On 15 April, 1942, King George VI took the
unprecedented step of awarding the George Cross – the highest award for
gallantry that could be awarded to a civilian – to the Island of Malta.
‘To honour her brave people,’ the citation read, ‘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.’ For such an honour to be awarded
was unprecedented in British history and at the time made front-page news
in Allied newspapers around the world.
Certainly, the Maltese people had shown an
extraordinary fortitude in the twenty-two months since the siege had
begun. Much of the island lay in ruins. There was hardly a building left
standing in the Three Cities of Senglea, Cospicua and Vittoriosa, and the
capital, Valletta, had fared little better. The harbour facilities were
almost entirely unusable; rubble lay everywhere, machinery and ships
contorted and twisted; carnage reigned. 4,000 tons of bobs were dropped
in March 1942, nearly 7,000 in April – to out that in some perspective,
only 1,700 tons fell on Dresden, and 18,000 tons during the entire London
Blitz, and over an area twenty-five times the size of Malta. Many of the
island’s historic buildings were also destroyed – some 30,000 buildings in
all – including the world-famous Opera House on April 7, 1942. It
remains, at the heart of Valletta, a ruin to this day.
Most Maltese either fled to the surrounding
countryside, or went underground – literally. The Malta limestone is
baked and hard when exposed to the sun, but malleable and easy to carve
under the surface and so hundreds of underground shelters were carved out,
but hand. Some disappeared into these shelters whenever there was a raid,
but since these were so numerous, and because many had lost their homes, a
large number lived there permanently with just a few belongings. Those
who could afford it might cut out a ‘room’ of eight feet by four which
became their ‘house’; but most were not afforded even this small comfort.
The shelters were invariable hot and damp: they could be stifling,
smelling of urine, faeces and sweat. It was a miserable existence yet
some – especially those who lost their homes in the Three Cities during
the first major blitzes, were forced to live this troglodyte existence for
up to three years.
Compounding the difficulties were the
shortages. The priority was getting in fuel, ammunition and equipment,
and basic foodstuffs such as flour and potatoes. Kerosene was widely used
for fuel, but once that ran out, people used wood. There wasn’t much wood
on the island – there are few trees – so they resorted to using furniture;
once that ran out there was nothing. There was frequently no electricity,
no running water and no means of getting anywhere except by foot or
bicycle. By the beginning of th1942 there was almost no meat left at all
and very little food, and certainly no means of cooking anything, and so
the notorious Victory Kitchens were introduced. Subscribers forfeited a
proportion of their rations, or paid sixpence, in return for one meal per
day of hot stew and vegetables; a thin soup could be bought for threepence.
The meal was very often ‘stew’ in only the loosest sense of the word and
the soup often little more than water with a bit of boiled cabbage
floating in it. Many resorted to eating rats, mouldy bread and anything
they could get their hands on. Nor were there any clothes; worn out soles
on shoes were replaced with rubber from car tyres – after all, no-one
needed those any more.
Malnutrition and a lack of basic amenities led
to disease. A particular bad outbreak of polio wracked the island once
the first undamaged convoy reached the island in December 1942. It took a
long time for the people to recover and many years after the war until
many found homes once more. Few could deny that the Maltese were more
than worthy of their George Cross.