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A personal account of war

Gerald Montanaro Gauci recounts the tragic events that occurred on October 11, 1942, when a bomb dropped on a shelter in Rabat.

The monument in Howard Garden, Rabat, in honour of the casualties of World War II. The names of the casualities of October 11, 1942, are engraved on it.

The monument in Howard Garden, Rabat, in honour of the casualties of World War II. The names of the casualities of October 11, 1942, are engraved on it.

It was October 11, 1942, a few minutes after 1pm. I was seven years old and it was to be the most traumatic day of my life. Nine of our neighbours were killed that day.

Three years earlier, Neville Chamberlain very famously had declared “I have to tell you... our country is at war with Germany” and 10 months later, Benito Mussolini declared “L’ora segnata del destino batte il cielo della nostra patria”.

Malta was deeply immersed in war. We had moved from our home in Old Bakery Street, Valletta, to a small house in front of Howard Gardens in Rabat to avoid the devastation of our capital city. This is how it all happened on October 11.

We were at table having lunch.  In my younger days it was still customary for families to have their meals together. Somehow my mother had managed to put together a Sunday roast.  Suddenly we heard a bomb explode in the vicinity of Saqqajja. She picked up my three-month-old sister and rushed down the stairs leading to a cellar where we had a small shelter.  We all followed, my father doing so very reluctantly.

The early months of 1942 saw the heaviest bombing. When German General Erwin Rommel was about to lose North Africa, the air raids came to a halt. But the sound of the siren was heard again in the autumn. German Luftwaffe commander Albert Kesselring had decided that in order to secure his hold on Sicily, it was necessary to attack Malta from the air once more.

Our neighbours had grown accustomed to the air raids and instead of taking refuge in the public shelter in front of our house, they stood in front of its entrance and watched the dog fights over Ta’ Qali. This was why there were so many terrible fatalities.

I cannot forget the shrill whistle of the bomb piercing our ears as it hurtled down to destroy our home, nor the blast that blew us down the steps leading to our shelter and the horror that followed.

I cannot forget the shrill whistle of the bomb piercing our ears as it hurtled down to destroy our home

I cannot delete some pictures from my memory…. the picture of my brother and myself climbing through the debris and over the dead bodies of two of our neighbours, their limbs lost, and rivers of blood everywhere as we struggled to get out of the entrance of the shelter. The picture of the head of another of our neighbours plastered against a wall. And, most macabre of all, the picture of an Alsatian dog picking a limb from a dead body and running as fast as it could towards Howard Gardens to feast on it.

I remember the kindness of Professor and Mrs Degiorgio who collected my brother and myself and literally nursed us in their home at Boscetto Road for several days until we recovered from the shock of the blast. I also remember the kindness of Madre Emilia of the Sisters of St Joseph who collected my other two-year-old brother and, subsequently, practically adopted him.

An Italian bomber flying over Malta.An Italian bomber flying over Malta.

At the time my father kept a diary.  An entry made a few days after that tragic day records how he accompanied my mother, who had a very bad head injury, together with my three-month-old sister soaked in blood and thought to be dead, to the Conservatorio Vincenzo Bugeja in Santa Venera which had been turned into a hospital. He also recounted how for a full five hours after the bombing, he did not know whether my brothers and myself were alive or dead.

The diary also describes how my father slept in the surviving part of the cellar that night.  The next morning Mrs Randon who lived a few doors away brought him coffee and Professor Degiorgio brought him a basin, a jug of water and a razor. He then discovered that he had no money whatsoever. He wrote how Dr Marius Bugeja “was very kind and gave him some money”.  Such is the fate of a High Court judge in the midst of war.

John Pullicino in his book, A Lawyer at Large, also describes the raid.

“In Waggons Street, the old Strada Carri which ran past a row of small white houses down to the vegetable market, the Pitkalija, the bodies were whole but the blast had shrunk them up and dwarfed them. Men and women with old faces had the bodies of little children in strange jointless poses like discarded puppets over which the grey-pink of dust slowly descended on a sultry October afternoon.

“The people who died in Waggons Street were, I believe, the last air raid victims of the war in Malta.”

Seventy-five years on and approaching the venerable age of 83, I am entitled to a little reflection. The greats of history are not the likes of Alexander, Caesar and Napolean but their unsung victims. I accept freedom does not come free, still it is difficult not to be a pacifist.

Casualties on October 11, 1942

Josephine Borg, aged 24
Toninu (Anthony) Caruana, aged 10
Gola (Angiolina) Falzon, aged 14
Joseph Fsadni, aged 28
Madalena Galea, aged 28 years
Carmel Grech, aged 30 years
Antonia Grixti, aged 46 years
Peter Vella, aged 52 years
Maria Zahra, aged 44 years

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