Everyone is Starving Here | The Siege of Malta

Malta was given the George Cross on 15 April 1942, much to the surprise of its beleaguered citizens.
Malta was given the George Cross on 15 April 1942, much to the surprise of its beleaguered citizens.

The following article was supplied by David R Roberts whose father was Leading Aircraftman Ray Roberts attached temporarily to 69 Squadron at Malta.

Everyone is Starving Here

This year (2018) marks the 76th anniversary of the award of the George Cross medal to the island of Malta.  One of only two collective versions of the medal ever made, it was awarded by King George VI in April 1942 in recognition of the “heroism and devotion” of the Maltese people during the long siege of the island in the Second World War. 

As the sole British harbour between Gibraltar at the west end of the Mediterranean and Alexandria in the east, the island’s geographical position was of crucial strategic significance to both Allied and Axis forces.  British and Commonwealth aircraft based in Malta could reach Italy and also North Africa in their attempts to stymie the supply lines for Rommel’s campaign.  As a consequence, the island became the focus of attention for German and Italian air attacks in their attempts to neutralise the military bases and to bomb the islanders into submission.  Malta’s quarter of a million-people suffered long periods of continuous bombing.  They also underwent tremendous hardships as little in the way of food or medicines managed to penetrate the blockade preventing merchant ships from entering port.

Valetta street after German air raid in Malta
Valetta street after German air raid in Malta

The convoys bound for Malta suffered extremely heavy losses of ships and their crews.  Between February and June 1942, only two out of twenty-four ships successfully unloaded their cargoes.  Islanders were forced to spend much of their time in caves and tunnels to shelter from the incessant and long-lasting air attacks.  In response to the daily air raids and the frightening dive-bombing tactics of the enemy, Maltese civilians had begun to dig underground shelters through the limestone rock from early in 1941.  This was partly an attempt to hasten what became official government policy.  Its implementation, though, was hampered by a shortage of skilled miners and appropriate equipment.

In 1941 and 1942 there were 3,000 air raids, making the island of Malta the most bombed place on earth.  The George Cross Island Association reports that from 1 January to 24 July 1942 “there was only one period of 24 hours without bombs falling” and that during this period the island endured 154 continuous daytime and night bombings.  The demand for shelters was therefore great and they were frequently overcrowded.  The insanitary conditions within led to epidemics of dysentery, typhoid and tuberculosis among a population already severely under-nourished through lack of food.  And even the protection of strong and deep shelters could not prevent the inevitable loss of life; people continued to go about the necessary everyday tasks of work and earning a living, despite the havoc and destruction being rent upon them.  In total, more than 7,000 civilians and service personnel were killed during the siege.  

Leading aircraftman Ray Roborts
Leading aircraftman Ray Roborts

It was against this background that towards the end of October 1942, 20-year old Leading Aircraftman Ray Roberts received notification that he was to be attached temporarily to 69 Squadron at Malta.  To his girlfriend in England, who after the war would become his wife, he writes:

My Dear Joan,

Just a few quick lines to let you know that I am still

OK.  I am just going away for a little while.  I don’t

suppose I shall be able to get your mail where I am

going, but I will write as often as I can.  I am sorry

this is so short Joan, but I have to leave right away…

All my love

Ray

Joan - Girlfriend of Ray Roborts

Operating from the airfield at Luqa on Malta, the air crews of 69 Squadron engaged in reconnaissance missions.  The RAF station there functioned as the Mediterranean Command headquarters of the Royal Air Force during the war.  During the Siege it would become crucial in the fight for naval control of the Mediterranean and for ground control in North Africa.   For most of the previous year or so Ray had been based at Shallufa, close to the Suez Canal in Egypt.  There he had been responsible for the maintenance and repair of the Wellington bombers of 38 Squadron.

And it was in a Wellington that Ray was flown to his Malta posting by a crew from 458 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force, Ray acting as Front Gunner for the trip.  With no time to settle into his new surroundings, Ray’s first full day on the island was eventful.  According to his diary, it ended with the plane he was in being “shot at” by a Messerschmitt 110, after which he and the rest of the crew were “picked up by motor boat (RAF).  Landed safely.”  

But even when not aboard one of the aircraft, Ray’s safety was not assured.  By the time he had arrived on the island, Malta had just experienced an October of 152 attack alerts over 29 of its 31 days.  And RAF ground crew at Luqa were not without their own dangers.  As they hastily attempted running repairs on a seemingly endless succession of damaged planes they worked under the constant threat of aerial bombardment and strafing from enemy aircraft intent on destroying as many planes, and airfields, as possible.  Some bombs such as the Italian AR-4, or ‘Thermos’, bomb had been devised specifically to disrupt those working in places such as aerodromes as they could detonate unexpectedly, being triggered by vibration.   As well as the persistent menace of enemy attack, the work also involved very long hours.  And all this was carried out without an adequate diet and with the consequent deterioration in health.  But Ray was well aware that conditions for the civilian population were even worse – and had been endured for a long time.  The brief extracts from his diary give a few glimpses of life in Malta after two years of siege conditions.

With a strong anti-aircraft defence, RAF fighters and rock-hewn shelters, the islanders of Malta do not fear air raids
With a strong anti-aircraft defence, RAF fighters and rock-hewn shelters, the islanders of Malta do not fear air raids

Extracts from LAC Ray Roberts’s Diary, November 1942

Wednesday 4.  Everyone is starving here.

Thursday 5.   We are being raided day & night.  Gosh!  Are we hungry.

Saturday 7.   The Aussies that brought us were shot down into the sea last 

                      night.  They are posted missing presumed killed.

Week comm Sunday 8.   There is a lot of work for us to do here.  I will be 

                                       glad when we get back.  We are starving.  Today I

                                       gave all my cigs away for a loaf of bread.

Friday 3.   Big raid today.  Jerry attacked with ME110s.  He destroyed seven

                  Wellingtons and two Spitfires.

Mon-Wednes 16-18.   We get about three crashes a day & we have no                  

                                    equipment to repair them with.

Sunday 22.   Gosh.  It really is terrible here.  Work from dawn till dark &  

                     after, & hardly anything to eat.

Friday 27.   How these RAF lads here have stuck this for twelve months is

                    beyond me.  But when you look in their faces you can see that

                    they are underfed & should all be sent home.

Despite terrible conditions and severe shortages of food and equipment, however, on 12 November the ground staff at Luqa were formally congratulated by the Air Officer Commanding for “achieving a record high level of serviceability … demonstrating excellent teamwork on the part of all concerned”.  None of the dangers and deprivations was disclosed in Ray’s letters to Joan.  He would not have wanted her to worry, of course, but a more immediate reason was that such reports would not have got past the censor.  Nonetheless, letters home can still provide some indication of how life on the island impacted on the thoughts and feelings of someone new to it.

                                                                                      1194627.  LAC. ROBERTS R.

                                                                                             S.D.F. RAF STATION

                                                                                                      LUQA

                                                                                                           MALTA

                                                                                                                 24.11.42

My Dear Joan,

I hope this letter finds you all well & happy.  I am still doing fine, except for the cold weather, & gosh, does it feel cold, after leaving the Middle East.  Still, I don't think that I shall be here much longer now.

I haven't had much chance to look around yet, as we are very busy, but all being well we may be able to get into the town tonight.  It will be a break anyhow, as I haven't even been to the pictures for a month.  Still I guess that's one way of saving money.

Well, it's getting very near Christmas now Joan, I sure wish I could spend it with you.  Have they got much of a programme for that week at Stafford.  I hope I can get back to Egypt before then, at least we shall have a bit better time.  However, I shall have to see how things turn out.  By the way, Joan, you should see the air-raid shelters here.  I should think they are the finest in the world.  Some of them are about eighty feet deep, in solid rock.

Well Joan, dear, I think this is about all for now, so I will close.  Wishing you a Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year.  Give my love to your Mother, Dad & Nora.

Cheerio for now,

& All My Love,

Ray.

Sitting near the Christmas tree close to a warm fire and with plenty of food, in later years Ray would tell his children about the cold and hungry Christmas Eve he spent in a roofless building on Malta in 1942.  This would have been in a bomb-damaged section of the Poor House in Luqa, for in a letter to Joan of 15 December, he had written:              

You know Joan, I never thought I would end up like

this, but I am actually billeted in a poor-house.  So

I guess it will be Christmas Day in the Work-house

all right.

Despite the hardships and perils of daily life, Ray could still glimpse how things had been before the war and how they might be again in the future.  In another letter home he had written: "I should imagine that this island was a very nice place in peace-time…"

The Siege had been interrupted in August 1942, before Ray’s spell on the island, when just a third of a special and heavily guarded convoy of Merchant Navy ships made it to Malta’s Grand harbour as part of Operation Pedestal.  The convoy’s much diminished supplies had brought some much-needed relief to the starving population.  But the effects were temporary.  The Siege and the bombing continued and during Ray’s time on the island, starvation rations were in force for military personnel and civilians alike.

Hoisting the red flag which, with a siren, warns everyone in Malta that an air raid is imminent
Hoisting the red flag which, with a siren, warns everyone in Malta that an air raid is imminent

By the end of the year, though, things were looking up.  Following Allied successes in the North Africa Campaign, including victory at the second battle of El Alamein, supply lines from the eastern Mediterranean had begun to open.  Two further convoys within almost a fortnight – in late November and early December – had reached Malta’s Grand Harbour with their cargoes of food and other essential provisions.  Yet the deleterious effects of the siege on all those living or stationed on the island would not disappear overnight.  The logistics of unloading, dispersal and distribution of supplies to more than a quarter of a million people precluded the immediate end to all the effects of a prolonged period of starvation rations.  Severe rationing of foodstuffs would continue on Malta.  The November convoy had contained supplies sufficient for two weeks only.  The December deliveries provided a further boost to morale but as yet there could be no guarantee that they would be repeated any time soon. To conserve food, the need to maintain a siege mentality was seen as crucial.  Although at the time it was known only to the military commanders and a few staff in the Governor’s office, without those two convoys in the remaining weeks of 1942 even the existing starvation rations would have been completely exhausted by early December.            

It is with hindsight, therefore, that we can now see the tail-end of 1942 as effectively the end of the Siege.  On New Year’s Eve, 1942, as Ray was packing his kit bag ready to leave Malta the following day, there would have been more cause for optimism on the island than for many a day.  But the threat was still there.  It would not disappear until the Allied forces’ victory in North Africa the following year, the last air raid over Malta taking place on 20 July 1943.

On New Year’s Day 1943, Ray returned to his old base in Shallufa and was immediately sent on sick leave to recuperate.  Although he had spent barely two months on Malta, what he had experienced made a lasting impression on him.  During his time there, he had vowed to return in peace time and, much later in their lives, he and Joan did eventually enjoy a holiday on the island.  For Ray, Malta had become a special place.  He had the highest regard for the fortitude and bravery of its people who had had to endure such extreme hardship and for a much longer period than he.  So, when the George Cross Island Association was set up in 1987 to commemorate the Siege of Malta and facilitate the getting together of veterans and families (Maltese and British) of the Siege, Ray was eager to join.  He became a member of the North West Branch of the Association (membership number 2137 and listed as ROBERTS, R S, 69 Squadron Royal Air Force).

George cross association
George cross association

Arrangements were made in good time for Ray and Joan to travel to Malta and attend the ceremony held on 15 April 1992.  Unfortunately, a few months before they were due to fly out, Ray suffered a stroke and died a few days later.  He was 69.  Because of her own ill health, Joan declined the Association’s offer for her to attend alone.  Both, however, would be pleased to know that each year on the anniversary of the award of the George Cross the commemorative bell is still rung.  It is a tribute designed to maintain the memory of the islanders’ endurance and the contributions of all those members of the armed forces who helped to bring the siege to an end.     

Men of the Royal Malta Artillery marching up Kingsway, Valetta after the presentation of the George Cross to the people of the island
Men of the Royal Malta Artillery marching up Kingsway, Valetta after the presentation of the George Cross to the people of the island

ABOUT THE AUTHOR - David R Roberts worked for many years as a college lecturer and is the author of a number of best-selling textbooks.  His latest book, A Rural Revolution: the History of a Staffordshire Family and Their Village is published by Matador.  David is currently working on a book based on the WW2 letters and diaries of his late father.

Why not log on to Forces War Records and search our vast collection of records to find out more about your own ancestors – there could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered and remembered…

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