- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

FORTRESS MALTA: AN ISLAND UNDER SIEGE 1940-43

By James Holland

Miramax, $27.95, 479 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY CARLTON SHERWOOD

World War II in Europe is so endowed with stories of gallantry, self-sacrifice and stoic determination in the face of unspeakable horrors that only the passage of time seems to provide a vessel grand enough to contain them all. Six decades after the last shots were fired, literary audiences remain enthralled and, at once, bewildered by the apparent supernatural will of soldiers and civilians alike to persist and prevail under circumstances that truly push the limits of human endurance.

Many of those sagas — often the best — are set against the backdrop of familiar, historically monumental events, small tales of individual courage and derring-do amid epic struggles that have far-reaching global consequences. Stephen Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldier” and “Band of Brothers” come to mind. So potent were these nonfiction novels about ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances — the D-Day invasion and liberation of Europe — that 60 years later Mr. Ambrose’s literature defined an entire era and those who shaped it, “The Greatest Generation.”

No less powerful is James Holland’s “Fortress Malta: An Island Under Siege 1940-43.” This tiny — less than twice the size of Washington, D.C.— remote speck of land located near the center of the Mediterranean, about 60 miles south of Sicily, has the distinction of being the most bombed place on the planet. German and Italian war planes flew thousands of missions over Malta dropping more ordnance in just two months than on all of Britain in the first year of the Blitz. Malta, which became a republic in 1974, had been a British colony since 1814.

From June 1940, when the Axis assault began, until July 1943, the Maltese suffered through no less than 3,340 air raids, even while they endured simultaneous blockades from entire fleets of German and Italian surface warships and submarines and the constant threat of invasion.

Yet, despite all that and the terrible deprivations that accompanied the siege — starvation for one — the islanders, which numbered about 250,000, prevailed and triumphed to earn an honor unheard of in the long and storied history of the British Empire.

In April 1942, even as the siege continued, England’s King George VI awarded Malta the George Cross for Gallantry — the entire island and its inhabitants — an unprecedented, very un-English tribute for sustaining and surviving the most protracted siege in the history of British warfare.

Behind most great epic battles are the individual tales of human endurance and triumph, shards of tile that comprise the entire mosaic. Mr. Holland provides those with painstaking care, frequently overlapping the daily lives of his subjects in real time, minute by minute.

Through interviews with surviving British and American soldiers and civilians and thorough research of military records and private letters, the author fashions a remarkably, seamless historythat introduces his readers to dozens of unlikely characters, among those Christina Ratcliffe, a cabaret dancer turned RAF plotter and her dashing lover, RAF pilot Adrian Warburton.

There’s also the aptly named Canadian fighter pilot, Lt. George “Screwball” Beurling, who not only delighted in watching his adversaries crash and burn but was given to stunts like flying his Spitfire upside down the length of Malta’s harbor. In typical, reserved British fashion, Mr. Holland rarely hypes the extraordinary feats of his subjects; nor, does he shirk from their less than admiral actions and qualities — treachery, opportunism and outright stupidity.

But, in the end, it’s the breathtaking scope of the larger battlefield, the high-stakes at risk and the dire circumstances the Maltese found themselves in that provides Mr. Holland the realism and strength necessary to make this both a scholarly work and a gripping read.

Almost from the outset of the war, tiny Malta loomed large as a vexing problem for Germany. From its deepwater ports and airfields, located strategically between Europe and Africa, Allied planes and warships were positioned perfectly to wreck havoc with Adolf Hitler’s convoys carrying troops and supplies from Italy to North Africa.

In November 1941 alone, more than three-quarters of all Axis shipping supporting Germany’s Afrika Korps was sunk. Within hours of declaring war on Britain, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered his Regina Aeronautica to launch what would be the first of thousands of air raids on the Malta garrison. Had the Axis followed up on those initial attacks with naval bombardment and amphibious invasion forces, the sparsely defended island might well have been eliminated as a threat to Hitler’s North Africa campaign.

That blunder no doubt contributed greatly to Germany’s defeat prompting German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to gripe, uncharacteristically: “Malta has the lives of many thousands of German and Italian soldiers on its conscience.”

In response to Malta’s resistance, Hitler unleashed his Luftwaffe in early 1941 and bombs rained down on Malta for five months straight, day and night. Its towns, villages and harbors were left in ruins, the roads were impassable and the island’s electric, telephone and water systems ceased to exist. While Malta’s inhabitants held firm against the onslaught, cracks began to appear in Malta’s British military leadership which was having its doubts about the island’s increasing vulnerability.

At the helm of the beleaguered island outpost was Gen. Sir William Dobbie, a highly regarded British officer and governor. Following the 1941 blitz Dobbie wondered aloud, apparently too often to the wrong people, just how long Malta could hold out with reinforcements and precious supplies. That set off a chain of accusatory communiques with Winston Churchill, some penned by civilian islanders, including the editor of the Times of Malta, Mabel Strickland who seemed convinced Dobbie wanted to surrender.

Mr. Holland makes it clear in his meticulously researched book; no such action was ever contemplated by Dobbie who, he said, worked tirelessly urging London to provide much needed support in the form of supply convoys and the new Spitfire fighter planes.

Nonetheless, among his detractors was Dobbie’s air chief, British Air Vice-Marshal Hugh Pughe Lloyd who took every opportunity to undercut his commanding officer with private missives to 10 Downing St. The ploy worked and Dobbie was eventually relieved of command and Lloyd elevated to governor but not before two, back-to-back debacles sealed Dobbie’s fate.

The first occurred in March 1942 when, after six months of no supplies, a small convoy of four merchant ships set sail for Malta. One was sunk on the way but the other three arrived in port where, following days of dithering, they remained largely unloaded. All three were sunk at the dock by German bombers, their precious, desperately needed supplies sent to the bottom.

Lloyd, who was at least partially responsible for the snafu, blamed Dobbie in a scathing letter to Churchill. The loss, Lloyd wrote, was directly attributable to Dobbie’s “sheer ineptitude, lack of resolution and bomb-stunned brains incapable of thought.” If that wasn’t bad enough, a month later, the long-sought Spitfire’s made a surprise landing on Malta, 48 of them. Unprepared for their arrival, the planes remained on the tarmac and were in quickly bombed. Two days later, only seven survived. Lloyd, too, would eventually be relieved, save the indignities visited upon his boss who, Mr. Holland records bluntly, was stabbed in the back.

If, after reading “Fortress Malta” one gets the urge to visit there, be forewarned, it isn’t likely there will be many battlefield tours. Malta Websites rarely even give a mention to siege, preferring instead to promote Malta’s much older history, the remains of some of the world’s most striking Neolithic temples as well as some of the finest examples of Baroque and Renaissance art and architecture.

There are, of course, Malta’s wonderful beaches. If nothing more that may be the best place to read Mr. Holland’s book and try to visualize the island and its people during their finest hour.

Carlton Sherwood, a Pulitzer Prize and Peabody Award-winning investigative journalist, is executive vice-president of the WVC3 Group in Reston, Va.


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