The explosive island and the vanashing rubber boats

The tiny Mediterranean island of Filfla, no more than a giant rock juts dramatically up out of the clear blue sea, just a few nautical miles south of its parent island of Malta. In the 1950s while I was serving as a Royal Navy Diver at Kalafrana Malta, Filfla was a definite off limit, no go area.

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The tiny island of Filfla.

For as long as anyone could remember, possibly as far back as Nelson’s time, the tiny island had been used exclusively for one purpose, ships gunnery practice and a firing range for aircraft. Ships and aircraft of the Royal Navy and also the aircraft of the RAF had pounded the small rocky island with shells from large guns, bombs and rockets. Consequently, the whole island was littered with fragments of bombs, shells and rockets and here and there were unexploded bombs, many broken open with their explosive content scattered about.

Unknown to the diving team at that time was the fact that top secret trials were being carried out in the Mediterranean, from the British aircraft carrier HMS Bulwark. They were testing a new, top-secret American designed guided weapon called Bullpup, which none of us had ever heard of at the time. As we were later informed, helicopters from the ship had fired four Bullpup, air-to-ground, ground-to-air missiles at Filfla, in the preceding two days, with varying results.

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HMS Bulwark in the Mediterranean, south of Malta

Apparently, the first three missiles fired, hit close enough to the aiming point to be considered successful, but the fourth missile had apparently missed the target completely. The trials were suspended while the missile experts pondered the reason for the failure. The trials were designed to test the missile’s guidance system, so they were not fitted with a conventional warhead, but there was a small explosive charge fitted which on impact with the target explosively released a cloud of red smoke and red dye to mark the impact point. The observers could clearly identify only three impact points.

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A later version of the Bullpup guided missile that was lost in the sea at Filfla island.

The fourth missile had left the helicopter correctly and was observed approaching the target but at the very last moment had disappeared. There had been no explosive impact, no red smoke or dye, or, as far as anyone could observe no splash as it fell into the sea. The situation was not acceptable and the experts on board the Bulwark, including a civilian boffin from the British Company who were doing trials on the missile, wanted to retrieve it to identify what had gone wrong. When their request was passed to the naval base ashore, someone decided it was a job for the dive team, under the mistaken belief that we would be familiar with the island and could lead the missile experts ashore and keep them safe. The trouble with that idea was that none of the team, probably no one in Malta, had ever set foot on the island and in fact had no desire to do so. Filfla as long as anyone could remember had had, a one thousand yard exclusion zone around it, and Maltese fishermen were warned to keep well away.

The idea of landing the party on the island by helicopter was considered, but then someone pointed out that when helicopters fly they generate a great deal of static electricity, which as they touch down, could spark and set off any dormant but live, explosive devices so that idea was discarded. Eventually, the plan decided on was to go in by sea using a dockyard vessel that we were sometimes allocated to do heavy diving jobs,  and our small rubber dinghy, normally used as a diving safety tender. The two missile experts, a Navy Lieutenant Commander and a civilian boffin, would come out with us in the vessel, MFV1031, and wait until we had established a safe route onto and across the island, before being ferried in, in the rubber boat.

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The divers of the Kalafrana Dive Team, the Author left Bagsy Baker centre and Pete Spencer right on the South Slipway at Kalafrana outside the Diving Store, 1959.

Most of the divers in the team, including the diving officer, were not very keen on this job because it wasn’t a proper underwater diving job and because of the unknown dangers, the explosives on the island presented. Consequently, Leading Seaman Bagsy Baker, as the team leader and Diver Pete Spencer and I were selected to go ashore first because we had trade qualifications as armourers and would hopefully recognise any dangers to be avoided.

Early next morning found us all aboard the MFV anchored just south of Filfla with Bagsy, Pete and I dressed in our diving suits and carrying mask and fins in case we had to swim ashore. The three of us climbed down into the small rubber dinghy we’d been towing and set off for the island. As we paddled in I noticed that Filfla was a very rugged rocky island with a large boulder-strewn area at the south with steep cliffs rising up like a huge granite wall behind. The whole effect was as if it was purpose-built for containing gunfire and other explosions.

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The explosive Mediterranean island of Filfla a definite no-go area.

We clambered ashore and made the dinghy secure before heading inland, treading carefully around rocks and boulders, both large and small and between the fragments of exploded bombs and rocket motors and as pre-arranged, marking a safe route with white tape. As we proceeded we could see years of devastation comprising fragmented rocks and boulders intermingled with rocket motors, exploded bomb fragments and worryingly a number of damaged but unexploded bombs. Suddenly Bagsy stopped dead in his tracks and pointed ahead at a one thousand pound bomb broken in half, spilling explosive around the area. We realigned our route to give it a wide berth and carried on into the centre of the rocky foreshore area where it met the steep cliffs, where we could clearly see above us three distinct dye marks and fragments of three yellow missiles, but of the fourth missile, there was no sign.

Shortly after we were joined by three more divers and the two experts from the Bulwark. One was a Navy Lieutenant Commander, but the other was a civilian from the company who were doing trials on the missiles. Gingerly the new crew bunched in around us, looking apprehensively at the unexploded bomb. The civilian expert looked the real ‘mad professor’, he was middle-aged and completely inappropriately dressed in a heavy tweed suit complete with waistcoat. He had insisted on wearing a life jacket in the boat and now insisted on keeping it on which only made him look ridiculous. Also on his head, he had a knotted handkerchief, reminiscent of elderly English beachgoers just after the war. We discovered that this chap was an office-bound exert in missile guidance systems and didn’t seem to have a clue about anything else and was completely out of his depth amongst sailors, divers and explosives and stunned us all by pulling out of his pocket a pipe and a box of matches. Everyone jumped on him and the naval officer explained in no uncertain terms that he had endangered all of us by just bringing the matches onto the island. Now that we were at the back wall of the island and found no sign of the lost missile the two experts who we assumed would take the lead and give some direction for the search seemed lost as to what to do next, it seemed they had planned on getting onto the island and immediately locating the Bullpup. However, as they had no plan and everyone was getting jittery because of the civilian’s stupidity in producing matches amongst so much explosive, there was a feeling of ‘Well! We’ve had a go, there’s nothing here let’s get to hell off the island before there’s an accident.’ Someone voiced that opinion, but Bagsy, showing surprising leadership suggested that as we were here on the island we should at least search up the cliffs as far as we could get and try to look to see if there was anything visible in the sea close by.

Three of us started climbing up one side while the other divers climbed gingerly up the other, leaving the two experts sitting on a rock where we hoped they would do no harm. Suddenly one of the divers let out a yell then a scream and began slipping down the cliff pulling down rocks and a rocket motor as he fell. The diver and the rocks landed in a huge cloud of dust which looked very much like smoke, the two experts never hesitated and ran for the boat. The rest of us divers not sure what had happened but completely spooked by the cloud of ‘smoke’ and the rapid exit of the two experts, ran after them. When we reached the water’s edge, the rubber dinghy with the two experts paddling like demented egg whisks about to self-destruct, was some distance away heading for the MFV and refused to return. Bagsy grunted, “You know the definition of the word expert don’t you, X is an unknown factor and a spurt is just a drip under pressure.” We all laughed, which released the tension we had all felt since landing on the explosive island. We also felt a lot better when one of the men who had been fairly high up on the cliff reported he had seen something yellow in the sea just to the west of the island and was convinced he had spotted the lost missile.

By mid-afternoon we had repositioned the MFV close to the yellow object and Bagsy, Pete and I were gearing up to dive down and take a look. We had received a one-page diagram of the missile with some brief instructions on how to remove the fuse and the detonator, which we looked at without learning much that we didn’t already know as ordinance trained armourers. We slipped into the water and swam down about 30 feet of the clear blue Mediterranean and swam around the target trying to assess if it was damaged. I was surprised to find that the Bullpup missile was quite small and fortunately appeared to be in very good shape, considering it had hit the sea at some considerable speed. We closed in and Pete carefully applied a spanner to the fuse and gave it a slight turn. Nothing, so he indicated for Bagsy and me to hold down the body of the missile while he exerted a bit of force. We both hung on to the fins, holding it rigid while Pete slowly unscrewed the fuse and removed the detonator to make the missile safe for recovery. Once we had clambered back on board, the missile was hoisted up to just below the surface, where the Diving Officer declared it must stay, as he wasn’t having ‘that damned thing’ on his Vessel. Eventually, it was decided to manhandle the missile into our rubber boat and tow it astern of the launch, but then we got a radio message from our shore base relayed from the ship informing us to hold our position as the Bulwark was sending a helicopter to recover the missile.

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The flight deck of HMS Bulwark with two helicopters about to fly off to retrieve the missile, and our rubber dinghy.

Within the hour two helicopters, one with a net slung on a long cable arrived overhead and a few of the divers got in the water to transfer the missile from the dinghy to the net, however, it soon became clear that the transfer was fraught with danger. If the missile slipped out of the diver’s control between the dinghy and the net it would be lost forever in the depths, so it was decided to leave the missile in the dinghy and simply float the dinghy into the net. Once it was inside the net the helicopter gained a little height and disappeared to the south to rendezvous with the ship and the Diving Officer’s last words were, “I hope they remember to send our rubber boat back.” But of course, they never did.

In the Royal Navy, from time to time, there is an inquisition known as the Admiral’s Inspection. It is an opportunity for the Admiral and his staff to visit a ship or shore establishment and poke their very long noses into every nook and cranny and every cooked book. They have the right to inspect all of the equipment and to see if it works properly, but more importantly, they look to see if any piece of Admiralty property is missing.

To the suspicious Admiral’s staff, missing means stolen and they are keen to attribute blame. If no ready culprit can be found then the unfortunate officer who signed for the lost item in the first place is accountable. It is considered extremely bad form for an up and coming officer to be held responsible for missing items and could thwart any chance of promotion. The officer in charge of our diving team at Kalafrana was quite concerned, we had lost our rubber dinghy and the Admiral’s Inspection was only three weeks away. No excuses would be accepted.

We racked our brains for where we could beg, borrow or steal another rubber boat of similar appearance. After exhaustive discreet inquiries, we discovered that the only suitable boats on the island of Malta were owned by an unapproachably elite group. The Royal Marine Commando’s Special Boat Section had nearly twenty of the type of boats we were after, but we knew very well that they were not remotely likely to loan us one. The commandos were a very tough bunch of men and the Special Boat Section, or SBS were considered dangerous and not to be messed with. They were professional soldiers in every sense and took their jobs very seriously. Their training and operations were so secret that no one ever knew where their base was or where they were operating.

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Royal Marine Commandos of the Special Boat Section, men not to be messed with.

Sometime recently, we had come across the SBS doing beach assault training at St Paul’s Bay. We had been diving nearby and watched in awe as they raced their assault boats onto the beach at full speed and dispersed into the sand dunes firing their weapons. They were a force to be reckoned with, but the Admiral’s Inspection was even more formidable. If only we could find the base of the SBS, we thought, we could perhaps ‘borrow’ one of their boats at least for the duration of the inspection. We sent out scouts to reconnoitre St Paul’s Bay, but there was no sign of the elusive Special Boat Section.

Then, with only two weeks to go, we were told by one of our spies that there were ten SBS rubber boats tied up alongside a motor launch in a backwater off Frenchman’s Creek in Grand Harbour. It was also reported that two of the boats were without motors. This was good news as we didn’t need a motor and there was no point in stealing anything unnecessarily. The diving officer decided to put our clandestine plan into action.

We sailed from Kalafrana in MFV 1037, which we still had temporary use of,  and approached Grand Harbour around dusk and motored slowly in past the breakwater heading for Frenchman’s Creek. It would be dark by 9.30 pm and the moon would rise two hours later, giving us just enough time to carry out our thieving exploits in obscurity, we hoped. The atmosphere on board was tense but exciting. We felt like wartime saboteurs operating in enemy territory. If the SBS caught us interfering with their gear we could expect nothing less than physical violence.

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MFV 1031 en route to Grand Harbour Malta. Authors own photo.

We tucked the MFV in under the shadow of some tall buildings. The Diving Officer himself was to lead the assault and another senior diver would accompany him. Dressed in tight-fitting rubber suits and oxygen sets they slipped silently into the water and disappeared, leaving not a ripple or a bubble to mark their course. After an hour, when there was still no sign of the pair, the tension on board was electric. Ten minutes later, the two divers appeared suddenly at the ladder – without a rubber boat.

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The Diving Officer returned, without a rubber boat. Authors own photo.

The Diving Officer explained that there had been a great deal of light and activity around the motor launch, preventing them from getting close. They had waited until they were short of oxygen before leaving, but just as they were about to go all the lights had gone out and the activity ceased. A second attempt was considered worth trying. This time, Leading Seaman Baker would lead with Pete Spencer partnering him, at the time I was the most junior member of the team and not yet qualified to swim at night without a lifeline. I didn’t really expect to get a chance to dive but I’d put on my dive suit just in case and the Diving Officer must have noticed my enthusiasm to get in on the action. He told me I could go with the others, as long as I wore a short buddy line connected to Bagsy.

We slipped into the water and commenced swimming on a compass bearing at a depth of six metres. We were all using swim boards, small pieces of plywood that were held out in front of us to aid in depth keeping. Mounted on each board was a compass, a depth gauge, a watch and a timer. From the luminous dials of the instruments we could keep a correct depth and course, and time when to turn into the smaller bay off Frenchman’s Creek. I kept station just above, between and slightly astern of the other two divers, connected to Bagsy with the line. Although it was very dark we were making a terrific amount of phosphorescence, like millions of multi-coloured bubbles, which I hoped could not be seen from above. It was an exciting feeling to be penetrating enemy territory with intentions of theft.

We stopped and came to the surface after swimming for about quarter of an hour. Right ahead was the darkened down motor launch, the boats unseen in her shadow. After carefully observing the sentry on the launch we dived, moved in, and surfaced again under the sheer of the launch’s bow. As our eyes became accustomed to the surroundings we could see that the rubber boat nearest to us had no motor, so we chose that as the one to ‘borrow.’ Silently, Bagsy reached up as high as he could and sliced through the boat’s painter. Pete Spencer went to the back of the boat and cut the stern line. All we had to do was get it away from the motor launch without the sentry spotting us, but that was easier said than done. From our position it was impossible to see the sentry yet it was imperative that he was on the blind side of the launch when we moved. Time was passing, and at any moment the moon could rise and reveal our felonious intent. We had to be quick. Spencer signalled silently that he would swim out a short distance and let us know when it was clear. He swam off, and we strained our eyes into the darkness until we could make out a white hand beckoning us. Then Bagsy and I swam out to join him, pulling the rubber boat by its severed painter. We were swallowed up by the darkness within seconds.

We scrambled back on board our own vessel and in the early hours of the morning with the dinghy on board and covered over with a tarpaulin, we moved quietly and slowly out of Frenchman’s Creek, trying to look like a dockyard vessel going about its normal business. We arrived back at Kalafrana feeling somewhat tired but elated, we now had a rubber boat for the Admirals Inspection.

The diving officer was pleased but insisted on inspecting the boat closely for indications of the real owners. To our horror, we discovered some discreetly stencilled numbers and the emblem of a dagger, the sign of the SBS. We soon painted over this and stencilled on our own logo to make it look like the original boat that we had lost. It was good enough to fool any nosy-parker among the Admiral’s staff. Whether it would fool a commando from the SBS was a different matter altogether.

The boat was to be kept very much under wraps until after the inspection in case word reached the real owners. At the back of the slipway at Kalafrana was a large unused sandstone building about the size of a garage with a large door and only one small, boarded up window. The dive team commandeered the building, fitted a strong padlock and secured the prize boat inside.

Not far from Kalafrana, at Hal Far, was the airfield of the Royal Naval Air Station. They were being inspected by the Admiral at the same time as we were. The whole inspection was expected to last the best part of a fortnight and included a number of exercises to test the security of the airfield. One of the exercises, which previously hadn’t caught our attention, was an attempt by Royal Marine Commandos to gain entrance to strategic installations on the airfield. It was a not very well kept secret that the main assault would come from the sea and be led by the commandos of the SBS. This fact gave the dive team an uneasy feeling. Although the airfield was over eight kilometres from Kalafrana, to have the SBS in attack mode so close to our base was worrying. Especially as there was already a rumour abroad that the dive team had somehow made monkeys out of the SBS. Even though we had all been sworn to secrecy about our illegal actions, obviously not every member of the team could be relied on to keep their big gobs shut, especially after a few beers.

The diving officer called a meeting to warn us that on the night of the airfield attack the commandos may take the opportunity to divert one platoon to our base, looking for any sign of the missing boat. He proposed that the dive team should take part in the exercise and patrol around our buildings to protect them. No one was the least bit keen on this idea because we all knew that if the SBS did find their boat we would more than likely get a good hiding for just being there. The diving officer said he was disgusted to learn that grown men, supposedly the Navy’s best were as frightened as schoolgirls by a few marines. Someone mentioned that those marines wore knuckledusters, carried daggers, were trained to kill and were so devoted to their work that they couldn’t always tell the difference between an exercise and a real war. The diving officer ignored him and kept talking until he had shamed three of us into ‘volunteering’ for guard duty.

On the night of the exercise, Able Seaman Poney Moore, myself and Pete Spencer drew the short straws to guard the building containing the rubber boat. We wore webbing belts and gaiters, steel helmets and whistles on chains. I had a Lee Enfield .303 rifle and five rounds of blank ammunition. Pete was issued with a Sterling sub-machine gun but no ammunition and Poney Moore with a Shermuly signal pistol, one parachute flare and three red flares. Unwillingly, we marched off to the building we were to guard and settled in. At about 9.30 pm the diving officer came around to check up on us and left a couple of flasks of coffee and a packet of corned beef sandwiches with pickled onions, but at that stage, we were too scared to be hungry. By midnight, however, when nothing had happened and the exercise was just an hour from finishing, we were beginning to relax. We opened the sandwiches, poured some coffee and sat down to eat on some rocks at the back of the building. Then Pete thought he heard a noise around the front. ‘It might be the diving officer come to tell us to knock off. I’ll go an’ ‘ave a look,’ he said. He wandered off with his sub-machine gun slung nonchalantly around his neck, a corned beef sandwich in one hand and a pickled onion in the other. Pony and I poured more coffee.

A few minutes passed as we chewed, and it wasn’t till I was getting stuck into my second sandwich that I began to think that maybe something was wrong. ‘What’s keeping Pete?’ I said to Pony. He grinned. ‘Perhaps the marines have got him.’ We laughed, and I checked the time. ‘It’s after one o’clock,’ I said. ‘The exercise is over now. We were all worried about nothing; those damn marines never knew it was us that stole their boat. I’ll go and see what’s keeping Pete.’ I grabbed the last sandwich and strolled around the building towards the front. Then I heard a strange noise, like a muffled cry of pain, and a definite thump. I stuck the sandwich in my mouth and pulled the rifle from my shoulder. Quietly, I worked the bolt and pushed a blank round into the chamber. Then I released the safety catch and sprang out of the darkness into the moonlight at the front of the building.

Pete was lying on the ground, very still and apparently unconscious, with two indistinct camouflaged figures kneeling over him. I tried to yell a challenge but all that came out of my mouth was the corned beef sandwich. ‘Hands up,’ I spluttered at last, and inadvertently pulled the trigger. There was a loud bang and a bright flash, which took me by surprise and blinded me for a second. When I blinked and looked again, Pete was alone and the two figures had disappeared around to the rear of the building to deal with Pony Moore. But as my night vision returned an indistinct apparition materialised between Pete and myself, which I soon realised was a Royal Marine Commando Sergeant in a camouflaged battle dress. Instinctively I levelled my rifle at his chest and worked the bolt to reload. ‘Hands up sergeant,’ I said, in a squeaky voice that I didn’t recognise as my own, ‘You’re my prisoner.’

Even as I said it I realised how stupid it sounded and that I’d made a big mistake in pointing a loaded rifle at a commando. But it was too late to back out then. I was committed. The sergeant raised his hands, which made him appear about three metres tall. As he moved silently towards me and smiled, I realised I’d bought into a fight I couldn’t possibly win. I racked my brain for a way out and took two steps back. This was another mistake. The sergeant’s almost friendly grin turned to a sneer of contempt at my obvious cowardliness. My only chance to avoid a severe beating was to give up and surrender to the sergeant without making a fight of it. ‘Ok, sergeant, you win. I give up. I’ll be your prisoner.’ I threw down my rifle. His expression turned to one of disgust and he advanced on me quickly, grabbing me by the whistle chain around my neck.

It was only then when I realised there was no avoiding a bashing, that I found a bit of courage. Only the week before I’d been a spectator at the Mediterranean Fleet wrestling championships and had been impressed by one of the throws I’d seen. One of the wrestlers was being forced backwards and seemed to be losing the bout when he suddenly turned defeat into victory by using his opponent’s own momentum against him. He held on to his attacker as he went down, got his foot up into the other man’s stomach and propelled him over his head and right out of the ring. I decided to try it on the sergeant.

Looking back, I think it’s fair to say that I may have been a bit confused at the time. I should have realised that trained-to-kill commandos are aware of tricks like that. As I fell backwards I did manage to grab the sergeant by the neck and get one foot up into his belly, but he anticipated my pathetic attempt to throw him and stiffened up, dragging his feet along the ground and allowing his considerable weight to bear down on my leg, buckling it painfully onto my chest as we hit the ground. Unfortunately, the rear edge of my steel helmet struck the unyielding ground and even more, unfortunately, the sergeant’s face struck the sharp, equally unyielding front edge of it, causing a nasty cut across the bridge of his nose. So I could claim – and often have since– that first blood went to me, although of course, second blood was obviously the sergeants. I think he was so disappointed to have his good looks marred by a dim-witted, cowardly, boat-stealing diver that he felt entirely justified in taking it out on my face. He pulled my head up by the whistle chain around my neck, then: wham, bang! I think I remember the whistle chain snapping under the force of the first blow, but then my lights went out and I never did find that whistle and chain

They stole back their rubber boat, of course, so we were still left without one for the Admiral’s Inspection. Our Diving Officer was none too pleased. Not only did he have to write a lengthy report to explain its disappearance, he also had to take personal responsibility for it.

Some weeks later, we met the SBS again. We were diving on the wreck of the Devonshire off Delemara Point when four rubber boats packed with commandos came suddenly from nowhere, circled around us and stopped alongside. They chatted with us pleasantly, with no indication of the strife that had gone on between us.

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They stole their boat back and came to see us, just to gloat.

One of the boats was the one we had stolen, easily identified with our dive team logo still visible on the side. Sitting in that boat was a sergeant with a pleasant smile and a scar on his nose. I’m sure he recognised the haunted look in my eyes. ‘That’s not much of a diving tender,’ he said, pointing to the little wooden dinghy that we were using. ‘You should get yourselves a nice rubber boat, like this one,’ and he patted the side where our logo was. Then they sped away, laughing roguishly.

Damn commandos. Damn sergeant. I should have shot the bugger when I had the chance.

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