MY CHILDHOOD IN MALTA DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR

In 1932, at the tender age of two, my parents had taken me to the island of Malta because my mother was ill and was advised she needed some sunshine to assist in her recovery. My father was the fourth generation in his family to serve in the Royal Navy, and knew the island. Instead of staying there for only six months as planned, my parents stayed for 26 years.

My earliest memory is of loud banging noises, and this was the local ‘fiesta’ in full swing. I clearly remember people being upset at the death of King George V, and there was much consternation at the Abdication of Edward VIII, and before war officially declared in September 1939, of course everyone was worried there was going to be another war with Germany.

We had a ‘phoney’ war from 3 September 1939 to the day when war actually started for us. A lot of English families had left Malta, but a large number stayed. At school we had to practise using the air raid siren. We took it in turn to wind this machine, grasping the handle with our right hand and winding it furiously, and closing and opening with our left fist the component which made the noise rise and fall - all this with our gas masks on. It was fun! Consequently, when we had our first air raid on 11th June 1940, my mother and I put on our gas masks for the duration and nearly suffocated because it was so hot, but then were told this was not necessary unless we were actually about to be gassed! We watched and cheered the brave Gloster Gladiator pilots putting up a good fight against the Italians.

Service families were quickly rounded up, and the dog came with us. We were taken to St. George’s Barracks, and gathered there for our safety. Looking back, it seems to me that one bomb could well have finished off the lot of us in one go! We had single iron bedsteads, with three ‘biscuits’ for a mattress. When asleep these always came apart and one’s rear inevitably lay on the bedsprings no matter how tightly we wound the sheets around the biscuits before getting into bed. Mother was asked whether she’d like more biscuits, and to my embarrassment she replied that cream crackers would do as they went so well with cheese.

All we children were disappointed when the Navy organised school for us and we were soon sitting around tables in a classroom, but with increasing frequency having to dash into our slit trenches. Our dog always got there before us for he could hear aircraft engines before the siren went off. I was taught by Mrs. Lee, a superb teacher and disciplinarian, and I remember her well.

After a few weeks we longed to go home, but not before our neighbours of two doors away, Commander and Mrs. Merrifield, were killed by a direct hit on their home. We eventually returned to our house in St. Julians Bay, only a few steps from the sea, but school continued and I remember walking from there to St. George’s Barracks until the raids were so frequent and so bad that school was totally suspended for a very considerable time. When my father was off duty, which was not often, he and I used to go up onto our roof and watch the dogfights, and at night we watched the tracers reaching up into the sky and seeing aircraft caught in the searchlights and hearing the heightened cacophony of the guns trying to shoot them down.

Food was in very short supply. We kept some chickens which provided us with eggs, and eventually it was decided the cockerel had to go although he was regarded as a pet. When he was cooked and surrounded by roast potatoes we could not eat him and gave him to our neighbours. Poor George.

We once paid over the odds for some meat on the black-market, and I think it must have been a cat for the smell of it cooking was so awful we couldn’t eat it.

A highlight in my life was when we got to know some RAF crew from 39 Squadron who were flying Beauforts. ‘Happy’ Baker, Ronnie Brockett, W.K. Paterson (RAAF), and Jack Allen, who had played the piano with Joe Loss before the war and gave an excellent rendering of ‘In the Mood’. They used to arrive usually bearing a tin of sweets for me which was such a treat, bless them. I have never forgotten them.

My friend Beryl Pearce (now Sellick) and I were roller skating around St. Julians Bay, when suddenly and seemingly from nowhere there appeared straight ahead of us a Messerschmitt which had flown low over the water to avoid the radar, so there was no warning. When the pilot saw us he sprayed us with machine gun fire, and fortunately missed! Prior to this incident Beryl and her mother had been buried in a shelter at Tigne Barracks when they were shopping at the NAAFI and had to be dug out.

The time came for us to be confirmed by the Bishop of Gibraltar at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Valetta. We were in a dhgaijsa going across Marsamxett harbour when we heard the siren. The poor dhgaijsa man put a sandbag on his head and rowed frantically until we got to the Valetta side, and he should have made the Guinness Book of Records for the fastest crossing. At this confirmation ceremony we met the Senior Royal Naval Chaplain, Padre F. J. Leonard, who thereafter made quite sure that Beryl and I attended Evensong every Sunday evening when he officiated in HM Dockyard Church.

We were teenagers and crazy about flying. We wanted to learn to fly and be pilots in the ATA. On a Girl Guide hike we picnicked by Ta Qali airfield, and the two of us deliberately hived off unseen from the others to try and find some Spitfires. We did not realise we were walking across the runway, and suddenly a jeep-load of RAF personnel came racing towards us, and were furious. They asked angrily, “Who is in charge of you? Where is this Guide Captain? Take us to her at once!’ We did, and she was Elizabeth Crouch, 18 years old and extremely pretty. We were crushed when they totally forgot about us and began flirting with her. Beryl and I still laugh about that today. We had no fear of death at such a young age and just expected we would survive.

Malta was a fabulous place in which to be brought up. We swam, sunbathed, and when we were old enough danced at the Union Club on Saturday nights and the Marsa Club on Wednesday nights, went to various cocktail parties, and dined on board HM Ships, and had sherry in the Mess after Matins on a Sunday morning. Life has never been the same since!

Frances Else

 

 

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