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. 




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