THE DEFENCE OF MALTA
AN ADDRESS BY
LIEUT.-GENERAL SIR WILLIAM G. S. DOBBIE, G.C.M.G., K.C.B., D.S.O., LL.D.
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Conquergood
Thursday, February 22, 1945
MR. CONQUERCOOD: Canada, as a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, is naturally concerned with our own relationships to the Mother Country and to the other members of the Commonwealth. But we have also learned to appreciate something of the value and service of the Colonies and other territories that go to make up the family of the British Empire, such as Malta, about which we are to hear today.
Almost a thousand miles from Gibraltar, in the Mediterranean Sea, lie the Maltese Islands. The largest of the five islands in the group is Malta, in length about 19 1/2 miles and in width about 9 miles.
Many of the great empires of the past have listed Malta among their valued possessions. After five hundred years under the control of the Knights of St, John of
Jerusalem, the island was taken by Napoleon in 1798. Two years later, in 1800, it was taken by the British whose possession was confirmed in the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Despite more than 2300 air raids in the present war, it is still in British possession, thanks to its stout-hearted defenders and the aid of the British Fleet.
Within a radius of about six miles from the Port of Valetta. live the great part of its two hundred and seventy thousand people. Maltese is the official language, but both Maltese and English are taught in the schools. The port of Valetta is rated as one of the finest harbours in the world, and is the home of the British Mediterranean Fleet. 298
Our guest speaker today, General Sir William Dobbie, stepped out of retirement in 1940 to accept the governorship of this historic little island. He was born in Madras, India, received his early education in England, and graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He served with distinction in the South African War, and in World War I he not only won the D.S.O. but has the unique honor to have been the officer who on November 11th, 1918, issued the order to the British armies to "Cease Fire."
In the present war, he has been twice honored by the King, having been made Knight Commander of the Bath, in 1941, and Knight Grand Cross of St. Michael and St. George in 1942. His elder son, a Major in the Royal Engineers, gave his life in Italy in June last.
I have been given a copy of a fine testimonial tendered to General Dobbie by the Roman Catholic officials of Malta, but I do not propose to read it to you, since, in the few days he has been in Toronto, he has already won our admiration and captured our hearts.
It is a pleasure--to welcome today General Sir William G. S. Dobbie, G.C.M.G., K.C.B., D.S.O., LL.D., former Commander-in-Chief, Governor, and Defender of Malta, who will speak to us on "The Defence of Malta."
LIEUT.-GENERAL SIR WILLIAM DOBBIE: Mr. President and Gentlemen: It was very kind of you to invite me to meet you here today and I gladly accepted the invitation. I consider it a high honour to be here, and an even higher one to be asked to address you.
I rather fear there are a number of you here who have already undergone the ordeal of listening to me elsewhere. If that is the case, I apologize for inflicting another flow upon you, but I am acting under orders, as you know.
I am going to speak to you about the siege of Malta and I thought that, as this is The Empire Club of Canada, it might be appropriate to begin by reminding you how it was that Malta came into association with the British Empire. It did not come in by conquest or in anyway of that kind; it came in by its own volition, and it has been extremely proud of its partnership in the great Empire to which we belong, and, if I may say so, I think our Empire is proud that Malta is a component part of it.
In the limited time at my disposal, I want to remind you why it was we had to hold Malta during this war. It was extremely isolated. It was only sixty miles from the nearest enemy territory and, at the time when Italy entered the war and the siege began, it was very nearly one thousand miles from the nearest friendly territory. For that reason its isolation was very pronounced and made it an inconvenient base to hold.
Still, we had to hold Malta, because, as you all remember, Italy at that time was keeping a very large force in North Africa, a well equipped army, stronger in numbers and better equipped than were the forces that we had in Egypt for its defence. This army was a very definite danger to Egypt and it was necessary to do what was possible to keep the size of it down within manageable limits, and the way to do that was to attack the communications across the Mediterranean Sea on which the army depended for its very existence. Malta, owing to its geographical position, was the place whence that could be done most effectively; it was needed as an offensive base and it was used from the very beginning of the war with Italy.
I may say now that it did prove to be a most effective base and it took a tremendous toll of the Italian ships that were passing, carrying supplies and re-inforcements to the Italian army, and the German armies later on, in North Africa.
We had naval units, and later air units, based on Malta which prevented the enemy from maintaining as large a force in North Africa as he would have wished, and that just made the difference when things were going hard with the defence of Egypt. If Malta had fallen, I think it is probable that we would not have been able to hold Egypt. If Egypt had gone, you could understand, just as well as I could, what a disaster it would have been and how far reaching and catastrophic might have been the results.
We had a very small force in Malta when the war with Italy began. That was unfortunate, but it couldn't be helped. The resources of the great Empire were stretched to breaking point at that time. We had lost nearly all our equipment in France and in Belgium, although, in God's mercy, we managed to withdraw the greater part of the personnel of our forces there; Great Britain was in a very undefended state, mainly owing to this lack of equipment, and everything that could be got together in the way of men and equipment had first of all to be applied to the protection of Great Britain, which was expecting an invasion from the victorious German army after its sweep right across Europe. Therefore, it was not possible to send re-enforcements to Malta, or to anywhere else overseas, and we had to manage, making the best use of what little there was.
We had a small number of airplanes. We oughtn't to have had any and it was only by accident that we did have some. They were only four in number and of a very antiquated type.
We also had a very small military force. The Italians had long been boasting that they had intended to make a full scale invasion of the island by sea and air, like our later invasion of Sicily and when war was declared we fully expected they would make the attempt.
We needed infantry with which to watch' and protect the various beaches for such landing's, and there were some thirty-odd miles of those beaches. We also had to watch and defend the various places in the middle of the island where the air-borne landings would come, and to do all that we had four battalions of the British Regular Army and one Maltese Territorial battalion which was at that time, unfortunately, in process of reorganization. Just at first, for that reason and that reason only, it wasn't fully effective but it became a very good unit later on.
I will recapitulate. We were weak, the enemy was strong. If he had attacked us, he would have had complete command in the air, practically. We knew we couldn't get any re-enforcements for an indefinite period -it turned out to be something over four months-and we knew that the enemy knew to a man what forces we had. That was the state of affairs when Italy on the tenth of June, 1940, declared war on the British Empire and the siege of Malta began.
For one reason or another, the invasion, which we were expecting and which we were very ill-prepared to meet, was not attempted either then or later. It seems to me that the enemy threw away a wonderful chance where circumstances were very favourable to him. Whether he would have succeeded or not, of course, is another thing. I like to think he wouldn't have. He ought to have made the attempt but he didn't.
As you know, he did take what he thought was the short cut to success by bombing the base heavily. I don't know what your experience in war is, gentlemen, but I have found that a short cut very seldom pays and certainly did not pay in the case of the Italians.
Malta, as has been indicated by the President, is the most densely populated country in the world. There were not less than 270,000 persons, quite apart from the garrison, packed into one hundred square miles, and the enemy thought it was the sort of place suitable for treatment from the air, that he would break the spirit of the people and so compromise his security. Well, gentlemen, I am glad to tell you the enemy thought wrong and he never showed any signs of achieving success on those lines. The people of Malta put up a splendid show from beginning to end, and they never wavered once. Their morale never showed any signs of breaking, not even cracking, and we do owe them a great debt for the contribution they made, by their steadfastness, to the successful defence of the fortress.
I remember going about among the people from time to time and one day I met a woman standing outside the ruins of her house. It had just been destroyed in a raid.
She had lost everything. I forget whether her family had suffered casualties then or not. Anyway, I went up to her and tried to sympathize with her. There is little enough one can say under those circumstances, as you can imagine. This is what she said to me, "Your Excellency, we have lost everything but it does not matter so long as we win this war". That was the spirit of the people of Malta.
I will tell you now just a little bit of the beginning of the siege. As I have mentioned, they bombed us very heavily.
The Gloucester Gladiators that we had were manned by very gallant young officers of the Royal Air Force, and, as you would have expected they went up and met the enemy. The Italians had infinitely greater strength than we bad. We were never able to put more than three planes in the air at a time. For some inscrutable reason, in the Air Force, if you have four machines, you always have to be tinkering with one on the around. However, those three went up day after day. They were later on named Faith, Hope and Charity, and they tried to keep the enemy away from Malta. It was a fine thing that they did, a fine thing--and the King honoured one or two of those very gallant pilots by the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.
They had a little success, and after a time they did manage to put the enemy off his route a bit and he began to drop his bombs much more widely than he had at the beginning. Many he dropped in the sea, well before he got to Malta, which was a very prudent thing, and a very satisfactory thing to do, from our point of view, and his enthusiasm for the bombing of Malta did very definitely wane, so much so that he thought it necessary to explain to his own people why this had taken place. He put out a most extraordinary communique one day, after the war had been going on for a few weeks. He said to his people--we overheard him--"We have destroyed every military objective in Malta." I ask you-just think of this! He hadn't destroyed one. That is the communique that he put out and he seemed very delighted about it and of course we were very delighted to hear it and all that. Well, this sort of thing went on for a long time and later on we got some more air re-enforcements, mostly bombers--very few fighters all the time I was there--but we needed the bombers for the offensive against the Italian and the German shipping. They did wonderful work, together with the Royal Navy, against the enemy convoys. This damage was so great that the enemy thought it necessary to do something drastic and he sent to Sicily a large part of the German Luftwaffe in order to try and suppress the offensive carried on from Malta.
These Germans came and they did give us a very bad time, especially on their second visit which began about Christmas, 1941, and went on into the following summer. It was going full-blast when I finally left the island in the summer of 1942 with my wife and daughter. They did their level best to stop the offensive from Malta, but it was necessary that we should be able to keep it going, and I am glad to be able to tell you that we did.
It was very difficult to keep the runways of the air fields so that the aircraft could take off and land, but we got over the difficulty by having a large part of the army help the Royal Air Force. I am mentioning this, because I want you to see how the two services worked together. Several thousand men from the army were turned out to work on the airdrome and as soon as the runaways were bombed, these men would pounce on the hole and fill it in as quickly as possible. By that means, we were just able to keep the offensive going.
There were no less than three major raids every day. This went on for months. You could almost set your watch by them, they were so regular, and each of the major raids consisted of a hundred bombers with a large number of fighters. That attack was going on day after day and month after month and did a tremendous lot of damage in Malta. The people stood up to it in the way I have described and in spite of all they had to put up with, they kept a bold front, and their determination did not waver.
It was during that period, when these great things were happening, that our King made that very delightful gesture and awarded to Malta the George Cross. It came as a complete surprise to me, and to everyone else, of course, and it f ell to my lot to make the announcement to the people. I got on the radio and told them what the King had done, and I also pointed out that he had done a completely new and unique thing in the history of the British Empire. Never before, so far as I know, had a decoration been awarded to a community, and Malta has the signal honour of being the first place in the British Empire, and I believe still is the only place, which has had that great honour conferred upon it.
I drew the attention of the people to this fact and, of course, they went off their heads with delight. The King couldn't have done a nicer thing and it came just at a time when that encouragement was very welcome.
Your flag is in front of me with the words "Empire Club". We had an Empire Club in Malta. It wasn't formed specifically for any purpose, but it came into being, shall I say, by accident. I think it was at the end of 1941 or in the early days in 1942, I was visiting one of our airfields, and I was meeting a lot of the officers in the bomber command that we then had in considerable numbers, and in one squadron, or in one mess in which a number of squadrons were, I found officers from practically every part of the British Empire. There were officers from this great Dominion, from South Africa, and from New Zealand. There were others from Australia, from Rhodesia, from Great Britain and from other places in the British Empire. It was awfully nice to meet these fellows and to see the wonderful way they were all working together, very happily and efficiently, and I thought that this was so, spoke well of the reality of the bonds that unite those from all the component parts of the British Empire.
I would like to tell you of one incident which may interest you. We had expected when the siege began to have constant visits from the Italian Navy. Actually, we didn't have any, except on one occasion later on when the Italian Navy came, after the unconditional surrender, and anchored off the harbour at Malta. I wish I had been there to see it but, unfortunately, I wasn't.
But on this other occasion, the only visit they paid us before the siege--that was after the war with Italy had been going on for about a year--they sent against us, instead of the big ships we thought courtesy demanded, the very smallest they could find. They wanted to get them into the harbour and to torpedo or blow up any of our ships they found anchored there; so they carried these little boats from Sicily or Italy in big steamers, and they stuck them in the sea a few miles from Malta under cover of darkness. Well, although our artillerymen on the coast had been waiting and watching, shall we say. for 365 nights, and every night wondering if that was the night it was going to be, so far nothing of this kind had happened. But when on the 366th night it did happen, these fellows were not caught napping, which I thought was pretty good. They got those little boats in the searchlight beam and they destroyed the lot. Not a single one got into the harbour and not a single one got away.
The men manning those boats, let me tell you, were very gallant fellows. I saw some of them. We took them prisoner and I was very much impressed with the stamp of men they were. They were picked men but, gallant as they were, they didn't have a chance.
You would like also to be told this fact. The Royal Artillery units who did that work were mostly from the Royal Malta Artillery. That, as you know, is a regular unit of the British Army, and of course in the war it was expanded a lot, as was also the Territorial Infantry unit which was formed in Malta as well.
Now the time is going on and I will have to finish in a moment. Gentlemen, there were one or two lessons we learned from the siege of Malta and I think we will be very unwise if we don't pay heed to them. We learned them in a hard school and we don't want to throw them away.
One lesson was this. One of the reasons that we were able to hold Malta and why the Union Jack is still flying there, was that everyone in the island pulled together. We give a lot of lip service, don't we, to the word "Co-operation". We want to do more than that. We have got to see that we do it as well as talk about it. It is not always easy to do, especially when we think the other fellow isn't doing his bit.
In Malta we wanted to look at everything from the point of view of the whole and not from the point of view of the interests of some section of the people. We had plenty of opportunity for people to be pulling in all sorts of different directions. We had the Navy, the Army, the Air Force and we had the civil population. Their interests, their sectional interests, might all be somewhat different, but we had to look upon everything from the viewpoint of the Maltese interest. So we had a Defence Committee, and it consisted of the Admiral, representing the Navy; the General Officer Commanding, representing the Army; the Air Vice-Marshal, representing the Air Force; the Lieutenant-Governor, representing the civil side, all under the Chairmanship of myself, the Governor. We called ourselves "The Big Five", and sat around the table and settled in principle everything that affected the well-being of Malta.
When we wanted food brought, the Navy didn't send one demand for food and the Army another, and the Civil another. We sent just one demand. When we got it, we dished it out as we thought best, as the situation required. We realized that all stood or fell together and there was no good one body getting very fat if all the others were starving.
Gentlemen, I believe that is the principle, that we have got to apply nationally and internationally, in the years to come, dealing with the thing not from the sectional interests, but from the viewpoint of the good of the show as a whole. We tried to do that at Malta and I think we had some success in doing it.
There was another lesson, which we learned, which I think is even more important. I have told you how very weak we were. I have told you also how strong the enemy was and you will agree that the prospects of the defence of Malta, especially in the early days, were not too rosy. We had to face facts and we realized that our resources were inadequate. Well, gentlemen, we faced it as the British Empire has, I think, faced that same difficulty elsewhere, by asking and obtaining the help of God Almighty. We realized we needed His help, we asked Him for it and He gave it to us.
May I repeat to you a telegram which I received from no less a person than the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Edmund Ironside, now Field Marshal Lord Ironside. He sent it as the siege of Malta began and the wording was this: "Personal from the C.I.G.S., Deuteronomy Chapter Three, Verse Twenty-Two".
I looked up the verse in the Bible and this is what I read: "Ye shall not fear them; for the Lord your God, He shall fight for you".
Gentlemen, I would like you to know the C.G.I.S. was right in my estimation and in the estimation of many of us who served in Malta at that time. We realized we needed help, we asked Him to give it us, and He did.
You may be interested if I quote what some of you have already heard. I repeat it for the sake of others who have not done so. I quote a special Order of the Day that I thought right to issue to the Garrison at Malta, just at the time the siege began. It was worded like this: "The decision of His Majesty's Government to fight on until our enemies are defeated will have been heard with satisfaction by all ranks of the Garrison of Malta. It may be that hard times lie ahead of us, but however hard they may be, I know that the courage and determination of all ranks will not falter and that with God's help we will maintain the security of this fortress. I therefore call upon all officers and other ranks humbly to seek God's help, and then in reliance upon Him to do their duty unflinchingly." Many times during the two years that followed before we left Malta, did we have ample proof that God was aiding us, that He was giving us the help we needed and without which we could not have held Malta.
We have seen other signs during this war of help being given. I have been told this--I wasn't there myself at Dunkirk-the good hand of our God was very much in evidence over the British Expeditionary Force being withdrawn from France and Belgium. I believe it is true.
I have also been told that at the time of the Battle of Britain, when Mr. Churchill said so much was owed by so many to so few, God's hand was also to be seen. I wasn't there, I was in Malta. I do know that the one person in a better place to judge than anyone else--I refer to the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Fighter Command--has said in public in England on more than one occasion, speaking of the splendid things done by his young fellows in the air when trying to break the power of the German air attack on Britain, that if it had not been for God's help, we could not have won the Battle of Britain. He used words very definitely to that effect.
I was in Malta. I can speak from first hand knowledge about that. I do say if it had not been for God's help I do not think Malta would be today in British hands. The odds against us were too great. The whole thing is a miracle--a long drawn out miracle. The siege lasted for two and a half years, and the odds against us, especially in the early days, were enormous. In the latter days the dangers were equally great but of a different kind. Our food supplies very nearly ran out and it was desperately difficult to get the food through the Mediterranean to Malta, but we just got it through, thanks to the devotion of the Navy and the Merchant Navy. We just got enough through to enable Malta to turn the corner.
Gentlemen, I think it would be very wrong of me, who owes so much to God through Jesus Christ for what God has done for me, if I didn't express publicly my gratitude to Him for what He did for us and our people during the siege of Malta. He means much to me and all through my army service He has meant much to me and has, ever since I was a boy, before I went into the Army. I met Jesus Christ and took Him for my Saviour and He has been everything to me in war and peace from that day to this. Without His help one could not have competed with the problems and difficulties with which one was faced in Malta.
May I very humbly commend Him to you, Gentlemen. We all need Him, every one, without exception, and He is only too anxious to give us the help we need.
I have spoken long enough now and my time has just gone. I thank you for the patient way you have listened to me and I hope I have been of some interest and of some help to you.