The Illustrious received three hits and bombs rained about us in rapid succession making the ship shudder with the nearness of the explosions. Just astern of us the Essex, an ammunition ship with 4 to 5 thousand tons of H.E on board, was hit by a bomb, which went down the funnel wrecking the engine room and killing 30 to 40.
After about ¾ of an hour there was a lull and the Essex was seen to have dense clouds of smoke pouring out of her. The floating crane alongside the Illustrious was also afire but so far we had escaped though sticks of bombs had fallen too close for comfort. Five minutes and they were back to the attack with more vigour than the first raid. The fiendish din was renewed and the ship shook and trembled as the hail of bombs fell on every side of her. Just towards the end of this raid the ship gave one conclusive jump as if we’d fired all our armament together the lights went out and we thought we’d got our issue that time but by a miracle they had missed by inches. It hit the edge of the wharf depending again on our guns crews and the Almighty to protect us. God must have been on our side this day for once again we were missed in the hail of death. They swept on to bomb the city and sweep the streets with machine guns. A children’s refuge was wiped out in another blast – just a mangled mass of flesh and wreckage. One woman was seen running about frantically screaming with the upper half of her child in her arms.
Our medical party rushed to the Essex to get out her casualties and our fire party to fight the fire. A panic then started – a buzz that the Essex was going up. They piped us all ashore – not that it would have been of much use. The fire is eventually put out – it had been confined to the engine room and positively wrecked it, killing all who had been sheltering. Only a bulkhead saved it from going up and taking Valletta with it.
Our lads did a great job of work in putting out the fire and getting out the bodies. After a while we all trooped back on board again and made preparations for going to sea. All of our hands who happened to be ashore did not lose much time in returning on board. That same night at sunset colours was sounded off on the Illustrious just as though nothing had happened. That is something, which makes this British Empire great. A small thing in itself no doubt but it only goes to show what Hitler’s up against. After all the Hell of the afternoon – colours!
We did not lose much time in getting away from Malta. As soon as steam could be raised we were out and into a very rough piece of weather too. Starting off at 30 knots we very shortly had to reduce speed to about 17 knots. Some unknown damage had been done aft. The two after turrets were out of action, there was a great deal of water and oil in nearly every compartment aft. For two days they bailed and mopped out store rooms etc. Many buzzes were current as to the extent of damage and hopeful creatures even had the audacity to start buzzes of a return to Australia. “Such stuff as dreams are made” – still it was beautiful wishful thinking even though we knew how impossible that was. My own pessimistic view is that they’ll send a diver down – say “She’s right” – and off we go again.
The only consolation is that we can’t have a much worse experience without getting blown to atoms and then we’ll be beyond caring. We arrived at Rasel-Tin and tied up alongside the Ajax at 1600 on Saturday January 18th. The Captain cleared lower deck and gave a speech to the effect that we were very lucky to be back in Alex with so little damage done. He also has the idea that the hand of God must have reached down to protect us that day.