The crash that ruined a childhood in Malta
Stephen Chandler remembers his childhood years in Malta as a long, hot summer ended suddenly by the cruellest winter.
On January 15, 1953, his Royal Air Force navigator father Victor was on board an Avro Lancaster patrol plane that was following HMS Gambia on an anti-submarine exercise.
It was just before 5am, as it was travelling through a localised storm between Pantellaria and Sicily, that the Lancaster collided with a twin-engine Vickers Valetta that had departed from Luqa on what should have been a return flight to the UK.
“The Valetta was way off course,” Mr Chandler said.
All 15 passengers in the Valetta and seven crew members in the Lancaster were killed. Only Victor’s body was recovered. He was buried in Mtarfa Military Cemetery.
“They identified him by his ring,” Mr Chandler said.
Victor was 32 and his only son was 10. Now aged 70, Mr Chandler has returned to Malta many times over the years, but he thinks his age means his latest visit for the 60th anniversary of his father’s death will be his last.
“I was at school in St Andrews when it happened. The head teacher came into my class and said I had to go home with family friends,” Mr Chandler recalled.
“My mother was devastated. Those friends – the Cunliffes – had to represent her at the funeral. I didn’t go to it either because it wasn’t deemed appropriate for someone of my age.”
The Chandlers had arrived in Malta on April 1, 1951, and they left on February 1, 1953.
“All of a sudden we were back in England,” Mr Chandler said. Nevertheless, he has nothing but good memories of his time living on Xemxija hill.
“I learnt to swim in St Paul’s Bay,” he remembered with a smile.
“Lots of things were still rationed back then. I remember Annie Grima, the storekeeper in St Paul’s Bay. She used to give us extra rations when she could. I kept in touch with her and her brother Carlo. He invited me to visit him and recover after I had a motorbike accident in the 1970s. But they’ve all died now.”
Indeed, Mr Chandler made many Maltese friends over the years and has only kind words for the Maltese.
“Until my dad died, all my memories of Malta were happy ones. The Maltese are so friendly.
“I was saying to my son: I’ve been all over the world and not a lot of people have fond memories of the British, but we seem to have a bond with the Maltese, particularly the older generation.”
Sadly for Mr Chandler, he had only just started getting to know his father when he died. Before that, his father was often abroad on duty, including stints in Palestine and Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon.
“Our relationship was all too short,” Mr Chandler lamented.
Back in England, his mother, Dorothy Mary, had to go to work as a secretary while the RAF helped fund Mr Chandler through boarding school.
He went on to have two boys of his own and four grandchildren.
A former police constable in London, Mr Chandler was awarded an MBE by the Queen for his services to “the Old Bill” and his work with youths and disadvantaged children.
“I’ve had a good life really,” he said.
Eight years ago, he planted a tree of remembrance in England for all 26 victims of the plane collision that killed his father.
“At least my dad has a grave I can visit. No other bodies were recovered so the other families don’t have anything. That’s why I planted the tree for all of them.”