January 16, 1941, was a momentous day for Malta, when the full fury of the Luftwaffe was unleashed for the first time on our island, on the Naval Dockyard and Cottonera. The story has often been told. Here I share my own experiences as a nine-year-old boy on that fateful day. Some days before, the aircraft carrier Illustrious, badly mauled, had limped into Grand Harbour and moored at Parlatorio wharf at the foot of Corradino hill.

I was in Standard III in Senglea government primary school, perched on the bastions above the docks. We had just started afternoon class when the sirens sounded an air raid warning. We marched out in double file to the public shelter close by, chanting loudly an anti-Mussolini ditty which still rings in my ear. It had an unprintable refrain. We went down the long flight of stairs deep into the rocky tunnels and sat in class groups with our teachers.

We waited expectantly. After a time of eerie quiet, all hell was let loose, with the sound of rapid fire of pom-pom guns and the slower louder thuds of heavier anti-aircraft guns in action. We were quite familiar with both, but soon we started hearing a new sound, the terrifying crescendo screams of Stuka dive-bombers punctuated by colossal explosions which shook us even at the depth we were. The screeching and explosions were incessant. Stuka bombers were diving low above their targets to release their bombs. We smelt the cordite from the exploding bombs. The shelter filled with a light cloud of fine dust. Many of my schoolmates were terrified. I was excited but felt a sense of adventure. I remember slapping a classmate who I thought had fainted.

The aerial pandemonium went on non-stop for 45 minutes, at a guess. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped, and there was absolute quiet. Soon I began moving round in the shelter asking grown-ups whether they had heard the Raiders Passed signal. Nobody was certain. I strayed far from my mates and teachers. I got impatient and started going up the steps hesitantly towards the shelter exit to check. I was halfway up the stairs, when the second act of the hellish performance commenced all over again fortissimo.

I ran down as fast as my legs could carry me. This second wave of the air attack lasted about another 45 minutes. There was quiet again, no sound reaching us from above. I began straining my ears for the siren. I decided not to leave the shelter before I clearly heard the signal. I looked for my classmates but never re-established contact with any of them or the teachers. Finally I heard, as from a great distance, the signal for Raiders Passed. I hurried upstairs thinking all my classmates had already left and gone back to the school to collect their books!

Coming out of the shelter there was a sight I had never seen before: great devastation everywhere I looked, many buildings collapsed into big mounds of rubble, beams sticking out at mad angles from the piles of stone or what was left of the houses, the ground carpeted with shattered glass, wood splinters, stone chips and the whole dusted white with mortar lime.

Turning into the square in front of the school, I could see that it had suffered a bad hit. One section was seriously damaged but the right-hand half was still standing. I decided to go into the partially collapsed school, since my classroom was in the less damaged part. I picked my way inside. Broken glass crackled underfoot as I tiptoed gingerly towards the class. What I saw as I went inside was unexpected: each small desk had the books and writing materials of its occupant still open neatly on the desk, as we must have left them three hours earlier. Next to each seat was the satchel for books. Not one of my classmates had gone in for his books! It was by now about 5pm.

Once outside trying to go home I realised I could not do so without climbing huge mounds of rubble blocking the streets. An exodus was taking place, people had started streaming out of Senglea in family groups with young and old carrying bundles, bags and cases with their belongings. I started asking people I met if they had seen my parents. My father was district medical officer in Senglea. Soon someone told me he had just seen them not too far from where I was. I ran in that direction and saw them some way off, father and mother and five brothers and sisters, everyone carrying essential belongings. They had left home without me. I ran to mum and for the first time that terrible afternoon I burst into tears and buried my face in her skirt.

Years later, I asked her how it was that they had left home without waiting for me. Sadly she answered: “You know, my child, we had forgotten about you in the confusion!”

My parents had taken refuge in a public shelter next to our home in Strada Duluri. Bombs had fallen close by and the only street entrance to the rock gallery got totally blocked by collapsed houses and the crowd inside found its way out slowly through a small passage to the shelter dug privately from the basement of grandpa’s house. During the raid, conditions in the shelter were bad. A heavy smell of cordite from the bombs exploding nearby pervaded the shelter so that my 12-year old brother, Mario, mistook the smell of explosive for that of German poison-gas. Having neglected to carry his gas mask into the shelter with him, he took off his woollen pull-over, peed in it, and used it as a mask! My mother recounted that at a certain stage she heard a woman in the crowded shelter holding up a baby and calling “Whose is this baby?” My mother suddenly realised it was Carol, my youngest brother.

After I was reunited with the rest of the family, our first stop was an air raid shelter on the Senglea water front close to the Dockyard. Another air raid warning had sounded and it was getting dark. The raid lasted about an hour. After that my father decided to take us into HM dockyard where he asked for refuge for the night. We and quite a number of other people who had streamed out of Senglea spent that night there. During it, a fire crew rushed out of the shelter to put out a fire on a ship which had been hit. I remember wanting to go out with them, but mother restrained me.

Early next morning Paul Boffa came to tell all the refugees from Senglea that we could not stay in the dockyard and had to find refuge somewhere else. He brought along with him several buses to take people to various destinations of their choice. We went to Rabat, Malta, where we stayed for a couple of weeks with the Conventual Franciscan Friars, in a tiny parlour.

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