Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Nurse and the Thorn of the Mediterranean

While visiting the Islands of Malta and Gozo today, you will find a mix of Middle Eastern and Western cultures living together. The small Island nation of 316 square kilometres, you might not think much of this dot of three islands as they appear on World Maps. In fact, in most cases, the Capital of Valletta is often all you can make out on a Map. The small nation is 96 km south of Sicily, and 290 km North of Northern Africa, putter her right smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.  
Throughout history, Malta was an important trading post for the Mediterranean, ships from all over would come and trade goods. from around the known world. The island became known for its massive limestone fortifications under the Knights Templar, who later became known as the Knights of Malta, and it was from the Capital of Valletta, that the Knights defeated the Turks in 1565. 

Like many other areas of the world Malta has succumb to the interests of many world powers, due to her strategic positioning. In 1800 it became part of the British Empire, and Britain would largely use the Island as a coaling depot for its growing Navy, and base of its Mediterranean fleet. 

It would become a major player, for very different reasons during the two World Wars. 

Rev'd Albert Mackinnon, appropriately titled Malta, the Nurse of the Mediterranean in his 1916 work that described what he witnessed while in Malta during World War One. (The Book can be viewed online, or PDF here: 

During World War One, twenty seven hospitals and medical camps were established on the small island - and when there were only four military hospitals at the outset of the war in 1914, that is a massive number. 

Casualties started  to arrive on May 4th 1915 - from the Battle of Gallipoli, when 600 casualties arrived. The men were unloaded onto barges and brought through the quayside outside Valletta's ancient Sacra Infirmaria hospital (which was established by the Knights of St. John in the early 1500s - and can still be visited today) The Sacra Infirmaria was the longest hospital ward in Europe until the nineteenth century. 

Over the course of the next two years, more than 64,500 casualties were sent and treated in Malta, the vast majority of these recieved in the summer and autumn of 1916.  Post-war estimates are as follows: 

Casualties treated between May 1915-1919 from the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force: 58,000
Casualties treated between May 1916-1919 from the Solonika Expeditionary Force: 78,000 
* Not all patients survived treatment or injuries 

War dead, nurses and doctors who died of diseases while treating causalities are buried at the Pieta Military Cemetery in Malta. 

The Second World War 

During World War Two - Malta's roll was different - she again played a small part in nursing war casualties, but she became know as the Thorn in the side of Rommel in his War in North Africa. 
Convoys were being shipped across the Mediterranean from Greece and Italy to support the Nazi March across Africa, and for a while went unchecked by the Allies. Britain choose to base a handful of outdated Hawker Hurricane aircraft on the island for defence from Nazi bombers, and as a very small 'deterrent' for invading the island. These Hurricanes, quickly became useful in attacking the Nazi supply convoys reaching North Africa. 

Nazi Germany began to understand the strategic importance of Malta, and began constant bombing of the island, and for a period, it became the most bombed place on Earth between June of 1940 and November of 1942. More than 15,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped over that period and close to 11,000 buildings destroyed or extensively damaged. King George awarded the Islands of Malta for "bear[ing] witness to the heroism and devotion of its people during the great siege it underwent in the early parts of World War Two'

By the end of the campaign, the handful of Hurricanes, numbered in the hundreds and nearly completely destroyed the convoys to North Africa, cutting Rommel off from his supplies, and allowing the Allies a victory in Africa. 

Following the African campaign the Larscaris War Rooms (Which can be visited today), located underneath the Lascaris Battery in Valletta, which were dig into the Limestone during the bombings were used to plan, and coordinate the Allied Invasion of Sicily 1943. The complex is located 150 feet bellow the surface. 

Remembering History - Giving Malta the credit which is due - as a Nurse to our Allies, and a Thorn to our Enemies.