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H.M.S. Airedale - by Brian (Hugo) Goodall

 

Ideas and inspiration for paintings and sculpture, indeed for all creative activities, come from many sources.  Snippets of conversation spark off a train of thoughts - some of which are discarded, others, taken on board and stored away for future use, much like the squirrel hording morsels of food ready for a feast at a later date.

My friends Ron and Lynne Vassallo live in the small West Yorkshire village of Brockholes - a place named after that wonderful creature the badger, a shambling shy animal that hides itself away during the daytime inside deep underground tunnels, and under cover of darkness snuffles and forages around the countryside.

Ron being Maltese by birth, has a wealth of stories and experiences of early life in Malta that reveal much of those dark days when the island was the centre of attention by a certain madman of the time, Adolph Hitler.

Like many other islanders at the time his father joined the allied forces, and was promptly assigned to duties as a N.A.A.F.I. Manager, serving on various ships with the Royal Navy, eventually to be assigned to H.M.S. Airedale, a small, but highly maneuverable craft known as a Hunt Class Destroyer.

The tough little ship, by now attached to the flotilla in Alexandria, sailed in several of the convoys struggling to make their way to Malta and the Middle East, the Mediterranean Run as it was known, was as one of the toughest tours of duty at that time.

Sadly thousands of brave individuals were never to return from those hazardous journeys, undertaken to bring supplies and much needed aid to the many who desperately needed support - not just the armed forces battling against incredible odds, but ordinary men, women and children, for whom the daily requirement of food, clothing and shelter was a struggle that we find difficult to comprehend today.

Sadly, Petty Officer William Vassallo was to loose his life in the Mediterranean when the gallant little ship was eventually sunk whilst on escort duty with the ill fated Operation Vigorous convoy on 14th June 1942, a convoy that was to see nearly all of those who took part, lost at sea.

Ron however, knew little about exactly where his father had met his death, and under what circumstances the ship had been sunk., - at the time, little was known, even old ship mates who had managed to survive were now living in different counties to where they had been when they joined up, some had even gone to live abroad in different parts of the world, the prospect of uncovering the truth seemed highly improbable until that is, someone suggested searching the internet for information, and the possibility of tracing of those illusive shipmates.

Lynne and Ron started to explore the net for snippets of information, Royal Navy Records, now available on the internet revealed the location of the sinking, and eventually names of many of the crew at the time were revealed too, at least he knew where the ship was sunk, but little else was known.

Little by little odd bits of information came to light - where the ship was built, and surprisingly the news that the major part of the cost of the vessel had been raised by the efforts of the people of Spenborough in West Yorkshire a small town not all that far from Brockholes.

Research revealed that two crew members were still alive, and emails and correspondence between each other and their families slowly uncovered the incredible work undertaken by H.M.S. Airedale - not only duty in the Mediterranean, but a difficult and highly dangerous Russian convoy PQ11, too featured in its duties, even one or two hazy photographs were uncovered that revealed the gallant little ship and some of its crew too.

It also revealed the fact that very few people knew about the incredible fund raising that had been undertaken by the people of Spenborough, who through their own efforts had adopted the ship, without these fund raising efforts carried out by local communities during the war, the overall outcome of the war would have been vastly changed.

As a result of the research being carried out by Ron and Lynne, a plaque of the ships crest is now displayed in the local Town Hall of Cleckheaton, showing the association with H.M.S. Airedale through the efforts of local people.

The plaque was unveiled at an official ceremony on 5th November 2005 where Ron and Lynne, along with one remaining survivor of the crew, and relatives who all met up for the very first time since the war years, quite an occasion.

It was a few months before Ron's birthday when one lunchtime we talked about the latest find, a crew member who had been a comrade of his father had been in touch, not only did he reveal and confirm the location of the sinking, but the nature of the engagement that led to loss of the ship, and many of those who had served in her.

It was a poignant moment for Ron, and Lynne too., sometimes finding out the real truth about our past can uncover much about ourselves, childhood memories of a mother unwilling to accept the news that her dear partner had 'vanished' - where?, when?, how?, answers that were unavailable at the time, left a deep imprint on those who were there, and witnessed the events.  Even now in 2007 people are being located who knew, or witnessed things that took place, each tiny item of information throwing yet more light on those dark days.

Talking to Lynne afterwards it was decided that a painting of H.M.S. Airedale would be a nice birthday surprise, and a proud reminder for Ron of a father who, along with many others, had played a part in that epic struggle against the ideas of a madman.

The ship is portrayed sailing off the coast of Malta - the skyline of Valletta can just be seen in the background, in all probability artistic license in the exact location, but a reminder of the part it played, and the reason for it being there.

 

H. M. S. Airadale - A painting by Brian (Hugo) Goodall

The original painting now hangs in hallway of Ron and Lynne's home at Brockholes, a daily reminder of home and family.

Talking to Ron last year he mentioned the occasion when he and hundreds of others stood on the Lower Barracca overlooking Valletta harbour and watched in awe as the battered remains of Ohio were slowly nudged into harbour to discharge its valuable cargo, without such the island was in dire peril of complete shut down.

The incredible story of the three destroyers that strapped the stricken ship between them, pushing, pulling and nudging the remains toward the island, and to a safe harbour - if ever a story inspired me to paint, then surely this is one to join the list.

Who knows, maybe yet another visit to Malta, carry out some research, and to remind myself of the wonderful buildings, colours, and feel of the harbour where all those people stood in eager anticipation on that day, a day that showed incredible bravery, great determination, single mindedness, and the ability of ordinary people to use imagination and common sense for the common good, without a thought for themselves. 

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