Malta: A journey back to the days when Britannia ruled the waves
* It’s not hard to see why the British were so interested in holding on to Malta. Like a succession of naval powers before them – from the Phoenicians, to the Romans, to the Knights of St John - they recognised the strategic importance of the island. Set in the very heart of the Mediterranean, at the intersection of the great trade routes, with a natural complex of harbours, it is the perfect location for control of the Mediterranean sea lanes, and for the repair of damaged ships.
It has been besieged twice: once by the Ottoman Turks in 1565, and once by the Axis powers from 1940-43. The resilience and bravery of the Maltese people is legendary. On the 15th of April 1942, after a relentless bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe, during which more bombs were dropped on the island in one month than had been dropped on London during the whole of the blitz, the Maltese people were awarded the George Cross for bravery.
The citation by George IV reads: "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."
It is interesting that the Maltese flag carries an image of the George Cross rather than the Maltese Cross, and it serves to emphasise the on-going connection between the people of the two islands.
In 1798 Napoleon came to Malta. Recognising its strategic importance in the heart of the Mediterranean, he left a garrison of some 4,000 troops to occupy the island. By 1800 the Maltese had had enough of the godless French and called on the British for help. The British set up a naval blockade, and after some protracted negotiations Bony's troops agreed to go.
The way the Maltese tell the story, they were so pleased with the departure of the French that they decided to have a drink to celebrate. They invited the British in to join them. It was a very long drink. It lasted the better part of 200 years.*
Malta gained her independence in 1964, and became a republic in 1974. The last British troops left in 1979. Nevertheless there is still a strong British flavour to the island, what with the red telephone boxes and the red pillar boxes, the three pin electric plugs and the fact that they drive on the left. Everyone speaks almost perfect English – it is the official second language on the island - and the Maltese often choose English-sounding Christian names, such as Jim or Joanna.
They also have a taste for bacon and eggs, tea with milk and a Sunday roast.
But there is another way that the people of the two island nations are connected. Generations of British servicemen were stationed in Malta. As one Maltese person put it: they saw the sparkling dark eyes and the glistening black hair of the Maltese girls, and they fell in love. Almost everyone has a relative in the UK, and has visited it at some point. Expect long conversations about your home county while you are there. Chances are that the person you are talking to will have a relative living nearby.
Many British people will have fond memories of Malta, whether of their time as service men and women stationed on the island, or the wives, husbands or children who were brought over to join them.
I’m one of the latter. I was on the island from 1957 to 1959, from age four, to age six, and have many distinct memories of my time there.
Ex service people who were stationed on Malta will find much that they would still recognise. One notable site is the Bighi Hospital in Kalkara, which every British service person will have been forced to visit to receive their inoculations. It is now the Institute of Conservation for Heritage Malta: “a hospital for sick objects” as the manager of the books, paper, textiles and painting conservation section, Joseph Schiro, told me.
It was built in the 1830s to a design by Sir George Whitmore. Work was completed in 1832 and it served as a hospital through all of the major wars after that, when Malta became renowned as “the nurse of the Mediterranean”. It is built in the Doric style, and there is much that is reassuringly British about its appearance. It remained in use as a hospital until 1970.
In the centre of the grounds is an octagonal conservatory known as “the smoking shed”. It is where generations of sick soldiers and sailors would have repaired for a shifty cigarette. Visitors may walk around the outside of the building and view the grounds, but would have to make an appointment to see inside.
Another important place to visit would be the Malta Maritime Museum, in Vittoriosa. Housed in what was once the fleet bakery, it is an impressively large building: not surprising given the number of ships and men it had to feed in its day. Inside you can find many reminders of the British naval presence on the island, including an imposing figurehead of the HMS Hibernia representing the Irish Dagda, a sea god. You will also be lead through a history of Malta’s naval heritage going back more than 2,000 years.
One of the exhibits concerns Operation Pedestal, which is an important reminder of Malta’s significance in the history of the Second World War. It shows a photograph of a damaged oil tanker, the Ohio, limping into the Grand Harbour, broken backed and buoyed up by two minesweepers. The ships arrived on August the 15th 1942, the Feast of the Assumption, and was consequently named the Santa Maria Convoy by the ever devout Maltese. The Ohio contained enough oil to re-supply the island, allowing British forces to continue attacking supply ships to Rommel’s army during his assault on El Alamein. It is considered by many to be the turning point in the war.
Strait Street cultural foundation
There is a newly formed Strait Street (Stretta Strada) cultural foundation which is working to revive the old spirit of 'The Gut' but this time with emphasis on art and culture. For details contact Jesmond Xuereb on firstname.lastname@example.org
Another place of interest for visitors looking for British naval connections, would be the Ta’ Braxia Cemetery in Pieta, where a number of graves of British merchant seamen and their families are located. One particularly poignant grave is carved into the shape of a neatly made bed, with a coverlet and a pillow, with a seaman’s cap laid on top. It’s as if the occupant has just returned from a journey and has slung his cap on the bed before retiring for the night.
A place that all British servicemen will certainly remember is Strait Street, Strada Stretta, in Valletta, universally known as “The Gut”. I say “British servicemen” rather than “men and women” at this point, because it would have been men rather than women who went down this notorious street. It was the city’s red-light district. But it was more than this too. It was full of bars and theatres and dance halls, as well as traders and street girls, and it was the place where the Maltese first heard jazz music, and danced face-to-face in the ballroom style.
Unfortunately it is virtually derelict now, a shadow of its former self. There are a few broken neon signs as a sad reminder of its former glory and apparently, according to some reports, some of the bars are still there, behind the shutters and the boarded up windows, the ancient optics still flicker with a ghostly gleam, like reliquaries of the good times gone by.
The only establishment from the old days still trading is a tattoo parlour, run by the third generation of the same family. It fought on as the Royal Navy came and went, through good times and bad. Now, with a new plan to turn Strait Street into a centre for the arts, it could be facing it's biggest battle yet.
Malta is a perfect holiday destination, whether you like beaches and bars or baroque architecture, but for a nostalgic journey into British Service history, it is unique.
Places to stay:
Valletta Boutique Guest House
21, Merchant Street, Valletta.
Tel: (00356) 77111110
Fax: (00356) 27012345
A charming little guest house in the heart of Valletta, five minutes walk from the bus station and within sight of St John’s Co-Cathedral: I can’t recommend it highly enough. Friendly people, spacious rooms, affordable price, great restaurant. But bring your earplugs: the Cathedral bells chime every quarter of an hour throughout the night.
Around the Island:
Holiday Lettings have Villas and apartments throughout the island
I stayed in Mellieha in the North, in a comfortable apartment within walking distance of the bus stop and the shops:
A great place to explore the island.
More on Malta by CJ Stone
- Travel: Holidays in Malta for the Children of British Service Personnel
Are you an ex-member of the British Armed Forces once stationed in Malta? Or are you the child of a British serviceman or woman, who spent time in Malta? Then why not revive old memories and visit Malta for a holiday?