’s cockpit section was later found to have fallen into the small back garden.
While Charlie and his little brother Ivo escaped unscathed, Rita, the maid, suffered burns in her hands and had to be taken to St Luke’s Hospital. Seventy-year-old Andrew Zammit, who lived close by, was also slightly burnt and taken to hospital.
Indrì Camilleri dashed into the Seychells’ house to see if anyone was still trapped inside. In the garden he discovered two crew members, still strapped to their seats in the remains of the cockpit. One of them cried: “God, help me!” On raising the alarm about these survivors, doctors and paramedics rushed to the spot to assist them before sending them to hospital.
The Zarb family house had a front door and main building in St Andrew Street (No. 37, now No. 44) with a big garden that stretched all the way back to New Street, where they also had a garage. In this big house lived the siblings of the late Pawlu Zarb and Eliżabetta née Caruana: Grezzju, Mikiel, Toni, Ġużeppi, Indrì and Karmnu, together with Konċetta and Maria, all unmarried.
A sizeable section of the Lancaster’s wing completely demolished the garage while the high-octane fuel from the wing tanks burst into flames. Maria had just finished hanging up the washing when she was hit by this ball of fire as she was climbing down wooden stairs leading into the garden. She suffered severe burns all over her body.
Her sister Konċetta tried to comfort her as best she could by dousing the flames with a blanket until Maria was quickly taken to St Luke’s. Mikiel had just returned from America and was living in the garage; he always maintained that in the general confusion all his belongings had been stolen. Maria Zarb succumbed to her injuries in hospital on January 1, 1953, at 4.30am; she was 60. She is buried in the Luqa parish cemetery.
Cpl Cecil F. Harrison, chief of RAF Luqa’s fire section, was among the first on the scene of the accident and immediately started to search for survivors. He found two of the Lancaster crew who had been thrown out of the aircraft on impact. Both were in critical condition, surrounded by burning debris.
Notwithstanding the heat Harrison remained comforting the victims while shouting at the top of his voice until rescue teams found their way through the smoke and wreckage. For this heroic deed, he was awarded the British Empire Medal (Military Division) by Queen Elizabeth II through a citation dated September 1, 1953.
Flt Sgt Crawford Logan, the Lancaster’s radio operator, was certified dead on the spot. The other three crew members were taken to hospital, where Flt Sgt Glanville (who was flying the Lancaster that day) passed away a few hours later. Sgt Morris died the following day. Pilot Smith, who had been taken to hospital in serious condition, two days later was reported to have improved slightly though still considered to be in danger of dying.
All New Year celebrations planned at the airmen’s and sergeants’ messes at RAF Luqa were cancelled as a mark of respect for the victims.
The funeral with full military honours of Flt Sgt Glanville and Flt Sgt Morris was held at the Mtarfa Military cemetery on Friday, January 2, 1953. The remains of Flt Sgt Crawford Logan were flown to Scotland where he was buried.
That same day, Air Vice-Marshal B.V. Reynolds, Air Officer Commanding Malta, sent a cheque for £25 from the AOC Benevolent Fund to Luqa’s parish priest, Fr Joseph Debono, as some form of relief for those who had suffered loss of property in the Lancaster tragedy.
Life for those who lived in the crash site and survived had to go on, although for many of them it was not going to be the same as before. The accident had caused different degrees of damage to the owners of 14 properties whose cost for repairs had been assessed by a court-appointed architect, Albert Vassallo; surveyors of the Public Works Department examined and evaluated the damage to essential services, such as water and electricity.
The Seychell house, at 61 New Street, was declared uninhabitable until extensive structural repairs could be made, and the family had to look for alternative accommodation. It wasn’t easy in those days, since many houses in Luqa had been destroyed or damaged during the war.
Very few people living in Luqa today know about it, let alone people outside the village. No memorial has ever been built to commemorate it, no street named after it- Richard Caruana
At first the family was allocated a house that had just been rebuilt through War Damage funds in Pope Innocent Street but the owner refused, understandably, having waited nearly 10 years to repossess his property.
Thanks to the direct intervention of then Prime Minister George Borg Olivier, the Seychells were housed in a building earmarked as the new police station, until they could return to their own home.
Most of the tools in a blacksmith’s forge belonging to Noè Ciappara next door to Zarb’s garage in New Street were completely lost beneath the rubble from the damage to his property. Meanwhile, all those who had been hit by this tragedy and were awaiting compensation from the RAF – with one exception – approached Architect Dom Mintoff, then leader of the Malta Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, to represent their claims.
The RAF insisted it would only pay ex-gratia compensation and nothing near to what was being requested.
Mr Mintoff published the story in the MLP organ The Knight of June 1953, harshly criticising the RAF for dragging its feet in adequately compensating the victims of the Lancaster tragedy.
The following August the story was taken up again by the Times of Malta which said Mr Mintoff was correct in not expecting the Services to have the last word as to what type of compensation should be awarded without the right of an appeal. The Leader of the Opposition hoped that the Prime Minister would make representations with the RAF and study the case further.
Eventually, the Claims Commission’s report awarded compensation in accordance with what the court experts had indicated, considering those presented on behalf of the victims as unverifiable while those of the court experts had been evaluated on the spot of the accident.
Flt Sgt Smith, captain and sole surviving crew member of the Lancaster accident, went through a long rehabilitation programme. The trauma of the death of three of his mates and an innocent victim on the ground continued to haunt him for the rest of his life.
He also continuously praised the help he and his wife had received from the Maltese community on his long road to recovery. The official inquest cleared him of all responsibility for the accident. He died at the young age of 47.
While this sad episode in Malta’s aviation history has so many analogies with that of the Avro Vulcan crash over Żabbar in 1975, its memory has faded away while the latter is well known and recorded. Very few of those living in Luqa today know about it, let alone people from outside the village. No plaque marks the spot, no memorial has ever been built to commemorate it, no street named after that fateful day.
Fortunately a few people who have been through this harrowing experience are still around and came forward to tell their story, and I am extremely grateful to them.
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