"Four out of five merchant ships that sailed for Malta in that period didn’t make it."
My name is Frank Leighton. I served in the British Royal Air Force in the Air-Sea Rescue Unit, and we were on air-sea rescue launches designed to get out quickly and pick up downed airmen. I was working on a launch at New Haven in the English Channel in 1941 when I got the word to go overseas, so I eventually loaded into the hold of a merchant freighter, the Clan MacDonald. We were shown to No. 2 hold and told, "There you go. Bed down on top of that lot." So we bedded down on top of a load of bombs, depth charges and aviation gasoline. Later we were told, "You are on your way to Malta, and we're going to go through the Straits of Gibraltar in the dead of night. No lights to be shown anywhere, and hopefully we'll get through without the German spies, who sit and wait in Spain, reporting on our passing."
On the way through the Miditerranean I was assigned to a machine gun post high up on the 'monkey island' just above the bridge, and when I undid the cover over it the gun took a look at this machine I was supposed to use, it turned out to be a pre-World War I Hotchkiss gun. No ammunition belt, simply a rigid comb about eighteen or fifteen inches long. So you could get away about ten to twelve seconds of fire and then it was empty again. Then all day long the day before we arrived in Malta we were clobbered with Savoia-Marchetti 79s. They were the torpedo bombers that the Italians were using. They came in in waves. Attacks were interspersed with high-level raids – people dropping bombs on us from a great height. We got through that with the loss of only one ship, but unfortunately that was the Imperial Star, and it happened to have on board the launch that I was supposed to be crewing on, so I ended up relieving on the one high speed launch that was already there, and the second one which came off another ship in our convoy.
A lot of time was spent doing all kinds of unexpected things, like unloading submarines at night, aviation gasoline to keep the fighters flying, and powdered milk for the hospitals and for babies, because the surface convoys simply couldn't get through. The most important event in that period was the arrival of a convoy. Four out of five merchant ships that sailed for Malta in that period didn't make it. The ratio of naval vessels to merchantmen was about eight or ten to one, so you can imagine the huge effort that went into getting one or two ships through, and in some cases none at all.
The air blitz on Malta in 1942 actually was the hardest thing to put up with, because for about ten months there we were bombed night and day. It went on virtually uninterrupted. In total, from January to April alone, we were hit with over ten thousand tons of bombs, and that's something like forty or fifty thousand individual explosions. Not getting proper sleep and food rations which kept going down and down, made us both hungry and irritated. So it was a pretty difficult time.