History

The courageous women who stepped up in defence of Malta

Eighty years after the country was awarded the George Cross, we honour all those who defended the island.

As German and Italian forces relentlessly bombed Malta to gain control of the island 80 years ago, they weren't prepared for the bravery and fortitude of the population, especially the women who, up until this point, didn't have the right to vote and whose sole role was that of wife and mother. 

Conscription was enforced in Malta in 1941, so men had to join the fighting force but the work at home still needed to be done. This is when women of all ages, some as young as 14, stepped up and became the motor that kept the engine of the country running. 

They went underground to work in the secret nerve centre of operations against the enemy as plotters and radio operators, worked at the docks, entertained the troops, transported aircraft to Malta and much more. 

King George VI was so impressed by the valour of the women, men and children of Malta that on 15 April 1942, he bestowed a George Cross upon the island to honour the heroism and courage of the island's population which, by that point, was 22 months into a brutal bombing campaign inflicted by Italian and German air and naval forces. 

George-Cross King George VI 15 April 1942 Malta 80th anniversary Picture BFBS
The George Cross awarded by King George VI to Malta on 15 April 1942 (Picture: BFBS).

Both Italy and Germany wished to take control of the strategically important Mediterranean island of Malta – which was a British colony until it was declared independent on 21 September 1964 – because it was a base for Allied warships and planes used to disrupt the enemy's vital supply lines to North Africa. 

Speaking to Jess Bracey, broadcaster at BFBS the Forces Station, of the fateful day Malta was attacked, James Hamburger of the Lascaris War Rooms in Malta, said: "On 11 June 1940... we have the first Italian raids over Malta, which results in the first casualties. 

"Naturally, the reaction of the civilian population at the time was one of shock. They could not believe that Italy had, indeed, attacked Malta." 

Watch: Why was Malta awarded a George Cross?

Now, 80 years on from the seemingly never-ending horror faced by the women, men and children of Malta, and the awarding of the George Cross, BFBS the Forces Station is honouring all who played their part in defending the island in a five-part audio special. 

You will hear about the vital role women played in defence of Malta and the Lascaris War Rooms, the secret nerve centre of operations against the enemy which was located 45m underground.

Plus, you will hear of the dark day Malta endured a greater tonnage of bombs than in any one month during the Battle of Britain. 

The Saluting Battery artillery battery in Valletta Malta George Cross 80th anniversary Picture BFBS
The Saluting Battery is an artillery battery in Valletta, Malta.

The Siege Of Malta 

The island was besieged from June 1940 to November 1942, leaving the population starving, hiding underground in fear and ready to surrender.

Joseph Galea Debono, President of the George Cross Island Association, spoke of the relentless and deadly Siege of Malta, explaining just how serious conditions were for the islanders, saying: "The siege peaked in the first six months of 1942, when things had become very, very, very serious. 

"Supplies were scarce, no munitions left, no fuel left. No food, basically, no medicines and the island was on the point of surrendering when there was almost 24-hour bombing day and night, day after day." 

Ultimately, the Maltese population was under-supplied and unprepared for an attack of this level – exactly what the Italian forces were pinning their hopes on. It was expected that Malta would surrender within a matter of three to four weeks.

Listen: Jess Bracey speaks to Joseph Galea Debono, President of the George Cross Island Association, about the Siege of Malta.

But they endured and were supported by troops from Allied countries including the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and British Army, who undertook the bulk of the fighting. The islands were defended. 

However, it wasn't just serving personnel who defended the island, the Maltese civilian population also played a significant role as James explains, saying: "We had Maltese men filling up potholes in airfields, you had Maltese individuals employed within air raid shelters as Wardens, ARPs, anything of the sort." 

Image ID E1CTHB Rock shelters at Malta protect the population from German bombardment during Second World War WW2 CREDIT Everett Collection Inc Alamy Stock Photo
Rock shelters at Malta protect the population from German bombardment during the Second World War (Picture: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo).

The heroic women who defended Malta 

Just like the determined women of Britain who became known as Land Girls – an army of women who worked the fields to keep Britons fed during both the First and Second World War – the women of Malta took action to help defend their homeland. 

Journalist, writer and researcher of the documentary series 'Women Of The George Cross Island', Kim Dalli spoke to Jess (in the audio top) about their major contribution and why it is important to understand what the socio-economic environment was like at that time. She said: "Women in Malta did not have the right to vote and the role of women was very clearly defined. 

"A woman's place was very strictly in the house, in the home. 

"She was to be married, she was to be a mother and homemaker and that's it." 

Maltese women were eventually given the right to vote in 1947 – five years after the end of the Siege of Malta and the crucial role they played in its defence. 

 

Christina Ratcliffe from the UK was one of thousands of women who stepped forward to make her mark. She was performing as a cabaret artist in a club in Malta when the bombing campaign began. 

Trapped in Malta, she formed a troop called the Whizz Bangs with other artists who began touring Malta to entertain the troops in the hope of raising morale. Kim added: "Christina went even further in her war efforts. 

"She joined to become a plotter at Lascaris War Rooms. She was actually promoted to captain of her watch." 

For her war efforts, Christina was decorated with a British Empire Medal. 

Listen: Jess Bracey speaks to James Hamburger of the Lascaris War Rooms in Malta about the underground nerve centre of the war.

The impromptu plotter was joined in the Lascaris War Rooms by dozens of Maltese and British civilian women between the ages of 18 and 21 who became plotting staff, radio and telephone operators etc.

James of the Lascaris War Rooms said: "They played a tremendous role in the ultimate victory in the battle for Malta. 

"Naturally, if a plotter made a mistake on the plotting table that could reflect in unnecessary casualties up in the air. 

"We know, for example, the youngest girl to work inside this room was 14 years old at the time. 

"Incredible youths were forced down here, doing their best, giving their all to ensure the ultimate victory over the skies of the island." 

From below the ground to in the air, heroic women also made it into the history books as pilots. 

At the start of the brutal bombing campaign in 1940, Malta only had three Gloster Gladiator biplanes flying in its defence – named Faith, Hope and Charity.  

Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park, whose calm judgment, clever tactics and skill helped us win the Battle of Britain, came and changed the way the skies over Malta were defended. 

Ray Polidano, Director General of the Malta Aviation Museum, explained AVM Sir Park's plan to Jess, saying: "He ordered the Spitfire pilots to work to attack the bombers when they were coming in so they were heavily laden with bombs and, obviously, if they shoot down in the enemy in the channel, they wouldn't be able to drop bombs on the island." 

Lascaris War Rooms plotting table Malta George Cross 80th anniversary Picture BFBS
The Lascaris War Rooms plotting table.

Under this new leadership, there were fresh tactics, quicker take-off times and improved radar systems but to achieve this success, the island needed more aircraft. 

In stepped women like Benedetta Willis, who was one of 168 Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) women whose role was to transport aircraft like Spitfires. Ray said: "They used to collect aircraft from the factories and take them wherever they wanted to go. 

"In fact, Benedetta, when she went on her honeymoon, she actually went in aircraft to the Isle of Wight. 

"Even the Spitfires that were brought to Malta in May of 1942, they were actually delivered, all the way up to Scotland, by ATA pilots. 

"Quite an important operation because if they weren't delivered to Scotland to be placed on board, they wouldn't have arrived to Malta." 

Ray says that one Polish female pilot stole an aircraft from Poland when it was overtaken by the Germans, flew it to Romania and then onwards to England to fly with No. 88 Squadron RAF. 

The courageous efforts of women during the war contributed to the islands being honoured in an incredibly unique way on 15 April 1942. 

Image ID DRAA98 children play in a street during the Siege Of Malta CREDIT Chronicle Alamy Stock Photo
Children play in a bombed street during the Siege of Malta (Picture: Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo).

The George Cross 

To give the Maltese population a boost of morale and recognise their bravery, King George VI awarded the George Cross to the whole island. This was the first time the medal had been awarded to more than one person and has only happened twice since. 

A George Cross was given to the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1999 for being "the bulwark against, and the main target of, a sustained and brutal terrorism campaign" during 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland.

The Queen also awarded the George Cross to the National Health Service in 2021 for supporting "the people of our country with courage, compassion and dedication, demonstrating the highest standards of public service".

George-Cross King George VI 15 April 1942 Malta 80th anniversary Picture BFBS
The George Cross awarded by King George VI to Malta on 15 April 1942.

On 15 April 1942, King George VI wrote the following on Buckingham Palace-headed notepaper to the men, women and children of Malta: 

"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." 

Because of the bombing campaign against the island and the starvation of the people, celebrations were put on hold until September 1943, when air raids had momentarily subsided enough to enable people to gather in front of the palace in Valletta, to witness receiving the George Cross. 

Listen: Jess Bracey speaks to Ray Polidano, Director General of the Malta Aviation Museum about the iconic warplanes that flew over Malta during the Second World War.

Malta's war in the air 

Malta's main adversary in the air was Jagdgeschwader 53, a Luftwaffe fighter-wing of the Second World War. They flew Messerschmitt fighter aircraft that were, in some ways, a match for the RAFs Spitfire but at low altitude, the latter was far superior. 

Improved radar systems meant that information from above ground could be used by plotters in the Lascari War Rooms to decide what action to take next against the enemy. 

This intelligence was crucial to winning the Siege of Malta because it affected what happened over the skies of the island. 

At the end of the campaign, 241 confirmed enemy aircraft were destroyed thanks to the bravery of the pilots in the sky and the task force in the plotting room – many of them were women and girls. 

Malta Imtarfa Military Cemetery Commonwealth War Graves George Cross 80th anniversary Picture BFBS
Imtarfa Military Cemetery, Malta.

How does Malta remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice?

Throughout Malta, there are signs of remembrance across the island. The George Cross itself is engraved on the national flag. 

But, nestled in the town of Imtarfa is one of three Commonwealth War Grave sites in the country. 

Imtarfa Military Cemetery is a tranquil site where soldiers, sailors, airmen, women and children are laid to rest. 

Jess spoke to Elaine Zerafa, former Women's Royal Naval Service, who has been volunteering at Imtarfa Cemetery for three years. She does so to honour her grandfather who fought in the First World War and her father who fought in the Second World War. She said: "They came home. These people didn't. 

"I think the only country in the world where the whole population were given a medal and they should be proud that it flies on the Maltese flag. 

"I think as a nation they should be very proud of their fathers and grandfathers who fought so hard to keep Malta free in the Second World War." 

It was a thought shared by King George VI 80 years ago when he decided to bestow the George Cross upon Malta's population, in honour of their courage and fortitude. 

Listen: Jess Bracey speaks to Royal Navy veteran Elaine Zerafa who volunteers at Imtarfa Military Cemetery, Malta.

The full story of the Siege of Malta is featured in the latest episode of Tea & Medals – available from Friday 15 April wherever you get your podcasts.

Cover image: The women and men of the Lascaris War Rooms (Picture: The Lascaris War Rooms).