I recently had a short holiday in Malta. Our excursions included a boat trip round the Grand Harbour in Valletta. Our attention was drawn to the strategic importance of the island and the number of invasions and sieges suffered by the Maltese by foreigners. From the early 1800s the British were the custodians of the island and the champions of the Mediterranean, having wresting occupation from the French by a Royal Navy blockade. A short review of the history of Malta reveals a couple of unexpected links with Blackpool.
HMS Foudroyant, was wrecked on the beach by North Pier in 1897. Her story includes action and almost destruction at Valletta, Malta, whilst she was the Flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson.
The French had captured Malta with a relatively small Expeditionary force in 1798, as a prelude to the capture of Egypt. Malta was of strategic importance as a staging post for Napoleon Bonapart’s aspirations of a threat to Britain’s presence in North Africa and ultimately in India. The French sent a large force to capture Egypt and were pursued by a small British Naval force that included Foudroyant. Thus started what became known as the ‘Mediterranean Campaign’. The ‘Battle of the Nile’ proved decisive for Nelson and following it he was able to release ships to eliminate the French from Malta. Foudroyant was one of a force of seven British ships sent to Blockade the Island in February 1799.
The French attempted to break the Blockade in 1800 with a significant convoy of supplies and warships. The British squadron intercepted them and eventually the French surrendered, although the French Garrison on the island survived another few months, Malta surrendered in September 1800.
During the battle to destroy the French convoy, Foudroyant was badly damaged, so much so that she was put under tow for repairs to Syracuse, Sicily. She would be back in service by February 1801. Nelson was not on board during the Battle, he had been taken to Palermo in Sicily with heart problems. As a measure of her involvement during the action, she had used:
161 barrels of gunpowder, together with
1200 x 32lb Shot (Cannon Balls)
1240 x 20lb Shot,
100 x 18lb Shot
200 x 12lb Shot.
Incidentally, as shown in the engraving above, ‘HMS Penelope’ was also involved in the same action, receiving a medal for doing so. A later incarnation of the ‘Penelope’ is also associated with Blackpool and Malta.
There is another direct link with Malta in the resting place of known servicemen recorded on the Malta Memorial or buried on the island; together with the many Blackpool men who served and died in the seas around Malta between 1940 and 1942, when the Germans and Italians attempted to dislodge the British from this strategic stronghold. During the siege, the island, its ports, towns and installations were badly damaged by bombardment by air and sea, with significant loss of life. The Maltese population were awarded the George Cross. The citation read ‘to bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people’
As early as 1938, Mussolini had intended taking the island from the British. A little later, lack of supplies and fuel, together with a number of Naval defeats caused Italian military planners to suspend their plans.
Recognising the Islands importance to the Allies, Britain developed the defences and reinforcements in order to disrupt the enemy supplies for North Africa and the Mediterranean in general. The Grand Harbour in Valletta provided a suitable base for those activities.
Among the ships sent to defend support and strengthen the island was ‘HMS Penelope’. HMS Penelope was a ‘Light Cruiser’ warship, built by Harland & Wolff, in Belfast. In 1941, a successful ‘Warship Week’ National Savings campaign led to its adoption by the population of Blackpool. She was referred to in the local press as ‘Blackpool’s Battleship’. As mentioned earlier she was the second ship to bear the name, the first being part of Nelsons Squadron alongside HMS Foudroyant during the ‘Siege of Malta’ in 1799 to 1800.
This ship was to achieve a great reputation during operations in Norway in 1940 and patrol and convoy escort operations in the Mediterranean between 1941 and 1942 and later in the support of the Allied landings at Salerno in 1943 & Anzio in 1944.
To some extent she enjoyed a reputation as a ‘Lucky’ an accident prone ship, just like the Foudroyant, with a number of periods out of service undergoing repairs and bearing many battle scars. She was often referred to as ‘HMS Pepperpot’ in recognition of the holes in her structure from enemy action. At one time she managed to plug holes from enemy gunfire and shrapnel by plugging them with wedges of wood, giving her the appearance and nickname of ‘HMS Porcupine’.
Nevertheless, her war service details are testament to a busy and successful time defending Malta and disrupting the Axis convoys and supporting operations throughout the Mediterranean. On return to Naples to restock with ammunition and supplied she was sunk with all hands (415, incl the Captain) following a submarine attack in February 1944. There were 250 survivors.
One of the casualties was ex Blackpool Grammar Schoolboy ALFRED JOHN BROOK, son of Cyril and Kathleen May Brook of Bloomfield Road, from Waterloo Juniors in 1936 until 1941. He was 18 and is remembered on the Plymouth Naval Memorial.
There is a memorial to HMS Penelope in St Johns Church, Blackpool along with a Roll of Honour book with the names of the Officers and crew of the ship. A Penelope Association was also formed by survivors. Blackpool also has also has links with the Blackpool Sea Cadet unit ‘TS Penelope’ at Bispham, the name reflecting the Blackpool link. The Blackpool branch of the Royal Naval Association (RNA) met in the ‘Penelope Mess’ at the Stretton Hotel on North Promenade, although the RNA in Blackpool no longer exists.
On a purely personal note, my father’s best friend from St Anne’s, served on HMS Laforey, a Destroyer, in World War 2 . Laforey too was engaged in operations in support of Malta. During which she was involved in the infamous ‘Op Pedestal’, a British operation to re-supply Malta in August 1942. The story includes the amazing account of ‘SS’ Ohio, the aircraft fuel tanker, that limped into Valletta after being bombed and strafed. Like Penelope, Laforey had been adopted by the population of Northampton in November 1941. She too was sunk by a submarine north east of Sicily with the loss of all hands (189, incl the Commanding Officer) on 30 March 1944, my father’s 21st Birthday.
The story of Foudroyant 1799 – 1812 at:
Siege of Malta (1798 -1800) at:
The history of HMS Penelope at:
HMS Penelope Casualty List at:
HMS Penelope Association at:
HMS Laforey Casualty List at:
The story of Op Pedestal and the SS Ohio at:
Gordon, E., 1985, H.M.S. “Pepperpot!”: The “Penelope” in World War Two, Robert Hale Ltd
Ellis, J., 2013, Blackpool at War: A History of the Fylde Coast during the Second World War, The History Press
Fig 1. Capture of the ‘Guillaume Tell’ off Valletta, March 1798 (HMS Penelope is with the White sails, Foudroyant in the background at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Foudroyant_(1798)
Fig 2. HMS Penelope at Valletta at: http://www.naval-history.net/xGM-Chrono-06CL-Penelope.htm
Fig 3. Pepperpot damage at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Penelope_(97)
Foudroyants Legacy at: https://fyldecoaster.wordpress.com/2016/11/13/retaining-heritage-foudroyants-legacy/