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Operation Pedestal survivor recalls 1942 heroes' welcome

Allan Shaw. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

Allan Shaw. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

Allan Shaw, one of the two remaining survivors of the August 15, 1942 Operation Pedestal, also dubbed the Santa Marija Convoy, does not consider himself a "hero", despite the "overwhelming" welcome received from the Maltese when the battered US tanker SS Ohio he was on board entered Grand Harbour.

"We were not heroes really. The lads who never got here (360 of them) were. I am just a survivor," he clarifies. But he can still vividly recall that the Maltese may have viewed the men on the convoy as something other than that.

Mr Shaw has not forgotten a single detail of Operation Pedestal, which sought to end the desperate plight of the besieged island during the summer of 1942, only days away from an inevitable surrender.

But one of the highlights was, by far, the crowds on entering Grand Harbour. "I had a lump in my throat and felt like crying. Malta had been through so much, and we had only experienced a few days of it," said the low-profile man, with a charming smile, a sharp sense of humour, and an even sharper memory - albeit only long-term, he points out.

"I ask my son what day it is every day. You have to wind someone up now and again, don't you?" he sniggers.

It took Mr Shaw 60 years to return to Malta after Operation Pedestal - until then, his son Michael maintains that he never went on about his experiences at war. They trickled out, but it was not until he visited the island on the occasion of the 60th anniversary in 2002 that Michael learnt of the ordeal in detail.

"I am not really aware of the impact it left on me, apart from the fact that I always wanted to return... I never made it and just got on with life," Mr Shaw says.

Since the 60th anniversary celebrations, however, he has returned twice - last year for the Battle for Malta reunion and now - and his wish is to stay for a whole month, or to spend the rest of his life in Malta "if I live long enough".

The 82-year-old looks as fit as a fiddle, but has no intentions of revealing his secret. It was only earlier on in the year that he refrained from swinging off two-storey-tall conifers, an electric saw in one hand, and one leg perched on a ladder, when his son had it confiscated.

"He is a dangerous man. The experience did affect him after all, and he still has nerves of steel," says Michael.

Now, he spends his days "mucking about" in the greenhouse and the garden - a far cry from dodging Stuka dive bombers, "coming at us like flies", having planes crashing onto the deck, zigzagging through minefields, being blasted by a torpedo, and facing continuous air raids and near misses.

Mr Shaw is clutching a Bible, slightly the worse for wear, but not that bad considering that it too was on the SS Ohio. It belonged to a crewmate and has a story all of its own.

The Ohio virtually saved Malta, but, at the time, "it was just another ship; it was just another trip. Only after did I realise how significant it was...

"I was struck by the fact that we were put up in a hotel when we arrived in Malta. I was amazed at how well the Maltese treated us when compared to the state they were living in".

During his stay, Mr Shaw has also managed to visit, for the first time, the grave of a crewmate on SS Ohio, Raymond Banner, at Ta' Braxia cemetery in Pietà. Sixty-four years ago, he attended his funeral - so getting the caretaker to open up the gates and let him in at the last minute was a touching moment.

Mr Shaw is in Malta to attend, as guest of honour, the Santa Marija Convoy commemorative service at Customs House tomorrow at 7 p.m. The one-hour programme includes the laying of wreaths from a vessel at sea, the Barrakka gun salute to mark a one-minute silence, as well as the tolling of the Great Siege Bell, and is being closed by a prayer, appropriately read out by the survivor.

His attendance was made possible thanks to Mgr Philip Calleja, who secured the sponsorship for his trip and was also instrumental in organising the event, said programme co-ordinator Simon Cusens.

The commemorative service is also being organised by the Apostleship of the Sea, in collaboration with the chancellor of the St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, the Tourism Ministry, the Armed Forces of Malta, the British Legion, and the Valletta Rehabilitation Project.

The public is welcome to attend. Anyone wishing to contact Mr Shaw can do so at micks.mail@virgin.net.

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