HomeWorldIn pictures: Everyday life in Malta during World War II

In pictures: Everyday life in Malta during World War II

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Our islands claim to have been the most intensely bombed country during World War II. Military Malta was probably also one of the most photographed.

Empty gasoline fuel tanks being salvaged near an airport.

Empty gasoline fuel tanks being salvaged near an airport.

Unloading supplies of much-needed essentials in 1943.

Unloading supplies of much-needed essentials in 1943.

Distribution by the police of gas masks to Maltese families just before the outbreak of World War II.

Distribution by the police of gas masks to Maltese families just before the outbreak of World War II.

Compatibly with security defence regulations, which banned camera use in public spaces, authorised photographers recor­ded thousands of images of warfare – armed personnel, dogfights, maritime convoys, demolition units, anti-aircraft gunnery, military sports. You name it. These have, justly, found their place in many published war memoirs.

Distribution of water near Kingsgate under police guard.Distribution of water near Kingsgate under police guard.

The same cannot be said of images of everyday life in wartime. Very few photographs seem to have been taken or to have survived – a rarity indeed. 

We know that, more or less, life of the inhabitants went on, notwithstanding the daily bombings, the dangers, destructions, racketeers, famines, terrors, underground shelters, epidemics and black markets. But we know this mostly through written and oral tradition, not through visual representations. 

Queuing for rationed kerosine near Castille, Valletta.Queuing for rationed kerosine near Castille, Valletta.

I thought it my duty to put together as many images as possible of civilian life in Malta under the blitz and to break my rule of limiting any one subject to just one self-contained feature. In this special case, I intend to spread my collection over two or three instalments. I trust readers will agree that it would be unsociable to hide rare historic treasures, many never published before.

Long queues for pasteurised milkLong queues for pasteurised milk

The quality of the images will vary. Some come from scans of pristine real photographs while others are copies I had lifted from rare printed publications. Most of the people who appear in them have passed, with possible exceptions of some of the youngest children.

Children playing on the wreckage of a downed German Stuka plane in Senglea.

Children playing on the wreckage of a downed German Stuka plane in Senglea.

Emptying the granaries on the Floriana fossos during the siege.

Emptying the granaries on the Floriana fossos during the siege.

People gather around the old-established Gopaldas outlet, in Valletta after it was bombed out.

People gather around the old-established Gopaldas outlet, in Valletta after it was bombed out.

Children buying prickly pears from a vendor during the war famine.

Children buying prickly pears from a vendor during the war famine.

Mother and daughter find a temporary refuge in blitzed Malta.

Mother and daughter find a temporary refuge in blitzed Malta.

I salute the ‘natives’ and celebrate their memories, their endurance, resilience and stoicism. Without them, Malta’s survival against murderous Nazism and fanatical Fascism would have been unthinkable.

Unloading precious cargo to besieged Malta.

Unloading precious cargo to besieged Malta.

‘Life goes on’

In pictures: More images of everyday Maltese life in WWII

Images of struggles for survival, of the ability to adjust to adversity, to meet death as routine and the exceptional as normality

Children posing for a photo after an air raid.Children posing for a photo after an air raid.

I have already commented on the abundance of wartime photographs of military activities and on the scarcity of images of the everyday life of the people besieged. The same imbalance scars most of the written memoirs of Malta’s battles for survival. Countless narratives, the majority by British authors, record the terrible war years, with candour, with vainglory, with chilling humour, with defiance.

The war-damaged shirt and cap shop of Vincenzo Agius & Co., still open for business.The war-damaged shirt and cap shop of Vincenzo Agius & Co., still open for business.

But most of the storytellers leave the impression of having won the war in a country virtually devoid of any indigenous population. The Maltese, if at all, feature only as background noise, unsuitable for the loud festival of British self-congratulation.

Police and lookers-on close to a bombed building.Police and lookers-on close to a bombed building.

To learn how we natives lived the second world war, narratives by local authors have to be tapped; to mention some who come to mind: Philip Vella, Charles J. Boffa, Michael Galea, Joseph Micallef and Charles B. Grech. Their testimonies remains invaluable. Ernle Bradford too has an excellent and sympathetic account but not as an eyewitness. 

Unloading precious cargo to besieged Malta.Unloading precious cargo to besieged Malta.

The only outstanding British narrative of Malta in the second world conflict in which the Maltese figure as major players remains the one by Stewart Perowne, author, historian and diplomat. What a breath of honest fresh air to find a member of the British intelligence services, no less, paying a grovelling tribute to the faultless Maltese wartime internees and deportees to Uganda and castigating the colonialist abuses they suffered, already amply denounced by His Majesty’s judges before him.

Clearing bomb damage
A public shelter and dormitory in a disused railway tunnel.

A public shelter and dormitory in a disused railway tunnel.

A sailor is helping salvaging belongings from a bombed house.

A sailor is helping salvaging belongings from a bombed house.

I am today publishing a second batch of photographs of ‘ordinary’ life during an extraordinarily cruel siege. Nothing boldly heroic, nothing epic – just images of struggles for survival, of the ability to adjust to adversity, to meet death as routine and the exceptional as normality.

Long queues for pasteurised milk

Long queues for pasteurised milk

Unloading precious cargo to besieged Malta.

Unloading precious cargo to besieged Malta.

A sailor is helping salvaging belongings from a bombed house.

A sailor is helping salvaging belongings from a bombed house.

In pictures: Everyday life in Malta during the siege 

From rationing, interminable queues and epidemics, to new crimes, enemy pilot lynching, and life underground

Finding their way through the post-blitz debris.

Finding their way through the post-blitz debris.

A stroll round the Opera House ruins

A stroll round the Opera House ruins

More images of beleaguered Malta struggling for survival against lethal odds during the Fascist and Nazi blitz. Torrents of bombs conspired with famine and malnutrition, with dearth of fuel and nasty epidemics to cheat life, not of glamour but of hope.

Clearing bomb damage
Harvesting wheat under police guard.

Harvesting wheat under police guard.

Queue outside the Victory Kitchen, in Valletta

Queue outside the Victory Kitchen, in Valletta

Some memories stick out more than others – the ubiquitous rationing of virtually everything, from foodstuffs to clothing, from toys to cosmetics, from petrol to cigarettes, from overseas postal services to radios.

And life goes onAnd life goes on

The precious ‘ration book’, the exorbitant black market, hand-me-down clothing, the town and village Victory kitchens that doled out inedible gruel that claimed some remote acquaintance with goats’ meat, over which interminable queues squabbled, and the governor proudly on air to announce a handful of beans as a Christmas bonus.

Women clutching ration cards.Women clutching ration cards.

And then the epidemics; some the results of chronic malnutrition. Waves of scabies, scarlet fever, rickets, bubonic plague, scurvy, infestations of lice, infantile paralysis, substitute medicines and the first mentions of mysterious antibiotics.

Living in makeshift roomsLiving in makeshift rooms

New crimes appeared on the official statute book – listening to enemy radio, hoarding edibles, unauthorised photography, black marketeering, harbouring draft dodgers and visible lights at nighttime. And the unofficial ones too, like speaking Italian, defeatist propaganda, humming Italian opera or driving German cars. Other laws seem to have been suspended: Italian and German pilots parachuting from stricken enemy planes routinely lynched on landing; no prosecutions are recorded.

A public shelter and dormitory in a disused railway tunnel.A public shelter and dormitory in a disused railway tunnel.

Any life that could shifted underground. At first, huge communal shelters like disused railway tunnels or basements of large public buildings turned into makeshift dormitories, before private rock dugouts became widespread.

Daily and nightly, the besieged cooked, gossiped, played, slept, prayed and made love in the bowels of the earth, while the Macchis and the Junkers pranced overhead.

Shampooing in public.
Saving some furniture in Valletta after an air raid on November 25, 1941.

Saving some furniture in Valletta after an air raid on November 25, 1941.

All images are from the author’s collections

What was left of Palazzo Parisio near CastilleWhat was left of Palazzo Parisio near Castille

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