In 1939 the population woke up to reality when intensive work on the airfields was under way; the black-out practice, broken by the silence of the search-lights maneuvers; gas-mask drills in government schools and the wailing sirens became the ordeal of our days.
Valletta’s Grand Harbour was looking empty as the battleships, cruisers, destroyers – that always filled our ports – were leaving, and the evacuation of vulnerable cities was recommended by the Acting Governor. British families were returning home and it was another indication that the war was on the doorstep.
I was sixteen years old and our family were prepared for the war, because father had a fanatical discernment of the hostile situation in Europe. He was up to date with the news bulletin on radio and newspapers. He was a conformist of safety measures. I learnt from him that appeasement of Hitler was implausible and his main concerns were – observation of the curfew, the black-out practice and to see that the family has their gas mask accessible at whatever time.
The war begins
The evening News of the 10th June made the solemn announcement: ‘Mussolini declares war on Britain and France.’ Malta is on alert. We had mixed emotions: apprehension: fear: penitential sorrow and resolutions: prayers and insecurity.
Italy is close to Malta – Syracuse only 60 miles away from our shores, and at 6.40am 11 June 1940 the Italians were over Malta bombing our little Island. They timed their attack well. They picked that hour of the day when people had just left home – the men to go to work and the women and the children to hear their daily Mass. That year schools started their summer holidays on June 1 as a precautionary measure.
I was startled at that early hour when my bedroom suddenly lit up; the room rocked with thundering sound, lightening and broken window glass. Stupefied I exclaimed: “Is this a storm? Impossible! Yesterday was such a beautiful cloudless blue sky: Is it . a bad dream?” My reflections were abruptly interrupted by mother, brother and sisters who came into the room and queried: “is this another air raid practice?…. or is this an air attack?” … the war … yes — we were now into the immediate sphere of war.
This was the first air attack. A bomb wrecked our house touching our back garden in “Msida”, killing two people; others hit the new hospital on Gwardamangia Hill and Pieta Creek – my father was travelling on the bus and just missed a direct hit at Pieta. Six Royal Malta Artillery soldiers were killed at Fort St Elmo as the post they were manning received a direct hit.
Events happened so suddenly, the Maltese found themselves under attack by the Italians by sunrise, before they could realize it. The sirens installed on Police stations and ARP Centres sounded the Air Raid Warning and the Raiders Passed and the church bells rang All Clear at least eight times on the first day. During air-raids we took cover under the dining table and after the all clear walked in the garden to listen and scan the blue sky for fear of a Reconnaissance Italian flight in anticipation of a raid attack in the night. In between we lamented with one another about an unknown future.
Our next steps
News broadcast reported the raids and casualties. There were eight air attacks on that day but the severest one took place at sunset with a squadron of 25 bombers in a formation of five packs that raided various localities.
After a long spell of fear convulsed by the thundering of anti-aircraft guns fired by the monitor Terror berthed at “Gzira”, the church bells were ringing to signify that it is ‘all clear’ and one can come out into the open.
I stood at the doorway watching a great number of evacuees walking past me. I experienced the horror of an ‘Exodus’ of refugees. They were coming from the blitzed area of Gzira.
It was the result of the eighth bombardment at sunset on the neighbouring town of Gzira where the anti-aircraft monitor – HMS Terror – was berthed in its waters and became a war target. The bombardment inflicted devastating damage – homes were ruined and persons were lying buried under demolished buildings.
Its proximity to the inland, caused concern and encouraged evacuation. Entire families -babies, children, adults and aged, weeping and yelling, were travelling on foot to a safer and sheltered destination, overloaded with utilities and valuables. ‘Going where? … to friends … to relatives …to the old railway tunnel dug under the Valletta fortifications?’. Malta was now in the front line of battle.
The screaming of dropping bombs and their explosion, the hum-dam of falling and crushing masonry, persuaded us to accept the neighbour’s invitation to evacuate. The next morning we accompanied them to their relatives residence in Rabat, a distance of 10 miles. The hostess was warm and kind. She received other refugees. She shared her house – a cellar and garden and two other storeys with five other families. The reward was love; care and support for each other that helped us endure the scourge of a looming tragedy.
This article is part of the Time Witnesses archive.
A young Carmelina, author of this story. She has also written ‘The Careful Husbandry of Stocks.’