April 2012 Event: Malta and the Award of the George Cross

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 From left: Mr Charles Mifsud, Mrs Frances Bonnici and Mr Ian Speer [Photo: Martin Bonnici Photography]On Tuesday 17 April the MHA held its monthly event at the Maltese Centre in Parkville as part of a program of events in Melbourne commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Award of the George Cross to Malta. The program was organised by the Consul-General of Malta in Victoria, Mr Charles Mifsud and the Malta GC Committee, of which the MHA President Mrs Frances Bonnici and the MHA Treasurer Mr Mario Bonnici were members.

Mrs Bonnici gave a warm welcome to the guest speaker, Mr Charles Mifsud, to Mrs Anna Maria Mifsud and to all those present. Mr Mifsud gave a presentation on the pivotal role that Malta played in the Second World War leading to the award of the George Cross to the people of Malta by King George VI on 15 April 1942. He started his talk by posing the question whether Malta deserved to be awarded the George Cross. Naturally the answer to this question is a resounding “yes”, said Mr Mifsud.

Mr Mifsud gave several reasons including the hunger that the Maltese people suffered during the war, the displacement of residents of towns and suburbs that were worst hit by the continuous bombing. The Maltese soldiers played a very important role in the defence of the islands and showed great valour and bravery manning the anti-aircraft guns. It was for these and other reasons that King George VI felt that it would be fit and proper to award the highest civilian bravery medal to the people of Malta for “a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.”

Mr Mifsud said that the Germans did their utmost to starve the Maltese to death in order to get them to surrender but the Maltese people continued to fight to the end until the enemy was overcome.

Mr Mifsud emphasised that the George Cross Medal is awarded to individuals who had shown exceptional courage. This was the only time that the medal was awarded to a whole nation.

Mr Mifsud then invited Mr Ian Speer, aged 92 years, who had joined the RAAF in October 1939 and was posted to serve during the Second World War in Number 10 Squadron RAAF operating out of England. The Squadron flew large aeroplanes that could land on the sea known as the Sunderland.

Mr Speer said that he was a flight engineer on one of these planes. He gave a rundown of his career history during the war and how he met his wife on a blind date during his time in England. He recalled how on one occasion they ended up on the sae and had to be rescued after their plane had been hit by enemy gunfire.

Mr Speer said that one of the tasks entrusted to his Squadron was to transport to Malta Lord Gort with the George Cross medal in his briefcase. It was taken to Malta in an aeroplane flown by Captain Tom Stokes who was Australian and had a business in Melbourne, which is still run by his family. Mr Speer mentioned how the pilot and others on board had scratched their names on the bulkhead of the aeroplane and the pilot’s family still has that. Mr Speer hoped that one day it could be placed in a museum to be available for viewing. Tom Stokes died some time ago.

After the presentation an interesting film about Malta’s wartime experiences leading to the award of the George Cross was shown. The film included several scenes filmed during the war and was produced to showcase Malta and its people as a shining example to other members of the British Commonwealth of a people who gave their all against the odds. A copy of the film was kindly provided for the occasion by Mr Joe Montebello.

After the film, Mr Mifsud invited those present to share their war time experiences.

The President of the Maltese Ex-Services Association, Mr Emmanuel Spiteri, recalled joining the war effort as a scout in ‘C’ Company 2nd Battalion KOMR. The scouts were given duties to assist the censors with the censorship of letters, resealing them. He was 17 and a half when he joined. His date of birth on the service records showed him two years old than he really was. He recalled how they used to patrol near Qawra tower to Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq and back every night. He also recalled the hunger and the small food rations consisting of a slice of bread and a sardine that was shared among four people. Occasionally they would help themselves by jumping into a field and take some potatoes and cook them. He also recalled that during the day their duty was to fill up craters in the airfields. Fortunately that was no land combat in Malta as the enemy never landed on Malta.

Mr Gejtu Deguara, MCCV Vice President, said that he was born 3 years before the start of the war but does not recall much about the war. His father left the island to serve in Egypt when he was three and a half years old and did not return until four years later. He was about seven when he recalls first seeing his father. Mr Deguara said he was disappointed that the Australian media had not published any articles about the 70th anniversary of the George Cross award. Mr Mifsud said that a media release had been sent to all major Australian newspapers and media outlets and he had personally contacted representatives from the Australian media about the event.

Another attendee recalled that his father had joined the King’s Own Malta Regiment as a ‘penny soldier’ and they were paid a penny extra every week or month. He was serving at St Elmo when the first air raid took place on Malta and four soldiers were killed. When his father saw that mess, he ran away and was later taken by his Seargent to a Court Marshall for desertion. In his defence his father said that he was not trained adequately to fire the anti-aircraft gun.

99-year old Mr John Catania, who was one of the gunners on the anti-aircraft guns at Spinola, near St Julians, and later at Tigné, recalled how at one point a bomb exploded in the grounds where he was serving and hit a clock he was holding. Someone from the Royal Engineers came to replace the clock and they asked who had died from the explosion. Mr Catania told them that no-one had died but they were amazed how no-one had died as they could see the destruction left by the bomb. He then moved to defend Ta’ Qali airfield, the most important airfield in Malta during the war. He recalled how he later served at Salina and finally at Wardija, near St Paul’s Bay. When he moved to Wardija, the position at Salina suffered a direct hit and all the gunners there died in the explosion.

Mr George Saliba joined the Royal Malta Artillery at Qrendi to the west coast of Malta. He served on the anti-aircraft guns at Tal-Qroqq near Msida and later at Spinola and he recalled a direct hit in one of the locations which resulted in deaths.

Mr Ben Soler, President of the Maltese Australian Association, recalled his experiences as a toddler having been born the same year that the war had started in 1939. His family lived at Vittoriosa which was heavily bombed but had to move to Lija, then Zurrieq and finally Rabat. His father was a Bombardier who saw a lot of action on the anti-aircraft guns. From the perspective of a child it was like a carnival, as he obviously could not understand the tragedy of war at that age. Rabat was full of refugees at that time. He recalled that when his father took him to Vittoriosa at the end of the war he could see how the city was razed to the ground with the bombings.

Another attendee, Ms Belli, recalled how he was a six-year old when the war started and still remembers those days from the first air raid to the last one. On the first one they went next door to hide under the staircase. They had to shift from Msida to his aunty’s place Birkirkara as they lived too close to the torpedo depot. He recalled going on the roof with his aunt and they saw the German Stukas flying past and he recalled seeing one of them go down. They went to school on and off because of the air raids and he had his first holy communion in a shelter. He also recalled being taken in school uniform to one of the main roads in Birkirkara to view the George Cross medal which was taken round the country for the Maltese people to see.

Mr Joe Borg recalled the phrase ‘tal-gaxin’ which referred to excess food that was collected from the garrison boats and distributed around the streets. He also recalled some songs that used to be sung during the war one was about German pilots who were shot down and the other about the people who served food in the Victory Kitchens.

Among those present were members of the MCCV Executive Committee, members of the Maltese religious orders, members of Maltese associations and Maltese media representatives from SBS, 3ZZZ, 97.4 FM and 98.9 FM.

Light refreshments kindly provided by one of the sponsors of the George Cross commemoration events, Anton Camilleri’s Busy Bee Catering, were served after the presentation.

[Photos by Martin Bonnici Photography]

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