23 March 2010

Belated Malta History from the Bottom Up: Malta in the Middle

(This is part of a continuing series of posts on Malta's insanely dense and lengthy history, as told via the conceit of an archaeological excavation - from the bottom layer up. Previous posts can be found here: Part 1: Megaliths, Part 2: the Hypogeum and Catacombs, Part 3: Roman to Arab times, and Part 4: Knights of Malta)

Justin's computer is in its death throes, so we backed up all of our photos on my laptop. In the process, we became a bit disoriented (or disorientated, as they say in the UK, for some reason) and lost track of some of our pictures. We'll try to get various make-up posts done soon.

We last left Malta with the decline of the Knights of St. John. The Knights were forced out of Malta by Napoleon when he captured the island en route to Egypt in 1798-9. This out-forcing may have looked something like this:

Or not. Don't ask me; I wasn't there.

Subsequently, Malta became a naval base for the British, which it remained until it obtained independence in 1964. My personal Malta-related creepy-coincidence was its prominent role in the Lymond Chronicles book series. Justin's is the fact that the eldest son of Williamina Belsches, the woman he's researching for his dissertation, died at Malta in some military capacity (the death notice marks him as "Captain William Forbes" but we have yet to determine if it's navy or army. History is fun!)

English is consequently one of Malta's two official languages (the other is Maltese) and the cultural legacy of English rule is strong.

Malta is the only country to display another country's decoration on its national flag (image from Wikimedia Commons)

During the Second World War, Malta occupied a precarious but vital strategic position between Italy and German-occupied North Africa. Britain felt it had to retain Malta to have any operating strength in the Mediterranean, and also to prevent the morale catastrophe of losing another "fortress" island on top of the fall of Singapore. Clearly, it was equally important to the Axis that Malta break.

How bad were things on Malta during World War II?

Malta was raided over 3,000 times. And it wasn't tremendously well-defended, either: at one point in April at the height of the bombing, Malta had precisely one plane to fly against the Luftwaffe - which was better than another time in April, when it had none. (The word "gutsy" doesn't even begin to describe the pilot of that one plane). The Maltese controllers were reduced to telegraphing fake signals in the hopes that the Luftwaffe would listen in and think defenders were scrambling. Consequently, the German bombers generally got through, and "
[f]rom 1 January to 24 July 1942 there was only one 24-hour period when no bombs fell on Malta." Some Maltese actually turned to the old Roman catacombs as air-raid shelters, which must have felt a bit ghoulish but was probably rather effective. Malta's Opera House, destroyed in April of 1942, remains a ruin to this day:

Here are some additional stats from Merlins Over Malta:

In a 24 hour period on 20-21st March 1942 295 tons of bombs fell on Ta’Qali airfield making it the most bombed allied airfield ever.

6,728 tons of bombs to fell on Malta in April, 36 times the amount to fall on Coventry. ...

In March and April 1942 more bombs were dropped on Malta than fell on London during the entire Blitz.

There were 154 days of continuous raids in comparison to London’s 57.
Tough cookies, those Maltese.

To acknowledge this tough-cookiehood and to boost morale, King George awarded the entire civilian population of the island with the George Cross, second only to the Victoria Cross in British honors. And the George Cross, a little silver plus-sign engraved with the words "For Gallantry," now appears in the upper-left-hand corner of the national flag of Malta.

Brief break for a Kleenex.

Okay, where were we?

Right. So. Little silver plus-signs are great for morale but unfortunately won't keep your civilian population clothed and fed or your air force in the air. Malta needed concrete help. That was Operation Pedestal, a massive relief fleet braving air bombing, ocean mines, and U-boats to get food and fuel to Malta. The critical ship in this convoy was the world's largest fuel tanker, called - did I mention the creepy coincidences already? - the S.S. Ohio. A great narrative can be found here, which I will seek to condense.

Heavily targeted by German and Italian bombers and suffering severe losses, the convoy struggled through to Malta. The Ohio was battered and bombed until, a mere forty-five miles from the harbor, she went dead in the water. Quick-thinking and courageous seamen physically tied her to two escorting destroyers. With the help of Maltese harbor tugs and the protection of shore batteries, the Ohio made it into the Grand Harbour - on, in another coincidence for the heavily-Catholic Malta, the feast day of St. Marija. Story has it that she was greeted by cheering crowds, which burst into a spontaneous chorus of Rule Britannia.

May I offer my own personal cheer for the ship that saved Malta?

OH!!!!!! IO!!!!!!!!!


  1. Update: I have since learned that William Belsches was an captain in the British Army.

  2. Correction: William Belsches Forbes.

  3. As if any of that actually matters.