In his dispatch of 5 June 1941 to Malta’s Governor, General Dobbie, Churchill stated: ‘You may be sure we regard Malta as one of the master-keys of the British Empire’. Austen D., Churchill and Malta – A Special Relationship.
Once, Mussolini had declared war on France and Britain on June 10 1940, the Maltese archipelago was virtually isolated by some one thousand miles from (Gibraltar) on the West and by another thousand miles from the East (Alexandria, Egypt). To the South on the North African coast, British troops who had claimed victory over the Italians in December 1940 were in their turn defeated early in 1941 by General Rommel and the whole of Cyrenaica was soon in German hands. Worst of all, Malta, situated a mere fifteen minutes flying distance to the South of Sicily, became liable to swift airborne attacks. The battleships that once graced the Grand Harbour had been moved to Alexandria for safe keeping against any eventual (Pearl Harbour style) attack that could be mounted from nearby Italy.
Malta, then a British colony and an important naval base, albeit, shorn for most of the time of all British battle ships, was to endure a two year siege. An airborne fighting force was firmly established in Sicily, first by the Italian Regia Aeronautica and later by the German Fliegerkorps X. Malta’s resolve to resist and break this siege was fully supported throughout the war years by Winston Churchill in his capacity as Britain’s Prime Minister and Minister of Defence who presided over the War Cabinet in London.
Throughout the time that Malta was besieged, Churchill ordered no less than seventeen convoys to go to Malta’s aid, in order to replenish diminishing food and military supplies. Churchill slowly furnished the ‘island fortress’ with Hurricanes and later on with Spitfires as well as other aircraft. These together with several submarines were to change Malta’s role from a defensive one to an offensive force to be reckoned with, harassing, interrupting and sinking enemy shipping that crossed from Italy to Africa with provisions and troops to the aid of General Rommel.
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Churchill’s connection with the Maltese islands goes beyond the events of the Second World War. Throughout his life Churchill visited Malta six times. Hereunder is a chronological account of Churchill’s visits and the various reasons why he came. The following is mostly gleaned from Douglas Austen’s very thoroughly researched book, Churchill and Malta – A Special Relationship. Other sources were also sought. (Please see my bibliography at the end of the article).
1907 – Churchill’s first visit to Malta was on October 2, while on his way to East Africa where he planned to enjoy a hunting expedition. He was then 33 years old. His short stopover however, turned out to be an official one in his capacity as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. He had been aware of Malta’s political plight at the time which imposed a moratorium on the 1889 constitution, revoked by order-in-council in 1903. The Governor of Malta, was administering Malta’s civilian requirements aided by selected council members. During the conciliatory meetings that were held, Churchill suggested that the Governor should concede a newly elected Council of Government to have a free hand when voting on matters of purely local concern. However, there were many underlying currents to the crisis and these had first to be creased out. Unfortunately, on his return to England, Churchill left the Colonial Office as he was offered a ministerial position in Cabinet and so Malta’s political problems were allowed to wane and nothing came out of his Malta talks.
1912 The second time that Churchill visited Malta was in his capacity as First Sea Lord and Admiral of the Royal Navy. On May 29 he entered the Grand Harbour on his Admiralty yacht HMS Enchantress. He was then accompanying the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith on a purposeful visit, as they were to meet Lord Kitchener, Commander-in-Chief, of the Mediterranean military, based in Egypt, to discuss security matters in the Mediterranean. Churchill was advocating that the Navy in Malta was to have some eight of the fourteen battleships based in Grand Harbour brought back to the UK. This move was necessitated by the fact that there was mounting concern over the ever growing German naval strength in the North Sea. Tensions over Germany’s ambitions that vied with Britain’s own imperialistic gains were for Churchill of paramount importance. In 1911 during the Agadir Crisis when Germany challenged French rights over Morrocco, Britain almost came to war with Germany. Churchill’s proposal encountered strong opposition from Lord Kitchener. The latter argued that Italy and Austria, both forming part of the Triple Alliance with Germany, posed a real and present danger especially with the deployment of their modern dreadnoughts in the Mediterranean; more so since both had based some of their battleships at Augusta, in Sicily. Churchill left Malta on June 1 to return to Britain.
1913 Still First Sea Lord, Churchill, again visited Malta in May on board the Enchantress. He had with him his wife daughter and mother, because as he often maintained, the yacht had practically become his home and office. This time around, he had reversed his intentions of depriving Malta and the Mediterranean of Britain’s major naval assets. On the contrary, he was now pleased to service Fortress Malta with four dreadnought battle-cruisers that were meant to counter any belligerent plans that Italy or Austria might hatch. It is worth noting that just prior to the commencement of the Great War, Churchill also had plans to furnish Malta with a squadron of aeroplanes, albeit, at the time, still a relatively newly born invention. These were intended to help the Royal Navy in Malta to reconnaissance enemy war ships that plied the Sicilian Channel and the Adriatic.
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1927 On January 8, Churchill arrived in Malta on board HMS Witch, this time on a private visit. By then he was 52 years old and had become Chancellor of the Exchequer. Churchill was accompanied by his brother Jack and his 15-year-old son Randolph. Churchill and his son were hosted by his old friend Admiral Keyes at his residence and headquarters in Admiralty House in South Street Valletta – (from 1974 up to 2017 this building housed Malta’s Fine Arts Museum). His brother Jack stayed at the Palace with the Governor, General Walter Norris Congreve and his wife. Churchill was invited for dinner by the Governor as these were also old time friend. On January 10, Churchill left Malta on board the HMS Warspite, as guest of Lord Keyes, to enjoy the military exercises that were to be staged by the Mediterranean fleet. Afterwords, he was dropped off in Brindisi from where he headed to Rome to meet the fledging Fascist leader Benito Mussolini on a cordial visit.
1943 As explained in the introductory paragraphs, Malta entered the war scene on June 10, 1940. Following some very dark not only for Malta but also for the Allied forces, July of 1943 saw the initiation of Operation Husky, (the code name for the planned invasion of Sicily) that was devised in Malta. A few weeks later all German troops were driven back from Sicily and on September 8 Italy officially capitulated to the Allies. On November 17, Churchill returned to Malta on board the HMS Renown for a brief stop. Unfortunately he ran a fever and during the first day or so remained in bed. On November 19 he toured Senglea and the Dockyards which were then in ruins and was greeted by a jubilant crowd. On that same evening he boarded the Renown en route to Alexandria, where he was to meet the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The purpose of their meeting was to hold preliminary discussions prior to their conference with Josef Stalin in Teheran. This conference was intended to discuss and launch plans on the imminent military operations to liberate North Western Europe from Hitler’s forces.
1945 On January 29, Churchill flew to Malta to meet Roosevelt once again to discuss matters prior to them flying to Yalta in the Crimea, where they were once again to meet Stalin. This time Churchill stayed on the HMS Orion moored in French Creek. On January 31 Churchill was hosted to dinner with all other American and British military officers by the new Governor of Malta, Sir Edmund Schreiber. When In Malta, various discussions were held with all Commanders in Chief and their American counter-parts regarding their advance into Germany. When Roosevelt eventually arrived in Malta on February 2, the planned preparatory talks that were meant to put the two leaders on the same page never really took off. Both Roosevelt and Churchill presided over a formal meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff on the USS Quincy, where the decisions reached between the military commanders were formally confirmed. Roosevelt flew off from Malta on the same evening followed by Churchill on the Orion in the early hours of the morning. Both Churchill and Roosevelt reached Cairo from where they were to head to the Crimea for their conference with Stalin. The main agenda of the Yalta Conference was the agreement of how ‘The Big Three’ were to share and take over Europe’s geographical and national boundaries in the post war years.
For many long years after the war Churchill’s name remained in high esteem amongst the Maltese people. In 1954, when Churchill was about to turn 80, Judge Anthony Montanaro Gauci, in his capacity as President of the Malta Society of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce, took it upon himself to collect funds to commission Malta’s foremost scuptor, Vincent Apap to work on a bust in the likeness of Churchill to present it to him as a birthday gift. Apap flew to London to commence his work by holding two sittings with Churchill at 10 Downing Street, in between Parliamentary meetings. The bust was presented to Churchill on August 2, 1955. This was later brought to Malta and may be seen at Upper Barrakka Gardens, Valletta.
Aquilina Victor, ‘Was Churchill prepared to give up Malta?’ Times of Malta, March 16, 2018.
Austen Douglas, Churchill and Malta – A Special Relationship. Spellmount (U.K.) 2006.
Bonnici Joseph and Cassar Michael, A Chronicle of Twentieth Century Malta, BDL, 2004.
Durnbridge Don, ‘Churchill and Malta’, The Sunday Times, January 22, 1995.
Johnson Boris, The Churchill Factor. Hodder and Stoughton. 2014.
Mifsud Roger, ‘Churchill Recalls Malta’s Role in World War II’, The Times, April 15, 1992.
Zammit Roseanne, Churchill’s special relationship with Malta, The Times, Tuesday, April 24, 2007,
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