King George VI visits North Africa and Malta


20th June 1943: King George VI visits North Africa and Malta

For obvious reasons the visit had been kept a dead secret, but at 5 a.m. the Maltese were informed of His Majesty’s impending arrival. It was time enough. The Baraccas and all other vantage points were thick with cheering people as the Aurora, flying the Royal Standard, passed through the breakwater at 8 a.m. and moved to her buoys. The King stood on a special platform built in front of the bridge so that all could see him.

The King inspects a captured German Tiger I tank in Tunis, June 1943.
The King inspects a captured German Tiger I tank in Tunis, June 1943.
HM King George VI rides with General Montgomery in a staff car between lines of cheering troops during his first visit to Tripoli, 21 June 1943.
HM King George VI rides with General Montgomery in a staff car between lines of cheering troops during his first visit to Tripoli, 21 June 1943.

It was still possible to say that many men “fought for King and country” during the Second World War. The Royal Family played a very important role in uniting the British people and the disparate peoples of the British Empire behind the war effort. King George VI was very active in visiting every type of unit in the armed forces.

The people of Malta had endured appalling hardships during the darkest days of the siege of Malta. King George had been personally responsible for the award of the George Cross to the island, a symbolic recognition of their collective bravery and endurance.

King George VI greets Malta servicemen.
King George VI greets Malta servicemen.

Admiral Cunningham was present when the King visited North Africa in June 1943 and accompanied him on an historic trip to the island of Malta on the 20th June:

The King had an exceptionally heavy programme, and did not spare himself. We felt greatly honoured that he was able to find time to inspect the men of the Sea Services in the port area of Algiers. The King George V, Howe and two American cruisers were in the harbour, and we managed to assemble a most representative parade.

There were about five thousand of our own seamen and Royal Marines; some six hundred of the United States Navy, very smart and well turned-out, and, best of all, about one thousand two hundred officers and men of the Merchant Navy from the merchant vessels in the port.

His Majesty expressed himself as highly pleased and gratified at everything he saw. Himself a seaman, he asked many shrewd questions. He met all the British and American Flag Officers, and visited the United States flagship and the Howe.

Everybody was delighted to see him. On the Sunday he attended Divine Service in the church we had established in the dockyard, and one night honoured me by dining at my villa. He went to Tunis and Tripoli to visit the Army and the Royal Air Force, and on the evening of June 19th I met him in Tripoli, where we embarked in the battle-tried Aurora, Commodore W. G. Agnew, for passage to Malta.

The Aurora was escorted by the destroyers Eskimo, Jervis, Nubian and Lookout, and the 200-mile voyage passed off without incident. At dawn a large fighter escort was roaring overhead, and soon afterwards we met the sweepers who had been making certain that no mines existed in the approaches to the Grand Harbour.

For obvious reasons the visit had been kept a dead secret, but at 5 a.m. the Maltese were informed of His Majesty’s impending arrival. It was time enough. The Baraccas and all other vantage points were thick with cheering people as the Aurora, flying the Royal Standard, passed through the breakwater at 8 a.m. and moved to her buoys. The King stood on a special platform built in front of the bridge so that all could see him.

I have witnessed many memorable spectacles; but this was the most impressive of them all. The dense throngs of loyal Maltese, men, women and children, were wild with enthusiasm. I have never heard such cheering, and all the bells in the many churches started ringing when he landed.

Incidentally, we had no ship-sized Royal Standard, and the one own by the Aurora was made and painted on board the [HMS} Howe at Algiers.

The King made an extensive tour of the island, and we all lunched with the Governor, Field Marshal Viscount Gort, at Verdala Palace. It was the first time a Sovereign had landed in Malta since 1911, and the effect on the inhabitants was tremendous. The visit produced one of the most spontaneous and genuine demonstrations of loyalty and affection I have ever seen.

The King did not spare himself, and at 10 p.m. we sailed for the return passage to Tripoli after a busy and most stirring day. His Majesty left us for home on June 25th.

See Viscount Cunningham: A Sailor’s Odyssey, London, 1951.

See also how the visit was reported at home at May Hills diaries.

HMS Aurora was an Arethusa-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy
HMS Aurora was an Arethusa-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy
The British commanders of Operation Husky
The British commanders of Operation Husky planning their operations in Malta, left to right: The Chief of Staff to General Montgomery, Major General F W de Guingand; Senior Air Staff Officer to Air Vice Marshal Broadhurst, Air Commodore C B R Pelly; Air Officer Commanding Desert Air Force, Air Vice Marshal H Broadhurst; The Commander of the Eighth Army, General Montgomery and Naval Commanding Officer, Eastern Task Force, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay.

George Cross for heroic rescue on burning ship

19th March 1943: George Cross for heroic rescue on burning ship

With great difficulty he climbed into the collapsed accommodation and found one of the deck officers, unconscious and badly burned. Mr. Stronach pulled him clear and dragged him along the deck to the lowered boat. Returning to the accommodation, he began to remove the debris from another officer who was trapped. By almost superhuman efforts he dragged the man through the porthole and along the deck.

Tripoli was bombed by the British when it was in the hands of the Germans and bombed by the Germans when later occupied by the British. A large explosion and fire engulfs Spanish Quay in Tripoli harbour, Libya, during a raid by Bristol Blenheims of No. 253 (Army Cooperation) Wing, flying from Ma'aten Bagush, Egypt.
Tripoli was bombed by the British when it was in the hands of the Germans and bombed by the Germans when later occupied by the British. A large explosion and fire engulfs Spanish Quay in Tripoli harbour, Libya, during a raid by Bristol Blenheims of No. 253 (Army Cooperation) Wing, flying from Ma’aten Bagush, Egypt.
A Vickers Wellington DWI (Directional Wireless Installation) aircraft of No. 1 General Reconnaissance Unit, flying south-west over the harbour at Tripoli, during a mine-clearance operation soon after the occupation of the town by the Allies on 23 January 1943. The DWI version of the Wellington was fitted with a 48-foot diameter electromagnetic ring for exploding magnetic mines sown by the Axis forces.
A Vickers Wellington DWI (Directional Wireless Installation) aircraft of No. 1 General Reconnaissance Unit, flying south-west over the harbour at Tripoli, during a mine-clearance operation soon after the occupation of the town by the Allies on 23 January 1943. The DWI version of the Wellington was fitted with a 48-foot diameter electromagnetic ring for exploding magnetic mines sown by the Axis forces.

The war over the supply lines across the Mediterranean was fought just as fiercely as the land battles in North Africa. The Royal Navy was stretched to the limit in its attempt to protect British convoys and attack Axis convoys.

In the line of fire were the Merchant Marine and Merchant Navy who risked being torpedoed, bombed or mined whether in convoy or not. Just maintaining a shipping service required courage from every seaman. Exceptional acts of bravery were recognised. King George had introduced the George Cross during the Blitz for exceptional acts of bravery by civilians – it is on the same standing as the Victoria Cross.

On 19 March 1943, George Stronach was the Chief Officer of the merchant vessel SS Ocean Voyager when they were attacked by German Ju 88 aircraft while in Tripoli Harbour. The ship’s large consignment of petrol and ammunition caught fire.

The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to: — George Preston Stronach, Esq., Chief Officer

When the ship was lying in harbour, a severe aircraft attack developed and she was hit and at once caught fire. The vessel had a large consignment of petrol and ammunition on board, which was exploding heavily all the time and in spite of strenuous efforts which were made to fight the fire she had to be abandoned.

The Master was killed by the explosion and the responsibility for further operations devolved on the Chief Officer. He had been rendered temporarily unconscious but recovered almost immediately and went forward to look for survivors.

He found a number of the crew sheltering in the alley way and, braving the exploding ammunition, led them to a boat alongside which took them to safety. In order to provide for the transport of any other survivors who might be found, he then lowered another boat and brought it alongside the ship.

Although the vessel was now burning furiously Mr Stronach made his way to the officers’ accommodation amidships. Finding a hose with a trickle of water coming through, he held this over his head and so kept himself sufficiently wet to protect him from the worst of the heat and flames.

With great difficulty he climbed into the collapsed accommodation and found one of the deck officers, unconscious and badly burned. Mr. Stronach pulled him clear and dragged him along the deck to the lowered boat. Returning to the accommodation, he began to remove the debris from another officer who was trapped. By almost superhuman efforts he dragged the man through the porthole and along the deck.

He then tied a rope around his waist and lowered him over the side to the boat. As the situation was becoming desperate Mr Stronach ordered a man to take the boat to safety and once again he returned amidships where he discovered an officer who had been severely injured. Dragging him along the deck to the side of the ship, he tied a rope around him and lowered him over the side on to a raft which had returned to the ship in response to his calls.

Again Mr. Stronach continued his search for survivors and, taking a final look round aft, he saw a greaser lying unconscious in the scuppers. He dragged this man to the side of the ship, but finding there was no raft or boat alongside, put a lifebelt around him and threw him overboard.

When he was satisfied that there were no further survivors the Chief Officer jumped overboard and swam to a raft which, under his direction, returned to pick up the injured greaser.

In the full knowledge that she was likely to blow up at any moment Chief Officer Stronach stayed on this burning vessel searching for survivors for an hour and twenty minutes. His inspiring leadership induced a number of the crew to get away and so saved their lives and by his gallant efforts, undertaken with utter disregard of his personal safety, he saved the lives of three officers and a greaser, all of whom were badly hurt.

His action equals any in the annals of the Merchant Navy for great and unselfish heroism and determination in the face of overwhelming odds.

See London Gazette 23 November 1943

Framed in the supports of the main block ship sunk by the Germans in Tripoli Harbour HMS CROMARTY makes its way into the harbour. The photograph was taken after the block ships had been sufficiently separated to allow access.
Framed in the supports of the main block ship sunk by the Germans in Tripoli Harbour HMS CROMARTY makes its way into the harbour. The photograph was taken after the block ships had been sufficiently separated to allow access.

George Cross created, Londoners remain ‘determined’

In order that they should be worthily and promptly recognised, I have decided to create, at once, a new mark of honour for men and women in all walks of civilian life. I propose to give my name to this new distinction, which will consist of the George Cross, which will rank next to the Victoria Cross, and the George Medal for wider distribution.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, escorted by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, visit the Headquarters of Fighter Command at Bentley Priory, near Stanmore, Middlesex..
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, escorted by Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, visit the Headquarters of Fighter Command at Bentley Priory, near Stanmore, Middlesex..
It was now recognised that many walks of civilian life were at least as hazardous as those in the military.

‘Total War’ had come to Britain very quickly in the summer of 1940, after many months of the ‘Phoney War’. All too suddenly civilians were in the forefront of danger and on a much wider scale than in the First World War. It was realised that there were now many acts of bravery by ordinary people who had been thrust into the full horror of war by force of circumstance.

On the 24th September King George VI announced the creation of the “George Cross”. He was concerned that there was no recognition of civilians who had been engaged in “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.”

In order that they should be worthily and promptly recognised, I have decided to create, at once, a new mark of honour for men and women in all walks of civilian life. I propose to give my name to this new distinction, which will consist of the George Cross, which will rank next to the Victoria Cross, and the George Medal for wider distribution.

Members of the military would normally be recognised for acts “in the face of the enemy” but there were circumstances, such as dealing with unexploded bombs and mines, where there was no means of recognising them – the new award would also apply to the military in these circumstances.

The Ministry of Information continued to monitor the state of morale of the man in the street:

1. In London people remain determined, but cheerfulness varies. People are anxiously considering night life in shelters under winter conditions.

2. The Kings speech was generally praised, and the creation of the George Cross and Medal has been widely welcomed.

3. Reports show that most people feel that the evacuation of children to the dominions should proceed. To many the torpedoing was felt as a challenge to go ahead.

4. Rumours and exaggerated stories continue: in particular there are stories of poisonous substances dropped from enemy planes and of ‘secret weapon’ with which we shall eventually stop the night bombing.

5. There is a steady drift towards public and away from private shelters.

6. Except in certain areas invasion talk has receded into the background.

7. ‘Refugees’ continue to move into the country round London. Here a general comment is ‘ no one has learned anything from the problems and failures of last September’.

See TNA INF 1/264

King George VI congratulates Flight-Lieutenant A C Deere, on decorating him with the Distinguished Flying Cross at Hornchurch, Essex. To the King's left stands Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Fighter Command.
King George VI congratulates Flight-Lieutenant A C Deere, on decorating him with the Distinguished Flying Cross at Hornchurch, Essex. To the King’s left stands Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Fighter Command.
After an awards ceremony at Hornchurch, Essex, decorated RAF pilots cheer King George VI on 27 June 1940. They are, (left to right): Flying Officer J L Allen, Flight-Lieutenant R R Stanford Tuck, Flight-Lieutenant A C Deere, Flight-Lieutenant A G Malan, Squadron-Leader J A Leathart and an airman bugler. Allen, Deere, and Leathart, all serving with No. 54 Squadron RAF, had, between them, shot down 25 enemy aircraft by the end of the Battle of France. Label RAF pilots cheer King George VI at an awards ceremony at RAF Hornchurch, 27 June 1940.
After an awards ceremony at Hornchurch, Essex, decorated RAF pilots cheer King George VI on 27 June 1940. They are, (left to right): Flying Officer J L Allen, Flight-Lieutenant R R Stanford Tuck, Flight-Lieutenant A C Deere, Flight-Lieutenant A G Malan, Squadron-Leader J A Leathart and an airman bugler. Allen, Deere, and Leathart, all serving with No. 54 Squadron RAF, had, between them, shot down 25 enemy aircraft by the end of the Battle of France.

King George VI broadcasts to the Empire

“A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”

It was 1939 that firmly established the Royal Christmas Broadcast as a British tradition. Dressed in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet, sitting in front of two microphones on a table at Sandringham, King George VI spoke live to offer a message of reassurance to his people. It was to be a landmark speech and was to have an important effect on the listening public as they were plunged into the uncertainty of war:

“A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”

He went on to quote from Minnie Haskins’ poem “The Gate of the Year” (1908) :

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.’

The British prepare trenches on the western front

“For the British, digging was the order of the day-digging in cold, wet soil behind the Franco-Belgian frontier. Day after day and week after week the trenches slowly grew.”

In the forward areas, save for wire entanglements visible here and there in front of hidden trenches, there were few signs of war. Farmhands worked unhindered in the fields; the placid cattle grazed their fill; villages and farms lay inviolate. In the west, the forts of the Maginot Line, the great system on which France implicitly relied for her security against the aggressor, crouched silent and concealed. By day, the watchers cowered from sight, hidden; by night, patrols skulked stealthily from bush to bush, their hands and faces darkened. This furtive, creeping warfare in the West, this imperceptible oozing forward from a zone of supine fortresses formed ignoble contrast to the great battle on the Eastern front. Here the last desperate resistance of Poland was beaten down by the mighty torrent of German arms. Soon Germany had achieved strategic freedom to concentrate her every effort on her main object-the defeat of France.

For the British, digging was the order of the day-digging in cold, wet soil behind the Franco-Belgian frontier. Day after day and week after week the trenches slowly grew.

Major-General Roger Evans: The Story Of The Fifth Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards

The King speaks to the Nation

By the way I have estimated this affair will last five to six years. What a hell of a time. Five times 365 days each of which might produce some sort of frightfulness in the way of an air raid or bad news.

In Hull, Richard Brown’s reaction, recorded the next day, was possibly fairly typical, although he was unusually frank in recording it for posterity:

Didn’t do much work the first day, possibly due to the lack of sleep, but more probably suppressed excitement. On the day war was declared I had a peculiar feeling of intense patriotism, a determination to do whatever I could to help (swank) and in the evening when the King spoke to us am afraid I stood up to attention when they played ‘The King’. Queer how we get moved out of our usual feelings at times, because though I am patriotic I wouldn’t usually have stood at attention with only myself for company.

By the way I have estimated this affair will last five to six years. What a hell of a time. Five times 365 days each of which might produce some sort of frightfulness in the way of an air raid or bad news.

See Mr Brown’s War: A Diary of the Second World War