Troubador Publishing Ltd , UK
This important new book is one of few available eyewitness accounts of the often overlooked role of the Air / Sea Rescue teams during World War II. Focussing on High Speed Launch (HSL) 107 which rescued close to 100 pilots during the siege of Malta, this tale of heroism is a historically important personal account by Bill Jackson, a crew member of HSL 107.
While everyone around them was hell-bent on death and destruction, the crews of the Air / Sea Rescue Units were
dedicated to the survival of both friend and foe alike. They carried out their job with little recognition and with great
heroism. Battling the elements, often in appalling sea conditions, and under near-constant air attack from a most
determined enemy, the units shared the privations endured by the islanders, coming close to starvation as the Axis
forces inched toward invasion.
This book shares with the reader the elation of successful rescues, the exhilaration of the High Speed Launch at full
throttle, the determination of the Units to turn out at all hours in all weathers to go to the aid of both Allied and
Axis pilots. Relief, anticipation, joy and fear are all related to the reader as well as the sheer determination to
maintain their rescue capabilities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This fascinating book is set to fill a large gap in the
existing literature of World War II.
The one, still open, eye of the dead Italian pilot glared unblinkingly at us as we struggled to pull his inert body inboard. His head, chin resting on the rubber strake along the deck edge, lolled slowly from side to side as his body swung like a pendulum with every pitch and roll of High Speed Launch (HSL) 107. The sweat streamed from the four of us as we struggled to get him high enough for waiting hands to lift him on board, but no amount of pulling on the rope round him moved him any higher. A quick look over the side told us that the ribbed flotation jacket worn by all Italian aircrew was well and truly jammed tight against the edge of the deck.
As I strained on my part of the rope, hands beginning to ache with holding on, I became aware of a peculiar feeling inside me. I knew it wasn't seasickness, the weeks I had already spent at sea on large and small craft had proved that my stomach could accept any pitching and tossing I was likely to meet, but the feeling persisted.
When it became obvious that our efforts were not going to be successful, it also became obvious that someone was going to have to get over the side and try to free the dead man, and I was left in no doubt as to who that would be; the one whose efforts on the rope would be least missed – me!
‘Get down the ladder Tich and push him away’, came the soft voice of Coxswain Joe Timms.
I was well used to the nickname 'Tich', my five feet two and a half inches accounted for that, but I was particularly pleased that he didn't use another nickname I often got - the polite version was 'Short-house', and the ladder he referred to was a steel three-runged effort that we had bolted to the deck as we came up to the floating corpse. Once in position the lower section dropped down to make a platform big enough to stand on and about six inches above the water.
As I climbed down beside the swaying form, the odd feeling I had became stronger, and I found that the body was naked from the waist down. Neither the nakedness of the airman nor his close proximity provided any reason for feeling as I did - I was no stranger to the sight of a dead body! As my home in Workington was next to the town's mortuary, I was used to the sight of the dead; the doors to the building were not always closed properly!
This familiarity with the sight of a corpse came home to me now as I gingerly eased myself between the semi-naked form and the wooden side of HSL107 and prepared to push. Little did I realise how hard it was going to be to move the dead man out of the vertical, and yet I felt no revulsion as my hands came into contact with the cold flesh.
For a moment I thought that I wasn't going to be able to manage and then I felt more of his weight come on to my arms as the tension on the ropes eased slightly and I feared that he was going to slip back into the waves that lapped just below us. Instead I felt him move outwards enough for his life jacket to come clear of the rubber strake, and with this I heard a muttered
‘Two, six, heave!’
from above and as the body moved upwards the strain on my arms eased so quickly I almost lost my balance and nearly fell headlong into the water but a quick grab for the side restored my balance and I was back up the ladder in no time to find that the lads had laid the Italian on the engine room hatch while they readied a stretcher. Whilst this was being done the coxswain had advanced the throttles of our three 500 horsepower engines and was now steering a course for our base at Kalafrana.
This being my first rescue trip, my opposite number, Ron Marshall, had come along the deck to me as we cast off and suggested that if this was going to be a short run then he would cope with the wireless traffic so that I could stay on deck and see what went on.
Now with the wind we were creating with our rate of knots I should have been enjoying the exhilaration of our high-speed travel. Instead, every now and again, my eyes were drawn to the blanket-covered figure on the stretcher behind me and the odd feeling I had had earlier was still there and, if anything, was much stronger.
I found that I was not enjoying anything but was getting more and more irritated at not being able to analyse my feelings, so much so, that my eyes failed to register that the once unbroken line of the horizon had now changed to the rocky outline of Malta, an outline that climbed higher and higher with each passing minute. The question in my mind remained unanswered.
Still niggled I dragged myself back to reality as we flashed between the two points at the end of Marsaxlokk Bay, Delimara and Benghisa points and Joe Timms started to ease our speed on the final leg of our return to the Marine Section.
With our three engines just grumbling away under us the rudders were put hard over to port to bring our bows round in an arc for us to head into the square dock area we called the Camber. We carried on turning towards our berth at the jetty as Paddy and Blackie, two of our deck hands, stood at bow and stern ready to cast our mooring lines ashore. Opposite rudders took us to starboard to our mooring place on the jetty.
A quick heave sent the two lines across the waiting shoulders of the hands ashore and as the noise of the engines died away we were gently pulled close to the jetty wall where a round turn and two half-hitches made us secure on the shore bollards.
As I jumped ashore to lend a hand with the gangway I noticed the waiting ambulance with an escort of two Redcaps and stood silent with a couple of the crew as the stretcher and its burden was carried ashore and across to the waiting vehicle.
I stood alone as the stretcher was lifted inside and disappeared from view as the two doors were firmly closed. Still watching I heard the ambulance engine start up and begin to move away.
Turning at the top of the gangway as I returned aboard to lend a hand with refueling in case we had another call to sea, I saw that the ambulance was just passing between the double gates at the end of the Section to move out on to the road.
It was only then that I knew the reason for the peculiar feeling that I had had from the moment I saw that one, still open, eye apparently staring at me. Inside the ambulance, now disappearing from view was the first dead enemy I had ever seen. I couldn't help wondering how many more there would be.