Seventy years ago, the Maltese Islands were experiencing one of the hardest and most cruel times in their history. April 1942 was perhaps the worst month Malta endured in World War II.
The ceremony was as solemn and dignified as circumstances allowed- Carmel Bonavia
No fewer than 1,728 tons of bombs were dropped on Malta, almost 6,000 houses and other buildings were destroyed, 300 people, including 70 children, were killed and another 329 seriously wounded.
Malta’s airfields and harbours, especially the dockyard, were the most heavily attacked. Valletta was almost completely devastated. That month, more bombs were dropped on Malta and Gozo than on the whole of the UK during the Battle of Britain between July and October 1940,
In April 1942, a total of 282 air-raid alerts were sounded and only six nights were free of these signals. Food supplies were at their lowest levels. The flour mills were directly hit and the power station was repeatedly put out of action. Malta was indeed on the verge of surrender, the code name for which was “Harvest Date”.
Yet, despite causing so much havoc and devastation, the German air force, the Luftwaffe, failed to dumpen the enthusiasm, courage and stamina of the defenders of the civilians.
Wednesday April 15, 1942 dawned typically cloudy, with no rain and a rather strong east-south easterly wind, yet everybody was expecting the usual air attacks and hoping for some good news about the convoys reaching the island via Gibraltar or Alexandria.
Convoys on both routes were being sent at great risk to relieve the island and supply it with desperately needed fuel, ammunition and provisions.
That morning, in London, King George VI was at his study as usual, going through the latest dispatches on the war in the Mediterranean. At that moment in time he took a sheet of paper with the Buckingham Palace letter-head and started to write a message to the people of Malta:
“To honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.”
The George Cross was instituted by His Majesty himself as the highest honour to be awarded to civilians, equivalent to the Victoria Cross, which was reserved for the Armed Forces.
On receipt of this dispatch, the Governor of Malta, Sir William Dobbie, immediately expressed his appreciation for this unexpected high honour bestowed on the Maltese, and replied: “The People and garrison of Malta are deeply touched by Your Majesty’s kind thought for them in conferring on the Fortress of Malta this signal honour. It has greatly encouraged everyone, and all are determined that by God’s help Malta will not weaken but will endure until victory is won...”
Two days later, on April 17, Governor Dobbie addressed the nation and all the servicemen on the local relay system Rediffusion saying: “I am quite sure that everyone in Malta felt the thrill of real pleasure when they learnt of this high honour His Majesty the King has been pleased to bestow on their Island Fortress... I do not recall an instance when an honour of this kind has been conferred by a British Sovereign on a community... The safety and well-being of this Fortress rest under God on four supports: these are the three Services and the civil population.”
The award of the George Cross to Malta was given prominence all over the world. The BBC in its news bulletins on April 15, the day of the award, welcomed this unique award and extolled Malta’s outstanding courage in withstanding the continuous German and Italian attacks and highlighted Malta’s strategic position and its role in hindering the Axis campaign in North Africa.
In Malta, the Strickland House newpapers Il-Berqa, the Times of Malta and The Sunday Times of Malta, gave extensive coverage to the King’s award.
The front page of the Times of Malta of April 17 proudly displayed the King’s portrait and his message together with the Governor’s reply under the heading “The King awards George Cross to Malta”. A “stop press” news item revealed that the award was the King’s own idea.
On page 2 of the same issue, the newspaper’s editor, Mabel Strickland, in her leader entitled “Malta G.C.”, praised “the outstanding importance in the achievement of victory of maintaining civilian life on the front line of battle and of the civilians’ magnificent response to the ordeal imposed on them by a ruthless enemy. Malta in her entirety, with the help of God, has withstood the test and the King has set his seal on the pages of history... His Majesty’s act brings immense consolation to all in Malta and floods the humblest among us with joyous pride in having lived and strived through Malta’s greatest hour.”
The following day, April 18, the George Cross was added to the Times of Malta masthead and has featured there for the past 70 years. The caption “Printed in Malta” used to appear on the front page as if to say “come what may, our newspapers in spite of heavy bombing and two direct hits are being published regularly and our flatbed printing machines Centurette are still going strong”.
This issue in-cluded a summary of the Governor’s address to the nation broadcast the previous day, entitled “Malta: First recipient of the George Cross”. The speech on Malta delivered in Cairo by Sir Walter Monckton, acting Minister of State, was also published, together with the first-hand impressions of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder during his visit here the day before.
The Sunday Times of Malta of April 19, too, included the George Cross with the caption “H. M. King George VI awarded to the Fortress of Malta the George Cross on the 956th day of the War – 15th April 1942”.
Its editorial, under the heading “The King’s Trust”, stated inter alia: “His Majesty the King has singled Malta out for fame and by his act has placed her at the top of the Empire and given her a place in the annals of history that will have a great bearing upon our future”.
The same issue of the newspaper also carried a feature entitled “King sets his seal on living history”, which included the texts of the King’s message and the Governor’s reply.
On April 23, St George’s Day, the King’s private secretary, Sir Alexander Harding, sent the George Cross to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Viscount Cranborne, with a request to be forwarded to the Governor of Malta. Harding also attached a letter expressing the King’s wish that the George Cross would be incorporated in the Arms of Malta at the appropriate time to perpetuate the award.
On May 7, Governor Dobbie was replaced as Governor of Malta by Viscount Gort, who was personally entrusted to convey the George Cross and the citation to Malta.
Dobbie and Gort met at the Kalafrana seaplane base for about half an hour. They discussed the worsening situation in Malta and Gort was so absorbed in what he was told that he forgot to show Dobbie the George Cross which was in his pocket. Dobbie never saw the King’s award as he had to leave the island urgently as his plane was waiting.
The George Cross award was a great boost for the island’s morale. It steeled the determination of the population and Services personnel to face further hardships, dangers and food scarcity. The Council of Government, at its sitting of April 28, 1942, passed a resolution of thanks to His Majesty. The elected council members included two future prime ministers – Dr Paul Boffa and Dr George Borg Olivier.
As news of the award of the George Cross became known around the Allied countries, messages of congratulations poured in from heads of state and other leaders and from Maltese communities in Australia, US and nearby Tunis.
The situation in Malta was very serious and relief came only after the providential arrival of the Santa Marija convoy in August, so a public presentation of the George Cross was not possible before Sunday, September 13, 1942. This took place at the Palace Square, Valletta.
Lord Gort forgot to show Governor Dobbie the George Cross- Carmel Bonavia
The ceremony was as solemn and dignified as circumstances allowed. The Royal Malta Artillery, accompanied by the King’s Own Malta Regiment band, mounted a guard of honour after marching down Kingsway (now Republic Street).
War debris from the Palace, the Casino Maltese, the Regent Cinema and the nearby buildings, once the pride of Valletta, was still piled on the square.
There were similar scenes of destruction in all towns and villages around Malta, eloquent witnesses for the price Malta had to pay for freedom.
Representatives of the Services and of all constituted bodies were there to share the honour and the subdued joy of the occasion. However, Lord Gort and the Chief Justice, Sir George Borg, were given an ovation by all present.
The Governor stated: “By the command of the King, I now present to the People of Malta and its Dependencies the decoration His Majesty has awarded to them in recognition of the gallant service which they have already rendered in the struggle for freedom”.
After receiving the George Cross and the citation, Sir George Borg thanked His Majesty and the Governor for the recognition and appreciation of the people of Malta.
During the following weeks, the George Cross was on public view in various towns and villages for all to admire and to continue to boost morale, since the war was not quite over yet.
Air attacks continued intermittently for a number of months. However, the people felt the solidarity of the King himself when he visited Malta on June 20, 1943, and toured the battered cities of Valletta, Senglea, Vittoriosa, and Cospicua and the Dockyard.
In his diary George VI noted that he saw many happy faces but that he was the happiest one of all. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who used to refer to Malta as “the unsinkable aircraft carrier”, also visited the island between November 17-19, 1943. He was warmly received, especially by workers at the Dockyard.
This was then followed on December 8 by the visit of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in a ceremony at the Palace presented an illuminated scroll extolling the endurance, courage and fortitude shown by the Maltese.
Both the President’s scroll and the King’s citation are reproduced on two marble tablets on the Palace façade.
The King’s wish to embody the George Cross in the Arms of Malta was later fulfilled when it was officially incorporated in the Maltese flag. Thus, when one looks at its left canton, bearing the George Cross, one recalls the island’s great heroism during its second siege.
It should also inspire all Mal-tese to emulate the courage of our forefathers to overcome all difficulties.