During World War II, Floriana’s location, being adjacent to Marsa and the Grand Harbour, made the Germans suspect the locality was used for storage, and that the parish church was of military importance. A man who served at Lintorn Barracks, Joseph Sciberras, recalls the regiment’s vehicles parked around the Granaries that were cordoned with barbed wire.
The Floriana District Committee had anticipated an onslought on Floriana due to the high concentration of military vehicles in the area. On February 13, 1942, the Committee wrote to the Governor requesting: “I humbly suggest that the vehicles be parked in the neighbouring public gardens and be thus better camouflaged and protected than if left in the present localities.”
This plea fell on deaf ears and a further appeal was made on April 6, claiming that “several bombs had fallen in the area and this could only be attributed to the concentration of military vehicles in Floriana. The committee was of the opinion this was tantamount to the writing on the wall”.
Just before 8am on Tuesday, April 28, some 43 Ju88s followed by 20 Ju87 raided the harbour area. They were met with a mere opposition of three Spitfires and four Hurricanes. Three of the Stukas peeled away from the last formation and dived low over the Granaries aiming their bombs squarely at the parish church of St Publius. Within seconds, the bombs smashed through the roof of the sacred temple enshrouding it in clouds of dust. The dust settled to reveal a calamitous landscape, worse still, the crypt had collapsed, killing 13 people and seriously injuring another five.
With storage depots being on the April hit list, the committee could not have been more accurate in its predictions and the following morning Berlin Radio confirmed their worst fears had been legitimate. The radio declared: “The cathedral, which was used as a storage depot, has been destroyed.”
With both St Publius and the Capucchins’ church in ruins, Sarria church was the only remaining alternative and promptly started functioning as a provisional parish church.
Undaunted by the events, the Floriana District Committee met on June 1, 1942, to discuss the repair of St Publius church – a topic which was to remain on the agenda for several years. However, by September 10, 1942, works on the repair of the southern flank of the church had been undertaken and that Christmas, six-year-old Joe Coleiro Tonna delivered the traditional Christmas sermon in the restored section.
The extent of damage
Both the war damage commission and the police drew up reports calculating the extent of damages to the church and the surroundings. The police reported nine* persons killed and six injured while two persons were missing during raid number 2,208 which lasted from 7.55am to 9.14am on April 28, 1942.
Bombs had not only demolished the dome and crypt of St Publius church but a number of others had exploded on the Granaries, partly demolishing houses in St Publius Street, while buildings in St Anne’s, St Thomas Street, the government Elementary School, Strait Street, Gunlayer Street and Capuccin Street were destroyed. Other bombs had exploded at Sarria Road, The Mall, National Road and in Fosse Square, also destroying a fire engine.
The War Commission concluded: “This magnificent church which, facing Valletta capital stands majestically in front of the Floriana Granaries, forms with its vast bulk, its imposing portico of Corinthian columns, broad pediment and towering spires, a landmark of strength and beauty, symbolical at once of the devotedness of the Floriana parish and of the deep, undying faith of the whole population of these islands.
“This church has sustained extensive damage. The barrel vault surmounting the nave has suffered distortion by blast. A part of the vault lying above the choir has collapsed. The nave pilasters are slightly damaged. The organ loft is in part demolished. In the right-hand transept the altar is destroyed, while splinter holes have very seriously damaged pilasters, shell, barrel vault, arches and walls in the same. In the left-hand transept, the altar is partly destroyed, while other parts of the transept have been affected by blast. The passages leading from the aisles to the choir and sacristy have sustained blast damage. The double aisles at each side embellished and gave light to each of the aisles have been destroyed.
“These domes have, in falling, caused damage to the underlying church floor. Most of the altars in the side chapels have suffered blast damage in varying degree. The paintings above these altars are also damaged. This is the case also of the two spires whose highly decorative stonework has in great part been damaged by the blast. The woodwork of the façade such as that of the main doors and windows, constituting a not unimportant architectural feature of the decorative scheme of this great church, has suffered almost total destruction.
“Nearly the whole of the church woodwork is either destroyed or seriously damaged. Other parts of the church such as the sacristy, consisting of a number of rooms on the ground and first floor, and a number of corridors and spaces within the church building have been damaged by the blast, the damage affecting walls, roofs, woodwork and glass. The passage leading from St Publius Street is slightly damaged by blast. The crypt roof has slightly collapsed due to bomb hits and to the crushing of debris from the overlying church dome.
“One half of the dome, including the lantern, has collapsed. The underlying drum has been very seriously damaged. The main pillars supporting the dome arches and the four pendentives have been seriously damaged by splinter holes. All paintings on drum and pendantivas are damaged. The walls and pilasters of the choir, as also all sculptured woodwork and paintings in this part of the church, have suffered damage by the blast.
“The major part of the pediment and of the peristyle roof and entablature, as also one of the isolated columns supporting the pediment, have collapsed. The statue symbolising faith at the apex of the pediment, as well as all other statues in the niches within the porch, have been either destroyed or damaged. The capitals and shafts of the Corinthian columns and pilasters forming such a highly decorative feature of the façade, as well as most other decorative or plain features of the same, have suffered extensive damage from blast and splinters.”
*The death toll was to rise as more bodies were uncovered.
Tragedy beneath the altar
Residents regularly slept overnight in crypts and shelters for protection from the night raids. These served as make-shift schools and were considered safe places due to the admeasurement of the overlying churches. However, as was the case in St Publius, the concentrated number of bombs brought down volumes of debris which burst deep into the crypt.
The raid of April 28 had occurred just as the 8am Mass was about to commence and together with the priest, the congregation scampered or sought refuge beneath the church. However, the majority had moved to the shelter proper which was interconnected to the crypt.
The effect of such heavy explosions in the immediate proximity of a shelter sent shockwaves through the passages, sucking out the air violently and then choking the helpless crowd with dust and the noxious smell of explosives. As the raid was over and people crawled out of the shelter, a crowd gathered in front of the devastated church.
It was all too obvious, not only was the house of God in ruins but friends and family were entombed deep within the crypt below the altar. Attempts by the authorities to calm the crowd were in vain as emotions took the upper hand and a chaotic situation unfolded, making work for the rescue teams and arduous task.
This was Floriana’s darkest day.
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