- Contributed by
- paul gill - WW2 Site Helper
- People in story:
- Norman Reginald Gill
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 August 2004
Bombing destruction at Marsa. The air raids on Malta were many times heavier than those on London.
In July 1941 Reg Gill, an RAMC radiographer, originally working at Leeds General Infirmary, sailed from Greenock as part of Operation Substance. His ship, the Leinster which carried medical staff and RAF ground crew had been stationed, in Reg's opinion, perilously close to the bows of HMS Nelson. Leinster ran aground very close to Gibraltar at night under circumstances which are still not clear to me.
They were taken off by lighter and went to Gibraltar where he was joined by another ex Leeds General Hospital colleague who had most narrowly escaped death in the attack on HMS Firedrake. Firedrake subsequently returned to Gibraltar. Put aboard the huge luxury liner Louise Pasteur, wined and dined, they expected a trip home and survivors leave! In the middle of the night, the Manxman came alongside, hidden from preying Spanish eyes by the bulk of the Pasteur, and it was off to Malta!
Please note, spelling can be erratic as I produced these notes from tapes. Reg did receive good information on expected casualties but no classified material on RAF or RN matters. I have added dates of referenced events from Internet sources as part of headings.
Reg's war story including Dunkirk has already been published on this website. The rest continues in his own words.
Arrival in Malta
So here we were in Malta. We landed by the Lower Barracker. We were a mixed bunch of air force and army and we were sorted out into units and put onto trucks to be taken, we knew not where.
We'd heard about Malta. It had had a terrific battering since Italy came into the war, several hundred raids and lots of fatalities they said. The signs of damage were all there but, except for the bombing of the aircraft carrier Illustrious and the surrounding towns, the German air force had played very little part. The 3 'cities' as they were called, Conspicua, Victoriosa and Cenglia, housed the dockyard workers and had been terribly battered. The area all around the Grand Harbour was a tremendous mess and the Naval hospital at Bighi had been put out of action. This was probably the reason why it was considered necessary to reinforce the medical personnel on the island. Manxman arrived after most of the convoy (Operation Substance) a few ships from which had gone back to Gibraltar after heavy bombing.
We were happy to have survived a Mediterranean convoy but we weren't happy to have landed in Malta which showed such devastation. Of course, much worse was to come later. We were taken to a school on the North East coast above Sliema near St George's Barracks, perhaps at the nearest point to Sicily (100km) of anywhere on Malta. We were called St Andrews barracks. From there, on a clear day, you could see snow covered mountains and even Mt Etna. People used to swear they could see the German bombers taking off but of course that was nonsense. We were called the Central Mediterranean Forces and we felt isolated. The nearest friendly forces were 1000 miles away in Gibraltar or Alexandria or El Alamein.
The MTB raid. July 26, 1941
We were pretty exhausted as you can imagine. The 2nd night (about 2 o'clock in the morning) we were awoken by the most terrific row as every gun on the island appeared to be firing, including guns we hadn't heard before. We were quite familiar, after 2 days, with anti-aircraft guns but long range guns were firing too. We had a 230mm (9.2 inch) battery about 2km away from the hospital and when those opened up the whole hospital seemed to shake. This went on for quite a time and the whole island was lit up by flashes of shellfire which appeared to be going out to sea. We all thought the Italian fleet was standing off the coast of Malta, preparing to blast the place. This was something we always feared.
After an hour or so it all died down and we heard on the Maltese radio next day that some 20 Italian motor torpedo boats had attempted to sink the convoy in the Grand Harbour. They had been spotted by radar. Every gun within range on the island had opened up and their sinking was, of course, a tremendous morale booster for the Maltese forces. That was the famous MTB raid on Malta and the Italians and the Germans developed a very healthy respect for the Maltese barrage and shore defence guns. The Italians did hit something with one torpedo and evidence of that is still in Malta. It was in fact a small pier at the entrance to the Marsha Michett harbour which a torpedo had blasted in two. It has been left as a souvenir of this raid.
Setting up hospital equipment
The personnel who had arrived first had already put this empty converted school building into some sort of shape of readiness but although two radiographers were already there, the X-ray department wasn't functioning. Major Stirling was waiting for me together with a 4 kW generator. Electric mains were provided but fluctuated because of the bombing of power stations. X-ray films, which were very precious, could be ruined by a voltage drop so a generator was essential. The disadvantage was that the x-ray machine wasn't very powerful so if you were doing a spine or an abdomen or something fairly thick the generator struggled to provide enough current. You couldn't use a long exposure otherwise you'd get movement of the subject.
Another 4 kW generator lit most of the hospital. Very soon we had the part of the building allocated to us ready to receive casualties.
The main hospital, the 90th General, was at Imtarfa at the northern end, at one of the highest points on the island. They were a regular military hospital and had been there in peace time. They took the initial casualties. We formed the 45th General Hospital, a second line hospital, and were to take naval casualties and Maltese gunners. The Maltese had regiments of heavy Ack Ack batteries as well as the KOMR (Kings own Malta Regiment).
Imtafa had better facilities than us including, crucially for the x-ray department, lifts to the first and second floor. We had none. The X-ray dept was on the first floor and our machine had to be dismantled to x-ray patients on the second floor. It weighed well over a hundred kilos and took 4 of us to carry it. I found carrying it up and down stairs exhausting, indeed the lack of a basic simple lift facility grossly effected our efficiency. Nevertheless we were under cover and the hospital quickly got ready for a lot of casualties.
Our Sergeants mess was a couple of hundred yards from the hospital in a separate building which I think now is part of a holiday complex.
Malta was already under siege and raids were getting a great deal more ferocious. Luckily the invasion of Russia took a great deal of German pressure of Malta although the Italian air force outnumbered the few planes we had. By this time Malta had a squadron of hurricanes but it was still hugely outnumbered by the Regia Aironautica stationed in Sicily. The reality was that the Italians were capable of reducing Malta to rubble even whilst the Luftwaffe was still in Russia.
Most things were closed because they had been bombed or because they had nothing to sell. There was not a lot of point in going into Valetta because there was nothing to buy. Towards the end of 1941, whilst we hadn't been there long enough to get bored, it was looking as if it was going to be a very very long war. German forces had scorched through Russia The news as we saw it was bad because the Germans seemed to be advancing everywhere. They had advanced through the Balkans, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and were attacking Yugoslavia and Greece. The Yugoslavs were putting up tremendous resistance. We were to learn a bit more about that later on but in the mean time it was a question of working by day or by night and trying to get some sleep during the endless night raids that went on.
Sirens, bombing and AA guns were more or less continuous events in Malta at that time. I was very lucky in that I could to go to sleep standing up if necessary. I rarely went to the hospital air raid shelters. These had been excavated by some South African miners who dug out the Maltese rock - a remarkably malleable rock which could be cut or sawn. We put several hundred beds in this huge excavation. The staff weren't allowed to sleep on these beds but it was difficult to sleep on the stone floor. I was fatalistic about it and I slept in the sergeants mess. If a bomb dropped in the right place that would be it, but on the other hand, if a bomb dropped on the entrance to the shelter you would be trapped. Of the two I'd rather be killed outright than die entombed in rock.
Sandflies were a pest. I got sandfly fever. I got a huge increase in temperature up to 40C. I felt terribly ill for a few days then suddenly it disappeared. We did have sandfly nets but the little devils had a nasty habit of hiding themselves in the folds of your rolled up net so when you let it down they're inside.
The other difficulty was food and it was getting worse. One or two small convoys got through with tremendous losses in warships and merchant ships. This took us to the end of 1941 hungry and apprehensive, because it seemed obvious that, Malta could not survive long against determined use of the Italian fleet. We had nothing except two cruisers and 2 destroyers of Force K.
We had Christmas. There was 1 ounce of tobacco or 20 cigarettes per month. Beer was 2 bottles per week which eventually came down to just one bottle. This was brewed on the island. Gistparsons brewery.
We did our own little concert in the mess, invited the officers over and then they invited us back to the officers mess. We got one or 2 bottles of whisky from heaven knows where and also by sheer good fortune a cask of, I think it was about 5 gallons of naval rum. This appeared to have floated along the coast from a ship which had been sunk in the Grand Harbour and the chief pharmacist Ron Milburn being the enterprising chap that he was, somehow managed to confiscate it and put in the pharmacy. He didn't tell anybody except the few in the know so we had quite an uproarious Christmas. Dinner consisted of a tin of Maconachie meat and vegetable which we all had. Not a very substantial Christmas dinner but a lot better than the bully beef and hard biscuits which we were used to by that time.
We were swimming off the coast when we saw a large bird flapping about in the water. There had been an air battle, nothing unusual about that, but what I think was a griffin vulture had been caught in the slipstream of a fighter plane and its wing was broken. One of the sergeants swam out, wrung its neck and handed it over to the Sergeants mess cook a Maltese named Micallef who promptly plucked it and curried it. It wasn't very much. About a mouthful each. It was a scrawny creature but I don't like to admit to my bird loving friends that I've actually eaten a vulture. We all felt at the time that the roles could so easily be reversed!
So 1942 opened and things looked extremely grim. The 8th army had been driven back almost to Cairo several hundred miles away from us. Greece had capitulated. Hitler was on the edge of Moscow and Leningrad. Crete an island just like Malta had been invaded and captured by the Germans (May 1941). It is impossible to overemphasise the psychological effect that had on us. If they could capture Crete with its much bigger garrison then Malta was in desperate straits.
When the winter slowed down advances in Russia, the Germans had transferred Luftflotte II under Field Marshal Kesslering to Sicily. (November 1941) Early in 1942 the real blitz on Malta started. We thought we'd had a fair amount of hammering but this was something quite different. From the hospital, it was possible to see the wave after wave of bombers accompanied by the fighters approaching from Sicily. If they suddenly tilted and commenced a dive everyone would assume they were the target. If you didn't throw yourself flat, your chances of surviving were strictly limited. It was quite something to see the Hurricane squadron and I think we only had one possibly two take off to intercept these bombers but the Messerschmitts were far superior. Unfortunately Sicily was so close that even immediate take off once the bombers were spotted on radar was insufficient to give the hurricanes adequate height. Quite a lot were shot up on the ground and soon Malta had no air defences at all.
After the bombers had finished, the Messerschmitts roamed around the island shooting up anything that moved. Swimming was our only recreation and we combined it with the essential task of washing which was performed using a special sea soap. It was the only way to prevent scabies which was rampant on the island in the absence of water. We went down to the coast, through the minefields along a well tagged path.
Quite often we'd be swimming, when along under the radar screen would come a swarm of Messerschmitts, cannon blazing at enormous speed. It was common sense to select a little hole in the rocks into which one could crawl when this happened. If you were seen to move, you would be killed.
When what we called our own battery Spinola (on the point near St George's barracks), opened up, a rain of shrapnel came down. As we didn't swim in our steel helmets, it was a very unpleasant time indeed. It got worse.
Very soon Malta was almost a total wreck. It was almost impossible to get down into Sliema or Valetta because the roads were blocked with debris from the bombing. There had always been one or two horse drawn garries or carotsins waiting on the road above the hospital to take you where you wanted to go at a negotiable price. They now disappeared. Some brave restaurant owners were serving steaks and so we knew where the horses had gone to. There was no fodder, so after the goats and sheep, the horses were obviously going to be next. Life reached the nadir. We all thought that Malta would follow Crete. Its resistance was almost nil.
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