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.
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.