While serving 18 months in Malta, after qualifying as a naval diver, I was attached to the Mediterranean Fleet Torpedo and Anti-Submarine Experimental Warfare Establishment Dive Team, which, by chance, was just on the other side of the south slipway at Kalafrana, opposite the armoury.
The dive team boss was a two-ringer called Lieutenant Wright who was also the skipper of the team’s dive vessel. Lieutenant Wright had volunteered us for an unusual, non-diving job, as passenger ferry for the crew of the British aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal, when that ship visited Palermo in Sicily. It so happened that Lieutenant Wright’s brother was serving aboard the Ark Royal as the pilot of a Fairy Gannet and they were keen to meet up. Within a week we’d stored the ship, swung the compass, and were pointing our bows north towards Sicily, our destination Palermo, with the time of arrival calculated to correspond with that of Ark Royal.
Our route would take us up the eastern coast of Sicily, past the beautiful active volcano Mount Etna, through the Strait of Messina, then due west along the north coast of the island to Palermo. At least, that’s what should have happened. Like all good plans, it went tits up.
As we entered the Strait of Messina, the narrow and dangerous stretch of water between the southern toe of Italy and the north-eastern tip of Sicily, we were struck by a sudden violent gale. The wind and waves were so violent it was impossible to turn the vessel and run for cover. We just had to keep the bow into the sea and hope the gale would dissipate as quickly as it had arisen.
As night closed in, a huge wave, the biggest yet, crashed over the bow and actually cracked a window in the wheelhouse. At the same time there came a loud crash from the accommodation space aft.
The skipper sent two of us who could be spared to see if we could help. Two seamen and a stoker had been trying to prepare an evening meal of corned beef sandwiches and cocoa. The meal was all over the deck, along with broken crockery and kitchen utensils, but the main problem was the stove, an old-fashioned coal range bolted to a concrete base.
When the large wave hit, the force had snapped the bolts and dislodged the cooking range. With every subsequent wave the still-burning range was in danger of tipping over and spilling red-hot coals onto the wooden deck. To avoid this, the crew was holding it upright with anything that came to hand — shoes, bits of wood, and a length of rope. I quickly poured water onto the fire, inadvertently filling the compartment with steam, which blew like smoke out of the hatch and frightened the hell out of the skipper. When the fire was extinguished, we lashed the range down with a length of rope and began to clean up the mess that was to have been our supper.
When we told the skipper what had happened he decided that enough was enough and looked at the chart to see if there was anywhere we could shelter from the pounding of the gale. The chart of the area showed that we were not far from the small fishing port of Milazzo, which had a good harbour behind a long protective sea wall.
About an hour later we could see the navigation light marking the entrance to the harbour and got out the pilot book to see how best to approach the unknown coast. The reference to Milazzo in the pilot book instructed us to steer two points to port of a light on the end of the sea wall. This, we assumed, would bring us into the safety and tranquility of the sheltered water beyond, so the skipper lined us up with the light. What we didn’t know was that during the war the sea wall had been bombed, and the end of it, including the navigation light, had been destroyed.
After the war the town authorities had erected a new light structure, about thirty feet further along the sea wall, to mark the entrance to safety. Unfortunately, they didn’t think it necessary to tell anyone what they’d done. Consequently, no Notice to Mariners was ever issued to amend the pilot book. This left us heading not for the safe passage into the harbour, but — by steering two points to the left of the new beacon— straight for the half-submerged wreckage of the end of the sea wall.
Distances at sea can be difficult to judge. At night, when it’s raining like hell and blowing a gale, it can be almost impossible. As we were almost upon the remains of the wall, the lookouts in the bow realised something was amiss dead ahead and shouted, “Hard a port, hard to port!”
Lieutenant Wright spun the wheel and put the Teleflex gears to full astern, but it was too late. We struck the tumbled-down wall with a glancing blow before passing on into the shelter of the harbour. Following close behind the cox’n, I raced down the forward ladder and lifted the bottom boards to see if we were making water. At first it seemed we were not, and I was about to shout the good news up to the wheelhouse. Then I felt the water rising around my feet and ankles. Quickly we formed a bucket chain to bail out the water, but it was soon obvious that the inrush was beating us.
The impact of the collision had the unexpected result of putting the propeller shaft out of alignment, so we couldn’t manoeuvre with the engine. Eventually, with the help of a Sicilian fishing boat, we manoeuvred our vessel into shallow water where she filled with water until she rested on the bottom, half sunk.
In the clothes we stood up in, we walked ashore to the nearest hotel, the Albergo Diana and the skipper booked rooms for us and requested a meal. No food was available as it was the early hours of the morning, so we decided to settle for a shower. “Unfortunately, Señor, the water for the shower won’t be warm for another 2 hours.” We turned in dirty.
The next day, mostly by our own efforts, we got a patch on the quite small split under the waterline. With the help of the not-very-helpful Fire Service we got MFV37 floating again. However, it was obvious we would never make our rendezvous with the Ark Royal and that the engine would need a major service before it could be started.
On about the fifth day, the skipper announced that the British Naval attaché from Rome was coming down to give us some money and arrange our trip back to Malta.
The following day we hung around the hotel waiting for the attaché to arrive. The cox’n, who was the senior NCO and responsible for us all, was getting more and more agitated as guys slipped away to the wine bar across the road and came back smiling broadly and burbling.
One of the stokers was missing all morning. He was a big Scotsman called Frank MacHine, a nice enough chap unless was in his many cups, and then he tended to get boisterous. Boisterous was perhaps too mild a word. When he’d had enough to drink he got roaring fighting mad. The cox’n knew MacHine’s reputation and was getting really agitated in case he turned up drunk and let us all down in front of the naval attaché.
When our important visitor finally arrived, he turned out to be a pleasant man in civilian clothes, accompanied by an equally charming and very attractive wife. The crew sat at a long table with the cox’n at the head and one place — MacHine’s — vacant. Our skipper sat at a separate table with the two guests. As it turned out, the two officers sat with their backs to us and the wife was obliged to sit facing the vacant chair of the absent stoker.
Just as lunch was under way, the door burst open and a disheveled, very pissed MacHine arrived to take his place at the table. He gave the attractive woman, who was looking at him oddly, a drunken smile and a wink.
The cox’n was mortified at this turn of events. He went scarlet with embarrassment and tried to pass a message to MacHine to warn him that he was leering at the naval attaché’s wife. The message got as far as the man next to MacHine, but when he tried to pass the warning on Mac just shrugged him off. When he persisted, MacHine said in a drunken sotto voce, “Piss off Jimmy.” He took a large forkful of spaghetti and ate noisily, sucking up the last piece, which flapped round and hit him in the face, leaving a line of tomato sauce from eyebrow to mouth.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the woman. She’d stopped eating and her eyes and mouth were wide open. Lieutenant Wright guessed what was happening behind him and moved slightly to mask her view and tried to engage her in conversation. At the same time I thought the cox’n was going to explode. His very red face had turned bright crimson and I’m sure I saw steam coming out of his ears.
Mac carried on eating his spaghetti but the damn stuff kept flicking off his fork to make a hell of a mess down his white front, or splatter the tablecloth around his plate. The woman had now moved her chair so that she had an uninterrupted view. When all of us on the big table were cringing with embarrassment, the Scottish piss-head produced his pièce de résistance, his grand finale, his dramatic exit.
He slipped off the chair and went down under the table, pausing only briefly as his chin hit the edge of the plate, upending the spaghetti over his still smiling ugly mug.
The mouth of the attaché’s wife dropped open again and she gave up all pretence of eating or joining in the polite table talk. She wanted to watch the action. Everyone else pretended everything was quite normal. With the piss-artist under the table, the action seemed to have died.
However, within a few moments a muffled voice came from under the table, complaining, “Get me outta here. I want to be bloody sick.” Quickly the cox’n detailed two burly seamen to carry Mac out, much to the relief of all at the big table and I’m sure to the disappointment of the lady, who was half standing to get a last glimpse of the tomato-sauce-spattered Scotsman.
I imagine she dined out for years on the strength of what she’d seen that lunchtime, courtesy of the dive team.
Eventually we returned to Malta, where two important signals were waiting for Lieutenant Wright. Firstly, his elder brother had crashed his aircraft over the side while landing on the aircraft carrier. However, he and his crew had been picked up safe and well after a short swim in the briny. The second signal was no surprise to any of us. A court of enquiry and been arranged aboard the destroyer HMS Broadsword and we were commanded to attend.
As it turned out, the enquiry was not such a terrible ordeal. The officers of the court seemed more sympathetic than accusing. After we’d all told what we knew, we had a short wait before Lieutenant Wright was told that the cause of the accident was the ferocity of the storm and incorrect navigational information. Of course they couldn’t let him get off scot-free, after sinking one of Her Majesty’s vessels, so they added a rider saying they thought he’d entered the harbour at Milazzo too fast for the conditions.
When the Captain President of the court came out, he stopped and spoke to the worried-looking Lieutenant Wright.
“Tell me, Wright,” said the Captain, “Was that your brother who parked his airplane in the sea?”
“Yes sir, I’m afraid it was.”
The Captain looked thoughtful for a moment. “Same week you sunk the damn boat, wasn’t it?”
“Yes sir, I’m afraid it was.”
The Captain thought a moment longer before chortling to himself.
“It seems to me, Lieutenant, to be a case of two Wrights making a wrong.”