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Life inside a WWII shelter

A cubicle in the shelter at Courve Porte including a makeshift bed with the ends of the wooden planks resting on ledges cut in the rock face.

A cubicle in the shelter at Courve Porte including a makeshift bed with the ends of the wooden planks resting on ledges cut in the rock face.

What was life like in a World War II shelter?

There are still a few people around who have had first-hand knowledge of such an experience but there are many others who do not know the hardship endured during the frenzied onslaught by the enemy.

A wartime shelter rehabilitated to look like it did in the early 1940s will be open to the public on Sunday by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna as part of the commemoration of the granting of the George Cross to Malta on April 15, 1942.

The shelter is at Couvre Porte, in Vittoriosa and is managed by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna and the activities marking the historical event will be held between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The day is being organised with the cooperation of the Malta Tourism Authority and the Vittoriosa local council.

"This commemoration, the second so far, is meant to keep alive the memory of the granting of the George Cross to Malta and the vicissitudes of WWII," Mario Farrugia, FWA chairman, said when contacted.

Even during the war, Mr Farrugia added, social class distinction was clearly evident in the shelter at Couvre Porte which was used by the higher echelons of society.

The shelter also housed the family members of the police who worked by the shelter because the room close by was a police station.

The shelter had a warden who had his own room there and who kept tabs of the number of people who took cover in it.

"This particular shelter incorporated a protection office responsible for the whole area for air raid precaution, demolition and clearance, medical and health services and a food control office including the issue of food ration cards.

With his attention to detail, Mr Farrugia has had the same type of braided electrical wire installed in the shelter during the war.

The niches cut in the rock face were used to light up the shelter by means of cooking oil placed in an empty preserved food tin. The wick was held in a piece of metal in triangular form with a hole in the middle to take the wick and kept afloat by means of pieces of cork.

The blast walls inside the shelter have been whitewashed and on them the three "commandments" of community living inside the shelter: Don't commit nuisances; Don't smoke; Don't spit and a Maltese translation of these orders painted in black by means of stencils.

Shelters were whitewashed for two reasons, one was a question of hygiene and, secondly, to have a mirror effect on the glow given out by the oil lamps.

The shelters were used for three years and people at times spent two days at a stretch underground depending on the duration of the air raid.

Those persons who had a room for themselves in the shelter could add a door to it but the door could not be made of solid material but had to be constructed of strips of wood with space between each strip for three basic reasons: One was to allow the people inside to breath; two to detect anyone who died in case the enemy dropped gas bombs and, thirdly, for security reasons because a pilot who baled out could find his way into a shelter and be able to hide inside, Mr Farrugai explained.

All the furniture had to be collapsible although a lot of people used to sit on wooden boxes issued by lemonade, beer and wine makers. Ironically, one such box inside the shelter carries the brand name Paradise.

The government had asked the Church to make available wooden benches and lanterns for use in shelters.

The government had ordered stoves, called chattels, from the dockyard which were fuelled by domestic refuse. Bellows were used to fan the fire.

The more ingenious found out ways of providing all sorts of contraptions in that time of great need. One such contraption was an oven fashioned out of a petrol can.

The activities on Sunday will include the manning of a light anti-aircraft gun and the announcement of air raids by various means.

There will also be cooking in a field stove similar to the ones used by the Victory Kitchen that provided cooked food for the populace against coupons issued by the government.

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