Valletta - Queuing for cigarettes in front of the bomb-damaged Magisterial Palace on St. George's Square.

MALTA AT WAR I : Conscription, Rationing and the Mediterranean Campaigns

This series of articles commemorating the 70th anniversary of Malta’s role World War II recalls the situation after the end of the blitz on HMS Illustrious in January 1941 and the heavy Luftwaffe attacks on the island which continued until May of that year, the introduction of rationing, conscription and the war in the Mediterranean.

The German air raids on Malta were on a much larger scale than those carried by the Regia Aeronautica between June 11 and December 1940. The highest number of air raid alerts, 107, was in February 1941; there were 105 in March, 92 in April and 98 in May.

In February 1941, the government decided to introduce general rationing. The system adopted was already in force in the north of Malta under the Marquis Barbaro of St George, who had devised the system and who was appointed Food Distribution Officer.

The first commodities rationed were sugar, matches, soap and coffee, and the scheme came into force on April 7, 1941. Later, other items, such as cigarettes, were rationed too.

Laurence Mizzi has written several books on wartime reminiscences by people who suffered hardship and deprivation, as did the rest of the population, because of lack of foodstuffs, which forced the authorities to introduce rations.

Dolores Penza’s family had to leave Cospicua, one of the Three Cities which bore the brunt of enemy air raids, and went to live in Luqa. Her husband was a head-teacher, so when he arrived at Luqa he took charge of the local primary school. He was also Luqa Protection Officer:

“One of my husband’s jobs was to organise the rationing and distribution of food in the village. Before that, large crowds would gather outside the shops, but with the rationing system everyone was sure of getting their share.”

Pawlu Aquilina recalls: “When one lived in the countryside, one could usually find something to eat although staple foods like flour, pasta and sugar were very scarce. Although there were no smokers in the family, we regularly claimed our ration of cigarettes so we could exchange them for flour and sugar with those who could not do without smoking.”

As the danger of an enemy invasion increased it was decided to introduce national conscription. Regulations were published in the Government Gazette of February 20, 1941.

All men aged between 18 and 41 were subject to service in the armed forces while provision was made for the conscription of men between 16 and 56 to render service, not necessarily military.
It was made clear that conscripted men would not be called upon to serve outside Malta.

C.H. Sansom was appointed Director of Compulsory Service. Malta was divided into 10 sections with a conscription centre for each. The first group was called for March 3, 1941.

Gejtu Grech recalls: “A few days after my 18th birthday the local police sergeant called at our house and told my mother I was to consider myself under arrest. He explained to my terrified mother that though I had been repeatedly instructed by post to report at the drafting office, I had failed to turn up and in wartime such behaviour was serious. My mother immediately confessed that as she did not like the idea that I would be called up for military service she used to tear up the draft papers without telling me.

“Luckily the sergeant was a regular customer at the barber shop where I worked. He knew me well and was prepared to bend the regulations somewhat for my sake. He told me he would take no further action provided I reported at the office on the morrow.

“Early next morning I found several other young men queuing up outside. After going through the formalities and the medical test we were told to board an army truck which was to take us to Gozo…”

At the same time Malta’s garrison was reinforced. On February 21, 1941, the 1st Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment arrived from Egypt. Their task was to protect the Grand Harbour and Dockyard, and also to repair RAF airfields after air raids. Two days later the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment arrived on the island, and detachments were stationed in Gudja, Żurrieq, Safi airstrip and Mqabba.

Operation Compass was the first major Allied military operation of the Western Desert campaign fought between December 1940 and February 1941. British and Commonwealth forces under General Wavell advanced from Egypt to central Libya, capturing 115,000 Italian prisoners, and destroying thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, and aeroplanes, while suffering very few casualties.

Wavell was ordered to assign a significant portion of his corps to support Greece. Hitler responded to the Italian disaster in North Africa by deploying the newly formed Deutsches Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel.

Rommel’s first offensive started on March 24, 1941. He quickly defeated the Allied forces at El Agheila and then launched an offensive that, by April 15, pushed the British forces back to the border at Sollum, recapturing all Libya except Tobruk. Several attempts to seize Tobruk failed and the front line stabilised at the border.

Luftwaffe bombers dropped various bombs types on Malta, including aerial mines, contact mines and magnetic mines. The latter resulted in the sinking of several ships, as on April 8, 1941 when the m.v. Moor, which was employed as a boom defence vessel, hit a mine and exploded at 5.15 p.m.

The ship broke up and sank instantly. Of the 29 men on board only one survived, diver Toni Mercieca, who was picked up by a boat from the gate-vessel Westgate and conveyed to Bighi Naval Hospital.

After Italian attempts to subdue Greece failed, Hitler decided to intervene in the Balkans. On April 6, 1941, Axis forces and their Hungarian and Bulgarian allies invaded Yugoslavia from all sides and the Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade.

The Axis victory was swift. Yugoslavia surrendered in only 11 days on April 17, 1941, and was subsequently divided among Germany, Hungary, Italy and Bulgaria.

German armies then invaded Greece, and some 50,000 British and Commonwealth forces (who were helping the Greeks) had to be evacuated. The evacuation was completed on April 30, but was heavily contested by the Luftwaffe. The Germans captured around 8,000 Commonwealth soldiers.

The British Admiralty decided to base several naval units in Malta to attack Axis convoys to Libya. Four destroyers of the 14th Flotilla – HMS Jervis, HMS Janus, HMS Nubian and HMS Mohawk, known as Force K – were sent to Malta under the command of Captain Mack, arriving on April 11, 1941.

The first success of Force K was the sinking of the Tarigo convoy off Kerkennah Islands on April 16. But the British lost HMS Mohawk.

When, on April 28, Force K was returning from a night excursion they found the 5th Destroyer Flotilla, made up of HMS Kelly, HMS Kashmir, HMS Kelvin, HMS Jersey and HMS Jackal, commanded by Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, in Grand Harbour.

Malta was to experience a respite in attacks in mid-May 1941, when the Luftwaffe started transferring its units from Sicily; eventually, most the units of Fliegerkorps X were moved either to Greek airfields or Crete. Other units were transferred to Eastern Europe for the invasion of the Soviet Union which began on June 22.

The Regia Aeronautica quickly recovered the Sicilian airfields used by the Luftwaffe, and on May 22 Italian warplanes bombed Luqa. Meanwhile, in North Africa too, the situation was not going well for the Allies. In May 15, the British and Commonwealth forces launched Operation Brevity as a rapid blow against the weakened Axis front, but it failed to reach its aims.

The German High Command decided to invade Crete, rather than Malta, in order to secure the Balkans against British attacks on the Ploesti oilfields in Romania and also as a forward base for the invasion of Cyprus, with a final descent on the Suez Canal.

The German invasion of Crete started on May 20, 1941, with heaving strafing and bombing by waves of Luftwaffe dive-bombers and low-flying fighters. Although the Commonwealth forces defended their positions bravely causing heavy casualties on the German paratroops, the cause was hopeless and on May 27 the evacuation of the troops began. Over four nights’ 16,000 troops were evacuated to Egypt by the Royal Navy. During the evacuation Luftwaffe dive-bombers sank a number of Royal Navy ships, including HMS Kelly, where 128 survivors, including Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, were rescued.

More than 9,000 Anzacs and thousands of Greeks were left behind. By June 1, 1941, Crete was under German control.

Meanwhile, the naval war continued and in late May a Malta-based submarine, HMS Upholder, under the command of Lieutenant Commander David Wanklyn, scored another success, after it sighted an Italian convoy consisting of the liners Conte Rosso and Victoria and the transports Marco Polo and Esperia packed with Italian troops, sailing past Syracuse.
Upholder aimed at Conte Rosso and sank the ship. In all 1,212 men perished and 1,520 were rescued.

Mr Debono is the curator of the National War Museum, Valletta.

This article first appeared on the Sunday Times of Malta of October 16th 2011:

Cospicua Parish war damage

Cospicua Parish war damage

Victory Kitchen

Victory Kitchen