In 1942, Malta was going through its darkest days of World War II. That year air raids killed hundreds and destroyed many buildings. In her book UXB Malta, English author Susan Hudson says Malta was the most bombed place in the world; in only two years, the enemy carried out some 3,000 air attacks on the island.
Chased by two Spitfires, to lighten their load, the German planes had jettisoned two large bombs to flee their pursuers- Joe Zammit Ciantar
The enemy targeted mostly ships in Grand Harbour or Marsamxett or the aerodromes at Luqa, Ħal Far, and Ta’ Qali, which meant the civilians who suffered most were those who lived in or near those targets.
In Gozo – which had no military installations and where no large ships could anchor and no airplanes could fly from or land – there was no reason for bombing raids. Because of this, many people from Malta sought refuge there during the war.
However, several Gozitans were killed by enemy action during the war.
Seventy years ago this week, on Saturday, October 10, 1942, the eve of the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, two large bombs were dropped on the village of Sannat (known as Ta’ Sannat) in the south of Gozo, leaving 18 dead and a trail of devastation.
The houses that were damaged or totally destroyed included those of my family and of my mother’s relatives. Among the victims was my little sister Lydia, then about 18 months old.
In those days, my parents – Carmela née Debrincat, from Sannat, and Ġużeppi Zammit (Ciantar), from Xewkija, today both dead – had two children: my sister Lydia and I (born on May 8 of that year). Later they would have another four children: (another) Lydia, Anton, Marija and Ġovanni. They lived next to my grandmother Tona and my mother’s unmarried brother Kalanġ and sisters Marija and Gerita, in Seguna Street (today Xabbata Street), on one side behind the parish church.
My mother had just learnt that the authorities were offering rationed biscuits for babies. She used to say that other families were already receiving such provisions although she had not heard about the offer before, and she asked my father to pick a card so that she could receive the ration due to her two babies.
That Saturday at 8am, as soon as my father finished his night shift at Il-Magna tad-Dawl (as we used to call the little power station) behind the Sacred Heart seminary in Victoria, he went to pick up the card from the Control Office at the Banca Giuratale on It-Tokk square. Then, on his bicycle, he pedalled on to Xewkija where his parents Mikiel and Ċikka (Francesca), and her sister Marianna, and brothers Rev. Pawl, Ġużepp, Salvu and Ġanni (all Ciantar and nicknamed Taċ-Ċantar) and his sisters Mari-Ġwann, Clementa, Nicolina and brother Toninu, lived. From there, around 9.30am, he and my uncle Kalanġ – who was then engaged to my father’s sister Nicolina – cycled back to Sannat.
When they got home, my father heard airplanes in the distance. In those days it was rare to hear the sound of planes over Gozo, and to see them even rarer.
Giving the ration card to my mother, my father took me in his arms to show me the airplanes.
With me on the window sill in the small room at the back of the house, he started to peer at the aeroplanes flying over Sannat through a pair of binoculars. My uncle went behind him to have a look.
My father did not remember what happened then. What followed was narrated by my mother, Carmela, and her sisters, and is recorded in documents which recall the incident.
My mother recalled that she had just prepared lunch. She put out the stove and, card in hand, decided to go to greengrocer Francis Xuereb (Tal-Kaċċatur) to collect the semolina and biscuits she was entitled to.
Lydia did not want to let go of her. However, not to lose time dressing her, my mother left her behind, crying.
My mother then went downstairs and... no sooner had she opened the door then she found herself engulfed in a large cloud of red dust ... and went in again.
As soon as she stepped inside she found Lydia, half-dead on the floor, just behind the door. My mother’s sister Gerita said the blast threw the young child downstairs, where my mother found her.
In the death register of Sannat parish, the time of the victims’ death is given as 10.15am.
Two large bombs had fallen on the village but my mother did not recall hearing the explosion. It was one of these bombs that had fallen very near our house which had thrown my sister down into the small internal yard.
My mother went up the stairs to be greeted by a scene of great devastation. The roof of the house had fallen and much of the building had been destroyed. The part of the house at the back was totally in ruins. Only a wall remained standing. In it was the window where, a few minutes before, my father had taken me to see the airplanes! And I, a five-month-old baby, was still on the window sill.
It is documented that two Luftwaffe Ju-88s were flying over Gozo, chased by two RAF Spitfires and it seems that, to lighten their load, the German planes had jettisoned two large bombs to flee their pursuers.
The events of that fateful day remained in the minds of both my parents who kept narrating them with frightening details.
One of the bombs fell in a field owned by Dun Ġużepp (nicknamed Ta’ l-Oħxon), in the area called Il-Moxa, a few fields away from our house, on the way to the parish church. The other fell in the heart of buildings near the old school premises, a few metres from the small Tax-Xelina square. It fell on a carob tree which, my mother says, was totally uprooted.
Several people who were in the bakery and others going to the bakery to buy bread were also killed. According to a survivor, a whistling sound was heard while the bombs were falling.
My mother – then aged about 20 – said that when she saw the destruction and realised I was still on the window sill of the surviving wall, she walked on the rubble to pick me up.
My sister and I were taken care of by aunts Marija (later married to Toni Fava) and Gerita (later married to Natal Caruana, today a widow, aged 85). Żeża Buttigieg (Tal-Ħobżi) gave us some milk. Then my mother called for help.
Nanna Tona could not be seen anywhere. She was later found sitting under a wardrobe which had fallen and come to rest upon a credenza (a six-drawer chest). She had a facial wound and deep cuts in her feet. She spent about a week in hospital.
My father and Ziju Kalanġ were half-buried among the debris. My father lay facing up while my uncle was facing down. Thinking them both dead, Kelina (Tal-Werriet), instead of going to their aid, told my mother: “You should call a priest because they are dead.” And off she went to fetch a priest.
A little later, Dun Ġużepp Grima, Tal-Ħamra, arrived. Among those who were asked to help was Vitor Vella (1878-1956), the master builder who worked on the building of Ta’ Pinu sanctuary. During the war, Mr Vella had been officially commissioned to help out in similar circumstances.
My father and Ziju Kalanġ were picked up; my father was placed on a wooden door with a sack for a pillow. They were given the Last Rites and, at about 2.30pm, taken to the General Hospital in Victoria.
My mother was told that because he had fallen face upwards, her husband had swallowed a lot of blast. Ziju Kalanġ suffered less and spent only a day in hospital. He only had a shrapnel cut in his right foot.
My father spent three very critical days. He used to say that, because the village church had been damaged, it was the Gozo cathedral bells that rang the death knell those days.
My sister Lydia died that same day, at about 2pm, in Zija Gerita’s hands. The following day, while her funeral was taking place, the siren warned people about an air raid.
Together with my sister, the bombs killed 16 other residents of Sannat: Mikiel Azzopardi (a baby of a few months); Ġużepp Cini, 49; Salvu Curmi, 79; Pawlu Farrugia, 72; Clara Galea, 36; Ġużeppa Galea, 29; Ġużepp Galea, four; Margaret Galea, seven; Mikiel Galea, eight months; Grezzja Muscat, 59; Marija Muscat, 28; Francesca Pace, 51; Katerina Saliba, 36; Marija Tabone, 16; Carmela Theuma, 67; and Margerita Theuma,10 months.
They all died on that fateful Saturday. Three weeks later, on November 2, 58-year-old Carmela Galea succumbed to the wounds she had sustained in the blasts.
The two bombs – said to be 2,000-pounders – totally destroyed 16 houses and considerably damaged 60 others. Besides the 18 victims, about 70 people suffered various wounds and some of them were treated at the Gozo General Hospital.
My mother used to say that my father and the wounded who were admitted to hospital that day were being taken care of by Dr Anton Tabone, who had just begun his career as a medical doctor.
Dr Tabone, popularly known as Il-Prinċipal, was later president of the Gozo Civic Council and was the father of Anton Tabone, the first Minister for Gozo and later Speaker of the House of Representatives and brother of former President Ċensu Tabone.
As soon as Dr Tabone saw my father he insisted that he needed immediate care. My father was unconscious and facing death.
He eventually regained consciousness and was discharged from hospital 15 days later. But for the rest of his life he felt the effects of the wounds and bruises he received in the explosion.
Otherwise, he lived a full life and cultivated hobbies such as repairing and building radios and small clocks, stuffing birds, hunting (which he eventually gave up, becoming a co-founder of the Malta Ornithological Society), and reading. He died of a heart attack, aged 80, on April 4, 1994.
In October 2010, Sannat parish priest Fr Tarcisio Camilleri invited me to give a talk about my family’s experience on October 10, 1942. A short report about it was carried in the Gozo page of The Sunday Times.
The next morning I got a call from Anthony Caruana, who recounted how his family had moved to Marsalforn during the war. He also told me that his father Emmanuel, a medical doctor, drove a motorcycle to see his patients. On that fateful October day, as soon as he heard about the two bombs at Sannat, he decided to drive there to give a helping hand. For that humanitarian deed, he received a letter (dated October 12, 1942) from the assistant commissioner for Gozo, George Ransley, who expressed his appreciation and thanked him for volunteering to help the Sannat victims.
The October 12 issue of Il-Berqa published a short report of the tragedy.
My mother realised I was on the window sill of the surviving wall and picked me up- Joe Zammit Ciantar
According to one website, Flight Lieutenant Eric Norman ‘Timber’ Woods, was stationed in Malta in 1942 as a Spitfire pilot with No. 249 Squadron and, on the day the two bombs were dropped on Sannat – he was flying his Spitfire TR466 over Gozo where he hit a German Bf109. But this was not one of the Junkers 88 which dropped the bombs.
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