The strain of constant battle readiness on Malta

Army and RAF personnel refuelling and a Spitfire Mk V, Malta, 17 June 1942.

The crew of a Martin Baltimore of No. 69 Squadron RAF disembark from their aircraft at Luqa, Malta, following a reconnaissance sortie, June 1942.

On Malta Denis Barnham was now a flight commander, still at almost constant readiness to scramble his Spitfire to deal with incoming raiders. However the strain combined with the poor food had not helped his physical condition and he was still suffering from the Malta Dog – a digestive complaint.

The previous day there had been widespread disappointment that the Operation Vigorous convoy had been forced to turn back – the ships had been low on fuel after diverting away from the Italian fleet, and low on ammunition after their battles with Axis aircraft. So ninety per cent of the supplies intended for Malta had not got through – and they felt more isolated than ever:

Wednesday, June the 17th, by our planes.

Petrol is now so short that we’re only allowed to run the bus once a day – this means that we all come down here before dawn and stay for eighteen hours continuous readiness. Much worse for the airmen; their reliefs don`t seem to have arrived: with pitifully small rations they`re on duty day after day, and often night after night, on this sun-blistered aerodrome, without much chance of a day off or rest. What’s going to be the outcome of losing almost ninety per cent of the convoys? We’ve very little petrol, very little food, no relief and practically no ammunition. So the war goes on.

What really worries me is the way my body’s in open revolt. For weeks past I’ve fought the increasing Dog pain, and, in the last few days, its utter lifelessness; but this morning I’ve been vomiting without success in the ruins of a stone house behind my Spitfire, vomiting into my oxygen mask while flying over the harbour, and repeatedly leaving this tent after coming down on the ground again. I suppose the C.O. must have told the Doc, because a few hours ago I was taken over to Umtarfa Hospital for an examination. Docs, and hospitals, with all their genuinely wounded patients make me feel a fraud – thank God I’ve got back here to Luqa on the job again.

As they sat waiting to called into action, other aircraft were on test flights around them. One of them, a Wellington bomber developed a fault and crash landed almost in front of them.

We are first on the scene but, thank God, the huge bomber hasn’t caught fire – it has ploughed its way through the trees and lies against the broken walls on the hillside at the end of Sati valley. Of the six people in it, three are lying out on the rocky grass slope, two others are walking about aimlessly, while the pilot, his hand streaked with blood, staggers towards me: “Have I been hit in the back!” he asks. Turning him round I lift his torn shirt to see a gaping hole where the seat has crumpled into him. Forbidding him to light the cigarette with which he is fumbling, I ask if he had time to turn off the fuel and ignition, for there may still be a danger of fire. “Don’t think so.”

It fell to Denis Barnham to crawl inside the crashed aircraft, dripping with petrol, to attempt to turn off the ignition and petrol pumps.

See Denis Barnham: Malta Spitfire Pilot, originally published as ‘One Man’s Window’.

A Vickers Wellington Mark IC of No. 38 Squadron RAF Detachment, taxying at Luqa, Malta. Seven aircraft of the Squadron were detached to Malta from Shallufa, Egypt, between August and October 1941 for operations over the Mediterranean and Italy.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Anthony Stark February 18, 2016 at 12:51 pm

My late father, Flt. Lt. Ivan “Sandy” Stark, from Newcastle- upon Tyne, was stationed at Malta with 69 Sqn in 1942. The Baltimore bomber on which he was observer, ditched in the Mediterranean in May following engine trouble on a reconnaissance flight, initially taking the life of the stand-in WOP/Airgunner who could not escape from the sinking aircraft in time. Of the remaining three crew he was the only one to make the Italian island of Pantelleria, five miles distant, following a harrowing 18 hour swim with just a buoyant seat cushion to rest on between strokes. His crewmates were never found. He was a guest of the Axis for the remainder, being repatriated in 1945 following liberation from Stalag Luft 3 and emigrated to South Africa in May 1948, where he married an Afrikaans girl, my two brothers’ and my mother, in 1952. He died in Cape Town of lung cancer in October 1990.

Editor October 7, 2013 at 7:51 pm


I am sorry I don’t – but perhaps someone else may be able to put you in the best place to start looking.


bob ROWSON October 7, 2013 at 11:34 am

Hello. Do you have any information one P/O Harold Rowson. Took off in a Wellington bomber 222 Squadron RAF on the 2 Feb 1943. THANK YOU.

Jim Ewen December 25, 2012 at 4:57 pm

No doubt a most tenuous connection…but my late father, Sandy Ewen was a rear gunner in 69 Sqdn. and was most averse to telling any war stories at all, but did once talk of a Wellington crash on take off in, I think Malta. It was a flight he was rostered to be on, but for some reason, a different crew took the flight. It may be the same as posted above, but my father’s description suggested a much more serious crash. Sorry; don’t know much more…

Gordon Weare November 22, 2012 at 8:50 pm

I knew well a Flt/Sgt Frank Reid, from Leeds, who emigrated to NewZealand in the early 1950’s. He was a rear-gunnner in 69 Sqn, Wellington bomber [Wimpey]. I ‘found out’ he – at least- confirmed kill of one ME 109. Any pics of him, he had many photos, as he was reconaisance also. He died in Seattle, Washington.

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: