Malta Veterans Return 2005

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any better, we crowned off the show season with a memorable trip to Malta. Having made some good contacts last year with Jonathan, Keith, myself and Pete Hodges, we managed to get over 30 people over this time, a mixture of Garrison and the RAF 39-45 Ops group, who proved to be a very friendly bunch and someone who we hope to work with again in the future.

Dangerous turned up at Gatwick in his BD with a jack knife around his waist so that was left behind rather than cause another security alert! I joined him and Fred at the bar prior to the flight. Andy Davis was our courier - maybe he missed his vocation becoming a pilot!

Typically for me there was a mix up at the booking in and my name was missing off the list, which meant I ended up sitting right up the other end of the plane to the rest of the group. Pleas to later join them fell on deaf ears, as I had by then struck up a conversation with my fellow passengers.

On arrival in Malta we were bussed to St.Edwards school in Vittoriosa. Our Dutch friends, Frederik and Ernest were already there, and after an unpacking session, everyone eventually settled down for some sleep.

Following a meeting Thursday morning, some of us headed down the road for a meal and a quick look around before heading back to the digs and changing into uniform. We were then taken to the airport to provide the honour guard as the veterans arrived off the planes. This entailed periods of drinking tea in the airport cafeteria (I could handle that!) then lining up outside each time a flight arrived. This all seemed to go down well and we met up with Steve and Colin, a couple of local re-enactors who we became great friends with during our stay. Colin spotted my RMA cap badge and appreciated the efforts I had gone to. I later made his day by exchanging a 38 set harness/cradle I made some years ago for some KOMR badges so I now have badges for both home grown units that served on the island during the war - a great souvenir. After our stint at the airport, we were taken back to Vittoriosa to witness the arrival of the ’Merlins Over Malta’ Spitfire and Hurricane all the way from Duxford. They made several breath taking low passes over the water. Now I’m sure most of us have seen Spitfires and Hurricanes flying before but this was something special - the sound of Rolls Royce Merlin engines reverberating off the buildings and the significance of the return to Malta of the island’s few defenders back in the dark days of 1940 - 42 meant that there was hardly a dry eye anywhere to be seen. Set against a glorious Valetta sunset, I was certainly choked up over the occasion.

Friday, some of us were bussed up to Luca airfield to help set up our display area for the airshow over the weekend, having fun banging up another marquee (mind you, we should be getting used to that by now!) We got to have a close up look at the two war birds, along with other planes parked up. Although it was a long day hanging around, we were set up ready for the morning. One of the Malta Artillery 25 pounders arrived and we all got excited as it was an early Mark 2 without the muzzle brake.

Some of the girls meanwhile went sunbathing - alright for some!

Saturday, we duly arrived and set up the marquee. The local MVT arrived and parked up a nice variety of vehicles (including Tillies!) The weather got more and more sultry. Kit had arrived overnight and did very well to stay awake all day having had little sleep. The public started to arrive and we did our best to entertain them, with the girls attired in summer dresses on the plotting table in the tent, Fred and Dangerous made a great double act on the Bofors and the RAF boys and girls were at dispersal. I had a brief chat with Linda Denney, of the ’Merlins Over Malta’ project, as she came into my office earlier this year to discuss VAT. A very tiring day but enjoyable and a few sunburnt faces to show for it.

Sunday was basically a repeat, but Jonathan, Andy, James, Kit and some of the RAF Ops headed off to the wreath laying ceremony instead, which unfortunately ended up in a torrential downpour. It arrived at the air show earlier in the day, and the marquee was one of the few places to hide. A session of community singing started up. I couldn’t get in there as it was heaving so I went in the beer tent with Fred and Dangerous, who were giving a show of their own. An honor guard was created as the veterans left the VIP enclosure.

Monday we were taken by vintage bus to the Lascarus War Rooms where the Combined Operations were carried out below ground to avoid the heavy bombing. We were each allocated a room to take over from the dummies already positioned. I was put in the Coastal Defence room with Fred, James, Frederik and Graham Cufley, who from that day on became known as 'Lieutenant Le Whinger' by Fred. Any moaning resulted in hugs off Fred as Graham soon found out! On the plot, we acted out the USS Wasp flying off Spitfires (a particular interest to me, as we met a veteran off the Wasp while we were there which incidentally was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese in September 1942 after only a brief service life) then the infamous raid on Valetta by Italian torpedo boats, which failed. Comical moment in front of the public was when Fred demanded to know what vessels were in sector blah blah of the plot. I told him they were only Maltese fishing boats, but he ordered them to be sunk anyway!

The RAF group took over the main Operations Room, with the ATS in their authentic summer dresses manning the plotting table. More were posted the other side of us in the anti aircraft room. I think we made a good impression, but it was a bit damp and gloomy down there (reminded me of the Underground Hospital at Dover Castle). After refreshments, we were allowed to wander around Valetta. Andy wanted to clamber over the rocks down by the water’s edge and take a look at the fortresses - not too bad in his rubber soled RAF boots but a bit dodgy for me Don and James in hob nails! We must have walked several miles in search of Andy's fabled surplus store full of KD. James bought a bottle of vodka from the pub in which Oliver Reed died in and we then bumped into the girls doing some shopping, then we got a white knuckle taxi ride back to the digs.

Frederik and Ernest laid on a very enjoyable dinner but sadly Ernest had to leave early due to a family bereavement.

On Tuesday (or was it Wednesday?) we were bussed over to Luca Barracks and watched their 25 pounder drill, had a few drinks in the officer’s mess and watched a helicopter display of air ambulance rescue/ SAS style deployment of troops absailing down ropes etc. The RAF group attended the inauguration of a new hanger at the Aviation museum and earned lots of brownie points whilst there. Fred managed to slip down some marble steps in Valetta, winding himself and hurting his back a bit. Fortunately, he was OK and joined in the communal singing on the bus back to Vittoriosa.

We also visited Fort Rinella and watched the Victorian re-enactors go through a very slick and entertaining routine, meeting up with our old Aussie friend Alan once again. We also had a photocall at the Malta War Museum with veterans and had a look around the underground shelters and met our old friend Mario from the Malta Heritage organisation and some of us visited the Torture Museum which was quite grisly.

Wednesday we headed off to the RA workshops at Luca Airfield and were shown around the Bofor’s guns. They have several 25 pounders for ceremonial use and having made some good contacts, Don spotted a 'flimsy' in the workshops but it was holding up one end of a bench! Despite having had breakfast, we were all quite hungry by lunchtime. Some went into Medina to do a bit of sightseeing. In the evening, we had a monumental barbeque and piss up. Kit, Rachel and Jo appeared scantily clad in stockings and bits of uniforms. Poor old Don had to control himself when Rachel plonked herself on his lap. You see his face drain as the contents was urgently required elsewhere! Not quite so alluring was Simon, Steve and Dangerous wearing the girl’s dresses. Simon seemed to revel in it, having already been dressed up as an ATS girl earlier in the week, whereas Steve’s biceps and pectorals were bulging out of Rachels’ top, and Dangerous’ side burns and five o’clock shadow gave the game away a bit. Not to be outdone, some of the RAF Ops donned their knitted swimming costumes and the singing soon started, with RAF Ops, the ATS and Keith all taking a turn. Our special guests, were of course our Maltese friends, who got quite an emotional send off after what was after all, a very special week. The singing and drinking went on well into the night, but I eventually crashed out. James didn’t even make it to his own bed that night, but we have our suspicions as to what he was up to . . .!

Thursday there were a few sore heads but after a good fry up, it was time to pack away and head off into Valetta one last time for some last minute shopping. While we were having lunch, the Spitfire and Hurricane flew over, on what it turned out was their final pass over the island before heading back to England over the next four days or so. All too soon it was time to head back to St.Edwards and board the coach back to the airport.
A memorable trip and I think the start of what will be a happy association for many years to come, judging by all the thanks and tributes both ways that have appeared since. If you missed this one, you must come out next year. A disc is being compiled of peoples photos, some of which have been aired at the training weekend.

Gavin Cooper