Illustrious Blitz: The People Remember


Luftwaffe bombs hit Illustrious

Luftwaffe bombs hit Illustrious


“People rushed into the shelter in such a hurry as never before, pressing each other down the steps of the underground. But were the shelters safe enough?  Was there room enough to house the population of Senglea, which by now had swelled to saturation point?  We had an overcrowding, but everyone managed to get in.  Until then, I was not in a habit to take cover in a private shelter.  My refuge was the church…but when the air raid started, I soon realised that the church was not a safe place.  So Mr Julian Camilleri and I ran together to…a wide space in the wall leading to the sacristy [where] we had placed the statue of Our Lady, Our Bambina for security purpose…

The air raid was an experience we never had the like before. It was so terrifying.  Bombs fell in succession and exploded with a deafening sound causing the ground to tremble under our feet, blinding us with their flash and making everything totter around us.  It seemed the end of everything…When the signal of the ‘Raiders Passed’ was given, we emerged out of our hiding place…Many people were killed…

In my diary I wrote: ‘The 16th January 1941 a day of mourning; at 2.15pm the alarm was given to warn us that an air raid was starting.  The planes and the raiders were German.  Habitations and the church were severely hit and heavily damaged.  Twenty-one people were killed…That very day, or perhaps the following morning, the regional protection officer came to Senglea and [said] it was imperative and very urgent that we make people leave Senglea, using every means of persuasion. A group of military English officials came to Senglea to organise a hurried evacuation.” (1)


“The teachers had barely reported [for afternoon school] when the sirens started wailing at 1.55pm. We all went quietly down to the shelter in the basement and, as usual, Miss M A Quattromani started reciting prayers and invoking God’s mercy on the boys clustered around us…We in the Housecraft School basement were at our wit’s end. Miss Quattromani had exhausted her knowledge of prayers and, although we attempted to distract the boys in some way, they all looked badly shaken by fear; they were simply terrified… When the Raiders Passed sounded at 3.15pm I did not wait for the All Clear but I told the boys they must run in full speed to the Railway Tunnel Shelter…in the wink if an eye they were gathered again around us in…absolute safety.” (2)


Young Joseph Attard, in Cospicua on an errand for his father, had stopped to look at the stricken Illustrious when the air raid alert sounded. He watched as the dockyard workers ran for shelter, fascinated by the prospect of a German air raid:

“There seemed to be more than a hundred of them… the noise was so shattering that even from that height it felt as if it was going to rupture my ear drums. I stood where I was, intent on the straight-moving formations, as I had never seen anything like it and I was wondering how long those planes could endure the steel and explosive that was going up at them…

First one, then the rest of the Stukas one at a time peeled off from the formations and dived straight on to the Dockyard below…a noise broke in from the guns which began firing to meet them half way.   It takes a brave heart to dive from an inferno such as they had been in, straight into another one.  But the Stukas did not falter and kept to their dive nothwithstanding the one or two that were hit and exploded in mid-air.  When they were past the second barrage of murderous fire they went straight into the third barrage put up by the Bofors and Pom Poms.  But after that there was the whistling of bombs and whining planes pulled out of the dives, followed by tremendous explosions.

I still think that on that day I learned what hell is like.” (3)


“Hordes and hordes of dive-bombers came over in big waves for over an hour and dived from all angles in a suicidal manner to within a hundred feet of the harbour, where they let go their enormous bombs.  The anti-aircraft barrage was as terrific as it was awe-inspiring. Bofors guns banged and crashed at a determined height, above them burst pom-pom shells and the heavier shells, below them spluttered the rifle and machine gun bullets, till the whole sky was one mass of boiling bubbling explosions completely blotting out the blue canopy above.  The prolonged din merged with the continuous echo to produce an eerie mumble which rose and fell but never slackened…The show never seemed to end, but when the last plane had gone, and the thunder of guns changed into an echo and then, too, disappeared, a pall of white smoke covered the whole harbour area, and we at once knew that the Three Cities had been badly wounded…

Senglea January 1941

Senglea January 1941

Immediately after I went to Valletta where a big bomb had hit and demolished eight houses in Old Mint Street. Many people were buried alive here but all except five were saved.  I then proceeded to Cottonera and, after being caught in another raid on the way, entered Senglea City.  Pale people of all ages, carrying bundles of clothing; the dismal banging of doors and windows forced open by blast; the frequent shattering of glass and the continuous stream of dust and stones from demolished houses; all this greeted me and made me pause as I entered Senglea…

Approaching the top of the long broad stretch that was Victory Street with its gentle inviting slope, I beheld little else but stones, dust and debris blocking the entire roadway at different places. As I walked down the street, climbing over high piles of shattered masonry littered with broken furniture, I glanced down the side streets and noticed with sullen anger and amazement that these too were blocked to a height of one storey…and all the while the sickly smell of gas touched my nostrils…

At the Wharf the scene was still bad. Great voids in blocks of houses marked the trail of the bombs.  The promenade was littered with balconies, broken dghajsas, shop signs and goods… (4)


“I warned my mother that should there be any air raids during the day she was not to leave the house, with its unusually thick stone walls, the house itself was as safe as any shelter…I then returned home:

“I yelled but there was no answer. I rushed up to the rooftop and saw that what used to be the vestry of the Church of St Lawrence was now a pile of rubble.  I rushed down again and hurried towards that place.  In the large crowd which had assembled, I caught sight of my married sister sobbing uncontrollably.  She mumbled that our mother was buried under that rubble.  I grabbed my sister and her son by the arm and hurried them to [safety].  Luckily my other sister had gone to Qormi to visit some acquaintances; if she had not done so she would almost certainly have been with my mother. 

I went back and stood with a lot of other people, including Fr Paul Galea, the parish priest, watching servicemen and ARP personnel going about the rescue operations…I stayed there through the bitterly cold and wet night until my sixty-year-old mother was brought up lifeless in the early morning. That was a cruel, tragic, unforgettable night.” (5)

(1) Senglea During the Second Great War 1940-1944, Monsignor Emmanuel Brincat, Progress Press

(2) Floriana in Wartime, Emmanuel Tonna, Malta 1969

(3) The Battle of Malta, Joseph Attard, Hamlyn Paperbacks 1980

(4) The Road to Rome, Philo Pullicino, MPI Publishing 2012

(5) The People’s War, Malta: 1940/43, Laurence Mizzi, Progress Press 1998




21 responses to “Illustrious Blitz: The People Remember

  1. Robert Cilia

    November 25, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    My father Joseph Cilia was serving with the Dockyard Defence Battery which formed part of the Royal Artillery. On 16th. January he was on duty just a few metres away from the Illustrious. In fact I think that the place where his 8 barrel Pom Pom was sighted is visible in the photo above. On the right of the Illustrious there is a structure visible with what seems to be a tower (he used to tell me that they were positioned in a tower) so that he was in the thick of it! He was the range-finder of the battery and he used (if I rememer correctly he used to chout out the word “cut”) to indicate to the sergeant to start actually firing the 8 barrelled pop pom. When the Illustrious berthed extra AA guns were brought in from other areas of Malta and placed around the battery on which my dad was serving. The extra crews were provided by RN personnel from the Illustrious itself. There was the certainty that there would be heavy bombing soon. And then the air raids started in earnest. Unfortunately, the gun crew of which my dad formed part had just changed their Bofors for the Pom Pom and the training provided was minimal indeed according to my dad. When my dad had his first Junkers in his cross-sights he gave the order “Shout” but something went wrong and the firing pin popped out (or something of that kind) and they could not use the Pom Pom. While the crew ran for an underground shelter my dad took out his Enfield, jumped into a slit trench next to the “tower” and started firng at the Ju 87’s which were flying so low that he could actually see the goggles on the crew’s faces. Afterwards he was actually reprimanded for wasting precious ammunition! His battery was in such a dangerous place – right in the middle of the Docyard-Marsa area that the authorities used to send them military personnel form other units/batteries as a punishment – something which did not cheer my dad and the other members of the crew.

  2. Robert Dimech

    December 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    The ‘tower’ structure beside and slightly over the Illustrious was a Dockyard crane deployed to obstruct dive bombers and hopefully (!) entagle them in it. It did not contain or support any weapons. I believe the pom-pom (salvaged from a damaged warship) was situated at Isla point. The tower Mr Cilia refers to may possibly be the ‘gardjola’ at the far end of Isla Point.

    Roberrt Dimech

  3. Robert Cilia

    December 4, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Dear Mr.Dimech thanks for your comments. Interesting about the crane. It would take a very inexperienced german pilot to get entangled in that crane. Yes there was a pom-pom battery at the Gardjola at l-Isla but my dad was stationed at Corradino heights somewhere I presume near the present Grain Terminal. . Possibly the “tower” that he used to mention was some sort of temporary structure where the pom-pom was installed. I would really appreciate if anyone having a photo/s of the area taken sometime in 1940 would publish it on this site. The sergeant in charge of the position was Leli Tabone who later became a Minister in the first Labour administration of 1947 or 1953.

  4. Lawrence Debono

    February 27, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    I want to take this moment to salute all those involved in the defensive actions in the attempts to fend off the enemy forces. Among those I want to mention especially my grand father, Lawrence Debono from Cospiqua. He was right in the middle of the action with bombs exploding all around and right beside them but they kept working as required. To be exact he was the Engineer on one of the tugboats towing HMS Illustrious away from cities.

    Those tugboats were so important in this event and when the convoy rolled in to Malta.

  5. Nancy Borg Serg

    March 16, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    My dad Leone Borg from Sliema often told us he worked in communications on the Illustrious….did not say much else. If anybody knew him, can they contact me and shed light on this please?

    • Nancy Serg nee Borg

      July 20, 2015 at 10:19 pm

      Illustrious Blitz.- Where can I find out if there was a list of personnel on the Ilustrious?

  6. Melania Cardona

    April 16, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    I would like to add this information…….!!! On the same day the ILLUSTRIOUS was attacked , my mother (Lorenza Borg) together with other members of her family were buried under the rubble of their house in Kalkara. My mum, her pregnant mother aged 36, two sisters- Marjorie and Josephine,and two brothers-George and Vincent. Only my mum managed to crawl out into the street,was taken to hospital where she stayed for 6 months, remained alive. She is still alive (86 years old),The photo of the funeral of her family was in the magazine “Malta at war”. As her father, Vincent Borg, was a policeman, they were buried in the Police grave in the Adolorata cemetery. If anybody has photos of the bombardment of Kalkara, I would be very obliged if these photos are forwarded to me at .

    • Robert Cilia

      April 17, 2012 at 4:50 am

      Sad story to read how nearly a whole family was wiped out. Is anyone aware if the attack was carried out in the afternoon or the morning?

    • Leanne

      October 16, 2018 at 6:59 am

      It gave me chills reading this. On 10 July, 1942, my grandmother was rescued from beneath the rubble of her family home where she slept alongside her husband (not my grandfather) who perished along with her mother, father (a lieutenant sergeant in the Royal Engineers), brother aged 3, sister aged 8 and brother aged 10. She also spent several months in hospital. She later remarried and moved to Australia but suffered from depression the rest of her life. What she must have lived with every day. Thinking about it makes me so sad.

  7. Nancy M.A. Serg nee Borg

    April 17, 2012 at 5:31 am

    Sorry to hear about your family Melania.
    I wonder if someone can provide a link to access
    a data base with names of those who served on the Illustrious please?

  8. Anthony Clover

    July 22, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    The 16th January 1941 was actually my third birthday and I was living with my grandparents Allen and Margaret Barrett in Valetta, because my Royal Navy father had been invalided to the UK at the beginning of the War and my mother had not been able to get back to Malta after Italy declared war. The switch at the beginning of that year from the high altitude bombing of the Italians to the Germans’ “close contact” technique of low-level, near vertical dive bombing was both shocking and terrifying to those living in the city only hundreds of yards from the targets. The howling Stukas’ attempts on the crippled Illustrious were so fierce over the three day blitz that my grandparents ( who owned the pharmacy Collis [&] Williams in the Strada Reale, now 300 Republic Street) asked the Chalmers family to look after me with their small boy Robert in the seemingly “safer” area of their house at 109 Molo Pietà (now Triq Marina). I was lucky to live with them until the Japanese surrender, after which my mother, by then a Wren officer, had been able to get posted as Secretary of the Captain of the Fleet in Lascaris, Valetta responsible for the massive post-war demobilisation exercise of the Mediterranean Fleet called “Malta Complements”.
    I am pretty certain that my grandparents would have been amongst those 250 people mentioned by Canon Nicholls, who took refuge in the crypt of St Paul’s Anglican Co-Cathedral during this series of raids, as they lived directly opposite at 20J St Paul’s Buildings and he was one of the two lay church wardens and secretary/treasurer of the Ta’Braxia cemetery. Ironically in late spring of 1942 our bedroom at “109” itself was destroyed by a bomb in the middle of the night, only minutes after Margaret Chalmers had managed to wake up Robert and me to go to our shelter in the cellar.
    Ian Chalmers, a fellow freemason, owned F. Blackley’s ,the bakers and confectioners in Valetta, whose bakery along with a fleet of vehicles was at the bottom of Guardamangia Hill/Gwardamanġa, Pietà. Family legend has it that it was actually he who first proposed the Victory Kitchens to the Governor and he then provided his vans to transport the hay boxes of food during the All Clears between air raids. [Apparently also, the government failed to pay compensation at the end of the War for his worn out vans.]
    Margaret Chalmers, herself a tall, strong woman, weighed less than six stone by 1945 having given up much of her food quota to save Robert and me, I believe. I read somewhere that for much of the time the ration fell to a quarter of that available in Britain – if you could find it ….. I still vividly recall the skies pockmarked by shells exploding in the anti-aircraft box barrages over the Marsamxett harbour, the cloying stink and stinging of the eyes caused by the smoke screen canisters along Ix-Xatt and Sa Maison, the daily ripping noise on the roads made by the massive build-up of vehicles for the invasion of Sicily, and all the ships, submarines and fast torpedo boats off Ta’ Xbiex and Manoel Island. Msida creek was filled with stone rubble and thick with oil – it was amazing that I ever caught a small sardine in the pollution.

    • Terence Bannon

      October 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      By any chance would that Robert Chalmers have died in an aircrash in Nettuno Italy on the 22nd October 1958?
      My father died in that crash and I erected a stone on the crash site in 2006.

      • Anthony Clover

        November 14, 2013 at 5:36 pm

        How sad but interesting! Yes, indeed: Robert was amongst those who were killed in the air collision. His body was brought back to Malta and he was buried in Ta’Braxia Cemetery, where only months later his father Ian Chalmers would also be laid to rest in January 1959, having suddenly succumbed within only a week to leukæmia, a double tragedy for the family. Robert was in the Black Watch and had only just passed his WOSB selection, so he was flying out to Malta for a week’s leave before going on to his officer cadet school. Would you please be so kind as to send me details of the stone you erected at Nettuno.

    • Terence Bannon

      July 21, 2019 at 3:10 pm

      I wrote to you some (six) years ago about Robert Chalmers and his untimely death in Netuno. Unfortunately I lost my email records etc. I would be delighted to send you some photographs of the monument I erected at the crash site. Perhaps you could send me an email address for yourself or any relative of Roberts I can reply to with the images.
      Terence Bannon.

  9. Robert Dimech

    November 2, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    It is quite possible that the pom-pom referred to in the first post was actually a four barrel Vickers 0.50in machine gun, the barrels of which looked similar although they were mounted vertically one above the other. One gun was deployed at the dockyard; this was later in 1941 mover to Fort Madliena and later on to Tigne’.

    As far as i can ascertain, land based versions of the pom pom had single or at most twin barrels. Quarduples and eight barrelled versions were mounted on board ships, the latter only on aircraft carriers and battleships. Nine single barrel Mk II guns from naval stores were available from 1939.

    Robert Dimech

  10. Michael Montebello

    August 20, 2015 at 7:58 am

    Michael Montebello

  11. Michael Montebello

    August 21, 2015 at 5:43 am

    I,was a 11years old,when the illustrious raid came,I was near my schoolin SENGLEA playing with my Mates when the raid came,we the strait away run to the shelter ,after a few minutes hell broke lose above us,with the sound of bonbs falling above us every body was crying screaming saying prayers we never thought we come out alive,suddenly,all went quite,I went to look for another exet and run for my live on top Ruble in victory streetall the way to ST PHILIP CHURCH where we used live in two gates street and thank THE GOOD GOD my family and our house was OK.the next day we left our belove SENGLEA and we went to VALLTTA in a shelter under ST.LUCIA bastion call ix-xelter ta-wills and stayed in that whole for the rest of the war.

  12. Vince Camilleri

    January 9, 2016 at 7:06 am

    I have a little story about an experience I had which started when my mother, myself and a younger brother, came out of the air raid shelter after a raid, and found our home completely demolished. Our home was an apartment situated at the corner of St. Dominic and St. Paul’s streets, Valletta. My name is Vince Camilleri, I was about four and a half years old at the time. As you can imagine my mum cried her eyes and screamed out of control, my brother and I hung on to her dress and of course we were terrified. Our dad was in the R.A.F. and on duty at the time. My Mum was comforted by some ARP personnel, and when she quietened down a bit, she noticed while looking at the bombed out building that a our small TALLBOY was balancing on a wooden beam or rafter. This tallboy was a wardrobe for putting children’s cloths in. We had lost everything, all we had left was the summer cloths we were wearing.
    It was about September 1940. My mum begged the ARP people to try and recover the tallboy for us, and offered a reward to those who managed to recover it. Well somehow they managed it, and after a couple of days they brought it to us. We were at the time taken in by my aunt in St Nicholas Street. After a while the housing department billited us in a large house called a CARREJA, with ten other families, this is another story. We lived there till 1941, when dad acquired the lease of a house also in St. Paul’s street Valletta. Being the only thing salvaged from our belongings and from my mum’s dowry, my mum used to take care of the tallboy which was made of beautiful mohogany, wiping and polishing it like it was something priceless, sometimes with a tear in her eyes. In the new house I shared a bedroom with my younger brother George, and the tallboy was situated between our two beds.
    I got married and migrated to Australia in June 1960, were we are still living.
    Both my mum and dad both passed away in 1974, and my sister being the only girl among 5 boys, inherited the house and contents, among which was my mum’s Tallboy. In 1988 I decided to go back to Malta for a holiday and to visit my other four brothers and sister. When I visited my sister, I looked for the tallboy, and to my disgust my sister said she got rid of it as it did not fit in with her new modern furniture.
    I immediate went into a fit and cried my eyes out, and call ed my sister all sort of names. I would have gladly paid for it to be sent to me in Australia, had I known she was going to get rid of it.My sister was born in 1940 after the war and did not appreciate the the story and moral value of that tallboy. I love my sister very much and are very close, and visited Malta 7 times after that, and she always welcomes us, but for the tallboy I have not forgiven her, It was a treasured item in memory of my mum.

  13. Vince Camilleri

    January 26, 2016 at 7:27 am

    This is Vince Camilleri, I wish to correct a typing mistake in the above story, my sister was born in 1950 and not 1940.

  14. Anamaria Bonavia

    March 19, 2021 at 12:23 pm

    My husband’s uncle, Father John Theuma and his aunts, Carmela and Emilia Theuma along with his cousin, Beatrice were killed on January 16,1941 when a bomb hit their home. There is a monument in Malta dedicated to the lives that were lost in Senglea. I have been trying to locate it and I’m not able to do so. Any help in locating the monument would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.


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