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Anniversary of El-Adem crash: Fateful toss of a coin

It was thanks to the “toss of a coin” that Col Raymond Cutajar is still alive today, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of 15 “mates” from the Malta Fortress Squadron, Royal Engineers, on a flight that burst into flames in Libya in 1961.

Col Cutajar should have been on that plane to Malta but the sergeants of the construction and electrical-mechanical troops were not in agreement on who should head home first after about five weeks of preparatory work on a major Nato exercise, building roads and airstrips. Sgt Emmanuel Falzon, who fought for his construction troop to leave first, did not live to regret his insistence to get his men home fast.

“That one day between the two trips was vital to us,” Col Cutajar recalled, noting how they had longed to leave after the exercises. He ended up flying out a day later than originally planned, arriving in Malta in time for his colleagues’ funeral and has since kept alive the memory of the Maltese sappers he still refers to by their nicknames.

Forty-two men boarded that fateful flight at the El Adem airfield on October 10, 1961, eager to get home after working tirelessly in 40°C heat. Not all the survivors will be at today’s ceremony at the Pembroke military cemetery, where their colleagues were laid to rest, having passed away themselves.

“While we have grown old, we continue to remember them young as they were,” Col Cutajar said, quoting a prayer and pointing at the photographs of the men, who were mostly in their 20s back then – and that is how they have remained in his mind.

Ironically, they had spent weeks treacherously cutting a road through a cliff face by blasting 200 kilos of explosives twice a day only to meet their death when their aircraft blew up.

It would appear that, on take-off, the left wing of the Royal Air Force Hasting 498, which the men referred to as a karrakka (junk heap), hit the runway. But hearsay has it that the pilots had been drinking in the canteen or that a seat had snapped off and, with the jerk, the pilot had caused the plane to tilt.

Col Cutajar still recalls the emotions of that night in detail. He kicked up a fuss when he was told the troop would not be leaving the next day. “We were supposed to get up at 5.30 a.m. to go home and were annoyed when we learnt we weren’t.”

That morning, the remaining troops stood in line to be told “bluntly” the names of the dead and severely injured, leaving them stunned.

“We did not want to fly back on the plane that carried out a shuttle service but we were told we would never fly again if we did not overcome our fear this time.”

Until 1979, the English commemorated the tragic death in pomp and ceremony every year, after which former members of the Royal Engineers took over.

“I missed them all,” Col Cutajar said, recalling, after a pause, that he had just rented a house to one of them, who was about to get married. “Poor thing.”

The men spent more evenings with each other than with their own wives. “They were our mates,” he said about the loss of the men, who had left behind young children.

Col Cutajar does not necessarily feel fortunate that he was not on that plane but simply that it was not his destiny to die.

Mass will be said at the cemetery today, followed by a wreath-laying ceremony attended by President George Abela.

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