Monday, July 15, 2024 Airfields & Airlines » Marsa Field  
The Marsa Sports Grounds – Malta’s first ever landing strip

The following first appeared in Malta Flypast Issue 4. It was written by Charles Stafrace, and I am grateful for his and the museum’s permission to reproduce it here.


Luqa, Hal Far, Ta' Qali - these names have become synonymous with the story of Maltese aviation, indeed with the histories of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, not least because of their connection with the Second World War. However, it is very rarely realised that the first stretch of land in Malta to serve for the normal landing and take-off of aircraft was in fact the Marsa Sports Ground, a relatively large, flat and grassy land situated at the south-western end of the Grand Harbour and which everybody referred to as "The Marsa".


During the early months of the First World War, or the Great War as it was then known, German submarines had already become a menace to British shipping in Home waters. When two Royal Navy battleships, HM Ships Triumph and Majestic, were sunk by submarines in the Mediterranean on 6 May 1915, the Admiralty gave its permission to construct an anti-submarine seaplane base in Malta. As a result Calafrana, in Marsaxlokk Bay in the south-east of the Island, was inaugurated as such in July 1916. (The spelling is correct. For the establishment of Calafrana see the History of Hal Far Airfield Part 1, Malta Flypast number 3.)

This arrangement functioned well for the purpose, except when the state of the sea made it impossible for seaplanes to take-off and alight in the choppy waters of the Bay. A search for a suitable area for the operation of land planes was therefore carried out and the Marsa was found to be ideal. During the summer of 1918 - by which time the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps had been amalgamated into the unified Royal Air Force (RAF) – two de Havilland DH.9As of No 562 (Malta Anti-Submarine) Flight operated from there to search for submarines when adverse sea conditions rendered operations from the Calafrana seaplane base impossible. Crews for the DH.9As were detached from Calafrana for this purpose.

The termination of hostilities brought to an end this land plane activity from Malta, which had always until then been considered to be of a transient nature, and in fact N° 562 Flight was disbanded in the beginning of 1919. But in December 1918 an event which warranted extensive press coverage had occurred when the largest aircraft then in service with the RAF landed in Malta at the only known flat stretch of ground available, which was of course The Marsa. The story had started in Britain the previous year.

Handley Page V/1500

In 1917 the Air Ministry had issued a specification for a large bomber with enough range to bomb Berlin and other targets inside Germany from bases in East Anglia, England. Handley Page Ltd had already become the specialists in bomber aircraft, having designed the 0/100 and 0/400 series of night bombers in 1916 and 1917 with which the first ever sustained strategic night bombing offensive was carried out by the RAF's so-called Independent Air Force in 1918. During that war the 0/100 saw action also in the Mediterranean region, being used in Palestine under General Allenby and T E Lawrence against the Turks, and one aircraft being based in Mudros, in the Aegean, from where it took part in the bombing of Constantinople and a raid against the German battle cruiser Goeben.

For Handley Page it was therefore a question of developing further the concept, increasing the span and endowing the new aircraft with greater fuel capacity for the longer range required, and powering it with four engines in place of the predecessors' two to cater for the larger bomb load specified. The choice of engines fell on the 375 h.p. Rolls Royce Eagle VIII, and their total horsepower composed the numerical part of the aircraft's designation of V/1500. The engines were mounted in two tandem pairs in between the top and lower wing. One peculiarity of the aircraft dictated by the then unknown forces of propeller slipstream was the fact that, while the front engines mounted two-bladed airscrews, the rear pusher ones mounted four-bladers. With its large span of 126 ft (38.40 m), a wing area of 3,000 feet (278,7 sq.m), fuselage length of 62 ft (19 m), fuselage cross-section of 8ft by 6ft 2 ins (2.44 m by 1.88 m) and take-off weight of 30,447 lb (13,808 kg), the aircraft was designed to carry 30 bombs of 250 lb (113 kg) each or two large one of the specially developed 3,300 pounders (1,497 kg), double the maximum bomb load of 1,650 lb (748 kg) then being deployed by existing bombers on the longer range flights.

Harland & Wolff of Ireland built the first aircraft, its components being assembled at Handley Page's Cricklewood works from where it was first flown in May 1918. It was unfortunate in that it crashed on its 18th flight, but the second aircraft incorporated several changes mainly to improve directional stability, most changes being incorporated in the machines ordered for production that totalled 255. The Armistice, however, caught up with the aircraft's development and only a few had reached squadron service by then, these going to N° 166, 167 and 274 Squadrons. Indeed, the only three aircraft ready for operational use had been bombed up and standing by with N° 166 Squadron, in Norfolk, for two days awaiting the order to raid Berlin when the Armistice was announced.

Landing in Malta

With the long-range strategic bombing role - the aircraft's raison d'etre - becoming redundant, the RAF cancelled all outstanding orders and decided to use one of the V/1500 on the first England-India through flight. For this venture the third prototype was used, serialled J1936 and named HMA Old Carthusian by its pilot Maj. A Stuart C MacLaren, HMA standing for 'His Majesty's Airliner'. Its interior was built such that it could be fitted with seats for passengers in lieu of racks for bombs. The aircraft left Marltesham Heath, Suffolk, on 13 December 1918 with five other persons on board besides MacLaren: co-pilot Capt. Robert Halley, Sgts Smith, Crockett and Brown, and a distinguished passenger, Brig.-Gen. N 0 K McEwan. Flying through Le Bourget, Marseilles, Pisa, Rome-Centocelle and Otranto, J 1936 arrived in Malta on 21 December with nine further passengers picked up at Otranto. The Daily Malta Chronicle of Monday, 23 December 1918 had this to say of the event:

"The Handley Page aeroplane with Major-General MacEwan on board, last reported in our Latest News column to be at Rome, arrived in Malta on Saturday morning trave/ling at such low altitude that her crew could easily be discerned. The huge machine which is the biggest we have seen amongst us, is lying close to the aerodrome at the Marsa whither a large number of people flocked to see the aerial visitor.

"The aeroplane, which bears the name of 'HMA Old Carthusian' on one of her sides, is carrying six persons - three officers including of course Gen. MacEwan and three mechanics. Handley Page machines, however, are capable of taking 40 persons; a feat they have performed in London. We do not know how long it took the monster aerial ship to flyover here from its starting point in the Peninsula, but we heard it said that the velocity of the wind which was very strong on Saturday did not affect in the least the aeroplane in its progress. Indeed, the crossing was as comfortable as it could be. The airship was to have resumed its trip en route to India in the small hours of yesterday."

The V/1500 was indeed an enormous aircraft for its time, with its large wingspan and fuselage length, together with the aircraft's weight of no less than 30,000 Ib (13 608 kg) fully loaded and four engines. Among the details in which the Chronicle reporter was wrong was in the position of the aircraft's name: the wording HMA Old Carthusian was carried across the nose of the aircraft and not along its side, as the accompanying photos show. Further markings on the aircraft included full-length tricolour stripes on each rudder to make plain its nationality in the event of a forced landing, serial J1936 on the rear fuselage, and standard RAF contemporary roundels in six positions. It is interesting to note that The Marsa was already being referred to as "the aerodrome", obviously owing to the previous regular use by the RAF DH.9As of N° 562 Flight. The Chronicle reporter, obviously non-technical, was misinformed about the V/1500's flying ability in the face of a strong wind: on its subsequent Baghdad-El Amara leg the strong headwind reduced the aircraft's speed to 50 mph.

But the Daily Malta Chronicle reporter had every reason to describe the aircraft as a monster. The Maltese had become accustomed to the relatively diminutive 30-foot long (9 m) DH.9A at The Marsa or, at most, at the 45-foot (13.7 m) Felixtowe F2A or similarly proportioned Curtiss America seaplanes at Calafrana. The gigantic size of the V/1500 must have been impressive to anybody watching it, even allowing for the perhaps exaggerated sensational reporting of the paper.

After Malta

The aircraft left Malta on the next day, Sunday, 22 December, at two o'clock in the morning according to the Chronicle of Friday 27 December. It flew 1,050 miles (1,690 km) non-stop over the sea to Mersa Matruh, and thence via Helipolis, Baghdad, El Amara, Bandar Abbas, Jask and Ormara, arriving at Karachi (then still part of India) on 16 January 1919 on only two engines.

Old Carthusian was destined to end its life in India. After being used to bomb Kabul during the Afghan war the following May - the only time a V/1500 had been used in action, and thanks to which the Afghan rebels surrendered termites caused irreparable damage to its wooden wing spars. The aircraft was definitively grounded and its fuselage survived for some years as the squadron office at Risalpur.

The Handley Page V/1500 came too late take part in the First World War and was too big for the peace that followed. One aircraft did find employment for a short time by the Handley Page Transport Ltd in 1919 for the London-Brussels service, and probably the same aircraft had been the one to carry 40 passengers over London at 6,500 ft (1,981 m). It certainly was too large, complex and costly to become a viable commercial aircraft, and not one appeared on the British civil aircraft register. But it reserves the right to a place in the history of aviation. It was the first four-engined British bomber to enter production, it was also the largest British aircraft produced during that war, and it had the distinction of being the first dedicated British, and first practical anywhere, strategic bomber for which the RAF was to become famous. For Malta it has certainly found a place in the Island's aviation history as the largest aircraft to appear over our skies until then and for many years later.

No Records

Unfortunately, no photos of the aircraft during its brief stop in Malta have been traced yet, which is a pity; indeed, we are hoping that this article should serve to stimulate a search in local and foreign readers' archives for a possible find, for which the Museum would be most indebted. (NOTE: Any reader who can provide copies of any photographs of this aircraft in Malta can contact the web master ) *

The Marsa appears to have ceased to be used exclusively as an aerodrome towards the end of hostilities, even though Germany still had 14 submarines roaming the Mediterranean. An advertisement that appeared in the Chronicle of 12 October 1918 gave notice of a fete jointly organised by the Red Cross and the Order of St. John on Thursday 24 October in order to raise funds for "Our Day", which was a war fund-raising campaign to aid in the tending of the sick and wounded in various theatres of war. According to the advert, one of the attractions had to be an 'aeroplane', but the report on the fete in a subsequent issue of the paper failed to mention the aircraft as being present. Another advert appearing in the same paper on 23 October stated that the grounds had again become available for football, and invited applications for its use, while horse racing resumed in earnest on 6 December 1918.

For the benefit of foreign readers, it is interesting to note that the Marsa Sports Ground is still in existence, is still used as an area for sports activities and includes the horse racing track, tennis courts, a golf course and a football ground amongst others. It is not known for sure why, when the British services came to choose a site for a permanent airfield in 1923, their choice fell on Hal Far rather than Marsa. Maybe the flooding of Marsa in particularly wet winters, and the proximity of Hal Far to the already-established Calafrana seaplane base, were the reasons **. Or perhaps the lobbying of the ardent polo players, consisting of influential officers from all the British services, prevailed against turning their favourite sports area into a boring airfield!

* I have since been informed by Mr. Stafrace that he has been handed a copy of the aircraft when in Malta.

** According to a lecture given by aviation historian Mr. Richard J. Caruana at the Malta Aviation Society, this was the reason the site at Hal-Far was chosen, as aircraft could be towed to Calafrana for maintenance.
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