Maltese Falcons: The Canadian Aces at Malta

News Article / January 18, 2017

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By Dave O’Malley

In the summer of 1942, Malta, a small island just 80 kilometres south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, was the most bombed place on earth. The strategic importance of the Allied-controlled island was magnified after the North African front opened in 1940, providing the Allies with an excellent staging platform from which to attack naval, land, and air targets in the central Mediterranean. Because of this, the island found itself under siege from the Axis powers for nearly two and a half years.

As in the Battle of Britain—the fight that would go down in history as the great mythic aerial battle of the war—fighter pilots became the lynchpin in the defence of Malta. But, unlike the Battle of Britain, the pilots fighting in the Maltese skies could not retire to a cozy pub at night, go to sleep with their wives, or catch a show in London’s theatre district on a weekend’s leave. It was hot, dusty, dangerous, lonely and relentless work – and deprivation was the order of the day.

Day after day, month after month, young men still in their 20s rose up to stop German and Italian bombers from destroying more of Malta and its people. Canadians with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Royal Air Force (RAF) were not just part of the battle; they punched far above their weight, and several Canadians took their place in the pantheon of Malta’s—and, indeed, the war’s—great aces.

As the siege intensified through 1941, a series of dangerous resupply missions known as “Club Runs” took place, delivering fighter aircraft and pilots to Malta via aircraft carrier from Gibraltar, to help defend the island and regain air superiority. The first of these Club Runs, Operation Hurry, delivered 12 Hurricanes on board His Majesty’s Ship Argus in August of 1940, and the last, Operation Train, which saw HMS Furious delivered 29 Spitfires for Malta, two of which failed to arrive.

The Ace of Spades

On the bright and sunny morning of June 3, 1942, somewhere off the Algerian coast in the Mediterranean Sea, the aging Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Eagle turned into the wind.

On her heaving deck were 32 new Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vc “Trops” (a tropicalized version of the Spitfire that had a special Vokes air filter for dusty and hot operations.) Of the young men who sat anxiously in their cockpits, 28 had made the convoy journey down from England to Gibraltar on board transport ship Empire Conrad. The other four men, all experienced fighter pilots, flight leaders and even aces, had flown by transport from Malta days before. Their job, as old Malta hands, would be to help guide the others, in four groups, to the small island stronghold, and get them and their badly needed aircraft safely on the ground. Once there, the Spitfires and pilots would be immediately readied for combat. This was Operation Style – the latest Club Run for the Allies across the Mediterranean.

Of the 28 new pilots, nine were Canadian – most of whom were blooded in combat over England and France. They had been specially selected for transfer to the beleaguered island of Malta and the biggest aerial gunfight of the war. But not one had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier before. And they would be flying aircraft that weren’t exactly designed for that purpose, either.

Because the Spitfires didn’t have the flaps required to make the short-run takeoff from Eagle’s deck, the pilots dropped their landing flaps while a wooden block was lodged between the flap and the wing. The flaps were then raised until impeded by the wooden block, thus simulating the 20 degree angle for takeoff flaps. The idea was that the pilot would extend his flaps after takeoff, allowing the block to fall away, after which the flaps would be moved to the full up position. 

Each Spitfire was stripped of its ammunition to save weight and was equipped with a 90-gallon (409-litre) “slipper tank” that was slung beneath the fuselage to increase the fighter’s otherwise short range. After draining this tank, it could be jettisoned by its pilot. To reduce the risk of enemy attack on HMS Eagle, the Spitfires were to be launched at the extreme end of their already extended range. Arriving over Malta, one of the most dangerous spots on earth, they would be out of fuel and unarmed. 

Among the pilots making their first and only attempt at a carrier takeoff that day was 26-year-old Flight Lieutenant Henry Wallace “Wally” McLeod, from Regina, Saskatchewan. Flight Lieutenant McLeod was already an ace—a status obtained when a pilot logged at least five victories—and he was also the recipient of a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) after a successful year on operations from England.

Another Canadian, Pilot Officer David Rouleau, a 24-year-old from Ottawa, Ontario, was one of the last group of eight to take off that day. Pilot Officer Rouleau had been in training and on operations for a year in England and was experienced, but had yet to score an aerial victory. 

The first three flights of eight aircraft made it successfully to one of the four main airfields on Malta: Luqa, Hal Far, Ta’ Qali and Gozo. The last group had the misfortune to run into a Luftwaffe buzz saw—the “Pik-As” (Ace of Spades)—a band of highly experienced pilots from II Gruppen of Jagdgeschwader 53, led that day by Oberstleutnant Gerhard Michalski, one of the great German Experten of the Second World War. Michalski would become the highest scoring ace in the Malta campaign on either side.

By the time the group sighted Malta, four of the defenceless Spitfires had been shot down, and their pilots killed. Pilot Officer Rouleau was among them. Such was the story of Canada’s brave fighter pilots over Malta. Either they were swept up and lost in battle, or they survived to rise to extraordinary heights.

The Club of Aces

Flight Lieutenant Wally McLeod, the slim, mustachioed kid from Saskatchewan, soon to be known as the “Eagle of Malta,” claimed 13 German and Italian aircraft destroyed over the island – the first just four days after arriving. Sadly, he was killed in action over Wesel, Germany, in late 1944, but his 21 confirmed kills (mostly against fighter opponents) made him the top-scoring fighter pilot in the RCAF to date. 

Another Canadian legend, Flying Officer Bob Middlemiss, was with Flight Lieutenant McLeod and Pilot Officer Rouleau on Operation Style, along with three other Canadians destined to become aces.

Flight Sergeant James Ballantyne, a dapper 24-year-old former insurance clerk from Toronto, Ontario, was an ace by the time he left Malta, and would have 9.25 kills to his name before his death in combat in 1944.

Flight Lieutenant Frank “Spitfire Man” Jones, born in British Columbia, but hailing from Sherbrooke, Québec, would bag five in Malta including two in one day – just three days after arriving. He was awarded the DFC and the accompanying citation described him as a “vigorous fighter whose fearlessness in face of odds sets praiseworthy example”.

Flight Lieutenant Philip Charron was a French Canadian pilot from Ottawa, and he claimed three of his seven victories over Malta, before being killed in action over France in 1944.

It seemed that every new Club Run to Malta brought one, two or even more Canadians who would go on to become aces. But these Club Runs had been taking place for over a year before the aces of Operation Style landed. In May 1941, in one of the early Club Runs, the entire pilot roster of the RAF’s 249 Squadron took off from HMS Ark Royal, as part of Operation Splice.

They were led by Squadron Leader Robert “Butch” Barton of Kamloops, British Columbia, a decorated ace of the Battle of Britain and a gifted leader. By the time he was rotated home for a rest in December, he had added six more victories to his score. Under Squadron Leader Barton’s stellar leadership, 249 Squadron was one of the most successful fighter squadrons on the island and indeed the entire war.

But the greatest of the Canadians at Malta, Flying Officer George “Buzz” Beurling, the “Knight of Malta”, is a legend of international proportions. The story of this enigmatic and controversial ace is, for the most part, even familiar to Canadians who know little about the war. He arrived on Malta just one week after Wally McLeod, having also launched from HMS Eagle, during Operation Salient. Known for his passion for the science of deflection shooting, Flying Officer Beurling would add an additional 27 victories over Malta to the two he had when he arrived. By the war’s end, he would tally 31 kills. His story is the stuff of books, film, and much speculation (the latter about his postwar death in an airplane crash in Rome en route to Israel).

Operation Salient brought two other Canadians to Malta who would later share ace status. Squadron Leader John “Mac” McElroy, like Butch Barton, hailed from Kamloops. Not only did he become an ace, but he also received a DFC for his “great courage and outstanding determination to destroy the enemy”.

Flight Sergeant Ian Roy MacLennan, another native of Regina, Saskatchewan, earned ace status with seven confirmed victories. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) for his efforts to defend Malta, and his award citation reads: “One day in October 1942, this airman destroyed two of a force of thirty Junkers 88s which attempted to attack Malta. The next day he destroyed a Messerschmitt 109. Flight Sergeant MacLennan has displayed great courage and tenacity. He has destroyed four and damaged several more enemy aircraft.” 

Flight Sergeant MacLennan was shot down the day after the D-Day landings and became a prisoner of war. He, unlike Beurling and McElroy who signed up to fight for the new Israeli Air Force, wanted no more of war when the conflict had ended. He entered civilian life, became an architect and spent the rest of his life contributing to the design and building of affordable housing for Canadians.

Other notable Canadian aces

In March 1942, Operation Picket II saw HMS Eagle launch eight Spitfires, and among the pilots was a demure and gentle looking Winnipegger by the name of Flight Sergeant Wilbert “Turkey” Dodd. He joined the RAF’s 185 Squadron on Malta and, by the end of his stay, had shot down four enemy fighters by himself and contributed to other victories. The words that accompanied the award of a DFC said it all: “He is a fine leader whose great skill and fighting qualities have proved an inspiration to all.”

Another pair of boys from the Prairies—brothers Flight Lieutenant Rod Smith and Pilot Officer Jerry Smith of Regina—would become, separately and together, one of the more unique and poignant stories of Malta.

During Operation Bowery, in May 1942, Pilot Officer Jerry Smith, the older of the two, took off in a Spitfire from USS Wasp After launch, Pilot Officer Smith’s slipper tank would not feed fuel and without it, he could not make it to Malta. Instead, he waited until all the others were on their way and the deck clear, and, despite the advice to ditch or bail, he made the world’s first Spitfire landing on a carrier – without a tail hook! A week later, Pilot Officer Smith made his second takeoff from a carrier, this time from Eagle.

Two months later, and unaware that his brother was on Malta, Flight Lieutenant Rod Smith took off from Eagle and made it to the island. Being driven to his new billet, he was surprised to see his brother Jerry walking along the road.

The Brothers Smith would tear a wide swath through the enemy, often flying together. They even shared one kill. Jerry claimed four victories before his death in combat a month later, while Rod would become a triple ace. When Jerry went missing, Rod spent days afterward searching for his lost brother in the Mediterranean Sea. 

When Pilot Officer Jerry Smith took off from HMS Eagle the first time in May, he was with two other future Canadian aces, Flight Sergeant Donald George “Shorty” Reid of Windsor, Ontario, a diminutive, but extremely feisty fighter pilot, and Flight Sergeant John Williams of Chilliwack, British Columbia. 

In the two months on Malta before his death in combat, Flight Sergeant “Shorty” Reid racked up an impressive six victories and received a DFM. Even flying Fleet Finches in his elementary flying school at Pendleton, Ontario, he was described as “excellent pilot material – aggressive, bright and keen; an energetic battler who should be excellent as a fighter pilot”.

Flight Sergeant John Williams, known affectionately as “Willie the Kid” on Malta, survived his months on the island with nine aerial victories and a DFC, only to die in the crash at Gibraltar of an RAF Liberator transporting pilots to England for a rest. Flying Officer George Beurling was one of only three survivors of that crash. 

On August 10, 1942, during Operation Bellows, a new commander of 249 Squadron arrived via HMS Furious. This was a highly experienced leader by the name of Squadron Leader Eric “Timber” Woods, already with a DFC on his battle dress jacket. Though born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, and was educated in Vancouver. His final score by the time he was killed in action in the Balkans was 12, with nine of these from his time in Malta.

One of the last of the future Canadian aces on Malta was a man with matinee idol good looks: Irving “Hap” Kennedy, who arrived in December 1942. His seven months of operations from Malta with 249 Squadron netted him five of his 12 victories. Like MacLennan, Hap wanted no more to do with war, and returned to the small town outside of Ottawa where he had grown up. He became a much-loved country doctor, delivering hundreds of babies and making a powerful yet peaceful contribution to his hometown of Cumberland, Ontario, for decades.

A Lasting Legacy

The Canadian aces—and indeed all the Canadian fighter pilots, from Rouleau, who never made it, to Beurling, whose career was meteoric—played a hugely important role in the Battle of Malta.

In the Battle of Britain, only four per cent of the pilots who flew during the engagement were Canadian. In the Battle of Malta, that proportion had risen to 25 per cent, and Canadians made up an even greater percentage of the aces. Given that pilots were chosen for Malta service for their experience, tenacity and abilities, these figures are a testament to the ascendancy of Canadian fighter pilots among the Allies over the course of the war.

This story was first published on the Vintage Wings of Canada website in 2016. It is translated and reproduced with permission of the author.

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