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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).

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