Joe Zahra’s War:
BIRZEBBUGIA AND HAL FAR – JUNE 1940
“I was 10 years old when the bombing started. That bombing should not have come as a surprise because for years on end before, the signs and talk at the time were all pointing in one direction. It was clear that war was inevitable and grown ups could see it coming.
Up until 1938, Dad worked on board one of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, which, being a hospital ship, (by the name HMHS Maine) used to cruise the Mediterranean along with the British Royal Navy…Dad decided to change jobs from sea going to one ashore. He didn’t want to be at sea in a war; there was enough tension as it were, in peace time.
There were plenty of jobs especially with the British armed forces who were eagerly seeking man power in anticipation of a war. Dad quickly got a job supposedly at the Naval Dockyard but ironically enough he was detailed to report for work at the Royal Navy Air Station at Hal Far. He was engaged to do work as an Aircraft Fitter and Rigger…
Hal Far was a bit far off from home so Mum and Dad decided to move home to a place nearer to work and set up house in the village of Birzebbugia…a beautiful spot by the sea. Hal Far airfield was just over a mile inland but adjacent to Berzi. was the RAF Seaplane base of Kalafrana. Also, the Shell Company had large storage tanks at Birzebbugia. With such valuable military objectives around, the authorities decided to place heavy anti-aircraft gun installations at nearby Benghajsa, at Delimara to the West and at another strategic spot to the South suitably named ‘Ta’ Gunner’ Also, the coast, especially the sandy beach was handy for an enemy invading force where to get ashore. Indeed, Birzebbugia was a target area of primary importance to the enemy.
In the eyes of a child, like myself, Birzebbugia was a paradise. Clean clear blue seas in the summer, and being a rural area, fauna and flora in the winter. In 1938/39, seeing an aeroplane in the sky was a rarity. At Birzebbugia, you could see them close by on land and taking off at Hal Far or floating at their moorings at Kala[frana].
I was much luckier than that. Occasionally, I used to spend the day with dad at Hal Far and not only could I touch an aircraft, but also climb onto the plane and sit in the cockpit. I have actually sat on the pilot’s seat and held the Joystick of a Blenheim or that of a trainer aircraft Miles Magister. Not many boys of my age at the time could say that.
Malta, being a fortress in the British Empire preparing for war, Naval and military exercises were an on-going process. The sound of gun fire in the distance was practically an every day thing. At school during break time, the site of a flying aircraft pulling a target with puffs and sound of gunfire was common.
But on that faithful day of the [10th] of June 1940 at seven o’ clock in the morning, the noise of exploding enemy bombs at nearby Kalafrana and Hal Far, accompanied with heavy anti aircraft fire sounded very differently from that of peace time exercises. Clearly no joke
It was terrifying. I was still fast asleep woken up by the terrific din. Grandma was in the room praying in front of a holy picture of the head of a crucified Christ and a pair of lighted candles in front of it.
Is this war, I asked. Yes dear, it started. There was another heavy raid at about five o’clock in the evening. We just had time to pull our boats ashore and lay them up for the duration of the war.”
Joe Zahra, Malta 2011