Malta’s Rock Shelters
After the massive death toll of the Illustrious Blitz in January 1941, it seemed that the only safe haven during Luftwaffe air raids was underground. The Governor was determined to provide bomb-proof shelters as a matter of urgency. Malta’s rock provided the ideal cover, but underground shelters would take a long time to complete. Over 2000 miners and other labourers were given the task of digging out hundreds of rock shelters in key locations.
“There were public shelters and private ones all were dug down with more than 10 feet of rock thickness overhead. The rocks in [Dingli] are not that hard but ten feet of it over your head was safe enough. The authorities went at this exercise of providing private shelters in great earnest. In fact some ten shelters were dug around the village.
Luckily for us there were enough workers who were professional diggers in rock. They had had great experience in an exercise that had been going on in the village during the previous ten years:…digging shafts some four feet wide and going down till they reached the clay layer…[where] water was found… On each shaft a wind pump was erected and a reservoir was dug or built near it.
As soon as war started it became illegal to dig such shafts. This released a number of skilled workers in this art of rock digging. An ingenious manner of keeping a straight wall when digging was the use of an antique lit oil lamp with a wick which was put in a whole in the wall. It was so placed as to create a shadow of say one inch wide on the face of the rock being cut. This shadow was strictly followed and the walls of shelters were straight as if mechanically cut.” Joseph Farrugia, Attard 2011
SHELTERS FOR ALL
By June 1941 the workforce had increased to 5,500 by June 1941, nearly 500 public rock shelters had been finished and another 400 were in progress. In all they could house 138,000 people. Another 90,000 had access to alternative shelters:
“I was born in April 1937 and when war broke out my family moved to Lija, a village which was considered to be safer than areas around the harbours where we lived. The family spent 18 months living at the bottom of the well which was inside the house. A passageway and two rooms were dug out from the bottom of the well; we slept down there and emerged a few times a day when the ‘all clear’ siren sounded. I remember one or two bombs falling nearby but at that young age I wasn’t alarmed by the whistling sound as they fell.” Edward Caruana Galiza, 2011
This still left thousands with nowhere to go during an air raid. Teams of volunteers, including women, joined in the digging, giving their labour in return for knowing their locality would have enough shelter. At the end of November 1941, the Governor announced there was space available in a shelter for the whole population of Malta.
SCRAMBLE FOR SHELTER
By February 1942, with raids often continuous throughout the night, shelters became congested with chairs and bedding brought in for comfort and rest. The two square feet per head originally allowed was insufficient. Anticipating a night of raids, people began to rush to shelters straight after supper. Spaces were often over-subscribed:
“When an air raid alarm is given, huge crowds of people can be seen heading for [the shelter at 111 Kingsway, Valletta]…large enough to hold at least 150 people, whilst in a raid this place is sheltering approximately 300 people with more than 50 persons outside the passage hoping to get in.”
As one newspaper reported:
“The shelter at the bottom of South Street, Valletta is absolutely choked with beds so that people with more consideration for others who have not brought a bed down with them find it very difficult to find a place to stand inside the shelter.”
Excerpts from When Malta Stood Alone, Joseph Micallef, Interprint 1981
In February 1942 the Government began to appoint Shelter Wardens who would allocate places in shelters to named individuals, and keep the spaces clean. They also decided to allow private individuals to excavate cubicles in shelters, creating up to twelve additional places each. Others felt the time had come to provide their own shelters:
“The public shelters were soon filled up with the people bringing down straw mattresses to sleep on during the night in the wide corridors hewn below. Private citizens then dug small cubicles in the public shelters for them to sleep in. Others who could not afford it just threw their mattress on the empty space on the floor. Chamber pots were carried down too.
We dug our shelter at the basement of our house and in it we had three cubicles for us and our two aunts. We went as deep as the public shelter and left a skin of about three inches thickness so that in case our house came down we could escape by knocking down the thin shield of rock separating us. A sledge hammer for this eventuality always lay next to this area.” Joseph Farrugia, Attard 2011
VISIT A WORLD WAR TWO SHELTER
MGARR SHELTER Mgarr: 12 metres deep and 225 metres long and dug entirely by hand.
MALTA AT WAR MUSEUM Birgu: a museum dedicated to the ordeal suffered by the Island; includes a maze of tunnels and galleries used as an air raid shelter, including cubicles and contemporary artefacts.