John Keegan once described siege warfare as «navvying under fire». During the siege of Malta between 1940-43, this labour was often carried out on a diet of three boiled sweets, half a sardine and a spoonful of jam a day. The longest such action in British history resulted in the entire island being awarded the George Cross: the highest award for civilian gallantry. More bombs fell on Malta than fell on London during the entire Blitz, so one can expect an account as moving as that of James Holland in Fortress Malta. Stories grow well in ruins. The human tales running through the book are well underpinned with the author’s insistence on the strategic importance of the conflict. For some historians, nothing mattered in the Second World War that did not happen on the Eastern Front. Yet lack of fuel was to be a chief reason for the Nazis’ eventual defeat and, with Malta in Axis hands, the way to the Suez Canal would have been open and the oilfields of the Middle East at Hitler’s disposal. Boosting Malta’s air defences was initially judged futile as, post-Guernica, it was thought sustained bombing must surely reduce it to rubble no matter what measures were taken. When the decision was made to strengthen the island, the promised guns and fighter planes had still not arrived in spring 1940, though the island did receive a detachment of the Middle East Pigeon Section, comprising 15 soldiers, 200 pigeons and eight rabbits. The only RAF interceptors were obsolete Gloster Gladiator and Fairy Swordfish biplanes, which were slower than the Axis bombers, let alone the enemy’s modern fighters. Even then, the air force was reduced to combining the remains of crashed Gladiators to create working aircraft. The relative status of shipping was similar, with British strength in the area outclassed by newer Italian vessels. However, the Italian fleet was soon worsted, while their bombing of Malta had little effect. The first raids almost missed the island though the enemy claimed to have destroyed the capital’s railway station and HMS St Angelo in Valletta Harbour (neither of which existed). The early victories inspired Churchill, who resolved to make the most of one of the few successes of the war thus far.
Malta possessed less than 4,000 men in arms to protect against an Italian invasion, and one whole company of the King’s Own Malta Regiment was made up of boy scouts. Crueller historians than Holland might suggest that they would have been more than enough to repel the Duce’s forces. However, the Germans were, as usual, another matter. Soon there were 100-bomber raids battering the Maltese towns. Not only were the Luftwaffe’s pilots brave and well-trained, they also engaged in what, referring to the dive-bomber’s sirens, was officially termed «frightfulness» in order to weaken British resolve. No sooner had a consignment of clapped-out Hurricane fighters arrived than 42 of them were shot down without reply by a single squadron of Messerschmitt 109s. Together with being forever outgunned and outnumbered in the skies, servicemen and civilians alike had to contend with malnutrition, the ubiquitous fleas and lice and the virulent «Malta Dog» sickness.
By the end of the siege, virtually the only target left untouched was the palace that Field Marshal Kesselring had earmarked as his official residence after the Allies’ surrender. When the first sign of relief came on 14 August 1942, it was not in the form of an air or sea armada, but an American oil tanker, the Ohio, rudderless and crippled by German bombs and lashed between two Royal Navy ships that dragged her into the harbour. There was now enough fuel and ammunition for the Spitfires that saw off the last enemy attacks.
Despite the island’s heroics, the British Government refused to accept Malta into the United Kingdom after the war, and it has taken until the recent referendum in favour of EU membership to find a comfortable future. Some of the veterans described by Holland fared worse. George Beurling, one of the finest fighter pilots of the war, ended up begging for change on street corners before tragically dying in a plane crash on the way to a new job. Another ace’s widow fell into alcoholism and was still imagining air raids outside her windows when she died penniless and alone in the 1980s. Her delusions are perhaps understandable. One can still see advertisements for «Victory Kitchens» on scoured walls in Valletta and wander at will around derelict wartime installations, such as the old military hospital overlooking Grand Harbour. The bombed-out Royal Opera House is currently being used as a car park, and small publishers continue to bring out collectible memoirs of the siege in weekly instalments. Britain’s one time ally still stands alongside her in rightful pride and the inability to forget.
Independent on Sunday (London), May 18, 2003