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rene's war

by Irenerobinson

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irene robinson
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23 May 2004

When war was declared I was one month short of my 14th birthday.
My dad worked as an electrician in the engineering department of the Royal Navy’s
Malta Dockyard. The engineering department was deep inside the steep , densely
populated hills and cliffs which surrounded Grand Harbour , between moorings at
Bighi , Dockyard Creek and French Creek . All were just twenty minutes flight
from the enemy’s bombing bases in Sicily - ten in a Messerschmitt.
I was a pupil at the Royal Naval Dockyard School , at Verdalla , a Palace of The
Knights of Malta , but it was quickly closed when it was revealed that directly
underneath , filling the dungeon , was one of the largest Naval explosive stores.
The first bombs to fall on Malta were dropped by the Italian Air Force from a great
height and did little damage. At the beginning there were no fighter aircraft on the
Island , but Gladiator biplanes of the Fleet Air Arm crated up for transport to
Egypt were unpacked and assembled - the famous trio , FAITH , HOPE , and
CHARITY . Their pilots gave those Italians a bit of a fright which persuaded them
that they could not just ‘take over’ the Island of Malta. Its defences were reinforced
and the Navy returned . But my school days were over. I couldn’t wait to join the
R.A.F. as a civilian assistant and on my sixteenth birthday I was accepted and
trained . In the War Rooms deep inside the rock beneath Valletta I worked on the
‘Plot’ , a very large table on which was pin-pointed the size , altitude , direction of
approach - the bearings - of all the enemy bomber and fighter formations as they
flew towards the Island. It was exciting work and I was so proud to be called a
My oldest sister Betty was a nurse in King George Fifth Hospital in Floriana .
She was the first of us girls to be married . Bill was in an R.A.F. Bomb Disposal
team . He started to sleep walk , and Betty found herself one night being ever so
gently lifted from their bed , she knew that she should not waken him , and laid
very carefully inside a chest of drawers!
Joyce who was a year my senior was a lady cypher assistant - a ‘cyperine’ - in
Naval HQ , which , at that time , was situated at Bighi.
Getting to and from work was often in the middle of an air-raid. I was trapped once
when a bomb almost hit us and we were rescued from the rubble by some Navy lads
who had been boozing in a nearby pub. But my most horrific moment came when
our friend ‘Big Bill’ Piercy , a Merchant Navy Officer , and I accompanied Joyce
through Valletta to Grand Harbour where she used to catch a ferry across to Bighi .
We had just reached Customhouse Steps when a German raid started . We took
shelter in a warehouse . Big Bill held us in his enormous arms and said ,
“Girls . Start praying , because we need God’s help to stay alive!!”
Joyce and I joined a concert party billed as “The Raffians” and we toured the
R.A.F. messes and performed at the historic Manuel Theatre in Valletta to a wider
audience. We made our costumes from enemy parachute silk and mosquito netting and very fetching they were.
When I was seventeen and a half I joined Joyce as a ‘cypherine’ in Naval HQ
which had by then moved to War HQ inside Lascaris Bastion.
Girls in the Woman’s Royal Naval Service (The WRENS) were not drafted to
Malta until much later and local British girls ‘manned’ the cypher machines. Entry
to HQ was by pass only , guarded night and day against possible saboteurs.
To go to work we ran from our flat in Vincenti Buildings at the posh end of ‘The
Gut’ to the top of Strada Reale (now Constitution Street) then down a poorly lit
stairway carved inside the rock which led to the War Rooms. We felt safe there
while the bombs fell on Malta , but always worried about dad in Dockyard and
Mum with our youngest sister Sheila at home. Dad had been in the team which was
reconditioning the Floating Dock and was the last man to leave it when it was sunk
by the Lufftwaffe. Ted Robinson , my dad , was a fine man. He earned the respect
of his workmen who called him “Sant a tuila” - the tall saint.
It was not all blood and bombs. We were young . ‘Captain Caruana’s’ was the place
to be with our pals , for the two important things in our lives were food and
One was severely rationed . The other was not.
Luxuries such as eggs were bought from Gozo-women who sold at the doors.
Mother was always pleased to let us bargain in Maltese with them when at other
times she forbade it . “It will ruin your English” she said. Eggs were kept for a
hurried departure into the shelter. Mum would say . “Quick! Fry an egg on bread
and bring it with you.” In the communal rock shelter deep under the British Institute
at the end of the street we had our own family cabin where we would live and sleep
until the all clear. Dad paid workmen forty pounds to cut it from the rock.
My best friend ‘Pat’ Cameron was killed by bomb blast. She was found dead
sheltering behind a wall , covering her face with one arm, without a mark on her!
She was a pharmacist’s assistant with Collins the Chemist in Strada Reale.
There were thousands of Navy lads and Submariners , Army and Air Force men on
the Island and boy friends were two a penny .
Three of the lads I liked best were killed and I remember them well. Mike Janvlin
was a submariner whose boat was reported missing. Ronald was an Army captain
killed by ‘friendly fire’ on the beach-head in Sicily . Mike Malone’s plane crashed
into the sea when , it was thought , he became oxygen starved.
Did I weep for them? Of course I did , bitterly. But life could be very short in those
days. And we were all so young! Derek was in the Fleet Air Arm. He appeared at
the flat one evening with his face and hands painted in red ink , a silly grin and
“What on earth , Derek?”
“I’ve been painting the town red!”
Later he confided that he had just been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
He was about twentytwo and we were great buddies. I wonder where he is now.
All my boy-friends were well behaved . Except one .
He was an officer called Peter in the Royal West Kents and should have known
better. I was born in Malta but my parents were Kentish Folk.
He had asked my father’s permission to book me into a hotel for the night as we
were going to a dance beyond the creeks and the ferries stopped at sunset. He
promised to take care of me. I was in my nightie when I heard him knocking. I must
have had suspicions about him for I had made the door fast with a securing chain.
“Please let me in . I just want to speak to you.”
“What , at 3 am ! I am in my night dress!”
I could see that he was fully clothed . He took his pistol from its holster.
”Come on , don’t play games . Open the door!”
I told him where he could put his pistol and locked the door.
There was a telephone in my room - a winding-up , old-fashioned thing , but it
worked. I rang Philip , a Naval doctor friend , told him what was happening and he
roared round the creek on his motorbike , rescued me and drove me home . I
couldn’t explain to my mum , and as we girls had all been forbidden to ride
motorbikes I got a right good telling off!
My parents were bricks. We were not allowed to go out with any boyfriend unless
they met him , and despite rationing , mum and dad gave super parties . Whatever
their rank , all were welcomed at the top flat , Number 27 Vincenti Buildings
although Pete , Joyce’s fiance , wrote on their visitor’s book - “THIS IS A
Vincenti Buildings had a charmed life. It was hit , but the bomb did not explode.
Joyce persuaded her Peter to make use of his rank and rescue some of her clothes
from the flat. His Radio Officer’s stripe was the same colour as the Bomb Disposal
badge . He appeared at the top window and Joyce’s blouses , cami-nickers and
other important feminine requirements came floating down to the street. And mine
too. The wicked man.
I met John after my mum and dad had given him the once over at a housewarming
party he held when he took possession of a roof flat near his ‘Dressing Station’ in
Malta Dockyard where he was one of the doctors. He had been in and out of Malta
in his destroyer during ‘Operation Husky’ - our invasion of Sicily - and said he had
admired Joyce and me from afar. He was a conceited chap and paid dearly for it.
He had the nerve to arrive at our flat one evening in his ‘number ones’ and asked me
to tie his bow tie for him . He was taking a Naval nursing sister to a dance and I
would have quite liked to have been asked to go to it. They had hardly arrived at the
Marsa Club when a phone call stopped him in his tracks .
“Surgeon Lieutenant MacDonald , you are required to attend an Able Seaman R for
Robert , S-O-U-L , at his home . He is bleeding badly from a haemorrhoid.”
John had to leave his nursing partner and spent a couple of hours at the other end of
Malta fruitlessly searching for an address which did not exist. Then the penny
dropped. That name!! And who could have sent him on this wild goose chase?
Who indeed!! Next week he took me swimming in The Blue Grotto , challenged me
to a race up a cliff , which I won , and then proposed marriage . Ten days later we
were wed , and a fortnight after that he was off to the Far East . Japan surrendered
when his warship was revitalling in the Seychelles , and back he came to me - with a
ginger beard that I did not like!
“But I must have my captain’s permission to shave off ,” he argued .
“I am your captain now!”
That was 59 years ago and I still love him to bits.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Revisiting Renes' War

Posted on: 31 May 2004 by maltamade

Our mother Rene MacDonald nee Robinson and father John MacDonald have seen all five of their offspring return to Malta collectively or individually, to revisit the scenes of her wartime memories. My own family have returned five times and will (dv) do so several times again.

We heard a lot in our early years about the good times, but - probably typical of the stoicism of their generation - our parents generally avoided discussing the true horrors until much later in life, when they felt that their story should not simply be lost forever.

For those seeking to research WW2 the Island obviously has many highlights, with the quite recently reopened Lascaris War Rooms deep in the Valletta rock, an unmissable location......even if some of the reconstructed room scenes there don't quite tally with Rene's recollections of her working time there!

My grandfather also arrived quite coincidentally on Malta in the middle of the war, courtesy of his Alexandria-bound hospital ship being torpedoed from under him. He set up a military hospital, where a young Maltese doctor called Censu Tabone (later to become President of Malta) became a lifelong friend. And it is the courtesy, warmth and honesty of the Maltese people which keeps us coming back!

Message 1 - Breconshire

Posted on: 01 June 2004 by Irenerobinson

The 'Peter' who was my sister Joyce's fiance married her in 1944. He had been (until the fast supply ship Breconshire was bombed and sunk) one of her radio officers. Another was John Lancaster Smith - "I am now going to the bathroom" Smith - who thus informed the Vincenti Buildings household about his imminent use of the 'small room'. This was his courtesy warning to my family that our emergency supply of water (in the bath) would be temporarily unobtainable! Are you with us John?


Message 2 - Breconshire

Posted on: 09 June 2004 by Irenerobinson

Radio Officer Peter Bird and Joyce Robinson have three children - Peter, Ann and Alison. Rene Robinson has five. We would welcome contact with Breconshire men who remember the family Robinson in Malta.

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