Malta’s Strategic Value
Granted to England by the 1814 Treaty of Paris, Malta had been used ever since as a Royal Navy base. The island, located practically in the middle of the Mediterranean, was an ideal place from which to exert control, if not dominance, over that sea. In the mid-1930s, however, as England was planning for a war in which Italy would be a probable foe, the British decided to withdraw its fleet from Malta. They had concluded that the island’s proximity to Sicily’s military air bases made it indefensible. The Mediterranean Fleet left Valletta’s fine harbor and well developed docking and yard facilities for the safety of a new base at Alexandria.
By 1940, faced with looming Axis threats to Egypt, the Suez Canal, the Middle Eastern oil supply, and British access to India and the Far East, the British reversed their thinking about Malta. They returned, albeit slowly and piecemeal, to build up air and submarine strength on the island. The most notable submarine force based at Malta was the 10th Submarine Flotilla that consisted of the small “U”-class submarines with each boat manned by a crew of 30 men. The specific mission of British air and sea forces in Malta was to disrupt Axis shipping bound for the German and Italian ground forces in North Africa. On 11 June 1940, the day after Mussolini’s declaration of war against Britain, the Italian Air Force began to bomb Malta. Over the next two years, Malta would endure some of the most intense air attacks launched against any target during World War II. As the war hit full stride, the attrition rate for British warplanes based on Malta reached as high as 80%. Continuous replacements were provided by flying planes to the island off of aircraft carriers.
“The Well Known Dreaded Sound of Falling Bombs”– The Attacks begin
There was little respite from the fury of the interminable air raids against Malta. Day after day people huddled in underground shelters. When they emerged it was to sights of utter destruction. A former British Army air defense gunner gives a view of what it was like for those on the ground.
The rays of the … sun, slowly setting beneath the horizon of the blue sea, lit the heavens with a gay display of colors. It was a marvelous, inspiring sight, tranquil and peaceful, after the mid-afternoon bombardment … But it did not last very long … looking down from the bluff, to the airfield below, the wreckage of planes and hangars littered the field, and the few remaining serviceable aircraft lay at the far end of the landing strip, which was packed with bomb craters … Behind us on the hills could be seen the blocks of hospital buildings, and among them the ruins of former wards … one could see the domes and rooftops of (the town of) Rabat which, so far, had escaped any heavy demolition … what was to be the next target, we could only guess … (Then) came the soul rending impact of the siren, giving its ghostly warning to all, civilians and troops. Farm people in the fields below gazed aloft, no doubt wondering if they could finish their labor before the raid developed. Some stayed, others more cautious, made their way to the rocky shelters burrowed into the hillside … Suddenly Fort Tarja opened up with its 4.5’s (anti-aircraft guns), a shattering salvo. High in the heavens, hardly discernible in the quickening dusk, rode six silver shapes making swiftly for the (airfield), faster they came, ignoring the bursts of flak around them, the leading plane swerved and waggled its wings as if in answer to an order. Down they came, headed for the far end of the dispersal area, a roar of engines shook the countryside, then there came the well-known dreaded whine of falling bombs. To our surprise, they were all incendiaries, and for what purpose we did not know, for nothing of an inflammable nature lay in their path. The 88s (German twin-engine warplanes) kept up fairly high (but we) poured a curtain of steel up at them. They made off in the direction of Rabat, still maintaining their formation, good pilots, they. As they slowly faded away in the distance, the gunfire … subsided until all was peaceful again except for the fierce glare of the incendiaries that were still burning … (A) few more minutes silence, and then faintly at first, gradually getting louder, the “Throb-throb” of the engines could be heard slowly increasing in volume until it felt as though the heavens would split … (we) saw formation on formation, hundreds of planes sweeping the island … the sky was light with Ack-Ack, flare, tracers, and flaming onions as the guns took up the challenge … (the planes) broke formation, and in terrifying dives swept for (their targets) … the roar and vibration of the engines was suddenly drowned by the scream and whine of falling bombs, hundreds of them, like silver streaks they hurtled downwards … the earth shook and trembled, smoke billowed upwards, at times obscuring our vision, at times our ears felt as if they would burst … more and more planes swept in from the sea … they circled round and round, bombing and gunning. Everywhere fires raged … thunderous roars shook the earth … strike after strike … pan after pan of ammunition we used … we blazed away for forty minutes until our ammo was expended … The Luftwaffe .. paid the price, planes were losing height, crippled by flak, to fall … to the ground. Machine guns waiting … no quarter asked, none given. Bailers (downed enemy fliers) were shot. They had attacked the hospital.1.
“I Later Found Out That Only One Man Survived”– Success followed by Misfortune
In late 1940 and early 1941, Italian troops in Libya struck eastward and entered British controlled Egypt. The long desert distances caused an exhaustion of supplies and fuel that stopped the Italians, however. When the British counterattacked, they drove their foe 500 miles back into western Libya. Hitler ordered the German army to the rescue. General Irwin Rommel landed in Tripoli to begin an immediate counterattack of his own. The Germans drove the British all the way back across the Egyptian border. Many British units had stopped at Tobruk, in Libya, to sort themselves out. They managed to set up such a strong defensive perimeter around the city that, although he kept Tobruk under siege, Rommel bypassed it to the south as he pushed eastward to the Egyptian border.
In October 1941, the Admiralty decided to reintroduce a strong Royal Navy presence to Malta through the formation of Force K. Home Fleet cruisers Aurora and Penelope were teamed with Force H destroyers Lance and Lively from Gibraltar to be stationed at Valletta. Force K was to act as a striking force against Axis shipping bound for the resupply of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. In early November, the British ships at Malta sighted an enemy convoy headed for North Africa. They executed a surprise night attack in which they sank all seven Axis merchant ships along with a destroyer of the escort. The following day, a Royal Navy submarine torpedoed and sank another of the convoy’s destroyers that had stopped to pick up survivors of the earlier attack. The loss of the convoy put a severe crimp on Rommel’s operational capabilities against Tobruk and other key points to the east in Egypt.
Force K managed a second successful attack against ships headed for Rommel in late November. The British sank two supply ships laden with fuel and, at that point in time, 60% of the supplies bound for North Africa were being destroyed.2. Meanwhile, the Admiralty sent two more cruisers, Neptune and Ajax, along with two more destroyers, to bolster the strength of Force K. Soon afterward, in December, Penelope, Aurora, Lively and Lance attacked and sank another two ships headed for Rommel: a freighter and a tanker.
Force K suffered devastating misfortune as 1941 drew to a close, however. Royal Marine John Robert Porter, a member of Aurora’s B turret gun crew, described the incident.
(One) run I recall was after we were joined by the … cruiser HMS Neptune … We were again told of another German or Italian convoy coming from Italy and we were to leave Malta with Neptune in charge to intercept it. Unfortunately, we missed the convoy and ended up only eight or nine miles off the port of Tripoli. We only then realized that we had strayed into a minefield when we heard over the tannoy at about two in the morning that we were in a “tense position” … ten minutes later we heard a tremendous explosion. Once we realized that it wasn’t us, we heard someone shout that Neptune had struck a mine and sunk … of a ship’s company of over a thousand men, I later found out that only one man survived. After that our captain … addressed us very calmly and told us we were still in the mine field. He sent the destroyer Kandahar, which was with us, to pick up any survivors but (from Neptune), five minutes later, she too struck a mine. Then, there was a further explosion and this time it was our turn. The bows were blown off the ship but, fortunately, no one was killed. We could now do only about nine knots and we had to get out of the mine field and back to Malta before dawn as we would have been a sitting duck for the Luftwaffe in daylight. Fortunately, we did get back before daybreak, but the ship was so badly damaged that it would not put to sea again until the end of March 1942 … and she spent the rest of her time (in) Malta in the dry dock. 3.
The destroyer Kandahar was damaged beyond salvage. Her crew was carefully transferred to the destroyer Jaguar. Jaguar then sank the abandoned ship by torpedo. The cruiser Penelope also suffered mine damage but it was slight. Aurora underwent repairs in Malta to make her seaworthy. When the work was complete after three months, she steamed home to England.
If life for crewmen aboard a ship tied up for yard repairs can be routine or boring, it was anything but that for those dry docked at Malta. Gun crews were kept active for daily Axis bombing attacks. Personnel, whose jobs did not entail gunnery against attacking aircraft or specific repair functions, would be scrambled into nearby shelters carved into the island’s rocky cliffs. Other crew members might be sent off to perform duties, as needed, around the island. Marine Gunner Porter remembered his days on Malta after the return of the mine damaged Aurora.
The 6-inch guns were generally used only against surface ships, so while Aurora was in dry dock, the six inch ammunition was taken off the ship leaving only the 4-inch guns to be manned for use against attacking aircraft. In the event of an air raid, therefore, we 6-inch gun crews were of no use to the ship and the ruling was that anyone not on duty as a watch keeper should leave her and go into the underground shelters in the rocks around the harbor. These shelters were only yards from the ship and … I wouldn’t go into them. I think (I) thought it was too sissy to do so, so instead, when off duty (I) stayed on deck while the blitzes were on and had a grandstand view. You’d see 20 or 30 aircraft at a time coming over (and) diving like birds.
I do remember one particular occasion, however, when having heard the call, ‘all men to blitz stations,’ and seen everyone either manning guns or leaving the ship, I decided to have a little sleep by the turret as it was a nice warm day. Unfortunately, our sergeant-major was on top of the turret firing at the Stukas with an Oerlikon gun. When he noticed me, he shouted out, ‘Marine Porter, you get in that shelter! That’s your duty!’ while all the time firing at the enemy planes. I’ve never seen such coolness and went into the shelter feeling very sheepish.
During the time that the ship was laid up, I used to go ashore as much as possible. You could get a little bread and breakfast hotel for sixpence a night. One particular night, I stayed at a hotel on the seafront of Valletta called ‘The First and Last.’ Up to then the sea front hadn’t been bombed. As far as I can recall, I was the only marine from Aurora ashore that night and I fell soundly asleep. When I awoke the following morning, I found that my hotel and two other buildings were the only ones still standing on the sea front. All the others had been blitzed and were just rubble.4.
Following the sinking of Neptune and Kandahar and the damage sustained by Aurora and Penelope, Force K was disbanded.
“The Guns and Turrets Were Pockmarked by Splinters”– Penelope’s Ordeal
After the damage Penelope sustained in the minefield off Tripoli in late in1941 was repaired at Malta, the light cruiser returned to duty in the Mediterranean. She served on escort duty for convoys between Malta and Alexandria during the first months of 1942. Having sustained cumulative damage from air attacks, she was finally returned to the drydock at Malta in late March. The shipyard was situated at French Creek, near the city of Senglea, which along with the adjacent Cospicua and Vittoriosa, was one of the Three Cities of Malta. As did practically all Royal Navy ships confined to Maltese dock facilities, Penelope wore out many of her gun barrels providing anti-aircraft defense for the harbor as well as for herself. She spent an extended time in the yard to have repairs made to the additional damage she suffered from air attacks even as she was being tended to for her original damage. The heaviest concentration of air attacks endured by Malta took place at the time Penelope was docked there. A description of the ship’s condition and experiences while in the yard was provided by a correspondent writing for the Sunday Express.
The scene was Easter Sunday morning (1942) in Malta Dockyard. Hitler’s Luftwaffe was trying to pulverize the island into subjection. In one of the docks was the cruiser HMS Penelope. She had been bombed for days on end, she was shrouded in the light dust of Malta, near misses had made thousands of holes in her, dozens of wooden plugs jutted from her sides where the holes had been filled.
The guns and turrets were pockmarked by splinters. The quarterdeck was like a rock garden, littered with pieces of the dockyard flung up by explosions. Captain A.D. Nicholl, DSO, Penelope’s commanding officer, clambered on to the after gun turret and, to cheer his tired but willing gunners he led them in song. Standing in the smoke and dust of the last raid and waiting for the next one to start, they sang, “Get Them in Your Sights” … The song, as one of the officers explained, ‘was as abusive as the occasion permitted’ … Her story really begins on March 26, after a convoy had been brought into Malta and the Luftwaffe began their ferocious attacks. Soon after lunch on March 26th massive attacks came from formations of Junkers 88s and 87s. Penelope sent off parties to help extinguish the fires on other ships. Three hours later another wave of bombers put a bomb down aft of the ship and the jetty. Penelope was holed by this one. Another stick of bombs hit the jetty and one of the close range guns vanished. Next on Friday, the 27th Penelope was moved into dry dock for repairs while the air raids continued. Men who had been working all day in the ship went off through the blitz at night to help unload merchantmen before their cargoes were damaged … Constant heavy raids were causing serious interruption to dockyard work and the solution was for the ship’s staff of shipwrights and artificers to co-operate with the dockyard in the work. They … work(ed) day and night through the raids … The captain went ashore and borrowed six Army welders … Next day there were more massed attacks (and when) the oil fuel in the harbor became ignited … men were detached from the ship to help the Malta fire brigade extinguish it. 5.
Through all the air strikes, crew and yard workers labored on to get Penelope seaworthy. The Germans did not let a single day go by without attacks. They had apparently made Penelope their highest priority target. The battle to save the ship went back and forth over two weeks.
On Friday April 3rd Malta was raided almost continuously from dawn to dusk … All the electrical wiring rigged up in the dock was destroyed and had to be replaced … Saturday, April 4th the bombing continued throughout the day, one bomb near missed, another hit the port after gangway, peppered the port side, holed a propeller shaft, and started a fire … On Easter Monday the German planes did not arrive until early evening. The respite enabled the repairs to the ship to be hurriedly finished … More than 200 bombers came over that evening and there was no doubt that they were all going for Penelope and nothing else … Wednesday, April 8th … (All) had been through so much to save their ship and they were worried sick lest they lost the last trick. They all realized that if they did not get the ship to sea that night they would probably lose her. 6.
Seventeen year old Stoker Eric Beasley was off duty and taking a break from the heat of below decks. He was lying on deck when a bomb hit the jetty adjacent to Penelope. He was flung into the air, suffering a fracture to the knee when he landed. He was sent to a hospital ashore that was staffed by British doctors and nurses. The day after his arrival, the hospital was bombed and he was evacuated to a second hospital which was also bombed. The medical staff took what they could from the rubble and transferred all patients to a shelter dug out of a cliff side. Beasley recalled that there was a shortage of fuel so that water for drinking or medical use could not be properly boiled. The desperate consumption of untreated water led to high rates of dysentery among the island’s general population. Malnutrition was also rampant, but the young stoker remembered that the Maltese he met remained largely cheerful and supportive of the British. 7.
Communications rating Robin Hopson-Hill was one of Penelope’s crewmen detached from the ship to perform duties elsewhere on Malta. He was sent to a wireless transmitting station that was used to communicate with Royal Navy submarines at sea. The station was bombed regularly but Hopson-Hill remained fairly safe as the facility, like so many others in Malta, was an underground one. He recalled that each of the German Stukas was equipped with a siren that shrieked loudly as the bombers dived towards a target. He confirmed that the sound’s intended purpose of intimidating those under attack was thoroughly achieved. Air raids could not be made in darkness so, at night, the beleaguered sailors would head to a part of Valletta called “the Gut” for whatever release they could find among its bars, dance halls, and cafes. He remembered a place called the “Egyptian Queen” where beer flowed freely, men danced on table tops, and the local ladies were always willing to share in and contribute to the fun. At daylight, however, all would return to the fearsome endurance of incessant aerial bombardments. 8.
Finally, on a night in early April, Penelope fueled and weighed anchor to steam out of Valletta at her best possible speed for Gibraltar. She was attacked throughout the following day. The ship was near missed by bombs and torpedoes alike. Her ammunition supply was used down to a final 60 rounds. Except for a single mount none of her guns could any longer fire. The ship had a list to starboard and she was down by the head. Men were below decks bailing by hand in up to six feet of water. Other crewmen took loose fittings from the upper decks and tossed them overboard to lighten the ship in order to reduce her chances of going under. Finally, the ship, her crew cheering, made it to Gibraltar. Penelope steered to her anchorage by alternating turns with her engine. Penelope was safe at last. She would live on to fight another day.
“It Was All Much More Glamorous Than Driving a Bus”– A Fighter Pilot on Malta
Following her exploits of against the Bismarck, aircraft carrier Ark Royal returned to Gibraltar on 29 May 1941 to serve in the Mediterranean throughout the summer months. She participated in the screening of Malta bound convoys, 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 in what were called “club runs.” Sometimes fully assembled planes were carried from England for transfer to the aircraft carrier. 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 reduce enemy threats to 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 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 Parry was assigned to 601 Squadron that was equipped with Spitfires. When his squadron received orders to Malta Parry was clearly aware of the high casualty rate among pilots there. He 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.” 9.
According to Parry, the American carrier was more suitable than the British ones then available for transporting the Spitfires. Unlike those with which Royal Navy carriers were equipped, Wasp’s elevators were large enough to handle Spitfires that did not have folding wings. 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.
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-engine 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 air attacks on supply convoys approaching Malta and on the island itself were equally 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 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. For a while Axis pilots who ditched or parachuted into the water would be picked up by a German flying boat. 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 even though it displayed red crosses 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.
Like everyone else on Malta, the RAF pilots’ 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 o as “dog biscuits.” Parry, who became a POW after leaving Malta, recalled that he got more to eat as a prisoner in Germany than he did 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. On the occasion of his daughter Marie Corrine’s 18th birthday and coming out celebration, the Marquis 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 the pilot delightedly did. He stood in the elevated control booth to electronically maneuver and construct trains by coupling and uncoupling cars as if on a real railroad.
When one of 601’s pilots claimed that he had become engaged to a particular young woman of high social standing, the power and control of the wealthy and noble families of Malta was quickly demonstrated. The 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. The woman in question was married in 1942 into a family of long tenured nobility.10.
“There Were Worrying Reports on the Food Shortage”– Life During the Siege
The heavy toll on supply ships carrying food, fuel, and other essential stores to Malta came very close to bringing about starvation and the island’s surrender. 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. Rita D. Salmon nee Gauci wrote a book titled, Memories of an English Childhood in Malta that offers a view of the war on Malta through the eyes of a young girl.
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 spoke about the defeat of an Italian surface navy attack on ships anchored in Valletta’s Grand Harbour 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.11.
Rita Salmon’s father was in the Maltese Army. She, her mother, and siblings had 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. The house was enlarged when the Axis bombing attacks began. 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.” These 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. 12.
Gauci recalled the constant food shortages on Malta.
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.
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! 13.
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. 14.
Army medic Gill also 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.
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.15.
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, things changed. Action came quickly in the form of regular bombing raids.
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 the narrow thoroughfare of 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. 16.