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Admiralty Floating Dock No. 8 – What goes around comes around

A successful first docking.

A successful first docking.

In Grand Harbour the first docking in AFD 8 attracted the attention of the novelist Ursula Bloom (1892-1984). In 1925, she married Charles Gower Robinson, RN, who was serving on HMS Royal Oak when the ship went into the floating dock on April 15, 1926. The novelist probably joined hundreds of others to witness the event from some vantage point around the harbour.

Prior to the event, the public had very little idea of what went on in the graving docks, literally holes in the ground, hidden in French Creek. This was an esoteric job: penstocks opened to flood the dock, caissons opened to let the ship in, followed by pumping out, the ship coming to rest on keel blocks. The docking at Corradino was a public spectacle open to whoever had a couple of hours’ free time, during which the huge ship could be seen being slowly lifted.

Royal Oak in AFD 8 prior to lifting on April 15, 1926.Royal Oak in AFD 8 prior to lifting on April 15, 1926.

In The Log of a Naval Officer’s Wife, published in 1932, Bloom recalled the event: “Just at this time the Royal Oak went into the floating dock for refit. It was a German dock, assigned to Britain as part of the reparations, and towed out to England, and had, of course, never been seen by the Maltese before, who regarded it with gravest suspicion. But their suspicion did not end there.

“The Royal Oak was the first ship that had ever been to a floating dock in Malta, and unfortunately, at that time, some almanac, it may have been Old Moore’s, I do not know, had foretold a naval disaster ‘in a box-like enclosure’ at that very period. The Maltese, seeing the Oak going into the floating dock, made sure that this was the disaster right enough, and the authorities had the greatest difficulty in getting ‘mateys’ to dock her.

“When she actually entered the dock, it was high tide, and afterwards the water was gradually pumped out of the dock. As usual, there were dozens of dgħajsas about the gangways waiting for custom, and they never realised that the water was getting lower and lower, until they found themselves stranded on the bottom of the dock. There was general uproar, of course.”

It is likely that Bloom was watching from afar, taking a vicarious part in the operation, her husband being aboard Royal Oak. The novelist probably fantasised about dgħajsas being lifted on the dock; either that, or she could not tell Dockyard mooring craft from dgħajsas. Photographs only show the powerful tugs Respond and Roysterer at the stern, aided by the smaller West Cocker and West Dean; any dgħajsas would have been kept out of the way of the tugs during the dangerous operation.

Royal Oak was one of five Royal Sovereign Class battleships completed during World War I. She served with the 1st Battleship Squadron during the Battle of Jutland. The ‘Royals’ were very well known at Malta in the inter-war years, considered the heyday of the Mediterranean Fleet.

AFD 8 (right) adjacent to Corradino, was an easy aerial target.AFD 8 (right) adjacent to Corradino, was an easy aerial target.

The ship made headlines in 1928 when public altercations between Rear Admiral Collard and his two subordinates led to an unheard-of breach of naval discipline. The press lapped up the story, dubbed ‘The Royal Oak Affair’ a mutiny, which was wide of the mark; it was a storm in a teacup, the navy’s dirty washing made public.

The ship came to a tragic end on October 14, 1939, when Gunther Prien in U47 penetrated the anchorage at Scapa Flow and torpedoed her with heavy loss of life. The wreck is now a protected war grave, and lies in the same stretch of water where some units of the scuttled German High Seas Fleet remain, unsalvaged.

In Grand Harbour, the huge bulk of AFD 8 made her a highly visible and attractive target for enemy aircraft. A proposal to tow her to Alexandria, Egypt, came to nothing. In October 1939, the liner Franconia was docked to repair collision damage with Alcantara, another passenger ship. It was to be the last docking.

On June 20, 1940, Italian aircraft bombed the dock, breaking her back, the Chatham section sinking to the bottom. The twin German sections remained afloat until June 25, when the entire dock disappeared beneath the surface

On the night of June 11, 1940, it was decided to submerge the dock to its maximum sinking depth to make her less of a target in view of impending aerial attacks after Italy declared war the previous day. The dock floor was being painted at the time, and flooding was incomplete because not all the manholes had been properly shut, leaving her partly submerged. On the night of June 20, the error was being rectified when, at about an hour after midnight, Italian aircraft bombed the dock, breaking her back, the Chatham section sinking to the bottom. The twin German sections remained afloat until June 25, when the entire dock disappeared beneath the surface save for masts and pump funnel tops still visible on the top of the side walls.

Hostilities ended early for Malta and there was an urgent need to clear the Grand Harbour and the Dockyard of wrecks. The Admiralty set up The Malta Salvage Party in April 1943 to clear wrecks, starting with small craft, French Creek being given priority. Wrecks were cut up and the sections dumped at sea, or, as a temporary measure, on the Vittoriosa side of Kalkara Creek for later scuttling.

By the end of that year all five graving docks had been repaired and returned to service. The dearth of heavy lifting cranes limited salvage to smaller vessels. That left AFD 8, and several other large wrecks, including Talabot, Maori, Jersey, Plumleaf, King Edwin, Pampas, Ohio, Legion and Crane Lighter No IV.

In 1944, ‘Camel’ salvage buoys were brought over; they were sunk and welded or tied by wire to wrecks; after pumping out they were lifted to the surface. AFD 8 was a harder nut to crack. In February 1946, the Fleet Salvage Department reported 24 major hits, apart from shrapnel holes, on the wreck. It was planned to cut the dock into three sections, to be raised separately, the work to be completed by the end of the year.

There was a sense of urgency to the salvage because there were now no docking facilities for aircraft carriers; before the war, these had been docked on AFD 8, none of the graving docks in French Creek having been suitable for the purpose.

The partly submerged AFD 8 is seen in the background of this photo.The partly submerged AFD 8 is seen in the background of this photo.

In the meantime, AFD 35, built in Bombay for Trincomalee, was assigned to Malta. It was towed in three sections, arriving on May 8, 1947. The sections were assembled at Boiler Wharf but the dock could not be moored at Corradino because of AFD 8. An interim berth was found in Dockyard Creek. The first ship docked was the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean on September 22, 1947.

Salvaging AFD 8 proved to be an intractable task. The removal of wrecks from the rest of the harbour was proceeding apace, albeit at an unsatisfactory pace. It was estimated that the work would be completed within two years but the last remnants were only cleared in 1984-85. In the spring of 1948, 200-foot by 60-foot pontoon sections used in Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches during the invasion of Normandy, were towed to Malta. On September 11, 1948, The Times of Malta reported on the ‘Salvage work on Old Floating Dock’ thus:

“Have you ever paused to reflect on the word ‘salvage’; not that appertaining to an appeal to save waste paper, but the exacting, highly technical task that more often than not follows in the wake of a calamity in some shape or form?

“It is an unpredictable task: plans are laid, preparations made, but few can foretell what might happen. That is why one generally finds officials so cautious, so ready to understate; and no doubt that is why so many intermediate salvage feats go unnoticed.

“I was given an insight into what has been going on at the old floating dock, when with the aid of ropes and whatever foothold I could secure I was conducted yesterday on a scrambling tour of that section of the old floating dock now completely clear of the water.

“The starboard wall and half the pontoon space of this third and north-eastern section lays with a 27-degree list, towering some 70 feet above the water and dwarfing the salvage vessel Sea Salvor secured alongside, through whose appliances the dock section is being kept afloat.

“Few can realise that to raise it to the desired position – one by which underwater work is considerably reduced – divers have been at work 70 feet below the surface for weeks on end, squeezing themselves into this chamber or that to make the section as water-tight as possible.

“It has been found impossible to raise the section on an even keel; the port wall and centre pontoon sections are far too damaged.

“But with luck everything will soon be ready for the floating in and securing of a Mulberry pontoon; preparations in that direction are going ahead now.

“The pontoon is to be sunk with the dock section and when raised again it is calculated that the dock section will come with it – lifted clear on an even keel.

“That, however, presents the unpredict-able and, therefore, it is wise to make no definite forecast.

“Preparatory work on the surface has been no easy task either. Labourers have been faced with the task of clearing the sloping surface of mud, which had silted up anything from one to eight feet, during the dock’s long sojourn under the sea. Most of it has been cleared along with other rusting and rotting paraphernalia. The bomb-rent, barnacle encrusted wall, with its ‘oil-line’ recording the various heights, the section has been raised in the past, also presented a problem, because the slightest scratch from a barnacle tends to become poisonous, and there have been one or two injuries.”

Success was finally achieved in December 1948 when the entire floating dock was raised after six years on the bottom. Two sections were towed to Rinella Bay, where demolition began in earnest to make space for the third. The entire work was completed in 1950. Scrap metal from the dock was exported to England. The now vacant site at Corradino was dredged by the Civil Engineering Department bucket dredger St Albans. On October 24, 1949, AFD 35 was towed from Dockyard Creek to the former berth of AFD 8; it would remain there until 1965. That is another story.

Sources and tributes

Apart from personal records, reference was made to Dr Ian Buxton’s Admiralty Floating Docks, Parts 1/2, Warship Supplements 160/161, published by the World Ship Society, and Maritime Malta in World War II, published by the Friends of the Malta Maritime Museum (editor Joseph Caruana). The extract on the docking of Royal Oak was taken from The Log of a Naval Officer’s Wife by Ursula Bloom, published in 1932. The story of AFD 8 recalls the highly publicised salvage of Costa Concordia, lost in different circumstances; in the past, men went about equally challenging work without intensive media coverage. This is a tribute to Maltese and British Dockyard hands, and Royal Navy salvagers who cleared the Grand Harbour of its war wrecks.

(Concluded)

Success in lifting AFD 8 from the sea bed was finally achieved on December 9, 1948. The photograph below (IWM A 31474) shows the starboard wall and the buckled pontoon deck.Success in lifting AFD 8 from the sea bed was finally achieved on December 9, 1948. The photograph below (IWM A 31474) shows the starboard wall and the buckled pontoon deck.
The final section being demolished at Rinella Creek on March 4, 1959.The final section being demolished at Rinella Creek on March 4, 1959.
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