The RNAS & Fleet Air Arm’s Forgotten Chapel
Sitting on a bench with Fr. Dionysius Mintoff just outside the Peace Laboratory, I listened to the chapel’s story. He confessed that he had no knowledge of its past before he arrived, apart from the fact that it was a gymnasium for the personnel at Ħal Far Airfield. Fr. Mintoff had the greatest wish to find out what he had inherited in his chapel, which, from one of many facilities in a military base, became a place of worship and is now a center for solidarity and peace.
Any documented sources fell short of stating just why, when, and how the chapel was built. However, a lucky strike through the internet got me in contact with Liz Mardel, wife to Joe Mardel: the admiralty engineer who built the chapel in the late 50s.
Mrs. Mardel and others shared some very wonderful memories of their time at the chapel. She explains how it was built for Padre John Scott whose sermons were becoming increasingly popular back at RNAS Kalafrana. However, the chapel was in fact dedicated to the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) and the Fleet Air Arm (FAA). A large plaque, now missing, would commemorate this dedication at its entrance.
But the chapel has another, more personal, dedication. Liz Mardel explains how, although never documented, her husband strongly felt that he was building a chapel for his brother Tony Mardel, lost on HMS Illustrious during Operation Excess. In 1940, on the Illustrious, he had participated in the battle of Taranto as an Observer on a Fairey Swordfish. The following year, he met his fate during the axis endeavors to sink the carrier.
HMS Illustrious was rushing through straits of Sicily protecting the convoys destined for Malta, Greece, and Alexandria. The armored carrier, who had been commissioned just 7 months prior, faced Italy’s Gruppo 96 and specialist anti-shipping bombers from Fliegerkorps X. Official records show that on the 10th of January 1941, Illustrious received 7 direct hits, ranging from 250 up to 1000 kg bombs. One of which took 22-year-old Ferriera’s life. 82 others died the same day.
He is directly mentioned in ‘Taranto 1940: A Glorious Episode’ by A. J. Smithen, describing the exact moment, in 1941, when a 2,200 lb bomb penetrated the 3 inch armoured deck of HMS Illustrious. It turned fire screens into shrapnel:
“which, says Lamb, ‘disintegrated at once, bursting apart in masses of red-hot steel splinters about 3 or 4 feet long, which tore through every obstruction setting on fire all the aircraft that were not already burning and decapitating anyone who might be standing in the way’. […] The RNVR element was badly cut up. Out of four officers, only one survived the bombing. Anthony Francis Xavier Mardel-Ferreira was killed outright;” (pg. 133)
The Illustrious would limp into the Grand Harbour on the 12th; 5 days later it would be the target of Malta’s most devastating air raids. Meanwhile, the 126 bodies were hastily loaded amidst the incessant air-raids onto minesweeper HMS Fermoy and buried at sea just outside the southern coast of Malta.
Tony Mardel can be found on the Lee-On Solent FAA memorial. In Malta, no memory of Tony or the many other victims from the Illustrious is memorialized, apart from the chapel. Upon reading the story, Fr. Mintoff remembered an important detail: the original altar, which was donated to a local historical organization, was shaped like a boat, likely inspired by the silhouette of HMS Illustrious, but also appearing as if coming to the observer ‘head on’. This was later confirmed by other members of the chapel’s congregation in Fr. Scott’s time, to whom I am indebted for sharing their story and photos.
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