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The dame of World War II

'The George Cross award strengthened our determination'

Lord Gort, Governor of Malta, speaks at the award ceremony. Chief Justice Sir George Borg stands at his right. Photos: Courtesy Douglas Thompson/DOI

Lord Gort, Governor of Malta, speaks at the award ceremony. Chief Justice Sir George Borg stands at his right. Photos: Courtesy Douglas Thompson/DOI

Prince Charles will tomorrow attend a ceremony for the 75th anniversary of the awarding of the George Cross to Malta. Diana Mackintosh, 98, vividly recalls those momentous days and recounts them in her biography – Unsinkable – to be published next year.

Diana Mackintosh, née Tonna, who worked for the Times of Malta during the war, speaks of the George Cross as an “extraordinary event” in the chapter ‘Escape’ of her biography Unsinkable. The chapter opens with Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “Malta is the unsinkable aircraft carrier”.

Author Douglas Thompson, who wrote the book with the help of Ms Mackintosh’s sons – including world-famous impresario Cameron Mackintosh – likens her to Mary Poppins in the introduction to the book, titled ‘There’s nothing like a dame’, which he concludes thus:“Diana came of age to the drone of sirens alerting the people of Malta to the arrival of relentless flights of belligerent German and Italian menace, the bombers she first imagined as a swarm of black flies, pests which stung and cursed her Mediterranean homeland as the most bombed place on earth.

“The three-year onslaught never took a day off, it was endless but supplies were not. The hope of a shipment of high protein became an endless dream. The only time Diana wasn’t hungry was when she slept but that was intermittent and the terrible hunger returned the instant the bombs woke the skies and all those beneath them. The explosions cracked and hurt the senses like punches in her empty stomach.

“Her story of that time and she is now one of the few remaining who experienced it first hand, makes you so clearly understand why Malta was collectively awarded the George Cross, the highest British civilian honour for heroism. Of course, as she argues, no one was trying to be heroic. They became so by displaying remarkable hidden strength and, with their endurance, reversing the fortunes of the Second World War in the Mediterranean and North Africa.

“As is her mission, Diana moved on from the events, the suffering the 20th century Great Siege of Malta inflicted on the island and has never really spoken of the war in detail. The wartime British officer she would marry, Ian Mackintosh, badly shelled at Dunkirk and blown about by bombs in the Egyptian desert during Montgomery’s rout of Rommel, was equally reticent about his extravagant wartime experiences.”

The awarding of the George Cross in the Palace Square, Valletta, in 1942.The awarding of the George Cross in the Palace Square, Valletta, in 1942.

Here are some of Ms Mackintosh’s recollections in the still-unpublished book:

“When Malta was presented with the George Cross, I had a new admirer, the dashing Wing Commander Arthur Donaldson.

“He was 28 years old, one of a trio of brothers who were all fighter plots, Teddy and John were also squadron leaders and between them had a mantelpiece of flying and bravery honours and medals.”

“Arthur, of course, was my favourite. “He saved my life.”

“I’d been to a dance at the Sliema Servicemen’s Club and I left early on his arm.

“The Messerschmitt pilots, the cruel, wicked men in the cockpits of those 109 fighters, always targeted anyone they spotted in the open. Which was just where Arthur and I were as we wandered home.

“He heard the MS109, the whine of an engine, before I did. He knew what was happening.

“‘Get down, get down,’ he yelled at me and gave me a less than gentle shove onto the ground. There was no time for courtesy.

“I was face down but, naturally, I wanted to see what was going on. I was trying to turn my body around when, from far off, the first tracers of bullets began hitting the ground to the left of us. Turning, I could see the German pilot in his cockpit as the ’plane swooped toward us, he seemed to have a frozen face, a fixed grimace. Then, suddenly, that went blank as Arthur landed with a bump on top of me trying to cover my body. “He was willing to sacrifice himself to protect me. The Messerschmitt roared low over us strafing the road with gunfire, bullets spitting at us.

“The bullets danced, up and down and spinning back into the sky, it was like being in a hailstorm. The would-be assassins splattered bullets all around us but didn’t hit their targets.”

Diana and Ian MackintoshDiana and Ian Mackintosh

“Through [Arthur] I was involved in the inside story of an extraordinary event when the George Cross arrived in Malta. [The award was announced on Wednesday, April 15, 1942, at last some good news to punctuate the usual air attacks and more delayed convoys from Gibraltar and Alexandria. The George Cross was instituted by George VI as the highest honour to be awarded to civilians, equivalent to the Victoria Cross, which was reserved for the armed forces.]

“We were told in detail, detail we wanted, detail for support of what we’d suffered and endured, of how that day the King had gone through the latest dispatches on the war in the Mediterranean and then took a sheet of paper with the Buckingham Palace letterhead and wrote a message to us:

“ ‘To honour her brave people, I award the George Cross to the island fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’

“The King was genuinely moved by what had happened to us. I was particularly pleased that he associated himself with what my brother, Victor, was involved with: the artillery. King George VI wrote:

“ ‘I have been watching with admiration the stout-hearted resistance of all in Malta – service personnel and civilians alike –  to the fierce and constant air attacks in the active defence of the island and the RAF have been ably supported by the Royal Malta Artillery and it therefore gives me a special pleasure to assume the colonelcy-in-chief of the Royal Malta Artillery.’

“The Governor, Sir William Dobbie, rep-lied: ‘The people and garrison of Malta are deeply touched by Your Majesty’s kind thought for them in conferring on the fortress of Malta this signal honour. It has greatly encouraged everyone and all are determined that, by God’s help, Malta will not weaken but will endure until victory is won...’

It floods the humblest among us with joyous pride in having lived and strived through Malta’s greatest hour

“Two days later, Governor Dobbie spoke over the crackling Rediffusion system: ‘I am quite sure that everyone in Malta felt the thrill of real pleasure when they learnt of this high honour His Majesty the King has been pleased to bestow on their island fortress. I do not recall an instance when an honour of this kind has been conferred by a British Sovereign on a community. The safety and well-being of this fortress rest under God on four supports: these are the three services and the civil population.

“The Strickland House newspapers, Il-Berqa, the Times of Malta and The Sunday Times of Malta, gave huge coverage to the King’s award as did the world. Yet Mabel [Strickland] had better contacts and she had a scoop, a front page ‘fudge’, with a stop press item: the idea to award the honour to the island had been the King’s own idea. Mabel plastered Malta GC on the leader page and wrote the editorial: ‘The outstanding importance in the achievement of victory of maintaining civilian life on the front line of battle and of the civilians’ magnificent response to the ordeal imposed on them by a ruthless enemy. Malta in her entirety, with the help of God, has withstood the test and the King has set his seal on the pages of history.

“His Majesty’s act brings immense consolation to all in Malta and floods the humblest among us with joyous pride in having lived and strived through Malta’s greatest hour.’

“The following day, April 18, the George Cross was added to the Times masthead. A day later, our sister newspaper, The Sunday Times boasted the George Cross and Mabel’s new editorial which included:

“‘His Majesty the King has singled Malta out for fame and by his act has placed her at the top of the Empire and given her a place in the annals of history that will have a great bearing upon our future’.”

“The George Cross award strengthened our determination but, especially, that of the soldiers, the sailors and airmen who were daily targets in this worst wartime period for the Allies.”

“We had the George Cross award – if not the medal – but military resources and food rations were all but finished.”

“It was not until the Santa Marija convoy [on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1942] arrived with food, arms and ammunition and all the other necessary paraphernalia of warfare that a brake was applied to the high speed horror of all those long-preceding months. It was even thought possible to formally present the George Cross to Malta on September 13, 1942, in the Palace Square, Valletta. That was most appropriate, for that convoy, Operation Pedestal , remains commemorated in Malta as ‘a gift from Heaven’ and to the memory of all the lives lost trying to get supplies to us.”

“The ceremony to present the George Cross was as solemn and dignified as circumstances allowed. My brother Victor’s regiment, The Royal Malta Artillery, accompanied by the King’s Own Malta Regiment band, mounted a guard of honour after marching down Republic Street [then Kingsway]. The Regent Cinema, where I saw Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and the Casino Maltese, where my father gambled, were piled in the street, their ruins levelled and stacked.

Diana Mackintosh during her time in Malta.Diana Mackintosh during her time in Malta.

“Everyone who could be was on parade. Lord Gort and the Chief Justice, Sir George Borg, were given an ovation as Lord Gort handed the box containing the George Cross and the letter from the King to the Chief Justice. The Governor proclaimed: ‘By the command of the king, I now present to the people of Malta and its dependencies the decoration His Majesty has awarded to them in recognition of the gallant service which they have already rendered in the struggle for freedom.’

“The Royal Malta Artillery band was at full volume and the crowds were all around; everyone was desperate to see the George Cross. The party on the dais included the Archbishop of Malta, HH the Lieutenant Governor, the Vice Admiral Malta, the GOC, the AOC, the Bishop of Gozo, the Bishop of Tralles in Asia and many, many more important officials. Oh, decorum.

“Arthur Donaldson had been ordered to command three Spitfires on a low-level pass. It was to be textbook stuff, a display of the omnipotent RAF. Arthur’s good friend was the Canadian pilot George Frederick ‘Screwball’ Beurling. He was a maverick, had crash landed a couple of times and survived and his Spitfire kept getting riddled with bullets.”

“Arthur told the story his way: ‘They came roaring down the street wing-tip to wing-tip, almost grazing the walls on either side. As the leader, Beurling’s task was difficult but it was child’s play compared to that of the senior officers, who were defying death by inches. Screwball, however, decided to give the spectators an additional thrill and, to the amazement of everyone, most of all the wing commanders, who were congratulating themselves on the success of the venture, he calmly turned his ’plane over – and flew along the remainder of the street upside down. I thought it was an appropriate distraction following the 26 months of hell we had endured, the ultimate defiance.’ ”

“It only was a distraction; the war was not over. Supplies had arrived but how long would they last? Would we ever get more? People were now admitting that the thought of starving to death was their greatest fear. If you hugged someone in a greeting you could feel their ribs. There was heartfelt relief when rations were raised ever so slightly; bread allowance for men aged 16 to 60 was a little more and for the rest of us cheese, fats and sugar were available. The snag was that without more convoys arriving, there wasn’t food to last beyond December 3, 1942.”

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