Hal Far Airfield, Malta’s first permanent airfield, was vital for British Royal Navy aviation. It evolved from a seaplane base during World War I to an RAF station in 1929. During World War II, it played a pivotal role, hosting Spitfires and enduring bombings while staying operational. It remained a significant military installation post-war.
By Charles Stafrace
Hal Far airfield, one of the most popular foreign posts for British Royal Navy aircrews throughout the decades, was the first permanent airfield to be constructed in Malta, and its location on the island gave it a position of great strategic importance in the Mediterranean, providing a base for all unit disembarked from carriers on the important route to the rest of the Empire. Because of better approaches over the sea than Malta’s other airfield, Hal Far became the preferred diversionary base, while excellent range facilities rendered it the ideal place from where intensive armament training could be undertaken by squadrons on their arrival.
At times, especially in the late 1920s/mid-1930s, and again in the 1950s as HMS Falcon, Hal Far was one of the busiest airfields in the entire Fleet Air Arm; indeed, for a time between 1958 and 1962 Hal Far was of particular importance to the FAA as its only remaining overseas land station after the closure of Sembawang in Singapore. But to understand the growth of the base’s importance one has to start the story from the beginning and go back in time to the period at the outbreak of the First World War, at the dawn of practical naval aviation.
In July 1914 the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was created at Eastchurch, Britain, as an aerial spotting arm of the Royal Navy and as a separate entity from the Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC). By the end of the year, RNAS aircraft were operating successfully from shore bases in France and Britain and when the Gallipoli Campaign opened on 25 April 1915, all air support was provided by the RNAS employing seaplanes (floatplanes were called seaplanes at that time) operating from HMS Ark Royal and shore-based landplanes. The Ark was then a seaplane carrier with accomodation for eight of these aircraft which she could fly off on trolleys from a large launching platform on her bows. Also on 25 April 1915, the German submarine U-21 left its base on the River Ems, near Emden, passed through the Straits of Gibraltar on 6 May, refitted for a week at Cattaro and, to the consternation of the Royal Navy, sank the battleship HMS Triumph and Majestic off the Dardanelles.
By the end of 1915, there were 13 German submarines lurking first in the Aegean Sea and later plundering shipping the length of the Mediterranean. To counter this threat the Admiralty at London gave permission for a seaplane base to be built in Malta, which was already an important naval base, and in July 1916 a seaplane hangar and a slipway had been constructed on the western shore of Marsaxlokk Bay at Calafrana. At the end of July 1916, five Curtiss America flying boats were despatched from Felixstowe to Calafrana together with seven pilots, two Warrant Officers and the requisite number of mechanics, under the overall command of Flight Commander J D Maude. The aircraft patrolled the approaches to Malta, occasionally attacking submarines with rather inconclusive results, but providing nonetheless their value in reporting the presence of enemy surface vessels, submarines and mines to convoys.
Through 1917 the German submarine effort in the Mediterranean had increased to an alarming extent and when Wing Captain A M Longmore (one of the four original British naval aviators) was sent to Malta to review air requirements on the Station, he recommended expansion of the Calafrana seaplane base, the building of more flying boats at the Dockyard, and the deployment of four seaplane carriers to the Mediterranean. On 1 April 1918, the RNAS lost its separate identity and became part of the new Royal Air Force (RAF) under the command of Colonel CR J Randall. The following September the Felixstowe F2 and F3 flying boats were taken over by the newly-formed N 267 Squadron while the Short 184 and 320 floatplanes were formed into an also new N 268 Squadron. These were the first shore-based operational aircraft to be based in Malta.
The Inter-war years
The end of the war brought a gradual run-down at Calafrana and during 1919 the seaplane carriers returned to Britain leaving only HMS Engadine in the Mediterranean. In 1920 HMS Ark Royal relieved HMS Engadine for a short stay and HMS Pegasus, which had been operating in the Baltic, returned to Malta for the spring and summer cruises. But very little flying was achieved in that and the following year. In the autumn of 1922 when the Dardanelles crisis was reopened, the carriers HMS Argus and Ark Royal joined the Pegasus. Argus was a steamer converted while still in construction to have an unrestricted flight deck from bow to stern, in fact, the first ship in the world to which can be ascribed the designation of aircraft carriers as we know them today. The prospect of further carrier operations in the Mediterranean gave impetus to the need for a permanent landing ground in Malta and on 16 January 1923 the first aerodrome on the Island was opened at Hal Far, a grassy plain overlooking Calafrana, to which a connecting road was constructed.
The year 1924 marks the real beginning of carrier operations in the Mediterranean. By then the Royal Navy was abandoning the cumbersome seaplane carriers and naval aviation came to consist largely of a new generation of carrier-borne, wheeled undercarriage aircraft flying off vessels resembling HMS Argus. In January 1924 the first of many crated Fairey Flycatcher ship-board fighters was shipped to Malta and erected; by February the Governor was able to enjoy a demonstration of aerobatics by these aircraft at Hal Far.
Throughout 1925 the pattern at Hal Far continued, the carrier-based aircraft taking part in a great variety of exercises involving torpedo attacks, torpedo trials, gunnery spotting, range finding, aerial photography, reconnaissance, W/T exercises, and so on. While Hal Far initially originated as an airfield extension to the Calafrana seaplane base, by the end of the 1920s it had attained a status of its own, and Calafrana became rather a sort of satellite for flying boats. On 18 June 1929, after six years of continuous activity, Hal Far was at last upgraded to an RAF Station with effect from 1 April 1929 but continued to function as a shore base for carrier aircraft in the Mediterranean.
The same pattern of activity of the 1920s continued into the 1930s. The RN’s presence in the Mediterranean, hitherto practically unchallenged, was augmented as the Italian fascist regime revived the ancient Roman slogan of Mare Nostrum, our sea. Malta’s importance to the RN not only as a port of call but also as a base for air operations grew. The growing use of the base was accompanied by a corresponding improvement in the support facilities, including married quarters for locally-based staff, barracks, NAAFI stores, and more hangars, most installations being concentrated in the northern corner.
The Second World War
Malta’s position in the middle of the Mediterranean and her consistently good weather conditions permitted all-year training for the RN fleet, and the main purpose of carrier aircraft disembarking at Hal Far was in fact their possibility of indulging themselves in various exercises. In the meantime, the Admiralty had at last won its battle to regain control of naval aircraft and in the summer of 1937, the FAA passed anew to the Navy. It was envisaged that the transition period of handing over would be two years, during which all personnel would revert to naval ranks and the FAA be permitted to operate its shore bases. In spite of the importance accorded to Malta by the RN Fleet and FAA, little thought was given by the RAF for its air defence in the event of war. As a consequence of this, the Fleet was much more in Alexandria and the central Mediterranean saw less of it, even though warships continued using the Malta docking facilities while these remained available.
Thus the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939 found no operational defence aircraft in Malta, and this dangerous situation existed well into 1940. Desperate at the situation, somebody remembered the crated Sea Gladiators left at Calafrana by HMS Glorious before her departure from the Mediterranean. The Admiralty agreed to loan six of the aircraft to the RAF and five aircraft were erected in early March in charge of Hal Far Station Flight. On 10 June 1940 Italy declared its entry into the war on Germany’s side and the following morning Hal Far was raided by 10 Italian bombers causing little material damage. An afternoon raid was met by the Gladiators, which had been formed into Fighter Flight, with inconclusive results. Gladiators did, however, manage to shoot down a recce S.79 and a Macchi MC.200 on 22 and 23 June respectively, although their numbers were so decimated by accidents and battle damage that more crates had to be loaned from the RN and erected. Fortunately, on 21 June, four Hurricanes joined the Fighter Flight, greatly alleviating the overworked Gladiators and their pilots.
Also in June 1940 N 767 NAS, a Deck Landing Training unit based in the United Kingdom, was transferred to HMS Furious with eighteen Swordfish, twelve of these flying to Malta from Medjaz al-Bab, Tunisia. Early in 1941 the blitz on Malta was intensified by the arrival of units of Luftwaffe in Sicily. Junkers Ju 87 and Ju 88 augmented the attacks and the air battles became desperate. In April 1941 the RAF was reinforced by the arrival of three batches of Hurricane IIs which enabled the formation of N 185 Squadron on 12 May at Hal Far. A lull in bombing raids brought a brief respite when the Luftwaffe left Sicily to return to the Russian Front. As the 1941/1942 winter crept in, the Luftwaffe returned to Sicily and the last stage of the struggle for Malta commenced. Raids on the Island intensified and one particular attack on Hal Far by Ju 88s badly damaged a Swordfish. Further raids during January 1942 resulted in the destruction at Hal Far of two other Swordfish, a Hurricane and a Skua (which had arrived as escort with the April 1941 Hurricanes), and damaged 15 Hurricanes, three Swordfish and a Fulmar. Further damage to aircraft, airfield buildings and loss of personnel resulted during attacks in February through to April, the Malta Hurricanes being out-classed by the German Messerschmitt Bf 109s.
A ray of hope came on 9 May when the first Spitfires for N 185 Squadron were flown off the carrier USS Wasp to Hal Far, giving a much-needed psychological boost and material relief not only to the airfield but to Malta as a whole. On 21 May 1943 Hal Far was bombed for the last time. The raid was carried out by Focke Wulf Fw 190 fighter bombers escorted by Bf 109 and Fw 190 fighters, 36 fast aircraft in all, inflicting little airfield damage but destroying three Albacores and a Spitfire on the ground for the loss of one Fw 190 to ground fire. Hal Far had been the first Maltese airfield to be bombed on 11 June 1940. In the intervening period, 2,300 tons of bombs were dropped on the airfield, but such was the competence of the airfield repair parties, drawn mainly from “A” Company of the Devon Regiment, that it was rarely unserviceable.
On the airfield itself, the ground crew casualties numbered 30 killed and 84 injured. The George Cross was awarded to LAC A M Osborne, who went to a certain death in attempting to put out a fire when the torpedo shop was hit. CPO G M Bull of N 828 NAS was awarded the George Medal for consistent bravery. The Maltese civilian employees on the airfield showed great courage in sticking to their jobs in the face of enemy action: Mr Arthur Sciberras, Clerk of Works, was awarded the BEM.
As the Malta siege was finally lifted, and with the imminent collapse of the Italians, organisational changes affected the airfield. Until then Hal Far was a vast expanse of grass with four possible flight paths: north-south, east-west, NE-SW and NW-SE. These, in particularly rainy seasons, were liable to be waterlogged. With enemy air raids practically coming to an end, and as aircraft became heavier and traffic had increased significantly, it was decided to build paved runways and taxiways. By end-June 1943 a 6,000ft by 150 ft runway had been completed over the NW-SE path and extending from it, while work was started on another 4,800 ft by 150 ft runway over the East-West path.