N°1435 Flight – From Malta to the Falklands

N° 1435 Flight was born in Malta from a night fighter unit during 1942 to assist in the air defence of the island. Half a century later is now in charge of another island, far, far down in the Atlantic, and in a less genial weather, but the role is still the same.

By Emmanuel Muscat

The Malta Night Fighter Unit (MNFU) was formed through a sense of desperation during a period of frequent night attacks by the Italians in the early months of the air war over Malta. These attacks, although not causing a great deal of damage, did little for the morale of the Islanders or the military personnel stationed there, and it was thus that late in July 1941 it was decided to form the unit.

The task was given to Squadron Leader George Powell Sheddon who came to Malta with orders to form a special night fighter flight. At the end of July 1941 the MNFU was formed with eight Hurricane IIc and four IIb. The dozen Hurricanes detached to form the MNFU were originally part of a batch of 450 aircraft built by the Gloster Aircraft Company and issued to the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom.

After being shipped to Malta they were allocated to the various squadrons on the Island before being used by the MNFU. The first priority after their allocation to the night fighter unit, which was based at Ta’Qali, was to paint them black for night operations. Flight Lieutenants Ernest Cassidy and Don Stones were posted from N° 249 Squadron as commanders of A Flight and B Flight respectively, together with Flying Officers Thompson and Mills and Pilot Officer Robertson. From N° 126 Squadron came Plt. Off. Grant and Sergeant Mackie while N° 185 Squadron initially supplied Plt. Off. Barnwell, all these units being already based in Malta.

Flying only at night and guided by the ground searchlights, these Hurricanes achieved very good results so much that enemy raid decreased. Sqdn Ldr. Powell Sheddon started the idea of Hurricanes fighting in pairs in unison with searchlight. There was a considerable problem in seeing the Italian night bombers as it was their practice to fly direct from Sicily to the south of Malta over the sea and then sweep round and bomb as they made their way northwards back to their Sicilian bases.

Pairs of searchlight were therefore positioned at each end of the Island and Hurricanes would circle there. When an incoming raider was plotted by the radar 15 miles (24 km) out, the Hurricanes would increase height if necessary so that they would find themselves at least 2,000 ft (610 m) above the bombers. Both fighters in the pair would turn inwards to approach the intruder from each side simultaneously. Very successful results would be achieved by using these tactics, although the Hurricanes usually flew with their tail lights on to avoid collision.

The routine procedure for the unit was to do the flying tests on the Hurricane at dusk to ensure serviceability. When these were completed they would be parked on the edge of the airfield at Ta’Qali. Six pilots would be at readiness all night. Usually they scrambled in pairs whenever enemy aircraft were picked up on the radar sited high on Dingli Cliffs.

The new MNFU enjoyed its first success during the night of 5/6 August with the downing of two Fiat BR.20 bombers from the 43° Stormo that raided Valletta. The first loss to the unit occurred during a night operation in October when several Macchi MC.200 fighters carried out a surprise dawn raid on Ta’Qali, just as a pair of Hurricanes had received orders to scramble.

Although both aircraft were airborne by the time the enemy appeared over the airfield, Plt Off Barnwell was never seen again despite an intensive search all day. A curious incident happened during the day of 20 November 1941 when Sqdn Leader George Powell Sheddon, while at the controls of his Hurricane, crash-landed on the Attard-Rabat road after engine failure. He was shaken but unhurt.

On the 2 December 1941 the MNFU was renamed N° 1435 (Night Fighter). Flight and command passed to Sqdn Ldr Innes Westmacott, previously a Flight Commander of N° 185 Squadron. This came about as a result of Sqdn Ldr Powell Sheddon having been promoted to Wing Commander to become CO of Ta’Qali. Also at this time the Hurricanes were fitted with long-range fuel tanks and night operations of the flight were extended to include intruder patrols around enemy airfields in Sicily.

The idea was to attempt to hit the enemy on the ground before they left to bomb Malta. These tactics by 1435 Flight had such a demoralising effect on Regia Aeronautica that the Lutwaffe had to be ordered back to Sicily. Once again Malta became subjected to an onslaught. The Flight continued the night defence of the Island and on the nights of 27 and 28 January 1942 four of its pilots achieved a victory, while Plt Off Mackie was lost when some Bf 109s came in at dusk whilst the Hurricanes were on night flying tests.

Since the arrival of the Luftwaffe in Sicily Ta’Qali was suffering very badly from daylight and night raids. This particular period was to prove a most critical phase in Malta’s long siege. By March 1942 the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle had brought further Hurricanes and Spitfires to the Island, but little is known of the activities of N° 1435 Flight at this period. What is sure is that spring the night fighter task was taken over by the radar-equipped Beaufighters, releasing the Hurricanes for day fighting.

That March of 1942 N° 1435 Flight was disbanded, but it seems that it was brought back briefly but temporarily to life shortly afterwards to operate Beaufighters. N°1435 Flight did not entirely disappear for it reformed on 2 August 1942 and was elevated to squadron status. Thus 1435 was unique among RAF squadrons not only for its out of sequence number but also in the fact that its destination was not officially approved untile the unit had been operating for some time.

It was now a day fighter squadron, considerably larger than in the past, and equipped with Spitfire Vc and pilots transferred mainly from N°603 Squadron. Until the end of 1942 the new squadron was engaged on defence duties but in January 1943 it became a fighter bomber unit and flew sweeps over Sicily,, until the Allied landings there.

In October 1943 the Malta-born unit moved to Italy where it became part of the Balkan Air Force, where it carried out ground attack missions over Albania and Yugoslavia in addition to air defence duties. From September 1944 a detachment was based on the Yugoslav island of Vis, where it remained until April 1945, and in February 1945 N°1435 moved north to Falconara, across the Adriatic, to keep in range of the retreating German forces as they evacuated the Balkans. N°1435 Squadron was disbanded at the end of the Second World War on 9 May 1945.

Forty-three long years had to pass for N°1435 to resurrect, this time as a Flight. It was reformed in November 1988 to replace N°23 Squadron in the role of air defence duties in the Falklands Islands. Four Phantom FGR.2s from N°23 were transferred to N°1435, and these soon displayed the Maltese Cross on the tailfin, demonstrating that the link with Second World War Malta had not been lost. To further add to the nostalgia, three of the Phantoms were named Faith, Hope and Charity with the fourth one being named Desperation.

During the summer of 1992 the Phantoms were replaced by Tornado F.3 fighters, these again being repainted with the current markings which consist of a falcon set inside a Maltese Cross. This design formed the basis of the unit crest approved in 1997, but the falcon is not a Maltese one but a Cassions Falcon indigenous to the Falklands Islands.

Nowadays N° 1435 Flight, based at Mount Pleasant, continue to carry out air defence over the Falklands. Although this represents a leap of half a century of aviation technology between the Hurricanes of the MNFU and the Tornado, the unit’s task has remained essentially the same, that of defending the airspace of an archipelago against any aggressor.


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