‘Merlins over Malta’ 15th anniversary review
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.
Even though our passion as aviation enthusiasts is very much for the aeroplanes which have secured their place in history over the past 116 years, sometimes the individual aircraft types which hold such fascination for us are overshadowed by the events in which they take part. One such occasion took place over Valletta’s Grand Harbor in September 2005, when two restored WWII era fighter aircraft appeared in the skies over Malta, to make a unique airborne tribute to the people of this beautiful Island and the men who fought to defend it during the Second World War.
In this latest edition of Aerodrome, we mark this year’s 15th anniversary of the ‘Merlins over Malta’ project and see how an idea which formed over a well-earned beer after a hard day’s work, became a historic aviation reality, thanks to the vision, and determination of a relatively small team of volunteers. We will be bringing you some fascinating stories from behind the scenes and a selection of images featuring the two aircraft which made this historic tribute, many of which are being published for the very first time. Our destination for edition 146 is Malta, via the Imperial War Museum airfield at Duxford and a few other stops along the way.
It all started with a day at the museum
A regular visitor to the Malta Air Museum, Vintage Fabrics owner Clive Denney was helping to prepare the museum’s Hawker Hurricane for the opening of the new Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar when he had the idea for a unique aviation tribute
For most of us, the opportunity to admire and enjoy restored historic aeroplanes at museum sites around the world is something we hold dear, although we are probably all guilty of hardly sparing a thought for the talented people who actually work behind the scenes to allow this to happen. I suspect that like me, most people are so wrapped up in filling their senses with the aviation delights before them that they barely even consider how these magnificent aircraft even came to be there. Thankfully, the people behind the scenes are usually more than happy to stay just that, behind the scenes, but on occasion, one or two of them emerge from the shadows to be thrust into the aviation limelight in spectacular fashion.
One such person is Clive Denney, a man who has been involved in the restoration and preparation of historic aeroplanes for over 40 years, initially helping to restore former RAF Spitfire gate guardians at Audley End airfield and later as the owner of Vintage Fabrics, a specialist aircraft recovering and repainting company, one which has earned a worldwide reputation for excellence and has been involved in the restoration of an impressive list of famous historic aircraft. Clive also just happens to be a Warbird display pilot of some repute, with aircraft such as Harvards, Hurricanes and Spitfires in his log book – this is a man of many talents.
It was through his work preparing and re-painting aeroplanes that the ‘Merlins over Malta’ story really begins, in a hangar at the Malta Aviation Museum on the site of the old Ta’Qali airfield. After spending a day working on the restoration of the museum’s Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIA Z3055, Clive was enjoying a well-earned beer with some of the museum’s volunteers, when stories of the Island’s wartime history began to flow. Amongst the many fascinating stories being recounted, it became clear that some of the younger members of the group had never seen a Spitfire or Hurricane flying over the island and probably never would. With Clive regularly flying the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Spitfire and Hurricane at Airshows and flypast events all over the UK, he began thinking wouldn’t it be fantastic if they brought the aircraft to Malta.
Clearly, both the Spitfire and Hurricane are inextricably linked with the wartime defence of Malta and to see restored examples in the sky above the island once more would be both historic and incredibly moving. With the main focus of the project being a unique way to announce the opening of the Museum’s new Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar, as the conversation continued to flow, it also became apparent that the 2005 Malta Airshow was planning to hold a reunion of Malta veterans to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII. Clive now had all the inspiration he needed – bringing the aircraft back to Malta for events such as these would surely be a once in a lifetime experience for many thousands of people and something he would be proud to be involved with. All he had to do now was convince the aircraft’s owners back in the UK to allow him to use their aircraft and the small additional issue of raising the many thousands of pounds necessary to make this happen – thank goodness this man likes a challenge.
The Museum’s Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIA has been restored to taxiable condition and wears the markings of a Malta based Mk.IIB of RAF No.261 Sqn. Its distinctive top hat wearing skull is described as ‘Death warmed up’
On returning to the UK, Clive pitched his Malta idea to the aircraft’s owners and he was surprised at just how accommodating they seemed to be. They loved the idea and working around existing operational commitments, the aircraft were made available for the project. Unfortunately, the small team who prepared, maintained and marketed the Historic Aircraft Collection aircraft for Airshow duties were fully engaged in this work, so Clive would be on his own with regard to raising the significant sums of money which would be needed if the project was going to stand a chance of success. Thankfully, he knew a group of people who shared his vision and determination, who immediately swung into action, his family and friends. A marketing and fund raising plan was quickly put in place and ‘Merlins over Malta – The defenders return’ was born.
From the beginning, this exciting project attracted some high profile supporters who were drawn by the exceptional educational opportunities it offered both here in the UK and on Malta. The Maltese High Commissioner was quick to realize the potential and threw his support behind the project quite early in the process, as did a famous British actress who had links to the Island, Muriel Pavlow. Pavlow was famous for playing many film roles during the 1940s and 50s, including being cast as the wife of Douglas Bader in the 1956 film ‘Reach for the Sky’, but more significantly, as the wife playing opposite Alec Guinness in the 1953 ‘Malta Story’. Although she had never been back to the island since filming back in the early 1950s, she vowed to return once more should the Merlins over Malta project be successful.
In addition to these higher profile backers, there was also the general public, who the MoM team describe as being steadfast in their support from day one and not only provided the ongoing encouragement they needed, but also backed the project with their generous donations. Unfortunately though, the sums of money required to support a project of this magnitude were significant to say the least and things were always looking like they were going to be tight. This situation was not helped by the fact that several substantial offers of financial support failed to materialise during a crucial phase of the project and it was actually left to a surprising source (although one which is close to our hearts) to finally get it over the line – Corgi.
Working closely with the team, Corgi arranged to produce two model sets in support of the project, one exclusively for the ‘Merlins over Malta’ project and another for general release as part of the Aviation Archive range. Interestingly, during initial discussions, the Corgi team asked if there was any possibility that the Spitfire could be produced as ‘something a little different’, as there were already several camouflaged Spitfire models in the range. After some research into the subject, Clive and his team discovered something which would fit the bill perfectly, something which was great for the production of scale model collectables, put presented him with another ‘full sized’ Spitfire problem – more on this a little later.
Even with Corgi’s help, as a result of the unfortunate support dropouts the project suffered, money was always a problem and despite the best efforts of the MoM team, they have since described the entire project as only being a certainty on the day before the aircraft set off for Malta, but thankfully, leave they did.
Fortress Malta honoured
Positioned in the Mediterranean Sea close to the Island of Sicily and not far from the coast of North Africa, the Island fortress of Malta has always been a place of strategic importance, be that as a trading post in times of peace or a military base in times of war. As Italy declared war against Britain and France, Malta’s close friend became their enemy overnight and as Mussolini was keen to get his forces involved in the war before Britain’s seemingly inevitable capitulation in the face of an unstoppable German onslaught, he was quick to dispatch his bombers against Maltese targets.
With Britain very much on the defensive, Malta was left to fend for itself. With a limited number of anti-aircraft batteries and around twelve Gloster Sea Gladiators to call upon, the island prepared for the heavy raids which would surely come, with even the threat of a seaborne invasion not beyond the realms of possibility. Indeed, as the Italian air bases on Sicily were only 50 minutes flying time away from Malta, even the Royal Navy were forced to re-locate their ships from Valetta’s Grand Harbour to Alexandria and Gibraltar. Despite the odds, the island continued to hold out and following victory in the Battle of Britain, Malta and its strategic importance began to receive more attention and much needed supplies.
A Regia Aeronautica Savoia-Marchetti SM 81 bombing Grand Harbour at the start of the Malta campaign
A scene of devastation, as fast as the Maltese people cleared up the rubble, another Axis air raid was inbound
Fighting valiantly in the face of overwhelming odds, the venerable old Gladiators were soon joined by a few Hawker Hurricanes, which all gave a good account of themselves against their Italian opponents, but when the battle hardened veterans of the Luftwaffe were sent to Sicily in early 1941, the RAF were very much on the run. Frustrated at the lack of success by the Regia Aeronautica, Hitler sent the Luftwaffe to finally end Malta’s resistance, particularly as the Island held the potential of disrupting his North African supply lines. As quickly as Malta received new Hurricane fighters, as many aircraft were being destroyed on the ground as they were in the air, with the full force of the Luftwaffe being hurled at the Island. Conditions for anyone living on Malta must have been unbearable – the lack of food and general supplies was combined with multiple air raids on a daily basis and scenes of devastation everywhere you looked. Malta was described as a ‘Hell on earth’ and the Island became the most bombed place on the planet. Ta’Qali airfield would earn the dubious distinction of being the most bombed Allied airfield in the history of warfare and with a reputation like this, a posting to Malta must have seemed like a punishment of sorts.
Despite suffering such terrible hardships, this brave little Island and its resilient people prevailed and with the arrival of the first Spitfire fighters in 1942, the RAF finally began to wrestle air superiority from the air forces of the Axis powers and Malta could be used as a base from where to strike against Hitler’s North African convoys. Failure to pound the Island into submission would prove a tactical blunder with immeasurable consequences, as Malta’s strategic importance would eventually hold the key to the entire war in the Mediterranean.
Can we paint your Spitfire blue?
We mentioned earlier that the Corgi team had requested something a little different for the Spitfire model to be included in the set and fortunately, Clive’s research into the subject of aircraft destined for service on Malta had unearthed just the thing. Operation Calendar was an Anglo-American operation to deliver much needed Spitfire fighters to Malta, using the American Carrier USS Wasp and an escort of mixed US and British warships. The plan for these operations which were referred to unofficially as ‘Club Runs’, was to transport the aircraft by sea to a position as close to the Island as safely practicable, before launching the aircraft from the deck of the carrier for a ferry flight of approximately 600 miles over the Mediterranean Sea to their new bases at Ta’ Qali, Luqa and Hal Far.
In early April 1942, USS Wasp was loaded with 52 Spitfire Vb fighters at Shieldhall Docks in Glasgow, along with the pilots of Nos 601 and 603 Squadrons. The aircraft were in addition to the majority of her existing Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters, which would be used to provide fighter cover during the launch operation in the Mediterranean. The Spitfires were loaded both on the deck of the ship and in its storage hangars, with each one being described as having undergone ‘tropicalisation’ for use in Mediterranean conditions. This included the addition of a Vokes air filter (which also housed a larger oil tank needed for this long range ferry flight) and long-range under fuselage ‘slipper’ fuel tanks for the onward flight to Malta. These added fuel tanks were found to leak constantly and were a real problem for both pilots and ground crew alike, but were just one of many problems found with these aircraft – jamming guns and faulty radio equipment undermined the considerable risk and effort in transporting these fighters to Malta.
During the early part of the journey, it was felt that the long ferry flight to Malta over the sea and in heavily contested airspace could leave the Spitfires vulnerable to attack, particularly as they would be conspicuous in their standard MTO camouflage scheme. It was therefore decided that the aircraft would stand more of a chance if they were given a temporary blue scheme to better blend in with the colour of the sea, making them less visible to enemy aircraft flying above. Using a combination of blue, white and black paint stocks found on USS Wasp and watered down to allow as many of the aircraft to be painted as possible, the Spitfires received their temporary new schemes en-route to Malta, leaving just the aircraft’s serial numbers, squadron codes and roundels unpainted – this was a rather unusual presentation for British Spitfire fighters used during WWII.
The Merlins over Malta project was certainly not all about the HAC Spitfire. Their magnificent Hawker Hurricane Mk.XII is presented in the colours of an RAF No.126 Squadron aircraft which fought during the defence of Malta in 1941. When it returned to the Island in 2005, it was the first time a Hurricane had been seen in the skies above Malta since the end of WWII
Although this is undoubtedly a fascinating episode in the history of the Mediterranean air war and most of the Spitfires did in fact reach Malta, the situation did not end well for the Wasp’s British fighter cargo. On 20th April 1942 and whilst still over 600 miles from the Island, USS Wasp launched 48 mainly blue painted Spitfires, with her Wildcat fighters flying top cover for the duration of the operation. With one aircraft returning with technical issues and one pilot landing his fighter in Algeria, 46 of the fighters made the ferry flight unscathed, landing at their new bases only to receive a less than appreciated welcome from the Luftwaffe minutes after their arrival. Mounting a particularly heavy raid which by luck or prior information was timed to perfection, many of the Spitfires were destroyed on the ground before they even had a chance to fly against the enemy and those which did manage to fly over Malta in the coming days were plagued by constantly jamming guns and non-working radios. The Spitfire’s introduction to combat operations over Malta was inauspicious to say the least, but thankfully the fighter would go on to enjoy much better days in the MTO.
Having already received permission from the owners to use the aircraft for the Merlins over Malta project, Clive now had to approach them with the rather radical request to repaint their Spitfire. What initially came as request from a diecast model manufacturer was potentially going to make it onto an actual 1 to 1 scale airworthy Spitfire, quite possibly the first time such a thing had ever happened. As you would expect, Clive had a faultless pitch prepared and by the end of the meeting, the owners thought they would have the most talked about Spitfire in the world on their hands once the repaint had been completed – their hopes would certainly be realized.
This next fascinating series of images were all taken at Cambridge Airport in 2005 as HAC’s Spitfire Vb BM597 was undergoing its temporary Merlins over Malta facelift. Although this blue scheme would only grace the aircraft for a relatively short period, it is really interesting to see how the finish totally transformed the appearance of one of the UK Airshow scenes most famous display aircraft. Under the guidance of aviation paint professional Clive Denney, he would become rather used to the sight of this blue Spitfire during the Merlins over Malta project, as he was sat in the cockpit of the accompanying Hawker Hurricane for the duration of the adventure
Using his wealth of Vintage Fabrics knowledge and experience, Clive had researched the USS Wasp Spitfires thoroughly and came up with a shade of blue which was entirely plausible for use on the Historic Aircraft Collection Spitfire. Definitive information about the exact shade applied to the aircraft back in 1942 is not available, but from analysis of available information, studying period photographs and having a professional understanding of the likely paint stocks available to the crew on board the USS Wasp at that period of the war, Clive produced a temporary blue wash which was thick enough to obscure the Spitfire’s usual camouflage scheme, but could be removed with water and a little elbow grease at a later date, without damaging the aircraft’s existing scheme.
The work to repaint the Spitfire in its temporary blue scheme was carried out by Clive and a small team of his helpers at the Marshalls Aerospace facility at Cambridge Airport and a series of fascinating images documented the process and were released around the time of the project. Once the team were happy with the application and the wash had completely dried, the Spitfire was flown back to Duxford, where the owners and the rest of the Merlins over Malta team were waiting with no little excitement for their first glimpse of the blue Spitfire. As BM597 blasted into the circuit a Duxford, it must have taken their breath away – she looked absolutely stunning. The decision to go with the USS Wasp blue scheme was vindicated completely and the team now had the most talked about Supermarine Spitfire in the historic aviation world. Now, it was onward to Malta!
The defenders return
After months of meticulous planning and with plenty of highs and lows along the way, the ‘Merlins over Malta’ team welcomed specially invited guests members of the media, a film crew and even a member of the Royal Family to Duxford airfield on Wednesday 14th September, to witness the triumphant departure of the two historic aircraft on their epic journey to the Island of Malta. In what must have been an occasion of great excitement, mixed with more than just a little trepidation for the MoM team, this was the culmination of many months of hard work and meticulous preparation. With the eyes of the historic aviation world upon them, all they had to do now was to safely fly two restored WWII era fighter aircraft the approximately 1,400 miles from Duxford to Malta via the Channel Islands, France and Italy, to arrive over Valletta’s Grand Harbour at exactly 18:00 (local time) on 22nd September.
With media interviews completed and both aircraft having undergone thorough final checks, pilots Charlie Brown and Clive Denney climbed into the Spitfire and Hurricane respectively and began running through their individual pre engine start checks – this was it, it was actually going to happen. As both Merlin engines burst into life, the pilots clicked into formation flying mode, communicating with each other via gestures and hand signals in a time honoured manner which would prove invaluable should they have radio equipment issues during the coming flight. Over the coming few days, the two men would be relying on each other as much as they would on the design skills of R.J Mitchell and Sydney Camm, as they were making this historic flight in restored wartime era aeroplanes and all the potential problems this posed.
With a final wave to onlookers and supporters, they were off. Power was applied to the aircraft’s Merlin engines and both raced down the grass runway at Duxford and into the Cambridgeshire late afternoon skies. Quite a poignant and emotional moment for me as one of the onlookers, I can hardly imagine how it must have felt for the people who had invested months of time and effort into the project, not to mention the loved ones of the pilots themselves. Although the flight time from the UK to Malta in a modern jetliner is probably only just over three hours, things are a little different when you are travelling in a restored WWII fighter aircraft – these old ladies would need to be nursed to Malta and back. With several planned stops between Britain and Malta, there was also the very real prospect of having to make unscheduled diversions for anything from technical issues to poor weather, at airfields that may not be expecting the arrival of two of the Second World War’s most famous fighting aeroplanes. The team were expecting that their epic journey to Malta would take them around a week, including some leeway for unexpected issues and delays.
This next series of images were all taken at Duxford on 14th September 2005, on the afternoon when the Merlins over Malta project became a reality and the Historic Aircraft Collection’s Spitfire and Hurricane took off from this famous airfield, destination Malta
The journey to Malta and back is an eventful story in itself and is most certainly a fascinating story for another day and another blog, however, courtesy of the MoM team, we will include a couple of little tales now. Leaving Duxford in bright sunshine, the team were hopeful that the first leg of the journey would pass without incident and see them with a good start to the expedition. The destination for this first leg was Caen Airport in northern France, but the weather over the English Channel was so poor that the aircraft were forced to turn back and land at Manston in Kent. The weather was absolutely atrocious and with little sign of a let-up in the conditions, Clive joked that the project might have to be renamed ‘Merlins over Manston’. Day one and the team had not even left British soil.
Now behind schedule, the fighters eventually left Manston, had a stop over in Jersey and travelled the length of France without further incident. Things were not so trouble free as the aircraft entered Italian airspace, particularly as the mountainous terrain would afford the pilots few options if they were forced to consider an emergency landing during the flight – thankfully, that situation didn’t arise. Interestingly, during one scheduled stop at an Italian airport, Clive and Charlie were surprised to find that when paying their landing fees for two WWII fighters prior to departure, they had been billed for passenger transfer, baggage handling and aircraft de-icing, even though this was the middle of September. Thankfully, an international incident was averted by the strategic deployment of their charm and diplomacy and with a deal agreed, the aircraft were soon on their way.
The final stop prior to arrival on Malta was the airfield at Reggio Di Calabria, on the toe of Italy, where the pilots had the opportunity to rest and make final arrangements for their triumphant arrival over Grand Harbour the next day. Finally, the big day had arrived and as what seemed like the entire population of Malta gathered at vantage points all around Grand Harbour, the Spitfire and Hurricane held out to sea and out of sight of the crowd. At exactly 18:00, the aircraft arrived over the iconic Valletta skyline to the sound of clicking camera shutters and rapturous applause – the defenders had indeed returned!
The aircraft made several evocative passes over Grand Harbour , before going on to fly over the Islands of Malta and Gozo, just as their forebears had done during the dark days of the Second World War. For many younger Maltese people, this would have been the first time they had seen and heard these classic British aeroplanes flying over their beautiful Island, even though Spitfires and Hurricanes are steeped in Island history. For those who lived through the war, it is difficult to imagine just how special this moment must have been for them, a reminder of the time where the Island truly stood alone against the might of their powerful Axis enemy, yet stood resolutely in defiance of their aggression. This was truly an event to commemorate the bravery of a very special country, its brave people and the servicemen who fought to defend them.
Merlins over Malta – The legacy
The Merlins over Malta project was a significant achievement for the team behind the scenes and although they certainly needed plenty of help along the way, their vision and determination were the major contributors to its ultimate success. The Maltese people had long dreamt of hearing the sound of Rolls Royce Merlin engines roaring over the Island once more, but having suffered several previous false dawns, had probably began to give up hope of it ever happening. The MoM team certainly had plenty of obstacles in their way, but their personal links to the Island and a firm understanding of what such an event would mean to the Maltese people instilled a real determination to succeed. Just as the people of Malta who witnessed this historic event will discuss it for years to come, so the people behind the project will have something truly historic to recount at social gatherings for the rest of their lives – they made something really important happen.
A sight that had not been seen since 1952, a Supermarine Spitfire flying in the skies above the Island fortress of Malta
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Merlins project was how it stimulated the return to Malta of a great many RAF veterans who spent time on the Island both during the war and in the immediate years which followed. As news of the project began to gather momentum, hundreds veterans used this as an opportunity to return to Malta, in many cases, for the first time since they were stationed there. As the event coincided with the Islands 60th anniversary of the end of WWII commemorations, many surviving veterans saw this as an ideal opportunity to spend time with fellow servicemen and women, remember friends and former colleagues who were no longer around and to rekindle old memories of times spent serving on the Island. The sight of Spitfires and Hurricanes flying over Malta might have been quite familiar to them, but unlike younger members of the crowd, they would probably have also been equally familiar with the sight of Stukas and Messerschmitts during their previous Island experiences.
It goes without saying that for the Malta Aviation Museum, the arrival of an airworthy Spitfire and Hurricane on the Island for the opening of their new Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar was something they could have only dreamt of and if the truth be told, they are probably still pinching themselves to this day – did that really happen? They have restored examples of both a Spitfire and Hurricane in their impressive new hangar, both of which MoM’s Clive Denney helped to restore to their current condition. I have never actually visited the museum myself, but it is certainly something I am intending to do in the very near future. When this happens, an Aerodrome report will follow in no time at all.
For the Corgi model collector, anybody with one of the Merlins over Malta sets in their collection will be rather pleased with their purchase, especially if it is one of the exclusive 600 run collectors editions which were only available through the MoM team’s sales site. As well as featuring 1/72nd scale examples of the Spitfire and Hurricane, the set included an exclusive MoM patch and bespoke certificate, which included fabric patches from both Spitfire BM597 and Hurricane Z5140 and included the signatures of the project pilots and four WWII RAF veterans. These sets proved to be some of the most desirable models of 2005 and are now very rarely seen on auction sites – if they do appear, they are snapped up straight away for a handsome price.
Although its temporary blue plumage made Spitfire BM597 one of the world’s most popular Warbirds during the summer of 2005, it was only ever intended as a short term Merlins over Malta arrangement and once she was safely back at Duxford, the aircraft was returned to her more familiar colour scheme. These final two images show just how effective the temporary paint actually was and how easily it came off with water, a sponge and some good old fashioned elbow grease
As for the Merlins over Malta team, they achieved something that will live in the memory of tens of thousands of people for many years to come. Through hard work, determination and just a little bit of luck, they managed to create their own little piece of aviation history and delighted an entire nation in the process. They managed to return a Hurricane to the skies above Malta for the first time since the end of the Second World War, and a Spitfire for the first time since the filming of ‘The Malta Story’ in the early 1950s. It is something they will always be able to look back on with an immense amount of pride.
I wonder if it is something they would consider re-creating for the 20th anniversary – I’ll grab my tin hat!
I would like to thank the Merlins over Malta team and the Historic Aircraft Collection for their help and support in producing this 15th anniversary article, especially Derek Rusling, who as usual, has been the font of all MoM knowledge. Some of the images used to illustrate the feature have been granted courtesy of the Merlins over Malta official Facebook page and their copyright ownership remains with the original photographers – please do ask before attempting to use them for anything other than personal enjoyment.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our firstname.lastname@example.org address, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
In between new editions of our blog, the aviation related conversation continues over on the Airfix Aerodrome Forum and we can also be contacted on either the Airfix or Corgi Facebook pages, in addition to Twitter for both Airfix and Corgi - please do get involved in the discussions and let us know what you think about Aerodrome.
The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 19th June, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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