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Maltese seaman who survived sinking of Mountbatten’s ship

On May 9, 1940, the destroyer HMS Kelly, captained by Lord Louis Mountbatten, was torpedoed by German motor-torpedo boat S31 off the Dutch coast (see my article in The Sunday Times, May 27).

The bomb went right through the deck and exploded in the Kelly’s vitals, blowing half her bottom out and raising a blast of smoke and flame, pieces of steel and human bodies- Alfred Conti Borda

Kelly was then repaired at the Tyne, and Mountbatten assembled a new crew comprising former survivors of the torpedoing. These included two Maltese, Petty Officer Joe Micallef and Leading Steward Domenico Aquilina.

In January 1941, Kelly joined the destroyers Kipling, Kashmir and Jersey at Plymouth on the Channel patrol. When Greece fell and the Germans tightened their grip on the Mediterranean, the Fifth Flotilla was ordered to Malta, so Kelly sailed from Plymouth in April 1941. Although the narrow waist of the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia had been almost closed to British ships by the Luftwaffe, Kelly’s flotilla safely reached Malta.

As Mountbatten stood on the bridge leading them into Grand Harbour, he could hardly believe that this was the happy beloved island of his memories. The steeped narrow streets were filled with the rubble of houses, the docks were a shambles and the rusted masts and blackened superstructures of a dozen ships stuck up from the waters of the harbour.

For Micallef and Camilleri, it was a rare chance to see their families after their ordeal in surviving the torpedoed Kelly nearly a year before.

Micallef was born in Valletta on June 6, 1906. Before joining the Royal Navy, he worked as a tailor, helping his father, a master tailor for Grixti’s Tailoring in Valletta.

Micallef’s son Denis reckons that his father joined the Navy about May 1925, when he would have been 19, and served on the destroyer HMS Keppel. He transferred to the battleship HMS Barham in August 1926 and served until January 1929.

From January 1931 to August 1939 he was attached to HMS Egmont/HMS St Angelo. Egmont, the receiving and depot ship at Malta did not move ashore until 1912. Previously the establishment had been in the form of a hulk, or decommissioned ship, moored to the fortifications.

In 1933 the Admiralty changed the name to HMS St Angelo, the name of the fort in which the establishment was housed. The shore establishment was the main administration centre for Royal Naval activities in the Mediterranean.

Between May 1931 and November 1935, Micallef served on three different destroyers in a row: HMS Mackay (Scott-class destroyer Flotilla Leader which served with both the Atlantic and Mediterranean Fleet between the wars), HMS Duncan (D Class destroyer built in the early 1930s and initially assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet before she was transferred to the China Station in early 1935) and HMS Douglas (a destroyer of the Admiralty class).

The only exceptions were HMS Bagshot (a minesweeper of the Hunt class) on which he served from November 1935 to August 1936, and HMS Weston (a Falmouth class escort sloop) on which Micallef saw service from September 1936 to March 1939.

Living in St Nicholas Street, Valletta, was an added bonus to Micallef’s children. As soon as they would know from him the time he was sailing out of Grand Harbour, they would scurry up to the roof and wave merrily at his ship, hoping he would see them.

Micallef first met Mountbatten in early 1937 in Malta when he was then captain of the destroyer HMS Wishart. Micallef was keen on dinghy rowing and was unbeatable among the ratings. Mountbatten took an interest in him because he too was a keen and able oarsman. Consequently, he asked Micallef to join his crew as his personal Officer Steward on HMS Kelly some three months before its commissioning on August 23, 1939. Mountbatten was then appointed to command HMS Kelly as captain of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla. Micallef subsequently became one of the few ratings who served in Kelly throughout the ship’s life.

In April 1941 the flotilla was in Malta for three months, sweeping shipping lanes between Sicily and Tunisia, breaking up the German lines to Rommel’s Afrika Korps and enduring the Luftwaffe’s continuous bombardment of the island. On May 21 Mountbatten mustered the Kelly’s crew on the forward deck to inform them that the flotilla had been detailed to prevent the Germans from capturing the Greek islands.

That same evening Kelly sailed, followed by the destroyers Kasmir, Kipling, Kelvin and Jackal. It was very quiet through the night and the morning but Mountbatten never left the bridge.

It was not long before Kelly’s radio operator picked up a message from General Bernard Freyberg, commander of the beleaguered troops on Crete, to bombard Maleme aerodrome which was in enemy hands. Mountbatten swung his columns into action, however Kipling reported steering gear trouble, and as Jackal and Kelvin had become detached, it was only Kelly, accompanied by Kashmir, which bombarded the airfield.

As Kelly raced at full speed, her radar picked up a ship. It was a caique, a large sailing schooner crammed with German troops. A couple of broadsides from the destroyer sank her while another caique loaded with aviation fuel was also hit, and blew up.

By this time the enemy had been alerted , and at 8 am, Kelly’s radar picked up a large formation of aircraft approaching astern.

The captain counted 24 Junker Stuka dive-bombers through his binoculars. He was especially wary of them as by their diving almost vertically and bombing they could hardly miss their target. Mountbatten then saw two JU 87s peel off and dive on the Kashmir. She disappeared in a sheet of flame and smoke.

The enemy bombers then bore down on the Kelly. Mountbatten at once directed his crew to zigzag his ship and avoid the bombers which seemed to come in from every direction. Then one bomber screamed down towards the ship’s port side but one of its gunners shot it down.

But another bomber sneaked in unnoticed and dropped its 1,000-pound bomb which struck hard, hitting well aft of the ship’s funnel. It went right through the deck and exploded in the Kelly’s vitals, blowing half her bottom out and raising a blast of smoke and flame, pieces of steel and human bodies. Mountbatten gave the order to abandon ship.

Maltese Leading Steward Domenico Aquilina lost his life in the explosion, and in the blast PO Micallef was blown over the side of the ship in a sea aflame with fuel oil. Half his body was badly burnt and so he dived.

He remembered that he came to a wire rope and he kept pulling and tugging until he came to the surface. As he did so, the Nazi planes came back again diving down on the rafts loaded with survivors and raking them with machine-gun fire.

Micallef was severely wounded and blistered by splinters in his back, side and legs and also lost a kneecap. But he managed to grab a large wooden plank and painfully managed to haul himself on it.

Other seamen were not so lucky and they were going under so Mountbatten dived repeatedly under the oily surface, dragging survivors to a Carley float. All their faces were smothered in thick fuel oil.

Some who had died in the dastardly attack by the planes were removed to make way for the critically injured seamen while the rest clung on for dear life to the side of the float.

Their beloved ship then tilted by the stern and slid quietly out of sight. Their morale was truly shaken but Mountbatten encouraged his crew.

Three hours later HMS Kipling arrived on the scene. She was attacked in turn but managed to shake off the bombers and in between picked up the survivors, among them Micallef. He was taken unconscious together with the injured crew to the hospital ship HMS Maine in Alexandria and did not come round until June 12, almost three weeks later.

In due course his wife received the dreaded news: ‘missing, presumed dead’. Only later was she informed that he was safe but seriously injured.

He spent the next 11 months recovering in hospital before he returned to Malta and was admitted to Mtarfa Military Hospital. Out of a complement of 260 men on the ship, nine officers and 121 men were lost.

Mountbatten said: “I found out that my Leading Steward Domenico Camenzuli had been killed and that Petty Officer Steward Joe Micallef had been seriously injured and badly burnt. I was particularly sad about this for they were the only two of the original Maltese retinue who had volunteered to stay with the ship when the remainder were released on our not going to the Mediterranean.”

Micallef was lucky to be alive, and at Alexandria Military Hospital he was visited by Fr James Buttigieg and Fr Bonaventure Aquilina, two Dominican priests on their way to Malta from their missionary work in India. Their visit raised his morale considerably. Besides, since he lived in the parish of St Dominic’s, this experience turned him into a great devotee of St Dominic.

After 13 months’ recovery and rehabilitation Micallef returned home on crutches and was invalided out of the Royal Navy on February 10, 1942, after 15 years’ service.

However, he was soon employed as area manager to the Victory Kitchens in Żurrieq, Mqabba, Qrendi, Luqa and Safi. He used a horse-drawn cab for his inspections, crossing Luqa through a gate which was closed during air raids as enemy planes would otherwise strafe anything that moved on the ground, including buses.

After the war, Micallef spent some 20 years as a civilian officer for the Royal Air Force, ending up as manager of the officers’ mess. It was there that his son Denis developed an interest in joining the RAF.

Micallef’s close relationship with Mountbatten continued right up to the latter’s tragic death in Ireland. He was pleasantly surprised when the Mountbattens, passing through Malta on the way to India where Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy, made it a point of meeting him.

Subsequently, after Mountbatten steered India towards its independence in 1947, he returned to the Navy as C-in-C Mediterranean and once again, he “borrowed” Micallef from the RAF to serve him at Admiralty House (now the National Museum of Fine Arts) in South Street, Valletta.

However, the greatest compliment Mountbatten paid Micallef was when he recommended him as butler to the Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) and Prince Philip, who was stationed with the Royal Navy in Malta, serving on HMS Magpie. The royal couple lived at Villa Guardamangia in Pietà, which Mountbatten had bought around 1929.

This was a happy household in every respect and Micallef often commented that “it was like working with a family of your own”.

After their return to the UK, the Queen and Prince Philip did not forget him, often writing to him and never failing to send him Christmas greetings. In 1972 Micallef and his wife were also invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace and the thanksgiving service at Westminster Abbey to mark the royal couple’s silver wedding.

When Mountbatten ended his Mediterranean duties to take up the appointment of First Sea Lord and subsequently as Chief of the Defence Staff, he maintained regular contact with Micallef and they met whenever Mountbatten visited Malta (Micallef used to greet him on the apron of Luqa airport). They regularly exchanged correspondence until Mountbatten’s untimely death on August 27, 1979. Micallef, together with Salvo Baldacchino, another Kelly survivor, attended his funeral in London.

Micallef married Carmela Stafrace on January 31, 1932, at the chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes in Floriana. They had five children: Joe (later lawyer and Labour MP), Marlene, May, Antoinette (who died at the age of six) and Denis. On May 4, 1954, Marlene had the distinction of giving the address of welcome to the Queen when she officially opened Mater Admirabilis Training College for teachers at Tal-Virtù in Rabat.

Her Majesty readily associated Marlene with her father and their happy time at Villa Guardamangia. Marlene was later invited to the Mountbattens in Admiralty House, where the Queen signed a copy of the address, which Marlene still cherishes.

Publicly, Micallef spoke very little of his experiences until he was interviewed by Xandir Malta for a radio programme and for the book Mountbatten and the Men of the Kelly, written by William Pattinson, published in 1986.

However, he always looked forward to attending the Kelly reunions in London, which he never missed and where he met his colleague Salvo Baldacchino.

Micallef passed away on June 28, 1988, aged 82, but his son Denis continued to attend the Kelly reunions in his stead, where he came to know Baldacchino’s son Roger.

In 1972, Denis and his wife were invited to tea by Mountbatten at the residence of his daughter, Lady Pamela Hicks, near the Central Flying School at RAF Little Rissington in the Cotswolds, where he was then stationed as an RAF officer.

On May 19, 1992, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip together with President Vincent Tabone, a former surgeon captain with the Royal Malta Artillery, inaugurated the Malta Siege Bell monument in Valletta.

Before the inauguration ceremony, they met representatives of associations with a British connection who were assembled at the nearby Mediterranean Conference Centre. They included Judge Joseph Herrera and Dr Joe Micallef Stafrace, then president and vice-president respectively of the King’s Own Band Club of Valletta.

As the Queen passed by, Judge Herrera told Prince Philip about Dr Micallef Stafrace’s father, whereupon Prince Philip called his wife: “Ma’am, there’s a gentleman here you ought to know”, whereupon the Queen stopped and Prince Philip introduced Dr Micallef Stafrace, who told her that he wished his father, who had taken care of the couple at Villa Guardamangia, was present. She was delighted to meet Dr Micallef Stafrace and asked him about his brother Denis and the family.

Incidentally, Micallef’s father-in-law Giuseppe Stafrace, a stoker, was one of 224 seamen lost in the sinking of the British steamer SS Louvain which was torpedoed on January 21, 1918, at the Dardanelles Straits by a German submarine.

I am greatly indebted to Dr Joe Micallef Stafrace and Wing Commander Denis Micallef, RAF (Ret.) for their help and information for this article.

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