National Geographic : 1943 Mar
Malta Invicta BY BARTIMEUS (A Captain in the Royal Navy) T HE first air raid on Malta was on June 11, 1940. As I write this on June 11, 1942, another alert has just ended. It is the 2,532d!* This little island must have seemed to Mussolini what American slang calls a "soft touch." Italian agents in Malta had been busy for years keeping up a steady anti British, pro-Italian ferment. It was only 58 miles from Sicily and the Italian bomber air fields. With the little neighboring island of Gozo, its 120 square miles carried an extraordinarily dense population of 270,000. As Mussolini saw them, people were so thick on the ground a bombardier couldn't miss them if he dropped a bomb from 30,000 feet with his eyes shut. Mussolini Guessed Wrong Again It would not be necessary to fight to con quer Malta, Mussolini thought. A few sticks of bombs would make its volatile, excitable people rise to demand peace. Why did the Maltese not crack under the shock of those first outrageous assaults? Why did they not heed Italian radio warnings to cast off the "hated British yoke," and "de mand the right to live"? I do not know. These are the things of the spirit which are a mystery, and the answer is symbolized by the George Cross, shared by every man, woman, and child in Malta today (page 376). There were eight raids that eleventh day of June two years ago. There were 50 dur ing the month. Alerts have averaged 103 a month ever since-between three and four every day, year in, year out. Since January, 1941, when the Italians called in the Germans to help them, the alerts have averaged 261 a month-between eight and nine a day. The record was 17 in one day. The longest continuous raid lasted 1312 hours, and out of one day and night 21 hours were passed under alerts. In the first shock of the 1940 onslaught the Maltese dived for shelter into forgotten tombs and tunnels and catacombs, old dry wells-anything that would put solid rock between them and the bombs. But there were not enough such shelters to harbor more than a fraction of the population. They started to burrow into the soft limestone of the ramps and fortified ditches. Born miners and quarrymen, even the children armed themselves with little picks and chipped alongside fathers and brothers. These practical people love life and they had no intention of dying if, by digging themselves in, they could go on living (pages 381, 386, 390, 391). Before the German dive bombers appeared in the Mediterranean in January, 1941, the Italians had succeeded in killing and wound ing about 200 Maltese and destroying 350 houses. The Germans killed half as many again and demolished 2,000 homes in the next four and a half months. The Russian offensive then claimed the German flyers, and the Italians were left to get on with their war by themselves. Doing their best for nearly seven months, they wrecked 300 dwellings and killed nearly a hundred civilians. Back came the Germans. Between Decem ber 21, 1941, and early May, 1942, in about five months they killed more than 800 and injured nearly a thousand Maltese. They reduced to heaps of rubble 4,000 buildings. The Maltese Hate German Cruelty Deride Italians The Maltese hate the Germans for their ruthless cruelty. They have a contempt for the Italians. To the Maltese, Italian bombers are maccu (small fry netted and eaten grilled like whitebait). It is considered a disgrace to be killed by such derided foes. For centuries one of the charms of Valletta and Fort St. Angelo was their likeness to pic ture-book fortresses. The intricacies of strongholds built by Grand Master Jean Pari sot de la Valette reared about the Grand Harbour a bewilderment of bastions and ram parts with little loopholed watchtowers pro jecting at all angles, and moats spanned by airy bridges (page 381). Sloping approaches tunneled under dim archways into the streets of Valletta, and here the Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, which came to Malta in 1530, built their churches, palaces, and auberges (inns), with pillared doorways surmounted by pomp and heraldry graven in the stone.f * By January 9, 1943, the grand total had risen to 3,176 alerts; 1,192 actual raids.- Editor. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Malta: The Halting Place of Nations," by William Arthur Griffiths, May, 1920; "Maltese Islands: Cicero's Land of 'Honey and Roses,' and Stronghold of the Knights, Again Is Focus of Naval Strategy," by Sir Harry Luke, November, 1935; and "Wanderers Awheel in Malta," by Richard Walter, August, 1940.