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The M.V. Talabot, 6,798 gross tons, was launched in 1935 by the Swedish shipyard A/B Götaverken of Gothenburg. It was capable of carrying 12 passengers and its maximum speed was 16.25 knots. It had a crew of 37, including a stewardess.
'Talabot' sailed under the Norwegian flag and in 1942 arrived in Malta’s Grand Harbour from Alexandria as part of Convoy NW10, laden with ammunition, bombs and torpedoes.
Part of its cargo, which was vital for the island, was unloaded for two days during which time 'Talabot' was constantly interrupted by aerial attacks.
On the third day after its arrival, 300 Stukas from Sicily attacked the Grand Harbour bent on destroying this convoy. On 26-03-1942, 'Talabot' was hit by a bomb on the port side which had exploded in the engine room and caught fire.
Had 'Talabot' blown up in Grand Harbour, its cargo of explosives would have been enough to cause extensive damage to Floriana, Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa.
During the attack the crew had sheltered ashore and they all escaped unhurt. When 'Talabot' was finally abandoned, the last crew members to leave the ship during an air raid were the Captain and Stewardess Margit Johnsen - who would not part with the ship’s cat.
The Captain (Albert Toft) had decided to call upon the Royal Navy to assist in scuttling the vessel to prevent the cargo from exploding. Lt Copperwheat, RN, volunteered to undertake this dangerous task. He was awarded the George Cross for the heroism he displayed in performing this operation.
Thanks to Lt Copperwheat and his team of volunteers, much of the ammunition was later salvaged and used to liberate Italy.
After the war the wreck of this once elegant vessel was re-floated and moved to Pinto Wharf where it was tied up.
One weekend 'Talabot' broke free of its moorings and drifted out into the centre of Grand Harbour, where it sank, ironically almost in the same position from which it had been raised and where it settled in its watery grave once more.
Launched : 05-11-1935
Completed : 20-03-1936
Builder : Gotverken of Gothenburg, Sweden
Yard No : 492
Owner : Wilh. Wilhelmsen of Tonsberg, Norway
Engine : 7-Cylinder 2SCDA Oil Engine of 9,650 IHP manufactured by the Builder
In Bonnici & Cassar's "The Malta Grand Harbour and its Dockyard" (Valletta 1994) is written:
"TALABOT sank at her berth, but her main deck being just visible beneath the surface. After the war her hull was cut up on the spot but a section of her double bottom was not recovered; another four decades had to elapse before the TALABOT was finally put to rest."
"[In 1946] TALABOT was cut down to the double bottom but a sizeable section was left on the seabed; whether this was deliberate or a shortcoming on the salvager's part is not known."
"As the new Crucifix Wharf neared completion it was imperative to clear the central fairway of remaining wartime wreckage and unexploded ordnance.... For a while there was disagreement between the Maltese and British Governments over methods and means and the USSR sent the salvage tug AMETIST to survey the wrecks. The dispute was eventually resolved and Royal Navy divers assisted in the recovery of the heaviest item of all - part of the double bottom of the TALABOT. The Dutch TAKLIFT 1 lifted the remnant on July 26 1985. It was towed to the Menqa for demolition."
"The climax of the entire operation came on Friday July 26 1985 when part of the double bottom of TALABOT weighing about 500 tons was brought to the surface. The double bottom had been identified earlier on and 20 Maltese and 5 Royal Navy divers removed excess mud and passed steel wires underneath it before lifting could commence. A number of 250lb bombs and 4-inch gun shells were found. the lifting job was entrusted to the Durch sheerlegs TAKLIFT 1..... When the double bottom reached the surface, onlookers were disappointed - they had expected something remotely resembling a ship not what seemed like a huge platform! After the remnant was towed to the Menqa for demolition, the ghost of TALABOT was finally laid to rest and Crucifix Wharf opened to shipping."
[the book has a large photo of the section suspended from TAKLIFT 1]
The 4 ships were now ordered to proceed independently, escorted by a couple of destroyers. Talabot and Pampas reached Malta, but enemy aircraft were now swarming towards Valetta. Out at sea, Clan Campbell went down and Breconshire was wrecked. While the inhabitants of Malta were still cheering for the two arriving ships at Grand Harbour, the air attacks started, and continued all through the subsequent discharging of cargoes. During one of the attacks on Valetta on March 26, Pampas was hit and set on fire, and a bomb detonated in Talabot's engine room, the resulting fire spreading quickly to the ammunition and other flammable cargo not yet unloaded. In an effort to get this cargo below the waterline, Captain Toft made the difficult decision to blow a big hole in his ship and let her fill with water. More details can be found in the captain's story below.
Summary of Captain Toft's own story:
Talabot had unloaded a cargo at Haifa on March 1-1942 (again, see also Page 2), and was taken over on charter to the British Sea Transport Department that day and ordered by them to proceed to Alexandria to take on a new cargo for an "undisclosed destination". She left Haifa on March 2 escorted by a corvette, anchoring in Alexandria roads the next afternoon, then proceeded in the following day, March 4. Once there, even though the captain was told they would depart with sealed orders, the destination didn't remain secret for very long, as crates marked MALTA in large letters appeared on the quay next to the ship.
Loading commenced on March 7 and by March 19 she had taken on board 600 tons ammunition, 600 tons benzine, 200 tons paraffin and 880 tons coal, as well as wheat and flour. The captain requested, and received, extra armament for this voyage, and 4 Breda guns were installed, 2 on the forecastle and 2 on the bridge. The ship also had a 4" anti submarine gun, 3 machine guns, 2 rocket parachute guns (soldiers also brought with them machine guns, 5 of which were placed in position). He also got 6 extra British gunners, 4 signalmen and a liaison officer who had in his possession the Navy's secret signalbooks, and the escort consisted of "what was left" of the British Mediterranean fleet, commanded by Admiral Phillip L. Vian (of former Cossack / Altmark / Jøssingfjord fame). On board were also 21 officers, 29 soldiers and 3 Navy signallers as passengers, all of whom were distributed for various tasks during the crossing. He says that when they departed that Friday, March 20-1942 each of the 4 ships in the convoy had the exact same cargo, so that even if one or more didn't make it, the desperate islanders would still get a little of everything.
At the beginning of the voyage they were escorted by 8 cruisers and destroyers, but little by little several more joined them, until the escort consisted of 18 warships (this is 2 less than in my text above). Everything went well until the morning of March 22, when dive bombers and torpedo aircraft attacked. All of Talabot's guns were in use that morning, then there was a pause in the attacks until about 14:00 when the main attack came. 5 attacks took place with Talabot as target, the bombs raining around her, some exploding very close to the side of the ship. At about 4 o'clock that afternoon the admiral signalled that enemy surface vessels had been spotted, and that the escorts were going to attack, then left after having protected the merchants with a smoke screen. 6 destroyers were now accompanying the convoy. An hour later, Talabot was again attacked by aircraft, 6 Stukas, resulting in an injured gunner and signalman, and at the same time the captain spotted a torpedo aircraft coming in extremely low, but he says no torpedo was dropped, though the plane narrowly missed the ship with one of its wings, closely followed by the shells from Talabot's Breda guns, until it crashed in the sea about 100 meters away. While all this was going on, they could still hear the sounds of the naval battle taking place out of their view to the north of them, and some projectiles were seen to strike the water close by them.
At 7 o'clock, the commodore signalled for them to steer in a true 260° course for 2 hours, then follow the instructions in "Operation B", and when Captain Toft broke the seal of the envelope containing the instructions for this operation he learned that each ship was to continue independently to Malta at maximum speed, with 1 destroyer as initial escort; another arrived later. The night was quiet, but as soon as day dawned they were attacked by bombers again. The night before, a damaged destroyer had come alongside Talabot, and this provided some extra protection so that together they managed to keep the aircraft at bay. Also, 2 British fighter planes appeared at this time to help in the defense. When another group of aircraft showed up just before they reached Grand Harbour they just waved and smiled, assuming they were friendly aircraft, but they were wrong. Intense firing ensued, but again they avoided being hit. At 09:45, the pilot came on board, but they were not made fast until around 5 that afternoon (23rd), all the while enduring continuous air attacks. Lighters were placed from the ship to the quay to be used as gangways for the stevedores and crew to go to the shelters during attacks.
They unloaded cargo for 2 days, constantly interruped by attacks. On the 3rd day, the bombing started very early in the morning and increased in intensity as the day went on. At noon, 300 Stukas came out of Sicily and turned the harbour into a flaming inferno. The captain says they were in a shelter in the harbour at about 14:00 when he saw Talabot being hit by a bomb. He stormed out of the shelter in order to get to his beloved ship, barely being missed by a bomb, whereupon the engineer dragged him back into the shelter, but wild horses couldn't keep him in. Examinations showed that the bomb had hit Talabot on the port side of the boatdeck, had gone straight through the electrician's cabin, the shelterdeck and main deck, and had exploded in the engine room where a fire had started. All the cabins had been blown to pieces by the sheer force, another bomb had hit just outside the side of the ship, and in hold No. 1 the contents had been tossed around and dropped helter skelter. The captain now goes on to describe how he frantically set about arranging for assistance and equipment to extinguish the raging fire on board, but although all kinds of methods were put into force nothing seemed to stop the spreading flames, which were soon endangering holds No. 3 and 4, holding bombs and torpedoes. Additionally, their efforts were hampered by the air attacks which continued with full force.
After a while, Captain Toft realized he had no choice but to ask a cruiser located on the other side to shoot a hole in the side of the ship and into the engine room so that it would fill with water. At the same time the surrounding area was evacuated, as there was imminent danger of Talabot blowing up. Word came from the cruiser that no such hole could be shot without permission from the admiral. Shortly thereafter a message was received from the admiral that he could not give such an order, but he could put explosives at the captain's disposal, as well as all the assistance he would possibly require, but he himself had to do the job. Meanwhile, the fire had spread to hold No. 1 where the benzine was stowed. The explosives arrived, Captain Toft went to his cabin to collect some personal effects; pictures of his wife and children, his diary etc. before leaving the ship. By then the deck was so hot that "it sputtered under the soles of my shoes".
The next morning Talabot was a total wreck, but the water level was well above the cases of ammunition so there was no longer any danger of an explosion. On March 27 the Norwegian flag was lowered and the British naval flag put up. 2 days later Talabot's men (and 1 woman) were ordered to sail for the U.K. on the British cruiser Aurora. The captain ends his story by saying: "One incident I shall never forget. Just before I was about to leave the ship for the last time, our brave little messgirl Margit suddenly came up to me. It was in the middle of an air attack and she was holding the ship's frightened little cat. Neither the cat nor we could accomplish any more. We were the last to disembark - Margit, the cat and I".
(Margit Johnsen was from Ålesund, and got the honourable nickname "Malta-Margit". She had also experienced the sinking of M/S Tudor).
According to Arendal's Seamen's Association's 150th Anniversary Book (Kristen Taraldsen), Leutenant Denis Copperwheat of HMS Penelope had volunteered to place the explosives on Talabot, following Captain Toft's instructions. The book adds that Leutenant Copperwheat went down in a diver's suit and cut several openings in the side of Talabot, thereby enabling the removal of bombs etc; everything, including 16 torpedoes, was taken ashore undamaged. Denis Copperwheat later received the "George Cross" for this action. Captain Toft went on to become one of the most highly decorated officers in the Norwegian Merchant Fleet. He was also awarded the British "Order of the British Empire" and "Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea" for his actions at Valetta
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The first shows TALABOT after she had been scuttled to prevent explosion.
"The weather was now clearing and we could see land very faintly on our port bow. Ahead of us the TALABOT with two attendant destroyers appeared through the mist. We could now hear the shore batteries in action but enemy action around us had ceased. Land grew clearer. Beyond the breakwater, buildings could be seen towering on the heights on either side of the harbour entrance. Slowly we followed the Norwegian in."
"We stripped off our lifejackets, removed our tin hats for the first time that day. As we moved into Grand Harbour, crowds along what we later learned were the Lower and Upper Baraccas waved and cheered. We were almost too tired to respond. By the time we came to anchor in the far reaches of the harbour the hatches had been opened and we had retrieved our kit. dirty, damp, dishevelled we had arrived. The cruise was over."
She was however only 1 of many ships whose demise at Malta during the onslaught against which the island and her residents would duly be awarded the George Cross in recognition of their fortitude and collective valour.
The sacrifices of many merchant and naval seamen of many nations was truly inspirational in the cause to keep this critical island functioning.
Let us not forget the other vessels, additional to Talabot naval and merchant whose wrecks littered the assorted harbours in 1943. Not comprehensive, but adequate.
plus some smaller vessels and craft.
And some of it remains to this day, although the bulk of this detritus from war has been lifted and either broken up or, much more interestingly, set down or scuttled in deeper water off the island.
Much -mystery- still surrounds some of these vessels final resting places.
Shame so few have paid attention, especially P36
Thats all folks. Sean. E28
Anyway, you are right, the TALABOT was only one of dozens of vessels that were sunk in and about Grand Harbour during WWII, and dozens of other smaller craft. There is no doubt that had Malta capitulated, and it came within 6 days of that unhappy state and was saved only by the arrival of the most famous of all the Convoys to relieve Malta - the Santa Marija Convoy (Operation Pedestal) of August 1942, the Axis plan to secure North Africa, Egypt and continue Eastward until it controlled the world's major oil reserves would have come to fruition.
However - what a price, the British Royal Navy lost the following fleet in protecting Malta and securing the Mediterranean :
2 Aircraft cCarriers
40 Submarines (including 1 French and 1 Greek sub)
and of course the many merchant navy cargo ships and oil tankers.
A particularly sad casualty was the loss of the mooring vessel MOOR in Grand harbour, through enemy action, with the loss of all on board except for one single survivor .... 28 dead.
Needless to say, I have not remained quiet when I see these letters critical of GB and her role in Malta's affairs. Grrrr ....
End of SS Talabot
John Buchanan’s ‘SS Talabot remembered’ (The Sunday Times, January 29) recalls the subsequent fate of the ship. In 1948 the wreck was cut up where it sank at No.7 Buoy.
That would have been the end of the story but for the fact that an underwater survey prior to the reconstruction of Pinto Wharf in 1984-85 revealed a large section of the ship’s keel on the seabed.
This may have been left there by the contractor by default or on Admiralty instructions as the Royal Navy urgently required the overlying berth. The submerged keel section did not pose any hazard to shipping as long as no anchors were used.
The keel was finally salvaged on July 27, 1985 by the Dutch sheerlegs Taklift 7. It was towed to Flagstone Wharf, Marsa, and broken up.
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