Our Name Wasn’t Written — A Malta Memoir 1939-1945

Vertical aerial photograph of Ta Kali airfield, Malta, following the heavy enemy bombing raids of April 1942.

A view of Kingsway from the Post Reale, Valletta, showing the bomb damage incurred. On the right the ruins of the Opera House can be seen, April 1942.

In 1942 the tiny island of Malta became the most bombed place on earth, the concentration of bombs far surpassing that suffered by London in the Blitz. One outstanding account of life on Malta at the time has been produced by David Vernon, using a memoir written by his grandmother Caroline Vernon and memories from other family members. ‘Our Name Wasn’t Written’ also includes a substantial guide to other books written about Malta in the war, so is a very good starting point for anyone interested in the period.

David has kindly allowed me to reproduce one episode from the book, an account written by his grandfather John E. Vernon of just one day during that long siege:

Saturday the 25th April, 1942, dawned, to the little English colony at St. George’s, Malta, much the same as any other day since the outbreak of war with Italy. The three sharp blasts of the whistle from the gunpost, the warning clang of gongs, followed by the distant rise and fall of the siren.

This little camp which had been formed in those grim days of June 1940 as a ‘safe area’ for the wives and children of the defenders of the Island had seemingly overcome its many trials and troubles and settled down to the routine of work, school and play. The gaunt rooms of the condemned barrack had acquired an air of unaccustomed gaiety. Bright curtains fluttered at the barred windows. Little items of furniture, salved in many cases from wrecked homes in Sliema and Valletta, gave a touch of comfort to the otherwise bare, stone-floored rooms.

The children went daily to the school which, despite heat, mosquitoes and sandflies, carried on under a constant roar of guns and drone of warring planes. And when the battle of the skies drew too close; when the guns of the nearby Spinola Battery split the eardrums; when the earth trembled and shook under the concussion of heavy bombs – then the school bell rang and the children, clasping their books or arithmetic tables tumbled out to the nearby slit trenches where they carried on their lessons until the noise of battle drifted away.

The evening was the time for play. Then the rocks of St George’s Bay echoed to the shouts of swimmers as they plunged into the deep cool water; tiny children, baked and burned a beautiful golden brown and wearing the wispiest of bathing costumes, searched gravely in the pools for crabs and other monsters of the deep. Old canoes and sailing craft, their sides gaping with age and neglect and awash to the gunwales, drifted by with a cargo of adventurous youngsters, shouting and pummelling each other and now and again splashing into the green depths to re-appear suddenly from some unexpected quarter. Sometimes the sound of prolonged hammering showed that old Montebello the boatman was endeavouring hopelessly to patch up some of his decrepit stock in trade. Yes, they were golden hours indeed in the lives of those young children.

And then, as the blazing sun slowly sank behind Villa Rosa and the cool evening breeze rippled the waters of the bay, the children were sought out by their parents, clothes and towels collected, and gradually silence fell once more – a silence broken only by the slap of a sail and the creaking of a block as some belated fisherman brought his craft to the buoy. And then, with the children soundly asleep – some in their beds in the barrack room; others, who hated the inevitable hasty scramble into clothes at 1.00 am., already safely bedded down in their slit trench – then it was the turn of their elders to find a few hours’ enjoyment before darkness and the ‘bomber’s moon’ brought another night of noise and flame. Maybe a dance in the Dining Hall. A dance almost certain to be accompanied by a booming which did not come from the orchestra, by a trembling of the floor which was not caused by the dancers’ feet; a dance to be broken by many hasty flights to see that the children were quite content in their cots in the trenches. But at any rate, for an hour or so, the old thrill of the waltz or the exhilaration of the palais glide. Perhaps for the menfolk a game of billiards in the rest room. But of course, the blackout was not too good – the frequently shattered windows had ripped the material in a score of places and there was no more to be had. So the first gun put an end to the game.

Or maybe just a quiet reverie on the balcony in a deck chair – the scent of orange and lemon trees mingling with that of wild thyme – the moon tracing a shimmering path across the waters of the bay. And then – the whistle – the gongs and the faint, distant cadence of the siren. A pale ghostly finger suddenly stabs sky-wards – it grows in strength – is joined by another – five – ten – twenty. They weave and probe and presently steady themselves on their target. A faint droning noise grows in intensity and then, with an ear – splitting roar and a blinding flash, the battery opens up. The children not already in the shelters are hastily aroused, coats are flung round them and they are hurried to safety. From the entrance to the trench the nightly battle provides a vivid spectacle, and the descent of a flaming bomber brings yells of approval to infant throats.

In the daytime, of course, one does not trouble so much. In these brilliant blue skies the approaching bombers can be seen for miles and as each plane drops its ‘eggs’ they can be counted and watched as they hurtle earthwards in an ever descending arc. One gets to know instinctively when danger threatens and there is always time to ‘go to earth’ even if no man-made cover is available.

Besides, we know that the enemy, although ruthless, is not stupid. When he can see what he is doing he doesn’t waste his bombs on fields or scattered villages. He drops them where he is going to hurt us most – on the dockyard, the airfields, or the convoy unloading in the harbour. Sometimes, if he feels particularly murderous, on the close-packed streets of Valletta or Senglea, but not, in the daytime, on a rather secluded camp of women and children. At least, so we thought.

And so, when at 7.00 am on that memorable Saturday the whistles and gongs played their customary symphony, few paid much attention. Day after day this had occurred, the formations passing over, their protecting fighters weaving around them, until they had rained down their blast of death and destruction on the battered dockyard or the open spaces of the dusty airfield. So the early risers carried on with their cooking of breakfasts or their dressing of children whilst the more weary turned over and settled down for another ten minutes.

The first warning that something unusual was afoot was the growing intensity of the sound of engines. These planes were not passing over at their usual ten or fifteen thousand feet – these sounded much nearer, much lower. And then a sudden yell of “STUKAS!” brought people tumbling from their beds – too late. With a hellish scream and a mighty rush of wind a thousand-pounder dropped in the centre of the camp.

Fortunately, the barracks was of one storey only; fortunately, although condemned, it was built soundly and solidly of Malta stone and supported by mighty beams reinforced with steel girders. And of glass there was none – it had all gone long ago and the windows were of mica or butter muslin. The mothers and children flung themselves under the beds, into the steel wardrobes fixed to the walls, under tables, crouched in corners – anywhere to escape the shattering blast and vicious splinters that tore through doors and windows. For a quarter of an hour the hellish cacophony went on while Ju 87s and 88s went methodically to work up and down the blocks. A vast curtain of smoke and dust hid everything; a curtain pierced by the momentary glare of bursting bombs; their shattering explosions mingling with the roar of cascading masonry. And then – silence. A silence broken only by the dwindling drone of receding planes and the sound of running water from the burst mains.

And then gradually the camp came to life. Blackened figures stumbled from the wrecked buildings; white, scared faces peered from the trenches; a child, blood streaming from a ragged wound in her leg, hobbled across the debris-strewn road calling plaintively to her mother. And when stock was taken, the miracle was revealed – one person only, one out of over six hundred had been killed.

Escapes there had been by the score. A mother, hurling herself desperately from her crumbling room to a slit trench, clasping her month-old baby in her arms, had just reached the steps of the trench when a huge bomb dropped beside her. She was hurled violently into the trench – unharmed. Her child, unconscious for some hours, eventually recovered without apparent hurt. Another shelter received a direct hit causing a great crater at the entrance and caving in the sides. A large block of stone, hurled into the trench, jammed in the centre preventing the debris from crushing the family crouched in the bottom. Scores were saved by the protection of mattresses, by heavy tables, and by the miraculous jamming of girders which held off massive masonry. The injured were attended to. In some of the rooms where it still seemed possible to live, the debris was shovelled out, the floors swept and washed, and the furniture moved from under the gaps in the ceiling to a safer part of the room.

At noon, when the first shock had passed and some degree of order had been restored, the second blow fell. This time, although the bombers were over almost before the sirens had ceased to sound, no one was caught napping. Crouched on the floors of the trenches with mattresses over them, the children clutching tightly to their mothers, they lay shuddering whilst the piercing whistle of bombs grew into one unholy shriek. The floors heaved, dust and dirt showered down, and blast struck through the ventilating holes. Ten minutes – which lasted a lifetime. Then again that overwhelming silence. A few minutes rest while pounding hearts grew calmer and then the shelter lids were pushed aside. Once again the choking clouds of dust and smoke – and this time the destruction seemed complete. It was useless to attempt to make a home in that shattered shambles. Besides, nerves already at breaking point could not stand another such pounding with the knowledge that only two or three inches of earth was between one and certain death.

So began the great trek to St Andrew’s Tunnel. About half a mile away, where the army barracks – as yet untouched – stood on rising ground, a great tunnel existed, bored out of the hillside. Dark, damp and insanitary, it nevertheless provided nightly shelter for many of the homeless and aged. And now great crowds arrived and settled themselves on the hillside and in the dried-up moats around the tunnel. Hasty excursions were made to the wrecked remains of their former homes in an endeavour to save such bits of furniture or bedding, such odds and ends of foodstuffs as were worth the effort, always with an anxious ear for the now dreaded whistles. Precious buckets and jugs of water were slowly and carefully carried up the hillside. Wood was collected and fires sprang up here and there over which a few potatoes began to simmer or coffee bubble aromatically.

And at five o’clock came the third and final assault. The hillside became deserted, the fires burned untended, and the few salvage workers still sweating in the maelstrom of masonry below hurried back.

How to describe the scene in the tunnel? Packed and jammed with humanity until the stifling air became almost unbearable; pitch dark except for a few guttering candles, the mass became wedged tighter and tighter when, with a mighty rushing as of express trains, the first missiles began to arrive. The earth shuddered to the impact. Heavy bombs, exploding at the entrance, swept waves of blast through the tunnel, and smoke and fumes from the explosions were drawn in by the ventilating fans, making the already choking air even more frightful. Mothers crouching over their children held wet handkerchiefs to the little faces. Now and then a bomb near a ventilating shaft sent a flash of flame into the darkness. At intervals a nearby machine gun chattered madly and suddenly fell silent. And then the noise and thunder grew less, the explosions more distant, and here and there heads began to raise themselves a little. A last round from the smoking guns of the battery and the ordeal was over. With a sigh and a few muttered prayers, the weary horde began to stumble out into the daylight.

Knowing that a few hours’ respite, at least, was to be expected, a sortie was made down the hill, and a mighty effort made to rescue such belongings as still remained intact.

And then preparations for the night. Mattresses were laid out in the thick dust of the moat and children were washed by those mothers lucky enough to have soap and water. A great brewing of tea and boiling of cocoa. Then, as the deep shadows of the evening crept across the moat and the shrill cry of the cicada sounded from every tree, the youngsters nestled down to uneasy sleep. For a while the elders pottered around, sorting out the possessions that remained to them, washing the grime and dust from their weary bodies, and arranging coats and blankets into some semblance of a bed.
And when, as the last dying embers of the fires ceased to glow and the great yellow moon rose over the battered ramparts, the low drone of voices died away and the stillness of the night ushered out a day of undying memory.

An extract from “Our Name Wasn’t Written — A Malta Memoir 1939-1945” by Caroline Vernon, edited by David Vernon, Stringybark Publishing, 2011. Available from: www.davidvernon.net or as an e-book from: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/54017

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Edward Micallef November 25, 2014 at 8:56 am

I remember , was there borne in 1-24-1936.

Astrid Vella May 25, 2013 at 2:56 am

I am left breathless by the lyrical prose and immediacy of this piece. It’s almost as if one is there among them. What a writer, and what a trauma of war.

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