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A passion for the sea: Meet Malta’s very own WWII unsung hero, William Atkins
We spoke to his son about his war adventures

Jillian Mallia

World War II in Malta saw a lot of destruction, and required an incredible manpower to defend the islands, both from land and at sea, with many of these people considered unsung heroes of their time. 

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One such person is William Atkins, a local diver whose main job was to salvage wreckages from Maltese waters. William is unfortunately no longer with us today, having passed in 1999, so we spoke to his son Tony who shared some interesting stories about his father’s time during the war.

“My father worked as a salvage diver during and after the war,” saying he brought up a number of things from Malta’s seabed, including airplanes. Tony says his father loved the sea, and was in fact “in the water when the war started.”

Tony explains that his father was commissioned to dredge up anything from metal scraps and wooden boards to full-sized airplanes and ships. “It was quite a dangerous task and he had near-death experiences quite a few times,” Tony admits. “He once had to salvage things from a ship and his oxygen pipes got tangled in the wooden debris, nearly drowning him.”

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William had a major role in salvaging things from convoys hit by bombs that were meant to deliver supplies to the island. He’s dredged up anything from wheels, wood, clothes, lipstick, even condiments. “He once found wet flour and thought nothing of it. But one pharmacist in Rahal il-Gdid asked him for it to sell as penicillin.” 

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His biggest adventures included salvaging a plane and attempting to rescue a submarine. When a plane was hit, he was commissioned to dive to salvage what was left. “He actually found the pilots and fresh ammunition still intact. Everything found had to be reported and sent off to the civil defense unit,” Tony explains.

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Another time, a submarine was launched from the dockyards in a trial run. “Unfortunately, the submarine was lost somewhere between the dockyard and Filfla. My father went down to search for it with a 100-foot lead attached to a boat as a safety precaution. The submarine was never found, and a number of Maltese men were lost at sea on it.”

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Another time, a destroyer needed to be released quickly from the dockyard, but something was caught in the gate. “They thought it was a rock but when my dad went down, he realised it was a mine. Somehow he managed to take it out.”

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Before salvaging something, William had to get permission from the Custom House in Valletta, and received letters like the one pictured below. “There is no objection to the salvage of scrap metal between Ghar Hassan and Benghajsa Point,” reads a June 1950 letter.

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“It is to be pointed out that Government in giving you permission to carry salvaging operations does not relieve you in any way from possible liability for damages that may be claimed by the owners or other interested parties of sunken wrecks,” continues the type-written letter.

Later in life, he received an award honouring his efforts in World War II, receiving a letter from the Office of the Prime Minister in August 1994. “The National Commemorative Medal known as “The Malta George Cross Fiftieth Anniversary Medal” was struck to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the history event of the award of the George Cross to Malta. The award of the National Commemorative Medal was restricted to eligible war veterans for their efforts towards the defence, relief or supply of Malta,” the letter explains.

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“The Malta George Cross Fiftieth Anniversary Medal was awarded to you by the President in recognition of your service during World War II.” YAS, William!

Wherever you may be looking down on us from, William, we thank you for your service and for keeping Maltese waters safe.

Courtesy of Tony Atkins

9th October 2019


Jillian Mallia
Written by
Jillian Mallia
A book lover, writer and globetrotter who loves exploring new places and the local gems that the Maltese Islands have to offer. An avid foodie and arts fanatic, Jillian searches the island and beyond for the perfect settings to write about.

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