The award of the George Cross to Malta has never been officially published in the London Gazette – the only exception since the gallantry medal was created by Royal Warrant by King George VI early in the Second World War with the details published in the London Gazette on January 31, 1941. The Cross was to be awarded “for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.”
The award was a personal gesture of the King and not a decision of the British Government. It was announced by Buckingham Palace with the publication of a citation written in the King’s hand in the form of a letter sent the Governor, General Sir William Dobbie “to honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.”
The King’s decision came at the height of the siege on April 15, 1942 when the Axis air forces were bombarding the island incessantly round the clock with wave after wave of bombers in a determined onslaught that was more intensive and prolonged that the Battle of Britain.
The towns and villages were being reduced to rubble and the population spent long periods in the shelters and food was in short supply. In an order of the day the Luftwaffe boasted: “During the period March 20 to April 28, 1942, the naval and air bases of Malta were put completely out of action. In the course of 5,807 sorties by bombers, 5.667 by fighters and 345 by reconnaissance aircraft, 6,557,231 kilograms of bombs were dropped…” This was almost as much as the total dropped by the Luftwaffe on the whole of Britain at the height of the Battle of Britain in September 1940.
Valletta was being pounded and on April 7 the area at the entrance to the city was deliberately bombed, the Royal Opera House demolished and most of the buildings in the vicinity destroyed. The Italians were making plans to occupy the island and expected the garrison and people to surrender. The Luftwaffe pilots did not know where to drop their bombs so great was the havoc seen from the air.
On Friday, March 23, three ships of Convoy MW 10 had arrived at Malta from Alexandria after a bitter naval battle against superior Italian naval forces and Axis aircraft sorties. The Luftwaffe did not target the ships in force on Saturday because of very bad weather and the work of unloading the ships started but was halted on Sunday on the orders of the Governor who was a very religious person. But the Luftwaffe attacked in waves on Monday and the ships were sunk and the cargoes lost. One of these ships, SS Talabot, whose holds were full of ammunition, caught fire below Floriana bastion and the inhabitants of the town were evacuated as it was feared the harbour area would be destroyed if the ship blew up. The situation was saved when an officer from the cruiser Penelope, Lieut. D.A. Copperwheat, swam to the side of the freighter and at great risk attached depth charges to the keel to blow holes and let the water in and flood the ammunition holds. He was awarded the George Cross.
The three service chiefs and the Lieutenant-Governor were furious at the Governor and they petitioned the British Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, to replace him as “a tired man.” Churchill recalled General Lord Gort from hi post as Governor of Gibraltar to take over Dobbie and to asses the situation and even to consider the surrender of Malta. The George Cross medal was handed to the new Governor who carried it to Malta in his pocket on the flight to the island in a Sunderland flying-boat which landed at Kalafrana at night on May 7 during a raid on the RAF base, when some members of the welcoming party were injured. Dobbie went home on the return flight and regretted having failed to ask to see the Cross, due to all the confusion. Years later a number of individuals claimed barefacedly to have brought the medal to Malta.
The George Cross was formally presented to the people and garrison at a ceremony on the Palace Square in Valletta on September 13 later in the year when the raids had declined in intensity. Gort in a presentation address said: “On my appointment as Governor I was entrusted to carry the George Cross to this Island Fortress” and he wrote to the King: “Although I handed over the George Cross very soon after I arrived into the safe keeping of the Government of Malta, it was at the time out of the question to hold any big official ceremony at which a large crowd could be present… We were very fortunate in the weather as it was comparatively cool and we were also fortunate as no air raid alarm interfered with the ceremony…”
The medal had been displayed in turn at each town and village in Malta and in Gozo. After the war it was displayed annually on the Palace Square on the anniversary of the award until 1971 when a Labour Government led by Mr Dom Mintoff, in a bitter dispute with the British Government and reflecting the mood of its leader, withdrew it from view altogether. There were threats that the Cross, kept at the Public Library in Valletta, would be stolen and the Director of Museums. F. X. Mallia, voiced his concern, while on a visit to London to his friend, Mr George Dougall, who had been broadcasting from the BBC a weekly programme called “Maltese Miscellany.” He took Mallia to the medallist firm of Spink and they bought a replica which was displayed instead of the original. The new Librarian, Dr. Vincent Depasquale, on taking up his appointment, found to his horror that the King’s letter had been glued to a stiff cardboard and he managed to retrieve it with care.
At one stage the Minister of Labour, Culture and Welfare, Miss Agatha Barbara, asked for the Cross and this was sent to her by Mr Mallia. She discarded it and it was picked up by one of her secretaries, a Labour party zealot by the name of Manwel Schembri, who put a note in its case that the medal was not to be returned to the museum. The cloth background to the medal was mauled and Schembri wrote his name and the date 24-VII-81. When some time later the photographer of the Tourism Board sought to take a photograph of the Cross he was referred to Schembri who produced the box from the back of his office drawer with the remark: “Is this what you want, this junk!” Schembri took the Cross home and it was later recovered by the police when eventually Dr. Censu Tabone became president of Malta in 1989.
The authorities tried to obtain another Cross but were told that gallantry awards are only issued once with the name of the recipient and date and are never replaced if lost. So the torn ribbon was replaced as was a new cloth background which was laid to cover the mess which is still today hidden under the Cross, although the thin strands of wire which pierced the case were removed. The only visible remains are the tattered padding at the corner on the left hand side, which could not be replaced because of the coat-of-arms.
The George Cross stands, one hopes, as an enduring symbol of the courage and endurance to those in Malta and from the British Commonwealth and other Allied countries who fought and died in defence of the island and for world freedom in the Second World War, not least the many Maltese and Gozitan naval and merchant seamen who perished in all the oceans of the world. The Cross flying at the hoist of the Maltese red and white flag is a prayer in motion to their memory.