In the chronicles of Maltese aviation, the echoes of Luqa, Hal Far, and Ta’Qali resonate through the pages of history, entwined with the narratives of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy during the Second World War. However, veiled in the veils of time, a less-explored genesis emerges—the Marsa Sports Ground, an essential locale in the early chapters of aviation in Malta.
By Charles Stafrace
Luqa, Hal Far, Ta’Qali- these names have become synonymous with the story of Maltese aviation, indeed with the histories of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, not least because of their connection with the Second World War. However, it is very rarely realised that the first stretch of land in Malta to serve for the normal landing and take off of aircraft was in fact the Marsa Sports Ground, a relatively large, flat, and grassy land situated at the southwestern end of the Grand Harbour and which everybody referred to as “The Marsa.”
During the early months of the First World War, or the Great War as it was then known, German submarines had already become a menace to British shipping in Home waters. When two Royal Navy battleships, HM Ships Triumph and Majestic, were sunk by submarines in the Mediterranean on 6 May 1915, the Admiralty gave its permission to construct an anti-submarine seaplane base in Malta. As a result, Calafrana, in Marsaxlokk Bay in the southeast of the Island, was inaugurated as such in July 1916.
This arrangement functioned well for the purpose, except when the state of the sea made it impossible for seaplanes to take off and alight in the choppy waters of the Bay. A search for a suitable area for the operation of land-planes was therefore carried out and The Marsa was found to be ideal. During the summer of 1918-by which time the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps had been amalgamated into the unified Royal Air Force (RAF),- two de Havilland DH.9As of N°562 (Malta Anti-Submarine) Flight operated from there to search for submarines when adverse sea conditions rendered operations from the Calafrana seaplane base impossible. Crews for the DH.9As were detached from Calafrana for this purpose.
The termination of hostilities brought to an end this landplane activity from Malta, which had always until then been considered to be a transient occurred when the largest aircraft then in service with the RAF landed in Malta at the only known flat stretch of ground available, which was of course The Marsa. The story had started in Britain the previous year.
In 1917 the Air Ministry had issued a specification for a large bomber with enough range to bomb Berlin and other targets inside Germany from bases in East Anglia, England. Handley Page Ltd had already become the specialists in bomber aircraft, having designed the O/100 and O/400 series of night bombers in 1916 and 1917 with which the first-ever sustained strategic night bombing offensive was carried out by the RAF’s so-called Independent Air Force in 1918.
During that war the O/100 saw action also in the Mediterranean region, being used in Palestine under General Allenby and T E Lawrence against the Turks, and one aircraft being based in Mudros, in the Aegean, from where it took part in the bombing of Constantinople and a raid against the German battle cruiser Goeben. For Handley Page it was, therefore, a question of developing further the concept, increasing the span and endowing the new aircraft with greater fuel capacity for the longer range required, and powering it with four engines in place of the predecessor’s two to cater for the larger bomb load specified.
The choice of engines fell on the 375 h.p. Rolls Royce Eagle VII, and their total horsepower composed the numerical part of the aircraft’s designation of V/1500. The engines were mounted in two tandem pairs between the top and lower wing. One peculiarity of the aircraft dictated by the then unknown forces of propeller slipstream was the fact that, while the front engines mounted two-bladed airscrews, the rear pusher ones mounted four-bladers. With its large span of 126 ft (38.40m), a wing area of 3000 feet (278,7 sq.m), fuselage length of 62 ft (19m), fuselage cross-section of 8ft by 6ft 2 ins (2.44m by 1,88m) and take- off weight of 30,447 lb (13.808kg) the aircraft was designed to carry 30 bombs of 250 lb (113 kg) each or two large one of the specially developed 3,300 pounders (1.497kg), double the maximum bomb load of 1,650 lb (748kg) then being deployed by existing bombers on the longer range flights.
Harland & Wolff of Ireland built the first aircraft, its components being assembled at Handley Page’s Cricklewood works from where it was first flown in May 1918. It was unfortunate in that it crashed on its 18th flight, but the second aircraft incorporated several changes mainly to improve directional stability, most changes being incorporated in the machines ordered for production that totalled 255.
The Armistice, however, caught up with the aircraft’s development and only a few had reached squadron service by then, these going to N° 166,167 and 274 Squadrons. Indeed, the only three aircraft ready for operational use had been bombed up and standing by with N°166 Squadron, in Norfolk, for two days awaiting the order to raid Berlin when the Armistice was announced. With the long-range strategic bombing role- the aircraft’s raison d’étre – becoming redundant, the RAF cancelled all outstanding orders and decided to use one of the V/1500 on the first England-India through flight. For this venture the third prototype was used, serialled J1936 and named HMA Old Carthusian by its pilot Maj. A. Stuart C MacLaren, HMA standing for “His Majesty’s Airliner”.
The aircraft left Marltesham, Heath, Suffolk, on 13 December 1918 with five other persons on board besides MacLaren: co-pilot Capt. Robert Halley, Sgt Smith, Crockett and Brown, and a distinguished passenger, Bri.-Gen. N D K McEwan. Flying through Le Bourget, Marseilles, Pisa, Rome-Centocelle and Otranto, J1936 arrived in Malta on 21 December with nine further passengers picked up at Otranto. The Daily Malta Chronicle of Monday, 23 December 1918 had this to say of the event:
The V/1500 was indeed an enormous aircraft for its time, with its large wingspan and fuselage length, together with the aircraft’s weight of no less than 30,000 lb (13.608kg) fully loaded and four engines. Among the details in which the Chronicle reporter was wrong was the position of the aircraft’s name: the wording HMA Old Carthusian was carried across the nose of the aircraft and not along its side, as the accompanying photos show. Further markings on the aircraft included full-length tricolour stripes on each rudder to make plain its nationality in the event of a forced landing, serial J1936 on the rear fuselage, and standard RAF contemporary roundels in six positions. It is interesting to note that The Marsa was already being referred to as “the aerodrome” obviously owing to the previous regular use by the RAF DH.9As of N°562 Flight.
The Chronicle reporter, obviously non-technical, was misinformed about the V/1500’s flying ability in the face of a strong wind: on its subsequent Baghdad-El Amara leg the strong head-wind reduced the aircraft’s speed to 50 mph. But the Daily Malta Chronicle reporter had every reason to describe the aircraft as a monster. The Maltese had become accustomed to the relatively diminutive 30-foot long (9m) DH.9A at The Marsa or, at most, at the 45-foot (13.7m) Felixtowe F2A or similarly proportioned Curtiss America seaplanes at Calafrana. The gigantic size of the V/1500 must have been impressive.