I’m currently shooting a documentary film for BBC 2 about the Siege of Malta in the Second World War, so have been returning to the subject about which I wrote my first work of history. I’ve also been doing a bit more research, which has been fascinating, and have just rediscovered an extraordinary story.
It involves the crew of an RAF Beaufort operating from the tiny Mediterranean island on 28th July 1942. Like so many crews in the Middle East, it was made up from men all around the Dominions. The pilot was a South African, named Lieutenant Strever, while the others were Pilot Officer Dunsmore from Liverpool, and Sergeants Wilkinson and Brown from New Zealand.
On this day, they took off, and soon sighted a small Axis convoy heading across the Mediterranean to North Africa. In Egypt, the first Battle of Alamein was over, Rommel’s advance had badly run out of steam, and in the lull, the Axis were desperately trying to resupply their battle-weary forces. Malta’s role in sending as much of those all-important supplies to the bottom of the sea as quickly as possible had never been more important.
Strever turned his Beaufort in to attack, their torpedo was dropped, but a hail of flak arced up towards them from the enemy merchant vessel. Badly hit, Strever realised they were in trouble. A long way from Malta, it was clear they were never going to make it back, so Strever told the rest of his crew he was going to ditch in the sea. Ahead was the Italian coast, and with their inflatable dinghy and a bit of luck, they would be able to paddle to safety; they might end up as prisoner of war, but at least they would be alive.
Strever managed to ditch the Beaufort, and although he briefly struggled to escape from the flooded cockpit, by the time he had clambered free, the others were already in the dinghy and helped haul their skipper aboard. Ahead, they could still see the Italian coastline, and so began paddling towards it.
They had not been going long when an Italian Cant seaplane circled overhead and then came into land not a hundred yards away. Strever dived into the water and swam towards it, where he was helped aboard by the smiling Italian crew, who, to his surprise, gave him a brandy and a cigarette. After a bit of miming, Strever was happy his captors understood the gist of his story and certainly took the Cant over to the dinghy and picked up the rest of the crew. Taxiing the float plane to a nearby island, the Italians then led the bedraggled crew to their base, offering them the run of their mess and, in the evening, giving them all a hearty meal with the Italian officers, who even considerately offered up their beds for their prisoners.
The following morning, after a breakfast of eggs and fresh coffee – the like of which the crew had never experienced during their time on Malta – the Italians took photos of themselves with their new charges, then loaded the crew back onto the Cant and took off towards Taranto.
There were five Italians on board: four crew and one armed escort, but it was clear they were not expecting any trouble. It was Sgt. Wilkinson who made the first move. Catching the Italian observer’s attention, he then punched him hard on the jaw and then snatched the startled guard’s pistol, which he threw to Strever. Using the guard as a shield, with the pistol dug into the Italian’s back, he now approached the pilot and snatched the man’s pistol before he could grab it. The Italian pilot immediately put the Cant into a dive, but after a threatening gesture from Strever, changed his mind and levelled out once more. Meanwhile, Dunsmor and Brown dealt with the other three crew. In just a matter of moments, the prisoners had become the captors.
Despite this dramatic change of fortunes, Strever was faced with a dilemma. He had never been aboard a Cant before, let alone flown one, and had no real idea where they were, so decided to let the second pilot go free and ordered him to fly to Malta. The Italian agreed, but even so, after making some hasty calculations, Strever realised it was unlikely they would have enough fuel to reach the island.
As they finally began nearing Malta, however, a shortage of fuel soon became the least of their problems. Flying low over the water, they were suddenly attacked by three Spitfires from the island. Brown spun the rotating machine-guns around in an attempt to show that he would not fire, and Dunsmore waved his white vest out of the cockpit, but it made no difference: the Spitfires hurtled past, spitting bullets and cannon shells and raking one of the wings.
Immediately ordering the pilot to land on the water, they touched down only for the engine to stop. They had finally run out of fuel.
The Spitfires sped back to Malta and not long after an air-sea rescue launched arrived and Strever was able to explain what had happened. After towing the Cant to the island, the captors turned prisoners were taken off and interned, although Strever insisted they be shown the same courtesy the Italians had shown them.
Their new prisoners took their change of fortune in good spirit, accepting that it was nothing personal and part of the vicissitudes of war. One of them even produced a large bottle of wine to share with the RAF crew – a bottle the Italian had intended to take with him on leave. And so, a day after ditching in the Mediterranean, Strever’s Beaufort crew had returned in one piece, and with five Italian prisoners and a Cant seaplane. It had been quite an adventure.