The year 2016 marks two related anniversaries: the first is the centenary of the first Maltese to register as a pilot and fly in the Royal Flying Corps, and the second, the death of that pilot, Squadron leader Wyndham Grech, 60 years ago.
Grech’s professional calling was to the practice of law. He came from a family of prominent Maltese lawyers and followed in their footsteps. The profession allowed him to work in Malta, Egypt and the Seychelles. He was also a judge in the war crimes tribunals following the World War II.
Wyndham Levy Grech, was born in Pernambuco, Brazil, on June 13, 1890. His father Enrico Levy was descended from a Maltese-Jewish family with connections to Benghazi where Enrico was born. Wyndham’s mother was Teresina Grech Mifsud of Mosta. Teresina’s grandfather, Dr Giovanni Battista Mifsud LL.D, established the family home in Mosta in 1816 and was a senior member of the Maltese bar. Her father, Dr Gaetano Grech, also a lawyer by training, does not appear to have practised. Teresina’s two brothers, Oreste and Giovanni, were both successful lawyers; Oreste was a distinguished lawyer, for many years the president of the Chamber of Advocates. His younger brother Giovanni left Malta soon after graduating to pursue a legal career in Egypt where he established a successful practice and subsequently held appointments as judge in the native and mixed courts.
Although Enrico was of Jewish descent he converted to Catholicism before his marriage to Teresina. The date of his conversion is not known; he may have converted as a matter of choice or, given Teresina’s family’s standing, he may have been persuaded to convert as a condition of marriage. Whatever the reason, Enrico decided at an early stage that he did not wish to remain in Malta where his life would be dominated by his affluent and well-connected in-laws, so the young couple emigrated to Brazil; a suitably distant location, far away from family influence, where he could establish himself independently as a businessman. Enrico never seems to have been successful in his business enterprises, and after about two years in Brazil Teresina and Wyndham returned to Malta ostensibly for health reasons.
After attending St Ignatius College, Wyndham Grech read law at the Royal University of Malta, graduating in 1913. He then embarked on legal studies in London, intending to be called to the English bar. Grech enjoyed these pre-war years in London; he seems to have gravitated more towards music hall, operetta, and comedies rather than higher brow pursuits, although he did develop a taste for the works of Charles Dickens.
Grech was in Malta on the day the Great War broke out and he was nominated assistant to the chief censor on the island; however he was eager to complete his studies in London and obtained his family’s permission to return to London. He was also very keen on applying for a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. He duly applied; however, to his immense disappointment he was turned him down as being unfit for flying due to poor eyesight and was advised to join the Royal Artillery instead.
Grech was shot in the abdomen but managed to bring his plane down safely; however his observer was killed in this incident
Pulling as many strings as he could Grech appealed for help to former Governor, Sir Leslie Rundle, and to General Ruck, to whom he had been introduced by Sir Gerald Strickland. They both advised him to concentrate on his studies and to sit for his bar finals and then apply again for a military commission. He did as they suggested, and in reapplying at the recruiting office claimed that his eyes had been weakened due to his intense studies, and now that he had passed his exams his eyes were in first class condition. While chatting to the medical officer at the recruiting office he managed to memorise the eyesight test card and so, when, during his test he was asked to read the card, he did so perfectly and thus obtained the requisite certificate. After applying to the War Office he was informed he would shortly receive his commission.
Grech was jubilant at having attained his goal; however, after the war, when he read his medical file he realised that the joke was on him. The medical officer had realised that Grech’s eyesight was unchanged, but seeing how keen he was to join up, let him through.
On March 10, 1916, Grech received a letter from the War Office appointing him 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, and the next day he was off to the tailor to try out his new uniform. He was gazetted on March 29. His training started in Oxford in early April, and in addition to attending many lectures he was asked to prepare a lecture on Military Law. From Oxford, he travelled to the Salisbury Plain where he started his flying training with No. 7 Reserve Squadron in early May 1916.
On May 4, Grech was taken up for a joy ride in an Armstrong Whitworth piloted by Captain Beveridge. They were in the air for about 15 minutes circling the aerodrome and reached an altitude of 1,800 feet.
Grech, like everyone else at the aerodrome, understood that flying in those days was a very hazardous occupation, so as a counterbalance to their work they also played hard by socialising in the Mess. There were plenty of reminders of the dangers of flying: on May 6, just two days after Grech’s first flight as a trainee, he was learnt that Lieutenant White was killed undertaking his first solo flight; however this did not dampen his spirit.
On May 8, Grech undertook his first dual flight in a Maurice Farman shorthorn aircraft piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Kite; however, the weather was too bumpy for him to take over the controls. It seems as though the first occasion that he took the controls of an aircraft was on May 11 in the same shorthorn.
May 31 was intended to be a significant day for Grech as he was instructed to go up solo; however this outing ended in embarrassment. Early that day he took to the air with Captain R. O. Abercromby, the officer commanding No. 7 Reserve Squadron, at the controls. After some time in the air they landed and Abercromby instructed his pupil to take the plane up on his own. As Grech taxied in preparation for take-off he swerved to the left, while still on the ground, to avoid another aircraft, and smashed his undercarriage and damaged a wing. He felt very dejected at this mishap but his colleagues were very understanding.
Grech made an early start next day. He took to the air with a colleague around 5am, and about an hour later he completed his first truly solo flight in a Maurice Farman longhorn. He was clearly very pleased with himself and recorded: “Did my first solo – simply glorious – had two landings. In all, 17 minutes.”
On July 5 he was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn, London. Due to the war, a memorandum had been issued stipulating that wigs and gowns should not be worn over His Majesty’s uniform so he received the distinction of being called to the bar wearing his Royal Flying Corps uniform.
He spent most of WWII based in Egypt but travelled widely in Africa performing his legal duties
Having successfully completed the required 16 hours of solo flying time Grech received his wings on July 19. At the end of July he was ordered to collect his new aircraft. On August 5, 1916, Grech collected a twin-seater BE 2E, No. 6261, from the aircraft factory near Lincoln and proceeded to the Western Front to join No. 42 Squadron. He arrived at St Omer on August 8, 1916. During this time at the front he flew reconnaissance flights as well as bombing raids.
On September 10, Grech records “Patrol – bomb raid – hit”, and on the following day he was in hospital. His entry for the following Wednesday was simply “Blighty”, which signified that his injuries were severe and warranted his return to England. According to family history Grech was shot in the abdomen but managed to bring his plane down safely; however his observer was killed in this incident.
In addition to his physical wounds his medical records show that Grech suffered from neurasthenia, or what today we would call post-traumatic stress disorder. It is uncertain whether he took to the air again in action; however he did undertake further flight training, passing the School of Special Flying at Gosport under the command of Colonel Smith-Barry, and acted as a flying instructor. Grech was fortunate to have learned from one of the pioneers of aviation: Smith-Barry masterminded the complete reorganisation of flying training that was to become known as the ‘Gosport System’.
Following the defeat of the Italian Army by Austro-Hungarian and German forces at the Battle of Caporetto a British Expeditionary Force, which initially included five Royal Flying Corps squadrons, was despatched to northern Italy in November 1917 to support the Italians. Grech was posted to Italy as a member of this force. Initially he performed liaison duties and was eventually assigned to No 28 Squadron for flying duties.
Grech did not record any service activities but he did note that he came into contact with some very influential officers. One of these was Sir Thomas Webb-Bowen, Brigadier-Commanding in Italy; another officer was Colonel, later Air Chief Marshall, Sir Phillip Joubert de la Ferté, as well as the flying ace Colonel ‘Billy’ Barker, VC. Because he was also posted to the Italian Comando Supremo, Grech also met many prominent Italians, including Padre Gemelli and the inventor Giulielmo Marconi. For his services in Italy, Grech was awarded the distinction of Cavaliere della Corona d’Italia.
Before the war, Grech had fallen in love with Julia Vassallo, and although his family had agreed that the couple could get engaged in 1916 they would not permit him to marry until he had secured a job that would ensure that he could support a wife and family. So after being demobilised from the Royal Air Force in May 1919 with the rank of captain, he set about seeking suitable employment.
Hoping to land a job in Malta eventually he applied to the Colonial Office. Some time later he received an offer to take up the post of assistant legal adviser and police magistrate in the Seychelles Islands. This was the signal that he could finally seal the knot with Julia. They got married at the Archbishop’s Palace in Malta on December 7 and sailed for the Seychelles on December 11, 1920.
On October 14, 1937, Grech renounced the name Levy by deed poll.
At the outbreak of World War II, Grech enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as he was too old for active duty. For some time he acted as adjutant at Ħal Far airport and later transferred to the Army Legal Service. He spent most of the war based in Egypt but travelled widely in Africa performing his legal duties.
After the war, Grech offered his services to the Judge Advocate General’s Office and was appointed Judge Advocate at the Fourth Ravensbrück Women’s Prison Camp Trial, which ran from May to June 1948, in which two doctors and three nurses were charged with various war crimes. Three of the defendants were sentenced to death and the other two to length prison sentences.
In 1956, Grech suffered a hernia which required surgery. Unfortunately, due to excessive scar tissue resulting from his wartime injuries the flesh around the site of his surgery failed to heal properly and he died of a gangrenous infection on November 23, 1956, at the age of 66.
The author is the grandson of Wyndham Grech. This article contributes additional details to the article ‘The first Maltese pilot, 100 years ago’ by Major Tony Abela (The Sunday Times of Malta, April 24, 2016) that described the main events of Grech’s career in the Royal Air Force.
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