HMS Penelope (97) coming home on 75th anniversary of its sinking

The donation of a ship model of HMS Penelope (97) by Brian Franklin and Peter Lever to Heritage Malta has reminisced the narrative of this brave yet unfortunate vessel which led a short but eventful life during the Second World War. During this presentation, a moment of silence was observed in respect of all the Maltese people who lived through the arduous war, and also in remembrance of those who lost their lives when HMS Penelope (97) was sunk on 18th February 1944.

The 1.6 metre ship model which has travelled all the way from Cape Town, South Africa, took 17 years to complete. Using a detailed plan of the ship and photographs from the Imperial War Museum, Franklin constructed the model at 1/8th inch to 1 ft to allow him sufficient space to fit the model with equipment for radio-control.

“The model behaved quite well in most weathers with very good manoeuvrability,” recalled Franklin. “It sailed pretty regularly each Sunday for about 8 years, mostly in the waters of False Bay in Cape Town.”

People who saw the model often stopped to watch it and ask him about the ship and its history. He loved to share interesting episodes about HMS Penelope (97), including the time which she spent in Malta during the war.

HMS Penelope (97) was an Arethusa-class British light cruiser. She was launched on 15th October 1935, and commissioned on 13th November 1936. Together with her sister Aurora and two destroyers, she formed the core of Force K that was based in Malta to operate against convoys sailing from Italy to Libya. 

HMS Penelope (97) in Grand Harbour in late 1937

Along her assiduous career, she was effective in the sinking of a number of enemy ships. However, she also suffered an adverse share of unlucky incidents, the last one of which led to her destruction. It was quite unusual for torpedoes to hit their target when it was moving fast. Yet, HMS Penelope (97) was hit two times by German U-boat U-410 while she was on her way to Anzio in Italy, causing her immediate sinking, together with hundreds of people who were on board. A memorial plaque commemorating those lost is at St. Ann’s Church, HM Dockyard, Portsmouth, England.

It was a chance meeting of Brian Franklin with an artist who was commissioned to paint HMS Penelope (97) which ultimately led the ship model to be brought to Malta. A print of this painting, donated by Peter Lever in 2014, is also held at the Malta Maritime Museum.

“As a young lad of 20, my father sailed on HMS Penelope (97) from October 1941 to May 1942. He was on the ship when she sailed to Malta, during a period of the most severe bombings. Indeed, while in Malta, the ship developed the name of HMS Pepperpot since she was so bombed that several pieces of wood had to be plugged into it. My father has always talked about his time in Malta with great fondness and that is what inspired me to commission the painting,” explained Peter Lever.

“When my children began to attend Sunday school, my ship model was decommissioned and stored in a garage. The decision to donate it to Heritage Malta breathed life back into it since I resolved to upgrade it for static display, removing the radio-control equipment and adding instead some fine details which I had originally left out in fear of them being broken during handling. I consider bringing her in Malta as a ‘coming home’ since this is where she really belongs,” disclosed an emotional Brian Franklin.

For British High Commissioner to Malta, Stuart Gill OBE, this was a two-fold occasion. “On a personal level, this donation has reminded me of the stories recounted by my father who at the age of 20 was also serving during war on an older light cruiser in the south of the Atlantic. Moreover, as a High Commissioner in Malta, this is a fine example of the shared history of our two nations.”

Noel Zammit, Acting CEO of Heritage Malta, welcomed this ship model which is now forming part of Malta’s national collection. “It is donations such as these which make up the Malta Maritime Museum. Back in 1988, we did not have any artefacts related to our maritime history. It was mostly through donations such as these that we built up the collection that we have today, boasting over 20,000 artefacts.”


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