Diver recalls the risks of clearing Grand Harbour of wrecks and unexploded bombs
'The Grand Harbour was a cemetery of World War II wrecks'
In 1984, Malta wanted to make use of port installations, but bombs and wrecks in the Grand Harbour presented a problem, so the island asked a hesitant Britain for help. David Schembri, then chief diver, speaks about the challenging clearance operation that was completed 30 years ago.
A ship loaded with ammunition, bombs and torpedoes and scuttled to protect the Three Cities posed the biggest challenge for the team of divers assigned to do the dangerous job.
The Grand Harbour was a cemetery of World War II wrecks, and had been so for decades. Surveys had uncovered parts of the SS Talabot, hit close to the present Valletta Waterfront during the war. Four live torpedoes resting on the seabed outside Boiler Wharf in Senglea were also found.
There was also a number of mooring sinkers in Laboratory Wharf, several parts of HMS Jersey lying between the breakwater arms and chains, mooring anchors and sunken buoys spread across the harbour.
“But the Talabot was the most worrying, because history tells us that it was sunk with a lot of ammunition on board and when we surveyed it, we realised most of it still remained under mud and silt,” David Schembri recalled.
Now, 64, Mr Schembri spoke to the Times of Malta following a recent article about an agitated meeting between former Maltese premier Dom Mintoff and his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, in 1984.
The account of the meeting is documented in recently declassified files, which mention that a particular problem for Malta was that of bombs and wrecks in the Grand Harbour.
Malta had invested in port installations that could not be used unless the channels were dredged. This, in turn, could not be done until the bombs and wrecks were cleared.
A commercial diver by profession, Mr Schembri was at the time employed by the Dredging Works Department and, among other things, asked to lead the divers building the Kalafrana breakwater.
In October 1983, he was one of the men asked to inspect vessel remains on the seabed at the Grand Harbour.
In 1984, together with the hydrological department of the then Ports Department, he was also involved in a video survey of the wrecks and ammunition, probably the first done since World War II.
“We knew that some wrecks had already been salvaged by the British. For their convenience, they had dredged the port to a depth of eight metres, because their aircraft carriers needed a six-metre draught.
“But Prime Minister Mintoff had built Dock Six, known as the Red China Dock, for super tankers, and was thinking of developing Crucifix and Pinto wharfs, today the Valletta Waterfront, for cruise-liners. Both needed a deeper draught, and the need to dredge the fairway to a minimal draught of 13 metres was greatly felt,” he recalled.
Mr Mintoff had started talks with Britain, which seemed hesitant, and he sought the advice of the North Korean authorities, who sent a delegation of three, including a diver. Mr Mintoff also brought over Russian divers to put more pressure on the British authorities, he added.
The British eventually gave Malta £1 million to fund dredging and clearance logistics and supplied six divers, members of the Royal Navy fleet clearance diving team, who helped the Maltese raise the Talabot. Mr Schembri was appointed chief diver of a Maltese team that included Kalaxlokk divers and a task force from the Explosives and Ordinance Department.
What remained of the Talabot was her hull, measuring 15 metres by 20 metres and eight metres high. Cutting it up in pieces would have taken years, so the Maltese brought over from Gibraltar an 800-foot A-frame barge. Before it arrived, a grab dredger cleared the immediate area around the vessel, allowing the divers to pass lifting steel cables beneath it.
“This was an extremely dangerous operation, because the dredging around the hull could unsettle it. The drivers were instructed to work with extreme caution,” Mr Schembri noted. Once it was raised, tonnes of small munitions raptured due to the difference in ambient pressure, but the explosions were not strong, since most of them were too old.
The team of divers also recovered four torpedoes from the HMS Maori wreck and parts of the minesweeper HMS Jersey, lying underwater between the breakwater arms and blocking the harbour entrance.
It took four to five months to clear the harbour, and the work was completed by 1986, Mr Schembri recounted, pointing out that some of the objects can nowadays be seen outside Fort St Luciano in Marsaxlokk.