FORTRESS MALTA – AN ISLAND UNDER SEIGE 1940 – 1943, by James Holland, published in 2003
Bookcase 11, shelf 5, book 3
I’m fascinated by history, especially modern history (this rolled-dice project will, I’m sure, illustrate that in some depth) which is a little odd – perhaps – for someone who trained as an archaeologist. Then again, Malta is remarkable for its archaeology, but this has nothing whatsoever to do with that. Of course.
Anyway, whatever attracted me, I’m glad it did.
I knew something about about Malta during the Second World War – the appalling bombing, the hardship, the resilience of the inhabitants, a bit about Operation Pedestal – but this wonderful narrative history gives so much more. I’ve reread it several times, and it was a joy to visit it again at the command of the rolling dice.
To say that Fortress Malta is detailed and well researched makes it sound anther dry, but it’s anything but that. It’s an extremely well-written book (not always true of narrative history) that tells the story of the Siege through the experiences of a wide range of individuals, ranging from a small boy to fighter aces, nurses to submariners.
You get to ‘know’ people like John Agius and his family, instantly increasing your involvement. Holland’s admiration for the people – and for the whole island – shines through. Because of this, it’s possible to gain some understanding of the otherwise unimaginable conditions of life on Malta during the Second World War.
When you look at photographs taken at the time (all the ones in this post are from the collections of the Imperial War Museum) it is difficult to imagine that life still went on, that the island still held out. But it did.
Here’s one example of how it did so. I was pleased, when I first read this book, to find out more about Operation Pedestal, the August 1942 ‘crash-through’ of vital supplies to Malta. I’d not realised how close the island was to disaster, and to possible capitulation:
‘Much of the Island lay in ruins … And the population was even hungrier. The bread ration had been cut again, and at the beginning of July pasteurised milk was restricted to children between the ages of two and nine. Farmers had been ordered to hand over their crops to the government … Supplies of potatoes were also now exceedingly short.’
Also severely limited was fuel – fuel for the few fighters that provided some sort of defence for ‘the most bombed spot in history’.
And so a massive convoy was assembled. Ships came together in the Clyde, some – like the oiler Ohio – ‘lent’ by the Americans. The size of the escort which also assembled gave some of the sailors an indication of what they were sailing into – and it’s no exaggeration to describe what happened to the convoy once it was well and truly into the Mediterranean as sheer hell.
Holloway tells the story through the eyes of some of the seamen involved, people like Joe McCarthy from the SS Rochester Castle, and Freddie Treves from the Waimarama (I’m mentioning these ships because they deserve to be remembered, as do they all).The attacks came quickly, and one ship after another was sunk. The Waimarama exploded when her deck cargo of tinned petrol was hit, and Freddie Treves’ account of what followed is heart-breaking. The sea was on fire; his friend and mentor couldn’t swim.
(At this point I have to introduce the Ledbury. HMS Ledbury was on escort duty; they’d previously been on the Arctic convoys, received an order one night to scatter, done so – and U-boats had attacked their convoy. Roger Hill, the captain, vowed he would never ‘abandon the merchant arm’ again, orders or no orders. And he didn’t. He turned the Ledbury round into the burning sea and his crew pulled what survivors there were out of the water.)
What was left of the convoy – five ships – and the escort limped into Valetta, essentially in two groups. People in Malta had been anxiously tracking their progress, and the harbour walls were lined with cheering crowds. But the most stunning arrival was the Ohio. Badly damaged an appalling low in the water, she was unable to make way herself.
So HMS Bramham was tied to one side, HMS Penn to the other, and the Ledbury was ahead acting as a rudder.
Painfully slowly, she limped forwards – to the accompaniment of Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo-Choo which someone had found and broadcast on the ship’s Tannoy. And she made it, creeping into Grand Harbour and to an astonishing welcome, as narrated by Michael Montebello, a boy at the time:
‘There were so many people, you wouldn’t have been able to put a needle between them. Everyone knew exactly what was on the Ohio and how important it was…’
There was a naval war correspondent on the Ohio – Anthony Kimmins – and Holloway quotes a piece he wrote for the Times of Malta:
‘If ever there was an example of dogged persistence against all the odds, this was it. Any one of this hundreds of bombs in the right place and she would have gone up in a sheet of flame.’
The first sentence could act as a tribute to the whole Island… as demonstrated by this excellent book. I am glad the Diceman picked it out!
(I’ll come clean here. My father was in the navy for some years, and he loved Valetta though he only knew it after the War. That may be one reason why I picked up this book – don’t care why, as I said: I’m just glad I did.)