The Malta Aces

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 over 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 over 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 aboard HMS Argus in August of 1940, and the last, Operation TRAIN, during which HMS Furious flew off 29 Spitfires for Malta, two of which failed to arrive.

Supermarine Spitfire Vbs of 242 Squadron, RAF, stand at the ready in the blinding sun at Ta’ Qali airfield, Malta. 249, a veteran Hawker Hurricane squadron of the Battle of Britain, was transferred en masse on 21 May 1941 aboard HMS Ark Royal in a club run known as Operation SPLICE, landing at Ta’ Qali in the middle of a Regia Aeronautica bombing raid. The squadron transitioned to Spitfires in February of 1942 and remained stationed in Malta for nearly two and a half years. It produced some of the most legendary fighter aces of all time—Flight Lieutenant George “Buzz” Beurling, DSO, DFC, DFM; Wing Commander Percy “Laddie” Lucas, CBE, DSO and Bar, DFC; and Squadron Leader Robert “Buck” McNair, DSO, DFC and Two Bars, to name a few. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Ta’ Qali airfield (spelled Takali by the RAF) on the island of Malta, seen here in 1941, was named after a small village nearby—an honour the villagers likely wished had not been bestowed upon them as the field was one of the most bombed airfields of the Second World War. It remained an operational RAF base into the 1950s. Photo: Wikipedia

In March of 1942 off the coast of Algiers on a bright and windy day, HMS Eagle readies to launch the first Malta-bound Spitfires as part of Operation SPOTTER. The Spitfires were destined to reinforce the already depleted numbers of 249 Squadron which had just the month before transitioned to Spits. Ahead, the battleship HMS Malaya pushes through heavy chop. Photo: Imperial War Museum

There were great risks to operating aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean—both below and above the water. Carriers were always vulnerable to attack from land-based Axis aircraft, but on 11 August, north of Algiers in the Western Mediterranean, Eagle was struck by four torpedoes from U-73. She rolled over and sank in less than five minutes, with the loss of 131 officers and men. Photo: Imperial War Museum

The Ace of Spades

On the bright and sunny morning of 3 June 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 aboard the 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. 

A Supermarine Seafire is readied for takeoff later in the war. Even though Seafires were modified for carrier operations, they still lacked takeoff flaps (until the Seafire 47.) The Royal Navy opted to keep the simple wooden block system employed by Spitfires in the club runs to Malta. The blocks that keep the flaps down for takeoff can just be seen in this photograph. There are two per side as Spitfire flaps are split into two sections. Photo: Royal Navy

A Supermarine Spitfire Mk VbT “Trop” with 90-gallon slipper tank just visible beneath her fuselage, thunders at full power down the flight deck of HMS Eagle during a club run. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Each Spitfire was stripped of its ammunition to save weight and was equipped with a 90-gallon “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. 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, was one of the last group of eight to take off that day. 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 and 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.

The greatest of all the Malta-tested fighter aces on either side was Oberstleutnant Gerhard Michalski of Jagdgeschwader 53, the Pik-As (Ace of Spades.) He shot down 29 Allied aircraft while based on the island of Pantallaria and was the greatest threat to the ferrying of Allied fighter aircraft to Malta. By war’s end Michalski had scored 73 victories in 652 combat missions, only to die in 1946 in an automobile accident. Photo via Pinterest

By the time the group sighted Malta, four of the defenceless Spitfires had been shot down, and their pilots killed. David 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. 

A smiling David Rouleau during happier times, learning to fly at No. 13 Elementary Flying Training School at St. Eugène, Ontario. For every ace at Malta there many who would, like Rouleau, pay the ultimate price to join the fight. Photo via Peg Christie

The Club of Aces

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. 

Flight Lieutenant Henry Wallace McLeod would claim 13 aerial victories in the skies over Malta. While he is the RCAF’s highest scoring ace in its history, his final total of 21 would be bested by the Canadian George Beurling’s 30+, but Beurling’s were largely with the RAF. McLeod was shot down in late September of 1944 while chasing a lone Messerschmitt Bf 109 near Nijmegen, Netherlands. Though no one saw exactly what happened to him, his commander, the legendary Johnnie Johnson, said this: I feel certain that he wouldn’t have let go of the 109 until the issue had been decided one way or the other. There was no other aircraft in the area and they must have fought it out together, probably above the cloud. To start with he would have been at a disadvantage, for the 109 was already several thousand feet higher. I think the Messerschmitt got him. It was always all or nothing for Wally.” The fate of McLeod’s Spitfire remained a mystery until 1949, when it was found near the outskirts of Wesel inside the German border. McLeod’s remains were still in the wreckage. Photo: Wikipedia

Another Canadian legend, Flying Officer Bob Middlemiss, was with McLeod and Rouleau on Operation STYLE, along with three other Canadians destined to become aces: James Ballantyne, Frank “Spitfire Man” Jones and Philip Charron. Flight Sergeant Jimmy Ballantyne, a dapper 24-year-old former insurance clerk from Toronto, 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. Frank 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.” 

Philip Charron was a French Canadian 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 with them one, two or even more Canadians that would go on to become aces. 

But these club runs had been taking place for over a year before the aces on board Operation STYLE landed. In May 1941, in one of the early club runs, the entire pilot roster of 249 Squadron RAF took off from Ark Royal, as part of Operation SPLICE. They were led by Squadron Leader Robert “Butch” Barton of Kamloops, B.C.—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 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 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, 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.)

Flight Lieutenant Frederick George Beurling was in his career alternately called “Buzz” and “Screwball” by his colleagues, whose business it was to kill German airmen using the most sophisticated weapon of the time—the Supermarine Spitfire. Of all the Canadians who engaged in this grim business, Beurling was the most accomplished of all. There would be no one better at war’s end. Beurling was then, and is today, a figure that inspires conflicting impressions, opinions and feelings and the subject of legend, hero worship, bureaucratic manipulation and conspiracy theory. There is no denying the power of those ice-blue eyes that could spot the enemy long before he was spotted. Photo via Pinterest

Operation SALIENT also brought two other Canadians to Malta who would later share ace status. John “Mac” McElroy, like Butch Barton, hailed from Kamloops, B.C. 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, became an ace with seven confirmed victories. He was awarded a 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.” 

During the war, Saskatchewanian Ian Roy MacLennan was a skilled warrior, dispatching the enemy as he was trained to do, but after the war he wanted nothing more to do with killing. He shunned publicity and spent the rest of his life as an architect. He arrived on Malta a week after Rouleau’s loss and on the same club run that delivered George Beurling. He died in 2013 at the age of 94 in his home town of Regina. Photo via telegraph.co.uk

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. Dodd 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 Distinguished Flying Cross 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 Rod and 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, 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, Smith made his second takeoff from a carrier, this time from Eagle

Jerry Smith attempts to land on USS Wasp after his 90-gallon slipper tank would not feed fuel. It is not known if this is his first aborted landing or his second successful attempt. He ultimately brought the Spit to a full stop just few paces from the forward edge of the flight deck. Photo: imodeler.com

Two months later, and unaware that his brother was on Malta, Flight Lieutenant Rod Smith himself 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. 

Rod Smith (left) shared an aerial victory over Malta with his brother Jerry (right), perhaps the only brothers in history that were fighter pilots who combined their skills to shoot down a single adversary. Following Rod’s death in 2002, his younger sister Wendy took his ashes to Malta and a visiting Spitfire pilot deposited them in the Mediterranean Sea over the spot where Jerry was thought to have crashed. The ashes were delivered in much the same way as the flaps were set for takeoff on club runs. They were placed inside the flap cavity and the flaps were lowered in flight allowing Rod’s ashes to fall away into the sea to join his brother. Photos: Left: via AcesWarriorsandWingmen.ca; Right: via Pierre Lagacé, georgesnadon.wordpress.com

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 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, Ont., a diminutive, but extremely feisty fighter pilot, and Flight Sergeant John Williams of Chilliwack, B.C. 

In the two months on Malta before his death in combat, “Shorty” Reid racked up an impressive six victories and a Distinguished Flying Medal. Even flying Fleet Finches in his Elementary Flying School at Pendleton, Ont., he was described as “excellent pilot material—aggressive, bright and keen; an energetic battler who should be excellent as a fighter pilot.” 

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. George Beurling was one of only three survivors of that crash. 

On 10 August 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, B.C., 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, not four per cent of the pilots engaged 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.

These 32 Canadian fighter pilots either made ace status in the Maltese skies or added to their list of victories there. This may not be a full selection of the fighter aces who fought in the skies over Malta, but it’s close. Jerry Smith is included though he was one short of ace status, because he belongs in this story for his accomplishment on Wasp. Top row (Left to Right): Squadron Leader Irving Farmer “Hap” Kennedy, DFC and Bar; Flight Lieutenant Ian Roy MacLennan, DFM; Squadron Leader Wilbert George “Turkey” Dodd, DFC; Squadron Leader George Urquhart Hill, DFC and 2 Bars; Flight Lieutenant Bruce Johnston Ingalls, DFC; Squadron Leader John Frederick “Mac” McElroy, DFC and Bar; Squadron Leader Roderick “Rod” Smith, DFC and Bar; Flying Officer James Hamilton “Jimmy” Ballantyne, DFM. 

Second Row: Wing Commander Robert Alexander “Butch” Barton, OBE, DFC and Bar, MiD; Group Captain Robert Carl “Moose” Fumerton, DFC and Bar, AFC; Flight Lieutenant George Frederick “Buzz” Beurling, DSO, DFC, DFM and Bar; Squadron Leader Henry Wallace “Wally” McLeod, DSO, DFC and Bar; Squadron Leader John Ronald “Jack” Urwin-Mann, DSO, DFC and Bar; Wing Commander Eric Norman “Timber” Woods, DFC and Bar; Wing Commander Geoffrey Wilson “Jeff” Northcott, DSO, DFC and Bar; Squadron Leader Esli Gordon Lapp, DFC.

Third Row: Group Captain Robert Wendell “Buck” McNair, DSO, DFC and Two Bars; Group Captain Percival Stanley “Bull” Turner, DSO, DFC and Bar; Flying Officer George Noel Keith, DFC; Squadron Leader Milton Eardley “Milt” Jowsey, DFC; Pilot Officer Jerrold Alpine “Jerry” Smith; Pilot Officer Claude “Weavy” Weaver, DFC, DFM, MiD; Flying Officer Frederick Albert “Freddy” Wilson, DFC; Flight Lieutenant Garth Edwards Horricks, DFM.

Bottom Row: Flight Lieutenant Dallas Wilbur Schmidt, DFC and Bar; Pilot Officer John William “Willie the Kid” Williams, DFC; Flight Lieutenant Philip Marcel Charron, DFC; Pilot Officer Donald George “Shorty” Reid, DFM; Flight Lieutenant Rodney Thirsk Phipps, DFC; Flight Lieutenant John Fylton Mackie; Flight Lieutenant Frank Everett “Spitfire Man” Jones, DFC.

Most of the photos in this collage come from the superb website AcesOfWW2.com. The website is a massive repository of images, news clippings and histories of the many thousands of aces of the Second World War and a valuable resource for researchers. The project is the personal undertaking of Joe Fukuto of Ottawa, Canada. Vintage Wings of Canada thanks Joe for his stellar work in building this collection.

This story was first published in Skies Magazine, 2014

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