There is a famous Second World World War cartoon, which appeared in the Daily Herald, which shows Hitler and Mussolini skipping together through a field above a caption that reads Flowers That Bloom In Spring Tra La. Hitler sows seeds from a basket… only the seeds are human skulls. Second World War veteran Dennis Cooke, of Arnold, chose that particular cartoon to open his fascinating new book, Malta Invincible, produced to raise money for the George Cross island of Malta.
To be precise, it is to help the island’s Museum of Aviation rebuild a Spitfire and Hurricane and extend its exhibition area, so more people can see and understand the remarkable story of Malta’s role in the war. Mr Cooke, now 82, spent six hair-raising months based on Malta at the height of the seige, when German and Italian planes dropped more bombs on that tiny rock-pile in the middle of the Mediterranean than they did on London throughout the blitz.
Naturally, it is a place close to his heart, a place where many friends lie buried.
When he learned of the museum’s appeal, George Cross Island Association member Mr Cooke rummaged through his stack of wartime newspapers and produced a collection of satirical cartoons, interspersed with historical notes, loosely connected to the Malta campaign.
Now the book is on sale, at Ј5, and he is hoping it will lead to a sizeable donation to the museum.
«The book illustrates… how the citizens and defenders of Malta endured constant air attack, hunger and the threat of invasion from nearby Sicily, yet were able to strike back and eventually change the course of the war,» said Mr Cooke, a former north London headmaster who retired to Notts, where his mother Minnie Gibson was born, «for a bit of peace and quiet».
Dennis Cooke volunteered for service in 1940, joining the RAF «because I wanted to fly».
When his training as a wireless operator/rear gunner ended, he asked for a posting to coastal command overseas.
«I thought, ‘Let’s see the world’ so they put me in torpedo bombers in Malta, flying 50 feet above the water to within 600 yards of enemy ships while they were trying to shoot us down with everything they had.» Those six months, as the Axis forces tried to starve Malta into submission by cutting off all supply routes, were like an eternity for Dennis and his comrades. «We were always hungry, the population was starving. All the cats and dogs had vanished off the streets.
«When my mum saw a photo of me, I had lost so much weight she cried.» Relief for the beleaguered island finally came in August 1942 when Churchill and Roosevelt, desperate to keep Malta out of German hands, mounted Operation Pedestal, a huge convoy of 13 merchant vessels and the American tanker Ohio, carrying food, equipment and vital oil supplies, guarded by battleships, cruisers, destroyers and aircraft carriers.
The Luftwaffe and Italian Regia Aeronautica launched a savage attack on the convoy, backed up by sumarines and torpedo boats.
Nine merchant ships were sunk, the remaining five damaged, the Ohio crippled. But they finally reached the cover of aircraft stationed on Malta and limped into Valetta harbour to a rapturous welcome. Soon after the Ohio’s precious cargo was unloaded, she sank.
The British forces and the Maltese people had done a remarkable job in defending the island, a job that turned the war.
Had Hitler been able to capture Malta, and therefore guarantee supplies to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the North African campaign would have been lost and the whole course of the war changed.
All the leaders knew it.
Field Marshall Albert Kesselring described it as «the one fatal blunder». Rommel said that, without the supplies, his army would be destroyed. Hitler’s reply was: «You can show your troops no other road than victory or death.» Dennis Cooke’s fund-raising book is also a memorial to those who did not come home. «We lost a lot of good mates,» he said.
He has never been back to Malta.
«I have no wish to go. I could not bear to go back and see it covered with hotels and tourists.
«I think about the friends that I lost and I want to remember it just as it was when I last saw it.» Copies of Malta Invincible , which is published by the George Cross Island Association’s Midlands branch, are available at Ј5 a copy, including postage, from Dennis Cooke, 125 Worrall Avenue, Arnold, NG5 7GL.
Nottingham Evening Post, July 25, 2003