Malta 1942 -The George Cross & The Santa Marija Convoy
Even after the fall of Crete, the defenders of Malta still found it difficult to take the threat of attack very seriously so long as the main invader would be Italian. But the arrival of the Luftwaffe in Sicily meant a radical change. Continuous heavy raids soon forced the population to retire underground, and the island’s defences were strained to their limits. Charles MacLean, who served as a Spitfire pilot during this harrowing phase, John Agius who worked with the Royal Air Force in Malta as a civilian, and David Woodward who served as a war correspondent, give a highly individual description of the conditions under which the battle for survival was fought…
In June 1941, Malta was a thousand miles from its nearest help. But the supply lines were still open, food was not yet scarce, and since the Italians were still in control in Sicily, air-raids were few, spasmodic, and inaccurate: besides having respect for the heavy gun-barrage over the island, the high-flying Italian bombers never learned the precise and exact dive-bombing technique of the Germans. There was always the British fleet in Grand Harbour when it was not at sea locking horns with the Italian navy and the striking force of torpedo-carrying Beauforts and Wellington bombers based on the island. There were also the British Hurricane fighters, which though not many, were more than a match for the Italian Macchis.
Up to now the Maltese were more disgusted and annoyed rather than threatened, by their Italian neighbours for bringing the war to their front door. – They were a nuisance! That summer, when Mussolini sent a squadron of MTBs to try and block Grand Harbour, and all of them got blown to hell, there were those who laughed and saw it as a bit of a joke. Tomorrow was yet to come; the authorities still ignored the advice of some of the more thoughtful to start digging, and build underground hangars into the easily workable sandstone.
The real bombing on Malta began during the first week of March 1942. Tomorrow had arrived, and it was far too late to start digging underground hangars. The island anti-aircraft defense, though very strong, was not enough. Malta lacked an adequate air umbrella. And since Egypt could not supply any fighter aircraft, they had to come from Britain by aircraft carrier – and there was an awful lot of open water for convoy attack between Gibraltar and Malta.
Subsequently many groups of Hurricanes were flown to Malta, but on every occasion, after they landed safely, the Luftwaffe bombed the airports heavily, and destroyed them on the ground. It was the same with the few ships that tried to make the run from Gibraltar any that survived to reach the island were immediately bombed at Grand Harbour. From one convoy during this period two ships did reach the island – one sank in the harbour, and the other was sinking as it was being unloaded. The convoys stopped, and for a long time it was up to the miracle ship, HMS Welshman – one of the fastest ships afloat, to make a fantastic night-run, back and forth from Gibraltar, unescorted, to keep up the supply of ammunition. Sometimes a submarine would make a night landing with sorely needed medical supplies.
The first Spitfires to fly of HMS Eagle met the same fate as most of the Hurricanes: they were destroyed on the ground. In April 1942, 45 Spitfires flew of the USSH Wasp in three sections, Malta-bound, out of these half were destroyed – mostly on the ground before they could be refueled and rearmed. Within a week all the Hurricanes were destroyed, leaving about half a dozen Spitfires in maintenance, and four serviceable for flying.
The Royal Opera House after raid
On April 7, Valletta suffered significant destruction: the Auberge de France which stretched from Old Bakery Street to Old Mint Street was wiped out, the Royal Opera House, the market, Auberge de Castille, the Times of Malta building and several others were severely damaged. A staggering 54 people died on April 9. They were mainly from Luqa after a ferocious attack destroyed the church and an air raid shelter was flooded with water from a nearby well, which had burst. There were seven casualties in Gudja, four in Qrendi, and some in Mqabba. That was also the day that the Mosta Dome was hit.
One of the German bombs, weighing 500 kilogram’s, pierced the roof of the Rotunda, hitting one of the walls and smashing the marble flooring, but it did not explode.
Luqa parish church destroyed after a ferocious attack on April 9, 1942
The Maltese had dug themselves in, with mattocks, picks, or any digging instrument to be found, whole families bored their way into the sandstone, and made homes in underground shelters. The bulk of the population lived in these shelters. Within the confined space of double-or triple-tiered bunks whole families existed on the meagre rations, with the few belongings they were able to salvage from destroyed homes. Many of the inhabitants preferred to remain below during this period of heavy bombardment, rarely ever come up into the daylight. Consequently, since ventilation was not quite what it might have been, many of these shelters were hot and stifling, the air heavy and rank even to the entrance 50 to 100 feet above.
With moral at its lowest, the early disgust the Maltese felt for the Italians turned into hatred. Their fear of the Germans spread and deepened until it was a sickness, whose only hope lay in their prayers to Heaven, or the delayed help from Britain. But then came a glimmer of light, of hope, of joy for such a long-suffering people. The Maltese were awarded the George Cross: The award was made by letter dated April 15th 1942, from the King to the Governor of Malta Lieutenant General Sir William Dobbie.
The letter by King George VI awarding the George Cross to Malta
The wording of that letter:
To honour her brave people
I award the George Cross to the
Island Fortress of Malta to bear
Witness to a heroism and devotion
That will long be famous in history.
GEORGE R.I. April 15th 1942.
In reply to the King’s letter, Dobbie wrote: ‘The people and garrison of Malta are deeply touched by Your Majesty’s kind thought for them… “It has greatly encouraged everyone, and all are determined that, by God’s help, Malta will… endure until victory is won…”
On April 17, 1942, two days after the award of the GC, the Governor Dobbie, broadcast to the nation “I am quite sure that everyone in Malta felt a real thrill of pleasure when he learned of the high honour His Majesty the King has been pleased to bestow on this Island Fortress. This thrill may have been all the greater since, perhaps, the honour was unexpected. For it is a new thing which His Majesty has done… I do not recall an instance when an honour of this kind has been conferred by a British Sovereign on a community….”
The plaque on the facade of the Palace
While the award was official on April 15, the situation in Malta was too serious at the time for a public presentation ceremony to be held. The mounting casualty toll, the destruction of buildings, the desperate food shortage and the ever-fear of invasion had ruled out any thoughts of such a ceremony.
April was the worst month of the entire war, when over 6,500 tonnes of bombs fell on Malta – Valletta and the docks were hit in practically every raid. In April 1942 alone, 348 civilians died. That month, the Royal Navy lost 131 personnel, the Army 152 British and 35 Maltese personnel, and the RAF 74.
There was not much encouragement when it was heard through the grapevine that HMS Eagle had been Malta-bound with a load Spitfires, when it was recalled by Whitehall, and was now sitting in Gibraltar waiting for Malta to fall, like Crete. There was little consolation in the fact that London did not wish to lose so many valuable aircraft, aircraft, which would be put to such good use over Britain. It was even worse when news reached the island of the high-flying capabilities of the new Spitfire 9As, which were then raking the skies over northern Europe.
The Luftwaffe never ceased to attack the island furiously, and Ta’ Qali became even more of a favoured target. Then one day the island heard the news. At first it was thought to be a rumour, but then it was official Jumbo Grade (Wing Commander) called a meeting in the billiard room and confirmed the news.
Not one aircraft carrier, but two would bring loads to within flying distance. Britain had decided to go all out now and supply the island with Spitfires every week thereafter.
At about 0900 hours, on Saturday, May 9, the first batch of Spitfires flew over Malta. A few minutes later another arrived, then another and another, until the sky was filled with them. Malta had never seen so many at one time. Some 64 aircraft had flown of HMS Eagle and USS Wasp, and as soon as one touched down, an old pilot was out waving his white flag to attract the new pilot to the pen. No sooner had he swung the aircraft round, tail pointing into the pen, than a swarm of men leapt on to the wings with screwdrivers, opening gun panels, throwing socks, shirts, cartons of cigarettes on to the ground. While two army men were removing the big empty belly auxiliary tank, and storing it behind the pen, others were chain handing tins of petrol to fill the tanks, armourers were rearming the guns, and the old pilot was throwing the new one out of the cockpit, handing him the sheet of instructions and strapping himself in. The aircraft was round and back into the air in minutes. The same activity was taking place all over the island, it was as if each pen-crew was trying to out-speed the other in getting their aircraft into the air. A whole squadron of 12 Spitfires would land, re-fuel and re-arm, and back into the air in seven minutes.
From long before dawn the next morning, Sunday, May 10, three squadrons were at stand-by. And just about sun-up the Welshman steamed into the harbour with a full load of ammunition. A full regiment of British soldiers immediately set to work unloading the ship. In a few minutes the alert went, and a smoke screen was put up that spread over the docks and the harbour. The soldiers worked like slaves, and the Spitfires scrambled and again met the Germans north of the island.
All day the harbour was the main target, the Luftwaffe fighting hard to sink that ship. The battle raged all day, but when it ended the Welshman had been unloaded, and saved to slip out that night; and 64 German planes had been destroyed by the island defenses.
Operation Pedestal – The Santa Marija Convoy
By August 7,1942, the situation in Malta was so bad that official calculations showed that food and fuel would be completely exhausted within three to four weeks if help were not received by the end of that time there would be no alternative but surrender.
The last big attempt to replenish the island had been made in June. Two convoys had then sailed – one westward from Alexandria, code-named ‘Vigorous’ and one eastward from Gibraltar, code-named ‘Harpoon’ Altogether in the two convoys, there had been 17 merchant ships, with an escort of 82 warships, but of the merchant ships only two had reached Malta. Six had been sunk and the rest driven back.
It had been hoped to make another attempt during the following month- it was essential to wait for dark, moonless nights – but the demand of the battle of the Atlantic, the Russian convoys, and the wars in the Pacific and in South-East Asia had proved too great: there had not been enough ships to spare. However, by August 10 another fleet had been gathered in the Straits of Gibraltar. There were 59 warships to act as close or distant support for the 14 merchant ships whose safe arrival at Malta was the object of the enterprise.
Enemy aircraft, submarines, and surface ships were prepared to deny this convoy, called ‘Pedestal’, its safe passage.
The 14 merchant ships were the biggest and fastest of their types that could be found; 11 were British and two American, while the fourteenth was American built and British manned. This was the Ohio, the only tanker in the convoy, which was to make for herself one of the great names in the history of the sea. She had been specially selected for this operation for her speed and carrying capacity and obtained from the Americans, as there was no equivalent British ship available. For this voyage, which was to be her last, she carried 11,500 tons of kerosene and fuel oil. This cargo was vital for, quite apart from the needs of the RAF and the Navy, Malta depended on fuel oil for every type of mechanical operation, of which the most essential was the well-head pumping, without which there would be no drinking water.
The ships of ‘Pedestal’ entered the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar during the night of August 10/11. Eighteen Italian and three German submarines were waiting for them, spread out along the route to Malta, and in addition to these submarines there were 784 Axis aircraft, 23 Italian and German motor torpedo-boats, and the heavy ships of the Italian fleet.
It was one of the U-boats, U-73, which struck the first blow: coming into the convoy underneath the escorting destroyers, she fired four torpedoes at the aircraft carrier Eagle and hit with all of them. The Eagle capsized and sank within a few minutes, but happily some 900 of the 1,100 men on board were saved.
Three other merchant ships were also badly damaged – including the Ohio, now struck by a crashing Ju-88 which lay athwart her forecastle; shortly afterwards she collected a Stuka on the poop as well. A little later the tanker’s engines finally broke down and she lay dead in the water.
At this stage the formed body of the convoy now reduced to three ships, one on fire – was some 90 miles west of Malta, while two other damaged ships were making their way independently towards their goal. As for the Ohio, she awaited a rescue, which seemed very improbable.
News now came that Italian surface warships were at sea, making for the convoy. But after a great muscle-flexing display by some 150 RAF planes, sending messages in clear suggesting that a great air sweep was about to be made between Malta and Sicily, the Italian ships turned back.
The Ohio was still 70 miles away with her all-important load, petrol for planes and motor transport, kerosene for cooking and lighting, diesel oil for the pumps at the wells, fuel oil for ships. – All this cargo was in a sinking ship, unable to move under her own steam. On August 15th 1942 on the feast of Santa Marija, the Ohio towed by two destroyers, Perm and Ledbry, and one minesweeper Rye, entered Grand Harbour. She discharged her cargo and then lay there, too badly damaged to go to sea again until she was expended as a gunnery target.
The Ohio, Pedestal’s vital tanker towed by two destroyers and one mine sweeper, after surviving an Italian torpedo-hit and two crashing German bombers, enters the Grand Harbour on the 15th August 1942 – the feast of Santa Marija, granting Malta a new lease of life.
By September 1942 the worst of Malta’s trials lay behind her. Air superiority had been established, and after victory at El Alamein on October 23, there would be a freer movement of shipping in the Mediterranean. The Second Great Siege of Malta would gradually be lifted.
The George Cross and King George VI’s letter on display on the Palace Square Valletta, September 13, 1942
The George Cross presentation ceremony was fixed for Sunday September 13, 1942 at 9.15a.m. to take place on the Palace Square, Valletta. Debris had been neatly piled on the square, compressing it into an unfamiliar shape. At the commencement of the ceremony, a Royal Malta Artillery guard of honour under Major (later Lieut. Col,) J.V. Abela marched down Kingsway (now Republic Street) and onto the Palace Square, accompanied by the band of the King’s Own Malta Regiment. Lining the square were representatives of the Police Force, the Special Constabulary and the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) organisation, as well as detachments from the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force. Special seats were reserved for the captains and officers of the valiant Santa Marija convoy.
In his address to the people of Malta, Lord Gort said: “On my appointment as Governor of Malta I was entrusted to carry the George Cross to this Island Fortress. By command of the King, I now present to the people of Malta and her dependencies the decoration which His Majesty has awarded them in recognition of the gallant service which they have already rendered in the fight for freedom. How you have withstood for many months the most concentrated bombing attacks in the history of the world is the admiration of all civilised peoples….”
The case containing the George Cross and the King’s letter was placed on a special plinth and guarded through the day by a detachment of the 1st Battalion, the King’s Own Malta Regiment. In the evening a Police Force guard of honour marched onto the Palace Square, where the George Cross and the King’s letter were handed to them for safekeeping.
In Gozo a counterpart to the Valletta presentation ceremony was held the following Sunday, September 20, at It Tokk, Victoria. All the Gozo dignitaries were present induding Mgr Gonzi and Mr George Ransley, the Commissioner for Gozo.
In February 1944 the George Cross was incorporated in the arms of Malta.
After the grant of armorial bearings, incorporating the George Cross, the Maltese flag displayed in the upper mast side comer of the white stripe a square blue canton bearing a representation of the George Cross. Since 1964, the Maltese flag has continued to display the George Cross, but with a thin red edge all around it instead of the blue canton.