When it was decided that we were going to Malta, a few of my North American friends admitted that not only did they have no idea where Malta is located, they had never even heard of it.
I will admit that it wasn’t too long ago in which I would have said the same thing. It’s size and location generally excludes the tiny country from the scope of many travelers’ radar.
And if the Axis powers had their way during World War II, perhaps there would presently be no Malta to even know about or travel to. For the two year period from 1940 to 1942, Malta was thrust into the spotlight for the most unfortunate reason: it became the most bombed spot on the planet. German and Italian air forces launched over 3,000 bombing raids, determined to blast the Maltese into submission. In April of 1942 alone, 7,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Malta, more than was dropped on all of London throughout the entire war.
Even though small in size, comprised of just three small islands and just under 100 sq miles in total land mass, Malta’s position is quite strategic. Located just over 100 miles south of Sicily and 200 miles north of the embattled north-African coast, the British-controlled land fell desperately under siege. Unprepared and starving for resources that the Allies struggled to send through, Malta was brought to its knees often, and once even set a surrender date. They miraculously pulled through only because the Axis suddenly decided to divert their attention elsewhere.
Attacks were concentrated on the ports and harbors, the inhabitants forced into many bomb shelters erected on the islands. Over 30,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged, and 1,500 Maltese perished in the attacks.
They sustained a tremendous amount of hardship, and fought back. Hidden 400 ft beneath the Barrakka Gardens in the capital city of Valleta are several underground rooms that served an important purpose during those trying years of the war. Not only were the rooms used to co-ordinate defense efforts, but Dwight Eisenhower and several other key Allied officials took residence there to co-ordinate offensive strikes in the Mediterranean. Most significantly: Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.
In just the last year, the Lascaris war rooms have been restored and opened to the public. Original strategic maps outlining the attack routes still hang from the walls, and offices have been restored to show exactly where the leaders sat. Now sitting idle are the rooms in which they barked out orders of where and when to send planes and boats. Who got supplies and who didn’t. Who may live, and who may die.
The directions and decisions made in these rooms played considerably into the changing tides of the war – the success of Operation Husky represented the first steps for the Allies in taking the European mainland. In just over a month, the Operation achieved all of its goals in driving Axis presence from the island, opening sea passages, and in overthrowing the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Malta, like the rest of the world, would soon begin to breath easier and rebuild. During the worst of times, the Maltese lived on half of what rations the other European Allied countries had, all while enduring aggression like no other. Their fortitude and perseverance during such arduous times is truly exemplary.
And that is one very big reason why Malta is worth knowing about.