- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Pat, Edwin, Margaret and Daphne Staples, Major and Mrs H.W. Staples
- Location of story:
- Malta: Floriana and Valletta
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 November 2005
Major and Mrs H.W. Staples, and their four children - Pat, Edwin, Margaret and Daphne outside their home, Dragona, shortly after their arrival on Malta in January 1939.
My memories of Malta during the Second World War
by Margaret Hutchinson (nee Staples.)
My father’s job
When my father Major H. W. Staples R.E. (known as Sam) left the army in 1949, a letter came from the War Office saying, “I am commanded by the Army Council to express to you their thanks for the valuable services which you have rendered in the service of your country at a time of grave national security.” This made me realise that my father played an important part on the island of Malta. He was the Deputy Commander of the Royal Engineers for the southern part of the island covering the main harbours and aerodromes.
It is easy to forget just how close Malta came to defeat between 1940 and 1942. I arrived in Malta with my parents, two brothers and two sisters in January 1939. At nine years of age it seemed like a new adventure — little did I realise that it would be six years before I left the island in March 1945.
Island at War
My memories are of fear and starvation but also of love for the people and the island. At the beginning when the Italians declared war life was difficult, but when the Germans started bombing only sixty miles away from Sicily, it was horrendous. It became one of the most heavily bombed places in the world.
We all slept in the shelters and spent most of the day there too. As convoys fought to get through with supplies, they were pounded by the enemy. Without the RAF fighter pilots and anti-aircraft personnel, Malta could easily have succumbed.
Scarcity of food
I remember my father telling me that there were only 10 days’ supplies left. As our ration at the time was very limited — only one slice of bread each per day — leaving the table hungry wasn’t unusual. My poor mother struggled to feed us — I remember she became painfully thin, and began to look old. My father recorded he lost 8” off his waist and felt quite fit except when walking quickly his heart beat sounded like a going in his ears.
How our poor dog Handak survived I don’t know as he was ordered out of the dining room when my mother realized we were slipping titbits under the table. The poor dog was hungry too. First our canaries died and then the chickens (no doubt a meal was made of each hen). They stopped laying for lack of food although the gate to the chicken run was left open so they could find what they could in the garden.
I used to queue at the Victory kitchen in Floriana for our one meal a day. Divided between seven of us, it was pathetic; maybe enough for one and a half people — but I must say, it was always very tasty. My mother learnt to serve it on small plates. One day my father acquired a sack of oatmeal riddled with weevils. My mother asked me to try and clean it — an impossible task — so it was cooked with the weevils! My sisters and I played “loves me, loves me not” with weevils rather than fruit stones.
I went to the market in Valletta with my mother — most of the stallholders had left but there were still a few there. We came home with a fish that had cost a pound — a lot of money in those days. I think that it was that day that the Opera house was bombed and we picked our way through the rubble. Running from one shelter to the next became the norm.
Operation Pedestal was launched to help Malta when we were at our lowest ebb. Of the fourteen ships that sailed nine were sunk and in the early hours of August 15th the freighter “Ohio” limped into the Grand Harbour lashed to the side of other vessels. We children used to rush to the bastions to cheer and wave them in. When supplies arrived only to be destroyed during their unloading in the grand Harbour, the island’s morale was severely hit. Both my brothers, Pat and Edwin were detailed to go to the harbour wearing their Boy Scout uniforms, to help supervise unloading and stop pilfering.
A terrifying experience
One day returning from Chiswick House School in Windsor Terrace, Sliema, my sister Daphne and I arrived at the quay and as the ferries had stopped running we had to rely on the dghaisa — a boat rather like a gondola — to take us across to Valetta. There had been raids all morning and we were desperate to get home. Our lessons had been in the shelter and as it was about half past four and we hadn’t eaten a thing since breakfast we were feeling terribly hungry. Soon the little boat was full of Maltese women and children gesticulating wildly and a Maltese soldier of the K.O.M.R. was giving a full account of the morning’s bombings to one of the boatmen.
Soon we were on our way, gliding over the water — but alas! We had just reached the middle of the harbour when the siren wailed out mournfully. My heart was beating wildly and I prayed that the red flag would not be hoisted until we reached the other side. This was raised above the Castile when the raid was directly overhead. One woman began screaming hysterically and urged the boatmen to go faster, faster! Beads of perspiration poured from them as they pulled at the oars and we watched, waited and prayed.
Suddenly the red flag was hoisted and we realised our prayers had been in vain. One old lady threw herself on the bottom of the boat sobbing and begging the saints to take care of us all. My sister turned dreadfully pale and I thought she was going to faint as she usually did in such circumstances. She clutched at my hand and we gazed above scanning the blue skies for the approach of the enemy. A dozen or so planes passed over and we presumed they had already dropped their bombs on the other side of the island. Our guns opened up and the planes made a speedy exit. “Raiders passed,” blared out and as we reached Valetta we all breathed a prayer of thanks.
Slowly we made our way up Great Siege Hill homeward bound. A few minutes passed and the siren wailed again. As there were no shelters close by we made our way to a small gap in the bastion and huddled in. A sailor and two Maltese soldiers joined us and after a while the sailor assured us the raid was practically over and we could continue our journey. We thanked him and began to run up the hill.
Before we had gone 200 yards the guns began to bark and I could see three planes coming in our direction. I screamed “Run Daphne — make for that wall” and we ran as fast as our legs could carry us. There was a loud whistle and them WHAM. The ground shook violently and when I had the courage to stand up the air was full of smoke and dust. Daphne was lying in a clump of daisies quite a few feet ahead of me where the blast had lifted her. I thought she might have been hurt but was assured it was only fright when she stood up and started screaming.
An English soldier popped his head out of a slit trench, ran over and picked her up in his arms and shouting for me to follow, ran back to the slit trench. I felt terribly giddy and slowly made my way to the shelter. The raid was over 15 minutes later and at last we resumed our journey undisturbed.
A few days later my father told me that two Maltese soldiers had been killed by enemy action less than 100 yards from the spot we had occupied. I shall never forget that day as long as I live.
Most British families left the island early on, some going to South Africa for the duration, others going around South Africa back to the U.K. When my father asked my mother to leave before the bombing started, she said, “No — we stay together”, and so it was, and she wouldn’t be moved. One day I was out in the open during a raid with my mother and sister Daphne, and I remember shouting, “Dear God, I’m too young to die.”
The award of the George Cross
Malta withstood 3,340 alerts and 29,674 private dwellings were destroyed or damaged.
King George VI was the first of several distinguished visitors followed by General Montgomery and General Eisenhower. The Pavilion in Floriana was renamed Montgomery House when he moved his headquarters to Malta.
The island of Malta was awarded the George Cross By King George V1 on the 15th of April 1942. My father often said to us children that “each of you has earned a part of that George Cross.” Thank God my family survived, but it is an episode of my life that I will never forget - would you?
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