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Loreto Meilak Joins Up: RAF Kalafrana 1940

RAF KALAFRANA – 1940

Loreto Meilak (Copyright Barry York)

We had a very big air raid on the very first day. I don’t know why, but we were not a bit afraid or upset. The whole billet was full of us Maltese and all we did is look up at the sky as we walked smartly to the air raid shelter. We had read in the newspapers or heard on Rediffusion radio about the bombings of many European cities and, perhaps, by the time our raids started we were expecting and ready for them.

What used to annoy us, though, was when the English Regular Warrant Officer (who was an excellent instructor) would assure us that the approaching planes were ours but it would turn out that they were Italian. We were machine-gunned on the slipway when we were doing our training and a few were killed and several injured; yet the air-raid shelter was nearby.

The air-raid warnings were very late to be sounded. It seemed to me, at the beginning of the war, that the warnings were sounded after the bombs were initially dropped. I am sure that any Maltese who served in Malta during the first few weeks of the war will verify what I am saying.

I remember the first day we were handed a rifle. We were ready to follow instructions, such as ‘slope arms’ and other movements with the .303 gun. I must have held it the wrong way because the Warrant Officer came at me like a raging bull. In a very loud voice, he called at me: “Haven’t you seen a rifle before?!!” I replied, “No, sir”, and he said, “Don’t be cheeky to me!” In actual fact, I hadn’t seen a gun before – except in cowboy films.  The discipline was rigid but I am glad because to this day I still use his wonderful teachings.

I was very patriotic and used to volunteer for anything that was very hard and dangerous. One such activity was filling the Sunderland sea-planes with fuel. It was done by hand on a floating bowzer (tank). It took hours to fill them with enough fuel for take off. We were between a fort on one side and Kalafrana on the other side. The filling was done in the middle, and the Italian aircraft were after both.

The Sunderlands were a menace to Italian submarines. A piece of shrapnel was enough to blow us up, yet I was proud to be in such a position, knowing I was helping Malta, the Mother Country and the war effort as a whole.

The hot sun would make us perspire and by the end of the day all the hard work made your arm and hand feel dead sore. Some of the pilots were disgusted when they used to see us pumping the aviation fuel to the Sunderlands by hand and they used to comment on how primitive England’s preparations were on the island. Some even said we deserved to lose the war.

A few of us used to be sent for the day to Luqa airdrome and each time an air raid or two would come while we were there.  The Italian aircraft used to stay very high – but they certainly hit their targets.

The air raids increased and food was not plentiful but I was very pleased with my three meals a day. I had never eaten bacon, porridge, butter, jam, marmalade and many other [things] that I didn’t even know existed. It was a great change from vermicelli, macaroni, boiled potatoes and bread, which we had eaten every day since my mother died, and it was never enough.

Three of my friends and I used to go to Confession on Saturday at the Church of Nazarenu, and as we’d walk back towards Tower Road, we used to pass Luigi’s Restaurant. We’d stop and smell the food that they used to cook for the British and we used to say, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to eat that kind of food, it smells so nice”.

Our pay was seven shillings a week in the Royal Air Force, three meals a day, nice bed and an air raid shelter nearby. Out of the seven shillings, I made a few shillings’ allowance to my father. He was so pleased and proud that he told many people that his youngest son Loreto was the only one to help him. God Bless him. To this day, I feel happy and blessed that he said that about me.

One morning on parade, we were instructed to pack our kit bags as we could be posted overseas without much notice. We naturally did what we were told. A few days later, I visited my sister Nina. She was pleased to see me. She had the radio blaring, the dog barking and soon after an air raid took place. The bombs and the ‘ack-ack’ firing really shook the house.

I think it was either the 7th or the 11th of July 1940 that we had a terrible air raid. We were in the shelter and many Maltese soldiers were carried in, most of them bleeding and moaning with pain. A few minutes later, a sergeant came into the shelter and ordered those on stand-by to get their kit bags and get in the lorry outside. The English airmen in the shelter called out to us not to go and they told the sergeant to wait until the air raid has passed. He agreed and, as soon as the all-clear was sounded, we went for our kits and boarded the lorry. After a few minutes on our way, the lorry was stopped by members of the Kings Own Malta Regiment who checked to make sure there were no Fascist infiltrators on board.

We arrived at the Grand Harbour around 10.00pm and we were ferried to the HMS Royal Sovereign. The captain of the battleship was at the gangway to welcome us and shook hands with everyone as we passed by him…

The air raids continued. I would say the Italians knew that the British naval ships were in the Grand Harbour. Soon after we boarded, we were shown our sleeping quarters in the marine section. It wasn’t long before we were on our way. We didn’t know our destination. We weren’t told, and we didn’t ask.”

Barry York, Canberra, Australia 2009: in memory of his father, Loreto York (formerly Meilak)

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