Monday, February 9, 2015

The Telegraph - September 14, 2002: To the wartime British public they were Faith, Hope and Charity: three obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplanes pressed into service in the desperate defence of Malta. The young men who flew them had no time for propaganda, however, preferring that other trinity: Freeman, Hardy and Willis. James Pickering is the last man alive to have flown one of those Gladiators into battle. Yesterday he joined with a small group of veterans of the siege of Malta to mark the 60th anniversary of the presentation of the George Cross to the people of the island. "You would take off in a Gladiator with some of the few Hurricanes we had on the island and head up towards the Italians," said Mr Pickering, 87. "Sometimes there would be a hundred plus - clouds of bombers and fighters swarming above. "And then, in a moment, you would be on your own - everything else had overtaken you." The gathering, at the Maltese High Commission in London, was paid a brief visit by Iain Duncan Smith, whose father flew Spitfires out of Malta after the lifting of the siege. "It is not so fashionable now to recall our great days," he told his small audience. But without Malta we could never have sustained our position in the Middle East. "We, the British and the Maltese, were a family fighting a terrible tyranny. To the people of Malta I would say: you are not forgotten." The siege of Malta, between 1940 and 1942, was one of the most intense campaigns of the Second World War. For a time the island, Britain's only base in the central Mediterranean, became the most bombed place on earth. Its capital, Valletta, was reduced largely to rubble by German and Italian air fleets operating from nearby Sicily, and its population, driven to the edge of starvation by an Axis blockade, was forced to seek refuge in cellars and caves. The small number of submarines and bombers based in Malta posed a standing threat to convoys supplying Italian and German forces in North Africa, thus its attractiveness as a target. When the young Flt Lt Pickering arrived in Malta from Egypt in August 1940 there were 22 fighter pilots on the island. Over the next eight months his squadron, only occasionally reinforced by replacements, was to lose 23. All but two of his friends died. "I lost so many friends there that I regard it now with some sorrow, but we did a good job. When I left, I swore I would never go back. I did later, though, after the war." Carmela Turner was 18 when she became a nurse on the island in 1939, and was to see the terrible effects of the constant bombing on the servicemen she cared for. During one air raid she was looking after an 18-month-old girl suffering from pneumonia. The baby was in an oxygen tent and could not be moved to a shelter, so Mrs Turner sat through the explosions by her side. She was finally relieved after being wounded by shrapnel. "We were always thinking how it would end - with surrender or invasion - but we wanted to win," she said. We were Maltese and we didn't want to let anyone down." Malta's courage was recognised in its darkest moment in April 1942 when King George VI awarded the George Cross to her people, but the ceremony could not take place until the following September. Revisionist historians have claimed in recent years that Britain expended too much blood and treasure maintaining the island - arguing that Italian logistical incompetence, rather than the efforts of the Malta strike force, was the real cause of the supply problems that prevented Rommel from seizing the Suez Canal and the oilfields of the Persian Gulf beyond.

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