Illustrious Blitz: Joseph Stephens Remembers

“I left Malta in 1947, more than 64 years ago, and except for two visits of a few hours later that year, have never been back. Since I left, a great many changes have happened In Malta but none can change the memories of the Malta I knew.  Those memories and flashbacks have remained with me just like a still frame or film that had been stopped in its tracks.

Of all my memories of that gallant island the strongest and the one that stands out indelibly in my mind and has left the deepest and longest impression were those fearful days in 1941 with the German air assault on the aircraft carrier Illustrious.

HMS Illustrious

The story began in January of that year.  At that time I was in my 16th year, an apprentice working at the big EEM shop near No 1 Dock of the Malta Naval Dockyard.  At this stage of the story I might as well mention that, at that time, some 7 months after Italy entered the war and some two months after the successful attack on the Italian Fleet at Taranto by aircraft from the aircraft carrier Illustrious, air attacks on Malta had somewhat eased off. 

There were even strong rumours that the war was over or would soon be.  That Christmas, a few weeks ago, Valletta was full of shoppers, ships of the Royal Navy were back in harbour and there was a general feeling of euphoria – the nightmare was over – so we thought.  As a result people who used to live in the vicinity of the Dockyard and had left the area in the early days of the war now felt safe enough to return to their home and many did – with fateful consequences.

Some time in early January the word had quickly spread throughout the Dockyard that a big aircraft carrier while escorting a convoy to Malta had been savagely attacked at sea by enemy aircraft and had suffered severe damage and loss of life.

The ship, HMS Illustrious, entered harbour on January 10 and had berthed at Parlatorio Wharf for emergency repairs. Ambulances had already taken away the dead and wounded and some were buried at sea.  Dockyard repair crews had already boarded her. I will never forget their stories of shock and horror on entering the ship’s damaged compartments and what they saw – blackened twisted steel plates, huge torn gaping holes, splattered blood, lumps of human flesh, and what was once a man’s hand, blackened, partly dissolved and stuck to one of the bulkheads like a piece of sticky jelly.

According to official sources it was January 16.  I will never forget that day.  It was sometime in the afternoon.  The mournful wailing of air raid sirens began and donning my steel helmet and shouldering my gas mask I ran as fast as I could with scores of other workmen to the nearest shelter. The shelter situated under a bastion a short distance from the entrance of a nearby tunnel (called ‘Il Mina’ in Maltese) was hewn out of rock and only recently excavated. As we ran guns began firing and reverberations could be felt under our feet.

In the shelter, now occupied by some forty or so workmen, in a corner was a niche with a holy picture and several flickering candles beside it. Those days, in Malta, religion was an important aspect of everyday life and, as was the custom, any gathering of people facing danger would result in communal prayer as was the case then in this shelter. A leading man in a low voice began the invocation and the rest would respond in unison something like a chant which used to remind me of the stories I used to read of the catacombs in Roman times where Christians gathered to pray and to escape persecution.

Bombing of Illustrious strikes Three Cities (L) (NWMA Malta)

Soon the reverberations under our feet began to intensify.  The whole shelter seemed to be trembling and shuddering as if we were in the middle of a gigantic earthquake. Sometimes it felt as if express trains with a strange kind of echo were running at full speed under our feet.  Occasionally the sharp blasts of heavy gunfire would penetrate the shelter but would quickly be drowned out by the surrounding din. Repeatedly my ears became clogged from the increased air pressure and blasts of air would extinguish the candles which again would be relit.

From the dimly lit faces of the men around me with their grim and sombre expressions I could see that they were thinking much the same thoughts that were going through my mind. Is the rock above us going to collapse on our heads?  Are we going to be entombed under hundred of tons of rock with little hope of escape?  Have we seen our families for the last time?  The ominous expectation was that something like this, moment by moment, was about to happen. Today, more than 70 years later, never have I known fear as experienced that day.

After what seemed like an eternity the hammering and shaking died down and the suspense ended. We emerged from the shelter half-dazed, half-deaf, and momentarily blinded by the outside light wondering what had happened.  None of us had been through this kind of experience before.  Those of us who lived close by rushed home fearful for our families. Anxious and thoughtful I trudged home that day through debris and bomb damage to my home in Pawla a mile or so away. I was a changed person.

Everybody everywhere seemed to be talking endlessly about the attack on the big ship in the Dockyard and the stunning ear-splitting and seemingly endless and uninterruptible barrage that opened up in its defence. Never before had anyone seen or heard such a mind- boggling concentration of anti-aircraft fire filling the sky with continuously exploding shells with noise that was almost stupefying.

My then future brother-in-law, a Scottish lance bombardier in the Royal Artillery and who manned the big 4.5 inch anti-aircraft guns at Luqa, a short distance from our home, explained everything to me.  It was called a “Box Barrage” and it filled a strategically selected portion of the sky above the Carrier with a mass concentration  of continually exploding shells such as to present an almost impenetrable barrier to attacking planes. The Stuka dive bombers in their near vertical dives had to penetrate this barrier in order to focus on their target and release their bombs with any accuracy – or skirt around it.  Either way this interfered with the accuracy of the bombing as well as exacting a heavy price in plane destruction and damage.  The stratagem worked. The ship was saved – but there was a cost.

During the next two days the sirens sounded but the air attacks were elsewhere on the island. Still, among the people, the general expectancy for further attacks on this big ship prevailed and people were taking no chances.  And it happened – on January 19.

I was at my home in Pawla.  It was bright clear day I recall and a Sunday morning.  People were coming and going and preparing for Sunday Mass.The mournful wailing of sirens began and everyone dashed towards the recently excavated shelter near our home.  Men, women and children they were, some carrying babies, others with children clasped to their arms, some caught in the middle of the morning chores and some hurriedly dressed or half dressed interrupted in their morning ablutions.  Hurriedly donning my steel helmet I joined the rush to the shelter but as usual stayed near the entrance to see what was going on – something I never did in a target area such as the Dockyard.

Soon the gunfire started.  From my vantage point which overlooked a depression called a “Wiet” in Maltese and also  known as “Ghain Dwieli ” I could see part of the Dockyard around No 4 Dock and also had a partial view of the Illustrious as well .(Today I am told the area is completely built up and such a view  no longer exists).  The sound of gunfire got progressively louder and more and more deafening as more guns opened up. The sky over the Dockyard became a huge mass of densely-packed and irregularly shaped black and white puffs from exploding shells. The ground began to shudder and I would duck back into the shelter and, as soon as it subsided, I would be out again. I was fascinated.  

I could see planes diving over the Dockyard and to this day would swear that I got passing glimpses of some of the pilots in their cockpits but only occasionally could hear their screaming dives because of the surrounding din and its effect on my hearing. What looked like a huge fountain of water shot up into the air and then the whole area became shrouded in clouds of dust and smoke like one big fog and one could not distinguish one thing from another.

How long this lasted I don’t know but eventually the steady tone of the ‘All Clear’ sirens could be heard and people began to stream out of the shelter back to their homes talking incessantly about this new danger. It was clear that a new enemy, not lacking in courage or determination, had appeared on the horizon and we were now entering a new phase of the war.

Like all war reports, in the fury and heat of battle it is not always easy to accurately assess enemy strength or losses.  But it was reported that more than 60 enemy aircraft were deployed in each of the two attacks on the Illustrious and there were many losses.

Senglea January 1941 (NWMA Malta)

Although there was some damage the ship was saved and later left harbour under its own steam.  But at a terrible cost. The three cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua surrounding the Dockyard had suffered terrible destruction and among their population of men women and children the loss of life was high.

Thus ended one of the many stories of Malta’s ordeal in World War Two as seen through the eyes of a sixteen year old apprentice at an age where impressions last a lifetime and as remembered and often reflected upon years later with that understanding and perspective that comes with age.

In the annals of British naval history the epic defence of this mighty ship as she lay in the Malta Dockyard can never be complete without a salute to not only its heroic crew and brave island defenders but also to the sacrifice of the men, women and children of the Three Cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua and adjoining areas who died with its defence.”

Joseph V Stephens, 2011


10 responses to “Illustrious Blitz: Joseph Stephens Remembers

  1. Sarah Austin

    February 2, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Thank you Joseph for sharing such a personal account. My Grandfather was Leonard Austin, Foreman of the Yard and was responsible for repairs on Illustrious. He mentions this particular event in his autobiography yet in less detail so I am really grateful for a more complete picture.

    • JosephV. Stephens

      February 21, 2012 at 11:31 pm

      Thank you for your observations. Mr Austin was a well known name in the Dockyard but my work as an apprentice provided little need for any contact. I did, however, speak with him on a few work-related items when I was a junior officer on HMHS ”Maine”. This was the Italian liner ” Leonardo de Vinci” which was sunk in Mombassa, salvaged by the Admiralty and underwent an extensive refit in the Malta Dockyard in 19467 and converted into the hopital ship HMHS ”Maine’.’He would have been heavily involved with work on this ship and might have mentioned it in his autobiography
      Joseph V Stephens

    • Brian Scott

      July 29, 2018 at 6:08 am

      Hello Sarah,

      I am your cousin, Brian. (Rosemary Scott’s son). Nice to see that you too are interested in our family tree.

      Greetings also to Rachel, Jessica, Jason and to your mother.

      Best Regards,

      Brian Scott

    • anthony

      November 11, 2019 at 5:19 pm

      Very interesting and engaging article, Joseph. I am Anthony, and Leonard was my great uncle. He used to come to spend Christmas with us in Kent almost every year up to his last. He told us stories of the war in Malta and I remember one that was a favourite of his – ‘The camphor puddings’. It Described the ordering, delivery and consumption of christmas puddings to Malta in 1941. When the puddings arrived by convoy from the UK it caused much excitement among the the brave dock repair teams who were under bombardment on a daily basis. However, the crate holding the puddings was also used to ship moth balls made from camphor (for some reason this was considered worthy of shipping to Malta in wartime as well). The result was total contamination of the puddings by the camphor. It penetrated the puddings completely and nothing could be done. The only detectable taste was moth balls. The resolution was simple; Uncle Len said ‘Right boys, we are going to eat these puddings regardless, and enjoy them’.

      Greetings to all Austins and offshoots thereof. Lovely to see you contributing.

      • Sarah Austin

        January 15, 2020 at 2:29 pm

        Hi Anthony! Great to read your recollections, always good to connect with the larger family. I’ve carried out loads of family history research, if you’d like to exchange knowledge, please email Best wishes S

  2. Charles Percy Stephens

    April 1, 2012 at 12:59 am

    That story is by my Uncle. God bless uncle Vivivian!

  3. Milan Ac

    April 1, 2012 at 1:39 am

    Interesting, well written and I love the photos, M

  4. Steve

    April 8, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Dear Mr.Stephens, Thank you for your graphic and lucid accounts. Lest we forget. Like Ms.Austin, my grandfather was a Welder Chargeman working at the docks at the time of the Illustrious raid. A certain William John Bridgett. I remember him clearly telling the story of how they worked tirelessly and without rest patching up the ship … at times under a rain of bombs … to enable her to make her way to Alexandria … and of how he very nearly risked ending up in Egypt when he made it off the ship at the last moment before she steamed out of the docks in earnest! My mum was born just over a year later so maybe I am here today here because the bombs missed their mark and he was quick on his feet. Bless him.


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