War-torn Malta hosts royal visit 70 years ago
Life was far from normal. The fear of attacks was still there. As soon as Tripoli in Libya fell into the Allies’ hands on January 23, 1943, there remained no more hope for Germany. In Malta, this news was approved with joy.
There were only five air strikes in February 1943. The war, however, further aggravated elsewhere, as happened in Italy. Malta became a hub for a large number of war vessels from which aircraft were flown with a specific task: that of attacking other lands.
In June 1943, King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II, visited the Allies in North Africa. On his way back to England, he expressed his wish to visit Malta. Sunday, June 20, 1943, was a memorable day for Malta and a wonderful day in the history of Senglea.
At 5am, the Information Office, through the Rediffusion Relay System, announced the unexpected news that the island of Malta was about to be honoured by the King’s presence. In fact, His Majesty the King was about to enter the Grand Harbour on the cruiser HMS Aurora for a short stay in Malta.
Very soon, people ran and crammed all vantage points around the Grand Harbour to welcome the King. Some literally perched on bastion edges and on buildings damaged by bombs. The national flag was hoisted to the poles, alongside that of the UK. Portraits of the King and of the Royal Family were hung everywhere. People waited and looked out to the horizon, as they likewise did a few months earlier when they witnessed the entry of the tattered survivors of the Santa Maria Convoy.
As they waited, they could hardly believe that the King would be sailing through a hostile sea, with enemy air bases a mere 60 miles away. Escorted by four destroyers, and flying the Royal Standard at her masthead, the King’s cruiser slowly swung in towards the harbour entrance. There was a great tumultuous outburst of clapping and cheering as the HMS Aurora approached the arms of the breakwater.
The King, wearing a white naval uniform, was easily spotted. He was standing on a specially set platform. The bell of the historic church of St Angelo, dedicated to St Anne, gave the signal to all the bells of the churches of Valletta and of the Three Cities of Cottonera to join in and peal forth their welcome to the King. This further added to the cheerful atmosphere.
This was the time when Malta placed aside, and at least for a short while, the terrible reality of war. On that day, the King and the Maltese shared together joy and risk. The spontaneity and welcome impressed the King so much that when he left, he wrote in his diary: “A wonderful sight. Every bastion and every viewpoint lined with people who cheered as we entered. It was a very moving moment for me.”
The King was welcomed at Customs House by the Governor, Lord Gort. He stood saluting while the band of the Royal Malta Artillery played the national anthem. The King then inspected the guard of honour, under the command of Major H R Micallef.
As the King stepped into the waiting open royal car and drove off up the marina, there was a sudden rush of people who ran cheering after the car. Accompanied by the highest authorities of the three services, the King made his entrance into the city, amid the enthusiasm of the people. The demolished buildings served as a backdrop for that manifestation.
The enthusiasm reached its peak when the car arrived at Palace Square, which was packed to capacity and decorated with the standards of Britain, Malta and of the US. From the balcony of the Palace, the King paid tribute to the large crowd gathered in the square who waved hats and handkerchiefs to the white-clad saluting figure on the balcony. Without doubt this was a great ovation and an outpouring of emotions after long months of resistance and suffering throughout the dark days of bombardment and siege. The joyful peal of the bells of St John’s Co-Cathedral and of other churches mingled with the cheers of the people.
The royal car emerged from the Palace on to Palace Square and, led by an escort of Police, made its way up to densely packed Kingsway. Then, the King proceeded to the Dockyard. At Corradino Gate, he was received by Vice-Admiral Power who then presented Rear-Admiral Kenneth Mackenzie, the Admiral Superintendent of the Dockyard.
The King, with his escort, visited the long workshop tunnels. There, the King received a rousing welcome from the men whose work had never failed in spite of the most devastating air attacks on the Dockyard area. The ruins of demolished buildings and twisted machinery bore silent witness to the circumstances under which the work at the Dockyard had been maintained.
Emerging from the tunnels, the royal car drove to the Dockyard Gate at Sheer Bastion and the King was taken to the Dockyard Terrace Gate in Senglea. There, the Lieutenant Governor presented the Canon Emmanuel Brincat, the Archpriest of Senglea, Vivian Dillon, who was the Regional Protection Officer of the city, and Lawrence Farrugia, his assistant. The inhabitants of Senglea thronged to the narrow streets, among the ruins of their homes, and welcomed the King with flags and banners. The bells of the heavily attacked Senglea Basilica rang a steadfast welcome.
Canon Brincat wrote in his recollections: “We escorted the King, proceeding to Victory Street, from Anne Street and St Peter and St Paul. He gave a sad look to the rubble in the streets where he passed through, seeing all those ruins, which once had been houses of character and magnificent palaces.” Canon Brincat had been informed of the royal visit since the day before but he was obliged to keep silent about this.
In his diary, King George wrote: “The parish of Senglea just above the dockyard is a mere shell and I met the RC priest (Canon Brincat) who did all he could for his parishioners. Most of his flock are now evacuated, as they cannot live there. Only 80 killed.”
Senglea was the only place outside Valletta where the King alighted from his car and went on foot together with the crowd. The King gave a long gaze upon the sad sight of Victory Street, demolished, like the rest of Senglea. At Victory Street, the archpriest asked His Majesty to listen to a few words of welcome. The King graciously consented.
This was the short message delivered by Canon Brincat: “Your Majesty’s visit to Senglea is a mark of distinction and a kingly, which means fatherly, attention to the people of this heavily blitzed city and we appreciate this gesture of kindness to the extent of forgetting, for a moment, all our sufferings and the long ordeal we have gone through for the cause of liberty and justice.
“In voicing the gratitude of my parishioners and my own, I beseech Your Majesty not to forget Senglea and the loyalty and filial devotion of this people. Our heart’s cry will always be: Long live our King! Long live the Empire!”
The crowd echoed the archpriest’s words, shouting: “Long live King George.”
Then, down through St Lawrence Street, the archpriest and the thrilled crowd led the King to the Dockyard Terrace Gate where the royal car was coming up. The BBC radio station mentioned the archpriest’s welcoming words and said they were pronounced in broken English. Everyone felt disappointed at that unfitting comment.
On June 25, 1943, Canon Brincat sent a letter to Lieutenant Governor Sir David Campbell whereby he expressed his appreciation to the Governor for the honour and the opportunity he was given in accompanying His Majesty during the Royal Visit to Senglea.
Canon Brincat added: “Nor would have I ever expected that in last Wednesday’s News Reel there should be any comment, broadcasted by the BBC, about the language used in my address. The commentator might well have said that the address was delivered in tones rather broken by emotions but not in a rather broken English.”
With a deep sense of respect and humility, Canon Brincat ended his letter by writing: “I beg to promise to your Honour that far from getting disheartened by the unkind remark, I will continue to strive and to do my best to promote the welfare and wellbeing of the Empire in general and of this island in particular.
“I will also do everything in my power to improve my knowledge of the English language.”
In his reply to Canon Brincat, on June 28, 1943, Sir David wrote: “I can assure you that I thought it an excellently worded message, and that it never occurred to me that the English was not of a high standard.”
After his visit to Senglea and on his way to Verdala Palace, the King was able to see the enormous devastation left after months of blitz. At Verdala Palace, where Lord Gort was living, a dinner was held in honour of the King. The triumphal tour of the King lasted for about 20 hours. After he re-embarked on the Aurora, His Majesty left Malta into the night. It was a heartening visit that continued to strengthen the morale of the Maltese.