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Mystery still shrouds ‘worst’ Malta tragedy in World War II

HMS Glorious in Grand Harbour. Photos provided by Salvu Azzopardi

HMS Glorious in Grand Harbour. Photos provided by Salvu Azzopardi

Giuseppe Zahra with his wife Polly, daughter Mary and baby.Giuseppe Zahra with his wife Polly, daughter Mary and baby.

When his father died in 1939, Francis Polidano, 20, joined the Royal Navy, only to perish a year later, together with 50 other Maltese serving on the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious.

Their relatives are still waiting for answers about the incident in which 1,531 men lost their lives. It was the worst tragedy for Malta during World War II, according to Glarac Association Malta chairman Salvu Azzopardi .

Francis Polidano, a relative of Mr Azzopardi, took up the job as an assistant steward aboard the aircraft carrier at a time when war was looming on the horizon and jobs were very scarce.

His mother, Carmela, did not take the news well and his brother, Charlie, who was also in the navy, pointed out that he had enlisted during peacetime, not during the war.

HMS Glorious left the island after some routine work at Malta Drydocks and headed for Alexandria.

Upon her arrival there, the captain received orders to go straight to the UK so that the carrier could join the Home Fleet. It played an important part in the Norwegian campaign and the British forces evacuation from Norway.

But tragedy struck on June 8,1940 when the carrier, escorted just by two destroyers, was intercepted by the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and was sunk by gunfire.

Over 1,200 died.

Francis PolidanoFrancis Polidano

But there was not to be any closure for the Polidano family who, for months, was told that Francis might have survived and was being held prisoner.

His mother was asked by the Red Cross to provide clothes, blankets and food, telling her that he could have been traced. Almost a year later, she received a letter informing her that, unfortunately, Francis had to be presumed dead as all attempts at finding him had failed.

Mrs Polidano was told to go to the UK to receive her son’s medals but she could not make it because tragedy struck her family again. She lost her youngest daughter, Mary, 17, to shrapnel wounds during one of the air raids on Floriana.

Mr Azzopardi said that when news of the aircraft carrier’s sinking reached England, both parliamentarians and the public raised questions on why the aircraft carrier was allowed to leave the safety of a convoy with only two destroyer escorts just months after the sinking of HMS Courageous in similar circumstances. Furthermore, the carrier had, strangely, not been flying combat air patrols.

It also transpired that a Royal Navy heavy cruiser  – HMS Devonshire – had been very close but did not assist.

The cruiser was carrying the Norwegian royal family, Norwegian MPs and Norwegian gold bullion.

“To my dear adorable daughter. This postcard is for you so that you will never forget me” – the last message sent by Giuseppe Zahra to his daughter Mary before he died on HMS Glorious.“To my dear adorable daughter. This postcard is for you so that you will never forget me” – the last message sent by Giuseppe Zahra to his daughter Mary before he died on HMS Glorious.

The only distress signal sent by HMS Glorious was picked up by HMS Devonshire but vice admiral John Cunningham thought it was too garbled to make sense and increased speed without taking further action, Mr Azzopardi said.

Faced with growing discontentment within Parliament and the public, the British government decided to keep the case under wraps for 100 years.

The Glarac Association Malta organises a yearly service to pay tribute to all of the men who died on HMS Glorious and her two destroyer escorts, HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta.

This year, the service will be held on Sunday at 10am at the Serenity Gardens, in Santa Luċija. For more information one may contact Mr Azzopardi on 7983 5319 or via e-mail at salvuazz@hotmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

A map of the battle in which HMS Glorious was sunk.A map of the battle in which HMS Glorious was sunk.

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