Malta at war: The view from the air
Spitfire pilot Ian McLennan is still overwhelmingly emotional when he talks about 1942 in Malta.
He may have gunned down the enemy over the island at the time but he has a problem fighting back the tears as he lucidly recalls the war.
Sitting on the terrace of Mdina's Xara Palace, Relais & Chateaux, once an officers' mess, and looking out at the panorama - where, back then, dogfights could be followed as low as 500 feet - he pauses to regain control.
"Even then, I recall it was merciless - destroying cities that were not a menace to Germany. Malta was just being bombed. What for? I can see they should have taken it, being an important strategic country. We all know that. But, instead, they bombed the hell out of it, which did not achieve anything except kill people. Even then I thought: Why? Why were they strafing people?"
Mr McLennan was shot down and crash-landed, captured and taken prisoner in France on D-Day.
It took the Canadian fighter pilot 20 years to talk about the war again, such was the impact, he explains. "It was a big experience for me. It changed my life. I was in a happy, little, Roman Catholic family and I returned from the war saying I was no longer..."
Once the emotions are overcome and his surreal, glassy, light eyes are no longer watery, Mr McLennan says he would love to hop into a Spitfire and take it up right away.
The fact that he is celebrating his 90th birthday today - and is visiting the Mosta Dome on the anniversary of its bombing as well as of his birth - has not diminished his drive. "Just give me a five-hour cockpit drill. I feel I could do it," he says, attributing his desire to the fact that the Spitfire was a first-class aircraft. "It is very easy to fly and anyone can fly it. That is part of its genius."
He visited the Spitfire exhibited at the Malta Aviation Museum yesterday and, although the temptation was strong, he had to resist taking off.
Promoted to flight lieutenant of 1435 Squadron during his stay in Malta, he recounts in detail the tactics and strategies adopted by the fighter pilots, hands gesticulating wildly, now and again, portraying a swarm of Spitfires entangled in each other during combat. He explains, for example, what happens "when you run out of ammunition and are in a vulnerable state, with the enemy chasing you right down to the airport" as if it was only yesterday.
When flying, the whole body is concentrating, thinking and looking, he recalls. "It is not so much a question of fear when you are up in the air, engaging in warfare," he says, but qualifies his statement: Fear is not the strongest emotion but it is there - "otherwise there is something wrong with you... You're concentrating and the orders were to get the bombers at all costs!
"We were told all enemy aircraft had to be destroyed before reaching the shores of Malta (bombing them on land was creating too much of a mess), which was a good thing as we felt confident that we must have been winning the war," he recounts.
Mr McLennan has returned to Malta twice since 1942 - once to show the island to his wife and another time when Queen Elizabeth and then President Ċensu Tabone inaugurated the Siege Bell Memorial - a ceremony he described as "emotionally moving, I don't know why... Well, yes," he says, on second thoughts, "It was a victory bell really; the lifting of a siege..." of which he played a "small part".
The fighter pilot remained in Malta from July to December 1942. "I was a young man..." Much time has passed but "it (the experience in Malta) made a big difference to me and my life". He pauses to compose himself: "Even as a young man, I felt it was all wrong to be pounding the hell out of a beautiful place. People were dying..."
He recalls an air raid and an older woman running to the shelter. He could see that she was terrified and tried to catch her to slow her down but "she flew, plunged and died". He recalls the steel rings of that particular shelter and wants to know where it is...
The link to his past is evidently strong and Mr McLennan is reliving it. His Mdina connection is vivid. The pilot only spent one night in the mediaeval city and although all he did was rest and recover, having just landed off MHS Eagle, he still remembers the details and the novelty of the experience of sleeping under a mosquito net in a spacious room. "I was taken into a beautiful place that resembled a nunnery, alone in a lovely bed. I felt tranquil..."
Getting off the aircraft carrier was nerve-wracking, he recalls. "We had no (arrester) hooks so you could not land back and that was it! It is a harrowing one-off experience. Then there was the long flight here; then finding Malta; then Ta' Qali; then to land..."
In 1942, he would wander around Valletta when he was on leave and when the Ohio sailed in, he remembers finding a way to climb up to see her. During his stay in Malta, he has nostalgically retraced his steps to the vantage point.
And there were also a couple of dances they were invited to, "with beautiful Maltese girls, but they were guarded by machine gunners - their mothers and fathers - and they needed them".
Malta is becoming modern, he says, 66 years later. "Buy a building in Valletta", he strongly recommends as an investment.
A History Channel documentary
The Canadian veteran is in Malta for the shooting of a documentary by the Toronto production company Breakthrough Films and TV, which is scheduled to be aired on the History Channel in November in time for Remembrance Week.
The production is being assisted over the week of filming by Joseph Formosa Randon and Graziella Decesare of Pearlygates Malta, a servicing company for commercials and documentaries.
The documentary, provisionally entitled Uncovering The Battlefield, is divided into four episodes, one of which is The Siege of Malta.
It includes an interview with The Battle Of Malta author Joseph Attard and Major Maurice Agius at Fort St Elmo, based mainly on eyewitness accounts to highlight Malta's crucial role in the war.
An eyewitness of a Spitfire crashing in Gudja in 1942 has also been tracked down. He was a young boy then - and the pilot was the renowned Canadian fighter George "Buzz" Buerling, also known as "Screwball", a good friend of Mr McLennan, whom he got to know in Malta. The wild "Buzz" Buerling, whom Mr McLennan describes as a "phenomenal fighter pilot", even carried home to his mother a Maltese tablecloth he had bought her.
The series has also been shot in France and the UK, featuring the Spanish Civil War and the Normandy tank battles, according to its director and producer Paul Kilback, who has 22 documentaries of the sort under his belt.