Stories from the Siege of Malta

The Fearsome Struggle for Malta

Well south of Russia, in the bright sunshine and blue waters of the Mediterranean, Malta’s ordeal continued. The island, its citizens, the RAF airfields, the Royal Navy dockyards, and practically every house or building around Valletta and the Three Cities just across the harbor from the capital had been battered by Axis bombs for two consecutive years. Still, the Malta based RAF and Royal Navy continued to exact a heavy toll on German and Italian convoys bound for North Africa. Determined to remove the Maltese thorn from their sides, the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica came day after day, in wave after wave. By mid-1942, the persistent barrage of Italian and German explosives had the island on the brink of defeat.

Principal RAF bases for air defense of Malta,

A Destroyer Sailor Lands on Malta

George Sear had been on Malta since the last week of March 1942. Severely damaged in a surface engagement against Italian surface forces, Sear’s ship, the destroyer Kingston, was put in the drydock at Senglea for attempted repairs. Sear had a low opinion of the Maltese shipyard workers who, he complained, would rush off to bomb shelters at the first sign of an air raid. The daily and seemingly endless bombing raids had reduced the island to ruins. Sear’s destroyer lasted a week before she was hit so often and so severely that she had to be declared a total loss. Her crew was issued small arms taken from the ship’s armory and dispersed as naval brigades assigned to army units throughout Malta. Sear and some of the other men from Kingston were kept busy building “sangers,” the three-sided shelters that reached 12 to 18 feet high and served to protect RAF planes from the Axis air raids. It was difficult labor that lasted 12 hours daily on starvation rations. According to Sear, he lost considerable weight from a consistent diet of one slice of bread and tea without sugar for breakfast; canned corned beef, potato peelings, a slice of bread and tea for lunch; and a slice of bread, a boiled potato and tea for dinner. Nobody on the island had any more than that to eat in those days. Many, both military and civilian, suffered or died when even normally minor injuries or ailments could not be treated for the lack of medical supplies. Fair or not, it was Sear’s feeling that it was British military forces alone that bore the brunt of all efforts to preserve and defend the island.

A Fighter Pilot’s View of Malta

Following her exploits of against the Bismarck, aircraft carrier Ark Royal returned to Gibraltar on 29 May 1941 to remain in the Mediterranean throughout the summer months. As before, she participated in the screening of convoys to Malta, attacks on Italian military targets ashore, and the delivery of planes to Malta. Reinforcement aircraft destined for the island were often ferried unassembled from England aboard merchant vessels. They would be put together at Gibraltar prior to delivery to Malta via fly-off from an aircraft carrier. Whenever fully assembled planes were carried from England to be transferred aboard Ark Royal, they would be manhandled across a rough wooden bridge set up between the delivering ship and the carrier as the two ships lay anchored stern to stern. Ark Royal would then steam out to sea to launch the planes to Malta. In order to protect Ark Royal and the other carriers making such deliveries, external fuel tanks were attached to the planes. The ships would then be able to remain safely beyond the range Italian or German air attacks.

RAF pilot Hugh Parry’s experiences were fairly typical of practically any pilot involved in a club run. Parry migrated from England to South Africa because he did not know what to do with himself after finishing school at the age of 17. He got a job as a surveyor and played a good game of tennis in his spare time. His talent for the game earned him a raise and a transfer to Rhodesia to do the same sort of work while also representing his firm on the courts. When the war began, he felt enough of a combination of patriotism and a sense of adventure to gain passage back to England so that he could join the RAF. He did not know anything about airplanes, but wanted “just to be a pilot, nothing else.” If he could not do that he “… would have accepted a navigator’s job.” Once back in England, he persisted through a complicated process of going from place to place and talking with person after person until he was finally accepted into the RAF. He became a fighter pilot because he “… had read about the Red Baron and all the big aces … (and) it was all much more glamorous than driving a bus …” In a grading system where trainees were rated as exceptional, above average, average, or below average, Parry was consistently marked as average. After training, he was assigned to 601 Squadron that, equipped with Spitfires, received orders to Malta. He was clearly aware of the high casualty rate among pilots there and would have preferred just about any other assignment. 601 was put aboard the American carrier USS Wasp that was on loan to the shorthanded Royal Navy. The ship and squadron put to sea with an “enormous escort” that, according to Parry’s admittedly less than perfect memory, included “… two either battlecruisers or battleships … light cruisers … and 24 destroyers.”

According to Parry, the American carrier was more suitable than the British ones then available for transporting the Spitfires. Unlike with Royal Navy carriers, Wasp’s elevators were large enough for the planes of his squadron, even without folding wings, to be taken below for stowage in the hangar deck. Parry’s chief complaint about the US Navy was that it was “dry.” He and his fellow RAF pilots were forced to mix aspirin tablets with Coca Cola in order to attain a similar effect to the Royal Navy’s rum ration. Playing cards, Parry won a good deal of money from a fellow pilot who told him that he wanted to wait until they arrived on Malta before paying. All were aware that there was a very good chance that that he would be wasting his money if Parry were to be shot down. Parry and 601 took off from Wasp 35 miles north of Algiers and, staying at wave top altitude, flew the 795 miles to Malta by way of Cape Bon, North Africa. The fliers maintained radio silence because the Luftwaffe had a base on nearby Pantelleria Island that could, otherwise, detect their presence. In spite of this, Parry could not help but get on his radio to request permission to fire on a slow moving Italian bi-plane that he had sighted. Permission was denied but, just to put a good scare into the Italian pilot, the entire squadron made it a point to fly directly over him.

HMS Illustrious Under Air Attack While Docked at Malta for Repairs

As soon as the squadron landed, the pilots were told to quickly get out of their planes which were expeditiously refueled and immediately sent back aloft. The experienced RAF personnel on Malta knew that the Germans were aware of the reinforcement flight and either they or the Italians would soon be overhead to attack it. The British were generally relaxed when the Italians appeared because they knew that the Regia Aeronautica was not particularly bold. The Italian preference for holding formation for high altitude bomb delivery usually resulted in great inaccuracy. The Germans were another matter. They used a two-engined multi-role aircraft, the JU-88, and the Stuka dive bomber to achieve highly consistent and devastating hits on RAF planes on the ground. It did not help that there was a persistent shortage of anti-aircraft gun batteries on Malta. True to form in the case of Parry’s just landed 601, the Germans arrived within minutes to bomb and strafe the airfield. 601’s Spitfires were long gone, however. Still, the attrition rate among British planes based on Malta was extremely high. Parry estimated that of a total of about 100 planes delivered by Wasp, losses to ground attacks, aerial combat, and other causes quickly reduced the number to just about 20. Parry admitted to being personally terrified in view of the high odds against him and the other Malta-based pilots.

Axis attacks on supply convoys approaching Malta and on the island itself were intense. Italian and German planes were constantly present and seemingly could go anywhere they pleased. The occasional German pilot who crashed or parachuted onto the island would be immediately set upon by the locals and viciously attacked. But for British military intervention, the pilots would have, according to Parry, been torn apart. The Germans would send a flying boat to pick up its pilots who ditched or parachuted into the water. The British, however, had no such means of at-sea rescue and many RAF airmen who went into the water off Malta were lost. The German flying boat would sometimes pick up downed British fliers. These men would, more likely than not, be interrogated thoroughly before being sent on to a POW camp. The British on Malta warned the Luftwaffe that the rescue plane was fair game for attack despite the facts that it bore red crosses displayed on its wings and could pull RAF men from the water. When the Germans ignored the warnings, the plane was shot down. No subsequent German flying boats intent on rescue missions appeared again. The locals seemed to hate the Italians even worse than they did the Germans. Parry correctly surmised that the island’s residents seethed at the betrayal by fellow Catholics who were contributing so much to the destruction of property, near starvation conditions, and casualties among the populace.

Like everyone else on Malta, the RAF’s allotted rations were very scanty. Diets were high in carbohydrates with one of the staples being a type of hardtack that Parry and his companions referred to as “dog biscuits.” Parry, who became a POW after leaving Malta, recalled that he got more to eat as a prisoner in Germany than what he had as a free man on Malta. Parry and his fellow airmen routinely lamented the lack of beer or any other form of alcohol. The closest such beverage available was a local wine that the men could purchase at one of the few local bars. At its best, it was characterized as “vinegar.” There were opportunities at these same bars, and at one or two of the local hotels, for the men to find female companionship. The women were not always comfortable with what they were doing but, they were willing to exchange favors for food: especially chocolate or cigarettes.

Aside from furtive liaisons in certain bars, there was little contact between military and civilians in the very conservative Maltese society. Some pilots employed locals to help keep their on-base quarters neat and clean. The Maltese houseboys and British got on reasonably well, although theft of small items from among a pilot’s property was not unknown. Given the conditions on the island, it was not unusual for a Maltese to abscond with everything if the pilot he worked for were to be shot down.

Most people on the island suffered equally during the siege, but there were a few, including members of the Maltese nobility, who were scarcely deprived. Among the privileged were the Marquis of Scicluna and his family who, on the occasion of his daughter Marie Corrine’s 18th birthday and coming out celebration, invited the men of 601 Squadron to his palace. The men went mostly for the food and the alcohol of which they knew there was to plenty. They were astounded by the wealth contained in the house. It even had an extensive model railroad layout housed on the upper floor under a glass skylight. The Marquis invited Parry to play with it which he delightedly did by standing in the elevated control booth to electronically maneuver and construct trains by coupling and uncoupling cars as if on a real railroad. The power and control of the wealthy and noble families of Malta was quickly demonstrated to the men of 601 when one of its pilots claimed that he had become engaged to Patricia Pullicino. The young woman’s professionally and socially prestigious father had been Malta’s attorney general until 1941. The very day after the announcement, the British flier was called to RAF headquarters and presented with orders for an immediate transfer from the island.

Patricia was married in 1942 into a family of long tenured nobility.

Three Stories of the Siege

The stories of three survivors of the Malta siege provide a sense of the difficulties that so many people, civilian and military, had to endure. The heavy toll on ships carrying food stores came close to bringing about the island’s surrender due to starvation. Rita D. Salmon nee Gauci wrote a book titled, Memories of an English Childhood in Malta that offers a view of the war through the eyes of a young girl. Norman Reginald Gill, a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and George Hart, an army bandsman, were both stationed on Malta and spoke in separate interviews about their experiences there.

Gill arrived on Malta in late July 1941. He, along with other Royal Army Medical Corps staff and RAF ground crew members, had been carried there by a convoy ship. He commented on the widespread destruction that he saw on the island and spoke about the defeat of an Italian surface navy attack on ships anchored in the main harbor just a few days after his arrival.

So here we were in Malta … We’d heard about (it) … It had had a terrific battering since Italy came into the war, several hundred raids and lots of fatalities they said. The signs of damage were all there … the three cities as they were called, Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea, housed the dockyard workers and had been terribly battered. The area all around the Grand Harbour was a tremendous mess, and the Naval Hospital at Bighi had been put out of action (which) was probably the reason why it was considered necessary to reinforce the medical personnel on the island.

We were happy to survive (the) Mediterranean convoy (that brought us) but we weren’t happy to have landed in Malta which showed such devastation. Of course, much worse was to come later … the second night – about two o’clock in the morning – we were awoken by the most terrific row as every gun on the island appeared to be firing, including guns we hadn’t heard before. We were quite familiar, after two days, with anti-aircraft guns but long-range guns were firing, too. We had a 230mm – 9.2-inch – battery about 2 km. away from the hospital and when those opened up the whole hospital seemed to shake. This went on for quite a time and the whole island was lit up by flashes of shellfire which appeared to be going out to sea. We all thought the Italian fleet was standing off the coast of Malta preparing to blast the place. This was something we always feared … After an hour or so it all died down and we heard on the Maltese radio the next day that some 20 Italian motor torpedo boats had attempted to sink the convoy in Grand Harbor … every gun within range on the island had opened up and their (defeat) was, of course, a tremendous morale booster for the Maltese forces.

Rita Salmon’s father was in the Maltese Army and she, along with her mother and siblings, arrived on Malta in 1938 while she was still quite young. The family lived in a modest house of two bedrooms, a cook room, and a WC that had been enlarged, likely for the sake of safety. Inspired by the local farmers’ use of natural rock caves, the father dug out a rock-side in which he placed bunks for sleeping. The shelter-dormitory was lit by wick oil lamps and the children, once ordered in, were not to go back outside without permission.

Writing her book many years afterward, Salmon, and by then using her husband’s name of Gauci, made mention of “Victory Kitchens” which were community kitchens first established in January 1942 by government decree in an effort to minimize wastage and to equalize food distribution throughout the island. Within six months, as the island faced increasingly meager food supplies, there were 42 such kitchens. Food was collected from farmers and other food producing communities to be used by the kitchens. Citizens were required to sign up to receive food cooked at the kitchens which they would, in take-out fashion, bring home. In exchange, they had to give up a portion of their tinned meat, preserved fish, and fats rations to the kitchens. The meals they received were prepared from items that were both on and off of the rationed commodities lists.

There was a popular “Victory Kitchen Song” whose lyrics in English were:

“Baked pasta in trays and people in array at the Victory Kitchens.
Minestra and sardines, pasta and beans at the Victory Kitchens.
What a treat on New Years Day! They made us eat sardines at the Victory Kitchens.
Their legs are so fat, they eat so much grub. The girls at the Victory Kitchens.
Their hair set all wavy to flirt with the boys in the navy. The girls at the Victory Kitchens.

The kitchen staff was not slow to retaliate by saying we served you goat’s meat that you had to eat from the Victory Kitchens.

According to Gauci,

Our water came from a well and had to be boiled and there was also a tap some distance away with the slogan, ‘waste not; want not’ engraved (on it) … as the war progressed and food got
shorter we were in rather a difficult position. The local farmers lived off the land and we could buy food from them or from the local village shop. But as the food got shorter the farms had all the produce confiscated for the Victory Kitchen. We were friends with the entire village and they helped all they could. Mum would make them cakes whenever any flour was available and knit in exchange for fruit or eggs. I would go round to the villages to families (that had) a baby and goats. In return for rocking the baby in a hammock I would get a cup of goat’s milk. My father had an arrangement with the cookhouse (at his army base) that he could have whatever rations were available to him for the week and he would bring it home. Mum would eke it out for the five of us. Father’s typical ration was a tin of corned beef, a tin of herrings in tomato sauce (and) perhaps army biscuits which were … hard tack. He would also barter for food (as) the farmers were desperate for machine oil for the pumps in the fields.

Rita Salmon (left) During Her Time on Malta

The food situation was getting very bad … the ration initially was a loaf of bread, three ounces of fat, 1-3/4 ounce of cheese, 1-1/4 ounce of coffee, three pints of milk, three pounds of tomatoes, 1-1/2 pounds of potatoes, and eight gallons of water. No sugar, pasta, tea, oil, butter, soap, meat or fish. This was, of course, if you were near enough to a town with a supply. I remember walking three miles once for a small loaf of bread. All the confiscated food was given to the Victory Kitchens to be made into soup. We visited an aunt (once) and I went with her for a bowl of soup. It was very meagre and had very little in it. It looked like clear soup to me. Aunt said it would be good for me! 

Gauci’s narrative depicts a good relationship between the military personnel and the civilians on Malta. Despite their own hardships, it appears that soldiers, sailors, and airmen would take time and pains to offer small favors and kindness to those living on the besieged island.

One Christmas 10 soldiers from the camp at Ghain Tuffiegha came to our home with their dinners and Mum shared it out between us all … That year, 1942, I had a book given to me called, The Jungle Man And His Animals by Carveth Wells. I didn’t know the soldier but his name was Sgt. Wells. I know I had to write and say thank you. I also had a dolls house my dad brought home that one of the soldiers had made. All the doors and drawers opened … The camp cobbler made us hob-nailed sandals and Mum knitted us rope-soled sandals. We rather liked the hob-nailed sandals as they made a lovely loud noise … During one very big raid on the army camp several of the soldiers were killed. At that time I was covered in scabies and had to go to the camp Doctor, who had to soak the bandages off my arms and legs (Mum had to boil the bandages), then he would cover the sores with sulphar (sic) ointment, made with lard, which we had to supply … There was also a naval rest camp at Ghain Tuffiegha. The sailors were off the battle ships and I remember all were in a very sad state of shock. They were very kind to us and would come to see Mum and tell her all about what had happened to them. They would bring a bar of soap or chocolate if they had any. 

Army medic Gill remembered the scarcity of food, lack of nutrition, and drastic weight loss.

There were worrying reports on the food shortage. Certainly our rations were pretty terrible and all veterans will remember the hunger. The water we drank was heavily chlorinated. There was no butter, cheese, eggs, milk. In fact, it would be easier to say what there was. Corned beef, dry biscuits, and Chinese pilchards (sardines). At least they (the tins) had Chinese writing on the front … That was all there was … (One of the cooks) would curry, he would fritter, he would boil, he would fry bully beef. He would soften the biscuits and make some sort of mishmash of biscuits and corned beef with a few pilchards worked into the mixture and, for those of us as hungry as we were, it was very acceptable … (In August 1942) the supply situation, however, got worse and worse and we were told that our rations would be cut again. We were really hungry. I had weighed almost 70 kg but by the end of 1942 I was down to 50 kg … I think that we were all just skeletons. If you’ve been subjected to starvation for a long period, a key rule is never talk about food. We all thought about it, but if anyone said, “wouldn’t it be nice if we had steak and chips”, they were immediately jumped on.

Reg Gill with Companion on Malta

The other thing from a morale point of view was the irregular mail. It was a terribly difficult journey for an unescorted transport plane to make and a lot were shot down. A lot of sea mail was also lost on ships sunk trying to get to Malta … There was a submarine flotilla which managed to survive in Malta and they would bring vital supplies; aviation fuel, some ammunition, and some mail. When I did receive letters, it was sometimes three at a time but I did appreciate this contact with home.

Marine Musician George Hart was sent to Malta in 1938 as a bandsman but, when war was declared in 1939, he was handed a rifle and turned into an ordinary soldier. He spent the first year of the war in relatively quiet fashion helping to string barbed wire and place sand bags around the island. Once Italy declared war in June 1940, however, things changed. Action came quickly in the form of regular, albeit militarily ineffective, bombing raids by the Italian air force.

Hart stated that the British and the Maltese did not tend to mix, although there were some marriages between Maltese women and British service personnel. He thought that the men were lonely and the women were seeking a way off the island. Aside from farming, Malta had no industry or business. The island did not appear to offer much in the way of a future for its young people. According to Hart, courtship on Malta could not have been very exciting for any of his fellow servicemen. The Maltese remained very conservative in their ways and would only allow their daughters to go out with British men under close scrutiny of at least one chaperone. For the rest of the men who missed female companionship, there was a section of Valletta called the “Gut” which was along a narrow thoroughfare called Strait Street. It was lined with bars and clubs where sailors could go for a little music, drinking, or dancing. Hart recalled that each club had its own little band and a small contingent of girls who would dance with the male clients. The companionship, he reiterated, was limited to dancing. Some veterans might have recalled differently, but, according to Hart, there was nothing that even resembled a brothel on the island. “The chances for vice were slim.”

As many other Malta veterans have stated, Hart did not think of the Regia Aeronautica as particularly effective. He felt that the Germans were much better fliers, equipped with larger and louder bombs, and far more accurate than their Italian counterparts. Still, he did not think that the loss of life was particularly heavy on Malta as the shelters dug into the hillsides offered very effective protection. Buildings, however, were made of soft sandstone and collapsed rather easily to leave a very large mess. Along with everyone else, Hart’s chief discomfort was that of hunger. He managed to raise some chickens, but they were good only for their eggs as they were too scrawny to have made good eating.

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