Search This Blog

Tuesday 26 December 2023


Philip Vella’s comprehensive account of the Second World War siege of Malta was published in 1985; my copy was the third edition, 1989. In the 1970s a group of Maltese enthusiasts formed The National War Museum Association and over the years they have collected and collated documents, photographs, first-hand reports, interviews and eye-witness testimonies about the Battle for Malta. This large-format book is a result of those endeavours.

Besides relating in detail from the outset of hostilities, it also contains almost a hundred pages of appendices recording convoys, daily rations, buildings destroyed or damaged, honours and awards. There are also dozens of illustrations, maps and black-and-white photographs. It is a treasure-trove for any writer or student of history.

In the summer of 1939, when it seemed that war was imminent, the Admiralty pressed to strengthen the island against air attack by installing 122 heavy AA guns, 60 light AA guns and 24 searchlights. Inertia hampered this process. On June 10, 1940 Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. Malta was in the firing line and by this time the islands only had 34 heavy anti-aircraft guns and 8 Bofors; the number of searchlights was up to strength, however.

‘... Malta’s loss would have denied the Allies of a staging post to the Middle East, jeopardised the fate of the British Army fighting in North Africa, and turned the Mediterranean into an Axis lake’ (p163).

The air-raid sirens sounded to warn of the first raid on June 11, 1940. ‘... ten Savoia Marchetti 79s crossed the 60 mile channel on their way to their target Hal Far airfield’ (p6). Other targets were the dockyard and forts. There were seven bombing sorties that first day, with no planes lost on either side.

That year, Malta suffered 211 air raids. Succeeding years increased in number, 963 and 2,031 for 1941 and 1942 respectively. The devastation was horrendous (as many photographs attest); ‘the Royal Opera House was demolished along with several other buildings in Valletta on April 7, 1942’ (p111); the ruins of the opera house are still there, concrete yet mute testimony to the siege. Two days after that, a bomb penetrated the dome of Mosta Church but instead of exploding merely bounced among the congregation. In the first weeks of 1942 ‘the number of unexploded bombs from heavy daylight raids by German aircraft rose from 6 to 143 per week’ (p128).

Civilians sought refuge in ‘the old railway tunnels in Valletta and Floriana, as well as in the Hypogeum, a prehistoric underground burial place, and also the Catacombs at Rabat’ (p15).

The Royal Malta Artillery recruited ‘a motley crowd of clerks and farmers, shop assistants and masons, intellectuals and illiterates’ (p34). In fact, as early as September 1938, ‘3,000 volunteers enrolled in the Women’s Auxiliary Reserve set up by Lady Bonham-Carter, the wife of the then Governor of Malta’ (p73). The native RMA and the Royal Artillery raised a curtain of flame that was fearful to behold... Captured German pilots admitted that they had been unnerved by it. It probably saved the Island from devastation, saved many a British warship... Remarkable was the stoicism of the civilians’ (p173).

Supplies came by seagoing convoy, the first in September 1940 from Alexandria. Subsequent convoys sailed from Gibraltar as well. Freight was also transported by RN submarines, among them HM Submarines Porpoise, Rorqual, Cachalot, Osiris and Otus [While in SM drafting in the 1970s I sent men to submarines that bore these names, but newer boats of the Porpoise and Oberon class, launched 1958 to the 1960s]. Submarines based in Malta attacked German convoys destined for Rommel’s Afrika Korps, sending to the bottom of the sea some 400,000 tons of supplies. In April 1942 HM Submarine Upholder was lost on her twenty-fifth patrol.

Shortages meant that improvisation was the order of the day; ‘men found fig and vine leaves a substitute, albeit a distasteful one, for tobacco... women made coats from blankets and dresses from curtains’ (p77). By September 1941 the only unrationed items were bread, pasta, cheese, rice and tea. At this stage of the war, the Enigma codes had been cracked and warnings of imminent attacks on convoys could be countered. ‘Cigarette-smokers took a deep breath when, on October 30, 1942, after many months of enforced abstinence, an issue of 30 cigarettes a week was introduced on a ration basis, to be increased to 50 with effect from January 15, 1943’ (p172).

‘Radar... is regarded as one of the main contributors to Malta’s defeat of the enemy. Radio Direction Finding was first brought to Malta in Marsh 1939 when the Air ministry Experimental Station was set up at Dingli Cliffs, one of the highest spots on the Island’ (p83).

Allied aircraft were transported by convoy but many were lost during the air-raids on Ta’ Qali, Hal Far and Luqa airfields. ‘In answer to the 200-240 daily Axis sorties, Malta could seldom muster more than six fighters at one time’ (p101).

In September, 1942, even while conflict still raged, the King presented the George Cross to the Island Fortress and its people, acknowledging the ‘gallant service’ the Maltese people had already rendered in the fight for freedom (p120). On June 20, 1943 the King visited the Island, ‘sailing through a hostile sea, with enemy air bases a mere 60 miles away’ (p184). He was given a rapturous reception by civilians and the armed forces; he toured much of the Island all day, witnessing the destruction and speaking to the Maltese. Prime Minister Churchill visited the Island on November 17 for two days and President Roosevelt arrived on December 8 and presented the people with a citation concerning their ‘valorous service above and beyond the call of duty’ (p197).

With the retreat of the Germans from Italy in 1944, few air-raids occurred and none resulted in any further damage or deaths. The last alert sounded on August 28.

‘... looking back across the years, serving at Malta in spite of the hardships, hunger and the constant presence of danger and death, is curiously one of these parts of one’s life, which if given the chance, one would do all over again’ – Leo Nomis, an American pilot flying from Ta’Qali (p154).

Friday 22 December 2023


Brendan DuBois’s alternate history novel Resurrection Day was published in 1999. The ‘what if?’ scenario is tantalising indeed: What if the Cuban Missile Crisis had become a full-blown war?

It’s 1972, ten years after the nuclear bombs were dropped. Russia was crushed: ‘... no more large cities, no more government. Just tribes of people, trying to survive in muddy villages that could have existed in the Middle Ages, a decade after an entity called SAC had obliterated their nation from the earth’ (p65). California is virtually destroyed, New York has been depopulated, Washington DC lies beneath a giant crater lake. Europe is unscathed – Nato collapsed. Presidential elections are due at the end of the year. What was left of the United States relied on aid from Great Britain; the USA was shamed and ostracised by the international community because it let the nuclear genie out of the bottle.

Carl Landry, ex-US Army, is now a civilian, a journalist on the Boston Globe newspaper. The paper is heavily edited by an army Captain in accordance with the Martial Law Declaration of 1962 and the National Emergency Declaration of 1963. The Land of the Free no longer has free speech. ‘Why torture yourself, remembering  full supermarket shelves, clean clothes, steady power, and a government that didn’t hunt down draft dodgers and didn’t censor the news and didn’t run labour camps for the dissidents, the protesters, the ones that didn’t belong. That time was gone, was never coming back, not ever’ (p99).

Landry is approached by an aging veteran who has some important papers; they arrange to meet next day, but the vet is murdered, his apartment trashed.

Making enquiries, Landry learns of the deaths of the vet’s neighbours and friends. ‘... when the current national death rates and the results of the 1970 census were both kept secret because of national security, well, if life wasn’t cheap, it certainly wasn’t worth much’ (p51).

He begins to dig – and is warned off more than once: ‘Carl knew he had entered the murky land of late-night arrests, ‘disappearances’, and closed-door trials’ (p162). He was also attacked by an orfie gang – comprising feral orphans of the war.

He befriends Sandy Price, a journalist for the Times of London. She’s beautiful and clever. When they are both co-opted on a fact-finding mission to New York for their papers, they jump at the chance. And then things get weird and hairy, not least because there’s a faction that believes President Kennedy didn’t die in Washington, but still lives; his resurrection could screw the forthcoming elections, indeed.

DuBois has managed to create believable and often sympathetic characters, as well as a post-war situation that seems credible. It was an immersive experience. I zipped through the 580 pages in no time.

An impressive addition to the vast library of ‘what if?’ novels.

Editorial comment:

‘Think, he thought. Just take a deep breath and think’ (p471). Probably would have read better like this: Think, dammit. Just take a deep breath and think. No need for ‘he thought’.

Character names: Jim Rowley and Captain Rowland are quite close; never cause confusion but could easily have been more different.

Wednesday 13 December 2023

THE MUMMY - Book review


Anne Rice’s 1989 novel The Mummy (or Ramses the Damned) is not a novelisation of the Brendan Fraser film (which came out ten years later!)  Apparently, Rice began this as a film script but she and the studios had conflicting visions about the story so she abandoned the screenplay idea and wrote the book.

It’s a seductive read that begins slowly and then develops with intrigue and murder. It’s 1914, before Carter has found the tomb of Tutankhamen. Archaeologist Lawrence Stratford has uncovered the tomb of Ramses the Great. Puzzlingly, there seems a link to the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra, yet Ramses’ reign was many years before the Queen of the Nile was born... Accompanying Lawrence is his nephew Henry Stratford, a ne’er-do-well. Lawrence’s daughter Julie was in London with her fiancĂ© Alex Savarell, Viscount Summerfield, the son of Elliott, the Earl of Rutherford. The marriage had been arranged when they were children; through this marriage the Rutherford family would gain the Stratford wealth in exchange for the title. However, Julie was a strong-willed independent-minded woman, so the courtship was not going anywhere fast.

It is no spoiler since the blurb announces the fact: Ramses the mummified king awakens and appears before Julie in a dramatic scene. ‘Dear God, she thought, this is not merely a man gifted with beauty; this is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen’ (p92).

The reason for Ramses not being a dry husk of a mummy is that he was merely dormant, not dead, and was revived by sunlight. He was immortal, three thousand years old, having drunk an elixir centuries ago. He does not need sleep or food, though he is impelled to satisfy appetites that he cannot assuage.

The book is a visual feast: we can envisage the scenes in their entirety. It’s sensuous, particularly as love develops between Julie and Ramses. Conflict is supplied by the unsavoury Henry, who is not averse to killing to get what he wants, and the newly discovered Cleopatra, Ramses’ lost love.

There are many light and amusing touches as Ramses learns about the early twentieth century. He is a fast study, particularly as he does not need sleep. Over the centuries when he roamed the earth he learned a number of languages, too. He adopted the name Reginald Ramsey in order to accompany Julie on their forays through society, all part of his education.

While they are touring Cairo, accompanied by Elliott and Henry, mysterious deaths occur. Mr Ramsey falls under suspicion...

Cleverly plotted, the story reveals the problems of immortality and ever-lasting love.

The book ends with the promise of further adventures of Ramses the Damned; but there was a long wait! There is no great need to take up the sequels, however; the ending of this book was satisfactory enough for me.

The sequels, co-written with her son Christopher are Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra (2017) and Ramses the Damned: The Reign of Osiris (2022). Anne Rice dided in 2021, aged 80.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

SOE AGENT - book review


The subtitle of the Osprey book SOE Agent is Churchill’s Secret Warriors; text by Terry Crowdy, colour illustrations by Steve Noon. This is number 133 in the Warrior series of Osprey books. There are 62 information-packed pages with many contemporary photographs.

‘Nazi control on the continent was like a virus, intent on infiltrating every level of human existence and perverting it for its own satisfaction’ (p5).  Britain's Minister of Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton was convinced a new organisation should be created to infiltrate Europe and the ‘new weapons of war would be agitation, strikes, random acts of terror, propaganda and assassination’ – effectively, ‘no holds barred’ (p5).

As early as September 1938 MI6 set up D Section (Sabotage) and the British General Staff formed a research section GS(R) to investigate the possibilities of guerrilla warfare; in May the following year this became Military Intelligence (Research). September 1939 Britain and France declared war on Germany after Hitler invaded Poland.

The book covers the recruitment of SOE agents, their training, and some of their missions, Lysander pickup, coding of messages, and their weapons and types of radio. It is a little treasure-trove for students and writers of that period. Certainly, having recently read Ken Follett’s Jackdaws, I could recognise many salient facts that he used in his narrative.

Related titles in the series are French Resistance Fighter and Resistance Warfare 1940-45; and in the Elite series: Office of Strategic Services (OSS) 1942-45.

Monday 4 December 2023

THE MELTING MAN - book review

In the mid-1960s I read a few books by Victor Canning and thoroughly enjoyed them. For some reason I didn’t read any more (maybe suborned by Helen MacInnes, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Gavin Lyall, and Desmond Cory, among others!);  that is, until now, taking up his 1968 thriller The Melting Man, a collector’s item.

This is the fourth (and final) thriller featuring the investigator Rex Carver. Narrated in first-person, it begins with Carver contemplating a holiday, despite the fact that the firm’s bank balance could benefit from an injection of new cash. ‘... eleven months of the year I worked, if it was there to work at, but come September, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, I took a holiday’ (p9). He told his business partner Hilda Wilkins, ‘I need feeding up.’ She pointedly looked at his lowest waistcoat button and said, ‘That’s not the impression I get’ (p2).

From the outset, the style grabs, with plenty of one-liners, amusing asides, and colourful descriptions. From time to time Carver undergoes a session in the gym run by Miggs, an ex-Commando sergeant who takes one look at Carver and says, ‘My God – a young man in an old man’s body. You’d better let me book you in for a dozen sessions...’ Carver responded: ‘I like to put it on around September. Live off my fat during the winter. Bears do it’ (p6).

His holidaying intentions are waylaid by the arrival in the office of beautiful Julia Yung-Brown. He’d been recommended to her by Miggs: ‘But you don’t quite come up to the description Miggs gave of you. Sort of blurred around the edges somewhere.’ He riposted: ‘Come autumn I begin to disintegrate a little. My best month is May’ (p11).

Despite inferring that Carver was unfit, he manages to hold his own, surviving more than one knock on the head, a near-drowning and a bomb in his car!

Julia and her sister Zelia are the step-daughters of millionaire Cavan O’Dowda, a man with a ruthless reputation. Apparently, Zelia went missing while driving her stepfather’s Mercedes 250 SL in France. Zelia subsequently turned up in Cannes with memory loss and no car. O’Dowda wants Rex to find the car. Simple.

He sets out on the trail of the car – Geneva, Cannes, Turin. And is tracked by his old Interpol pal Aristide Marchissy la Dole as well as the eccentric Alakwe brothers, Jimbo and Najib, together with their sex-mad 6ft 4” lethal assistant Miss Panda Bubakar. It’s obvious that there’s something hidden inside the car that is highly valuable to all the interested actors.

Aristide has appeared in earlier books. He likes his food, particularly if they’re Carver’s croissants ‘which were first made in Budapest in 1686. That is the year the Turks besieged the city. They dug underground passages beneath the city walls at night, but the bakers – naturally working at that hour – heard them, gave the alarm and Johnny Turk was thrown out. In return the bakers were given the privilege of making a special pastry in the form of the crescent moon which still decorates the Ottoman flag’ (p188).

The pace is fast, the characters are larger-than-life, the threats quite real, and the denouement in the millionaire’s mountain chateau is both intense and grim, with a dark and unexpected twist.

Even after fifty-five years, this is a satisfying and entertaining, page-turning thriller.

You can get a used copy for the price of a beer; all four Rex Carver books are available as e-books.

Sunday 3 December 2023

THE TUMBLED HOUSE - book review


Winston Graham’s 1959 novel The Tumbled House is a romantic suspense novel long out of print; my copy is the fourth impression dated 1976.

While dropping in on the empty house of her late father-in-law Sir John Marlowe, Joanna commits adultery with an ex-boyfriend Roger Shorn. It is not an affair; perhaps she was lonely since her husband Don, a feted conductor, was away in the States with an orchestra.

Shortly after Don’s return, a couple of anonymous articles are published in a newspaper, The Gazette, denigrating Sir John, claiming the great man plagiarised a book by an old associate (also deceased).

Don is incandescent and determined to discover the writer’s identity and clear his father’s name. He seeks legal advice but that’s not much help as you can’t libel a dead person. ‘What was the purpose of attacking the reputation of a dead man unless there was someone still alive to care?’ (p73). He has the sympathy of Joanna and his sister Bennie but ignores their suggestion that he forget the whole issue.

Unable to forgive and forget, Don finally learns of the writer’s identity and writes insults against the culprit. The added complication is that Bennie is in a relationship with the son of the writer.

This should be a fairly anodyne court case, but the interweaving of the personalities involved and the minor crimes on the periphery that affect Bennie and her beau Michael keep the reader turning the pages.

What lifts the book above the norm is Graham’s acute observation of character and place. The point of view is omniscient. Here are a few examples.

‘The Red Boar Club... Here the temperature was a uniform seventy-eight winter and summer, and tobacco-smoke hung in cirrus clouds about the room. You broke through them going down the steps like a plane coming in to land’ (p38).

In the club Don approaches the editor of the offending Gazette: ‘He had a square rather distinguished face on which the skin hung loosely as if it had a slow puncture. But there was nothing deflated about the way he looked at Don...’ (p39).

‘Sir Percy... was not expensively dressed and his Cockney accent still clung to him like a home-knitted pullover’ (p59).

‘When he opened the door the sunlight crowded in as if it had been queuing there’ (p72).

‘An artist of course was judged by his art, not by his life. It didn’t matter two-pence if Rembrandt was a rogue or Beethoven a bore... (p100) – though in the idiotic modern age of cancel culture that may no longer apply!

Despite the suspense, and Don discovering Joanna’s infidelity, there are smatterings of humour: asked about Don’s interpretation of Swan Lake, he responded, ‘It could well be the most original. Phone Leningrad and tell them to watch Tchaikovsky’s grave. If there’s movement, it’ll mean he’s turning over in it’ (p128).

‘She stared at him with unwinking eyes, a stout old lady with a bulging face like a purse that has never been opened for charity’ (p148).

‘... when they rode together the sun was slanting, and a breeze that came up from the sea had made the young leaves turn and glint like wild silk’ (p174).

‘... his grey, pachydermous face wearing a weary, dusty expression as if too many years of exposing human frailty had left him without illusions and without hope’ (p298).

Bearing in mind the time of writing, there are two uses of the n-word and an allusion to gays before that term was the acceptable description, none of which are malicious.

Graham describes a death without being mawkish: less is more.

The ending is satisfactory.

Saturday 2 December 2023

SHARPE'S COMMAND - Book review

Bernard Cornwell’s latest (2023) Sharpe adventure
Sharpe’s Command places our hero at the battle of the Bridge at Almaraz, 1812 – as usual, based on historical events.

Major Sharpe is leading his Chosen Men, with sergeant Harper and the familiar other characters. They are behind enemy lines, intent on preventing the French from crossing the bridge to reinforce one of their forts which is soon to be under British siege.

Needless to say, he triumphs after a number of setbacks, this time aided by his wife Teresa and her guerrillas. Some of the impediments are due to betrayal by presumed allies, and others by the incompetence of British officers.

If you’ve watched any of the Sharpe TV films then you’ll be familiar with the characters and can even hear their voices as they speak from the page. If you haven’t, you’ll still enjoy an engaging and fascinating adventure sprinkled with knowledge about rifles, muskets and big guns! We meet again major Hogan who this time opines ‘A wise man once said that the best way to win a war is to do it without fighting’ (p210). He was doubtless quoting from Sun Tzu’s Strategy of War: ‘To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.’

It would be unfair to go into details (spoilers) about the book. There’s historical fact, humour, bravery, and blood and gore. The usual ingredients for a fast-paced Sharpe read.


Like C S Forester with his hero Hornblower, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels are not written in historical chronological order. Of his twenty-three Sharpe books, this is the fourteenth in chronological order, preceded by Sharpe’s Company and followed by Sharpe’s Sword. It’s not essential to read them in historical order, though it’s recommended as some main characters do die in the series (though it’s a good way to meet again some who later die, if that isn’t too confusing!)