Born at Vittoriosa on March 7, 1915, Anthony Buhagiar was one of eight siblings. His father Lorenzo was a Malta Dockyard engineer and Buhagiar was encouraged to join the firm. But the young man was drawn to the sea. On his father’s demise he tried to join the Royal Navy but was still under age. He managed to embark on the fleet repair ship HMS Sandhurst as a NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) boy in 1934 and finally joined the Royal Navy as an assistant steward on September 2, 1935.
In January 1936 he boarded the destroyer HMS Searcher in the company of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious patrolling near the Middle East, until he transferred to the destroyer HMS Wishart in June 1938. On March 14, 1939, Buhagiar joined the destroyer HMS Bulldog. The ship sailed from Portsmouth to Gibraltar and then to Malta to load fresh provisions and more ammunition, as usual in the company HMS Glorious.
In August 1939 the British Fleet was put on war alert. Both vessels patrolled near the Red Sea then made for the Middle East, proceeding to the Indian Ocean and Ceylon, where the crew spent Christmas.
On January 2, 1940, the Bulldog sailed back home to Devonport with the Glorious. On April 9, Nazi Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and the two vessels left for Norwegian waters. However on May 9, the Bulldog left to help HMS Kelly, captained by Louis Mountbatten, which had been torpedoed by a fast German motor torpedo boat. HMS Bulldog took the Kelly on tow to the Tyne.
The Allies could not stop the enemy advance and their troops retreated to Dunkirk to be evacuated. Bulldog joined in the evcuation but a broken propellor forced it to return home early for repairs. For his role in the evacuation Buhagiar received the Dunkirk medal.
On June 14 Buhagiar’s ship, in the company of destroyer HMS Boadicea, made for Le Havre. Buhagiar said: “We could see from the deck that France was on fire. Black smoke appeared to be rising from the entire landscape of the port. At about 9.30am we sighted two large fishing boats loaded with British servicemen, French soldiers and civilians. After taking them on board we proceeded to the coast of Cherbourg. On our way to the English Channel we were attacked by 24 Stuka dive bombers. Bulldog received three direct hits but none of the bombs exploded. She was a lucky ship as only small damage was done to the chain of the rudder. Boadicea was also hit but we managed to make landfall at Portsmouth harbour.”
July 1940 saw the ship on night patrol in Dover. On August 4, German Junkers 87s dive-bombed Portsmouth dockyard and many ships were hit. Bulldog was only slightly damaged but the captain, Commander Wisdon, was killed by shrapnel. Commander A.J. Baker-Cresswell took over. A month later the vessel made for Scapa Flow and the Faroe Islands in the North Sea, and in November escorted western Atlantic convoys. Bulldog then made port at Greenock, Scotland, for the crew to have a rest for Christmas. Two months later the ship was instructed to operate from Iceland in the Denmark Strait.
In May 1941 an inbound convoy was stalked by nine U-boats, four of which attacked the ships. One of these was U-110, which had sunk two ships on May 9. The Bulldog was accompanied by three corvettes, one of which was HMS Aubrietia. The U-110 had fired two torpedoes and was about to launch a third when it got stuck in the tube, rendering the craft unbalanced. The U-boat’s periscope was spotted by HMS Aubrietia, which attacked twice with depth charges. The U-boat was holed and forced to surface 200 yards away from the Bulldog. The German crew scrambled out of the conning tower and jumped into the sea to make for the destroyer. Thirty-two members of the crew were rescued and 15 were lost.
Buhagiar was told to guard the secret paraphernalia with his life and not to let the papers get wet as they were made to dissolve in water
The charges to destroy the U-boat failed to detonate and Captain Cresswell decided to capture it. Despite the great risk Cresswell organised a boarding party led by Lieutenant David Balme, who recovered from the U-boat an Enigma machine and various code books. These contained clues that helped intelligence officers and cryptographers at Bletchely Park to crack the German naval code being transmitted to its U-boats and other signals and messages. The secret paraphernalia was taken to the Bulldog’s wardroom where the staff were Maltese, and Buhagiar, now a leading steward, was told to guard it with his life and not to let the papers get wet as they were made to dissolve in water.
At 4am on June 22, 1941, suddenly and without warning, Germany invaded Russia on a 1,300-mile front. Britain offered the USSR the little help it could muster and started sending convoys to Russian from Iceland through Murmansk. Buhagiar was still on Bulldog, which was sent as leader of the 3rd Escort Group to Russia. For his part in delivering supplies to Russia during World War II, in 1985 Buhagiar was awarded a commemoration medal to mark the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the Soviet Union from Nazi tyranny. In 1995 he received another medal to mark the 50th anniversary.
In September 1941, Buhagiar was in Britain, stationed at HMS Dolphin to follow a course in submarines. He joined HM submarine Tribute, and in January 1942, HM submarine Porpoise, captained by Lieutenant L.W.A. Bennington. This large mine-laying submarine had purpose-built tanks to carry fuel supplies and it made several trips ferrying stores and fuel to Malta. While on patrol, mines were laid off Suda Bay, and later Porpoise torpedoed and sank the Italian cargo and passenger ship Citta di Livorno. Porpoise also sank the Italian merchant ship Lerici, but while trying to attack the merchant ship Iseo it was damaged by depth charges from its escorting ships.
In March 1942 the submarine returned to Malta but soon after left for Alexandria, coming alongside the submarine depot ship HMS Medway for replenishing with fuel and supplies. In June, Porpoise returned to Malta and participated in Operation Vigorous, patrolling the Benghazi area, and that month it returned to Malta, berthing at Dockyard Creek, Vittoriosa, and later at Msida Creek. On June 29, Buhagiar was temporarily attached to the Medway, while Porpoise was undergoing a refit at Alexandria.
Buhagiar’s service on the Medway did not last long. On June 30 at 8.30am, as the Medway was off Alexandria, the German submarine U-372 avoided the British destroyer escort and fired two torpedoes, hitting the Medway twice, and the ship began sinking.
Buhagiar testified: “I was on the upper deck when suddenly I heard an explosion and the ship juddered. A second explosion followed in quick succession and the ship came to a halt.” In the confusion, Buhagiar lost all his belongings, souvenirs and records of his naval service. He had to swim to the nearest escort destroyer HMS Zulu, which, together with the other destroyer HMS Hero took all the 1,150 survivors to Port Said. There were 30 listed as dead or missing. Buhagiar was granted 14 days leave to return to Malta on HMS Porpoise. He had last been on leave in 1939 and he was glad to have a rest after three long years at sea during the war.
In 1943, Buhagiar’s base in Beirut was then transferred to the submarine base at Lazzaretto on Manoel Island, where he stayed for 16 months. In May 1945 the war in Europe ended. However, since the enemy had laid mines in various charted and uncharted waters, it was up to the Royal Navy to safeguard the sea lanes by destroying these deadly and menacing weapons. Consequently Buhagiar joined the minesweeper HMS Rinaldo, detailed to sweep the Adriatic, Ionian Sea and Aegean Sea. In May 1946 he embarked on HMS Haydon, a Hunt class escort destroyer, to patrol the Mediterranean. These perilous missions continued when he joined the mine-sweeper HMS Recruit in the UK in November 1947 to sweep the Red Sea from mines. For his services, Buhagiar was awarded the Minesweeping medal.
In the confusion, Buhagiar lost all his belongings, souvenirs and records of his naval service. He had to swim to the nearest escort destroyer
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in the Middle East. On May 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly approved a plan to partition the British mandate of Palestine in two states, one Arab and one Jewish, as well as the city of Jerusalem. Israel accepted the plan but the Arab world rejected it. Jewish immigrants began pouring into Palestine to occupy and defend their land.
In 1948 Buhagiar joined the accommodation and transport/landing/tank ship HMS Lofoten sailing from Malta to Haifa in Palestine and by May, Britain withdrew all its troops from Palestine and ceded it to Israel and the Palestinan Arabs. Buhagiar was later awarded the Palestine Medal for his service during this period.
In August 1948 Buhagiar was promoted to the rank of petty officer and boarded the escort carrier ship HMS Striker of the Reserve Fleet. On September 1, 1949, he began duties at HMS St Angelo in Malta and spent Christmas there. During his sojourn on the island he met Melita Borda and they married on January 1, 1950. They later had a daughter, Marie and a son, Laurence.
Buhagiar saw service on the cruiser HMS Gambia for six weeks in February- April 1950 and when the ship made landfall at Davenport, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Lewis Mountbatten, who had always shown an interest in Maltese seamen, inspected their smart contingent. Buhagiar next posted to serve on the destroyer HMS Chequers, in April 1950. Prince Philip who was also serving on board, gave Buhagiar a signed photo of the destroyer entering Grand Harbour in Malta that same year. Chequers was instructed to patrol Cyprus and thence to the Red Sea, calling at various ports on the way. In 1951 it sailed to the Persian Gulf, Bahrain and Shutt el Arab, and in 1952 to North Africa.
On April 27, 1954, Buhagiar boarded HMS Saintes, patrolling the Mediterranean and North Sea. On December 16, he joined the destroyer HMS Armada but his days at sea were numbered as on May 1, 1957, he was transferred to HMS St Angelo and pensioned off on September 1 after 22 years in the Royal Navy. That same year, Buhagiar was employed as a teleprinter clerk at the Signal Training Centre, HMS Phoenicia, Manoel Island, and later at the Chart Depot, St James Cavalier, until 1962. He later joined Kursaal Co. Ltd at the Dragonara Palace Casino, retiring in 1980.
In his retirement he concentrated on his hobbies – philately and numismatics – and joined the British Legion which caters for the welfare of ex-servicemen. In 1980 together with other retired Maltese Royal Navy sailors, he revived the Royal Navy Association (Malta Branch), which at the time comprised 275 members.
The association arranged special permission for its members to visit Royal Navy ships when these were in Malta and also helped their shipmates’ widows with funeral expenses. It also arranged for members to meet other ex-Navy seamen from similar associations abroad, notably from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, to attend Veterans’ Day to honour their fallen comrades, and to meet visiting dignitaries such as Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh when they visited Malta.
Buhagiar was subsequently elected chairman of the association, and served on the executive committee of the George Cross Island Association, until he passed away on September 16, 2008. Although the considerable number of Maltese who served in the Royal Navy during World War II is dwindling fast, we do well to recall concretely their service and sacrifices, lest we forget.
The author is indebted to Anthony Buhagiar’s daughter Marie Demicoli for her valuable help, and to John A. Mizzi and Mark Anthony Vella, authors of Malta at War Volume III, as a source of information.
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