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Mintoff’s threat to bulldoze the war graves

The Anzac Day commemoration ceremony at Pietà Military Cemetery on April 25, 2012.

The Anzac Day commemoration ceremony at Pietà Military Cemetery on April 25, 2012.

The reproduction of the documents on relations between the British authorities and Dom Mintoff and the fear expressed that the Maltese Prime Minister might erupt in one of his classic tantrums while the British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, was visiting Malta for the ceremonies for the final withdrawal of the British forces from the island in 1979, mentioned en passant that Mntoff was “also proposing to concentrate the British war graves spread out over the island”.

These documents from the National Archives at Kew are filed FREM 16/2163 and are dated February 27, 1978 and have been freely available on the internet since December 30, 2009. But the story of the war graves was not made public as this did not concern the British Government as such but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the body that looks after these.

As I was the person who brought out into the open this attempt to bulldoze the graves to build block of flats over the hallowed ground, it may be of interest to recall what went on behind the scenes at the time.

I found out what was being proposed by Mintoff at a time I was on the staff of The Daily Telegraph. I kept the notes of this story which I thought went beyond the norms of human respect.

I was in touch with Eddie Marsh who was the foreign editor in London. He contacted the British Government who advised him to get in touch with the Commonwealth War Grave Commission who in turn suggested interviewing Peter Dolan, their Western Mediterranean representative in Rome who was directly involved in the matter. Leslie Childe was in Rome for The Telegraph at the time and we kept in touch.

Dolan explained: “Mr Mintoff is apparently threatening to bulldoze the graves if we don’t move them. Mr Mintoff has told Lord Carrington, Foreign Secretary, that he would like to develop the land now used as cemeteries for building projects. But the idea has rocked the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the countries that form part of it.

“I gather the Maltese idea is to uproot the remains and to put them all in one big awful hole. That is why the scheme has caused such an international storm. The majority of the 15,000 dead buried in Malta’s four war cemeteries are British but they also include servicemen from past and present Commonwealth countries.”

The four main cemeteries were (and are

Capuccini Naval Cemetery at Kalkara, 346 dead from  World War One and 734 of World War Two, British, Maltese, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African, Polish, Indian, French, Japanese and other nationalities, many of them killed in the defence of Malta during the Second World War;

Pietà Cemetery, 1,304 dead from World War One and 180 of World War Two, including 204 Australians and 72 New Zealanders from the Gallipoli campaign of 1915 – here a commemorative ceremony is held every year on April 25,  Anzac Day, which is presided over by the President;

Pembroke, 12 dead from World War One and 318 of world War Two, British and Maltese; and Mtarfa Cemetery, 15 from World War One and 262 of World War Two, British and Maltese.

When the news came out into the open Toni Pellegrini, the spokesman for Mintoff said: “We’re such a small island that we badly need the land now occupied by these cemeteries to build new homes.”

Mintoff’s proposal caused such outrage he dropped the idea. Property developers had found there were many spaces where they could build and are still building. But Mintoff, himself an architect, apparently had not done his homework properly.

The cemeteries are impeccably maintained by their Maltese caretakers. These are visited by hundreds every year.

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