VH-EBC. Boeing 707-138B - Qantas Visit To Malta..


On January 4th, 1963 the P&O liner Canberra was steaming east at 27 knots across the Mediterranean with 2,222 passengers on board. At round 04:00 when she was about 160 miles north-east of Malta, one of the officers in the engine room noticed that one of the three turbo-generators had shed its load. As the generator began to motor the crew were unable to trip the circuit breaker and on of the engine room hands forcibly broke the contact despite a sign warning against this proceedure. This action created an electrical arc which caused a fire that continued to be fed electrically by the other two generators. This fire totally destroyed the starboard side of the switchboard and the many electrical distribution cables. The ship suddenly lost all power and alarms rang out throughout the ship.

With no electrical power the engines could not work, there was no lighting, no ventilation or power for the galley. Parts of the lower decks also began to fill with smoke and passengers were ordered to their muster stations. Fortunately lifeboats were not required as the fire was brought under control within an hour.

The P&O liner Stratheden had left Port Said a few days before and was diverted to assist the Canberra. Two Royal Navy ships - Lion and Scorpion - were exercising in the area and headed towards the stricken ship and a Royal Air Force Shackleton AEW aircraft that was based in Malta was sent to overfly the area.

At dawn, the Stratheden supplied the Canberra with fresh bread and other stores, and by the afternoon the ship's engineers and electricians had managed to restore power to the main engines and the ship got underway for Grand Harbour where repairs would be carried out. Her four-knot speed was later increased to ten knots and she was able to make Malta by 09:00 the next morning - Saturday January 5th.

Meanwhile in London emergency plans had swung into operation. The 'Malta Airlift' as it would come to be known as. was masterminded by a man named Freddie Laker. Within a week 14 large airliners had been chartered and P&O had managed to fly 1,700 passengers to their destinations - mostly Australia and New Zealand. Some passengers refused to fly and they either continued on other ship or with the Canberra back to England.

Had anyone had the time to really think about it - the simple fact that almost 2,000 people could be transported thousands of miles within a few days rather than weeks - the future was not bright for the traditional ocean liner. One such person who followed up on this idea was Freddie Laker.

The Qantas Boeing 707-138B VH-EBC was used in the 'Malta Airlift' - and it is believed that this was the only time a Qantas airliner visited Malta.