1940: Malta is at War

Sea Gladiator

At the first chimes of midnight on 10 June 1940, Malta’s churches announced the start of the second siege in the history of this fortress island.  Mussolini had declared the war on the side of the Axis six hours earlier and next day, 11 June, brought a brutal introduction to modern warfare. 

“we woke at 06.45 to the scream of the air raid siren…practically synchronised with a furious outburst of anti-aircraft fire all around us. We hurried into dressing gowns, and ran to the Crypt collecting the two frightened maids as we went. The fire was severe; windows and doors rattling, and the crump of bombs falling.

There are three A.A. guns 600 yards away, clearly visible from our drawing-room windows, and indeed guns on all sides of us at about the same distance. I do not know how long the action lasted – perhaps 15 minutes. Ten planes, we were told, in two formations.

We had 8 raids during that day, by far the worst being the last, when firing went on for about 30 minutes at about 7.30 p.m.It was a terrifying experience. I could hear bombs dropping. The sound is quite different from gunfire. It is a thick sound, and the word ‘crump’ just describes it.”

Extract from diary of Reverend Reginald M. Nicholls, Chancellor of St.Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Valletta.  Courtesy of website: MaltaFamily History.

Malta’s defences were minimal.  Though some preparations for war were in place, the Island had fewer than 5000 ill-equipped troops, no operational fighter aircraft, only 14 coastal defence guns and enough food supplies for just 6 weeks. 

For a war which would be fought mainly in the air, there were no air squadrons to call on.  A search in May 1940 had revealed the packaged parts sufficient to assemble four obsolete planes, and volunteers had been quickly trained to fly them.  A fighter flight of three Sea Gladiators, historically named ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’, took to the air in a valiant effort to take on the Italian fighters.  Flying Officer W J Woods found himself at about 15,000 feet in his tiny Gladiator, pursued by a Maachi 200:

Malta’s defenders had claimed their first enemy fighter but not before terrifying bombing raids had claimed their first casualties.  Italian bombs fell at 0630 hours near Fort Campbell, followed by near misses at St Georges and Tigne, and a direct hit on Fort St Elmo. Malta’s first military casualties were six members of the Royal Malta Artillery, would-be protectors of their Island: Bombadier Joseph Galea, Gunners Michel’Angelo Saliba, Richard Micallef, Carmel Cordina and Paul Debono, and Boy Philip Busuttil. 

More attacks soon followed killing civilians across the Island, including six in one heavy bombing raid on Gzira.

Civilians killed: Carmelo Galea (40) in Birkirkara; Joseph Ancilleri and Doris Galea (5 months) in Cospicua; Michael Camenzuli (39), Lilian Doublet (7) and Mary Doublet (46), Giuliano Micallef (65), Giovanni Trapani (48) and Rosina Vassallo (33) in Gzira; Giuseppe Ellul (36) in Mqabba; Paolo Galea (37) in Msida; Nina Farrugia (25) and her two sons Ninu (5) and Joe (4) in Pieta.

The bombing sent civilians living near the Dockyard fleeing for safety.  Within days 100,000 had taken to the roads with as many belongings as they could carry, to seek shelter with family or friends in outlying towns and villages as far as possible from the bombing.   

The Italians seemed intent on neutralising Malta as quickly as possible.  In the following three weeks there were 53 air raids, with only a few raid-free days in between.  The first night raids began at the end of June, but then the rate of attacks and number of casualties declined.  This enabled supplies of much-needed equipment and additional troops to be delivered by three convoys in the autumn, to reinforce the Malta garrison.

And a few much-needed fighter aircraft had arrived: four Hurricanes in July and 12 in August.    Successful convoys delivering much-needed supplies to the Island attracted the attention of the enemy who concentrated on attacking the airfields, including the Gladiators’ base at Hal far on 15September. 

On 11 November 1940, Fleet Air Arm aircraft launched from HMS Illustrious attacked the Italian Fleet at Taranto Harbour; an attack so successful it became the model for the later Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour.  The reconnaissance for the operation had been carried out by aircraft from Malta.  This bold offensive, together with Allied air attacks on Tripoli and Naples, caused the Axis to take stock. Malta was evidently now well-equipped and able to fight back. 

It was a situation which could not be allowed to continue.     


18 responses to “1940: Malta is at War

  1. Joe Zahra

    January 14, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    “At the first chimes of midnight on 10 June 1940, Malta’s churches announced the start of the second siege in the history of this fortress island. “.

    This is not quite true. Church Bells were in no way used to signal the war. The war was felt years in the coming. The speech by Mussolini in the Piazza in Rome on the evening of 10th June 1940 simply confirmed what was obviously coming.

    • JosephV. Stephens

      February 22, 2012 at 12:26 am

      I agree with Mr Zahra re -chimes. If chimes is meant to describe a melodios sound it certainly wasn’t the bells of Malta churches which were loud and far from melodious. Mat be the chimes of an Anglican church was meant.

  2. Prefect

    March 4, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    This site – gives more detail of the Sea Gladiators and suggests the names were somewhat mythical.

  3. Graham Buddle

    April 22, 2012 at 5:48 am

    Excellent site, my Uncle Plt Off A S Yates was a Spitfire Pilot in 249 SQN and was stationed at Ta Qali from 3 Mar 1942 to 10 Aug 1942. He never spoke about his experiences there, so your site is a great help to me in formulating my family history.

    • Jason M. Pilalas

      June 11, 2015 at 2:49 pm

      The book ‘Tattered Battlements,’ the diary of a pilot of No.165 Squadron bears directly on part of this period and is well worth finding. There are also excellent histories published by Grub Street, and ‘249 at Malta,’ by Cull and Malea, published on the island by Wise Owl in 2004.


    July 13, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Great site, my father was RAF ground crew in Malta. He too never spoke of his experiences.

    • Jayne Cockcroft

      July 20, 2015 at 3:32 pm

      Looking for information about the Armoury at Kalafrana 1941-1943 where my father was Warrant Office/ AC II Edward Victor Stamp (more often known as Victor). Would be great if anybody has any information about this Many thanks.

  5. Anna

    January 10, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD – No other country could have won that war single handed against the Germans and Italians joining forces… It takes guts and power from above and yet, they as a culture are so amazingly forgiving – Little Island, Big heart.

  6. LRWT

    February 8, 2013 at 5:05 pm


    I was under the impression that the odd Brit was there too – I hadn’t appreciated that the Maltese had flown the planes, brought the ships in and fired all the artillery on their own, WOW !!

    • Steve Borg

      June 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm

      LRWT – The Maltese had an option not to fight but let the British do the fighting, since it wasn’t originally our war we Maltese got caught in between. You may recall that in 1919 we had been calling for independence (as we had done in 1802, 1854, 1880), and we had self-government.

      But they chose to fight tooth and nail. Of course it was the Brits and Commonwealth pilots (including some Maltese) who flew the planes, and the Royal Navy lads who lost their lives. But not alone. Many small ships had Maltese crews, but were listed as British. This also happened during the Battle for Crete, when Maltese crew manned and captained minesweepers. As for the RMA, well you know quite well that the Maltese artillery were quite good as well. There were also Maltese who repaired the runways even while these were being attacked, and others who were ammunition loaders. They used to be told to move away while photographers took shots of British servicemen, for propaganda purposes.

      It is a pity that that in British documentaries we haven’t seen Maltese ex-servicemen being interviewed to speak about their share in the war. Yes, it is a great island, when I recall that the British Channel Islands gave in without so much of a fight, and ended up collaborating with the Germans. Our homes were destroyed to smithereens, and what did we get? A pittance, while the Germans were given Marshall Aid – which was denied to victorious (sic!) Malta. Hence the emigration to Australia and the renewed call for independence. Guess you didn’t know that Maltese spies used to be landed in Italy (being Italian speaking as well) to do recce work in Puglia?

      I’ve met a few cocky sods over the years who thought they were a superior breed, but seemed to forget that the valor of the Maltese people had already been proven so many times over the centuries. We only wanted to be treated as equals, nothing extraordinary. And this, in our own land and waters. I am not writing out of ill-will, of course not. But please give us our due. We were not all dishwashers, potato peelers and waiters…we had brainy people as well. Let us now remember all the people who lost their lives.

      • frank bowman

        July 12, 2015 at 7:23 am

        Well said, thank you

      • Rose Grima Cataldi

        August 13, 2016 at 9:10 pm

        my Maltese father was a medic with the Royal Army Corps–fighting in Tobruk—-he did not say very much about his experience–my mother however has told us of the constant bombing—her marriage ceremony was interrupted many times because of the air raids-I was born in the military hospital in 42–I am proud of my Maltese Heritage


    July 16, 2013 at 2:27 am

    The above Mr Steve Borg is certainly very well informed perhaps he even was an eye witness too. Being a reader I am aware of all that Mr. Borg makes mention of. following the end of WW 2 I often attended groups of elderly people among whom there were eye witnesses and also others who were employed by Malta’s Newspapers and naturally had much to recall likely being in the midst of what took place in Malta during World War 2 and how Malta valiantly did her share also. Thanks.

  8. Josephine

    June 2, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    I am looking for information about my grandad Peter Cordina who died June or July 1942 in Sliema, Malta he was a Police Sgt and had 5 sons all in the police force including my father served in the police force in Malta. I also am aware of a book called TRIBUTE TO OUR HEROES whose author Raymond Zammit May still have some information about my grandad who I never new as he died five years before I was born. Josephine Hallas nee Cordina.

  9. Lorraine

    May 17, 2015 at 5:34 am

    Our dad Joseph Taliana served in Malta World War 2 , he went every year to March with his comrades on ANZAC day and we continued to take him when he was unable to walk by pushing him around in his wheelchair, he was so proud, and we were all so proud of dad . We managed to take him to his last March this year 2015 but sadly our dad passed away on the 9/5/2015 . He will be sadly missed …LEST WE FORGET ..

  10. Vince Camilleri

    January 22, 2016 at 5:55 am

    My name is Vince Camilleri, I was born in Valletta Malta in January 1936, Although I was very young during WW11, I have quite a few memories. However today after reading Mr. Borg’s comments above, to which I agree, his comments prompted me to comment about the first world war. My wife and I emigrated to Melbourne two weeks after we were married, and still live in Altona. I and a very keen watcher of TV, especially documentaries. All through 2015 many documentaries were screened on TV the History channel on Foxtel about the brave ANZACS as it was the 100th aniversary of Galipoli. Some are still being screened early in 2016 and presented by Mr.Steve Liebman, paying tribute to the brave Australian and New Zealanders which they deserved, who served and some gave their lives on Gallipoli. But I am really surprised and upset, especially after reading the book titled “Malta The Nurse Of The Mediterranean ” published by the Hon. Mr. Frank Scicluna, Hon. Consul of S. A. That Malta was never mentioned in any of the segments aired and presented by Mr. Liebman. Malta played a big part in treating and healing thousands of ANZACS that were injured in Gallipoli, and some three hundred who lost their lives are buried in Malta. Many hospitals were built specifically to treat them, and early when there were not enough hospitals and beds, the local population even donated bends for the injured. I FIRMLY BELIEVE MALTA SHOULD GET A MENTION AND PAID TRIBUTE FOR THE WONDERFUL WAY THE ANZACS WERE TREATED AND NURSED BACK TO GOOD HEALTH.

  11. Denis Darmanin

    May 11, 2018 at 7:33 am

    I also read about the three pinnaces sunk by friendly fire due to lack of proper communications between the army and navy. The casualties were both British and Maltese, but was hushed up and blamed on the Italians.

  12. George Vella

    February 21, 2019 at 1:09 pm

    I am 89 years old born Oct 1930, i agree with Mr Vince Camilleri we came to Melbourne 1954 and never heard the name of Malta in ANZACS parade on TV is a shame. i amproud to be Maltese.


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