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   > wrecks > features appeared in DIVER November 2005

Sixty-two years separates the downing of a British fighter off Malta and a recent dive on the wreckage. Marcin Trzcinski closes the gap in time

17 March, 1943
"I TOOK OFF AND THE AIRCRAFT RESPONDED NORMALLY to the controls.I climbed to 1500ft, turning left in search of two aircraft I was to join. I located them after one circuit.
     "Left down to 1000ft, and the whole aircraft began to vibrate violently. My observer had reported smoke coming through his heating pipe shortly after take-off, but since all my instruments were reading correctly, I saw no cause for alarm."
     The RAF 272 Squadron, which had first been formed towards the end of World War One and then disbanded, was re-established in late 1940, equipped for escort duties with Bristol Beaufighters. Based first in Egypt, in 1942 it was redeployed to Malta for operations over Sicily and Tunisia.
     It would go on to be based in turn in Sicily, Sardinia and Italy, before making its last flight in 1945.
     But today, nine of the Beaufighters have taken off to escort the Beaufort bombers of 39 Squadron in an attack on Axis ships off the Sicilian coast.
     The Beaufighter marked with the letter N is flown by Sgt Donald Frazie, who would later recall its last flight in his official report.
     "As soon as the vibration started, I throttled the starboard engine right back and put the pitch control in 'fully coarse'. This had no effect. In fact, the vibration seemed to be increasing. I checked the port engine in a similar manner, but it did not help. Throttling back both engines was also ineffective.
     "By this time the vibrations had increased until I found it very difficult to see my instruments. My airspeed was approximately 130mph and the aircraft was losing height at 3-400ft a minute.
     "At 600ft, I told Sgt Sandery we would have to ditch. I held a steady course and continued to work with the engines, but was quite unable to hold the aircraft aloft.
     "I did not use flap but held the aircraft fairly well into wind, throttling back completely shortly before the impact.
     "We had both the top escape hatches unlatched a few seconds before ditching. There was a slight swell running, and the aircraft hit the water at approximately 100mph.
     "I was thrown forward and struck the corner of my right eye and the right side of my jaw on the reflector sight. It was possible that I was knocked out momentarily. I remember a flood of water through the top hatch, releasing my safety harness and a slight tug as my intercom plug broke the socjet.I kept my parachute on and experienced no difficulty in climbing out of the top hatch.
     "As I came out, I turned and saw my observer free of the aircraft. He had been strapped in, but had not braced himself in any other way. Apart from a minor bruise on the forehead, he was uninjured.
     "By the time we had both floated free, the aircraft had disappeared. I would estimate the time afloat as 15 seconds. We both found our Mae Wests entirely satisfactory. Mine was half inflated and it supported my weight complete with flying boots and parachute easily.
     "Both of us then inflated our K-type dinghies without difficulty. We were both seated in our dinghies at about 1155 hours. The wing dinghy had broken loose on impact but had not inflated.
     "Within five minutes we were both picked up by Maltese dghajsas, and five minutes after that the rescue launch arrived."

26 May 2005
THE MORNING BREAKS HOT AND SUNNY. Not a cloud diminishes the glorious azure of the sky, resulting in almost unbearable heat.
     Patrick Milton presents his plan. Six of his friends will accompany us to lower the cost of chartering the boat, but they will dive at least five minutes after us, to avoid the risk of stirring up silt and spoiling our chances of getting photographs.
     In the mid-1970s, Patrick's father Vincent, founder of Malta's Divewise dive centre, had chanced on the wreck of an aircraft lying in 38m of water, while familiarising himself with the reefs surrounding St Julian.
     He noted the location using transits and went on diving, leaving the unidentified wreck to its own fate.
     More than a dozen years later, he decided to return with Patrick to learn more about the wreck. Unfortunately, the transit points had gone and they had to find it all over again. They succeeded, but still had to identify the aircraft, which, due to its condition, was not an easy task.
     From the dents in the front part of the fuselage, at the base of the built-in guns, it was decided that it was a British heavy fighter, A search through the archives led to the conclusion that it was Sgt Frazie's Beaufighter.
     An eight-minute cruise and the use of GPS brings us right above the fighter, lying 38m below. We begin our descent and Patrick, swimming slightly ahead of me, points to something.
     I can see nothing in the blue around us until, still descending, I start to make out a silhouette against the sand, as if it is emerging from mist. I am approaching it from the rear. The remnants of the tail boom, torn from the fuselage right behind the wings, lie about 2m behind the main section of the Beaufighter.
     This section, turned at 180°, looks pretty good after 62 years in salty water. Flaps and ailerons have been torn apart, letting us see the internal construction of the wing, its strands and pulleys.
     The left engine (now on the right side) has lost its casing to reveal several cylinders, ending with the airscrew hub and one of its blades pointing vertically upwards. The extended undercarriage legs of both engine nacelles retain the sad remnants of wheels and tyres.
     The right engine has lost its airscrew. The base of the fuselage, unfortunately with the front torn off, presents the dents of muzzles of four guns.
     Another fragment of the plating has been torn apart on ditching, leaving the elements of the interior clearly visible. There is no access to the cockpit.
     Other divers appear, so I take a few more photos, swim around the wreck one more time and begin to ascend.
     My computer is showing 12 minutes of decompression, and we had left no reserve tanks in the water, assuming that our dive would not be a long one.
     That evening, I glance through the documents assembled concerning the wreck. My eye falls on 272 Squadron's motto: "On, on!"Beaufighter N at least has lived up to that claim.

  • Divewise, www.divewise.com.mt

  • Sgt Frazie's Bristol Beaufighter crashed off Malta 62 years ago

    it now lies inverted on the sandy seabed, undercarriage legs in the air

    The Beaufighter wreck now provides an irresistable attraction for divers in these clear waters

    straight down the line

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