Sixteen members of the 16th Malta Fortress Squadron Royal Engineers construction company lost their lives on the El Adem airstrip in Libya on 10 October 1961.
The 16 were in a group of 210 sappers, mostly Maltese, from the Royal Engineer Squadron, accompanied by other sappers from Cyprus, who the previous month were sent on a training mission on building emergency roads and airfields in Tobruk, some 20 miles from El Adem.
At around 7.30pm, when they were to start their return to Malta, 39 Maltese sappers under troop commander captain Francis J. Boatright boarded a British Royal Air Force transport command, Hasting 498. The aircraft crashed and burst into flames on take off. One British officer and 15 Maltese sappers were burnt to death and Malta mourned the biggest peacetime tragedy for its servicemen.
The same aircraft had already been used earlier to transport other sappers to Malta. There was a whole mixture of emotions at the Maltese airport that night as families gathered to welcome their servicemen home.
We caught up with Marie and Frans Attard, a couple who felt the tragedy vividly. Marie, a mother of a young baby, had her sapper husband Frans Attard and both her brothers working at the El Adem airstrip. They were all due home on the same day.
Sapper Attard was originally due to come to Malta by ship but had complained with his superiors about being allowed home later than others who had arrived in El Adem after him. He was therefore conceded permission to take an early flight. He left El Adem at around noon and arrived at around 3pm. Marie was overjoyed to see that her husband had arrived safe and sound but her heart yearned to meet her brothers. Marie’s brothers were expected to land later that day.
Until the evening there was no news of the sappers still in El Adem. The following day, rumours started trickling in that a tragedy had claimed the lives of many Maltese sappers in El Adam but no one knew who the dead were.
Marie and her family clung to the radio and the Rediffusion sets to learn what had happened to their loved ones. The pain of not knowing what had happened was excruciating. Luckily her brothers survived the tragedy but they had witnessed their colleagues’ death. Marie and Frans explained how Marie’s brothers, who were on the ill-fated plane, had told them that they narrowly escaped the fire by escaping through a small window. They had then tried assisting their colleagues who were engulfed in flames. Some had thought that by running quickly through the flames to pass through the main exit they wouldn’t be hurt, but those who did ended up torched in aviation fuel. Marie’s two brothers died a few years ago. Only a few survivors are still alive.
Most of the victims’ funerals were held on 12 October 1961; the others’ were held a few days later.
To mark the 48th anniversary of this heart wrenching tragedy, a memorial service will be held today at Pembroke Military Cemetery, where many of the soldiers are buried.