27 March 1942: Breconshire Sinks – Maltese Dockyard Worker Earns a Medal

27 Mar

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HMS Breconshire, hit and set on fire during yesterday’s heavy air raids, is now barely afloat with only six feet of her bilge above water.  Enemy bombing prevented all attemps at taking off her cargo of oil yesterday.  At daybreak this morning, fires broke out again and the ammunition supplies on board began to explode – creating a real risk of blowing the entire ship and the loss of all her cargo.  Moments after her Captain and officers had abandoned an attempt to scuttle her, Breconshire rolled onto her side and capsized.


Breconshire’s cargo was far too valuable to be abandoned to the ocean.  Len Austin, Foreman of the Dockyard, was given the dangerous task of recovering her desperately-needed cargo of oil.

“She looked like a huge whaleback sticking out of the water. This is how I first saw her, and heavy seas were breaking over her. We were desperately short of oil fuel and my job was to try to make it possible for the fuel on board to be pumped out from the two cargo tanks on the [starboard] side, and also if possible to break into the engine room and holds.

When the sea subsided it was possible to walk on the ship’s side and make a survey to devise a plan of action. A hole in the side looked to be the only way to obtain access to the air space surrounding the cargo tanks, and the physical removal of ship’s side plates for the engine room and hold.

All my men were ready volunteers and we got on with the job, which was interrupted by air-raids, bombs falling nearby. The work continued and in a day or so we were able to drill a small hole in one tank, through which the oil flowed out by water displacement, the water getting in via the tank air escapes beneath the surface. The oil filled the air space and a wooden plug was driven into the drilled hole in the tank.

The navy now took over and pumped the oil into drums using hand pumps. The system…worked and we recovered hundreds of tons of oil. The ship’s side plates 5 No. were removed and hauled clear. Diesel oil was now available from the Engine room and a host of items from the hold: milk, explosives, bombs, timber, medical supplies etc.”

Maltese Shipwright Supervisor Mr Zammit was also to earn himself the British Empire Medal:

“At the bottom of the air space was the tank margin of one of the ship’s own OFT’s, and this was full of fuel oil. Our manner of winning the oil from the cargo tanks had resulted in the air space getting smothered in thick fuel oil. To get down to the margin tank was very hazardous and to drill the necessary hole almost suicidal. This would have to be carried out in complete darkness and there was the danger of oil fuel vapour exploding. I told Mr. Zammit that under no circumstances was he to send a man to this job, and he obeyed the order.

One day when I visited the ship I was told that he was doing the job himself, and then he appeared through the access hole we had made. He was naked, smothered all over in oil and looked like a negro. He climbed out and jumped overboard to swim round for a while. When he climbed on board, I could see that much of the oil had emulsified which made him look even worse. He was rubbed down and then dressed. He told me, ‘You said I was not to send a man, so I went myself.’  He had succeeded in doing the near impossible and so more oil was recovered. It was a brave if foolhardy action.    Malta could carry on again for a while…” (1)


The Governor and Commander in Chief has announced that a complete register of civilian workers has been compiled for call-up to work as civilian units as required, for the Services or Government.  These groups are not under military discipline.  Gangs of civilians to work on aerodromes have been formed under special Defence Regulations, recruited from residents in nearby villages.

Frequent and heavy bombing – and the absence of slit trenches or any form of shelter for civilian labour – on the aerodromes has made it difficult to maintain sufficient manpower.  Numbers of volunteer workers have been encouraged with the offer of higher than normal pay, and have been working regularly on aerodromes for last twelve days.  As many police as can be spared are assisting.


Weather  Little wind; 50% high cloud.  Weather deteriorated: very little enemy action.

0804 hrs  One JU 88 with fighter escort carries out reconnaissance.  Heavy Ack Ack heavily engage the aircraft and the formation turns away.

0957 hrs  Five ME 109 fighter bombers approach the Island.

1025 hrs  Two ME 109s drop high explosive (HE) bombs on Luqa and three on Hal Far with several casualties.  One Hurricane is slightly damaged.  Heavy Ack Ack engage.

1112 hrs  HMS Breconshire turns over on her port side and sinks.

1201 hrs  Nine aircraft including three JU 88s drop six 500kg and six 250kg HE bombs on Grand Harbou.  Heavy Ack Ack engage.

1545 hrs  Five ME 109 fighter bombers approach the south of the Island and drop five 250kg and five 50kg HE bombs on Hal Far.  L/Cpl Walke, 2nd Bn Devonshire Regt is seriously injured and taken to No 90 General Hospital (He died 0015 hrs 28th March).  Cpl Brooking is injured in the left arm.

1640 hrs  One JU 88 with fighter escort carries out reconnaissance of Ta Qali and Grand Harbour at 23000 feet. Heavy Ack Ack engage.

3rd Bn KOMR discover a wheel washed ashore at Wied Zurrieq.

1747 hrs  Four aircraft patrol south east of the Island.

2232-0031 hrs  One aircraft patrols the Island, then drops bombs in the sea and incendiaries on land near Dingli.  Heavy Ack Ack fire a barrage.  Fighters are up: no engagement.

Military casualties  Leading Aircraftsman Adrian Styles, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve; Aircraftsman Leslie Tindall, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve; Private Thomas Ryan, 2nd Bn Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment.

Civilian casualties  Zejtun  Carmel Zahra, age 15.


AIR HQ  Arrivals  Ten Hurricanes, one Hudson, one Blenheim, one Beaufort, one Lodestar from Gambut.  Departures  One Lodestar to Gambut.

LUQA  0925-1200 hrs  Photo Reconnaissance (PR) Spitfire 69 Squadron Pr of Sicilian aerodromes and Palermo Harbour.   2005-0345 hrs  One Wellington S/D Flight special search to relocate vessel sighted by Spitfire AM.

TA QALI  Spitfires operating from Luqa.  No scrambles.

11TH BN THE LANCASHIRE FUSILIERS  1800 hrs This unit hands over the Observation Post at Tal Virtu to 2nd Bn Royal West Kent Regt.

8TH BN THE MANCHESTER REGIMENT  Working party at Ta Qali aerodrome.

2ND BN THE ROYAL WEST KENT REGIMENT  Private Ryan died in hospital from wounds.


(1) extract from Autobiography of Leonard (Len) Austin, Foreman of Malta Dockyard, August 1939 – March 1943

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Posted by on March 27, 2017 in 1942, March 1942


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2 responses to “27 March 1942: Breconshire Sinks – Maltese Dockyard Worker Earns a Medal

  1. Mike Zammit

    August 5, 2020 at 1:26 pm

    How can I get a copy of Len Austin’s autobiography? My Grandfather was Shipwright Supervisor Emmanuel Zammit, mentioned in relation to the salvage of HMS Breconshire. I was aware that he received a citation for bravery and I have the certificate however, I was unaware that he received the BEM. Can anyone tell me how I can find out more information?

  2. Mike Zammit

    November 13, 2021 at 4:57 pm

    I have found that my Grandfather did not get awarded the BEM for this incident. He was awarded the King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.


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