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Fort Verdala’s connection with Pakistan’s Navy

Inner courtyard of Fort Verdala in the 1890s.

Inner courtyard of Fort Verdala in the 1890s.

The Royal Navy has had a strong connection with Malta since even before Sir Alexander Ball anchored HMS Alexander off Gozo in October 1798. Many of the exploits concerning the Royal Navy and its presence in Malta are well documented, but for some particular reason, the memory is mainly connected to battles and wars.

HMS London, the last Royal Navy ship to leave Malta in 1979, was sold to Pakistan in 1982 and renamed Babur- Denis Darmanin

The number of British warships that were either stationed in our harbours or called for a short visit either en route to other stations or during a ‘cruise’ is countless. The same applies to warships of other friendly nations which either arrived as a squadron or individually.

Apart from the ships themselves, the Royal Navy possessed many shore bases, establishments and amenities. The Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet had his offices at HMS St Angelo. However, within the two harbours were other ‘stone frigates’, as these shore establishments were called.

Apart from HM Dockyard and the Admiralty’s Victualling Yard, HMS Ricasoli – transit barracks from 1948 to 1959, HMS Phoenicia – commissioned in 1943, HMS Talbot – 10th Submarine Flotilla 1941-42, HMS Ringdove – MTB base, Mediterranean Fleet Clearance Divers base in Marsamxett Harbour, are just a few of the establishments which had occupied much of the harbours’ shorelines.

Further inland were supplementary establishments, including HMS Falcon (RNAS Ħal Far), the famous Fleet Air Arm airstrip and base. There were even barracks such as HMS Camerata and HMS Euroclydon, the latter better known as Fort Verdala or Verdala Barracks.

Designed by Major George Harding and built between 1852 and 1856 under the supervision of Capt. A. Craigle, both of them Royal Engineers, Fort Verdala was to accommodate a garrison force of infantry and was armed with carronades and howitzers.

The idea behind its building was that, along with the St Clement retrenchment, to strengthen the wide expanse between the Margherita and Cottonera Lines. It was built in a way to incorporate the existing Firenzuola Curtain and the Santa Margherita Bastion with the new rear barrack blocks, walls and gate facing Cospicua.

Serving as barracks for a number of regiments until the outbreak of World War I, Verdala was then converted into a prisoner-of-war camp. After the war it housed an element of Royal Marines and later served as naval stores. In 1940 it was commissioned as HMS Euroclydon, serving partly as a school for the children of naval personnel.

Because of the constant enemy air raids, the school was closed but by 1943 Verdala was again converted into a prisoner-of-war camp and as a naval detention centre. A demobilisation base was established there in 1945 for sailors returning to civilian life in the UK.

By 1947 it became part of the Dockyard Apprentice School, but known as the Royal Naval School, a school for the dependants of naval personnel. Verdala was finally closed down in 1977 but was later converted into government housing units.

As Royal Navy transit barracks in the Grand Harbour area were being slowly decommissioned during the second half of the 1950s, with HMS Ricasoli as late as 1959, an element of the Royal Navy remained at Fort Verdala, whether actually just as temporary billets or in connection with its other usage is still unclear. However, apart from being used by the British members of the Royal Navy and probably Maltese locally enlisted personnel, members of other Commonwealth nations’ navies were definitely either using part of the fort or had valid reason to be there.

Pakistan became independent on August 14, 1947, with the partition of India. With the birth of its own navy, like other navies of the Commonwealth, Pakistan’s Navy was granted the prefix ‘Royal’.

At the time of independence an Armed Forces Reconstitution Committee (AFRC) was formed to divide the assets of the Royal Indian Navy between both countries’ navies.

The Royal Pakistan Navy’s share of the ships at the time of partition comprised two frigates, two sloops, four minesweepers, two trawlers and four harbour launches. Its first naval headquarters started to function in one room as the office of the Naval Officer-in-charge, Karachi. Most of the early ships that formed the nucleus of the Royal Pakistan Navy were decommissioned by the Royal Navy and sold to Pakistan.

The Royal Pakistan Navy dropped the prefix ‘Royal’ when Pakistan became a republic on March 23, 1956, while the prefix ‘HMPS’ (Her Majesty’s Pakistan Ship) was changed to ‘PNS’ (Pakistan Navy Ship).

A connection exists between Malta, the Royal Pakistan Navy and HMS Euroclydon (Fort Verdala). Whenever I visit or tour any of the forts, fortifications and former British military buildings in Malta, I keep a sharp eye for any graffiti, whether scratched into the stone or written, usually in pencil.

I consider these old graffiti as unwritten pages of our history especially as those written by British servicemen usually carry the name, service number, the name of the regiment or ship, depending on which service the author belonged to, and at times the date or the city he hailed from. Those made by Maltese servicemen do not lag behind.

The parapets on the roof of Fort Verdala are adorned with graffiti ranging from interpretations of regimental badges to names of servicemen and motifs associated with the many British Army regiments that were stationed at the fort. However, one particular corner on the fort’s roof has a cluster of graffiti, mainly on the inner face of the parapet on the salient facing Windmill Street and the gap of the former Rock Gate.

Six of these graffiti belong to members of the Royal Pakistan Navy. Who were these men? It is not difficult to know, as they were crew members of the newly formed Royal Pakistan Navy who were in Malta either with their newly acquired ships on their way home to Pakistan, billeted at the fort while their ships were undergoing a refit at HM Dockyard or when their ships took part in some joint exercise in the Mediterranean and were berthed in the Grand Harbour.

The only date given is 1954, when 36659 Assistant Barrack Quarter Master III, G. Abbas of HMPS Tippu Sultan and 63597 G. Mustafa of HMPS Tughril of the Royal Pakistan Navy each left graffiti covering an entire stone block on the parapet. Close to them are other names; M. Idris, O. Sig. (Officers’ Signalman), M. Siddiq, just ‘Pakistan’, and even a name carved in Urdu/Arabic, Muhammad Shahzad Khan’, a typical Muslim name of the Punjab or the Frontier area.

Tippu Sultan and Tughril were then the two most prestigious ships of the Royal Pakistan Navy and its first ever destroyers. Both O-Class ships, HMS Onslow – F-249, (ex-HMS Pakenham, F-260), was handed over to the Pakistan Navy on September 30, 1949, and converted to a fast anti-submarine frigate with US funds. She was renamed HMPS Tipu Sultan (also Tippu Sultan) and later Mufafiz.

During World War II, HMS Onslow saw action when the German raider Hipper attacked the Allied convoy PQ17 and Captain Robert St Vincent Sherbrook, who was the escort force commander on HMS Onslow, was awarded the Victoria Cross. Onslow also formed part of Force W attached to the convoy to Malta, Operation Harpoon, in mid-June 1942.

These graffiti should be saved. They can give a researcher valuable information on the men who served here- Denis Darmanin

HMPS Tughril was formerly HMS Onslaught G-04, also an O-Class built in 1942, which was transferred to Pakistan on March 6, 1951. In 1957 the ship was converted at Liverpool for use as a Type 16 anti-submarine frigate.

A third ship of the same class was HMPS Tariq, acquired on November 30, 1949, formerly HMS Offa G-29. Purchasing these ships was a substantial expense for a country with meagre resources. However, this was inevitable for the defence of an emergent state like Pakistan.

Other former Royal Navy ships were acquired during the 1950s and by far the best was PNS Babour, the first battle cruiser and the largest ship of the Pakistan Navy. Formerly the Dido-Class cruiser HMS Diadem, she was sold to Pakistan on February 29, 1956, and commissioned following a refit on July 5, 1957.

Ironically, even HMS London, the last Royal Navy ship to leave Malta on April 1, 1979, was sold to Pakistan on March 23, 1982, and renamed Babur. Decommissioned from Pakistani service in 1993, she was sold for scrap in 1995.

Unfortunately, due to the recent bad and illicit practice of hacking or grit blasting old walls to supposedly render them as rustic walls, many such graffiti are being lost. Others are slowly flaking away due to the weathering of Maltese limestone.

I appeal to the authorities for a survey and recording of any graffiti to be carried out before any restoration works are undertaken for former military buildings or fortifications. These graffiti should be saved, if possible.

Some importance was recently given to graffiti on ships of the Order of St John, but those more recent ones, by British servicemen, can also give a researcher valuable information on the men who served here during the 180 years of British military presence.

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