Declaration of war put Malta on alert though not in action
Seventy years ago today, as London's Big Ben struck 11.15 a.m., the Maltese heard on Rediffusion, the cable radio network the British Prime Minister officially declaring war on Nazi Germany.
Adolf Hitler's regime had ignored Britain's ultimatum to withdraw Germany's attack on Poland by 11 a.m. on September 3, 1939 and World War II broke out.
Yet, despite the gravity of the news, the Maltese did not fully absorb the reality of the threat that was veiled by the comfort of distance. But the people's peace of mind was shattered a year later when Italy declared war on Britain and France and turned colonial Malta into a bomb target.
Thinking back to those difficult times, Joseph Scicluna, 90, recalled that when the war broke out Malta was not affected too badly. "But when Italy joined in, it was a different matter. I remember I was listening to the radio at Paola square when I heard (Italian Prime Minister Benito) Mussolini declare Italy was at war," recalled Mr Scicluna, who was then a 20-year-old teacher.
"Soon after, the school headmaster called me and told me I was to expel a boy for misbehaving. I turned to him and told him such matters did not matter any longer as all schools would be closed. The war had arrived to Malta.
"There was a lot of fear. People started speaking about sheltering under the stairs or under tables. The next morning three Italian planes flew over the island and bombed us. I was shocked when dead people were laid in the yard of the police station in Tarxien, where I lived. I had never seen a dead man before that day," Mr Scicluna recalled.
Bombs were a common occurrence during the war as Malta became the world's most bombed country, historian Joseph Pirotta said.
Although civilians did not feel as threatened when the British first declared war in 1939, on an official level the fear was real as Italy's involvement was inevitable, Prof. Pirotta said.
Malta was one of Britain's most important naval bases and, when Mussolini declared war in June 1940, it was clear the island would become a main target. Prof. Pirotta added that Malta was completely unprepared for war as the British did not take precautions.
When the war was declared, 17-year-old Louis Radmilli was studying to sit for his exam to join the Royal Malta Artillery. He received a letter requesting him to join before he sat for the test, which he did.
"We did not really feel the brunt of the war for the first year. Malta started feeling it when Italy joined the war a year later... Of course, being part of the artillery, I saw it coming... We were practically on the go all the time," Capt. Radmilli recalled.
He and his friend, Maurice Petrocochino, were both soldiers in the artillery. "I was 17 then. Soon after Italy's declaration, I headed to the house of my Italian girlfriend. But she had left," he recalled.
"It was a hard time. It was not easy. We were hungry. But it was also an exciting time. I remember children going around collecting pieces of fallen aircraft," Mr Petrocochino said.
He burst into a chuckle as he recalled how once, during artillery training, he mistakenly shot down a friendly aircraft due to inexperience. "Thank goodness the pilot ejected in time," he said.
"I remember after some time I was stationed at the St Paul's Bay headquarters, where the Gillieru restaurant now stands. It was impressive to see the Italian fleet sail into Maltese waters," recalled Mr Petrocochino, now 87.
Like Mr Petrocochino, 81-year-old Tony Caruana did not remember Malta having been too affected by war in the first year.
"I remember reading in the papers that Germany had attacked the Poles. The trouble started when Italy joined... I remember I was on my way to Mass at St Patrick's in Sliema one morning, at about 7.20 a.m., when the air raids started. It was terrifying," he said.
The beginning of the war, that killed about 60 million people worldwide, was commemorated on Tuesday in Poland in a ceremony held to mark the 70th anniversary since Germany invaded the country.
"Poland wants September 1, 1939 to remain etched in the world's memory as the beginning of the greatest tragedy of the 20th century," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said during the event at which world leaders from several nations were gathered. On that day, at 4.45 a.m., a German battleship on a goodwill visit opened fire in a port in Gdansk, then called Danzig, triggering six years of global warfare. Britain gave Germany two days to withdraw troops but this was not respected and, on September 3, 1939 war was declared.
"This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed to the German government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 a.m. that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us," British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had said in an emotional speech delivered from the Cabinet room at 10 in Downing Street, London on September 3 at 11.15 a.m.