MALTA DIARY: The ill-fated voyage of the MV ‘Star of Malta’ in 1955 – and my ill-fate because of it!
It was the 29th of July 1955 and I was nine years old. We were in Malta on holiday from England, that is my late mother Pauline, my younger brother Edward and I, staying at our maternal grandparents’ home in Falzon Street, Sliema. My late father Frank stayed behind in England to earn the family bread at RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire.
Word of mouth quickly spread in the early morning that the MV ‘Star of Malta’ had foundered on the Mercanti Reef off Dragonara Point, just off the Sliema Seafront, in heavy morning mists. Deaths and injuries were mentioned.
My mother’s youngest brother, my Uncle Gino, a habitual roof dweller as an ardent pigeon fancier, took me up on the roof with him where in the distance we saw the ship wedged on the reef. We went downstairs again and Gino decided to go and get a closer look, walking the short distance to the Seafront, a 15-minute walk.
I was absorbed in curiosity which had to be satisfied and without anybody being aware I slunk off and walked the short distance to the Tal-Karmnu area on the Seafront to get a closer look of the ship surrounded by an armada of small boats.
Curiosity satisfied, I returned home – to pandemonium! My mother Pauline, nannu George and my nanna Giovanna were beside themselves with worry after they noticed my absence and my return welcome was frantic with shouts and chastisement.
Nannu George meted out a lot of stern finger-wagging and stories of the horrors and ill-fate that befalls boys who run away from home; nanna Giovanna took the role of my guardian and tried to smoothen matters with expressions of “the boy being overcome with curiosity” and how “boys will be boys” (she herself had given birth to four).
My mother took a much more proactive and physical role and gave me a few good whacks with a wooden spoon to “teach me a lesson” and “not be the cause of her early death through worry”. The wooden spoon was her chosen tool of chastisement when either my brother Edward or I fell out of line, I being a frequent recipient of the sound of wood meeting the flesh of the posterior!
For the rest of the day I was left in my underpants so as “not to run away again”.
At the time, the ship was just a ship like any other and of no particular significance except for enhancing my seafaring dreams of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe.
Much later I learnt the Star of Malta had a long, vastly chequered and highly interesting and fascinating history.
It first rode on the sea waves after being launched in 1925 as the luxury yacht ‘Camargo’, specifically built for American millionaire and expert yachtsman Julius Fleischmann from Cincinnati who was a descendent of the famous yeast manufacturing family. He loved to tour the South Pacific with his wife and two children and devoted his time to charting the many Japanese islands there, maps which later became highly essential to US Intelligence in World War II.
In 1938 it was bought by Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, President of the Dominican Republic and renamed ‘Ramfis’ but in 1942 it was bought by the US Navy and was converted for naval services and re-commissioned as the USS Marcasite (PY-28) under the command of Lt. Cdr Leander Jeffrey and was assigned to Pearl Harbour to escort merchant ships operating in the Hawaiian Islands. It was later assigned to Seattle as a patrol and weather station ship and was decommissioned on 5th October 1944, sold and renamed MV ‘Commando’.
In 1947 the ship was acquired by the Malta based Mitchell Cotts & Co and yet again renamed, this time as MV ‘Westminster’ and then in 1952 was bought by Maltese entrepreneur Paul M. Laferla who finally renamed her as MV ‘Star of Malta’ and was used to run a thrice-weekly ferry and mail-carrying service between Malta and Syracuse in Sicily.
Dawn on 29th July 1955 turned out to be a fateful day. The MV ‘Star of Malta’ had left Syracuse in the early morning on its return journey to Malta carrying 57 passengers. As it approached Malta’s coast at about 8am the sea was shrouded in heavy mists and it ran into the Mercanti Reef some 200 feet off Dragonara Point, capsized and keeled over to one side. The ship was under the command of Commodore S.G. Kent OBE, an experienced sea captain who earlier had been instrumental in overhauling the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.
The ship’s second cook A. Grech and a passenger, a Ms Mary Borg went missing and presumed drowned while all the other passengers and crew survived.
When news of the accident spread a flotilla of small fishing and pleasure boats sped to the area to assist but as the passengers had already disembarked, the opportunity was taken to salvage anything possible, including crates of fresh fruit and a number of cages containing chickens and some other livestock were all pilfered as ‘souvenirs’.
A postal hand-stamped ‘damaged by seawater/ex Star of Malta 29.7.55’ was applied to all letters and cards salvaged, a hand-stamp of great value now.
The ship remained wedged on the reef but later in August was re-floated by the Danish salvage company Svitzer and towed to the Rodriquez Shipyard in Messina, repaired and returned to continue the Malta-Syracuse link, this time under the command of Yugoslav Captain Velkjo Hajjia.
In September 1955 a Maritime Inquiry held Commodore Kent as being responsible for the accident. The assessors reviewed his previous blameless record as a sea captain but under the circumstances had no alternative but to suspend his Master’s Ticket for 12 months and thus ended an illustrious sea career.
In March of 1966 it was purchased by the Cantieri Navali della Grazie of La Spezia in Italy and broken up, and thus ended another illustrious and chequered career at sea.
Reviewing all this in retrospect, I am glad I stole away to see the wreck 61 years ago. It was an experience well worth a few whacks with a wooden spoon and an afternoon in underpants. Incidentally, I did not drive my mother to an early grave. She died four years ago at the venerable age of 89, God rest her good soul.