This was my first work of history and the whole process was an exciting and very steep learning curve. At university, the subject of my dissertation was to do with the English Restoration in the 1660s, and it was whilst studying for that that I first had a taste of the thrill of looking at original documents and sources. In that case, it was looking at contemporary books which I knew had not been read by anyone else for very many years. When studying the Siege of Malta I was not only able to speak with a number of people who had served there, but I was also able to repeatedly visit the island repeatedly, and visit archives where I could look at documents that had been signed by Churchill himself or written by many of the leading players in the story.
At the very beginning of the book, I begin with a letter I found in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London, in which a mother, Margaret Mackie, is writing to the Matron at Imtarfa Military Hospital, close to the fighter airfield of Takali in the heart of the island. The Matron has obviously already written to Mrs Mackie, assuring her that her nineteen year-old son, a night fighter pilot, had died peacefully, and without being aware of his horrific injuries. I unearthed it quite by chance on my first ever visit to the reading room there, and I remember as I read it through I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It was so moving, so touching – and so desperately sad.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it made me feel determined to try and find out more about this young man and the circumstances of his death. Soon I knew about his squadron, when he had first arrived over Malta, and the details of his death. Not long after, however, I made my first visit to the island itself. Takali is no more – a sports stadium now stands there – but at what would have once been the edge of the old airfield there is now the Malta Aviation Museum, run by a handful of dedicated enthusiasts.
At the time, they were working on the restoration of an old Hurricane and I was I was looking at their amazingly workmanship, I told Frederick Galea about the letter Alex Mackie’s mother had sent after her son’s death. Had Frederick ever heard of this particular pilot? I wasn’t expecting much of a response, but then Frederick smiled and said, ‘Look over there.’ He was pointing to a piece of grey engine cowling. ‘That’s from Mackie’s Hurricane.’ This seemed an incredible piece of serendipity. Nor was the engine cowling the only remains. Mackie’s elevator and a number of other pieces had all been recovered from the crash site. As I was gaping over these finds, Frederick said, ‘You know, you can still see the site. We’ll arrange a trip.’
So it was that one day in January 2001, almost fifty-nine years to the day, four of us piled into Frederick’s car and drove out of Takali, up the hill to Rabat, and out along increasingly winding and pot-holed roads until we reached the valley below St Katherine’s Church. One of those with us was Tony Spiteri. He knew the farmer, Francis Borg, one of the men who had rushed to help Mackie after the crash, and had been told about what had happened.
It is a beautiful valley, one of the prettiest and quietest on the whole Island. Figs and plum trees line the slopes, which are still dotted with old British military buildings. The Durham Light Infantry had manned the area back then, but most of the structures are ruined and derelict now. Down in the valley floor, the ground is divided into small sections of varying crops: wheat, vines, almond trees, caper bushes and onions. Tony assured me it would have looked much the same in 1942.’You can see from the vines that they have been here a long time.’ We stopped the car below the tiny church and looked across to the far side of the valley, to a stone wall halfway up the slope. At its highest, the wall rose over twenty feet, but one side was half collapsed.’That’s it,’ said Tony.’That’s the wall into which he crashed.’ We paused a moment, looking. It was so peaceful, and I felt a strange sense that I was looking a place trapped in time. Glancing to the right, I could clearly picture his black, spluttering Hurricane, smoke trailing behind, drifting round the curve of the hill, out of control. And Mackie, at the controls, desperately trying to get some lift until the moment of disaster. The noise would have reverberated around the valley. Francis Borg, working on the slopes above and behind where we were standing would have seen and heard it all. I could imagine the men rushing across the fields – the priest, the locals, soldiers of the Durhams – the remains of the Hurricane smoldering in pieces of tangled metal, the rest burning, dark smoke rising above the valley walls.
One man – a young, twenty year-old British pilot of no great note – had been fatally wounded here. His passing made little difference to the Island’s war effort. Yet, like millions of others, his life had been sacrificed in that terrible conflict. Sixty years on, it is easy to think of the War in terms of grand strategy and statistics. Standing there that day, I was reminded that it was about people, ordinary men, women and children; individuals who had never asked to be caught up in the middle of a war, but who had willingly joined the fight the ensure the safety of future generations.