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Shrewsbury's Brave Bill blown up in the most bombed place on earth

By Toby Neal | Nostalgia | Published:

They called it the most bombed place on earth. And Shrewsbury's Bill Marchant was one of those on the receiving end, being blown up twice.

The siege of Malta between June 1940 and late 1942 is an epic tale of courage and endurance, which saw the entire island given the highly unusual distinction of being awarded the George Cross.

And some of the danger and the drama of the episode is brought home in a remarkable series of photographs which have passed down from the late Bill to his son Athol, who lives in South Africa.

They show burning British aircraft, devastating bomb damage in the Maltese capital of Valletta, and a glimpse of life for the RAF men like Bill who were in the front line of what was largely an air war.

Shrewsbury's Bill Marchant was blown up twice and deafened.

Among the photos is a gibbet, a warning to thieves and saboteurs whose bodies, it was said, would be hung from the gibbet after they were shot.

There's even one of Bill, as a lark, "posing" to have his photo taken by a German reconnaissance plane lurking overhead.

Bill, full name William George Marchant, who was born in Shrewsbury on September 12, 1919, did not tell Athol much about the worst of it, preferring to tell more humorous anecdotes, yet was left deafened by bomb blasts and malnourished as a result of the siege.

Bill with a Bristol Blenheim bomber.

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At the start of the Second World War he signed up for the RAF and was sent to Malta, during which he served in 249 Squadron at Takali airfield. The squadron, which flew Hurricanes and later Spitfires, had arrived on the beleaguered island in mid-1941. Bill, who clearly had a camera, was able to capture the island's unfolding ordeal on film.

"He never spoke too much about his time there, and I don't blame him, so I’m not too sure of all the details," said Athol.

"He was a Sergeant in the RAF, and as far as I can ascertain he was navigator/aircrew/wireless operator, and was incredible at Morse Code.

"I know he had flown in Beaufighters, the Boulton Paul Defiant, I think, and later in a Lancaster and somewhere along the line he became friendly with Edwin Swales, VC, DFC, a South African who flew Lancasters.

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A Sunderland flying boat burning after being shot up by German fighters.

"He also told me all about the three Gladiator fighters on Malta, Faith, Hope and Charity. When he did speak of his time on Malta he only related the funny times, like when he and some RAF buddies were walking along a road and they were strafed by an Me109. He jumped over a low stone wall and after the German fighter had gone he realised he had landed in a pile of fresh cow poo.

"Also, he and his buddies were skinny dipping in the Mediterranean and some Royal Navy chaps stole their uniforms and gave them navy attire to wear. They were then taken to a naval mess where they all imbibed rather a lot of alcohol.

"Bill was blown up twice. The first time was in about November 1941. During a German air raid he was helping to service a Spitfire at Takali. A bomber approached and Bill tried to get to a slit trench but a bomb exploded behind him and he was blown for several yards over the trench.

Flying days were over for these Hurricanes.

"He was taken by ambulance to Imtarfa Hospital near Imtarfa Barracks and treated for severe concussion and shock. From this point on he suffered a loss of hearing in one ear. As Malta was under siege he had to report back for service immediately.

"The second time was in June 1942. Bill was sent to the medical officer because of his ear problem. While the MO was syringing his ear there was an air raid by the Germans and he and the MO took shelter in the fireplace. A bomb dropped directly on the building and destroyed it. However he and the MO somehow survived, but with further damage to Bill’s ears.

"The handful of men, including Bill, who weighed 91 lbs at that time due to malnutrition, who had survived the 18-month siege were eventually flown to Almaza Hospital near Heliopolis in Egypt for treatment and then to South Africa to recuperate.

This gibbet was put up at RAF Takali with the warning: "Any man, woman or child, civilian or service personnel, found guilty of sabotage, theft, or in any other way impeding the war effort and subsequently shot, will be hung from this gibbet as a warning to all others."

"While in Egypt Bill visited the Giza pyramids and managed to climb the tallest pyramid, Khufu.

"He had a beautiful Singer sports car in England which his sister, desperate for money, sold along with his treasured racing bicycle while he was on Malta.

"At the end of the war he was demobbed in South Africa where he spent the rest of his life."

After the war his deafness caused by bombing became worse and he applied for medical help to get a hearing aid, but was rejected, and the Ministry of Defence also refused to increase his pension, which remained at £97 a month for Bill and his wife Primrose – to whom he was married for 67 years – for his entire life.

The aftermath of a Luftwaffe raid on Takali airfield.

"He voluntarily gave six and a half years of his youth for ‘King and Country’ including 18 months on Malta, the most bombed place on earth, to be treated with such disdain by Britain," said Athol.

"The medals I have are his Malta George Cross, 1939-1945 Star, Africa Star, Defence Medal, and 1939-1945 War Medal, and various bars.

"I made sure I kept all his mementos, including a beautiful World War Two solid silver and enamel sweethearts brooch, his RAF badges, gloves, and so on. I also have his photo album of his Malta days, including the gallows which I’m sure the British never admitted having.

Just one of Bill's photos showing the bomb damage.

"I did serve in the South African Defence Force in the late 1960s, but I keep all my father’s RAF mementos in his memory. He also became a good tennis player in Johannesburg and was club champion a number of times.

"I was born in South Africa, and spent nearly 40 years working as an ecologist in the Natal Parks Board wildlife department in Natal.

"My father died when he was 92. He was chasing his cat around the lawn, tripped over the hosepipe and fell into the rockery. He didn’t break any bones but lost a lot of blood. He died about six months later."

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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