On Malta the small RAF force was almost under constant attack from the Luftwaffe based on Sicily and mainland Italy. It was a continual struggle to keep enough planes serviceable to be able to hit back.
Amongst the RAF bomber pilots was the exuberant Ken Rees, who had had flown his Wellington bomber under the Menai suspension bridge in Wales during training. He was already an experienced pilot when he arrived on Malta.
On the 6th November 1941 Rees's target was Naples1. He was diving down to attack a barrage balloon when:
the rear gunner reported a night-fighter coming up after us. Pulling her out of the dive, I did a semi-stall turn, but while we were still in a steep dive from that we were coned by searchlights and I found myself suddenly disoriented. By the time I’d shaken my head and recovered, the Wellington was only 500 feet above the streets of Naples, with a couple of searchlights still on us.
‘Get the searchlights’ I yelled at the gunners, and took her down to rooftop height. We lost the searchlights, and the night-fighter as well; searchlights didn’t go down to street level, which was where we were now, and I guess the night-fighter had more sense.
‘There is a point after which you can’t do anything except get on with it.
Heaven only knows what the local residents thought as they looked out into bright moonlight to see a Wellington screaming full tilt down their (nice, wide) main street. There is a point after which you can’t do anything except get on with it.
We howled out over the harbour, the gunners silent now so that none of the warships would notice us passing by; just as I’d got us low over the water I spotted a warship hard on the starboard side. As we shot past it full throttle, I could see Joe’s .303 Brownings blazing away. Silly bugger was trying to sink a battleship with a pair of .303s.
On the battleship, meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose. The only reason I can think of that we survived this episode was that the Italians couldn’t hit an oversize barn door with an 88 mm.
Our front guns abruptly stopped, replaced by the sound of rude French words; Joe’s guns had seized, much to my relief. ‘Sorry, Skipper,’ he sounded genuinely regretful, ‘my guns jammed’
Sadly this was one of the last trips that Joe Arsenault, the Browning machine gunner, would make. Although they were a close knit crew a few nights later Joe was ordered to urgently take the place of another gunner on another aircraft, who had gone sick.
Joe pulled his flying kit over his pyjamas, and that was the last we ever saw of him: the entire crew never came back, and Joe, dour, fearless, dependable, inarticulate Joe was gone with them.
Ken Rees would later become a Prisoner of War and participated in ‘The Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III in 1944. Rees’ adventures there saw him being sent to solitary confinement or ‘the cooler’ on more than one occasion. He was therefore considered, in some respects, to be the model for the character played by Steve McQueen in the subsequent film. The Hollywood film was a heavy with fictional embellishments of the main event.