From the second Albert Jones opens the side door of his home, it’s obvious
his past in the British Navy plays a key role in his present life in Portage la
Albert, who turned 86 on Sept. 19, proudly displays framed portraits of
warships that line nearly every inch of his stairwell approaching a basement
packed with memorabilia of his years of Second World War service.
That past took centre stage this week, as Albert and his son, Michael,
attended Heroes Return, a reunion staged in Republic of Malta, an island he once
fought to protect.
The event, which began on Thursday and ends on Sept. 28, commemorates the
60th anniversary of the official end of Second World War.
«It’s the culmination of those war years,» said Albert.
To attend the reunion, veterans must have taken part in defending Malta
against «the siege,» a German-led attempt in the early 1940s to gain control of
the island, then considered the heart of naval control in the Mediterranean and
the centrepiece of the British position in the region.
«Malta became the key to the whole Mediterranean war,» said the British-born
veteran. «The Germans did everything in their power to get Malta.»
Malta is a 316-square kilometre island in southern Europe, located about 90
kilometres south of Sicily and 300 km north of North Africa. It became a base
where Allied forces could intervene in Axis supply lines between the two
German and Italian forces attempted to bomb and/or starve its garrison and
people into surrender several times.
«At some points, Malta was so short on supplies that they kept a tab on what
they had left,» said Michael, a war historian who partnered with his father to
write two books of military memoirs. «At one point, they were three weeks away
from having to surrender.»
Albert served on the HMS Illustrious aircraft carrier in Malta from September
of 1940 to January of 1941, when German dive-bombers attacked and nearly sank
«About a quarter of the crew was either killed or wounded and the ship had a
crew of 1,400,» said Michael.
At one point in the battle, eight 1,000-pound bombs were dropped in just six
minutes, said the war buff.
The crew fought against the Germans even after they ran out of ammunition,
loading their guns with nuts and bolts instead, Albert recalled.
The attack caused extensive damage to the vessel. It was sent to the United
States to be refitted before returning to active service in 1941.
For Michael, the return to the place where his father so narrowly escaped
death is loaded with emotion.
«When I see film footage in a documentary or read an account of the British
Navy, and see all of those ships going down, I think any one of them could have
been my dad’s,» said Michael. «It just reminds me of the high price of our
freedom that nobody seems to remember now.»
Albert also served around Malta on the HMS Rosario from 1943-46, as a first
class stoker for the navy’s 19th minesweeping flotilla.
Almost every year, Michael and Albert visit a military site where the elder
served to research and remember.
«Being fascinated with it and living it are two different things,» said
Michael. «I admire those who do choose it as a lifestyle.»
He and his father flew to Europe on Sept. 17 on frequent flyer points for
Heroes Return, with meals, activities and accommodations covered by the Veterans
Reunited Funding program.
The project is administered by the British government to help war veterans
commemorate major events and battles of the war and educate new generations
about its history.
Albert came to Portage la Prairie in 1958, with just a carrier bag to his
name and few plans to share the lessons he learned in combat.
He said the war had allowed him to see several similarities between Canada
and United Kingdom. The HMS Rosario minesweeper he served on, for example, is
identical to HMCS Portage, he said, proudly displaying photographs of both
Decades after arriving in Manitoba, he began exploring his past, co-writing
his first book, No Easy Choices, with the aid of his son.
No Easy Choices chronicles Albert’s decision to enlist in the navy and his
service on the HMS Illustrious from 1940-43.
«It was a terrible time for everybody,» said Albert. «Lots of the lads signed
up just to get off unemployment.»
Albert says he chose to enlist in the navy for 12 years to avoid army
conscription just two months shy of his 20th birthday.
«That was my dilemma in actually joining the navy,» he said.
In 2003, the Portage veteran released his second book of navy experiences,
Roll on My Twelve. That feat took him and Michael eight years to complete.
It’s a project Albert hopes will preserve the realities of war for future
«If you don’t write anything down, that’s history lost,» he said.
The two last visited Malta in 1995, when a young boy seated across from them
on a bus identified a pin bearing the crest of the Illustrious on Michael’s
Michael said that display of war knowledge in the Mediterranean made him
realize how much awareness is lacking in Canada, which fuelled his and his
father’s passion to revisit and share that history.
Portage Daily Graphic (Manitoba) September 24, 2005